Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Spring is Here

The Gardening Trivia Quiz

Last week’s question had to do with telling the difference between a fruit and a vegetable (the answer is below). This week’s question is part 2: What is the only fruit to be declared a vegetable by an act of Congress and in what year did that occur? E-mail me your answer at leslieross@sbcglobal.net and I’ll send you back a coupon to use in the store. Good luck!
Spring is Here!
I grew up in California, but I have spent the majority of my adult years in Michigan, Colorado and now Illinois and I have come to appreciate having four seasons. In California we joked that we had two seasons: green and brown. It was green during the winter rainy season and by the end of May the surrounding countryside turned brown as the grasses went dormant. The only green would be from the magnificent oaks that dot the foothills or the star thistle. (Why is it that weeds stay green no matter what the weather?) In Colorado, due to the extreme dryness during the summer, gardening was truly a labor of love. Ten percent humidity is not uncommon. I could not grow impatiens to save my life, because I couldn’t keep them watered enough. Having been at the bottom of an ancient sea, the soil also is very alkaline and clayey. Living in the West, you must learn to love the various shades of brown that nature provides.

Here in Illinois we have our gardening issues, but basically life is good and now that spring has sprung we can get out in the garden and begin planting our annual beds and adding to our perennial gardens. As you might imagine, we get a lot of questions at Countryside about how to plant, so I thought I would address a few gardening basics today and over the next couple of postings.

Getting Ready -Part 1 -- Soil, the Garden Foundation
The most important foundation of a successful garden is the soil. Just about any soil problem can be corrected with the addition of organic matter. Heavy, clay soils, like we have here in Illinois, can be loosened up and sandy soils will become more water retentive. It is much easier to add organic matter before you start planting. If you are planting a new bed, please take the time to amend the soil with some type of organic matter. It will pay back big dividends in added productivity later on. The addition of organic matter will also increase soil acidity, which is a good thing since most plants don't do well in high pH soils. The high pH inhibits take up of certain nutrients.

What to Use: Organic matter is any carbon based material that has decomposed or been "composted". You can make your own compost from yard and garden waste, but there are many products available commercially. We don’t recommend using peat moss because it provides very little nutritive value and peat is a non-renewable resource. It is also so good at retaining moisture that it can actually reduce drainage in clay soils. Use a good compost instead. Mushroom compost is a good alternative because it is essentially well rotted manureand high in nutrients, but used excessively over time it can cause salt build up in the soil. Leaf compost is available commercially in bulk or from your own compost pile and is a good substitute. Think about getting a leaf shredder and shredding leaves next fall instead of burning them. You can add them to the compost pile, use them as mulch or dig them directly into the bed to compost over the winter. (When we got our shredder I thought I could shred them down to a wheel barrow load, but as I discovered an acre's worth of leaves is still a lot of leaves!) Newly available on the market is a product called Cotton Burr Compost. Sold locally in bags, it provides lots of nutrients as well as lightens up our heavier soils. If your beds are already established, compost can be applied as a top dressing. Eventually, worm action will work the compost down into the soil.

Next Week: Proper Planting Techniques

Container Gardening

Container gardening is gaining popularity as people downsize to smaller gardens or have less time to garden on a large scale. Gardening in containers gives you flexibility in choosing color combinations and making changes as the season progresses. More and more plants have been developed to meet this demand. We are fortunate at Countryside to have the talented Michael Fedoran who designs a lot of the container gardens we sell and assists customers in selecting unique or unusual plant combinationss for containers.

Michael uses perennials as well as annuals in his containers and at home he will cluster containers in a monochromatic scheme. Each container will have several of the same plant and he will cluster them in groups of three to five. Foliage holds more of an interest for him than do the flowers and you will notice this in the containers he does for the store. Lamium as a trailing plant or upright heucheras for the center of the container are some of his "trademarks." Although I already know some of his favorite plants (Diamond Frost euphorbia) I asked him to recommend some "foolproof" annuals for people wishing to do their own containers and these are his recommendations:

Million Bells (Calibrachoa)
Often mistaken for miniature petunias, these plants are actually in the potato family. Regardless, they are steady performers in the garden, either in the ground, but more often in containers or hanging baskets. They come in a range of colors from blues and purples, to pinks, oranges, reds and yellows. They prefer full sun, but will tolerate some shade although they will not bloom as profusely. They prefer evenly moist soils and do not like being waterlogged. If they get a little leggy, don’t hesitate to get out your scissors and give them a trim.

There must be a bazillion different coleus. One website I visited listed over 1400 different varieties! In Victorian times they were used as bedding plants, but now they are used as the focal plant in containers due to their bright, variegated foliage. While most coleus do well in shade, hybridizers have developed sun tolerant coleuses. They are very easy to grow and are resistant to most pests and diseases. With all the varieties available, I am sure you will find one (or two or more) to accent your containers this year.

The Answer to Last Week’s Garden Trivia: Fruits contain seeds and are the result of the plant’s flowering while vegetables are the edible parts of the plant, such as the root (carrot), leaf (lettuce), or stem (celery).

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