Archive for the ‘Yard Talk’ Category

Viburnums in the Landscape

Icon Written by Geoff on August 1, 2008 – 10:18 am

Without a doubt our overall favorite shrub is the viburnum. This versatile genus of shrubs can be used anywhere in the garden. We know this is a very bold statement to make but it is true! Besides having attractive foliage and growth habits, they offer bright colorful very fragrant flowers. Many boast of colorful fruits and stunning fall foliage. In addition, the fruits are appealing to birds and other wildlife. Whenever we need a shrub for a problem area we turn to the viburnum.

The viburnums are one of the most versatile group of shrubs for use by the urban gardener, particularly for those with little time to spare. One of the best features of the viburnums, in fact, is that they require little, if any maintenance. Those that are native to North America are especially adaptable and forgiving if neglected. Most viburnums will adapt to many soil and light conditions. They are also very drought tolerant and will grow in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 9.

Among their best characteristics are their varying growth habits, ranging in size from 2 to 30 feet. Most viburnums also have a full spreading habit, excellent for filling in bare spots. Viburnums can be used in many landscape situations. The smaller forms are excellent for planting close to buildings, and the larger forms provide good specimen and screen planting. Some viburnums are even evergreen or semi-evergreen in colder climates offering four season appeal.

Viburnum flowers range from creamy white to pink. The buds, often shaped like small nuts, are attractive as well. The flowers are borne in clusters, ranging from a rounded snowball shape to a flat lace form. The large, white snowball or semi-snowball clusters of florets are especially attractive when used as cut flowers. Most viburnums have very fragrant flowers which are especially suited for use along walks, and patios where their smell can be richly appreciated.

Most viburnums have very attractive Fall color from purplish red to brilliant autumn bronze. Their fruit is very showy, from mid-night blue to colorful scarlet red. Fruit will often persist through the Winter months, a god send for early migrating birds.

In addition to the aesthetic features, viburnums, are resistant to serious pests. Even deer seem to leave this alone. They require little pruning, although we do occasionally remove any dead wood. They will grow in either sun or shade, however, flowering and fruiting will be more profuse in a sunny situation. Use them in the background, foreground, or mix through the garden at will. We have never seen a bad looking viburnum. This shrub brings out the best in any location.

Tips: Viburnums

While it is very hard for us to select our favorite viburnum the following varieties have preformed well in our gardens:

  1. Viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Shasta’ is an elegant improved version of the standard Doublefile Viburnums, smaller and more floriferous. A nice deciduous shrub that has deep green leaves that displays a excellent fall color. Large white flowers followed by bright red berries. Great mid sized plant for groupings or background plantings.
  2. Viburnum cassinoides ‘Chesapeake’ was introduced in 1981 by Dr. Egolf and the US National Arboretum. The flowers are pink in bud, open white, with ever so slight fragrance. This shrub grows six feet high and eight feet wide. Leaves are semi-evergreen, lustrous dark green and wavy, with flat leaves.
  3. Viburnum trilobum ‘Onondaga’ is found in low moist places along forest edges throughout the northeastern United States. This versatile plant prefers moist, well drained soils but does fine in poorly drained and drier soils. This round topped, dense shrub, 6 to 12 feet high has clusters of lacy white flowers in the Spring.
  4. Viburnum dilatatum ‘Michael Dodge’ an exciting new find from Winterthur Gardens with large yellow berries enhanced by the red fall color of the foliage are a show-stopper. It has large leaves, dense growing habit to 5 to 6 inch and white flowers in late spring.
  5. Viburnum lantana ‘Mohican’ A USDA introduction carefully selected for its 6 to 8 feet compact growth habit, thick lustrous deep green foliage and the persistent fall display of its orange-red berries that retain their showy color for more than a month.
  6. Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ is another select specimen shrub introduced by Winterthur Gardens in Delaware. This outstanding Viburnum offers handsome, glossy-green foliage that transforms to deep reddish-purple hues in fall. Cymes of creamy-white flowers in late spring yield clusters of green. Maple-shaped leaves turn purplish red in fall.
  7. Viburnum prunifolium ‘Blachaw’ is easily grown in average, dry to medium wet, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Tolerates drought. Blackhaw is usually grown as a large, upright, multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub with an irregular crown, but it also may be grown as a small, single trunk tree. Flowers give way in autumn to blue-black, berry-like drupes which often persist into winter and are quite attractive to birds and wildlife.

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Koi Ponds

Icon Written by Geoff on July 1, 2008 – 10:31 am

Ever thought of having a Koi pond in your yard but did not know where to start or if you even should put one in your yard. We will try to answer those questions plus more in this months Yard Talk. You will want to be prepared as building and maintaining a Koi pond is much different and time consuming than putting in a simple water feature. It took me about 200 hours to build our pond and then I spend about an hour every week in maintaining the pond. First things first, what minimum size pond should you have.

