Don’t kill that orchid!

You can enjoy beautiful, long-blooming orchids in your home thanks to modern propagation methods that allow orchids to be

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This orchid bloomed for months in my bedroom. What a joy!

inexpensively mass produced. Most of the ones you’ll find in big box and other retail outlets are the moth or Phalenopsis orchids, and they are super easy to grow at home. Moth orchids are terrific because they bloom a long time—usually months and months. And the flowers are so exotic and beautiful! If you have one or are considering buying one, here are some tips to keep it blooming:

  • Before leaving the store, make sure your orchid is loosely but completely covered with a plastic or paper sleeve if temperatures are below 50 degrees. Go directly home—it’s not a good idea to leave your orchid in the car while you run more errands since they don’t love the cold.
  • Once home, remove all the wrapping and tags. Place the orchid in a bright window. Eastern exposure is ideal. Southern and western windows work too, so long as the plant is protected from strong afternoon sun by a sheer curtain or blind.
  • Moth orchids make good housemates because they like the same indoor temperatures we do—mid 60s to low 70s. If you keep your house on the cool side, find a warm spot for your new friend.
  • When it comes to watering, don’t drown your orchid with kindness—this is probably the biggest mistake when it comes to keeping orchids. In the wild, orchids live on tree branches and rocky outcrops, with their roots exposed to air. Water your orchid when the pot feels light when you pick it up. This can be hard to gauge but you’ll get the feel for it. Generally every 7-14 days is sufficient. Water by dunking the pot containing the plant and bark into a larger pot of water, just up to the rim, and leave it til it stops bubbling, generally 5 minutes or so. If your orchid is planted pot-in-pot (the plant and bark in an inner pot, with a decorative outer pot that has no drainage hole), you can use the outer pot as the “dunking pot.” Once bubbling stops, lift the pot out of the water and let it drain. Empty the dunking pot before putting your orchid back in it. Alternatively, place the pot in the shower, and run it for several minutes using tepid water. If your orchid is planted pot-in-pot, remove the outer decorative pot so the plant can drain.
  • An orchid’s beautiful blooms require energy, so they benefit from some food. Feed your orchid in the late spring and summer, when it’s not flowering. The easiest way to feed is with orchid sticks that you shove into the bark mix. You can also use liquid orchid food mixed to half strength every time you water.

Enjoy your orchid!

Winter pruning

On a sunny mild day early in the year, I bundle up and tromp outside to begin winter pruning of my shrubs and small trees. Despite the cold, this is a garden chore I relish. I love being out in the brisk fresh air. I revel in the lengthening daylight and spending time felcosin my garden after December’s hectic, short days.

Pruning is part science, part art. It is done primarily to improve the health of shrubs and trees. If you find yourself repeatedly pruning or shearing (or wanting to prune or shear) trees or shrubs to reduce their size or keep them from encroaching on your house, walkway, or driveway, consider removing the plant and replacing it with something more suitable since repeated whacking isn’t good for the plant and, certainly, you have better things to do with your time!

My pruning tools include sharp hand pruners, sharp loppers, leather gloves to protect my hands, and a tarp for gathering trimmings and dragging them to the brush pile.

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When pruning trees and branching shrubs, cut all the way back to where the branch joins another branch.

 

If you want to do some winter pruning, keep the following points in mind:

  • Spring-blooming shrubs like forsythia, lilacs, quince, viburnum, azalea, crabapples, and rhododendron have already formed their spring flower buds (they formed them after blooming last spring). Those buds are just waiting for longer days and warmer temperatures to pop open. Prune those spring bloomers now and you’ll be cutting off those flower buds, reducing the spring show. If you don’t want to reduce the spring flowers, wait to prune these plants until just after they are done blooming and before they have formed next year’s flower buds.
  • Some plants “bleed” sap heavily when they are cut. Maples are notorious for this. After all, maple sap is what is tapped in winter to make maple syrup. These trees are better off being cut in the fall, right after they go dormant.
  • Don’t attempt to prune large trees yourself or any tree or shrub that requires you to climb a ladder. Hire a certified arborist. To find one, visit the International Society of Arboriculture website.
  • It’s ok to remove up to about a quarter to a third of the plant’s living branches. If your plant has not been pruned in a long time, you may need to spread the pruning out over 2-3 years.
  • Aside from the tools listed above, the best tools you can use for pruning are your eyes. Put down your pruners periodically to look at what you are doing. This helps keep you from cutting too much or ruining the plant’s shape.

