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Archive for February 2011

pH and NPK Values Explained

February 23rd, 2011

Gardening is NOT rocket science, but it is also not something that happens naturally for everyone. Yes, some people have a green thumb, but some of those same people jealously hoard the information that makes them so successful, often just so they can have the best yard or garden on the block! Don't be mad at them because they can do what you think you cannot! Get even instead and read up on how to make your garden grow! It only takes a little bit of knowledge and a few invaluable tools, such as one of our inexpensive home soil testing kits, to make your dream of having the most beautiful garden spot a reality. You are welcome to hoard this information if you so choose, though we think the neighborly thing to do is to share our site with everyone you know.

The first understanding you should have is just exactly what pH is and what it means. Most of you probably don't know that ‘pH' actually means ‘potential (or power) of Hyrdrogen'. (That's okay, I didn't know either!) Simply stated, it is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a material when it is dissolved in water. The material we'll be talking about is your soil. A pH value of 7 is considered neutral, while values less than (<) 7 are considered acidic and values greater than (>) 7 are considered basic, or alkaline. Most plants are able to withstand a wide range of pH levels, but if you are gardening organically, then the ideal pH level will be 6.5. Our article, Soil Testing 101, will give you a much more detailed understanding of pH, the importance of testing your soil and how to adjust the pH of your soil. An inexpensive, easy-to-use soil tester will give you the current pH and allow you to monitor the pH of your soil regularly, as the amount of rain and other environmental factors can change the pH.  

The second most important measurement to know is actually more than one, though it is sometimes expressed as the NPK value. N=Nitrogen, P=Phosphorous and K=Potassium (Potash). These three nutrients are the most important to understand and provide for the vitality and performance of your garden plants. These are also the three numbers that you will see prominently displayed on any bag of fertilizer and are an indication of the percentage of that nutrient in relation to the amount of the fertilizer in the bag or container. These values are uniformly listed in N-P-K order. Also keep in mind, that one is no good without the other nutrients to support your plants' growth. As in all of life, balance is important!

Nitrogen is the first major element that will cause your plants to grow strong and to mature quickly. Nitrogen depletion may first appear as discoloration of older leaves but then can advance in detriment, eventually causing the death of your plants. A nitrogen rich environment will produce healthy, green foliage and is directly responsible for the overall size and vigor of your plants, while a nitrogen depleted environment will result in stunted, yellow growth with even the new growth being weak and spindly. Needless to say, your plants cannot survive and produce well without it! A simple soil tester can quickly and accurately tell you how much nitrogen your soil has. If your nitrogen levels are fine, then you don't have to add itthat saves you money and time!

Phosphorous is the second essential nutrient that you will want to measure. Phosphorous is absolutely necessary for photosynthesis and enables the transfer of energy throughout the plant. The highest levels of phosphorous will be used when seeds are germinating, while the seedling is growing and while flowering is occurring. Phosphorous is also essential to boost your plants' resistance to disease and in order to grow strong, healthy root systems. An electronic soil tester can most quickly determine the levels of phosphorous in your soil, though some gardeners prefer to use a complete, hands-on home soil test kit. A phosphorous deficiency may show in mature leaves on a uniformly smaller, stunted plant; they may turn dark green. Though green is normally good, when the plant appears to be stunted and is ‘unnaturally' green, you may want to pull out your handy-dandy soil test kit and check the levels of phosphorous. Some foliage will also display purple or brown spots.

Potassium, or the K in NPK, prevents excessive water loss during dry periods, helps your plants to withstand cold temperatures and additionally aides their resistance to disease. Potassium, also called Potash, helps your plants to make the optimal use of light and air by increasing chlorophyll and regulating stomata (pores) openings which are used for gas exchange in plants, kind of like a human's respiratory system. If deficient, plants may grow the tallest and appear otherwise healthy, but older leaves will turn yellow between the veins followed by whole leaves turning dark, yucky yellow and dying off. You may also have a potassium deficiency if flowers drop before the fruit starts to develop, as this is when potassium levels are most important. High soil salinity can also block potassium. 

So, now you knowat least about pH and NPK. In addition to knowledge of these fundamentals, you of course need water and sunlight. Most vegetable garden plants will require plenty of sun and consistent moisture, while decorative annuals, perennials, grasses, shrubs and vines will have varied requirements. Amazingly, there are affordable moisture and light testers as well, all designed for the home gardener to enable you to grow your gardens just like the professionals (or your neighbors) do!