There are many factors which go into answering this question including how many Koi you want to have in your system. For every Koi you have, you want to make sure to have a little less than one gallon for every inch of Koi. Since most Koi will quickly grow to an average mature size of 32 inches, you will want to have a minimum of 320 gallons for one Koi. Since Koi are social animals, you will want to have at least two Koi or yours will continually try to jump out. Therefore, you are now up to a minimum pond size of 640 gallons. Lets put this into perspective so you can visualize this.

You want a minimum depth of four feet for a Koi pond. So with a pound size of 640 gallons with a depth of four feet, the dimension would then be about seven feet by four feet oval which puts the estimated volume at 658 gallons or about five average size bath tubs. Now you have an estimated size pond you need to build for two Koi. Now lets take a look at construction material and equipment you will need to maintain the pond.

The most common material to line your pond with is a rubber liner with a felt padding to protect the rubber liner from the objects in the soil from puncturing the liner. Here in Florida, I have a very sandy soil and I still used the felt padding to protect the rubber liner as it is important to start with a good foundation. You can use other and more expensive material to build your pond with the best being built like an in ground pool. You have to remember, any cement material must be coated to protect your Koi from the cement leaching its lethal chemicals and material into the pond. Once you have selected the material you are going to use to build your pond, you need to now decide on a design.

Remember from our calculations, we used an oval for our estimations for a 658 gallon pond. For a Koi pond, you do not want to have any ledges as birds, which would love to eat one of your Koi, would find this very helpful getting at your Koi. You also do not want to put any type of gravel in your Koi pond as this would let bad bacterial and sludge collect in your pond which is disastrous for the health of your Koi. Think of it like this, would you want your waste to settle to the bottom of your toilet and stay there for long periods of time? With that said, another important thing to remember in your pond design is to make sure the bottom slopes to one central location for a bottom drain to take away the sediment which will over time deposit on the bottom of your pond. I have mentioned a bottom drain so lets take a look at your plumbing and filtration system which is mandatory for any Koi pond.

Many people put in a bottom drain by putting a hole in the bottom of their pond. I propose a better way is to put in a bottom drain which sits on the bottom with plumbing going to your filter and then pump. I am only going to briefly touch on the filtration system as I could dedicate an entire article to this alone. The basics of a filtration system is to remove the particles in your pond. You can do this with a simple bead filter to a more complex chamber filtration system. You have to match the right filtration system for the pond size along with the water and light conditions. The worse your water is from the water source (municipal/well) and the more light you have hitting the surface of your pond, the better your filtration system has to be to have healthy Koi. For example, if your water source is from city water system, then you will probably need a way to remove the chlorine and the more deadly chloramines which many municipalities are using more-and-more. If you are using well water, you will want more aeration due to the fact well water has little or now oxygen which is also deadly condition for Koi. For my pond, I have two filtration systems. I have a bottom drain going to a bead filter, then external pump, and finally back to the waterfall box. The second utilizes a sediment chamber, skimmer box, bead filter, external pump, two UV Filters, and then to the waterfall box.

This brings up another part of the filtration system which drives the whole system, the pond pump. The more energy efficient and better to power your system is an external pump with a leaf basket attached. Again, the size depends on the size of your pond, the length of plumbing, and the amount of lift from the point of when the water enters the filtration system to when it exits the filtration system. The more length and the more height, the larger pump you need. A simple formula is to divide your pond volume by two to get the size of the pump in gallons per hour it needs to move. In our example, you need a minimum pump size of 329 gph.

The next important piece of equipment to help keep your pond clear is a UV Filter. This kills all small single cell organisms including bacterial and algae and is essential to both the health of your pond and keeping your pond from turning green. The size of the UV Filter is again determined by the pond volume and the light conditions. The larger the pond and more light it is subject to, the larger the size UV Filter. To calculate the minimum size UV Filter(s), you take your pond volume and times it by two to get the minimum rated gallons per hour UV Filter(s) you need. In our example, you would need a minimum UV Filter(s) capable of handling a minimum of 1316 GPH.

As you have read, there are several minimum pieces of equipment you need for a Koi pond and I briefly talked about each or mentioned what I have installed on my pond. You can add a lot more equipment to your pond depending on the size and water conditions you have. I will include several links at the end of this article you can use to do some more research if you are dealing with some special water and site conditions. With each filtration system, you will want to make sure to install several valves so you can isolate each for cleaning, repair, and replacement. I learned this the hard way.