Ready to tackle your pruning project? Here are the basic steps:

  1. Begin by walking all the way around the plant at least once. Note how it grows and its natural form. Does it have an upright, horizontal, or weeping habit? Does it grow with a lot of branches at the base (called a suckering habit) or does it branch from one or two main trunks (like a tree)? Overall does it look balanced, or is it lopsided with more or less growth on one side?
  2. Trim out dead, broken branches first. Cut back to where the branch intersects with another live branch, or all the way to the ground in the case of suckering shrubs. If the plant has not been pruned in some time, it can take quite some time to remove all the dead branches. In fact, cutting dead wood should make up 80% of any pruning job.
  3. Once all the dead wood is out of the way, you can start to see the natural form of the healthy plant. The next step is to clear out its interior to improve light and air circulation. Trim branches that are crossing back and growing inward, toward the center of the plant. If the plant’s habit is suckering growth from the base, thin a few of the biggest interior branches at ground level.
  4. Step back and observe the plant’s natural overall shape. The last little bit of pruning involves a few snips to enhance that natural form: thinning any overly dense areas or trimming the odd wayward stem or two.

Congratulations on a good pruning job!

Below are photos showing renovation of overgrown spireas I helped a friend with. Left–the old beautiful spirea were engulfing the garden before pruning. Center–after pruning, the shrubs are a much more manageable size while retaining their graceful natural shape. Right–spirea grow from the base, so here you can see the cuts we made and remaining branches.

Cool succulents

Fun and funky, strange and weird… succulents are all that, plus easy to grow. They are everywhere these days too, just hit your local garden center, nursery, or big box store. Succulents are offered in a whole range of shapes and sizes and in plain nursery pots or decorative containers to fit any décor.

Here are some I love growing:

  • I bought a Trail of Tears (top left) as an itty bitty thing. I transplanted it from a plastic nursery pot to a terra cotta pot. I mixed some sand into the potting mix (about 2/3rds potting soil and 1/3 sand) and hung it in a western-facing window. Once in a while I tuck the longest strands into the soil, where they root, because my cat plays with them when they get too long.
  • My jade plant (bottom image) is a clone of one my mother acquired in the 1950s, ro-oted from a leaf. It spends summers outdoors on the porch, where it is shaded yet gets bright light, and overwinters indoors in a sunny south-facing window.
  • The charming aloe (top right) is from a cutting I received many years ago from my Aunt Eliza. It blooms almost nonstop with small yellow nodding flowers on a long stalk. I have divided it many, many times and love sharing it with friends.
  • I love paddle kalanchoes. The one pictured at the top of this page has red edges on the leaves and was a gift from one of my garden design clients. The great thing about gifts of plants is that they remind you of the person who gave it to you!

Succulents are so easy to grow. Just plant yours in sandy soil if it didn’t come that way (see rough proportions above) and put it in a bright window—south- or west-facing is best. Go easy on watering—once a week at most but probably more like once or twice a month.

Feel free to ask a question if you have a succulent or want to grow one. I’ll cover how to re-pot and divide succulents in a future blog post. Have fun with your succulent!

Use your rosemary!

Got a pot of rosemary growing? Sure, it’s beautiful. It’s really useful too! One of my favorite ways to use it is with roasted vegetables. Choose whatever root vegetables you like. Potatoes are wonderful of course, as are carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, and rutabagas. Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, and squash also roast well.

Chop up whatever you like and place it on a rimmed baking sheet. Above, I’ve used carrots, red potatoes, and butternut squash. Add 2 or 3 sprigs of rosemary and drizzle the whole thing with a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss everything with your (washed) hands to distribute the oil. Roast in a 400-degree oven. Give the vegetables a stir after 15 minutes or so. Continue roasting until the vegetables are just soft on the inside and nicely browned on the outside, as pictured on the right, above. Generally this takes about 45 minutes. Discard the rosemary before serving.

Feeling festive? The following rosemary-infused cocktail is simple yet delicious. Perfect for winter!

  • 1 oz. cranberry juice
  • 2 tablespoons rosemary simple syrup
  • 4 oz. prosecco

Chill all ingredients then pour in the order listed into a champagne flute or white wine glass. Give it a quick stir to combine and enjoy!

Rosemary simple syrup:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary

Combine sugar, water, and rosemary in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and stir to dissolve sugar. Turn heat off and let syrup cool in the pot. Strain the syrup to remove rosemary sprigs and any leaves that might have fallen off. Keeps for months covered and refrigerated.

