February 2018

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.

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.

New edibles to try

On Deck sweet corn, bred for growing in a container. Photo courtesy

Please don’t make me leave Indiana, but as a gardener I’ve only grown sweet corn once. It was a bust. The plants took up a huge amount of space in my small garden and none of the ears developed. Even raccoons turned up their noses.

I’m going to try again this year. I ordered ‘On Deck’ sweet corn seeds from Burpee, a new hybrid bred for containers. Burpee says to sow nine seeds of this supersweet variety in a 24-inch wide pot. Harvest should come in two months, with each 4-5 foot stalk yielding two or three 7-8 inch long ears.

Corn is wind pollinated, which is why it is planted in blocks, rather than long rows. I’m hoping that by having nine plants in one pot, the ears will pollinate well and I’ll have fresh-picked corn to eat this summer.

I’m going to grow the corn in a Smart Pot, a container made of fabric spun from recycled plastic bottles. I might even do two pots of ‘On Deck’ corn, planting the second one a couple of weeks after the first to extend the harvest. After all, I’ve had good luck growing potatoes in these pots. Gardeners are nothing, if not hopeful and optimistic.

A few years ago, I trialed ‘Peppermint Stick’ celery, a Ball Seed introduction, and I’m going to grow it again this year. It was delicious and very easy to grow. I ordered these seeds from Urban Farmer in Westfield, Indiana. I plan to grow the celery in a Smart Pot, too.

‘Peppermint Stick’ celery can be grown in a pot or in the ground. Photo courtesy Ball Horticultural Co.

Next up are ‘Short Stuff’ Chantenay carrots, which are also going in a Smart Pot. With husky, plump, 4-inch long roots, the sweet carrots should do fine. The seeds are from Renee’s Garden. Harvest is about 70 days from sowing. The shape and size should be perfect for roasting.

I’ll let you know how these new plants work for me. I hope you’ll try some new or different plants, too.

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