February 2018

Could Indianapolis be a city of garden walks?

Jim Charlier’s gardens were on Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A recent trip to Buffalo, New York, makes me wonder if Indianapolis could embrace the idea of whole neighborhoods opening their gardens for tours.

For the last 24 years, gardeners like you and me have been putting their gardens on tour  in Buffalo, New York, the last weekend in July

This year, about 60,000 people from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Great Britain and other countries donned their walking shoes to tour 400 gardens. Garden Walk Buffalo is billed as the America’s largest garden tour. And it’s free.

For the past two years, Garden Walk Buffalo has teamed with the Buffalo Architecture Foundation and its Building Stories Program, so visitors could learn about the city’s historic architecture, including construction, landscape and planning. Recently, USA Today touted the city’s exceptional examples of residential, commercial and public buildings and landscapes in “Buffalo builds on architecture tourism,” July 28, 2017.

William R. Heath Frank Lloyd Wright home in Buffalo, New York, was in a neighborhood, but not on Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Shuttles transport tourists from neighborhood to neighborhood, where they see postage-stamp size gardens. These are not what we call “checkbook gardens,” but rather very personal landscapes planted and accessorized with what the gardeners are enjoy, such as mini hostas or eclectic art.

Gardens reflect the distinct personalities of the gardens on Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

This is a community-wide effort, promoted by Visit Buffalo Niagara. This year, GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators had their annual conference and expo in Buffalo, where some events were sponsored by Visit Buffalo Niagara.

When I first heard about Garden Walk Buffalo several years ago, I wondered if Indianapolis could ever do anything like this. After visiting Buffalo earlier this month, I’m more curious than ever.

Indianapolis could start small. For instance, several neighborhoods, such as Irvington, Broad Ripple, Garfield Park, Meridian Kessler, Chatham Arch, already have periodic garden walks or home and garden events. What if they all had their events the same weekend and shuttles or buses carried people from place to place.

Gardeners densely plant their postage stamp-size gardens for Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

In Buffalo, garden communicators were let off the buses, walked a couple of blocks, visiting six to eight gardens along the way, in about 30 to 40 minutes, then back on the buses to a different neighborhood. The tours were staggered, so all 350 of us weren’t in the same garden at the same time.

I know a lot of the Indianapolis neighborhoods have these events to raise funds for programs, economic development and other interests. I can’t help but wonder how economic development would be boosted by the visits of dozens, hundreds or thousands of people one weekend a year.

It’s something to think about, how we could enrich our community by celebrating gardening. Of course, there would have to be an overall organizing body. Indianapolis has many buildings of interest that could be part of an architecture program, similar to Buffalo. I’m intersted in know what you think. Next week, we’ll look at an Indiana example of how a community pulled together to enhance it economy and examine the dollar benefits of its effort and Garden Walk Buffalo.









What’s bugging your plants?

The squash vine borer moth lays eggs at the base of plants in the squash family. Photo courtesy John Obermeyer/Purdue University

Sometimes veggies that you’ve grown for several years don’t do as well as you expect. A reader wants to know why her squash, melon and peppers are not doing well, even though they were planted as always. “The fruit begins to set and then plants die,” wrote C.K.B. of Mooresville.

Here are some things to consider when dealing with any vegetable or annual plant that doesn’t seem to be doing well.

  • How many years have the same plants been planted in the same place? Rotate vegetable crops and annuals annually, or at least every two years. Planting the same thing in the same place year after year can lead to a build up of insects or diseases that affect susceptible plants.
  • If the fruit starts to dry up or turn brown or black on the blossom end, it’s likely blossom end rot. This is a condition (not a disease or insect), caused by irregular watering. We’ve had a lot of rain, which could contribute to this problem.
  • If the flowers form but the fruit does not, the plants are not being pollinated. A lack of bees and other pollinators, weather that’s too hot or too wet and other environmental factors are likely causes. Hand pollination, using a paint brush to move pollen from male squash and melon flowers to female flowers, is an option.
  • Squash vine borer could be a culprit on the squash and melon. This larva develops in the stems, causing them to die. Examine stems close to the base of the plant. The adult looks a bit like a wasp and it flies around during the day, making detection a bit easier. It lays eggs at the base of plants in the squash family. The eggs hatch and the borers move into the stems.

