Pests in the Garden in Early June

Summer has just begun and it is proving to be a challenging season with some early insect damage already in both my perennial and vegetable gardens.mens club 24

Four Striped Plant Bug on a pepper plant
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Nymph stage of the Four Striped Plant Bug,(I actually thought this was a potato beetle at first):

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This is my first encounter with this particular insect in my vegetable garden. It has done a surprising amount of damage already though most of the extension sites I have consulted say they generally do not pose much of a threat. I try not to get too frustrated and attempt to view these encounters as opportunities to learn. This is easier said than done since it is my basil that has sustained most of the damage and that first batch of pesto is at stake! My peppers also seem to be a target at the moment. Primarily the damage is due to the voracious appetite of this creature which results in the leaves being peppered with little bites. Interestingly, so far, the purple basil is unaffected.

Basil under attack:
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Damage on Helenium:
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Insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, and Neem Oil are said to be effective for organically controlling this pest. I am going to use Neem oil as my control. What I like about Neem Oil is that it is one of the only organic controls that is a systemic. The Neem is taken up by the plant tissue and the insect is effected by actually eating the plant tissue rather than you having to actually spray the insect. Neem oil can control a wide range of harmful insects as shown in the chart in this Fine Gardening article and has the added benefit of also controlling mildew and blackspot.

One does need to take into consideration that organic controls can also target our beneficial insects. Fortunately most of our buttterflies, lady bugs, preying mantis, etc. actually eat insects or nectar rather than the leaves so they may avoid being effected by Neem oil. I need to do more research into whether the beneficials can be effected by eating insects that have ingested Neem Oil but this link to Urban Garden Magazine suggests they are not.

If you are interested in trying Neem oil you can purchase a high quality product at Atacora Essentials Inc. Atacora is a community driven company in the West African country of Benin. A friend of mine founded this company that makes and distributes products that are grown sustainably and have health benefits for people and the environment. Altacora is a fair trade company with no middlemen that gives back to it’s community. If you are interested in learning more about this company visit their website at

Phlox Plant Bug
This is a picture of one on a helianthus:
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The common names of these two pests are remarkably simple and similar! It just so happens that they were hanging out together in one of my perennial gardens. I have never had to contend with the Phlox Plant Bug before this season either but it has done a real number on some of my favorite perennials like Phlox’Blue Paradise’, Helenium ‘Rubinzwerg’, and Helianthus.

The damage from the Phlox Plant Bug has a white or yellow stippled effect rather the defined black or brown spots made by the Four Lined Plant Bug:
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Phlox Plant Bugs are controlled using the same methods as for Four Lined Plant Bugs.

Click here for a helpful link to more information on these pests from Ohio State University.

Aphids have shown up as usual but those are easily controlled with plain dish soap mixed with water in a sprayer. Insecticidal soap is easier to use in your sprayer because it does not foam up but Dawn will work in a pinch.

I would love to hear about what you have to contend with in your gardens. Please feel free to comment below about your experiences. It is interesting to learn what insects are showing up in different areas and when.

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Ablaze in Color

I am infatuated with the color and beauty of Tulip ‘Akebono’. I dream of a Georgia O’Keefe commission of this flower on my wall.


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I did find that these were a bit floppy. I may not have planted them deep enough as this was a somewhat root bound area under a Japanese White Pine. Next year I will be sure to plant them a full six inches in the ground. I’ll take them either way.

This is a rogue bulb that expressed far more orange and red in a blaze of color that just plain makes you feel good! My friend Robert pointed out that Akebono means daybreak or new beginings. Even better!

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A less sophisticated beauty but striking none the less, Tulip ‘Orange Princess’
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Here is a stunning Magnolia, Magnolia ‘Gold Finch’

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I have become so fascinated with the beauty of the stamens and pistils of magnolias. Magnolias are one of the most ancient of the flowering plants and evolved before the presence of bees. They are pollinated by beetles and therefore need robust reproductive parts to avoid being damaged by such large creatures.

An usual and hard to find magnolia growing in Mission Oaks -Magnolia ‘Ruby’
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What You Can Be Doing In Your Garden Right Now

As professional gardeners and landscapers we are all out frantically trying to work our magic in the green spaces we care for. For some home owners who enjoy working in their yards and want to do things for themselves this can be a frustrating time of knowing there is so much to do but feeling unsure of just what should be getting done.

I thought I would go over the things that I am doing this time of year for people who have requested my help in their gardens. I will discuss the benefits of getting up close and personal with your plants, pruning, fertilizing, and the benefits of horticultural oil sprays. The timing of these activities will primarily be pertinent to people living in zones 5-7.

Spring clean-ups is the name of the game right now. I have my small hand cultivator, my hand rake, and my Felco pruners that were mentioned in my Hand Tool Line-Up post by my side at all times. In the perennial gardens I am going over every inch of every bed. I rake out any remaining leaves and clip off any dead growth on perennials from last season. We had some 80 degree days here this week and a lot of things are coming up so care must now be taken not to damage the new growth on plants like the herbaceous potentilla shown below.

