Recently I published a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket. Continue reading →
Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, North Carolina, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week on why your trees may be failing. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil. Continue reading →
Hemerocallis fulva, commonly known as Tiger Daylily
Parents know that when children aren’t getting along it usually helps to divide them. The same goes for many perennials that refuse to make room for other plants in the garden. Daylilies are one of the biggest offenders; quickly crowding out other, more tender species, with their big, drooping foliage. But don’t despair. Follow the simple steps listed below and you’ll have things back under control in no time. Continue reading →
One of the perks of being a master gardener is all the great lectures you get to attend. Today’s talk following the board meeting was no exception. It happened to coincide with the very moment I was asking myself “What’s going on with my lavender?” Here was professional grower Sophia Watkins, ready to answer all of my questions.
A family-run lavender farm named Soleado
Watkins runs a family-owned, sustainable lavender farm located at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in Montgomery County, Maryland. It is the largest lavender farm in the state. She grew up on the 286-acre farm, 26 acres of which are now dedicated solely to the cultivation of lavender.
Soleado Lavender Farm
The family prides itself on its long history of organic farming, a practice Watkins’ father adopted in the 1960s when the farm grew a mix of soybeans and grains. For a child, it was a fantastic way to grow up. So when Watkins and her fiancé took over the farm, they knew that they wanted to continue that legacy.
“Our goal was about preservation even more than about gardening,” she said. “We wanted to protect these special parts of Maryland and keep them alive for not only our own child but for everybody else’s children as well.”
Why choose lavender? The couple was looking to grow a sustainable perennial that deer wouldn’t eat and from which they could make products for sale. They hit on lavender not only for its drought tolerant qualities, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. Along the way they added bees for pollination and today the farm boasts nine hives with over 40,000 bees in each, all producing lavender honey.
In a nod to Watkins’ fiancé’s Latin American roots, they chose Soleado as the name for their farm. As it so happens, in their first year of operation, they also found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘just baking in the sun’ suddenly took on a new shade of meaning.
Tips for how to successfully propagate lavender
At Soleado, all of the lavender is grown from cuttings, a practice most nurseries have moved to given the lower germination rate of seeds. Watkins harvests soft and hardwood cuttings averaging around 5 inches. Once she has the cuttings, she strips them of their leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Her top choice for an organic one is (not surprisingly) honey.
Watkins has had the most luck with her seedlings using a ‘bulky’ growing medium that provides maximum space for roots to expand. She mixes her own from Leafgro and perlite, then she plants the cuttings in 2” plastic pots.
Once potted, the cuttings spend up to 8 weeks in partial shade or in the greenhouse (under shade cloths) until they grow decent roots. After that, they’re transplanted to the field. Watkins noted that if the seedlings are planted outside first, the process is usually faster.
According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years for a good-sized plant to establish, after which it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can last a good deal longer, with 10 to 20 years not being unheard of. And some historical properties have plants that are as much as 80 years old.
A great combo, hydrangea and lavender
Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. No variety can tolerate shade and still produce flowers. Once the flowers are harvested, Watkins sprays the plants’ roots with fish emulsion for fertilizer. “We need to fortify them after they’ve put all that energy into blooming, “ she said.
Cut, cut and then cut again
There is so much conflicting information about when and how to cut back lavender. Watkins freely admits that her method might not suit everyone. But for Soleado, 2 to 4 times a year is ideal. They sheer their lavender like sheep, cutting back all new growth 3 to 4 times a year until the plants flower. The cutting back starts almost as soon as the seedlings are planted.
Cutting back encourages new growth
Since lavender has a tendency to open up in the middle, cutting back helps to encourage dense growth. This improves the overall looks of the plant and helps it get through the winter. It also allows more energy to go into developing strong roots, producing a thicker, healthier plant.
At Soleado, they cut back nothing thicker than a pencil, avoiding old wood. Watkins does NOT recommend cutting back old woody stems. If you absolutely must, she said to trim them back just to where the first bunch of leaves start on the bush.
They stop all cutting by the end of October.
Avoid shredded mulch
Along with lots of sun, lavender prefers to stay dry and ironically, once of its biggest threats to survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Often harboring mold spores, this kind of mulch can spell death for lavender.
“What seems to really kill them is the mold spores that come in on shredded mulch,” said Watkins. “Given the amount of humidity we have (in Maryland), it’s really important to stick with a dry medium.”
If you’re using shredded mulch in the rest of your garden, Watkins advises keeping it at least 1 – 2 feet away from your lavender. At Soleado, they use crushed bluestone for mulch that they harvest from their driveway. Other great options include white gravel and seashells, both of which help to reflect light back onto the plant.
White gravel mulch
Many of us have had the experience of losing our lavender plants over the winter. However, Watkins said, “Getting your plants through the winter does not have to do with size or age, even little seedlings can make it through the winter. A temperature of anything above 0 degrees Fahrenheit is OK.”
So what can we do to prepare for the colder months? The most important thing, according to Watkins, is to keep plants trimmed and thick. The thickness (or thatchiness) is what keeps the snow and ice out of the plants. (Although snow doesn’t seem to be as bad for lavender as ice.)
It’s a matter of creating a plants that have a good smooth cut on them so they become their own insulation.
No significant pests or diseases
Not only are its water needs low, but lavender is resistant to most pests and diseases. Watkins says occasionally she’ll observe spittlebugs on her plants, but that’s about all. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores (mentioned above.) The best thing you can do for mold is to practice prevention.