How to freeze garlic

Having a stash of peeled garlic in the freezer is a terrific time-saver. You can freeze it in various forms, as described below for about a year. Pick whatever form you find most convenient.

Whole raw cloves–Scatter whole peeled cloves of garlic on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the freezer overnight. The next day, use a flat spatula to loosen the cloves. Place them in freezer bags or airtight containers and store in the freezer.

Chopped or minced raw cloves–Chop or mince peeled garlic, make tablespoon-sized mounds on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet, then place in the freezer. The next day, loosen the garlic mounds and freeze as described above. You can also suspend the garlic in olive o

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Mincing garlic is fast and easy in a small food processor. Loosen it with a little olive oil. These cool little trays are from my niece’s Pampered Chef party.

il by adding a little to the minced garlic before freezing. Old ice cube trays work great for freezing a garlic/oil mixture. Once it is frozen, pop the “cubes” from the tray and store them in the freezer in freezer bags or airtight containers. Frozen chopped or minced garlic is super convenient for making garlic bread, sauces, and dressings.

Roasted garlic–Roasted garlic is a vastly different creature than raw garlic—mellow, nutty, and slightly smokey. It’s delicious spread on bread or crackers and in dressings. Garlic can be roasted by placing whole peeled cloves on a rimmed baking sheet, tossing them with a little olive oil, and roasting at 350 degrees til soft. Alternatively, slice the heads longitudinally, place them in a small baking dish or piece of foil, and brush with olive oil. Either cover the baking dish with foil, or wrap the heads in foil and roast at 400 degrees until the garlic is soft. Let cool slightly then squeeze each half to release the cloves. Freeze roasted garlic in airtight containers or freezer bags.

Consider the winter garden

Most people don’t think about their gardens in winter. Who wants to be out in the cold more than they have to? But if you’re looking to changesnow-on-rudbeckia-black-eyed-susan-spent-flowers your landscape next summer, winter is a great time to consider your options without the distraction of foliage or flowers. Grab some paper and a pencil and come with me on a little landscape soul-searching.

First, look out your windows from indoors. What do you see? Does it please you? Now go outside and tromp around. With fresh eyes, envision what people see when they walk or drive past your house, when they walk to your front door, and drive up your driveway. What do you see when you collect the mail, take out the trash, take your kids to the bus, or walk the dog? Really look. Do you like what you see, or is it lacking? Why? Jot down all your thoughts.

Next, assess how you use or want to use your outdoor spaces. Do you have children who need play space? How about a dog? Do you want to entertain outdoors? Do you enjoy grilling outdoors? Do you want to grow edibles? Do you intend to play lawn games like badminton, bocce, or croquet? Or is having a relaxing oasis more your speed? Add these thoughts to your other notes.

It’s critical to note the physical attributes of the property too. How much sun do various parts of the property receive? Are there areas where water ponds after a rain? Are there other drainage problems? Where are all the structures on the property—house, garage, shed, children’s play house or tree house, pool, driveway, vegetable beds, septic system, gas and water lines, overhead wires, etc.? Making simple sketches helps record these important points, or you can use a copy of the survey you received when you bought your home and draw on that.

Now take your survey copy and lay tracing paper over it. Using different colored pens or markers, draw lines that represent where you drive and park your car on the property, the pattern of where your pets move around, the path you take to pick up your mail, place your trash for pickup, where your kids play, how they walk to the bus stop, how visitors travel to your front door, and other pathways that might occur on your property. This exercise can reveal faults, eyesores, and difficult access paths in a landscape.

Note the style of your house and think about garden styles you like (cottage, formal, modern, etc.). This is the time to dream and have fun. Websites like Pinterest are great for helping you find the garden styles, colors, and detail you like. Magazines and books are great resources too, as well as real gardens you may have visited. Keep track of things you like to help guide a style for your new garden space, either scrapbook style or electronically.

Taken together, your notes and sketches synthesize the facts about your landscape as well as your thoughts, desires, and needshalesia-carolina-silverbell-buds-in-snow-closeup-winter-10 for it. You can use these materials to come up with a list of changes to make: pathways to remove or change; eyesores to screen; spaces for play or lounging to create; or more pleasing views to establish.

With all your thoughts and ideas recorded, come next spring, you’ll have a starting point for creating a landscape that pleases you and suits your needs.