Another important design principle for you Koi pond is to ensure the outside rim is above grade to prevent water runoff from your yard getting into your pond. Both the lawn chemicals and nutrients are not good for your Koi. Along with ensuring the outside rim is above grade, you also want to make sure any decorative rocks are above water grade to prevent your Koi from bumping into them and causing skin lesions which would be an entry point for harmful bacteria.

Even if you do not think you have a lot of wildlife, you may need to install some type of protection for your fish. For my pond in Florida, I have a lot of sea birds which inhabit my area and would love to sit on the side of my pond and pick out my Koi for a treat. To help detour this, I installed a netting over the entire pond. You could install this as a cage type system or laying on top of the pond. My pond designed enabled me to bend conduit to form around the edge of my pond. I then painted the conduit to match my rocks and strung the netting across it tying it down with zip ties. It is a bit unsightly but the alternate is not a viable option.

Now you have the basic Koi pond construction. Now lets look at water chemistry and the important variables for Koi. You will want to measure and manage the following water condition levels. Until I determined a baseline for my pond, I measure these often. Now I have determined my pond is stable so I only measure once a week or when I think something is going wrong with my pond and my Koi health. Measure the following:

  • pH – greater than 7.0

  • Ammonia – 0 ppm

  • Nitrite – 0 ppm

  • Nitrate – 0 ppm

  • Oxygen – greater than 5 mg/l

  • Salinity – 0.05% to 0.10%

  • GH (General Hardiness) – 200-400 ppm

  • KH (Carbonate Hardiness) – greater than 40 ppm

You will want to manage both GH and KH to impact pH. The most important part is to ensure you have stable pH without any pH crashes (sudden pH drop) which will kill your Koi. Again lots can be written about this so I will refer you to a couple good articles on

Lets assume you have your pond set up for at least a month and have managed all your above perimeters so that they are all stable. Then and only then would you want to introduce your Koi to the new pond. Realize, your just introduced Koi will be very jumpy the first couple weeks until they are comfortable in their new environment so you will want to watch them very closely. I ensured I had my pond covered with a net to ease my mind as I also learned this the hard way. Remember, you will want to follow a strict quarantine routine when introducing new Koi to your pond to prevent disasters results.

Daily and weekly maintenance is a must. I flush my filters weekly and do a partial 20 percent water change. I also make sure to do a visual inspection of all my Koi and pond to ensure all is going well with them. Since I utilize municipal water supply, I must also treat my pond for both chlorine and chloramine prior to adding any fresh water. You must also feed your Koi daily. Rule of thumb, feed them no more than what they can eat in five minutes, two to three times a day. I have mine set up with an automatic feeder using a Koi Cafe which is worth the price. The downside using an automatic feeder, my Koi are not as friendly as they were when I was hand feeding them as they would beg when I walked up to the pond. Now they hide from me.

I am sure many of you are now saying, is it worth all the effort and it is very important you think about that as taking one week off, could have disastrous consequences. For me it is worth all the effort.

Favorite Koi Links

Utilize the following links on better Koi Health and Pond Construction:

Koi General Health

Test Kits

Supply Companies

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Using Ornamental Grass in the Border Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on May 1, 2008 – 1:11 pm

No Way! No How! Was my immediate response when ask a few years ago if we would be using ornamental grasses in our gardens. My beds were just too small and the sunny areas too precious to be taken over by such big unruly plants.

Of course, this was like when I was a kid telling the little girl next door to get lost saying “Who wants a girl hanging around ?” only to discover a few years later that they were not so bad after all. Needless to say, today we use many varieties of grasses in our gardens.

Why not? Grasses truly are attractive and not rampantly aggressive. Sort of like that girl next door. Like their weedy cousins, ornamentals are tough, resilient and not susceptible to any insect or disease problems. Best of all they require no weeding, spraying, and much less fertilization than other garden plants.

Ornamental grasses are an excellent choice for gardeners trying to create a low maintenance landscape. Once established, they require no watering and only a late Winter hair cut to promote new growth. Even the most novice gardener cannot go wrong growing grasses.

What better plant, with their strong vertical form and feathery flower heads, for a border or privacy screening? The leaf blades add fine texture and colors of metallic blues, burgundy, white, creamy yellow and every shade of green imaginable.

On top of this their foliage is always simmering, catching the sun’s rays in ever changing patterns. Throw in their impressive array of flower plumes and seed heads, add a few butterflies and birds, and you have one very beautiful garden setting.

Ornamental grasses grow best in full to partial sun, but will tolerate a wide range of conditions. Grasses are not fussy about the soil conditions. If you are planting them into an existing bed, just add a few inches of organic matter and till in. For a new bed we like to work the soil deep, adding lots of organic matter. While this does not necessarily improve vigor it does make future moving or dividing easier. Grasses can be planted successfully just about any time of the year. Just be careful to plant them at the same level they were potted at , and water it in well.

