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December 28th, 2010

young cucumber growing in the gardenBesides being a crunchy, flavorful salad ingredient, cucumbers are pickles-to-be. So what garden is complete without them?

Cukes grow on vining or bush-type plants; your garden space will determine which varieties have a growth habit that is best suited for your needs. The other factors to consider when choosing the types of cucumbers to grow are how you plan to consume the fruit, and what qualities you seek in the flavor. If you want crisp, fresh cucumbers all summer long, choose a variety with a slower time to harvest. If you plan to make pickles, choose a variety like the Homemade Pickles Cucumber Plant that is mature and ready to harvest in 45 days, and between 2 to 5 inches in length.

Cucumbers like the Dasher II produce copious fruits that are ripe for harvest at 10-12 inches in length, and starting at around 2 months of growth. Some varieties are less acidic and easier to digest.

While you are at it, radishes make great companions for cucumbers. Companion planting means putting compatible plants together to provide benefits to one or both. In the case of cukes, if radishes are planted nearby or interplanted throughout the cucumber bed, they will deter the pesky striped cucumber beetle.

Cukes need a lot of moisture to grow and produce bountiful crops. The vining varieties require a trellis or stake support to allow the fruits to have space to grow. They mature best when allowed some shade underneath the plant’s leaves or from neighboring plants.

Harvest cucumbers when they reach their desired length and before they get too plump, which ensures sweeter fruit and it also keeps the plant producing more throughout the season. Also, never let cucumbers turn yellow, or they’ll develop a bitter or sour flavor and hard seeds and skin texture. The varieties you choose will have a recommended “days to maturity” rating that will tell you when to expect your first ripe fruits.

Wear gloves when harvesting cucumbers. They are covered with tiny prickly spines that can easily be removed with a gloved hand. To remove the fruits from the vine, simply hold the cucumber in one hand, and the stem in the other and snap off at the stem. If the fruit resists, pull the stem from the vine and keep it intact with the fruit.

The more you harvest, the more you encourage the plant to continue its production until the frost hits. Cukes like heat and generally aren’t very frost resistant.

plate full of garden grown cumumbersIf your cukes are ripening faster than you can eat them, you can store them in the refrigerator for up to a week. Or, you can make cucumber salad by preserving them in a vinegar-based brine, and they’ll keep like that for a week or so, refrigerated. The main thing is to keep picking them as they ripen to encourage the vines to continue providing new fruits.

An easy, refreshing and nutritious cucumber salad can be made combining white vinegar, salt and sugar to taste, added to diced red bell peppers, onions and cukes. Allow flavors to marry overnight. Also, the skin contains many nutrients, so if your garden is organic, don’t peel and discard the best part of the cuke!

Broccoli, This Bud’s For You

December 20th, 2010

How to grow tasty broccoliDid you know that when you eat broccoli you are actually eating flowers? As children, many of us had broccoli introduced to us as “little trees,” but actually they are little flower buds bursting with flavor and nutrition. Broccoli has been cultivated for hundreds of years, originally in Turkey, making its way across Europe and finally showing up in Thomas Jefferson’s garden in 18th century America. It wasn’t until the 1930’s, however, that Americans learned to really enjoy broccoli, thanks to a pair of Italian brothers, Stephano and Andrea D’Arrigo, who brought their broccoli seeds and love of the vegetable to California in the 1920’s.

Broccoli is delicious served raw in salads and, of course, its edible stems come in handy when dipping them in veggie dips and dressings. It is equally at home, cooked and served with a rich hollandaise or cheese sauce, stir-fried with other vegetables or meats, baked in casseroles, simmered in soups, or simply steamed in all its bare green beauty.

Isn’t it great when such a delicious and versatile food is also so good for our health, as well? The National Cancer Institute suggests that broccoli may be very helpful in the prevention of some forms of cancer. Its beta carotene, vitamin C, fiber, calcium and phytochemicals are thought to enhance enzymes that help detoxify the body, helping to not only prevent cancer, but heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

All vegetables are at their best when harvested straight from the garden and when it’s your own home garden, well, you just can’t get any fresher than that. Broccoli is a cool weather crop and grows best in temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees F. Typically, you can have a spring and fall harvest. (Although in regions where the temperature doesn’t dip below the 40’s, you can harvest broccoli all winter long.)

For the spring harvest, plant seedlings in well-drained soil, with plenty of calcium and boron, about a month before the last expected frost. They should be planted in full sun although they can handle a little shade part of the day. Plant the seedlings just a bit deeper in the soil than they were in their containers and about 18 inches apart to garner the largest heads. Rows should be about 12 inches apart. In 40 to 90 days, harvest the center buds including about 5 inches of the center stalk. Always harvest while the buds are tight and have not opened revealing their bright yellow flowers. (Those may be pretty, but they aren’t tasty!) Side sprouts can be harvested for several more weeks. For a fall/winter harvest, plant the seedlings 90 days before the first expected frost of the season. You can even grow broccoli in containers, 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep, along with other plants such as pretty pink petunias and Dusty Miller to accent the colors of the vegetable.