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When I have raked out all of the debris I go over the entire bed with a hand cultivator on my hands and knees. This is how you get to know your garden and learn what its’ needs are. Being face to face with your plants will allow you to discover things like: precious seedlings from last year’s foxglove or maybe verbascum that would otherwise have gotten raked up; insect infestations that may have been left until it was too late to prevent the damage; how to recognize the various species you have in the early stages of growth. Learning these these kinds of things is the key to a healthy spirited garden.

The other huge benefits of cultivating your beds is loosening up the soil allowing air back into the areas that have gotten compressed over the past year and eliminating small weeds before they get a chance to get deeply rooted.

Have you ever heard the saying “A farmer’s shadow is the best kind of fertilizer”? It is so true. I am always amazed at the transformation that takes place after I have thoroughly gone over a garden. It seems to look more alive in just a few hours!


It is not too late to prune many shrubs. Below is a list of things that I am typically pruning or shearing right now and how I treat them. I think pruning requires and sort of Zen approach. Take your time and prune lightly at first. You can always prune harder but of course you can’t reverse a hasty, severe cut. Stand back and look at your work as you go along. The shrub will begin to take on a nice, basic, pared down structure that is attractive when you are done. If the pruned shape is nice then the resulting growth probably will be too. If the pruning is hard and ugly then you will probably see something less than desirable when it flushes out.

Hydrangea paniculata and arborescens – These are: the Tardiva types, Pee Gee’s, Limelights, ‘Annabelles’. H. paniculata are very forgiving. You can prune these late summer, fall, winter, or spring. No matter how you prune them they will still bloom, but there are some things you can do to help obtain an attractive plant with a nice overall shape and abundant flowering. Some people have some very elaborate instructions but I try to keep it straight-forward and have achieved good results. Here are a couple of simple rules:

1) You can’t really change their size, just their shape. If the plant is too big you need to move it and put something smaller in like my all time new favorite the ‘Little Lime’ hydrangea shown here
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2) If you prune Hydrangea paniculatas hard you will get big shoots with fewer, but larger flowers.

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This is my least favorite way to prune these. The cuts in the picture below look hard and severe and they are!! Nothing is really achieved by this method because the new growth will shoot right back to the original height. Because the old wood structure and support has been pruned off they bend and arch under the weight of the huge flowers. You can see the old hard cuts that I consider unsightly and ineffective in this picture and then one year later where I pruned about 12 inches higher.

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One year later:
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3) If you prune lightly, and by this I mean taking off between 12 and 18 inches all around, you will get new shoots that are shorter( but again, back to the original size) with many more small sized flowers and a bushier, more dense, and I think more attractive appearance.
Hydrangea Paniculata Tardiva

All of the Rest of the Hydrangeas

How is that for easy! This includes: Mopheads, Lacecaps, Oakleafs. All of these bloom on canes that were formed during the previous season. Some of the varieties like ‘Endless Summer’ will also bloom on growth forming this season but, I basically prune all of these hydrangeas using the following rules:

1) If possible I like to prune these in spring just before they are going to leaf out. The more old growth you leave for the winter and even for early spring the more protection you have to for the already formed flower buds. I have often pruned these too early in the spring only to have a hard frost kill the tips back even further from my cuts and thus loosing all of the flower buds.

2) I begin by pruning out any dead or broken canes. If the shrubs are a little older I begin removing the chunkiest, knobbiest clusters of canes making sure that there are some nice newer ones that will remain in that space to bloom. If you have a nice healthy hydrangea you will be removing about one third of the oldest canes to allow the plant to have the energy to grow new healthy ones for the coming year. When you make your cuts go down as close to the ground as you can without damaging the other canes. You are aiming for evenly distributed canes the are between 1 and 3 years old.

Here are some not very old Nikko Blue Hydrangeas before pruning:
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Here they are after pruning:

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3) I do not reduce the height of these unless I absolutely have to. Ideally in late spring after all hard frosts have passed you prune off any dead tips and leave the top with a nice domed shape. If your hydrangea is growing too tall you need to live with it or move it. They will always shoot back to that original height unless they are cut to ground in which case they will not bloom.

– I cut these in half and leave them with a nice domed shape.

Knock-Out Roses
– I cut these down to 18 inches and remove any dead canes. I used to prune these back about 1/3 like other shrub roses but now, at the advice of my friend Stephanie at Winland’s Complete Landscape Service here in Zanesville, I use some pretty tough love and prune down to between 12 and 18 inches.
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Drift Roses
– I will be doing a post on these particular roses in the future because I really like them as a filler on the edge of a shrub or perennial border. They are very low maintenance and I simply shear these taking off 1/3 to 1/2 of last year’s growth.