Most grasses go dormant during the Winter months. In late January, cut the plants back to within a few inches of the ground. If possible, burn the dead foliage instead of cutting as this promotes vigorous new growth. Whether you cut or burn, it must be done before the fresh, new growth comes up.

Some grass we have used successfully in our garden are:

  1. Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’

  2. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’

  3. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yaku Jima’

  4. Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’

  5. Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’

  6. Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’

While these we found easy to use, there are many more out there to try. We recommend that you visit our Plant Data Base ( and go to Amber Wave’s ornamental grass site (http://www to see just how great grasses look. As you will discover, these rugged plants have much to offer the home gardener.

Tips: Maintaining Ornamental Grasses

To maintain their vigor ornamental grasses will need to be divided every few years. You will begin to notice new growth only appearing at the sides of the clump, leaving a naked center. This indicates that too much woody, old growth has smothered the new growth. Even if a new shoot emerges from the woody core, there is little chance for it’s survival.

While ornamental grass is not the easiest plant to divide it can usually be done by those in reasonably good shape and of strong heart. It helps if you have had practice wrestling grizzly bears or bull dogging. Seriously, it can be a battle. The first time I tried, I gave up. After two hours, three shovels, and one very sore back, decided the task could wait another year.

Tools you will need are; several shovels (you are bound to break a few), a mutt, pickax, a few sharp spades, large knife, pruning shears, and an ax. A sturdy wheel barrow or garden cart is helpful but not essential.

First, cut off the foliage to about 4-6 inches above the crown. Dig the plant up completely and remove it from the ground. While this sounds easy it is not. Most ornamental grasses have deep growing dense root balls which will require a lot of time and effort to dig up.

Next cut the clump into divisions with a sharp spade, a large knife, or more likely an ax. Begin by using your spade to cut through the core on one side. Use a second spade to cut the opposite side. The two spades should face opposite directions. Pull the spades in each direction to pry the first divisions apart.

Begin by cutting the clump into halves, then quarters. The first cut will be the toughest because of the hard texture of the core. As it becomes possible, remove smaller divisions from the clump, by pulling them away from the parent plant by hand. Remove dead or diseased material from each individual division.

Replant or pot all divisions, even a single stalk will produce a new plant if it has a few healthy roots. In a few seasons, your divisions will, grow into healthy, mature plants.

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Picking the Right Landscape Contractor

Icon Written by Geoff on April 1, 2008 – 1:17 pm

Landscaping that is well designed and maintained not only adds beauty to your home but greatly increases it’s value. Just ask any real estate salesmen about the importance of curb appeal! It has been estimated that landscaping adds 15-20 percent to the value of your home. This is actually recoverable value too, not just a money pit such as hot tubs or pools.

We continually talk about the importance of maintaining your lawn and garden areas with our customers. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to overlook the exterior environment of your home. Even with proper care, landscape areas can become shabby over time. They also can become dated just like the lava lights and green linoleum of the fifties and early sixties.

Like your house, sooner or later you are going to have to renovate your landscape. While most of us can handle the routine garden chores, few homeowners are up to the task of a complete garden make over, especially with today’s wide choice of hardscape designs and installations. How many of us have the expertise to understand, let alone comply, with today’s many zoning laws, building codes, and permit requirements.

This is where the professional landscape contractor comes in. The contractor knows the laws, specifications, material sources, and has the where with all to carry the project through to completion and in a timely manner. He has the ability to work with you and the architect to produce a finished landscape that will add years of beauty and value to your home. Choosing the right contractor thus will determine the success or failure of your landscape installation.

Unfortunately, as a lawn maintenance professional, we often see what happens when a bad choice is made. Every year we get calls for help with problems arising from bad materials, poor workmanship, or a combination of both. This can run from simply reseeding a lawn planted too late in the season to repairing a retaining wall that fell over after the first heavy rain. Without fail, at some point in our restoration, the customer will ask us what they should have done differently.

The first step is to have a plan, be it a simple sketch or a complete architectural drawing. Next determine the scope of the project and what services you expect from the contractor such as installation of plant material, decks and patio, retaining walls, irrigation systems, and lighting. A good contractor should be able to handle all of this for you.

Thoroughly investigate the company. Contact some of your neighbors to see if they have used or heard of him. Check to see how long he has been in business in your community. Make sure to ask for recent references and check these out, visit the jobs and talk with his customers. We freely encourage potential customers to do this, even making arrangements for them, if they desire. We consider that our best advertising comes from past satisfied customers.

While many states require licensing, care must be taken in taking this at face value. Many times a license just means they are good at taking tests. Also, certification by a local or national trade organization may mean only that they pay dues to be able to use that groups logo. By itself, certification or licensing can be misleading.

