Leafing Out

Photo of seedlings in flats

Flats of my strong seedlings this year…a mixed blessing. After advising that in zone 6b we should start seeds around February 25, I couldn’t wait and started mine two weeks earlier. And I was growing some things I hadn’t tried before, so I had no database for decisions. The dahlias I thought would be pot-sized are a couple of feet tall already, upending my plans. I’ll have to expand the dahlia bed and buy other things for pots. 

Celosia are too sensitive for a long sojourn, and should be started late so they don’t live in pots for months…maybe I’ll learn this time! (I’ve brought a couple indoors to my plant shelves so their roots can warm up.) The tomatoes and cosmos, as you can see, are good and healthy in confinement, but more than ready to be in the ground. I have upwards of twenty flats altogether, a big job to carry in and out of the garage…

And nothing to do but wait. A weather phenomenon called an Omega Block is keeping Ohio in winter, and we won’t get real May temps until the end of this week.

Photo of frog designed bird waterer and bog pots

Last post I discussed how helpful it is to the roots of plants to have a rock over them. A pot works in the same way. You can see that the mini-hosta (Munchkin Fire) under the edge of the bog bowl is bigger and hardier than the other two. The bog bowl holds pitcher plants, and the red pot has a Venus Flytrap. [Plant Delights is a great place for variety in bog plants, with trustworthy sourcing.]

Photo of small tub pond and surrounding plants

I added this tub pond at the rear of my yard. I tried a couple of times to get it leveled, and it went off each time, due to settling of the planter’s fill. But I think the uneven water line is a good thing, in fact. If an animal gets in, it has a way of reaching the edge and climbing out. Once the leaves grow over the tub, it will look fine. The plants are purple-leaved heliopsis (Burning Hearts), two types of carex, chartreuse-leaved hyssop, Blue Victory salvia, silver sage, calamint, and coreopsis. These should all be deer resistant, so I won’t need to spray much close to the pond. Inside, you can see a couple of the new blocks that stores like Lowe’s are selling for constructing raised beds. I thought they’d make great supports in ponds for water-plant baskets, as the niches can shelter tadpoles.

Photo of a hugel bed with logs showing, mulch, and plants

My hugel bed, maturing nicely. The logs are slowly being buried by soil activity, and their tops make an attractive feature. Last year’s plants have deepened their roots and are benefiting from the microclimate, that keeps them warmer than the outside temp. The new plants are two more pulmonarias, snapdragons, and woolly lamb’s ears. My yard has tons of fireflies in the summer, because these stick and log borders are perfect insect habitat. 

Photo of brunnera and bleeding heart mingling

Photo of yellow-leaved bleeding heart

One of my shade beds, with brunnera and bleeding heart mingling to a pretty effect. Below, the bright yellow bleeding heart that’s become a star of this area. I was looking for a plain one when I bought it, and didn’t want the yellow leaves. I’d thought of adding one in late spring, and that year the yellow was all I could find. As it turns out, it’s a perfect plant.

Photo of giant Empress Wu hosta

They say hostas don’t like to be moved. These Empress Wus did nothing their first year. The second year, because I’d got them as a BOGO and hadn’t really paid attention to what they were, I read up on them and learned their claim to fame is huge size. Then I knew the Wus needed a bigger space, and moved them by the chimney. But they aren’t sulking at all; they’re taking off and sporting footlong leaves. (The little fence is a deer-snout-bumper, which actually works pretty well in deterring them.)

Photo of bright coral heucheras and blue green hosta

Finally, some heuchera that I bought cheap at Walmart, with no variety name. Their first foliage is a velvety corally-copper, going great with the astilbe, the Solar Eclipse heucherella and the blue green hosta.

Pots In the Garden Late Winter

Photo of hellebore flower, pink with green stripes

This is a hellebore that seeded itself under the parent and was moved to another bed. Last year it bloomed for the first time in the middle of summer, and had whitish flowers. This year the flowers bloomed at the normal time, late February, and are this green-striped pink. All three hellebores I moved have larger flowers than the parent, and one other has some patterning on the flowers.

