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Archive for April 2010

Container Gardening for Tomatoes and Peppers

April 26th, 2010

How to grow tomatoes in a containerThere are many reasons to grow garden vegetables in containers, such as limited space in the yard, too many wild critters roaming unrestricted, and lack of sun where you need it.

Containers allow the gardener to put plants where the light, moisture, and protection from damage are optimum.  The question is, how do you begin container gardening?

Pepper and tomato plants are excellent choices for growing on patios and decks and in other unconventional places.  For these plants, there are some basic rules of thumb…to show off your greenest thumb.

Vegetable plants are tiny when they’re young, but they’ll grow large as they produce fruit, so the container has to support the weight of the mature plant.  If planted directly in the ground, those plants would receive plenty of nutrients from the soil, and the roots would have ample room to spread.  So, more soil in the pot means more freedom for the roots to develop into healthy feeding systems for their above-soil plants.

It’s best to plant one plant per pot, for tomatoes and peppers.  A 12- to 18-inch pot is optimum for tomatoes, and you can go a little smaller for peppers.  If you try to grow multiple plants in one pot, it stresses the roots as they fight for limited moisture and nutrients.  Square pots allow you to line several of them in a row, for space efficiency.

In pots, it’s best to feed at the start with a slow-release fertilizer, like Neptune’s Harvest.  Young plants require a little more nitrogen to get a healthy start, but then as they set buds, they need a more phosphorous-based food.  Those are labeled as “bloom builder” fertilizers, which help those buds become blooms, and then fruit.

During peak blooming periods this might need to be applied once a week, for three or four weeks, depending on the growing period of the plant. Once there are significant blooms, cut back to fertilizing about every other week for a couple of applications, then suspend fertilizing. By this time the plant should be in full production of fruit, and producing more blooms or leaves would be counterproductive.  Also, it’s imperative to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for feeding plants, as too much fertilizer can burn up plants, and not enough can cause weak plants and non-yielding harvests.

Last, the most important ingredient of all:  water.  Young plants in pots require consistent moisture, meaning possibly daily watering.  Potted plants can dry up outdoors much faster than those in the ground, so you’ll need to maintain an even moisture level in the soil.  Be vigilant in extreme heat conditions, to make sure your plants don’t wilt from being too dry.

How to Plant Potatoes

April 20th, 2010

Watch our resident expert as he plants seed potatoes, explaining the process as he goes. It is really quite simple! This video is well worth the short amount of time it takes to watch; complete instructions, from prepping the seed potato, to preparing the bed to planting, is barely over one minute long.

Our Seven Favorite Hummingbird Feeders

April 13th, 2010

With the imminent arrival of the hummers, we’d like to tell you about seven of our favorite hummingbird feeders. Our hope is that our recommendations will save you time if you’re looking for hummingbird feeders and want advice based on our extensive experience and feedback from customers.

As you can imagine, there are many types of hummingbird feeders, However, most feeders are either the cylindrical type or the flying saucer type, and we’re going to focus on these because—with the exception of a popular feeder that is shaped like a giant strawberry—our favorites fall into these two categories.

Cylindrical Hummingbird Feeders

These types of feeders have been around for a long time, thanks to the Perky-Pet Company, which has been making feeders since 1958. Their Original 30-oz. Hummingbird Feeder, Model PP209, has a hardened glass feeding chamber with a base that contains six feeder stations. Perky Pet describes it as their best model, and customers tend to agree.

If you want something smaller, another great model is the Perky Pet 8-oz. 4 Fountain Feeder, Model PP203C. This one has a “pinch-waist” glass feeding chamber, and four feeding stations that feed from the same reservoir.

For the smallest of all, go with the  3 oz-cylindrical mini-feeder designed by Perky Pet for hanging baskets. It consists of a shatterproof BPA-free polystyrene feeding chamber with a bee guard, plus an attached mounting rod that you insert into the soil so as to suspend it a few inches above the basket or planter box. Some people put some right into their flowerbeds. Because of its diminutive size and wide-mouth design, it is very easy to clean and fill, and is dishwasher safe.

Though it is sometimes described as a beginners’ model, veteran hummingbird enthusiasts also use it because its single feeding station gets around the problem of hummingbirds being territorial: only one hummer can feed at a time. Some people put out ten or more and have hummers all over the place, each feeding happily in his or her own spot.