For you the homeowner, the contractor’s insurance coverage should be a big concern. Landscaping work requires both liability and worker’s compensation insurance. You should require written proof of insurance from the contactor’s insurance carrier. Insurance companies will readily provide this information.

Check out what levels of expertise and education the employees have. Of course, I would not be writing this today if my customers had just based their decision on my horticultural education as my background is in Business Management and Accounting. Here again you need to look at the total package.

Ask how long the employees have been working with them. We encourage potential customers to talk with our people. Not only does the customer have to feel comfortable with the contractor but also the contractor with the customer. We make it a point to walk away from jobs where it just did not feel right.

Be sure to ask about what guarantees the landscaper will stand behind . Do they guarantee the plant material? Will the hardscape items, both materials and labor be covered at no cost to the homeowner? Make sure you know how long the contractor will stand behind his work.

What about the guy just starting out? I am still surprised that so many people gave me a chance with my old scruffy Chevy Blazer and snowmobile trailer. I was enthusiastic, dependable, really love the work, and fortunately many people realized that. I always wanted to do a good job, sure I had to make a living but above all else I wanted to please the customer.

If you find someone with excellent references, good looking projects, who is enthusiastic about the work, and that you feel comfortable with, you just may have a good prospect. The main thing is to take the time to do your homework!

Tips: Selecting a Landscape Contractor

Here is a checklist for selecting a landscape contractor:

  1. Ask and check references on similar jobs completed in your community.
  2. Request a copy of liability and worker compensation certificates.
  3. Find out if landscaper doing all the work or will he be subcontracting.
  4. Determine who is responsible for the design work.
  5. Find out who is responsible for permits, inspections, and code issues.
  6. Make sure the contractor has the personnel and equipment to do the job.
  7. Make sure who is responsible for clean up and the overall appearance of the finished job and will the clean up happen.
  8. Understand the time frame, when will the project start and finish.
  9. Make sure you understand the companies payment terms.
  10. Obtain a written warranty exactly what is covered.
  11. Ask the contractor about professional memberships or certification .
  12. Find out about the contractor office, voice mail or answering service.
  13. Determine how long it takes for the contractor to return calls.
  14. If you wish to work on some of these projects yourself make sure your contractor is agreeable to this.
  15. Do not base your decision solely on the lowest bid or because one landscape plan includes more plants than another does.
  16. Make sure you understand how change orders and extra costs are handled.

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Raised Beds in the Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on October 1, 2007 – 5:38 pm

We have often referred to raised beds in past issues of Yard Talk. For example, in the article on culinary herbs, we talked about having to construct raised beds because of a drainage problem. In Gardening for Senior Citizens, we recommended using raised beds to minimize bending and kneeling. Well just what is a raised bed, why should we use one, and just how do we build one of those things? 

A garden is considered raised if the soil in the bed is higher than the surrounding soil. We normally tiink of a raised bed as being enclosed by some medium, such as wood, concrete, or plastic, to hold the soil in place. Actually the bed does not have to be enclosed to meet the definition of a raised bed. A raised bed should be no wider than four feet, so it can be easily maintained from the outside. The length and shape can be whatever suits the site or gardener’s needs. 

The most important advantages are: 

  1. Greatly reduced soil compaction since a properly designed raised bed garden allows you to do all your gardening from the garden path.
  2. Plants can be spaced a little closer together in a raised bed. This increases productivity and reduces weeding.
  3. Plants will grow much larger in raised beds.
  4. Raised beds drain better than ordinary garden beds. In areas, like Florida, that have saturated soil, this may be the only way you can grow many types of plants.
  5. Soil conditions can be controlled more effectively in a raised bed .
  6. Reduced amounts of water, mulch, and fertilizer,will be required because they only need to be applied to the garden beds.
  7. Raised garden beds bring your garden closer to you, less bending and stretching.
  8. Raised beds can extend your gardening season. They tend to warm up a little sooner in the Spring and remain productive later in the Fall.

The first step in constructing a raised bed, is to choose a sunny location and decide on the size and shape you want. Keep the beds narrow and match their length to the site and the watering system. We recommend tilling the soil before building raised beds, to provide additional room for root development. Remember that a raised bed is not easily moved, so plan carefully. 

While the frame can be made from any nontoxic material we find cedar to be most attractive, given a little time and sunshine, the cedar takes on a charming silver-gray sheen. Cedar is also naturally resistant to rot and insects. We prefer northern rough cedar 2 x 8’s for the sides, and 4 x 4’s for the corner posts. The overall height of the bed should be 18 inches with their length 10 to 12 feet. Make sure the frame is secured with four inch galvanized lag screws at the corners to inside blocks of wood. Make sure you pre-drill all holes or they will split. 

