December 2017

Spring rush challenges gardeners. Is your community having a garden tour?

Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

It’s been spring at the speed of light.

Just like magical gardens, lots of plants are blooming at the same time, rather than staggering their show over several weeks.

Don’t be fooled into planting warm-season plants, such as geraniums, begonias, tomatoes and peppers, outdoors just yet. I know that’s a hard sell when we’ve just come through a slew of days in the 70- and 80-degree range. But as I write this it’s a mere 45 F. Ah, Indiana weather.

Tomatoes and peppers like it hot. When planted in cold soil they will just sit there and do nothing except possibly wither their roots. The normal planting day for warm-season plants is May 10. There’s been recent research that peppers, which like it even hotter than tomatoes, do better when planted more toward the end of May, when the soil has warmed up even more.

If you feel compelled to plant warm-season plants now, do so in pots so they can be moved indoors at night when temps in the 40s threaten.

Read the label

There’s a new Roundup in town. After decades of telling gardeners that Roundup, with a main chemical of glyphosate, is non-selective, which means it will kill any herbaceous plant, such as grass, weeds, perennials and annuals. It can also damage trees and shrubs if they are hit with the chemical.

Despite being clearly labeled as a weed and grass killer, there are hundreds, if not thousands of stories of how people killed their lawns with this product, thinking they were spraying to kill only the weeds..

Enter Roundup For Lawns, which is labeled kills weeds, not the lawn. Unlike other lawn-weed herbicides, this one is labeled for spot treatment rather than spraying the whole lawn.

You still need to be careful with this product when it comes to perennials, annuals and other desirable plants. Lawn-weed herbicides don’t recognize the difference between blades of grass and ornamental plants. And, many lawn-weed herbicides can be harmful to trees and shrubs.

As we should all know, always read and follow the label directions.

Garden tours

If your community is having a garden tour this year, please let me know by May 8 for an article in The Indianapolis Star. Tell me how many gardens are on the tour, if it’s a fundraiser, where to buy tickets, website and who to contact. Please send info to me at the email below.

Science is a big part of a well-maintained lawn

A lot of science (and work) make up a well-maintained lawn. (C) Dollarphotoclub.

We’re moving into the gardening season, so let’s talk about the lawn. For a lot of people, that’s what gardening season is: Mowing the lawn, fertilizing it, watering it, worrying about insects and disease, and killing weeds that show up amid the grass.

What if I told you that you had to grow a plant that was never allowed to flower, that needed constant pruning and demanded a lot of fertilizer and water. Would you put that plant in your garden? That’s the lawn.

I readily admit I have a love-hate relationship with the lawn. I love the way rich, green grass defines landscaped areas, serving as the perfect backdrop for flowers, trees and shrubs. But the pressure to keep the lawn weed free, lush and beautiful is sometimes overwhelming.

If you are interested in selling your house, forget the bath and kitchen remodel. The National Association of Realtors ranked seeding lawn the highest, recovering 417 percent of the project cost at resale. That’s followed by implementing a standard lawn care program (303 percent of cost recovered), and updating landscaping with sod (143 percent recovered), as the most cost-effective projects.

Nearly seven in 10 Americans who have a lawn say theirs could use improvement, according to research by the National Association of Lawn Care Professionals. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s science behind controlling weeds, insects and diseases in the lawn, as well as watering and mowing. Here are some tips for the season:

  • Water the lawn deeply every few days rather than daily. This encourages the grass to develop deep roots, which enable the lawn to withstand drought, insects and disease problems.
  • Mow high. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Keeping the lawn at about 3 inches tall shades out opportunistic weed seeds from taking hold and it cools the grass roots.
  • Don’t remove the grass clippings when you mow. Leaving the clipping on the lawn eliminates at least one application of fertilizer.
  • Learn the best times to control weeds, insects and disease. Knowing the lifecycle of insects, such as grubs, means that an insecticide will be applied at the correct time to control the pest.
  • It’s generally considered better to treat broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions, in late September into October. An herbicide applied then is more readily taken up by the plant.

If you work with a lawn service, consider asking the crew to eliminate the spring fertilization, especially if there was a fall application of fertilizer. The lawn is going to grow anyway and fertilizer in spring increases mowing duties. If you do it yourself, always read and follow the directions of the product you use.

