May 2015

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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




Buy the book(s) for holiday gift(s)

Yellow warbler nests in Indiana. (C) Ryan Sanderson

The holidays are with us, so here are some books that I liked and recommend for the gardeners and nature lovers on your list.

For Midwest gardeners:

“Shrubs Large and Small: Natives and Ornamentals for Midwest Garden” by Moya L. Andrews and Gillian Harris (Indiana University Press, paperback, $28). Beautifully illustrated by Harris, the guide helps with the selection and placement of shrubs, including those planted for birds and other wildlife. Harris is past president of the south-central chapter of the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society and Andrews is retired dean of the faculties at I.U.

“Got Sun? 200 Best Native Plants for Your Garden” by Carolyn Harstad (Indiana University Press, paperback, $28). With drawings by Jean Vietor, “Got Sun?” continues Harstad’s series especially written for the Midwest. Harstad, who now lives in Minnesota, is a founder of the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society.

“Butterflies of Indiana: A Field Guide” by Jeffrey E. Belth (Indiana University Press, paperback, $20). Belth relies on his expert knowledge and observational skills, along with more that 500 color photos to help us identify 149 species of Indiana’s winged beauties.

Of course, to have more gardens, we need to reduce the lawn, and two authors have addressed that problem.

“Beautiful No-Mow Yards 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives” by Evelyn Hadden (Timber Press, paperback, $24.95) has been a best seller since its release. This lawn liberation guide offers design ideas and plant recommendations to turn grassy areas into flowerbeds, shrub islands and more.

“Lawn Gone! Low Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard” by Pam Penick (10 Speed Press, paperback, $23.99). Penick stresses what resource guzzlers American lawns are each year — 300 million gallons of gasoline, 1 billion hours of work, 70 million pounds of pesticides and $40 billion in upkeep. The book contains dozens of suggestions on how to help the environment and your pocket.

And once you have gardens, you’ll notice the birds, including the illusive warblers.
“The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott White (Princeton University Press, paperback, $29.95). In the birding world, warbles are among the most challenging to find. They are here only twice a year during migrations, there are many of them and several look a lot alike and they tend to be tiny and hang out in the tops of trees. This guides helps us find and recognize them and their calls.


Tree insurance and other answers about storm-damaged plants

Wind storm Nov. 17, 2014 felled a tree in Carmel, Ind. Photo courtesy Vine and Branch

Hurricane force winds tore through central Indiana last week, wreaking havoc on buildings and trees.

We usually have insurance for structures and possessions, but not for trees. We know that mature trees increase property values by thousands of dollars, but what are they worth if they are damaged? The Hoosier Gardener posed some questions to Jud Scott, a certified consulting arborist and owner of Vine and Branch Inc., in Carmel, Ind.

Q. Is it possible to get insurance for trees?

A. Yes, there is a company, HMI (, which is trying to establish an insurance program for trees. Right now it is a warranty program. Currently, a homeowner does not seem to have much coverage, only minimal debris removal or lightning damage.

Q. How is the value of a tree determined?

A. Purdue University’s pamphlet “Tree Appraisal” is helpful, but property owners need to be careful, so as to not over value the tree. It still needs to relate to property value because it is part of the real estate.

Market value is tough, as it means you have to have a market. Timber value may be low, firewood even lower.

Q. With an “act of God,” what protection, if any, is there for people whose tree falls and damages someone else’s property?

A. Act of God is a concept that is interesting. It used to be the catchall for natural causes, but lately, it seems someone is always considered for blame.

The property owner has a “duty to inspect” and be informed about a tree’s overall health. Certified arborists are trained to help with this. If a property owner knows a tree is damaged, diseased or dangerous and does nothing, he or she may be liable for any damage.

Scott also reminds us about being careful when cleaning up nature’s mess. Be sure a fallen limb or tree is not on a power line. Be aware of chainsaw kickback and spring back from pruning poles.

“Finally watch out for scammers. Get a certificate of insurance. Guys that stop by in a beat-up, old truck looking for work should be a clue (to be cautious),” Scott said. “Arboricultural companies are swamped and rarely knock on doors.”


Leaf thief fesses up

Ok. I confess. I’m a leaf thief. I have been for years, targeting one neighbor who faithfully chopped and bagged his leaves and left them at the edge of his property. Every fall, I’d drive my car four houses away, load the trunk, back and front seats with bags of leaves and return home.

When that neighbor moved away, I had to widen my territory. Now, I scour the ‘hood looking for bagged leaves, especially those that already have been chopped.

This year, a friend offered me chopped leaves and I immediately said yes to six bags of probably one of the best gifts from nature.

When I get home with the leaves, I have several options.