If cedar is not available, pressure treated wood is an acceptable substitute. A study by the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Michigan State University, has shown the potential for contamination of vegetables and fruits is very small, and any residues would be at levels far below those known to cause toxic effects. 

Fill the frame with a good-quality lightweight soil mix and add a generous amount of compost. Avoid using soil straight from the garden. It usually is too heavy and does not allow for good drainage.

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A Weed by Another Name – The Joe Pye Weed

Icon Written by Geoff on September 1, 2007 – 7:07 pm

Joe Pye Weed is a tall, dominating upright perennial, three to twelve feet tall, with a green to purple unbranched stems, that are mostly hollow. The lance shaped leaves are eight to twelve inches long, and arranged in whorls at each node on the stem. When crushed, the leaves have a slight hint of vanilla. The blooms are white to mauve and densely packed in several large rounded clusters at the top of the stem. The showy flower clusters can be up to twenty inches across and invariably covered with butterflies, wasps and bees, and beetles from summer until late autumn. Characteristics of all species run together, and identification of individual species can be confusing. 

In the wild, Joe Pye Weed grows in moist fields and pastures, along road shoulders, and at the woodland edges. An Eastern plant, it grows from Central Florida west to Texas and north into Canada. They often grow in thickets along streams and ditches. Some Joe Pyes can be very cold hardy, growing as far north as Quebec and Newfoundland. Normally they are considered cold hardy from Zone 3 through Zone 9. 

Joe Pye Weed is a very popular ornamental plant in Europe but rarely used in gardens in our country. This is starting to slowly change as the home gardener discovers just how useful they are, particularly in the butterfly garden. Most varieties are at home in the background of the border garden. We like to use them in a semi-wild naturalistic garden such as alongside a stream or pond. 

Joe Pye Weed are big and bold enough to hold their own among shrubs in a mixed border but grows best in full sun. Plants grown in partial shade will get too tall and flop over. You can prune them back in late spring and they will bloom at a much lower height. They all like plenty of water but will survive in dry sites. We consider them to be drought tolerant, but they will never be as showy as when grown with abundant moisture. 

Joe Pye Weed is one of the showiest perennials in autumn, towering above summertime’s worn out flowers and shrubs. We like to use them with Solidago rugosa Leraft and Panicum virgatum Cloud Nine or Prairie Sky. On a smaller scale we use Joe Pye Weed with Boltonia decurrens Snowbanks and Solidago rugosa Fireworks or Golden Baby planted in the foreground. All of these and more can be seen on our Plant Data Base. 

Joe Pye Weed has underground stems, called rhizomes, which grow laterally and send up new shoots. The root is woody, thick and purplish brown with cream colored flesh. The above-ground parts die in the Winter and the rhizomes start new stems, leaves, and flowers the following year. We easily propagated them by dividing the root clumps with a sharp shovel or spade during the dormant season. 

Native Americans used concoctions of Joe Pye weed to treat a diversity of internal and external ailments. The Algonquin, Joe Pye, was said to have cured typhus fever with the plant that received his name. The entire plant was used as a medicine with the roots being the strongest part. Crushed leaves have an apple scent and are dried then burned to repel flies. Boil dried root and flowers for a diuretic tea to relieve kidney and urinary problems. Tea is also used to induce sweating and break a high fever. 

We grow the Joe Pye Weeds not for it’s medicinal properties but because they look good in the garden and attract butterflies. We have seen ducks, geese and wild turkey weeding on them in the Fall. In our gardens the Eastern Cottontail and White-tailed Deer really flock to the tickets looking for the seeds. Our favorite is the impressive Gateway, although Carin and Little Joe are hard to beat. Joe Pye Weed attract butterflies and other insects, smell good, are attractive, easy to grow, and even provide food for wild critters. Not many plants are so versatile.

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Athyriums in the Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on August 1, 2007 – 6:33 pm

Athyriums have long been prized by the home gardener not only because they were very easy to grow but, because of their color and texture. Lady ferns, particularly look good when grown in clumps or mass plantings. We use these ferns throughout our shade gardens. Actually, this is one down right spectacular plant. 

Lady Ferns are a highly variable species, with numerous varieties in cultivation. More than 300 varieties, in shades of grays, greens, and burgundy, have made their way to the home garden. Some, like ‘Frizelliae’ are extremely odd in appearance. This delicate, finely cut deciduous perennial fern is at home in the garden as the woodlands and meadows. The plant can even be used as a ground cover or on a wet hillside. 

Athyriums are relatively sun and soil tolerant, compared to many other ferns. Despite its delicate appearance, lady ferns are quite rugged and adapt well to cultivation. In the woodland setting they even do better with an occasional burning. For best growth plant them in partial shade in soil that is rich and moist. Give them a little shelter from wind to protect fronds from breaking and they will perform well for years. 