Photo of orange, red, and yellow garden pots
Photo of pale blue garden pots
Photo of bright blue and aqua garden pots

The above photos give a mini-tour of my paths, with pots as I’ve placed them so far. I love pots in the garden, and picking colors and sizes to combine. Pots also help with water retention and wind protection, so they aren’t just for prettiness. At this time of year, we can do structural work, adding mulch and gravel, and features like ponds and pots. And we have the fun of walking our garden and seeing what’s coming up. Later I’ll go around and level these; also, I’m holding off putting my ceramic and terra cotta ones outdoors until the frost danger is past.

Photo of Certified Wildlife Habitat sign and birdhouse

Here’s how I put up my NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat sign. I decided a post by itself wasn’t making the best use of space, so I bought three 2 x 4 treated boards, each four feet long. I offset them by about fifteen inches, then cut that length off the third board and attached it to the bottom to fill out the post. That left a recess for the birdhouse, one I bought from an Etsy seller. I filled the hole I dug with gravel to hold the post upright, then added Quikrete to cement it in place. 

Seed-Starting Overview (part three)


Proof, above, that deer will bite into daffodils. You can see the poor remains of a flower that was trying to come up. The deer in my yard, after that trial, have left my daffodils alone, and I have too many daffodils to use my expensive deer spray on.


More on seeds:

If you grow annuals in pots, early spring is the time to freshen the soil with compost. Or, if you dump the dirt from your pots into your flower beds to top them off, as I do, it’s the right time to buy new topsoil and fill pots again. I use bags labeled topsoil rather than potting mix, because topsoil, as the commercial suppliers make it, has a lot of wood chips, and none of the added fertilizers. I think it’s better not to overfeed your potted plants.

Most annuals can live outdoors in early May. A few, like dusty millers and bachelor’s buttons, have thick, hairy leaves, and can endure a frost, but this is no rule of thumb, as other hairy-leaved annuals, like tomatoes and sunflowers, can’t endure cold temps at all.

Be prepared to carry pots indoors or cover them—but in a typical year, late April is the frost-safe, as opposed to frost-free, time. Early May (6b) is when, historically, frost doesn’t occur.


Do home-gathered seeds germinate better than commercial ones?

I don’t notice a difference when starting seeds indoors. Gathered seeds, in my observation, germinate better than commercial seeds when sown directly outdoors. That’s probably because they were “born” with fungal or bacterial influences drawn from my locality, and so root happily in the home soil.

A six-pack of annuals, dotted here and there, is underwhelming, but a swath of marigolds, crowded in with cosmos, zinnia, tithonia, salvia, sunflower, etc., is a beautiful sight. Create swaths at the edges of beds and paths by scraping a hoe across the surface, loosening lawn grass and weeds (and discarding them!). Then sow seeds densely and tamp them in, so they don’t immediately attract birds. You can cover a sowing with straw, lightly applied. Mulch is too heavy, and will inhibit germination. 


Can you start a garden entirely by direct sowing?

The first consideration is timing. You would want to research which plants can grow to blooming size in your zone in the space of 120 days, most of the frost-free planting season. Rudbeckias, Gaillardias, Butterfly Weed, Heliopsis, are some perennials that have bloomed for me their first year from seed. Annuals give far more choices, but even zinnias and marigolds may not actually bloom until July (in 6b, + or – in 5b, 6a, and 7a), if sown directly. Another consideration is creatures. Ants are large consumers of seeds, and have the military organization to find them. Scratching birds may also discover a good portion of your seeds.

For vegetables, a lot of the good stuff is typically direct-sown, as corn, beans, peas, squash, potatoes, onions. (I mentioned last post the advantage of starting corn in pots, if you have squirrels.) Tomatoes, timing-wise, are on a thin margin, and won’t work well. Some skinny peppers may fruit; bells are unlikely to fatten up without starting under lights. 

The two points to consider, then, are: How soon do you want to see flowers (fruits)? How much of haphazard results are you willing to tolerate? You can save a ton of money with all-direct-sowing, and can try the experiment in just a portion of your garden. 



Seed-Starting Overview (part two)

Photo of oak trees in winter


A reasonable schedule in zone 6b might be to start perennials, herbs in the mint family (many of which are perennial), and anything the packet says takes longer than eight weeks to reach transplant size, in late February (Feb. 25th for me). Start annuals with six-to eight-week maturing periods in March (March 10 for me). Start quick (2-3 weeks) annuals and vegetables, that will only get leggy indoors, in early April (April 1st for me). Also, you can do succession sowing to get later swaths of zinnias, marigolds, salvias, snapdragons, etc., ready to flower in late summer, as late as the first week of May. The reason for sowing anything in flats that can be sown directly is to get size on the plant, and make it less vulnerable. Corn is a good example—a sprouted kernel to a squirrel is just a snack with leaves attached, that need biting off. If you grow your corn in pots until the kernel is used up, and the roots are strong, you may get a harvest for yourself.