When chopped, I can add leaves directly to the soil in new or existing garden beds. This fall, I’m mixing leaves into the vegetable bed and layering some on top. This effort will result in improved soil quality.

Chopped leaves serves as mulch over newly planted spring-blooming bulbs or as a topdressing in other garden beds. If beds have bark mulch, move it aside and ring perennials, shrubs and trees with the chopped leaves, then replace the mulch.

If the leaves are not chopped, I line them up near the compost pile. As I add food scraps to the pile, I can cover them with leaves.

Bagged leaves can be left to break down through winter, creating a form of leaf mold. This is like the fluff you find on the ground under layers of leaves in woodlands and forests. This can be mixed in beds or as a top dressing around plants in spring.

Sometimes, I dump whole leaves on the ground and run over and bag them with my electric mulching mower. Some people will put whole leaves in a garbage can and chop them with a string trimmer. Others may have chipper shredders to process whole leaves. Be sure to wear eye protection when using any of these methods.

Is the effort worth it? Absolutely. We’re recycling and reusing a natural gift and improving our garden. What can be better than that?

Chopped leaves are one of the best things to add to new or existing garden beds. Here, they are getting mixed in the vegetable bed. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp


Fall color is one reason to plant from the inside view out

Native dogwood colors the view from the inside out. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Several of my BFF on Facebook have been commenting on the gorgeous fall colors this year.

The reds, yellows, golds and bronzes have been slow coming despite an ideal October. The rains late in the month seemed to have hastened and intensified the season.

The conversation on Facebook soon shifted to which season has the most color: spring or fall?

Certainly, fall colors are intensely saturated. They cover the view, from the fallen leaves on the ground to colored foliage on trees and shrubs made all the more striking by an incredible blue sky. In spring, the pastel and primary colors of bulbs and early emerging perennials punctuate the verdant shades of greens. Maybe because I was born in fall, I find the colors of the season comforting. Spring colors are uplifting.

Native dogwood in spring. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

For whatever reason, some of the plants in my landscape have not received their fall-color orders.

The green leaves on ‘Sike’s Dwarf’ and ‘Pee Wee’ oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia) have not turned their wine red color of fall and winter. The foliage on Summer Wine ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Seward’) is as purple as ever without a touch of fall’s fire red.

The ‘Princeton Sentry’ ginkgo (G. biloba) leaves remain green. When they turn gold, the distinctive fan-shaped leaves, practically all at once.

What does have color? The spireas, including Snow Storm (Spiraea x media). This 3 foot tall and wide shrub has beautiful blue leaves in summer,  large lacecap white flowers in early spring and fiery red-gold leaves in fall.

Similar in size is Glow Girl spirea (Spiraea ‘Tor Gold’), which also has white flowers, but lemon-lime foliage in summer, which turns golden red in fall. I think gardeners frequently overlook spireas as a source of late season color.

The intense, red leaves of the native dogwoods (Cornus florida) are spectacular inside and outside my picture window. Their fall color and spring flowers reinforce why we sometimes plant for the inside to outside view, whatever the season.


You Can Grow That! November 2013: A bouquet to make someone’s day

A bouquet to celebrate a retirement sits on the kitchen counter. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Gardeners are lucky. We always have gifts at the ready. We only have to trek to the yard and snip a few flowers, branches, bulbs, seedheads, leaves, evergreen boughs and other pieces of nature to turn into a bouquet.

I love giving bouquets as gifts. Sometimes I provide the vase (which I usually want returned) and sometimes I just give the bouquet.

The bouquet is an easy hostess gift for my foodie friends when I’m invited to a dinner party. When doing garden presentations, I frequently cut bouquets to give away at the end of the session to someone who correctly answers a question posed from the talk. I have a talk, Snippets from the Garden, which covers whatever is going on in my landscape that day.

Sometimes for no reason, I’ll drop off a bouquet to family or friend. I’ll take one to the credit union or the doctor’s office or dentist. Bouquets make a nice birthday gift. They are perfect to take to a sick friend or hospitalized colleague.

In the past week, I gave a bouquet to a friend who invited me to a dinner party at her house. I left one on my sister’s porch to greet her when she returned from her last day of work, retiring after decades on the job.

For the two bouquets this week, I purchased a few stems from a local florist, including annual blue statice (Limonium) and locally grown yellow celosia (C. cristata). From my own garden, I cut a couple of dried flowers from White Dome hydrangea (H. arborescens ‘Dardom’) and pinkish-white blooms from ‘Limelight’ hydrangea (H. paniculata). Snipped a pink mum and white mum to fill it out and voila! A bouquet to celebrate retirement.

When I do the classes and head out to cut a bouquet, I frequently stand in the yard thinking there’s really not much to cut. But after a few minutes, I’m pleasantly surprised to have enough for a bouquet. My theory is if it lasts a few days in a vase, it’s a cut flower. And to go from thinking I have nothing to having a bunch of beautiful blooms is just plain satisfaction. When spreading a little cheer with bouquets, don’t forget to cut one for yourself.

