Plants – they are everywhere!

Well, duh, of course plants are part of our every day life.  They are the beginning of the food chain, making food from the sun.  They exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen – pretty handy trick.  They clean the atmosphere and help manage water.  But, ornamental plants are also an important part of our lives.  Nowhere is that more evident than in Europe.  Europeans have populated their countries for so long and space is at such a premium, they seem to appreciate plants more. It helps that a bouquet of flowers costs as little as 3-4 Euros, so it is easy to have fresh flowers on the table always.

As I write this column from Brodenbach, Germany on the Moselle River, I am reflecting on 10 days in the Netherlands, Brugges and Alsace and thinking about all the great examples of horticulture I’ve seen.  Colorful annuals are simply a part of every city or town’s atmosphere.  Overflowing baskets of annuals hang from lampposts or cascade over window boxes in town squares and small alleys. People are paid to care for those plants because it is important to have flowers brightening up the environment.

Restaurants take local produce to a new level.  One café in Colmar, France had planters surrounding their outdoor dining space full of herbs, cherry tomatoes and peppers that were picked and used in the dishes they served.  More vegetables were grown in a garden outside a windmill at Kinderdijk in the Netherlands, demonstrating how windmill keepers lived back in the day.

And of course, the wine.  Living in a vineyard and making wine is not just a job, it is a way of life. A vintner in Geuberschwihr, France describes how the soil, rain, sun, insects, fungi and everything in the environment must be considered to make a great wine. In Alsace, where one side of the mountain range is perfect for wine grapes, every square meter is planted.

We could all learn a little from the conscious appreciation of decorative plantings observed in Europe.  Let’s celebrate what plants do for us and enjoy their beauty in public spaces, private gardens and on the dinner table every day!

Town square overflowing with annuals in Eguisheim, France

Private home display on street in Heusden, The Netherlands

Wine grapes occupying every square meter of space on this premium hillside in Alsace, France.

Vegetable garden outside a windmill in Kinderdijk, The Netherlands.

Restaurant in Colmar, France with herbs and tomatoes defining the dining space.

 

More Meadows

Will she ever stop writing about meadows, you ask. The answer is “no.”  I keep learning more about converting mowed lawn to meadow.  I will not stop sharing these ideas until suburban Delaware has converted most of the lawn space (except gathering spaces, paths and play areas) to some other type of planting.  Meadow is one of the best alternatives to lawn because it is relatively inexpensive to install and while not maintenance free, does not require weekly mowing, like a lawn, or routine weeding, like a landscape bed.

This week I saw three different beautiful meadows.  DelDOT is continuing to plant meadows to benefit pollinators, reduce mowing along the roadside and beautify the state with native plants.  Two new meadows along I95 between Newark and Wilmington are blooming with black-eyed Susan, lance leaved coreopsis, butterfly weed and more.  These were seeded in summer 2017 and are just starting to come into their own.  Both sites are also planted with native trees and shrubs to provide a woody backbone.  One site is just north of the I95 rest area and the other is on southbound I95 after the 141 exit. Check them out next time you are driving between Newark and Wilmington.

Black-eyed Susan blooming in the DelDOT meadow at the north end of the rest area on I95.

Working with summer interns from the Landscape Architecture program at UD, I had the opportunity to visit Laurel, DE.  They have been using green infrastructure to revitalize the town, bring in tourism and provide ecosystem services to Laurel residents.  Jules Bruck is working with a group of interns this summer to document the process of installing a planned wetland and seek SITES certification for the project.  SITES is a national organization that certifies sustainable landscape projects, similar to LEED for buildings.  A few years ago, Jules installed a meadow in Laurel and it looks fantastic after three years of growing pains.  It really brings home the message that meadow installation often requires patience.  It is important to set realistic expectations about what the meadow will look like in year 1, 2, 3, and 10!  The Laurel meadow was seeded with many flowering perennials and includes very little grass, usually the backbone of a meadow.  It meets the desires of Laurel residents with its colorful blooms.

A wide variety of blooming perennials provide a riot of color in this Laurel, DE meadow.

The third meadow I visited recently was at a friends’ house.  They are amateur beekeepers and wanted a place for their bees to forage.  With the help of entomology graduate student, John Menz, they tried another approach for establishing a meadow.  They had struggled with the “meadow in a can” concept last year and were unhappy with the results.  A bad nutsedge infestation among other weeds kept the meadow from fulfilling expectations.  Menz suggested trying a cover crop, buckwheat. Buckwheat is a warm weather plant that grows in ordinary garden soil and has minimal nutritional needs.  It germinates quickly and flowers in 5-6 weeks. Once seeds mature, it can be cut and tilled in. The brittle roots are easy to chop up with a hoe.  Because of its dense growth, it can smother out even the most tenacious weeds.  It has completely covered the nutsedge that was so prevalent in my friends’ meadow.  The seeds should resprout and provide multiple crops in one year.  I am curious to watch this approach to a small residential meadow develop over the next year.  I will keep you posted as well!