The squash vine borer burrows into the plant, disrupting the flow of water and other nutrients. Photo courtesy Cliff Sadof/Purdue University

Once the borer is in the stem, an insecticide is ineffective. The best control is to slit the stem lengthwise and dig out the insect, which looks like a whitish-gray grub. Preventative insecticides can be used, such as spinosad, an organic product. These are usually applied on the stems, especially at the base of the plant. Always read and follow the label directions.

Holey leaves

A lot of people think slugs cause the holes in the leaves of sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas) and morning glories (I. purpurea). Instead, the damage is likely the work of golden tortoise beetle, also called gold bug (Charidotella sexpunctata). Whenever I hear that, I think of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, which I loved reading with my son, learning the names of objects and  hunting for that elusive gold bug.

This beetle is about ¼ inch long. Usually, no treatment is needed because there are many predatory insects that will do the job for us, including parasitic (nonstinging) wasps, shield bugs, damsel bugs and others. This is a case of allowing Mother Nature to do her job.

A beetle, not slugs or snails, is responsible for the holes in sweet potato vines. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp








New plants to look for next year

Sunfinity sunflower. Photo courtesy Syngenta

As usual, I attended the country’s largest annual horticulture show, Cultivate’17, in Columbus, Ohio, in July. It’s a feast for the eyes for sure, and occasionally taste and scent. Each year, there seems to be a showstopper and an annual sunflower garnered the head turns.

Sunfinity sunflower (Helianthus hybrid) was introduced by Syngenta last year. Its booth at Cultivate’17 was loaded with this sunflower. “It is not your typical one-and-done flowering sunflower,” said Bob Humm, a field representative of Fred C. Gloeckner Company Inc., which sells to wholesale growers.

There are a lot more buds along the stems and more stems. “Obviously, this means longer flowering enjoyment.” The pollen-less sunflower would work as a tabletop arrangement, planted in a garden bed or in a large container, Humm said.

“Another attribute is it can be grown in the heat of summer. Growers can grow this plant when there isn’t much else that can be grown in hot greenhouses or out of doors,” he said. “Homeowners, too, can grow Sunfinity sunflowers during the summer when some garden plants start to fade in the heat.”

Megawatt Red Bronze Leaf Begonia. Photo courtesy PanAmerican Seed

Sunfinity gets up to 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Grow this premium annual in full sun. Humm said as usual with new plant intros, quantities were limited this year. This sunflower should be more readily available next year as plants and possibly seeds.

I admit I really like annual begonias and the breeding going on with these plants is just amazing. PanAmerican Seeds introduced Megawatt Bronze Leaf Red begonia this year. “It’s not just ‘Big’, it’s ‘Mega’,” the marketing material boasts.

This premium annual’s flowers are large and showy. Megawatt gets up to 28 inches tall and 24 inches wide. Its size makes it an excellent selection for shade to part shade locations. Look for plants or seeds in garden centers or online merchants next year.

Ribbon Falls sedge.(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Breeders also are working with new varieties of ornamental sedges, a grass-like plant. New this year is ‘Ribbon Falls’, another in the Carex Censation series of perennial sedges.

‘Ribbon Falls’ has shiny, arching leaves that form a mounded fountain with a slightly cascading habit. Hardy to USDA Zone 5, this sedge can be grown throughout Indiana, in a container, in the ground or along a wall. It would make a good alternative groundcover.




Weigela is ready to bloom and bloom in today’s gardens

Spilled Wine weigela. Photo courtesy

Many of us probably think of weigela as a plant in our grandparents’ yard. The ones on the market today are nothing like their predecessors.