Chanticleer, Wayne PA

Chanticleer is a jewel among the many estate and public gardens in the U.S. Situated in the suburbs of south Philadelphia, It sits on 48 rolling acres and is aptly billed as a ‘pleasure dscf0229garden.’ It is the gift of Adolf Rosengarten Jr., whose family was in the pharmaceutical business. Rosengarten, who loved trees, made provisions before his death in 1990 to maintain the estate as a public garden.

“Our vision for Chanticleer is to be one of the most beautiful gardens in the world while maintaining the feel of a private garden,” says executive director William Thomas. “We want each person to feel like a special guest of the Rosengartens.” He adds, “Chanticleer is about pleasure and beauty, but that doesn’t mean it’s not educational. We are an excellent environment in which to study plants, combinations, containers, garden design, use of structure and furniture within designs, and plant culture.”

Experienced gardeners eagerly visit Chanticleer again and again because they always find new and unusual plants used in interestidscf0193ng designs and combinations that get their creative juices flowing. Even non-gardeners love the experience too, for few public gardens combine art, horticulture, and emotion with such skill.

Plan to spend no less than a half day at Chanticleer—a full day to really see it all and take time to sit in all the wonderful handmade chairs and benches scattered throughout the garden. There is no place to buy food or drinks but you can to bring your own and picnic at one of the several designated picnic areas. More details are at www.chanticleergarden.org, phone: 610-687-4163.

The plant outside my window: native flowering dogwood

The dogwood tree outside my office window was one of the few plants on our property when my husband and I bought our house almost 19 years ago. The previous owners had planted it to commemorate the birth of their daughter five years earlier.

Initially I lamented that the tree had been planted in the wrong place—a full sun western exposure with additional reflected heat from the house’s brick siding. In the wild, flowering dogwoods are an understory tree in eastern North America, growing in the shade or at the edge of the woods. I was doubly concerned about the longevity of this tree since wild and cultivated native dogwood trees have been decimated by a fungal disease, Anthracnose. I pruned the young tree to enhance its natural elegant shape, fed it, and hoped for the best. I continue to coddle it with water during hot dry spells and feed it occasionally.

The tree has become more beautiful with each season. Its branches have spread horizontally into the classic graceful shape of flowering dogwoods. It has also grown taller so that now, from

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The dogwood tree outside my window and a little shade garden beneath it in early spring.

my office window, I see into its upper branches. I marvel at this tree almost daily and in every season. It is a living presence, a feature of our home that we have come to love and cherish.

In late April, its flower buds awaken before the leaves, creating a cloud of white blossoms set against the blue spring sky. I have planted a little shade garden, a summer oasis for birds and chipmunks, in the ever-widening coolness of its spreading limbs. In autumn, the leaves turn fiery red and clusters of crimson berries dot the branch tips. I love watching the birds gobble those berries well into December. I keep a birdfeeder just beyond the furthest limbs, and the dogwood’s bare branches becomes a busy landing site for chickadees, cardinals, finches, blue jays, sparrows, titmice, and doves waiting to take their turn at the feeder. Squirrels make daredevil attempts to launch themselves onto the feeder from the tree’s bending branch tips. The furry scoundrels scurry up the trunk and scold me from above when I tromp outside to fil the feeders.

I never get tired of this glorious tree or the wildlife that enjoys it more than I do. Do you have a beautiful plant outside your window? I’d love to hear about it!

An herb on my windowsill

I’m enjoying a pot of rosemary on my windowsill this winter. It’s an aromatic herb that is wonderful to use in the kitchen. Running my hand over the foliage to release itrosemary-in-a-pot-4s pungent fragrance lifts my spirits on a winter day.

Full disclosure: I have killed my share of rosemary plants since they are not hardy below 20 degrees F and need extra care for wintering indoors. And unless you live in a climate where they flourish outdoors, or you can overwinter yours in a greenhouse (lucky you), don’t expect rosemary to be long lived. But don’t let all this deter you. Rosemary plants are readily available in garden centers and I am here to share some tips for keeping yours happy for at least several years.

Rosemary hails from the Mediterranean where it thrives in sun, sandy soil, and a temperate climate. It naturally grows as a small woody shrub.

You can find rosemary plants in spring at garden centers. Many greenhouses offer rosemary plants and topiaries during the holidays too as festive, alternative evergreens. I bought the one pictured here at Chapons in Pittsburgh during the holidays. I have another one I planted in the ground outdoors in the spring. It has done so well in the full sun and well-draining soil there that I am attempting to overwinter it; I wrapped it in burlap. Fingers crossed.