Consider working with a lawn care company that uses organic products and sustainable practices. Several people I know use Total Lawn Care, which has been around since 1989 with its organic lawn care program. Another is Natural Lawn. Talk to other lawn care companies to see if organic options are available.

Sometimes you just need to rant. And rave.

A Rant

Trees are coming down all along the White River levee on Indianapolis’ north side. It’s a sad, unsettling scene. Under direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, the trees are being removed to protect the levee.

Trees are being removed from the White River levee. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The trees, all volunteers, probably should never have been allowed to take root there. But no one warned the bald eagles, great horned owls or songbirds that for decades have nested along the river. This spring, their homes have been destroyed, seemingly without any consideration about the nests or bird families’ well being. Normally, arborists take into account bird-nesting habits when pruning or removing trees,.

To add insult to injury, the tree-removing crews are leaving the honeysuckle bushes. The shrubs will continue their extremely invasive habits along the levee (and into our yards). On the state’s invasive species list, these Asian shrubs leaf out very early and hold their leaves very late, shrouding any native species that might replenish the slopes of the levee and riverbank. Birds eat the berries and help spread the plant by dropping seeds.

The crews have preserved a line of trees at the river’s edge, for which I’m grateful. But I’ll miss the hoots of the great horned owls that stood guard in the big sycamore tree I could see from my house, as I walked to get the morning paper. I can only hope they will return some day.

A Rave

Several years ago, the Indianapolis Museum of Art had the slogan: Art Inside and Out. I loved it because I felt like it acknowledged the gardens as part of the art.

Spring Blooms, an outdoor exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, continues through May. Photo courtesy Irvin Etienne

There’s no doubt about the gardens as art anymore. The gardens are the exhibit with Spring Blooms: Celebration of Color. More than 150,000 spring-blooming bulbs were planted last fall. This spring, they were paired with 23,000 cool-season annuals, such as pansies and snapdragons. Dozens of perennials, including the eye-catching lime green ‘Citronelle’ coral bell (Heuchera) enhance the color and texture of the plantings. Forty-five new, large, beautifully planted pots adorn the gardens, too.

Opening weekend brought in at least 3,000 visitors, and about 300 joined the museum, boosting membership to more than 16,000, said Charles Venable, chief executive officer at the IMA.

What can gardeners learn from this exhibit? That there are early, mid- and late-season tulips, daffodils and other bulbs. By selecting a mix, we can extend the spring color in our landscapes. And because bulbs, annuals and perennials bloom successively, the beauty should last through May 31, when the exhibit ends.

Spring Blooms is free for IMA members; nonmembers, $18. There are reduced rates for students and others ( ).

Bisons aid in restoration of Kankakee Sands

Bisons return to Indiana’s Kankakee Sands.

A lot of Midwesterners, including many Hoosiers, think Indiana was a great prairie state. It wasn’t. Rather, about 98 percent of Indiana was hardwood forest, which gave way to agriculture as the state developed.

Indiana wasn’t totally without prairie though, and probably the most significant area is in the northwestern part of the state. There you’ll find the easternmost swatches of the great tallgrass prairie sprawled into Indiana from northeast Illinois, the Prairie State.

This section of Indiana was in the news last fall when, after the long ride from South Dakota, 23 bison bounded from a truck onto the Kankakee Sands in Newton County.

At the time I thought how cool that was, especially since the bison appears on the Seal of the State of Indiana. Not until recently, did I learn that the bisons are an integral part of the restoration of the prairie at Kankakee Sands, an 8,000-acre property of The Nature Conservancy-Indiana.

Alyssa Nyberg, nursery manager and outreach coordinator at Kankakee Sands.

Bisons prefer to eat grasses and sedges rather than flowering plants, such as rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and gayfeather (Liatris spp.), said Alyssa Nyberg, Kankakee Sands’ nursery manager and outreach coordinator. That means there will be more flowers for birds, bees and other fauna to enjoy. Bisons also sand wallow “to rub off of all the itchy things,” she said. When they do, they create indentations in the sands where water can gather to support other creatures, including frogs and tadpoles, and to quench the thirst of birds.

Nyberg spoke recently at Butler University’s Friesner Herbarium’s annual open house. A graduate of Indianapolis’ Chatard High School, Nyberg holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental science from Indiana University. After two years in the Peace Corps in Nepal, Nyberg returned to Indiana to work at Kankakee Sands,

There she, staffers and volunteers collect. clean and sow the seeds of 600 prairie plant species. About 2,000 pounds of seeds are needed for about 500 acres. Some seeds are sown directly and some are sown in a greenhouse to be transplanted later. The goal is to restore the ecological habitat that thrived there 300 years ago.

The Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands has turned fields of corn and soybeans into biodiverse corridors for some of the rarest species in the state, said Ellen Jacquart, who retired recently as the director of Northern Indiana Stewardship for The Nature Conservancy.

At the 2014 flora and fauna census, The Nature Conservancy recorded the species of 930 moths, 70 butterflies, 40 ants, 250 birds and 155 bees, and more than more than 700 plants.

Regal fritillary on bee balm at Kankakee Sands. Photo courtesy Derek Luchik/

“It gives me hope for the future, if we are willing to commit to restoration. The coolest thing I’ve seen at Kankakee Sands was the explosion of state-endangered regal fritillary butterflies in 2014. Hundreds of gorgeous butterflies flying through the restoration, proving we had successfully made a home for them.”

Kankakee Sands is open year-round to the public for birding, counting butterflies, learning about wildflowers and watching bisons.

More than pansies for spring pots

The tissue paper-like balls of ranunculus flowers work well with violas and pansies. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

We all love pansies and violas in spring, but did you know there are a lot more cool-season annuals and tender perennials we can use in our seasonal containers? Because most trees and shrubs are not fully leafed out, there’s less concern about sun requirements for these plants, too. These are plants we have for the season because they tend to stop blooming once the weather heats up. Here’s a sampler of plants that thrive in spring temperatures.

‘Jenny Brooks’ wallflower. Photo courtesy Aris Horticulture

Wallflower (Erysimum), although technically a perennial, it’s unlikely these fragrant beauties will survive winter here. Wallflowers, which come in lots of colors, add height to pots, window boxes and other seasonal arrangements. Extremely popular in England, wallflowers are not as readily available here in the U.S., but check with area garden centers. The lovely ‘Jenny Brooks’ can sometimes be found in the perennial section. Wallflower is a member of the Brassica family, the same as cabbage. The National Garden Bureau has named 2017 the Year of the Brassicas, so celebrate with one of the more fragrant members of the clan.

Column Miracle White stock. Photo courtesy Ball Horticulture

Stocks (Matthiola incana), sometimes called gillyflowers, are an annual whose spicy fragrance is a staple of many perfumes. These pastel-colored flowers are easy to grow from seed sown indoors in late winter, and they are a bit easier to find in garden centers than wallflowers. Like wallflowers, stocks add height to containers.

Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) are a lot more familiar, but maybe not as a spring annual. Snapdragons come in lots of colors and can be found in the summer garden, too. The tall ones, such as the Rocket series, add height to containers, serving nicely as a centerpiece. ‘Floral Showers’, ‘Montego’ and ‘Magic Carpet’ are shorter and work well when two or three plants are bunched together for a better show.

Montego Yellow snapdragon. Photo courtesy Ball Horticulture

The tissue paper-like, ball-shaped flowers of ranunculus (R. asiaticus) offer a different texture and form in pots. Ranunculus grows from tubers, which can be started indoors in late winter. Each tuber yields many flowers in many pastels, reds and oranges. These are usually available at garden centers beginning in April. These are less tolerant of temperatures below about 50 F.

The daisy-like flowers of Senetti come in many colors. Photo courtesy

Another beauty, commonly branded as Senetti (Pericallis x hybrida), is also a bit sensitive to freezing temperatures, but worth planting when it’s consistently a bit warmer in mid-April. This is usually sold in 6- or 8-inch pots in garden centers. Plant Senetti in the ground or use as a focal point in a pot or window box. The colors are divine, especially the blues. It also comes in white, pinks and bicolor.