For one thing, plant breeders have scaled down the shrub to a manageable size for smaller landscapes. They’ve jazzed up the foliage on the shrub, introducing plants with purple, almost black leaves, or variegated green leaves. And, the breeders have developed weigela that blooms more than once.

Weigelas (Weigela florida) are fairly long-blooming deciduous shrubs. They do best in full sun, especially for good foliage color and flowering. Weigelas tolerate light shade, but will produce fewer flowers and not have as vibrantly colored leaves. Their trumpet-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds, bees and other pollinating insects. They also are very winter hardy.

Tuxedo weigela. Photo courtesy

One of my current faves is Tuxedo (W. x ‘Velda’), which has almost black leaves and pure white, fragrant flowers. It will get up to 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The color combo is as dramatic as the name implies. I also like Ghost, which has red flowers and chartreuse leaves. The leaves turn almost iridescent in summer. It gets about 5 feet tall and wide.

Shine Sensations and other small weigela shrubs do great in pots in the summer. Transplant to the ground in fall to enjoy for years to come. Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries’

Shining Sensation, one of from Bailey Nurseries’ First Edition plants, has pink blooms in May and June and then occasional flowers through summer. The foliage is shiny burgundy. Shining Sensations gets up to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

In the reblooming category, look for Proven Winners ColorChoice’s Sonic Bloom series of weigela, which have flowers periodically throughout the summer and into fall. Each gets about 5 feet tall and wide. Sonic Blooms come in red, pink and pearl. The latter’s white flowers turn pink as they age.

Reblooming weigelas bloom on current season and year-old growth, so if you need to prune, do say by midsummer. Even better, make sure the mature size of the plant fits the space you have allocated and you may never have to prune, except to remove an occasional dead branch.

Sonic Bloom Red weigela blooms off and one all summer. Photo courtesy

Proven Winners Color/Choice also has the popular wine series of weigela, all of which have pink flowers and purple leaves. Midnight Wine is about 1 foot tall and 2 feet wide; Spilled Wine is 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide; Fine Wine is 3 feet tall and wide; and Wine & Roses is 5 feet tall and wide. These weigelas are deer resistant.

You should still be able to find weigelas at garden centers. Anything growing in a nursery pot can be planted any time. Just be sure to water it regularly if there’s no rain.









Pick your poison, carefully

Green stink bug on poison ivy. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

In the NCIS episode “Viral,” McGee tells Bishop to be careful because the area they are investigating (outside Washington, D.C.) is covered with poison oak. In fact, there have been warnings about poison oak in several “NCIS” episodes.

Those California-based writers probably don’t realize that poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is rarely found outside the western United States. The leaves of this native plant resemble oak leaves, which accounts for its common name. It can be a vine or a shrub.

Poison oak. Photo courtesy US Forestry Service

There is Atlantic poison oak (T. pubescens), a native vine or shrub-like plant. Although uncommon, it is found in Illinois and states south and east, but not in Indiana.

Much more common in the eastern half of the U.S. is poison ivy (T. radicans). It’s so common that we frequently find this native plant in our yards, whether we live in urban, suburban or rural areas. Poison ivy can take the form of a climbing vine or as a shrub. The most identifying characteristic is “leaves of three, let it be.” It has beautiful fall color and showy berries.

Poison sumac. © Troy Evans /

Poison sumac (T. vernix) also can be found in Indiana, especially along riverbanks or swampy areas, where it grows as a shrub or small tree. Its leaves are opposite each other on slightly arching branches.

Poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak all contain urushiol, an oil that causes the rash or welts associated with exposure to these plants.

Another native plant, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, primarily because the leaves look similar. But Virginia creeper has five leaflets to a leaf and it climbs by tendrils and suction cup-like appendages. It has purple fruit and beautiful fall color. The leaves and stems of this plant contain crystals of calcium oxalate, called raphides, which can cause dermatitis on some people.