So whether you call them little trees or edible flowers, broccoli plants fit the bill as attractive plants that provide important nutrition and delicious flavor.

Time to Plan What to Plant

December 13th, 2010

Just as winter is blanketing most of the U.S. under freezing temperatures and lots of white stuff, it's time to start planning your spring plantings. Garden Harvest Supply sells live annual plants for gardens and landscape beds, and the popular varieties sell out quickly. All annual plants are now available for purchase and will ship according to the spring shipping schedule found on the site.

Consider the advantages to buying your annual plants now:  First, you're assured of getting the plants you want, before they're sold out. Second, you can take time to plan the most personal and beautiful outdoor spaces while you've got lots of indoor time. And third, winter will seem a lot more tolerable when you know you have fresh live plants coming within only a few months, and they'll already be ordered and lined up for shipment to you.

There are several advantages to annuals (they only live for one season in most zones) over perennials (they come back each year). Annual flowers are generally more profuse bloomers, and the blooms can last from frost to frost, from early spring through late fall. The colors and bloom varieties of annual flowers is beyond imagination. And there is a variety for every growing condition, soil, water, and available sunlight.

Annuals can be planted in the ground or in containers, and there are countless varieties that are popular for both purposes. Flowering annuals can brighten up even the dreariest areas of your landscape, and can make the most modest home look like a showplace, with only a minimum of planning and care.

For mixed plantings in container gardens, consider tall plants in the center, like Dracaena Spikes and then all around, plant either monochrome or assorted colors of flowers. Consider mixing sizes of blooms, too, like alternating brilliant Petunias, including the Double Wave trailing varieties, with tiny white or pastel bacopa. For even more drama, at the outside edge of the planter, suspend Dichondra vines that will drape down the sides in beautiful cascades.

You can choose to keep your plantings all green and foliage only, or all flowers, too. But most savvy annuals fans like to combine the two for the most showy walkways, landscape beds and containers.

If you like your foliage to have some wow factor, consider some bright fuscia- or neon lime-hued Alternathera. No flower color necessary with these striking beauties.

For a huge tropical plant, Colocasia, or Elephant Ear, has leaves that will grow as big as, you guessed it, an actual elephant ear. It's a plant that will grow surprisingly huge in a container or in the ground, and the modest bulb can be dug up and overwintered in a garage or root cellar above 40 degrees to bloom again each warm season.

Frustrations of a Tropical Night-Blooming Cereus Grower

November 10th, 2010

The tropical night-blooming cereus blooms at night. Not really surprising, that factoid. But it only blooms for one night.  And then, one night a year.  A neighbor of mine in Columbus, OH called me unapologetically at 1 a.m. one weeknight 15 years ago, begging me to come see her first-ever bloom. She needed someone to help her appreciate the moment, to witness the miracle. After admiring the rare, unusual flower, and learning about the plant, I knew I had to someday grow my own night-blooming cereus. (But not for an excuse to wake people on a work night.)

cereusThis odd, gangly and unruly plant will take over whatever space it’s allotted.  It sends out long, hairy shoots that will keep extending until they reach a wall or ceiling, then they’ll bend and continue growing to infinity. The long, flat, irregular leaves look like a Picasso painting melting. Unexpectedly, right out of the side of a leaf will sprout a hot pink stem and a bud.  Then, a spidery, multi-layered white flower singing tunes from “Little Shop of Horrors” opens to reveal a delicate perfume…evocative of jasmine and evenings spent chugging Mai Tais on Waikiki Beach.

The night-blooming cereus has a cult following. Maybe it’s because of its grotesque greenery only a mother could love. Maybe it’s a purist’s way of proving superhuman patience. Or, maybe it’s just a quirky fun conversation piece.  The first-time viewer always asks, “Why?”

I have been growing a night-blooming cereus indoors from a small start my neighbor Karen (a Master Gardener) gave me about 3 years ago. I’ve tended it, groomed it, and cleared space for its ever-increasing size. I’ve waited for what seemed like 3 1/2 years to see my first bloom, never knowing if or when it would happen.

There is something magical about nurturing this horrible-looking monstrosity to have a large, fragrant flower appear out of the edge of a leaf, only one night each year.

Well, mine bloomed for the first time last night. I missed it. Here’s the wilted, shriveled and jaundiced remains of a flower I found when I woke up:


There is no point or moral to this story. I was mocked by my own houseplant, and I just needed to vent. Thanks.