What are the advantages of the cylindrical feeders? Well, for one thing, the hummers really and truly love the tubular design—that’s been verified by their use for more than twenty years.  The bee guards on these models work well, in fact, they also keep out finches as well. These models will not collect rainwater and they will not clog. They also hang nice and straight.

The main disadvantage is that, compared to the flying saucer models, they are difficult to clean. People also sometimes complain about dripping, and that the chamber is not so easy to fill, and might require a funnel.

Not so with the Perky Pet 48-oz “Grand Master” Hummingbird Feeder, model PP220, which has six feeding ports, and an unbreakable BPA-free polystyrene feeding chamber. This jumbo model is preferred if you go through a lot of nectar quickly; its maximum storage capacity allows you to cut down on mixing and filling. Its wide-mouth design makes it easier to clean than the other Perky Pet models we’ve mentioned, with the exception of the mini-feeder for planters.

The easiest cylindrical model to clean is Dr. JB’s 16-oz Clean Feeder, Model DJB16CY. The base comes totally apart, in fact, it snaps apart, so you can put the pieces through a dishwasher cycle or sponge them out in your sink. This sturdy feeder features a hardened glass feeding chamber and a baffling system that minimizes leakage, even in high winds. Though relatively new on the  market, this feeder has been getting great reviews from veteran hummingbird enthusiasts and it may eventually earn the reputation of being the best moderately-sized tubular feeder ever.

Flying Saucer-Type Hummingbird Feeders

Flying saucer feeders have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Their main advantage is that they are super-easy to keep clean, and, because the openings are on the top not the bottom, it tends not to leak. Bees are less attracted to this design, so that’s another advantage. This type of design also lets you see the hummers from all angles, and it’s less likely to spill nectar on windy days.  However, the jury is still out as to whether hummingbirds like this design as much as the tubular models. Some customers insist they don’t, while others get scores of hummingbirds visiting each day.

The model we carry of this type is the Perky Pet Oasis 16-oz. Hummingbird Feeder, Model PP221, which features six feeding stations and a built-in ant moat that works really well. Cleaning and filling is a snap, thanks to the snap-on top. Though it comes with a brass rod, this model is best mounted on a pole because it has a tendency to hang crooked otherwise. (Some customers, however, fiddle with it and get it to hang just right with the help of a rubber band or other household item.)

One thing we like about this model is that its shatterproof nectar holder is made of acrylic, a plastic that is BPA-free. For this reason, we prefer it to Hummzingers, a line of similar hummingbird feeders made by Aspects, which are made of polycarbonate, a plastic that leaches BPAs.

The Giant Strawberry Hummingbird Feeder

Finally, we come to a 48-oz model that certainly has the most fun design of any of the others we’ve discussed: the Perky-Pet Strawberry Hummingbird Feeder, Model PP260. This feeder has three feeding ports and features a large BPA-free polystyrene feeding chamber molded to look like a giant red strawberry. Like the 48-oz Grand Master, a feeder of this size will help you cut down on mixing and filling provided that you have the enough traffic to warrant its use. (Otherwise, your nectar will go bad before the hummers finish it.) Full disclosure: none of us have used this feeder in our own gardens and we haven’t received feedback about, although it is one of our bestselling feeders. Assuming that no news is good news, we are including it on our favorites list because it is a favorite of our customers.

Hummingbird Feeder Troubleshooting

Some models have yellow flowers painted onto the feeders. These help to attract hummingbirds, but they can also sometimes attract bees. If this is true in your case, the easiest solution is to simply paint the flowers red using some red nail polish.

When it comes to cleaning the cylindrical models, some owners keep extras on hand so that when they bring one in for cleaning, they hang the other one out.

Many people choose to mount their feeder on a pole, but some find that the pole becomes an “ant highway.”  To stop this, spread a band of Vaseline or Tanglefoot about .5 to 1 inch wide around the perimeter of the pole.

If ants are getting into your hanging feeder, a season-long solution is the Perky Pet AntGuard, which can be mounted above and/or below the feeder. The device has a shielded disc saturated with Permethrin, an insecticide that is not harmful to birds, pets, or children, but will definitely stop the ants.