All other Roses
– For all other rose types I can not improve upon what the American Rose Society has to offer on their site for all types of rose care. That is where I head for sound advice for pruning, making your own rose food, disease and insect control and winter protection ideas. Here is the link: The American Rose Society

– I typically cut these back to 12-18 inches. Carefully cut into branches and look for signs of live tissue. These often appear dead but are not. Hypericum are sometimes treated as perennials in colder zones and can be cut to the ground if the canes all appear dead. It will come back!

Azaleas and Rhododendron– These should get pruned only if needed right after the flowers have gone by in late spring or early summer. Any hard pruning of larger branches or trunks should take place during winter but do not prune the tips at this time or you will lose the flower buds.

Ilex or Holly– If you have chosen holly so that you can enjoy the berries you only have one option. You must prune winter to early spring. Any later and you risk pruning the flower buds off and thus any potential for berries. Obviously pruning in the fall would remove any berries except on the male plants. These you will have planted as pollinators in the spring for the females and since males do not get berries you can prune them in the fall.

If you are just growing hollies for their evergreen quality then you can prune and shear as needed throughout the season. I prefer to leave them with a nice shape by the end of the fall so that in the spring, when they have that wonderful first flush of green growth, they are in good form and you don’t have to do anything to them. I like to enjoy that nice flush for as long as possible.

Ilex glabra or Inkberry– These are not really grown for the ink colored inconspicuous berries. They are a nice native filler evergreen but they can be tricky. These can be sheared as needed but again I try to have them ready in the fall for spring growth. These have a terrible tendency to get leggy and lose their bottom leaves. A few years back I learned that you can prune this plant down to 12 inches to rejuvenate it! I never would have guessed you could do this without killing the shrub but I have done it and it works. Inkberry are VERY slow to leaf out and become even slower to leaf out if you prune them this hard. Be prepared for a dead looking shrub until almost the end of June. Other than that the key with these is organic matter and moisture.

Boxwood– The fate of boxwood is very uncertain with Boxwood Blight beginning to take its toll. I do continue to plant some boxwood purchased from certain reputable nurseries but we would be wise to phase them out of our plans altogether for the time being. As for pruning I am only giving the simplest advice. I never shear or prune these in the spring. You will end up with irregular patches of new growth and they just don’t look nice. IF you desire a more formal look let them get their nice first full flush and then shear them by perhaps mid June. Then shear as needed. Similar to Holly I like to have these looking nice by late fall so that I don’t need to do anything to them that will interfere with that spring growth.

I prefer a more loose looking, hand clipped habit on boxwood and I encourage thinning for almost all varieties. Here is a fantastic link explaining the concept of thinning boxwood and all kinds of other great pruning tips at The Pruning School.

Lilacs– Lightly prune old fashioned Lilacs just after flowering. You can shape and shear these or just dead-head at this time. Lilacs do need to be rejuvenated and bloom best on younger wood up to about 6 years old. Any hard pruning should be done in winter but do NOT prune the tips or you will sacrifice flowers. To maximize flowering on Lilacs you should try to eliminate some of the oldest trunks by pruning them down to the ground. Each winter I recommend picking a couple of old trunks and sacrificing them to encourage new growth.

If you have ever-blooming Lilacs like ‘Bloomerang’ give them a light clipping after the first big bloom to help promote a better second bloom and then leave them alone until fall. These can be sheared and pruned in fall, winter or early spring.

Spireas, Physocarpus, Weigela – I generally shear all varieties of these these back by one third from the top and leave them with a nice rounded, domed shape. The larger varieties benefit by selectively thinning old wood for rejuvenation and a more attractive controllable shape.


I use compost as a first choice in beds and on lawns for fertilizing. I went over the benefits of this extensively in my post about Get Your Soil In Shape but compost is often not an option.

My first choice in commercial products is the Espoma line of fertilizers. They make one for every situation: Plant-tone, Rose-tone, Holly-tone, Lawn-tone etc. These are slow release fertilizers made of of varying percentages of things like bone meal, blood meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa seed meal, and corn gluten. I fertilize perennial beds, shrubs, small trees, and lawns with these products. I often will use the Plant-tone for all areas so that I don’t have a bunch of different bags. For the most part I don’t think they are all that different from each other. There is a bit of marketing at work with all of those different types. Check your local garden center for these products and if they don’t have them request them! I often see this being sold only in 5 lb bags which I think is absurd. If you have very much of a lawn or garden you will need at least 25lbs.
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I use about 1 cup of fertilizer for a small shrub and 2 cups for larger shrubs. I apply it in a band around the shrub in an area called the drip zone as you can see in the picture below. This is an area away from the base of the plant but just inside of the outer edges of the branches. This is where rain is likely to drip down and help carry the nutrients to the roots of the plant. Then I just work it into the top layer of the soil.