Virginia creeper scampers over cheddar pinks. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

What’s a gardener to do? I always wear long sleeves, jeans and gloves when pulling Virginia creeper from my neighbor’s fence or other places in my yard. If I find poison ivy, I cover my arm with several plastic sleeves that newspapers come in. I pull the poison ivy, then pull the plastic sleeve over my hand and toss bag in the trash.

There are products you can apply that provide a barrier to these plants’ irritants. And if skin is exposed, there are specialized products to clean the area. Your pharmacist can make recommendations. Always read and follow the label directions.

Remember to use care when taking off clothes worn when working with these plants. The oil can remain on the material and be transferred to your skin. Consider washing garments that were exposed to the oils twice.



Rain and more rain, and a garden, too

Carolina Moonlight baptisia stands tall in the rain garden at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo courtesy Irvin Etienne

A Facebook friend reported that his Muncie, Indiana, garden received 30.1 inches of rain between April 28 and July 6, which he said was 75 percent of his annual rainfall. Indianapolis’ average annual precipitation is about 42 inches.

It’s hard to know if we should be grateful for the rain or curse it. I know we’d be cursing if we didn’t have rain.

Make sure containers of flowers, tomatoes, herbs and other plants are draining well. I had a very large pot that had drainage holes plugged with soil. I poked a sturdy stick in the holes and water gushed out.

We should also keep up with fertilizing plants in the ground, but especially in our pots. All of the rain is washing nutrients away, especially nitrogen. It’s not good to over fertilizer because the rain is already pushing plant growth. All the rain could also be turning plants’ leaves yellow. Consider an extra half dose of fertilizer instead of a full one.

Rain-enhanced Plant Growth Invites Insects, Disease

With All This Rain, Plants Can Drown

Rain gardens or swales

Several people have written asking about areas of their landscape that periodically retain water for several days or stay fairly wet most of the time. For some, it’s a drainage ditch. For others, it’s a low place in their yard or an area where there’s a lot of runoff, such as the bottom of a slope.

First, consider consulting with a landscape architect, contractor or designer to give a professional opinion. There also may be some guidance available from the Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District ( Sometimes, excavation may be necessary along with the installation of layers of different materials, such as stone, gravel, sand or special kind of soil mix, to achieve a successful rain garden or bioswale.

Rain gardens are effective ways to handle run off from hard surfaces, such as parking lots, sidewalks and streets. The goal of some rain garden is to reduce pollutants that might come in that runoff before it hits the water table. Some examples can be found along Alabama Street downtown. A bioswale transforms a drainage ditch into something beautiful and environmentally friendly.

What to plant, they ask. There are a lot of perennials and shrubs that do well in this type of growing conditions, whether is shady or sunny. Some resources:




Bee balms evaluated for mildew resistance and flower power

Powdery mildew is a common problem on many bee balms. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

One of the perennials known to attract pollinators is bee balm (Monarda spp.). A member of the mint family, this aromatic plant attracts and supports at least 14 butterflies and moths, 13 bees and wasps and hummingbirds, finches, sparrows, catbirds.

“Today, people are increasingly aware that their landscapes provide not just beauty, but also play a role in improving the environment,” wrote George Coombs, research horticulturist at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, not far from Wilmington. “With the ability to support a multitude of different pollinators, Monarda is well positioned to capitalize on this growing trend and will continue to be a popular garden plant for years to come.”

Coombs’ group recently evaluated bee balms, and although the Delaware Piedmont is a different environment than our Midwest, the results can be a guide for our plant selections. At Mt. Cuba, 40 varieties of bee balms were trialed for three years. They were evaluated for their growth habit, leaf retention, flower coverage, and perhaps most importantly, resistance to powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a common problem on bee balms, including several native varieties. Powdery mildew is a fungus that appears on monarda about the time it starts blooming. It is not usually deadly, but can cause leaves to dry, curl and fall off.