Hummingbird Feeder Accessories

Some people think that the only way to a hummingbird’s heart is through its stomach, but they will also appreciate it if you lend them a hand in finding nesting material. Save your hummingbirds a little work by hanging a Hummer Helper™ Cage with Nesting Material out for them. The 6″ x 11” coated wire cage is refillable, and the nesting material is fully biodegradable and environmentally safe. A real hummer helper that all hummingbird lovers should have!

If you find that the heat is making your nectar go bad too quickly, get a Songbird Essentials Hummer Helmet. This 12″ hanging protective baffle will also give your hummers some much-appreciated shade, and its bright red color will help to attract even more hummers to your garden. Simply attach it above your feeder using the connectors provided.

Learning More about Hummingbirds

There’s a lot to know about hummingbirds, and there are many resources to help you learn. We highly recommend the The Hummingbird Book by Donald and Lillian Stokes, which contains a wealth of information, There are also some good hummingbird sites on the internet, such as http://www.hummingbirds.net.

There’s also a lot more to know about hummingbird feeders, such as that there are some very nice window feeders as well. But we’ll stop here, and wish you the best in attracting and enjoying hundreds of hummers in the months to come.

Container Gardening, With a Twist

April 6th, 2010

Most growing vegetables need a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight each day.  That would be the first advantage of container gardening:  you can move your plants to locations where they’ll receive the most sun, if your yard is mostly shady.

Another advantage of container gardening is the ability to control your plants’ moisture.  If you’re experiencing a summer that’s particularly rainy, your plants won’t get waterlogged if you just move them under cover.  If your summer is unusually dry, you can keep your containers in a location that’s convenient for reaching with a garden hose or pitchers of water.

Many vegetable plants will grow with 3-6 hours of sun per day.  If you’re trying to make the most of your space and your light isn’t ideal, try growing salad greens, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beets, brussels sprouts, radishes, beets, Swiss chard, and leafy greens like collards and spinach.  Make sure your container and soil are deep enough to provide the recommended space for the roots to grow.

If you grow plants in containers, like pots, growing bags, windowsill boxes or even decorative pails, make sure you have adequate drainage.  The best way to ensure your roots don’t get waterlogged is to drill holes in the bottoms of the containers to allow excess water to drain out.  Rocks placed in the bottom, before you fill with soil, will help the water drain without the soil washing out.  It’s also important to use a potting mix that drains well.

Plants in pots tend to dry out more quickly than those in the ground, so keep a close watch on the soil’s water content and if the plant starts to wilt, it’s probably time to water.  Many edible plants now come in bush varieties, for smaller, more compact plants.  These are ideal for porch or patio garden spaces.

Since potted vegetable plants will not have the benefit of all the nutrients in the ground, if their roots were free to grow in a garden plot, you’ll also want to start with rich, composted soil and then regularly feed a high quality vegetable plant food, according to package directions.

A big advantage of container gardens is that pots can be placed where burrowing pests and other wildlife can’t get to them. 

Herbs do especially well in containers.  In fact, some growers will only grow mint varieties in pots, since they are aggressive spreaders and will take over whatever space they can.  Potted herbs can be grown in full sun outdoors, then at the end of the warm weather season can be brought inside and kept in a sunny windowsill to be fresh snipped for meal preparation for months past summer’s end.

If you mix herbs in a container, plant the tallest ones in the back with shorter ones in front, so they’re not hidden from sunlight.  Container herb gardens are attractive and easy to grow, and they are a fun way to get children interested in gardening.

Flowering Perennials: The Best of the Best

April 1st, 2010

If you’ve ever planted flowering perennials, you know there are hundreds to choose from. So how do you know which ones are the best? One easy way is to consider only those that have won the “Perennial of the Year” award from the Perennial Plant Association (PPA). The PPA looks for perennials that are not only beautiful, but hardy, and easy to grow and maintain. In short, you can’t go wrong if you choose from the PPA’s winner’s circle, providing you pick plants that are matched to the light and soil conditions of your garden.

In this newsletter, we profile the best of the best: twelve great perennials from among the twenty-one perennials that have won the PPA honor over the last two decades. At the beginning of each profile we list what zones it will grow in, and provide info on the light and soil conditions it requires. We then describe that perennial, drawing on the great information that the PPA makes available.