April garden checklist


  • Prune, repot and clean houseplants as needed.houseplant-window-stockxpertcom_id848849_size2
  • Fertilize houseplants as new growth appears. Follow label directions.
  • If not done already, sketch garden plans, including what to grow, spacing, arrangement and number of plants needed.
  • Order seeds and plants as early as soon as possible.
    Cyclamen. (C) iStockphoto
  • Place Easter lily, florist azalea, cyclamen and other seasonal flowering plants in bright, indirect sunlight. Keep soil moist.
  • Pot up summer flowering bulbs to be transplanted outdoors later, including tuberous begonias, caladiums and cannas.
  • Start seeds of warm-season plants, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, marigolds, zinnias and petunias for planting outdoors in mid-May.
Cyclamen. (C) iStockphoto

Cyclamen. (C) iStockphoto

General Landscape

  • Fertilize woody plants before new growth begins.
  • Complete pruning to remove dead and injured branches from trees and shrubs. Prune spring flowering shrubs, such as forsythia or lilacs, within a month after blooming.
  • Mow grass as needed to 3 1/2- to 4-inches tall.
  • Remove winter-damaged ground covers with trimmers or shears.
  • Divide or transplant hardy perennials.
  • Allow foliage of spring-flowering bulbs to ripen and yellow or brown before cutting back. Leaves make the food reserves stored in the bulbs that bring next year’s flowers. Divide or transplant spring-flowering bulbs after they’ve finished blooming. Mark empty spaces in the landscape to show where to plant spring-flowering bulbs next fall.
  • Harden off transplants started indoors earlier by gradually exposing young plants to outdoor conditions of wind, sunlight and lower moisture.
  • Remove winter covering from roses. Keep mulch nearby to use on plants in case of late freezes. Prune and fertilize as needed.

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Sow seeds for cool-season crops, including peas, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips and Swiss chard, directly in the garden as soon as soil can be worked. Soil should crumble instead of forming a ball when squeezed.

    Mesclun seedlings can be transplanted outdoors anytime or the seeds can be sown directly in the garden. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau

    Mesclun seedlings can be transplanted outdoors anytime or the seeds can be sown directly in the garden. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau

  • Plant seedlings of cool-season crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and onions.
  • Plant asparagus and rhubarb crowns. (Do not harvest until three years after planting.)
  • Plant certified, disease-free potato sections or seed tubers.
  • Plant strawberries, raspberries and other small fruit.
  • Remove winter mulch from strawberries, but keep it handy in case late frosts threaten and to keep weeds down.
  • Prune grape vines to remove dead or weakened limbs. Repair trellises as needed.
  • Apply a pre-bloom, multipurpose orchard spray to fruit trees.


Delicious veggies that please the eyes and palate

Fiesta Blend is a mix of colorful, tasty mix of radishes. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

You know what they say, we eat with our eyes first. So, let’s talk about some foods that please our eyes and palate that are new this year.

Fiesta Blend radish includes popular varieties Hailstone, Scarlet Globe, Sparkler, Purple Plum and Golden Helios all in one seed packet (, Sow seeds in a sunny spot or a pot around April 1 and harvest Fiesta Blend in 27 to 35 days.

Black Nebula carrot holds its color even when cooked. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

Black Nebula carrot is deep purple, through and through, a color it holds even when cooked. The carrots get about 9 inches long. When the plants go to seed, called bolting, the flowers and stems are purple, and can be cut for indoor arrangements. Rainbow Blend carrot has five gourmet baby varieties: Atomic Red, Bambino, Cosmic Purple, Lunar White and Solar Yellow. They can be harvested in 60 days as baby carrots in the 6 to 8 inch long range. If grown for 75 days, carrots will be 8 to 11 inches long. Sow carrots in a sunny place in early May.

Sweet Valentine is slow to go to seed in hot, which means it can be planted and harvested longer than some other lettuces.
Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/

Sweet Valentine lettuce’s leaves are apple green at the base with the top half red on both sides of the leaves It first forms a head lettuce, the develops a more open, loose romaine type leaf. Sow seeds ( directly now through mid-June in a part sun to light shade area or pot. In plant trials, Sweet Valentine has been slow to bolt, even in hot weather, so you could keep sowing if plants seemed to be holding their own.

Nikita pepper. Photo courtesy

Unlike the vegetables that can be down directly outdoors, Nikita bell pepper should be started indoors around mid April. Peppers suffer when planted in the ground too early. They like the soil to be warmer than tomatoes, which can be planted a couple of weeks before peppers. Nikita ( gets up to 24 inches tall, so it might benefit from staking. It produces large blocky fruits that are sweet no matter when picked. The peppers begin as a creamy color and then mature to coral streaked or orange. Each plant will produce about 12 4-inch peppers in 65 to 70 days after planting transplants. Plant in full sun.

Remember that these are new introductions, so their availability may be limited.