Striking Color Beyond Description

February 22nd, 2011

Physocarpus is a shrub commonly referred to as Ninebark.  It's a perennial plant that grows in most regions of the United States.  It blooms in the late spring to early summer and is a popular plant for sunny locations, with its bright red hues.  But this isn't about the well-known varieties of Physocarpus: 

There is a new kid on the block.  Coppertina Physocarpus, or Copper Ninebark, is the most dramatic plant you'll ever see.  It's got coppery red leaves that deepen in the fall to shades of crimson that will have your neighbors and guests doing a double-take. 

This full-sun shrub will attract songbirds, butterflies and hummers with its delicate white to light pink flowers offset by its deep, fiery orange-red foliage.

Coppertina Physocarpus will grow up to 4 feet wide by 6 feet tall, so plant it where it has space to spread out, or plan to prune in the spring to maintain desired size.  It requires average moisture and is adaptable to most soil types.  This is a suitable shrub for xeriscaping.

This large, full-foliaged shrub will be the envy of anyone who sees it in its spectacular summer and fall colors. Plant Coppertina Physocarpus alone for a focal point in your front yard, or use as a backdrop to highlight smaller contrasting foliage or blooming plants with dark green or purple hues, or even bright white, yellow or orange flowers. Plant it in rows to make a gorgeous and unique property border. 

This versatile shrub can be shaped into a light and airy or compact and dense habit, or it can be pruned into a top-heavy tree form.  It can also be grown in a container as a solo plant or as the tall center feature with smaller plants around the outside.

This new Physocarpus Coppertina variety is a Proven Winners® Color Choice® selection for good reason:  it's dramatic, it's versatile, it's low maintenance, and it's affordable. If you've been considering adding some vibrant red color to your landscape, this is one sure way to brighten and modernize your design.

Coppertina Physocarpus is a deciduous shrub, meaning that it drops its leaves in the late fall.  It's drought resistant and hardy, although it will need consistent moisture until it's established. It grows in Zones 3-8 and in acid or alkaline soil. It's really the ideal plant for tough, full-sun spots in your landscape, when you want something eye-catching that doesn't require pampering.

The vivid coppery colors in these leaves will add striking beauty to your yard or garden, and the flowers can be clipped to bring indoors for cut-flower vase arrangements. Just make sure not to trim the plant late in the season, as that's when it sets its next season's blooms. If you haven't seen Coppertina before, be prepared, because you're going to want one!

Californian Grown

February 21st, 2011

1.  This is the Vancouver Centennial Geranium I received from you on 10/29.   As you can see, from the itty-bitty start you sent to me–it has done quite well here in California on my deck railing!

2.  This is in the yard of my own home (not where I am now)…showing a ground Amaryllis and a special brocade geranium that my son’s gardening helper pulled out of the ground last fall, thinking it was totally dead. I could have KILLED him…for I’ve never seen another one like it anywhere!  If YOU see one…HOLLER!!!


3.  This is the front entry to my house, showing lush growth all around it.  On the right is what they commonly call “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”–beautiful three-colored blooms, dark purple first, fades to blue the second day, and white on the third day.  There are a lot of ferns, lilies and celestial orchids in the ground, with an open lattice cover for the perfect partial sun/shade most of the day.

4. And here’s a shot of my wee Nina when she was a little over 2 years old and still had quite a bit of black on her mug. We were battling sarcoptic mange on the edges of her ears, and a mite infection. Got over all of that and never had any more problems. But, today–she has hardly any black mug left. Ah me.

As my plants develop, I will send you shots of them if you’d like. Can’t wait to get my next shipment.


It Might Sound Corny, But It Isn't

February 14th, 2011

Sweet Corn is not only a genuine bit of Americana, but it's a near-necessity on summer picnic tables.  Ears of corn on the cob are a fresh garden produce treat. It's a staple in the diets of most Central and South American countries, and some make their best desserts out of sweet corn! The trick is knowing when to pick it.

Sweet Corn Plants are ready for picking about 20 days past when the silks emerge.  Watch for the ears to be plump and filled out, and the tassel ends should feel rounded, as opposed to pointy.  The silks should have begun to darken and wilt.  That's the sign the ears have finished developing.