We’ll start with the earliest winners, and work our way up to the 2010 Perennial of the Year.

1991 Heuchera Palace Purple

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 8

Light: Full sun in northern gardens to partial shade in areas with very long, hot summers.

Soil: Well-drained and generously enriched with organic matter.

The Coral Bells ‘Palace Purple’ Heuchera plant was one of the first of a myriad of purple colored Coral Bells and it is still among the most popular. Now considered a classic, its bronze-tinted dark green leaves emerge in the spring, changing to a rich purple with red undertones as the season progresses. The signature creamy bell-shaped flowers appear on slender spikes in early summer. There are few diseases and pests that trouble this perennial, and there should be no problem with fungus as long as the soil is well-drained. Though it will grow in full sun, it does best in at least partial shade.

1993 Veronica Sunny Border Blue

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 8

Light: full sun to very light shade

Soil: well-drained

This perennial has luxurious glossy green foliage, and a long bloom period during which it sports 18-24 inch violet-blue flower spikes that butterflies love. These “elegant spires of color,” as one fan described them, look especially pleasing when grouped with white, pink, or yellow flowered plants. Easy to grow and requiring minimal maintenance, they are often massed at the front of borders. After growing them, you might just concur with the gardener at the GardenWeb Forum who wrote, “blue spikey flowers are why I garden.”

1997 Salvia Mainacht May Night

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 8

Light: Full sun best

Soil: Average to dry garden soil; dislikes winter wet

A wonderful perennial that blooms long and prolifically, it produces dazzling violet-purple flower heads that arise out of large rosettes of dark green aromatic leaves.  It produces abundant flowers from late spring or early summer (depending upon zone), until the first frost, and is renowned for re-blooming with sustained performance if it is carefully deadheaded. It has a height of 18” and a spread of 18-24” and stays in excellent compact form. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds love it, as do most gardeners who consistently describe it as “a winner,” and “a keeper.” It makes a great companion plant for rose bushes, as well as for coreopsis.

1998 Echinacea purpurea Magnus

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 8

Light: Full sun best

Soil: well-drained garden soil

The Coneflower ‘Purple Magnus’ Echinacea plant is a bold, beautiful summer-into-fall perennial with carmine, non-drooping flowers. It blooms in mid-summer on 2-to-4 foot sturdy stems. Butterflies love these large purple flowers. Excellent for cutting, and the flowers, leaves, and stems can be brewed to make a cold-fighting herbal tea or decoction. One of the hardiest varieties of Echinacea, it is highly drought tolerant once established, and self-sowing. It easily re-blooms with deadheading, and the seedheads provide food for birds in winter. It makes for a very nice border planting, and also looks great when placed in the back of the bed. It combines very well with Phlox paniculata ‘David’.

1999 Rudbeckia fulgida var sullivantii Goldsturm

Hardiness: Zones 2 – 9

Light: full sun to partial shade

Soil: well-drained, consistently moist soil

Acclaimed internationally as one of the most popular perennials for the past fifty years, the Goldsturm’s bright flowers contain 1-2 inch golden-yellow petals which encircle a nearly black cone of disk flowers. The leaves are coarse, dark green lanceolate to ovate, 3-6 inches long; stem leaves are smaller, almost bract-like. The “gold storm” blankets the tops of 18-30-inch tall plants from mid-July to October. It is a long-blooming, low maintenance, long-lived perennial which tolerates clay soils and mild droughts, but grows best in well-drained, consistently moist soil. Remarkably hardy, it is one of few perennials that will grow in all zones, and has few pest or disease problems.

2000 Scabiosa columbaria Butterfly Blue

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 9

Light: full sun to partial shade

Soil: Well-drained soil amended with organic matter and a neutral to slightly alkaline pH

The Pincushion ‘Butterfly Blue’ Scabiosa plant has lacy lavender-blue 2-inch flowers with a paler domed center covered with stamens that give the appearance of pins in a pincushion. It blooms on rigid 12- to 15-inch stems above nearly flat grayish- green basal foliage that hugs the ground. This long-blooming perennial grows best in well-drained soil. The foliage remains clean and unblemished throughout the season and the delicate blue flowers add softness to the garden when massed with bolder-colored plants of yellow, bright pink, or red. However, despite its delicate appearance, ‘Butterfly Blue’ is a sturdy plant, and its nectar-rich flowers will attract butterflies in the summer.