Buckwheat surrounding a pine needle path to a suburban garden and bee hive.

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Wet, Wet, Wet

What does all this rain mean for the landscape? In most cases, it means growth is lush this spring (weeds included).  You should be cutting your lawn about every five days to keep up with the growth.  One of the best things you can do for your lawn is to follow the rule of one-third, which means remove only one-third of the leaf tissue with every cut.  That allows the grass to photosynthesize in the remaining leaf tissue and make sugars for healthy root growth.  When you remove more than one-third of the leaf tissue with each cut, you stress the grass.  In addition, clippings tend to clump up so they are unsightly and exclude light from reaching the grass below the clump.  Most people cut their grass once a week, so every 5 days means changing your routine while growth conditions are so favorable.

Weeds are growing too and I have seen some of the largest dandelions ever this spring. You can hand pull weeds, but be sure to get the entire root system.  When you pull up a weed, you disturb the soil and bring up additional weed seeds. One school of thought recommends spot spraying weeds with herbicides instead of hand pulling to control the weed, but keep the weed seeds buried so they are not exposed to light and allowed to germinate.  If you put a preemergent crabgrass herbicide on your lawn this spring, you might need to make another application.  Crabgrass preventers work by setting up an herbicide barrier in the soil.  When crabgrass seeds germinate, the young sprout hits the barrier and dies so the crabgrass never actually emerges from the soil.  That barrier can be washed away with lots of rain and that has probably happened this spring.

One problem with lots of rain is prevalence of fungal diseases.  Fungi spread when there is a film of water on the leaves.  Most disease control must be preventative, so once you see a disease it is too late for treatment.  In most cases, dry weather and good air circulation will clear up a disease outbreak in the landscape.  Hand picking spent flowers or pruning out diseased foliage is usually a good idea and reduced disease spread.

Lots of moisture is good for some vegetables and not so good for others.  Peppers like hot, sunny weather, so pepper plants might be looking a little sorry after the rain we have had this spring.  As soon as temperatures get solidly hot and we get a dry spell, their growth should take off.  Most of the vegetable garden should be responding well to all the moisture.  Be sure to add fertilizer as plants grow rapidly, they will use the fertilizer you applied at planting and start depleting the soil.

If you have done a lot of new planting this spring, the wet weather has been great for your landscape.  Think of all the time you would have wasted watering newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials.  Mother Nature took care of that for you.  However, remember, plants are not fully established for several months to a year, depending on their size at planting.  When we hit our inevitable dry spell, check your newly planted specimens to make sure they are not drying out.  They may require supplemental watering at that point.

Poorly drained landscape sites may be waterlogged this spring. A surprising symptom of waterlogged plants is wilted foliage.  You see the wilted leaves and think they must be dry, so you add water.  In fact, the plant is wilting because the wet conditions have rotted enough of the roots to prevent water uptake even though there is plenty of water in the soil.  Inventory your landscape looking for plants that are suffering and consider replacing them with a more water tolerant plant.  Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is the most moisture tolerant shrub I have seen.   This brochure from Delaware Cooperative Extension recommends plants for a rain garden that tolerate moisture (http://s3.amazonaws.com/udextension/lawngarden/files/2012/06/live_eco_final.pdf).

 

Buttonbush and the ground cover, creek sedge (Carex amphibola) thriving in a wet border planting.

Cephalanthus occidentalis flower – A close up of the flowers of buttonbush.

Great Plants for Your Garden

Looking for ideas for new garden plants?  Many organizations highlight special plants each year.  The Perennial Plant Association’s pick for 2018 is Allium ‘Millenium’.  This ornamental onion is heralded as a butterfly magnet.  It grows best in full sun and produces a clump of upright glossy deep green leaves that reach 10-15 inches tall in spring.  By midsummer, it with have two to three flower stalks each sporting a 2-inch sphere of rose-purple florets.  Flowers can last as long as four weeks and then can be picked and dried holding on to a blush of their rose-purple color.  Allium ‘Millenium’ has no serious insect or disease problems, plus deer and rabbits usually avoid this great perennial.  What’s not to like!