‘Purple Rooster’ was among the bee balms that showed resistance to powery mildew and good flower power. Photo courtesy

None rated excellent, or five stars, but there are several that received four and one-half stars: ‘Claire Grace’ (M. fistulosa), ‘Dark Ponticum’ and ‘Violet Queen’. Those that earned four stars: Grand Marshall, ‘Judith’s Fancy Fuchsia’, ‘Colrain Red’, ‘Raspberry Wine’, ‘Purple Rooster’, ‘On Parade’ and ‘Gardenview Scarlet’. My favorite, ‘Jacob Cline’ (M. didyma) scored slightly lower than the top performers, and could still be recommended, the Mt. Cuba Center report said. Many of the species also showed resistance to powdery mildew.

“The first signs of infection typically appeared in July as the plants started to flower. Flowering requires a significant amount of energy and resources, and this stress can make plants vulnerable to infection. It is therefore important to prevent/reduce infections by limiting the amount of stress a plant experiences. For Monarda, this might be accomplished by providing adequate water during its flowering period. Dividing older clumps every few years may also help to reinvigorate tired and stress-prone plants,” the report said.

During the evaluations, the researchers tried several methods to control the fungus disease. Plants were cut back to the ground when the disease showed up, cut back by half, and some were deadheaded, but none was successful in getting plants to flush out new growth.






Gift of hydrangeas to adorn museum grounds

Bloomstruck hydrangeas were among 75 plants Bailey Nurseries donated recently to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Photo courtesy Irvin Etienne

Endless Summer may be the best selling series of hydrangeas, but they frequently come with a lot of questions, with the main one being “why won’t my plants bloom?”

For answers, I went to the source.

Ryan McEnaney is a public relations and communications specialist at Bailey Nurseries in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s a third generation member of the Bailey family, which has been breeding and selling plants for nearly 120 years. Bailey introduced Endless Summer hydrangeas in 2004, marketing them as rebloomers. For gardeners, that translates into flowers all summer long.

With perhaps a slight smile, he suggested mulching Endless Summer hydrangeas 6 to 12 inches of chopped leaves to protect them through winter. The flower buds, which are formed late in summer for the following year’s blooms, frequently get frozen when temperatures take a dip in spring. The mulch protects the plants from that danger. “But who is going to do that,” I asked? We both laughed and agreed not very many of us.

Bloomstruck’s long season of flowers makes it perfect for a summer container on the porch, patio or balcony, or as a focal point in the garden. Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries

Reblooming hydrangeas bloom in early summer on stems that wintered over and then later on current season growth to provide flowers all summer. Whatever you do, don’t prune them until the plants have leafed out fully in spring. And then remove stems that have not leafed out or cut them back to where there are green leaves, he said.

“Don’t over fertilize them, which just encourages green growth,” he said. “Fertilize once in spring and if you think it’s needed, in summer.”

He said Bailey’s newer introduction of BloomStruck has hardier flower buds, which makes them handle winter better. Other tips: plant them in a partly shady location and water regularly.

McEnaney was in town recently to donate 75 woody plants, including Bailey’s Endless Summer BloomStruck hydrangeas (H. macrophylla), to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Also in the mix were Bailey’s First Editions’ Jetstream oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) and Summer Cascade wisteria (W. macrostachya), two new cultivars of native plants.

Irvin Etienne, horticultural display coordinator at the IMA, said Bailey’s donation allows the museum to try new plants in areas that need attention while freeing up the budget for other improvements.

Blue or pink big leaf hydrangeas?

Big-leaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla), such as BloomStruck, Let’s Dance and many others, will have pink flowers in Indiana and other Midwestern gardens, because our soil tends to be alkaline (high pH). An acidic soil (low pH) is what turns the flower color into the blue range. Here are some more tips.



With all of this rain, plants can drown

Heavy rains can drown plants. (C) Carol Michel/

We’ve had a lot of rain. We already know that the rain has promoted fast growth and early blooms on perennials, trees and shrubs. It’s also contributed to disease problems, especially fungi, for many plants.