Another great plus to lavender is that deer hate them, although Watkins observed that “Sometimes they’ll pull the seedlings out of the ground, ‘Just because.”’
Soleado Farms grows a mix of English, French and Spanish varieties of lavender. They’re always experimenting with new strains and have found that within each variety each year there are clear standouts. These days, Watkins is loving the “rabbit ear petals” on the flower tops of Spanish lavender.
It’s that time of year again when we all head out to purchase summer flowers to plant in pots. And they all start out looking gorgeous. But, in no time the blooms fade and the stems turn long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that this is one of the most frequent questions I am asked: What can I do to keep my potted plants in shape all summer? Continue reading →
Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start coming up mid-winter during a warm spell. As weather becomes more erratic, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants have seen it all before. And they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.
The underground world of bulbs
To understand why spring bulbs can tolerate a little early growth, it helps to take a peek underground.
Just like a seed, a single bulb contains the entire life cycle of a plant. This includes roots, food storage “leaves” and a flowering shoot. As soon as you plant it in the fall, a spring bulb starts growing.
The action begins in the bottom part of the bulb called the basal stem. During the winter months, roots begin emerging from the stem to penetrate the surrounding soil. As they grow, they absorb water and other nutrients, which they store in the fleshy leaves of the bulb called scales.
In some flower species like alliums, a thin papery covering called the tunic protects the bulb’s scales from damage and drying out.
Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out
In addition to food storage, the scales provide protection to the flowering shoot, which contains all of the above-ground parts of the plant, including stems, leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the shoot slowly grows upwards within the bulb underground.
Finally in the spring, the bulb’s biological clock tells its leaves to break through the soil, where they begin converting sunlight into chemical energy the plant uses to grow. Approximately one month later, the flowering stems begin to emerge.
At this stage in the process, the key thing to remember is this: Leaf development occurs independently of flower development.
The leaves might jump the gun, but flowering shoots need an extended period of time (between 5 and 7 weeks) before they begin sending their stems up towards the surface. Before that happens, the bulb has most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.
Strategies for protecting early growth
If you see foliage poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause leaves to yellow and die back, but the bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once temperatures warm up again.
There are a few strategies, however, that you can implement now to slow things down while adding an extra layer of protection to the flower shoot.
1. COVER YOUR PLANT
Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will provide insulation against frigid temperatures and drying winter winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.
Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.
2. WATER DURING DRY SPELLS
Although they’ll rot with too much water, if there’s been a dry period for a long period of time, a little extra water during the day helps bulbs grow. Make sure your soil has good drainage, though.
3. IF FLOWERS START TO APPEAR
If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually won’t affect flowering in the coming months.
4. PLANT BULBS LATE IN THE FALL
The later in the fall you plant, the longer the bulb will take to sprout come spring. Wait until the temperature is cold enough (40°F or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs. This will ensure they are fully dormant. I plant my many different daffodil varieties as late as mid December here in Maryland.
Finally, make sure to plant your bulbs at three times their height in depth with the base down and the bud up. Planting bulbs too shallow can lead to premature growth.
For a list of ten popular spring bulbs and when and how to plant them, click here.
‘Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.’ – Alfred Austin
My first adventure with gardening of sorts involved a decrepit white begonia in a cast iron pot belonging to my mother. Frail and anemic and sporting only one bloom, it languished, (but never died!) in its water logged container. I decided to give it a haircut to see what would happen.
I was very young and my first trim was severe. My mom and I waited anxiously for the plant to recover. But over time it did, and as I began experimenting more and more with the forlorn little specimen, I eventually discovered that by careful pruning I could coax the plant into acquiring a more uniform shape.
I also found that by playing with the plant’s watering schedule, the begonia gradually lost its yellow-green color and developed deep green healthy stems. Finally one day, I was rewarded with a few tentative white blooms.
Gardening has taught me a lot over the years. I’ve learned to anticipate the needs of my plants and to sense when they’re thirsty or feeling poorly. I don’t love weeding, but I know that it is an essential chore to help my plants thrive. I’ve become sensitive to the slightest shift in the sound of the wind rustling through leaves, the particular calls of my neighborhood birds and the stillness that envelops the garden with the approach of a storm.
These things and more, await even the most amateur of gardeners (and we are all gardeners.)
So as a new year begins, I ’d like to share a few things I’ve learned from a life taking care of plants in the garden. These are not resolutions so much as ways of looking at things. (You don’t need to be a gardener to ‘get’ them.) Here goes:
No matter how long the winter, spring always arrives.
Following the particularly rocky year we’ve all experienced in America and abroad, this comes as a reminder that things never stay the same and that life can spring forth from even the darkest of times.
Perennials may look like they’ve died, but they’re only resting beneath the surface.
And not only are they resting, they are gathering strength for the coming spring.
A little TLC can make almost anything look good.
This goes beyond a good haircut. All living things respond well to a little personal attention. And practicing tender love and care benefits the giver, too.
It’s important to periodically clear the weeds.
When weeds become invasive they can have a devastating effect on life’s quality. Taking the time to remove them benefits everyone.
Nursing a sick plant back to health produces a really good feeling.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of bringing a sick plant back to health and being rewarded with new foliage and blooms.
Life springs eternal
Ok, so maybe this sounds a little corny, but all gardeners know that new life is always waiting just below the surface. May 2017 be the year that we all strive to tend our own gardens by pulling the weeds, extending a hand to those who need it and appreciating those cycles of life that are so essential to our well being. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.