Blooming Hibiscus for Container Planting

November 3rd, 2010

Growing hibiscus plants in containersHibiscus plants produce exotic flowers that are unequaled for their striking beauty. They are great for container growing, and we’ll give you lots of tips for success with your plant, no matter where you live.

Since hibiscus has been hybridized, there are now several growth habits to choose from, as well as varied leaf types, and colors and bloom sizes of flowers. Choosing the type of hibiscus to grow should start with selecting the space where you intend to keep the plant. It requires a minimum of six hours a day of full sunlight.

After you've chosen the hibiscus plant, select a container that will be approximately as deep as it is wide.  Hibiscus prefer to be slightly root-bound, and they'll send small feeder roots out horizontally to fill whatever space they're allotted, as well as sending down the main support root vertically. This is a plant that requires proper drainage and some coarse sand mixed in the soil will allow the aeration the roots need. A container that doesn't breathe too much, like cement or glazed ceramic, is preferred, since hibiscus are relatively heavy water consumers, and wood or terra cotta won't hold in the necessary moisture, especially in dry or very hot climates. Otherwise, a standard potting mix and fertilizer regimen should be used.

Bloom color is the main selection criteria for most hibiscus lovers. Blooms can be single, double, flat or frilly, and the range of colors is pretty much endless!

Provide ample water and sunshine to get the best looking and healthiest container-grown hibiscus. A well-maintained plant should live and provide abundant blooms for many years.

Most Luxurious Plants EVER Received

October 27th, 2010

I have ordered from MANY catalog nurseries. The four carex Amazon Mist plants I received were quite possibly the biggest (for the price), healthiest and downright luxurious plants I’ve ever received. Carol O.

Deck Perennials, Annuals, Ferns…All Gorgeous

October 25th, 2010

This looks out from my entry over my small deck.  Two simple 2 x 2 frames with double shade cloth top and ends and single layer on the outer side, bungee-corded to existing railings for wind security. Left to right: top hanger is a fern, top of a Plumeria, center on shelf is a Hoya, then my prized Coleus followed by another hanger (I put both hangers from my kitchen outside to get the rain!) Below shelves are varied succulents, a geranium at far left….the Swedish Ivy in white pot inside orange pot as drain (I use commercial food containers for drain pans, as they’re stronger). Lower right side is a large Xanadu Philodendron and a Fern.  Note temp (65)….in October!

deck garden

Left section (each side is 4′ x 4′ x 7′).  Note full Swedish Ivy at right–all from ONE stem of plant I rescued from the trash at Home Depot a year ago!  Just TLC and lots of water.

deck garden

Right side, a bit closer.  Wish I knew the name of the top right hanger.  It’s a profuse grower!

deck garden

My “Baby”…I just LOVE this Coleus.  It’s doubled itself in the past month. Unreal! Note the “drain pan”: it’s what a rotisserie chicken came in. Very sturdy, not like those flimsy clear plastic commercial plant pot liners.  I use all kinds from potato salads, margarine tubs, etc.

coleus plant

The lower right closer, with a peek at my deck box.  Vital in an upstairs granny flat!

deck garden

An Emerald Queen Spathiphyllum (I think) just inside the deck door–a happy camper. It’s much bigger now; this was taken a couple months ago.

garden plant

You Can’t Beat Container-Grown Beets

October 20th, 2010

beet plantBeets make a perfect vegetable to grow in containers.  First of all, they are best eaten young, when they’re about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. So, the time to maturity is quick, but they can be left in the soil until they become 3- to 4-inch globes.  The tops are edible and may be trimmed when very young for use as salad greens, or left to reach a mature height and cooked like any other leafy greens, or even cooked right along with the beet roots.  Beets don’t require as deep a container as many vegetables with deeper roots.

Choose a container that has good drainage.  The diameter of the container is determined by how many beets you intend to grow, since you need to allow room for the globes to expand beneath the soil line.  And as for the growing medium, the richer the better.  Well-draining soil with compost or organic matter added will produce the best and sweetest roots.

Beets need a lot of moisture.  Allowed to dry out, they become tough and woody.  So, make sure to provide a minimum of 1 inch per week of water.

Follow the spacing requirements for planting beet seeds or baby plants, which for most varieties is at least 3 inches apart.  Thin any too-close plants as soon as the tops are a couple of inches tall, and then use those tops as a tender and colorful addition to raw or cooked salads.

Beets prefer cool weather, so either plant immediately after the last frost of spring, or count backward from the first frost of fall and plant far enough in advance to allow the beets to grow to your preferred size, based on the particular variety's recommended days to maturity.  A couple of heirloom varieties that should do wonderfully grown in containers are Bulls Blood, with its deep purple-red leaves, and Detroit Dark Red, a longstanding favorite among beet aficionados because it stores especially well in root cellars.