All the rain can cause the soil to be waterlogged, which means there’s decreased oxygen available for plants. A lack of oxygen can cause plants to drown. As of this writing, we’ve received 26.05 inches of rain. Our average is 19.65 inches.

“It is important to understand what is happening to plants growing in these conditions and what to expect later. I look at this as a wait-and-see situation,” wrote

Rhonda Ferree, a horticulture educator at the University of Illinois Extension, in a recent report.

Visible injury to trees and shrubs may not show up for a year or two. Waterlogged soil deprives roots of oxygen, reducing the ability of trees or shrubs to take up and provide necessary nutrients. That lack of nutrients is what may cause decline or damage. Perennials may already show an overall decline because of waterlogged soil.

Ferree also notes that flooded yards add a lot of weight to the soil, which may cause compaction. That also pushes oxygen from the soil, inhibiting a plant’s ability to take up nutrients.

“Although survival is directly related to a species’ tolerance of waterlogged soils, other factors are important, including the soil type; the time, duration and depth of the water; the state of the floodwater; and the age and size of woody plants,” she said.

“Unfortunately, little can be done to prevent damage to plants growing in waterlogged soils. If a woody plant shows injury symptoms, such as leaf drop, do not immediately replace it. Some plants will show initial injury symptoms and then recover”

Injury symptoms, which vary according to several factors, include slower shoot and root growth, leaf yellowing, leaf twisting, leaf drop, root death, increased susceptibility to attack by insects and disease, absence of fruiting, and death.

Some will recover and some may not, providing yet another example of how gardening teaches us patience.

Indy gardener pots and prunes blog posts into book

Carol Michel. Photo courtesy Jill Thompson

Carol Michel has come a long way since I first interviewed her shortly after she won the 2009 Mouse and Trowel Award for, voted the best blog by readers from all over the country.

“I love writing, and blogging gave me a way to write about gardening and share what I wrote almost immediately with others,” she said at the time. Michel, who grew up in Greenwood, Indiana, and has been blogging seriously since 2006.

Since then, Michel, who has a degree in horticulture from Purdue University, wrote a garden column for a south side community paper for a few years, writes regularly for gardening magazines and began accepting speaking gigs. And she’s won other awards for her blog from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and Garden Writers Association, of which she’s a member.

She retired a year ago after 30-plus years in information technology and almost immediately started on a book. Published earlier this year, Potted and Pruned pulls from Michel’s blog, showcasing her practical advice, heavily seasoned with her unique sense of humor.

“After 10 plus years of blogging, I felt like I had some good essays about gardening that were trapped in the online world. By putting some of the essays in a book, potting them up and pruning them first, I hoped to reach a new audience of gardeners who haven’t discovered garden blogs,” she said in an interview

Michel, who declares herself a Gardenangelist, published the book under Gardenangelist Press. She worked with Deb Wiley, a freelance editor in Iowa, and with a former Indianapolis resident, Katie Elzer-Peters of Wilmington, North Carolina, who served as managing editor. Elzer-Peters fostered the book through the publishing process, and coordinated the design and graphics. The book is available in hard and soft cover and Kindle at, or signed copies are available from her blog.

Michel, who claims to have the world’s largest hoe collection with 56 of the tools, embraces the old-fashion and historic aspects of gardening. She prowls used bookstores and lurks online auction houses, searching for first editions of garden books, such as those by Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985) or Cynthia Westcott (1898-1983). Michel has made the pilgrimage to Wing Haven, Lawrence’s home and garden in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was so impressed with Westcott’s ability to write about plant pathology in a way that was easily understandable, Michel helped create an award from Garden Writers Association to honor academics who communicate complex horticulture information in language a gardener can understand.

“I read once that the Smithsonian Museum and other archivists would far rather preserve something on paper than in an electronic format,” she said. “Though I don’t think my book is by any means worthy of a museum, I hope that someday a gardener discovers it in a used bookstore, the way I’ve discovered old gardening books in used bookstores.”