Last year I got too eager to grow things, and started perennials in January. I was also trying to use a potting medium instead of peat pellets, and it messed up my germination rate. I don’t find it as easy to go peat-free as the TV garden shows imply. The peat pellets’ advantage is that they’re resistant to fungus, and the protection they offer lasts a long time, until the seedling has grown past the danger of wilting. Also, they can hold moisture without heaviness. Heavy damp stresses seeds for oxygen, and more humus-y mixes retain cold, both inhibiting factors to germination and survival. Last year, many of my seeds never germinated at all.

Another problem with keeping plants indoors too long is the artificial environment. Indoor air is stagnant, allowing a foothold to disease, fungus gnats, and mites; plants need air movement for transpiration, the release of moisture through the pores in their leaves, which encourages the root system to draw moisture from the medium. In fact, a fan running in your growing room, at low speed, is a good idea.

The time when your plants are large enough to go outdoors should coincide well with the change in weather, from winter cold to spring daytime temps in the 60s and 70s. Find a shaded space with wind protection, or create one. Perennials should be first out; once they can stand on their own in full sun, and especially with the benefit of a few rains, you can take them out of circulation—either plant them, or at least place their pots where you intend to plant them. A number of perennials, such as coneflower, salvia, achillea, rudbeckia, monarda, and foxglove, have hairy, rumply, or ferny leaves, a sign that they’re adapted to frost tolerance.

Frost, also, harms hardy plants less after the equinox (March 20, 2023)—when daytime length equals night. Nighttime temps in zone 6b are usually above freezing. The ground warms up, and the hours of frost needed to burn leaves and harm roots are not available. Observe which plants already in your garden are pushing up strong new growth; the same plants from this year’s starts will survive through frost, if you have them well hardened.


(to be continued)


Seed-Starting Overview (part One)

Photo of bright yellow coreopsis blooms


Photo of seed-starting shelves and lighting


January is a good time to get your setup going, if you want to try stocking your garden with seed-grown plants. For the next few posts, I’ll provide what experience has taught me.

Any four-shelf unit really gives you three, unless you have a way of rigging lights above the topmost shelf; but this shelf makes a place to store your gear—spray bottles, pots, labels, etc. The ones I use are sold under the Amazon Basics brand, listed this year at 64.96, not including sales tax. They consist of wire shelves, hollow posts that screw together, and plastic fasteners that hold the shelves in place. They are not very trying to assemble, and also pretty attractive for use at other times as household furniture.

What you’ll want, if starting 500+ seeds (which sounds like a lot, but for any largish garden, is barely enough) is at least three sets of shelves. Each shelf can hold two flats, oriented short end to short end, for maximum exposure to light. When seedlings are large enough to be potted on (as in photo above), fewer will fit in a flat, and the shelves need spacing higher—the reason you need three units, instead of two.

For lights, daylight (blue-toned) LEDs work fine; I have not found any deficit in the light they provide to seedlings. The best choice is the shoplight type (at various stores, around $50 for a set of two), with two tubes per unit, and a four-foot length—and you’ll be happier if you buy lights that connect to one another, so that you have one cord per six lights in your surge protector, instead of a big tangle of cords. You can add up the wattage to be extra careful, but even three shelving units with eighteen lights altogether should fall well short of the load-capacity on a modern household plug.

Eighteen shoplights are a strong investment, true, but once you’ve purchased your seed-starting equipment, the cost-per-year over the lifetime of the equipment is reasonable, and even cheap. If you compare the cost of this same arrangement as sold by garden suppliers (as much as $300 for a two-shelf unit, or $1200 for four shelves), you’ll appreciate that a $700 (approx.) investment for three four-shelf units with lighting is a good bargain.

Any room with a door you can close against curious pets works as a growing room. I use a spare bedroom, and protect the carpet with drop cloths. Even LED bulbs will add heat to the room. I find I can’t use more than the three sets of shelf/light combos without the temp approaching the 80s (F), which is too stuffy for most outdoor plants, especially perennials. I move surplus maturing plants down to the garage. At this stage they’re fine, if not happier, in a cooler space, but if your seed-starting racks can only be in an unheated garage or porch, you’ll need heat mats.