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For lawns I highly recommend starting the season off with Espoma Organic Weed Preventer. This is made from 100% corn gluten. Corn gluten is a natural, non-toxic, broad-leaf weed preventer. It will not kill already existing weeds. It will prevent any new ones from germinating. It contains 9 % nitrogen so your lawn gets fertilized at the same time and it is completely safe for children and pets. That is a lot of good stuff in one product!

Because these Espoma products are slow release fertilizers they are safe to put down early. Fast-acting fertilizers, which I do not use, should not be put down until the soil temperatures have reached 50 degrees unless they are specially formulated for cool temperatures or you risk losing the nutrients to…get ready for one of those roll-your-eyes words that spell check doesn’t even know…denitrification. The sloppy definition of denitrification is a loss of the nitrogen due to a lack of oxygen in the soil, excess water, and microbial activity. It is just too early for plant’s roots to be able to take up the nitrogen and other minerals.

At Mission Oaks Gardens we make our own plant food mixes for rhodoendrons, azaleas, and the needier varieties of roses. A good recipe for Rhody food can be found at The American Rhododendron Society and the rose food we make can be found at the American Rose Society.

Horticultural Oil

Spraying with horticultural oil is a critical part of my spring maintenance. Fruit tree growers have traditionally used something called dormant oil in their orchards for an early start on insect and disease control. Just like the name implies it is an oil used when the plants are dormant or before the buds break. Horticultural oil was developed as a much lighter weight oil that mixes with water and can be used during dormancy and during the growing season with out damaging the plants.

An oil spray in the spring can give you a jump on controlling all kinds of problems by doing the following: suffocating insect eggs and insects that it comes into contact with; suffocating fungus and mold spores that are remaining from the previous season; controlling fungus, mold and mildew that is actively growing or spreading. Some examples of the particular diseases you may be familiar with are: powdery mildew; black sooty mold; rust, and black spot.

The best time to apply horticultural oil is on a warm, non-windy, cloudy or partly sunny day. Applying the oil on fully opened leaves on a hot sunny day can cause the leaves to burn a bit. They will recover but it doesn’t look very nice. Ideally pick a time when the night-time temperatures will not be freezing for a few nights. Do not spray flowers or almost open flower buds.

Here are some of the pants I target during my spring application: all hollies; roses; euonymous; rhododendron; azaleas; boxwood; pieris; holly hocks; phlox. Conifers do not like to be coated with horticultural oil so take care not to allow it to drift onto them when you are spraying other plants.

I will talk more on using horticultural oil when we enter the warmer part of the growing season and about some useful formulations for disease control on various plants. For now I highly recommend a spring application. I order Horticultural Oil Insect Spray
made by Monterey from Amazon. The bottle comes with good instructions for how to mix depending on what you are spraying.

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Flush in Euphorbia

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This has been one of my favorite plants for a long time. I first encountered Mediterranean Spurge in a garden on Nantucket and I have searched for it in nurseries ever since. It is not a rare plant but it just hasn’t been carried in the areas where I have lived and not readily available by mail-order. I finally got tired of trying to track it down so two years ago I ordered seed from Jelitto and started some of my own. The plant in this picture is 2 years old and has since put out almost 100 seedlings. I am flush in euphorbia!

This plant looks great for almost 3/4 of the year which is a lot! It gets statuesque chartreuse inflorescence’s that compliment so many early blooming perennials. The show begins around the time the Giant Allium and Veronica speedwell start to bloom. It is kind of like a Lady’s Mantle on steroids. This is a must have for Chartreuse lovers and those looking for a sculptural element for their garden. Dead-head when the flowers have passed and the blue/grey foliage remains looking almost like a dwarf pine or spruce for the rest of the year.

Here it is very late in the season after dead-heading and looking very fresh!
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This spurge is very adaptable and grows in clay or sandy soil and full sun or part shade. It appears to be hardy to zone 6. It does not like a wet soil particularly in winter.

If you live near me I have a good supply of these in small 4 inch pots. Just shoot me an email and I can arrange to get some to you.

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March Madness. Wait… it’s April! Time to get the peas in.

My body keeps telling me it’s early March but the calender says April 4th! We are having a really late spring here in Ohio. The day-time temperatures have remained in the 40’s and night temperatures have been dipping into the 20’s. This has lead to me remaining indoors on the computer ordering more seeds and plants than I ever should and not as much time being outside cleaning things up and preparing the soil. Now I am behind and really need to kick things into high gear. A lot needs to be done NOW!

Get the peas in the ground!

It is easy to miss this window for pea planting especially when you have a cold, late spring but peas love cool weather. They prefer to germinate in soil temperatures of 40 degrees and they don’t like growing when the air temperature is much warmer than seventy. This means you need to get at least part of your garden turned or tilled right away. If you have a small garden turning with a shovel or pitch fork is better. It helps to retain that loft I wrote about in my “Soils” post. We got about half of our 20 x 20 foot garden turned by hand this past weekend.