It's also possible to tell if the corn is ready for harvest by pulling back gently on the husk to reveal a few kernels. Pop one with your fingernail.  If the liquid inside is clear and watery, the sugars haven't developed fully on the ear.  If the liquid is opaque and milky, it's a sure sign you've got a delicious dinner side dish about to happen.

Try not to remove the husk to expose the kernels unless you're pretty certain the corn is ready for harvest.  If it needs to remain on the stalk longer to reach maturity, the exposed end will be more vulnerable to rotting and infestation by insects and vermin.

Corn maintains its sweetness best if eaten immediately after being picked, but it can also store well in the refrigerator for a week or more.  Keep the husks on, to maintain moistness and to protect the delicate kernels.  Popcorn and corn meal store for up to a year, but the drying and preserving/preparation processes differ from sweet corn.

After determining an ear of sweet corn is ready to be picked, simply grab the ear and snap it downward off of the stalk.  If it's resistant, just give it a slight twist, watch our sweet corn video.  Store the fresh-picked ears out of sunlight and heat, to stop the maturation process, which is when the sugars inside the kernels turn to starch.

Preparing sweet corn is one of summer's greatest joys.  After removing the husks and the fine silks that run the lengths of the rows, rinse the corn in fresh cool water.  Whole ears can be boiled, steamed, roasted or grilled.  Or, corn can be cut off of the cob and steamed, stir-fried, or added into casseroles or baked goods.

Corn can be frozen on the cob or cut off of the cob.  Blanch it before freezing.  It can be canned by traditional methods, or by pickling into corn relishes.  It can also be made into creamed corn or corn chowder, and then canned or frozen.  Just remember to prepare or preserve corn immediately after picking, for the sweetest end results.

Flower Bed Color Scheme Question

February 4th, 2011

I’ll be ordering for a new black, white, and lime-green bed I’m planning (and super excited about it!) I’d love to hear your advice (if you’ve got the time) on plants you’d recommend for that color scheme, in my Zone 7, mostly sunny garden. Thanks again. Donna

Answer: Lime green and black plants are quickly becoming the most sought-after colors in the horticulture world. Hybridizers and growers are working diligently to create these relatively new flavors. The majority of these two colors are going to be found in foliage and not in blooms…especially the black, which is not really black but very dark versions of purples and reds. So for your garden design, you might consider using the lime green and black foliage as a background for white flowers, for which there are abundant choices.

For foliage, the sweet potato vine ‘Marguerite’, several Heucheras like ‘Pistache’, ‘Electric Lime’ and ‘Citronelle’ are good choices, and their cousin Heucherella ‘Yellowstone Falls’.  Sedum ‘Angelina’Centaurea ‘Gold Bullion’Euphorbia ‘Polychroma’ all have bright green leaves. For a more shady area look for hostas with bright green leaves.  In annuals you might try, Alternanthera ‘True Yellow’Plectranthus ‘Troy's Gold' and Tickseed ‘Cherry Lemonade’.

Don’t forget that a number of Coleus offer both lime green leaves as well as some that would be close to black. You can also look to the many tropicals for these colors as well, colocasias which come in both chartreuse and black and a new blend of both; Hibiscus ‘Athens Select Panama Red‘.

Black will be the hardest to find in flowers. The only ones that comes to mind are Hollyhocks ‘Chater’s Maroon’ or the stunning Black Velvet Petunia. In shrubs Buddleia ‘Black Knight’, Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ and some of the Weigelas offer black or very dark foliage choices. Other dark foliage perennials are Actaea ‘Black Negligee‘; Heucheras ‘Amethyst Myst’, ‘Obsidian’, or ‘Stormy Seas’; and ‘Chocolate’ Eupatorium. In annuals check out: ‘Black Varnish’ PseuderanthemumPennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’; and the Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato vine, also has several offerings that are near black.

There are way too many choices for white blooms to cover and new ones are being introduced every year. However, one perennial that offers both dark foliage and abundant white blooms is the Chocalate Eupatorium. Check our website for the wide selection of perennials  and annuals that best fit the sunlight and soil needs of your area.

Have fun designing your themed garden.

Master Gardener

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