These ferns need a neutral to acid ph soil which drains well. A mixture of equal parts of loam and leaf mold is suitable growing medium. Lady ferns require no fertilization. Athyriums grown in a greenhouse or home should be planted in peat and loam with a bit of sand. 

Propagation is by division in the spring, although spores may be sown in Summer. Division is most successful and by far the easiest method for the home gardener. Simply divide the clumps every few years, with a sharp spade and replant crowns at soil level. 

In the wild, lady fern often occurs on wet sites but can colonize cracks in rocks and crevices if roots are protected and in constant contact with water. We use them, with hostas and other broadleaf plants, along trails, naturalized on banks, mixed with grasses, or bordering walks. They work well at the base of sculptures, garden benches, and potted plants.

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Hazelnuts for the Home Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on July 1, 2007 – 7:34 pm

The Corrals or hazelnut, a member of the Birch family, unlike it’s cousins is a very under used tree in the home garden. This shade tolerant deciduous shrub or small tree deserves much better. Many of this species have large rich purple leaves and colorful catkins. One variety, Corrals avellana or more commonly known as Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick is particularly worth planting. With it’s curled and twisted stems and leaves, it makes a fine specimen plant. 

Hazelnuts or filberts are large, deciduous shrub from 3 to 15 feet tall. It has a straight trunk with spreading, ascending branches, and can form dense thickets. The leaves are 3 to 5 inches long, broadly ovate, accumulate, slightly lobed with doubly serrate margins. Their foliage is particularly beautiful with the sun shining through the leaves. 

In nature the hazelnut grows along streams, hedgerows, meadows, roadsides, woodlands, and forest margins. It likes rich, moist, well-drained soils and is shade tolerant. It usually grows as an understory tree often competing with the alders and witchhazels for dominance. 

The roots typically grow in the upper six inches of soil. Some of the smaller roots run vertically toward the surface and branch profusely into very fine laterals. The large, woody rhizomes give rise to new shoots 1 to 2 feet from the parent plant. 

The leaves, twigs, and catkins of hazelnut are browsed by deer and moose. The nuts are eaten by small mammals, northern bobwhite, ruffed grouse and other large birds, and beaver eat the bark. Seed dispersal is chiefly by mammals or birds although the most important mode of reproduction of American hazel is from it’s rhizomes. 

The flowers of Corrals are formed in the summer and open the following spring, before the leaves emerge. The male catkins are 8 inches long, straight, slender, and regularly spaced along the upper stem. The female flowers are tiny, almost completely enclosed by bracts near the end of the twigs. 

By late summer or early fall, the fertilized flowers develop into clusters of 1-12 round to oval nuts, resembling an acorn . The pericarp is hard, loosely covering the smooth to shriveled kernel. Nuts are surrounded by a green, leafy husk , and abscise from the base of the husk in late august. However, the husk does not release the nut until 6 weeks later when it dries and opens. It begins producing nuts after the first year, and produces good crops every two to three years. 

Commercially, hazelnuts are allowed to fall naturally to the ground as they mature, then mechanically swept into windrows, where large vacuums sweep them up. Nuts are gathered two or three times during the season. Once the nuts are collected from the orchard, they are washed and then dropped into large bins where forced-air heaters begin the drying process. Once dried they are separated into various sizes for bagging and distribution. Hazelnuts have been cultivated commercially for nut production since 1798. 

The sweet nuts may be eaten raw or ground and made into a cake like bread. We often use filberts in place of walnuts or pecans in our Christmas cookies. The nuts were used by Native Americans to flavor soups. American hazel has a fairly high protein and energy value. 

Historically, nuts were associated with the occult, and said to possess mystic powers. Nuts were burned by priests to enhance clairvoyance, used by herbalists for various remedies, and used in marriage ceremonies as a symbol of fertility. 

The wood of the hazelnut has little commercial value, although it is often used by the home hobbyist in making country crafts. Once filbert wood was used for “divining rods” and “witching rods” which helped locate water and underground minerals. 

In Europe, the hazelnut has been used for centuries as a garden shrub, mostly as hedges or in background screening. With the exception of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick and for commercial cultivation, America has shown little interest in this fine shrub. Fortunately, this is changing and other filberts are finding their way in the home garden around the country.

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Culinary Herbs in Our Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on July 1, 2007 – 6:53 pm

We have been growing herbs for over 20 years here in Michigan. Actually our son Geoff got us started when we lived in Omaha, Nebraska. He was in grade school at the time and was looking for something relatively easy to grow yet still rewarding. One thing lead to another and he soon had a 200 square foot herb garden. He grew most of the culinary herbs, such as, Sweet Basil, Greek Oregano, Sage, Thyme, Sweet Marjoram, Fennel, Chives, and Rosemary. 