I love garden or English peas but I don’t like shelling them. Have I mentioned in this blog previously that I’m impatient? Oh… a few times? Okay, well… I prefer to grow sugar snaps. photo-2 You simply get much more vegetable (technically peas are a fruit) produced from your plants and from that space. Either way they should get planted as soon as you can work your soil and when the temperatures are not staying in the 20’s at night. It’s okay if they dip down but you wouldn’t want them that cold every night.

Peas are easy to plant
. When preparing the area where you are planting peas dig down at least 6 inches to loosen the soil. This will make it easier for the peas to take root and grow. More roots means more plant growth and ultimately more peas. We planted a 15 foot double row of snap peas along the fence of our garden. The rows are 4-6 inches apart with the peas placed 2 inches apart and covered with an inch of soil. I will add a 1 inch layer of compost to this row for fertilizer. If you don’t have compost then use something like Espoma Plantone. I’m just not a 10-10-10 person and you can’t put this plant ‘candy’ down until soil temperatures are consistently 50 degrees or you are just wasting your money. It will just wash away without ever being used by the plant. Our peas will be encouraged to climb our fence but there are many ways to support peas. If you don’t want to deal with making a support for them you can buy a bush variety that only grows 1-2 feet. Then you can just let them be. These are a little harder to pick since the peas end up getting hidden in the jumble of growth.

If you are not sure which type to grow or how to arrange them I recommend getting a copy of the National Garden Association’s “Gardening: The Complete Guide to Growing America’s Favorite Fruits & Vegetables”. You can order it by clicking on the title and it looks like used copies are practically free at $.01!? I will make 4% of 1 cent so I am obviously not pushing this book to make a profit. I have been consulting this easy to use book for over 20 years. It has good photos and covers all of the basics: improving your soil; when and how to plant; fertilizing; caring for specific plant needs; insect and disease issues; and much more.

If you are somewhat new to vegetable gardening and you are wondering whether or not to start your own seeds
my advice would be to go easy on yourself and not try to start everything by seed the first time around. In theory buying seeds can be much cheaper than buying plants but, if you only need 5 tomato plants and you want a couple of different varieties by the time you buy 3 packets of seeds at $2-3.00 each you have paid the same as you would for plants without evening factoring in the costs of providing heat and light for a space to grow them. Tomatoes and peppers need to be started at least 8 weeks before your last frost date and that is a lot of time to care for seedlings. These plants do need a lot of light and warmth so you will need a greenhouse or good grow light set up which can be pricey.

My son and I started 6 different types of tomatoes about 10 days ago and a couple of different peppers. We will end up with about 40 plants and probably give more than half of them away to friends. I usually start the first crops of lettuce and basil varieties at this time. I love color in the vegetable garden and in my food so I always try to get fun varieties like Black Opal basil, Paul Robeson Tomatoes, and a myriad of romaine lettuces.

Salad Greens
If you eat a lot of salad and want to have a continuous supply of lettuce throughout the season you should sow new flats with lettuce seed every 2-3 weeks right up into fall. As the summer heat kicks in your lettuce will want to bolt or shoot upward and get bitter more quickly so you will need a constant supply of new young plants. I am still experimenting with growing lettuce during the hot summers here in Ohio. When I lived on Nantucket the cool summers were perfect for growing greens but I do have difficulty keeping lettuce from getting bitter here in the 90-100 degree days of July and August. I think I may try growing some under shade cloths. I’ll keep you posted on how successful this is. If you really love salads The Harrowsmith Salad Garden: A Complete Guide to Growing and Dressing Fresh Vegetables and Greens is the book for you. It’s one of my favorites and has wonderful recipes for salad dressings and great ideas for ways to combine fresh veggies.

We have other fun things started like purple artichokes, 4 kinds of amaranth both for eating and for ornamental uses, 2 kinds of broccoli, and some annual flowers. The rest of our seeds, other than peas, do not need to be started until we are closer to our last frost free date.

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Potatoes and why order expensive seed potatoes?

If you have the space potatoes are one of my favorite foods to grow. Fresh baby New potatoes of any variety are so delicious! They are really fun for kids to grow. One potato goes in the ground and 5 or more appear a few months later. Digging potatoes for dinner is fun for for anyone. It’s just so satisfying. It is not quite time to plant potatoes in my zone 6 going on 7 but it is time to order seed potatoes before suppliers sell out.


This my order from Seed Saver’s Exchange. They are beautiful looking seed potatoes. I am particularly excited about the French Fingerlings. They are the healthiest and largest I have ever received. I will store these in the box they came in and in a cool dark place until planting time which is one month before my last frost free date or 3 weeks from now. I’ll talk more about planting potatoes when the time comes to put them in the ground.