2001 Calamagrostis x acutiflora Karl Foerster

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 9

Light: Full sun to partial shade

Soil: fertile soil with sufficient moisture yet well-drained

This highly acclaimed cultivar is one of the most versatile, attractive, and low maintenance ornamental grasses. The deep green, shiny foliage of this cool season grass appears in early spring and lasts until early winter. Loose, feathery flower inflorescences appear in June and are initially light pink in color. As the seed heads mature, they become very narrow with a golden tan color that lasts through the fall season. The growth habit is vertical with a tuft of foliage 2-3 feet tall and flower stems to 5 feet in height. It’s a long-blooming, long-lived perennial that will tolerate heavier clay soils and drier sites. Sometimes called “perpetual motion grass,” it is set in motion by the slightest breeze.

2002 Phlox paniculata David

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 9

Light: full sun to partial shade

Soil: moist but well-drained

The Garden ‘David’ Phlox plant is a particularly showy variety. The pristine flowers of purest white grow bloom out of bell-shaped mounds amid thin glossy leaves. The fragrant white flower panicles are 6 to 9 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide with 1-inch diameter florets. These eye-catching mounds rise on durable stems above the foliage of the main plant and rarely need staking. Many landscape designers call ‘David’ “the backbone of the summer border.” It provides great garden color and fragrance from July through September. If you are looking for a winning combination of fragrance, color, mildew resistance, and long season bloom, this is it.

2006 Dianthus gratianopolitanus Feuerhexe Firewitch

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 9

Light: full sun

Soil: well-drained

The enticing clove-like scent of this low-growing evergreen ornamental make it a great choice for planting along walkways where passersby who brush against it will stimulate the release of its scent. Its brilliant purplish pink flowers with white centers grow on a broad carpet of bluish-gray silvery foliage.These pert, bright blooms also make Firewitch a perfect choice for the rock garden or for planting in wall crevices. This species will tolerate short periods of drought.

2007 Nepeta faassenii Walker’s Low

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 8

Sun: Full sun

Soil: well-drained; neutral Ph.

Walker’s Low catmint has become increasingly popular due to its lovely blue-violet flowers and their long bloom time, attractive grey foliage, ease of propagation, lack of pest disease problems, and low maintenance. It has crinkled, aromatic, silver-green foliage with prolific, small, dark blue-purple flowers clustered densely on upright arching stems creating a charming and colorful effect, even from a distance. Walker’s Low catmint will bloom almost continuously from May until frost, and has many landscape uses, due to its lovely color and vigorous, billowy habit.

2009 Hakonechloa macra Aureola

Hardiness: Zones 5 – 9

Light: partial shade in hot climates; moderate sun in cooler areas.

Soil: Moist, humus-rich, well-drained

Pronounced ha-KON-eh-klo-ah MAK-rah, this perennial is more commonly known as Japanese Forest Grass. Though preferring moist conditions, it is highly adaptable to drier conditions. If you live in the north you may want to give it a little more sun exposure to bring out and maintain the signature golden color. That golden hue changes to pink and shades of red in the fall, adding color when other garden plants are fading to brown. Growing in clumps, this variegated grass develops a graceful, waterfall-type habit that is even more beautiful when breezes blow.

2010 Australis Baptisia Plant

Hardiness: Zones 3-9

Light: Full sun best

Soil: well-drained

The False Indigo or Wild Blue Indigo ‘Australis’ Baptisia’s newly emerging shoots produce violet-blue, lupine-like flowers in erect 10- to 12-inch racemes atop flower stems extending well above the foliage mound of clover-like, trifoliate, bluish-green leaves. The spring flowers are present for three to four weeks. The flowers give way to inflated seedpods which turn charcoal black when ripe and which flower arrangers consider to be ornamental. This perennial is happy in just about any type soil and climate, and once established, it is drought resistant and moisture tolerant. Blue false indigo grows three to four feet tall and three to four feet wide in an upright habit. This exceptional perennial is one of the most adaptable native species.

So there you have it: twelve great perennials, the best of the best.

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