The window of time for seedlings, from dropping the seed into the medium, to hardening off well-grown seedlings outdoors, should be about two months. This formula is usually calculated backwards from your local frost-free date, so that a May 5th date carries you to March 5th. But most perennials take longer than annuals to geminate; at the same time, the majority of perennials hardy in your zone can go in the garden earlier than the frost-free date, once hardened off (exposed to outdoor sunlight and wind until the leaves and roots toughen up). Exceptions are hibiscus and butterfly weed, both of which emerge from the ground after frost, and would be harmed if planted earlier.


(to be continued)


Late December Odds and Ends

Photo of yellow and blue birdhouses


As we come into the new year, it’s the right time to put out birdhouses. You can buy unfinished ones and paint them as you like, a fun project for the nongardening season. Birds are more likely to nest if they get accustomed to seeing them well in advance of spring. I noticed woodpeckers always make holes on the west-facing side of my front yard maple. I assume that’s because afternoon sun warms the nest for nighttime, while the morning sun’s warmth would dissipate long before it was really needed. My garage wall faces the same way, so with luck my houses are in just the right place



Photo of pretty hen and chick plant


I didn’t know I had a “hen” as pretty as the red and gold one, and also a little cobweb style. They were part of a variety pack I bought last summer. In early winter, despite bomb cyclones, we should rake off our bearded iris, our peonies, and our hardy succulents, like hens and chicks, also groundcovers. A light topping of dry leaves is good, but a heavy weight of soggy leaves will harm them, especially the iris.



Photo of aloe flower


My aloe decided to bloom once it came indoors for the winter. No hummingbirds to pollinate it available! My Strobilanthes are blooming, too, with their pretty, penstemon-like lavender flowers. I recommend bringing them in, because they have a better chance of wintering over than you may think, and the indoor temps seem to trigger a bloom that’s definitely worth seeing. I’m trying to carry my rex begonias through winter, by keeping them in the garage, where it doesn’t get too dry. I think they die indoors because central heat doesn’t suit them.



Photo of limb from tree stuck in ground


I took my cat Ed out for his walk, and something odd caught the corner of my eye. This “fencepost” fell from one of the oaks, and planted itself perfectly upright.


Pots and Seedheads


A collection of nursery pots I painted (using outdoor-rated paints), that will be fun to cluster on the patio, along the paths, and here and there in the beds. The largest sizes I’ll use for vegetables. Next year, I plan to do tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, potatoes, kale, and gourds in pots, with stakes and deer netting. Every year I refine a little, though I haven’t got a good harvest yet. I have two-year-old strawberries that may produce, and Romanesco cauliflower that looks like it will keep growing into the winter.



The two photos above show our native aster in seed, and looking like snow. It’s a love/hate plant for me because it sprouts up in droves in all my flower beds, and has to be weeded out everywhere, but it’s wonderful for pollinators, and really beautiful, both blooming and finished. The grass in the lower photo is pennisetum, which makes fabulous seedheads in fall, but is also a little problematic. The seeds are like burs and stick to your clothes tenaciously, plus the leaves are super sharp. With gloves and scissors, pennisetum sprouts have to be taken out of flower beds all the time.

Below, tiny leeks coming up, where I scattered seeds from one I grew last year. They can grow a little throughout winter and be good for harvest in June or July next year.


Around the Garden (Late Summer)

Green cicada

Here’s a beautiful cicada. I can’t quite tell what species, from the available information online. (Not to brag, but my photo is better than any of the others I’ve found, so I can’t easily judge if the Green-winged cicada, or the Swamp cicada, etc., has the same characteristics as this newly hatched celadon-winged creature.) He or she popped out on my bean pole, which accounts for the purple in the upper left corner–it’s paint. 

Photo of late summer flowers


A terrific black-eyed susan, that seeded itself in my yard from the neighbor’s, so I don’t know what variety. I collect these out of the grass, and plant them in the beds, and they produce dozens of two-inch flowers, instead of the fewer larger flowers of Goldsturm Rudbeckia, probably the commonest one you can find at garden centers.


Photo of red and orange flowers

Some of my best container displays at this time of year. The black-leaved colocasia has come into its own in the pitcher plant tub, after I wintered it over indoors. The other standouts are orange zinnias and red lantana.