You can buy potatoes from the grocery store for about 1/4 of the price of seed potato and plant them. I have done this as a last resort when I have not gotten an order in early enough. BUT, it is preferable to buy seed potatoes because they are guaranteed to be disease free. Only the best and cleanest potatoes are selected for this purpose. I’m sure you have seen the black crusty spots on the skin of some potatoes. This is evidence of potato blight and once it takes hold of your crop it spreads very effectively and you end up with a row of mush. This is the disease that combined with a wet season was a culprit in the Great Hunger or Irish Potato Famine that began in 1845.

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Get Your Kids Into Gardening!

My son Joey has spent a lot of time in gardens starting when he was a few weeks old. There are few things that make me feel as though I may be close to understanding the meaning of life quite like working in a vegetable or flower garden with a child. It feels so elemental and necessary to be teaching the magic of soil, seeds, flowers and fruits. I know I am sharing lessons others have taught, on some level, for thousands of years.

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Children of all ages can help out in the garden
. I will say toddlers can try your patience. Something about toddling and all of the straight lines of delicate seedlings just doesn’t jive. We have lost a lot of seedlings over the past few years. Toddlers also have a tendency to shove dirt in their mouths. I remember looking over at Joey, who was sitting in the dirt, and feeling somewhat horrified by the brown mustache he often had. Thanks to this New York Times article about “How Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good For You”, I didn’t have to feel guilty about that.

I think it’s good to get children in the garden and in the dirt as early in life as possible. That way, in their minds, it is simply something that has been a part of their lives all along. They have a chance to become attached to growing things and caring for the environment around them before all of the school activities and sports that come along a little later in life start vying heavily for their attention. Your kids may not end up with enough time to work in the garden during some of those hectic adolescent years, but perhaps having planted the seed of interest early on will help them come back to it when life slows down a bit.
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I had very little interest in gardening during my teens but in my twenties, once I started living in my own home and caring for it, the urge started to come back to me. I am very grateful for the times I spent as child in my grandparent’s vegetable garden with corn towering over my head and the few things my mom and I would plant around the house. Sometimes it was just a watermelon plant and a couple of tomato plants or some flowers.

Once your children, grandchildren, or friend’s children turn 4 or 5 they are more able to grasp what is going on and how to be more careful in the garden. The level of reward goes up significantly for everyone. I usually order my vegetable seeds from a number of different seed companies but this year I left some for my son to pick out at the seed racks. He had soooo much fun looking at all of the colorful packets of vegetable and flower seeds and picking out what he wanted to grow. He could hardly wait to get home and start planting some of them.

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We have a little greenhouse just big enough to start seeds and grow plants for an average sized vegetable garden so, as soon as we got home from the store we got busy filling flats and putting seeds in them. Joey will be five this spring and I was amazed at what a great job he did. Asking a 5 year old, especially a boy, to play with dirt and you have one willing helper. Anything involving dirt and water brings a big smile to his face. He planted three whole flats, each containing 50 little cells of soil, with tomatoes, peppers, basil, lettuce and some flowers! I just held the seeds and helped him keep track of which row he was planting. He already has such a feeling of accomplishment. A few times a day he asks to go out and check to see if they are coming up yet. It is exciting!

I dream of a public school program that actually offers
a course centered around where our food comes from with vegetable gardening being a key element. It could be part of a science requirement and would involve the planning and preparation of a garden plot on the school grounds; picking out what they wanted to grow; starting the seeds; planting them; caring for them; then reaping the rewards. There is so much to learn I can’t think of a better way to introduce biology; entomology; soil science; farming; the process of seeing a long-term project through; environmental stewardship; and so much more.

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My son must have decided he was ready for spring and he came up with this little art project on an unseasonably cold, snowy, March day. My husband and I got a real kick out of it. He cut pictures of flowers and vegetables he liked out of some of the catalogs I had laying around and taped them to most of the windows in our living room. The next day when he wanted to continue I encouraged him to make collages with them for fear of the stubborn tape goo I may have to clean off of the glass! I think this a great art project for helping kids visualize gardens and what they might like to plant. I was even thinking I might try it for some of my design work! I just haven’t gotten around to learning one of those computer programs that can do that for me yet.
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Some Ways You Can Help Your Children Get Interested In Gardening:

If you have a playhouse in your yard consider putting some flowers boxes on it. They can be beautiful to look at and so fun for the kids. We built this playhouse out of scrap lumber left over from construction sites.

Playhouse with flowerboxes

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Seed Saver’s Exchange Children’s Seed CollectionClick here to see this fun collection of seeds called “My Garden Has A Story”. Each type of seed has a story about its origins. The collection comes with a 10 page book about planting and seed-saving. Great idea!