Allium ‘Millenium’ in full bloom. Photo credit: Perennial Plant Association

The Delaware Nursery and Landscape Association (DNLA) picks a woody plant and an herbaceous plant each year.  The 2018 picks are marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) and common pawpaw (Asimina triloba); both native to the region.  The DNLA selects plants that are typically underused or unknown and are particularly well suited to thrive in Delaware. The marginal wood fern forms tidy clumps and can be easily identified by the spores along the outermost edges of the fronds.  Leathery leaves are evergreen and twice compound resulting in a lacy texture.  Leaves are blue-green on the upper surface with a light green underside and reach a height of 18 to 30 inches. Marginal wood fern requires good drainage and grows best in shade or partial sun.  It tolerates dry shade and like all ferns is deer tolerant. It is extremely cold hardy, but may need a protected location to keep the evergreen fronds looking good. Stands of marginal wood fern provide valuable habitat to small wildlife.  The dramatic feathery foliage makes marginal wood fern a great accent for a shade garden or in the right conditions, a lush, verdant groundcover.

Common pawpaw is a small to medium sized tree or large multi-stemmed shrub (10-40 feet tall).  It is native to the eastern United States, but has an exotic feel due to large, tropical-looking foliage. Pawpaw is the northernmost member of a primarily tropical family (Annonaceae; Custard Apple Family). Thick, bright-green leaves turn yellow-green for interesting fall color.  Purple, six-petaled flowers are borne singly in leaf axils in early spring before leaves emerge.  They are not particularly showy, but reward the keen observer as a harbinger of spring. Fruit are large, cylindrical and edible. They have a soft texture and flavor often described as strawberry banana-like. Fruit are not commercially available because they bruise easily and do not withstand shipping. Therefore, if you want to taste pawpaw, you need to grow one. Pawpaws make an excellent grove-forming understory tree. They provide food for birds, butterflies and small mammals and give an exotic touch to a native garden.

Paw paw in full yellow fall color. Photo credit: R. Darke

Interesting maroon flowers of the pawpaw tree. Photo credit: R. Darke

Delicate fronds of the marginal wood fern. Photo credit: R. Darke

The Native Plant Center at WestChester Community College in New York has its picks as well.  Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is the native woody plant of the year and Eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) is the native perennial of the year.  Blackhaw viburnum is a large shrub, reaching 12 to 14 feet at maturity.  Large, creamy white flower clusters are born above the foliage in late spring to early summer.  These are followed by pinkish-red berries that turn blue-black as they mature.  Flowers provide nectar for pollinators and a host of beneficial insects and fruit provides food for birds and small mammals.  Fruit is edible by people and can be made into preserves.

Eastern bluestar has multiple seasons of interest.  Powder blue five-stared flowers are born in clusters in spring, providing nectar for pollinators.  Bright green, shrubby foliage is makes a great background for other summer-bloomers.  Then in the fall, the leaves turn golden yellow.  Amsonia hubrictii (Arizona bluestar) is another bluestar with even more dramatic fall foliage color. This perennial is a member of the dogbane family and has a milky sap that makes it unpalatable to deer, rabbits and groundhogs.

Bluestar blooming along I95 at the gateway to Delaware from Pennsylvania.

If you want to learn more about horticulture in Delaware, visit my blog (http://sites.udel.edu/suebarton/)  and follow my instagram (sbartonhort).

Spring: Around the Corner?

It is hard to believe, but spring really is around the corner.  Soon many landscape companies will whip into action providing lawn and landscape services for all those homeowners anxious to get their yards and gardens in shape for the coming season.  It is hard for homeowners to assess whom to hire to manage their lawns and gardens.  Recently, I heard from a landscaper who was frustrated upon hearing a competitor tell her customer there was no need to test the soil before applying fertilizer.  That is just wrong.  A soil test is always a first step in proper lawn and landscape management.  Everything starts with good soil.  Plants will not grow properly unless they get water, nutrients and support from the soil.

Testing the soil will tell you the pH; whether the soil is acidic (low pH), neutral, or alkaline (high pH).  Lawns grow best at a soil pH or 6.0 – 6.5.  Some plants, like blueberries, camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons like the soil to be somewhat acidic, about 5.5.  Other plants, like boxwood, lilac, deutzia and weigelia like a neutral to slightly alkaline soil, about 7.0-7.5.  The only way to know what pH you are starting with is to take a soil test.  Once you know your soil’s pH, you can lower it by adding sulfur or raise it by adding lime.  You can also keep the soil at its current pH and select the plants that will thrive in those conditions.  But, if you plan to have a lawn, you wil need to make sure the soil pH is 6.0 to 6.5.  At that pH, nutrients the lawn needs are available, they are not present in toxic quantities, and microorganisms necessary to maintain healthy soil structure will thrive.