Plant names provide lots of info

Japanese maple. (C) Frederico Rostagno/

Plant tags, descriptions at online plant retailers and mail order catalogs provide a lot of information, but sometimes it needs to be translated. A lot of times, clues to the plant’s behavior and attributes can be found in their scientific or botanical names.

For example, several plants that have purple characteristics will have purpurea as part of their scientific name, such as Echinacea purpurea for purple coneflower. Plants with blue characteristics may have glauca as part of their name, such as Picea glauca for blue spruce and Festuca glauca for blue fescue. Alba usually describes white flowers, nigra black flowers, and virdis is green. Palmatum, as in Acer palmatum, describes the palm-like leaves of a Japanese maple. Spicata is spiky. Plants with helio or helia names usually indicate sun loving, such as Helianthus and Heliopsis for various sunflowers. (Three years of high school Latin and a little horticulture-related Greek finally pay off.)

Some words signal us to do more research. I always wonder about the habit of plants described as fast growing, aggressive, fills in quickly, prolific and spreads rapidly. Are these code words for invasive or a plant that self sows too much? It pays to explore those terms when considering a plant for the garden. Then, there plants that are slow to establish or temperamental, which should only be viewed as a challenge.

Fidelio parsley. Photo courtesy

A lot of gardeners, especially new and inexperienced ones, get confused about plant categories. Annual means it’s there just for a season, going from seed to flower to seed in its lifecycle. Petunias, marigolds and impatiens fall in this category. Perennial means a plant comes back at least two or more years. Hosta and daylily are perennials. A biennial is on a two-year lifecycle, forming a close-to-the-ground rosette of leaves in year one and blooming in year two. Hollyhock and parsley are examples. With parsley, of course, we eat the first-year leaves.

These words give us a deeper understanding and an appreciation of plants, their names and habits. They guide our purchases of plants for our gardens and containers.

Mornings lose on Daylight Saving Time

Daylight Saving Time makes mornings disappear. And, it messes with our body clocks. Scientists say we never recover.

Here in Indianapolis, the sun sets later than any of the 50 largest metro areas. That’s because we’re on Eastern time instead of Central. If we have to have DST, put me in Central Time.

Current reports say DST may be on the way out. Hope springs eternal.



Long-blooming temperennials…not at all temperamental

Illumination Flame garnered top honors in the 2014 American Garden Award program. Photo courtesy Peace Tree Farm

A new term gardeners may hear periodically is temperennial. No, it’s not describing temperamental plants, but rather, perennials that are temporary.

Technically, the plants are perennials, just not in our climate, so we use them as long-blooming, colorful annuals for summer. Here are a few to consider – some you may already be familiar with, just not by their trendy description.

A lot of us are familiar with the Black and Blue or Black & Bloom salvias, with those gorgeous black and blue flowers that hummingbirds love. I know some of these salvias have wintered over for several years in the ground at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I’ve not had that luck.

Black & Bloom Salvia. Photo courtesy

Use this beauty in the middle or back of a sunny bed of perennials or in a pot all by itself. At 3 to 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, this salvia needs some room. In a pot, pair it with a chartreuse sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatus), or Orange Profusion zinnia.

I love beards tongue (Penstemon), but a lot of the really cool ones are not winter hardy here. These plants bloom through summer, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, but deer, not so much. Most get about 18 to 24 inches tall with 12-inch stems of blooms that are great for cutting for indoor bouquets. This plant needs good drainage. It will not do well in soil that stays wet. There are some hardy penstemons, including ‘Huskers Red’ (P. digitalis). But the really pretty ones with the big flowers, such as Terra Nova Nurseries’ Taffy series, are not reliably hardy here.

Strawberry Taffy Penstemon. Photo courtesy

Agastache, commonly called hummingbird mint or hyssop, is another plant that can be a hardy perennial here or a temperennial. The latter, such as the 18-inch tall Mango Tango, seems to have a lot more flowers and it blooms mid to late summer in a sunny spot that’s not too wet.

Mango Tango Agastache. Photo courtesy

A few years ago, the temperennial to have was ‘Illumination Flame’ or ‘Berry Canary’ Digiplexis, a foxglove hybrid. Another long-bloomer that doubles as a cut flower, grow this in a sunny to partly sunny bed or as the center piece in a pot. This plant gets up to 3 feet tall.

Granted, these are not the least expensive plants you can buy for the summer season, but their bloom power makes temperennials worthy of consideration.