Kids are much more likely to take an interest in working outside with you if you find them tools that are just the right size. It’s incredible how proud and accomplished they feel when given a little ownership. You can just cut the handles down on some old tools if they are light weight enough like I did with this plastic rake.March 09 011

I have purchased this Toy Smith’s Garden Tool Set twice so far. Joey is pretty hard on tools, but they are just the right size. Another great tool is the Bubble Mower. I can not tell you how many miles my son has done with this. He started using it when he learned to walk and still loves it!

If you don’t have space for a garden you can help a child pick out some seeds to grow in containers on a porch or even a window box hanging outside a window. Here are some ideas that are particularly kid-friendly:

Sunflowers– Who doesn’t love sunflowers. They are so dramatic and fun. If you don’t have much space you can easily find dwarf sunflower seeds and plant then in pots or containers. Also the dwarfs are a nice height, usually 2-3 feet, for younger children. If you don’t have a cold frame or greenhouse and you want a little jump on the season you can start the seeds directly in a container inside your house about a week before the last frost date for your area. Just be sure to move the container outside once they start to develop leaves. Otherwise, plant them in the containers outside when there is no danger of frost or directly in the ground. Sunflowers prefer not to be transplanted once they start growing. Joey has decided to grow ‘Firecracker’ dwarf sunflowers in a clay pot on our porch because, of course, they have firecracker in their name. There are a few nice varieties to choose from. We are getting ours from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Scarlet Runner Beans-This is a very fast growing, vining bean that gets to be 10 feet or more in about 3 months. There are different varieties but they usually have a pretty red flower. They are edible and will re-bloom if picked regularly. You can make a fun teepee or fort with kids by tying some tall stakes or tree branches together and planting 1 or 2 beans at the bottom of each support. The beans will grow up and cover the whole thing. You will want to prepare the soil at the bottom if the teepee isn’t going into an established garden. I am ordering one called ‘Scarlet Emperor’ from Botanical Interests.

– If you have the space potatoes are really fun for kids. They are easy for little hands to plant and they come in fun colors and shapes; Red Norlands, Adirondack Blue, Rose Finn fingerlings;etc. Digging for potatoes is like Easter egg hunting in the dirt. Kids faces just light up,( and so does mine!), when they are digging… and digging… and finally find that the one potato they planted 4 months earlier turned into 5 or more!The Seed Saver’s Exchange has a great selection and even if you aren’t going to plant any it’s worth looking at the unusual varieties they carry!

Ever-bearing Strawberries-I think this is my favorite kid-friendly plant. You can buy ever-bearing, bare-root strawberry plants and plant them virtually any where. I prefer the ever-bearing varieties because, although you may have smaller fruits and just a few at a time, you get to pick some all summer. Children of all ages can enjoy finding a sweet little surprises in the garden or in containers throughout the summer. There are a lot of places to buy bare-root strawberries. If you have a large garden center nearby they may carry them in the spring, otherwise here are a few places: Burpee, Gurneys, Hirt’s
If you don’t have yard space strawberries can be planted in containers, on a deck, or on a sunny porch. Strawberry pots are designed just for this purpose. They have holes in the sides and the top for planting multiple plants. Click here for a link to a 3 gallon pot that I think is a pretty good size. There are smaller less expensive ones but I do think you want to be able to fit enough plants to make it worth while.

You can also do some strawberries in hanging baskets. These work great because the slugs can’t get to them. I prefer a sphagnum peat basket like the one in this link, The moss allows the plant to breath better than plastic. At the end of the season you can dump out the soil and re-use the basket for another 1-3 years before needing to replace the moss. Coco fiber baskets will work well too. If you want a free alternative you can usually find some used left over plastic hanging pots from a friend, landscaper, or maybe an especially nice garden center. Just be sure to use fresh soil.

If you are growing these in the ground compost is the best thing to fertilize with. If you are doing containers or baskets find a nice organic liquid fertilizer like Foxfarm, or Neptune’s.

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Gentiana andrewsii

Bottle Gentian- Gentiana

Bottle Gentian

Bottle Gentian or Closed Bottle Gentian has so many great attributes it is hard to know where to begin. For starters it is native to a large part of the Midwest. I am a big proponent of using natives particularly when they also offer a great show and this one does. In the picture below it is planted with Japanese Forest Grass ‘Aureola’ and contrasts nicely with the bright yellow Goldenrod ‘Firecracker’. This gentian has light blue tube shaped flowers and has almost a ground cover type habit. This picture was taken in October so it is very late-blooming. It offers great color at time when few other things are in flower. It grows 1 to 2 feet high and spreads about 1 foot. In its natural habitat it is found in moist wooded areas but it will grow in many different soils including clay and almost full sun provided it gets sufficient moisture.
Gentian and Hakonechloa

As if all of that weren’t enough to make one fall in love with this plant this link explaining it’s symbiotic relationship with bumblebees sealed the deal for me.