When selecting a site you must consider drainage. Most herbs will not grow in wet soils. We built raised beds and installed underground drainage tiles in Omaha. Herbs, also, need a sunny location as the flavor oils are produced best when plants receive six to eight hours of full sunlight. 

Herbs will grow in any good neutral garden soil with average organic matter. In fact, most herbs do not do well in highly fertile soils as they tend to produce excessive foliage with poor flavor. When Geoff prepared the bed, he added 10-12 bushels of peat moss per 100 square feet, although compost would work just as well. Peat improves the soil condition and helps it retain moisture. 

Once established, herbs require minimal care. Quite frankly, we never had to water them, even during the driest times. Just an occasional application of compost at the beginning of the growing season kept them going. Pest were never a problem and weeding was seldom required. 

When we moved from Nebraska to Michigan we dug up most the herbs and brought them along. With the exception of Sweet Basil, the following original herbs still grow today in our garden. 

Fennel, a hardy, perennial, will grow in most any soil. Seeds should be sown directly in the garden in the late Spring. Be warned, the plant will self-sow generously. Use the leaves with pork, veal and fish. 

Sweet Marjoram, may be grown from seed or started from Summer cuttings. Use fresh or dried leaves in salads, dressings, meat, sausage, lamb dishes, beans and soups. To keep the plants neat, cut out all dead wood and remove dead flowers and stalks. 

Sweet Basil, is an annual herb used in tomato sauce, pesto and salads. Basil grows best in full sun and rich, moist soil. Sow seeds indoors in spring and transplant them after all danger of frost is past, or sow outdoors when temperatures are reliably warm. 

Rosemary is an attractive evergreen shrub with pine needle-like leaves. Propagate from cuttings of the non-flowering branches in early summer. Rosemary can also be grown from seed. Choose a sheltered position and well-drained soil and lots of sun. It is used on meats, stews, sauces, and soups. 

Greek Oregano, is a perennial widely used in Italian dishes, tomato sauce, pizza, fish and salad dressing It is easy to grow, we recommend propagating by cuttings in the Summer. 

Common Thyme’s leaves are used to season meats, poultry, stews, sauces, soups and dressings. It should be planted in full sun for best flavor. 

Common Sage, a familiar plant in the home garden, is used in sausages, poultry, meat, bread, dressings, vegetables, omelettes and stuffing. You can never have enough Sage. 

There is nothing like the taste imparted by fresh herbs, although if done correctly, dry herbs are very good. We would not know what to do without our herb garden.

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The Cherry Tomato

Icon Written by Geoff on June 1, 2007 – 6:36 pm

In Past Yard Talks we discussed the round slicing tomato such as Burpee’s Big Boy and Big Girl, Rutgers, and Beefsteak. These big round tomatoes are the most common varieties found in the home garden. Our parents and their parents grew up growing and eating these fruit. When they thought about tomatoes these are the ones that popped into their minds. Ask anyone over 40 what his or her favourite tomato is and they will say one of the slicing tomato. 

Ask someone from a younger generation and you will be surprised as they will surely say the cherry tomato. Yes, those funny round things we find buried in our salad greens. My grandmother use to raise them along her patio although I never saw anyone eat them. As a kid they made useful ammunition for our trusty sling shots. It would not seem like Summer if the dogs, cats, and neighbourhood girls did not all sport red spots. 

Well folks, as much as I hate to admit it, my favorite tomato today is the lowly cheery tomato. I eat more of these darn things then I care to admit. There are more varieties of these grown then that old slicer and they taste better to boot. 

They are used in salads, stuffed, baked, and canned as preserves. Put a bowl of Sweet 100’s out as a snack food and watch how quick they disappear. We really like Stuffed Devilled Cherry Tomatoes or as a quick lunch Tuna Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes. Eaten fresh from the vine, they are sweet and juicy. With a higher sugar content than many tomatoes, cherry tomatoes have become fast food, finger food and kid-friendly. 

My favorite Cherry Tomatoes are:

  1. Super Sweet 100 Hybrid is a scarlet indeterminate which bears cherry-sized fruits in 70 days on long clusters right up to frost. Bursting with sugary flavor. Scarlet, cherry-sized fruits are produced in long clusters right up to frost.
  2. Yellow Pear has an enormous number of yellow bite-sized fruits in 75 days, indeterminate. This extremely old variety makes a vigourous plant, which bears enormous numbers of bright yellow, bite-sized fruit. The flavor is deliciously tangy. Perfect for summer party hors d’oeuvres.
  3. Juliet Hybrid an indeterminate tomato that looks like a miniature Italian plum tomato but it is really a juicy and sweet cherry. Big vines produce grape-like clusters.
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