Photo of walk up to patio

The path going up to the patio. I have lots of insulators, so I decided to just start sticking them outdoors for decoration.

Photo of portulaca in hanging basket

This orange portulaca has done well, cheerful and thriving, in a pair of hanging baskets I have near my apple trees. I bought the baskets on clearance, not wanting the plants, just the container (something for deer to bump their heads on). The baskets had petunias to begin with, that I didn’t expect to keep going, so I picked up the portulaca–and I’m impressed.

Photo of perennial eupatorium

Here’s a plant I love in my garden, and don’t see much of in catalogs. It looks like ageratum, but it’s a perennial eupatorium. It gives your garden blue hues in the late summer, and comes back every year. It’s a colonizing plant, but well-behaved. I’ve dug up sections of the original group many times, and added them to other beds. It does not appear to spread by seed, but by roots. Very popular with pollinators. 

Photo of perennials collected from garden

Finally, free additions to the beds I’m expanding. I have tons of foxgloves to harvest, and always lots of coneflower. Some white coneflowers have turned up in my front border, so I may get some variety from the seedlings. I’ve found three good columbines, and a few daylilies where they weren’t needed. The hollyhocks, I started from this year’s seed about six weeks ago, and now I have five good-sized plants and one straggler, that can carry on maturing.

Shady Places and Nice Surprises


Above, two shots of a pair of monarch caterpillars, eating one of my butterfly weeds.

I have a type that came on the wind, that I think is swamp milkweed. I’ve written about how it grows into a hedge along the garage in summer, and dies back in winter, and how popular it is with pollinators. The milkweed has been losing ground, though, for the past two years. I don’t know if a stand of goldenrod that’s taking over is killing it off, or if the hornbeam tree, rooting outwards, is the cause. Most of the milkweeds are stunted and yellowing. I’ve never seen a monarch among them.

Meanwhile, I always plant butterfly weed, and grow new ones from seed I collect. I came across these caterpillars one morning, and the next day, a single one was left. After that, they were both gone. But I don’t think they’ve been harmed. They are pretty toxic when grown to this size. I think they were both at the point of making their chrysalis, and dropped off into the shadier foliage to attach themselves. 


Front and center is a bargain I found, on a front door display at our local Menard’s. These pots and their contents were priced at five dollars each. (I should have got more.) I thought the decorative pot was enough of a bargain for that price, and I chose one with fairly healthy plants—while they were all on sale for being tired and dried up.

Petunias and geraniums are rated for full sun. But if I’d brought home a tired group of plants and put them out in the sun, they would die. My pot has revived into a great display because I have it in shade. That’s a good tip when you get the cheapest, last ditch plants, and want to save them for the fun of trying. If you place them in shade, regardless of what they are, they may perk up fine in a few weeks. 


The edge of my driveway border. I’ve been expanding it out this year with shrubs. This area is under a maple and looks like heavy shade, but the corner gets sun in the mornings, and parts of the border get sun all day. Another factor is the right angle of the driveway and street that frame this area. The pavements reflect light, so nothing is severely shaded. I put in a pair of spirea, and as you can see, top right and bottom center, they’re adding lots of new growth. That’s what I want them to do, reach towards each other, and fill in the space. I’m going to add two Encore azaleas, and a bird’s nest blue spruce. My goal is to plant over my steep little bank, so I don’t have to mow there. I’m also planning to move those iris, that have never bloomed, and are so thickety they block other perennials.

Thanks to shade, and the microclimate effect of the stick fence, seen in the background, I have pansies still blooming in late July. And they’re in the same bed as a dahlia that wintered over from last year. 

Finally, my other surprise. After our late freeze this year, my pawpaw sapling never leafed out. Once it got to be July, I gave up on it, figuring it was dead. But a rabbit came along and bit off the stem (at least the 45 degree cut implies a rabbit). Afterwards, new growth shot up, all you can see above in just a couple of weeks. The multi-stems mean the pawpaw will be more a shrub than a tree, and in the lower right corner, you can see an extra sprout well away from the base of the original tree, beginning a grove. 

My guess is that the stem had some tissue still sending signals to the roots that it was alive, and only when the rabbit severed that, did the tree decide it needed to grow back from the base. But if you have a seemingly winter-killed shrub or tree, you might try cutting off the dead top.