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Hand Tool Line-up

Garden Tools (2)

Bulbs and perennials are beginning to push through to the ever increasing sunlight. It is time to get the tool buckets sorted out and head into the gardens! The sooner we do this the better so as not to shred the tender tips of these plants with our rakes nor trample them with our feet. I thought it might be helpful to go over the tools that my gardening bucket never travels without. I have been gardening for a living and for pleasure for over twenty years so my hand tools are my best friends. It occurs to me as I write this that I have spent more waking time in the presence of these tools than with any living being!? Let me introduce you to the individuals:
Felco Pruner

This is my BFF. The Felco hand pruner style number #2. I ALWAYS have a pair of these near. Even in the winter a pair can be found in the compartment of the driver’s side door of my truck. There are quite a few styles and sizes. They have replaceable parts, most importantly the blades. They are expensive and run $49.99 at this link , but worth every penny. They can literally last a life time if you can avoid ever losing them. If you don’t want to spend that much on a pair of pruners, A. M. Leonard has a very similar style for $30 and an even cheaper option called a Crew Pruner for $9. Yes… $9!! I bought some of these for our volunteer tool bucket at Mission Oaks Gardens. I used them for a couple of days last fall and I was very happy with them. They do not have replaceable parts.

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Next in my line-up is a Snow and Nealley wood handled hand rake. I use it for removing small debris from the surface of garden beds. Unfortunately Snow and Nealley are no longer making these and as far as I know, no one else in the U.S. is either. As a result I am in the process of fabricating my dream set of hand tools. When these have been found to live up to snuff in the hands of an obsessed gardener. I’ll let you know when they become available. For now a decent hand rake can be found at Smith & Speed. I did just find this one for $7.99, but I have not had a chance to see if it will hold up for long. I’m going to buy a few and I’ll jet you know.

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A small hand weeder/cultivator is a necessity. I finally broke my last Snow and Nealley spring tine weeder and like the hand rake they are no longer making these. There are quite a few wood handled spring tine cultivators on the market but they all seem to fall apart in one season. I have settled for this $4 deal I got from my local garden center. A good spring tine cultivator is in the works as part of my “Dream” tool set.

corona shears

Hand shears are very handy for chopping down perennials and shaping shrubs.I almost never use electric shears unless I am trimming a long angular hedge. If you can’t find these locally I got this pair of Corona shears for $40 and I like them.

Felco Lopper

This is a relatively lightweight pair of Felco loppers. They will fit in the average garden tool bucket. They will cut through stems and branches up to 1 inch in diameter. Anything larger and I like to switch to a hand saw. I bought this size a few years ago for $90. They’ve gone up a little bit.

Stihl handsaw 1

Speaking of hand saws, this feisty little guy out performs any hand saw I have ever owned or tried. Only 14 inches long with just the right amount of blade at just the right angle make for easy cutting without the blade getting bound up and folding. I found this Stihl saw at my local chainsaw store.

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A sod knife has become a real favorite of mine quite by accident. I don’t usually work with sod but I did put some in for my son’s preschool and so I had a sod knife hanging around in my bucket. It just so happens they work much better than trowels for planting bulbs, small perennials, and annuals. It is narrow which puts less strain on your wrist and has teeth down one side and the knife blade down the other to help cut through the soil. It also works well as a weeder. One can hold it flat along the soil and slice through the top layer of soil with a wide swooping motion to remove lots of little weeds very quickly.

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A gardening buddy at Mission Oaks introduced me to this new member of my tool family. Some call it a Japanese hoe or weeding sickle. It has a sharp angled blade that slices right through the soil with very little effort if the blade is kept sharp. It is a nice tool for people who may have some tendonitis in their wrists and can be purchased from A.M.Leonard for $8!!


A mini can of WD-40 is always in my bucket. It keeps everything snipping nicely and helps prevent rust. If you shear much boxwood you have probably found that the blades get a bit sticky as you go along so I always keep it near and give the blades a squirt now and then to loosen up the gummy build up.

As the season progresses some of the heavier tools take a break in the shed and some jute twine, scissors, and a watering wand make their way in to the bucket. for mid summer maintenance.

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The Other Side of Winter


I feel peaceful and calm when I look at this scene from the family farm. My Irish roots cause me to appreciate the soft light of grey days. However by mid-February I have had enough. I yearn for an glimmer of hope that spring is near.


Thankfully a walk in the Mission Oaks Conifer garden has given me a little something to hold me over til the glory days of spring. The witch hazel blooming here is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jalena’. My 4 year-old has been in the habit of adding Y’s to his colors lately and it has occurred to me this is actually rather sophisticated. He does it when the color is not just blue but ‘blueishy purple’, or not just ‘yellow’ but ‘yellowishy’ green. It implies that there is a range of in-between shades that must be accounted for. So this witch hazel has a beautiful ‘orangey’ yellow glow nestled between this Weeping Spruce and Japanese Red Pine ‘Stupka Selection’.

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