Container gardening allows growers to choose a sunny spot on a balcony or patio, where a garden plot might not be available.  The container can be placed near an outdoor spigot, to make watering convenient. And containers can be located where pests are kept at bay.  It’s also popular to use various sizes of containers for rooftop gardening in cities.

Beets show the very tops of their globes above the soil line, and you can pick them whenever you determine the size is right, but keep in mind the smaller the globe, the more tender and sweet.  Also, the skin is smoother on small roots.  Beet skin on any age root is edible and it actually contains many of the nutrients beets are known for.  Some people find the rough texture unappealing, so a compromise might be to peel just the pits and rough spots and leave the rest. 

Beets should lift out of the soil easily if you loosen the soil gently around the globe before grabbing just above the soil line and pulling straight up on the tops.

Fresh-picked beets can be juiced, or cut into wedges or cubes and steamed, made into hot or cold borscht, or cooked and chilled to be topped with sour cream and fresh dill.  Pickled beets store for months and make a colorful, crisp, tart side dish to perk up a cold winter night’s meal.

What to do in Fall with Carrots?

October 11th, 2010

We have had a wet season and the carrots continue to grow.  Can a person cut the tops down on carrots, to slow their growth in the fall? Robert N

Answer: Carrots are cool season crops but in many areas of the country they can be grown through the summer. To have a continuous crop, plant seeds about 3-4 weeks apart. If you’re reseeding for a late season harvest, be sure to give the seedlings plenty of time before the first frost to mature.  Most varieties range from 65 to 75 days.

Carrots need space, so when you are growing them from seed, be sure to thin the seedlings when they are at least an inch tall, giving them at least an inch or more between plants. Covering seedlings with a layer of mulch will help keep them moist.

You don’t mention why you are concerned about the carrots continuing to grow.  As long as there is not an imminent frost, just let them keep growing. Cutting back the top would stop the carrots’ growth.  Since they are a root crop they need this top growth to continue to develop and send nutrients below the soil. It is important to harvest your carrots before the green growth goes to seed.

I hope this answers you question.  Happy Gardening! Karen

Frost and Freeze Protection for Your Plants, Shrubs and Gardens

October 6th, 2010

As any gardener knows all too well, frost can be a deadly adversary and often arrives most unexpectedly. Even a small cold front arriving in late summer or early fall, combined with cloudless skies and little wind can wreak havoc quickly. Mother Nature, to say the least, is unpredictable, so it is up to you to be prepared for what she throws at you.

For any freshly planted greenery, a mound of mulch around the base of the plant will help to retain heat and moisture, making your plants that much more able to survive a frost, if not too heavy or for an extended period of time. If you have warning, watering the mulch during the day will help by enabling additional moisture to be released throughout the night, keeping the air directly around your plants somewhat warmer, though the best option is to cover your new plants, in addition to the mulch. Mulch is critical to winter survival, especially if there is any chance of an unexpectedly cold and wet winter, so a good rule is to apply mulch around the base of all of your plants in the fall, even if you did so in the spring.

Plant covers are always the safest option for insuring your plants' survival during extended periods of frost or when the temperatures plummet below freezing.  Designed specifically for the express purpose of protecting shrubs, bushes, vegetable and flower gardens from being ravaged by the effects of frost and freezing temperatures, they are reusable, easy to install and easily stored for use year after year. Manufactured of lightweight, porous fabric, they allow essential, life-giving air flow around your plants, unlike plastic sheeting or bed sheets.

Plant protector bags do not require additional staking and have a drawstring at the bottom to keep them in place, enabling you to install them quickly and easily. Row covers, on the other hand, are designed to protect tender new leaves, blossoms and young fruit and vegetables in your fall garden. You can even control ventilation by closing off the ends of the tunnels at night and reopening them in the morning. Row covers allow light and air free access while providing protection and you can leave them in place for extended periods of time.

For larger areas you may want to consider a plant and seed blanket or natural burlap, which can also double as a shade cloth during summer heat waves. Many people use one of these options for freshly planted bedding annuals that provide such beautiful fall color, or for those beds of late blooming perennials or chrysanthemums whose blooms you want to enjoy a bit longer.

As always, that Girl Scout motto, Be Prepared will insure that you and your plants survive the early frosts and deep freezes that can devastate your landscaping or gardens. Take stock and stock up on those protective plant covers that will best suit your needs, so that when the weather channel warns of impending frost or freezing temperatures, you can simply go out to your shed or garage and grab what you need, rather than running around town or raiding your linen closet to find something, anything to cover your plants with. That is no fun at all!

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