Testing the soil will also tell you quantities of phosporus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulphur present in your soil.  If you want to know about micronutrients, you can request a special test.  But, micronutrients are always present in soil and only become a problem for plant growth if the pH is too low (manganese toxicity) or too high (iron unavailable to plants).  Phosphorus is a nutrient we worry about in Delaware streams, rivers and bays.  Phosphorus adheres to the soil, so erosion will carry soil, and with it phosphorus, to bodies of water.  Plant debris, such as leaves, grass clippings, yard waste etc., contains phosphorus as well, so rains that carry those materials into the water will cause phosphorus pollution.  It is against the nutrient management law in Delaware to add phosphorus to soils already high in phosphorus on sites greater than 10 acres.  Sites smaller than 10 acres do not require a nutrient management plan, so it is not against the law, but it is certainly a bad idea, environmentally.

No one should be applying fertilizer without taking a soil test first.  The University of Delaware has a soil testing service (http://extension.udel.edu/dstp/) or you can use a private soil testing lab. Get off to a good start this spring, and test your soil before adding fertilzer!

If you want to learn more about horticulture in Delaware, follow my instagram (sbartonhort).

The proper way to take a soil test is to take 10 samples from the area you want to test and mix them in a bucket. Then pull the sample from that mixed bucket of soil. Tracy Wootten and Carrie Murphy, Extension Agents in Sussex and New Castle counties, respectively, are demonstrating that process.

Once the samples are mixed in the bucket, fill the plastic bag that comes with your soil testing kit with soil.

Use a soil core to pull a plug of soil out of the ground.

Kate Murray of the soil testing lab starts the analysis process on a soil sample.

Here are the tools you will need to take a soil sample.

 

What should you do for your lawn in the spring?

I received the following question last week through the Cooperative Extension “Ask the Expert” system.  It illustrates how confusing the lawn care industry is to homeowners trying to do the right thing on their lawns:

I have a turf-based lawn. I intend to weed and feed in early March. I know that my lawn needs a pre-emergent to control Bermuda/crabgrass. However, there are also other weeds, e.g., clover and other varieties. What weed control do you recommend and when should it be applied?

First, forget about “weed and feed” products.  They do not make sense for your lawn.  Apply most of the fertilizer your lawn needs in the fall and if anything, only apply ½ lb of nitrogen/ 1000 square feet (that equals 5 lbs of a 10-10-10 fertilizer, which is 10% nitrogen) in the spring.  Apply that small amount of fertilizer in March and no later than April 15.  Apply weed control later in the spring; so bundling those two products will not work.

This person wants to use a preemergent to control unwanted grasses.  That is great for crabgrass.  As an annual grass, it must germinate each year, so if you can prevent its emergence with an herbicide you can reduce the crabgrass in your lawn later in the season.  We recommend applying crabgrass preemergent products when forsythia is blooming, usually April, after you have applied spring fertilizer.  The other grass mentioned is bermudagrass—a perennial grass that cannot be controlled with a preemergent herbicide.  Bermudagrass is a warm season grass, so it will not start growing until late spring.  It cannot be controlled with a preemergent since its roots are alive and ready to burst into action with warm soil temperatures.  It cannot really be controlled with a selective herbicide either since there is very little difference between bermudagrass and the desirable grass in your lawn—except you like one and dislike the other.  For bermudagrass, we recommend spot treatment with a systemic herbicide that is non-selective (like glyphosate).

They also mention clover and other weeds.  Clover is not an annual, so a preemergent herbicide will not control it.  Instead, use a broadleaf herbicide specific for clover control (MCPP will work) once the clover is green and growing, but still young and susceptible to chemical control.  When you use selective herbicides, you must know which weed you are controlling.  For example 2,4-D products will control dandelions but not clover.

The best strategy for controlling weeds and maintaining a healthy lawn is to promote healthy turfgrass growth.  Fertilize modestly, if at all, in the spring.  Cut your grass at the appropriate height and frequency.  Don’t remove more than one-third of the leaf blade at any single mowing.  So, if you have a fescue lawn and you want to maintain it at a height of 3 inches, cut the grass when it reaches 4 ½ inches removing 1 ½ inches (one-third of the leaf blade).  By following these guidelines, your grass is able to catch light and photosynthesize, producing its own food for healthy growth.  Always use a sharp mower blade.  Control weeds when they are young so they do not take over.  Finally, apply most or all of the fertilizer required by your lawn in the fall (between late August and mid-October).

If you want to learn all about managing a healthy lawn, visit the Delaware Livable Lawns website.  Learn how you can make your lawn livable.  https://www.delawarelivablelawns.org/

If you want to learn more about horticulture in Delaware, follow my Instagram (sbartonhort).

Clean, healthy turfgrass at a sod farm in southern Delaware. Buy healthy turf and keep it healthy with proper care to avoid the need for weed control.