Two keys for keeping rosemary happy are well-draining soil and humidity. Summer is easy—just place your pot of rosemary outdoors in the sun and pretty much forget it except during the hottest, driest days, when it appreciates watering. When fall approaches and the days start to shorten, bring your rosemary pot indoors. It’s best to bring it in before you turn on your furnace. Set the pot in a cool, sunny window that faces south or west. To provide the humid conditions that rosemary loves, place a tray of pebbles under the pot and fill it with water. Misting the plant a few times a week is also a good idea. Water about once a week, but less often if the soil stays moist.

‘Lettuce’ start with something simple…

Imagine—crisp, fresh lettuce you harvest anytime you want. Nothing could be easier than growing your own lettuce in a pot. Here’s what you need:

  1. A pot
  2. Potting soil
  3. Lettuce seeds
  4. Lettuce is best grown outdoors, but you can grow it indoors under grow lights (fluorescent or LED). More on that in a bit.

The details:

Pot—The key here is to have a drainage hole in the bottom. Something at least 14 inches across is best.  As far as material for your container, just about anything will work—terra cotta, metal, ceramic, plastic, wood, you name it. Anything goes for shape too; round, square, oblong… all good. And have fun choosing a style of pot, whether it’s rustic, modern, funky, or chic.

Potting soil—Good potting soil is critical to your success. I really don’t like some of the more readily available commercial potting soils in big box stores, so I encourage you to visit your local independent nursery and ask for the potting soil mix they recommend. (Note: you want potting soil, not seed starting mix.)

Seeds—choose whatever you like to eat. There are so many kinds of lettuces to try: Simpson black seeded, Buttercrunch, Red Sails, May Queen, Mesculun, and Rocket, to name a very few. You can buy lettuce seeds at any good nursery, and garden centers carry them during the growing season. For a wider selection of lettuce varieties, buy seeds online. There are many good seed sources, but my favorites include Renee’s Garden (www.reneesgarden.com), Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Seed Saver’s Exchange.

Light—Outdoors, look for a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Indoors, you’ll need fluorescent or LED grow lights. Bottom line: lettuce seedlings need light for 12-14 hours per day to grow well.

Put it all together:

  • Scoop the potting soil into your container, filling it to within two inches of the top. Gently firm the soil with your hand.
  • Open a packet of lettuce seeds and gently tap them out onto the soil surface so they are spaced about a quarter inch apart. The seeds are pretty small and dark, so might be hard to see on the soil. If you get clumps, just separate them with a pencil or toothpick. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • Take a little more potting soil between your fingertips and sprinkle it over the seeds. Gently press the soil using your fingertips, so the seed makes contact with the soil.
  • Place a plastic tray under the pot to catch water that may come out of the drainage hole. Water in the seeds with a gentle sprinkling of water. Be generous with the water but don’t use so much that the soil is sopping wet.
  • Place the pot outdoors or under lights. If you are using lights, they need to be set 2-4 inches above the surface and remain on for 12-14 hours a day. A plug-in timer is really helpful, so you don’t have to remember to turn the lights off and on.
  • Check your pot every couple days. Your seed packet may include information on how long your variety of lettuce takes to sprout. A few days before or after that, you should start to see little green sprouts.

Now you’re growing!

Once your lettuce sprouts, water lightly when the soil appears dry on the surface. You don’t want the plants to get to the point where they are wilting, yet you don’t want them waterlogged either.

Rotate the pot once a week or so, so the seedlings grow straight and strong. If you are using grow lights, raise them as the lettuce grows, so the lights remain 2-4 inches above the tops of the growing plants.

Don’t worry about fertilizing, the potting soil contains all the nutrients your plants need.

Check your lettuce packet for the number of days your variety takes to reach maturity. This will give you an idea of how soon you can start harvesting.

Once your plants reach maturity—or even a few days before—you can start harvesting. Grab a pair of scissors in one hand, and with the other gently grasp your lettuce plants. Cut straight across about an inch from the soil. The plants will re-sprout, giving you a continuous harvest.

After several cuttings the plants will begin to lose vigor. At that point, pull them out and start over with another round of seeding if you want. You can re-use the same soil for the second planting, but you should add a little liquid organic fertilizer at planting time.

Enjoy your lettuce!