Sometimes plants are MIA

More than likely, the Hoosier Gardener’s dog dug up two of the large, late-blooming fragrant hostas. Photo courtesy

Just the other day, I realized there were plants missing in action this past summer.

A beautiful, drought-tolerant anise hyssop ‘Apache Sunset’ (Agastache rupestris) did not show up. It was planted at the edge of the driveway, close to a birdbath and a trellis, where honeysuckle grows.

I liked the sunset colors of the reliable, long-blooming flowers and the fine, blue green foliage with its minty fragrance. The hummingbirds and bees liked this perennial, also. I started it from seed probably 10 years ago.

The glossy red berries of late Dutch honeysuckle disappeared along with the plant. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

One of the anise hyssop’s companion plants, a honeysuckle vine, also disappeared. The late Dutch honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’) did not show up this year. I planted it three years ago because it does not get powdery mildew like my other honeysuckle (L. x heckrottii ‘Goldflame’), which gets defoliated by the fungus disease and survived.

The late Dutch honeysuckle is fragrant like ‘Goldflame’, but the season extending attributes I wanted are the beautiful, glossy red fruit, which lingered well into winter.

Tricyrtis pokes its orchid-like blooms through the variegated foliage of Cool Splash, a native bush honeysuckle, in the shade garden. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

In the shade garden, the toad lilies (Tricyrtis) didn’t even make it a full year. These were planted among the hosta because toad lilies offer orchid-like blooms late in the season.

Lastly, two large, tough, fragrant hosta (H. plantaginea) did not return. These were planted years ago in an area that stays pretty dry, so it’s possible that there was not enough moisture. Or, it could be they were dug up by the dogs on the hunt for chipmunks.

It’s also possible that the toad lilies disappeared because the dogs trample through that bed chasing squirrels.

For the honeysuckle and anise hyssop, though, I’m guessing the problem is the birdbath. The plants were right where I emptied the birdbath in winter, probably keeping the soil too wet.

Hummingbirds and bees love the drought tolerant, ‘Apache Sunset’ anise hyssop. Photo courtesy

It’s always hard to know exactly why plants fade away. Plants have a lifespan, just like people. Some, such as trees and peonies, outlive the gardener. Others, such as tulips (Tulipa), pincushion flower (Scabiosa) and daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), tend to be short-lived perennials.

The lesson? We don’t always know why plants die, but it’s all right if they do. It’s one of the ways we learn about gardening. I’ll give all of these a second chance in my yard, too.


Tips for extending the growing season and the harvest

Remove the bottoms of water jugs to make cloches. Hold the jugs in place with a stick. (C) Fotolia/John Braid

As we grow more of our own food, we want to know how we can push the weather envelope and harvest carrots, spinach and other vegetables for Thanksgiving.

Protecting vegetables from the cold can be as simple as adding a little extra mulch around plants or as elaborate as a heated greenhouse. There are lots of steps in between, too.

Straw and leaves

Tuck loose straw or leaves around spinach and other leafy crops. Apply straw or leaves atop carrots, onions and radishes. Create a barrier around plants with straw bales or bags of leaves. Cover the open area with a row cover or thick clear plastic sheets.


About as inexpensive as straw or leaves are cloches — inverted pots, plastic jugs with the bottoms cut out or glass domes. These protect smaller plants in spring and fall. Think of a cloche as a mini greenhouse. Remove unvented cloches during the day. Cloches are particularly useful in spring to cover seedlings and get a jump on the season.

A row cover, made of plastic fabric, will keep plants five to 10 degrees warmer than the outside ambient temperature. (C) Fotolia/Eag1e

Row Cover

A floating row cover is made of polyester or polypropylene. The fabric allows air, light and rain to penetrate. Hoops suspend the fabric 12 to 18 inches above the plants. It keeps the area under the cloth 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature.

Use PVC pipe or other similar material to form the hoops. Secure the hoop by placing the end in a slightly larger PVC pipe that has been pounded in the ground at the edge of the garden bed. If the hoop pipe is 1-inch diameter, use 1 ¼ or 1 ½ inch diameter pipe in the ground. Secure the material by stuffing it in the ground pipe with the hoop pipe.

Hold hoop house plastic or row cover fabric in place with PVC pipe.

Hoop House

Use an a couple of layers of opaque plastic, 4 to 6 millimeters thick, to create a hoop house, which can be about any height. The construction is the same as row cover. A hoop house usually extends the growing season by six to eight weeks in fall and spring.


University of Illinois Extension Season Extenders

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Guerney’s Seed & Nursery Co.