Planting a Butterfly Garden

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Butterflies are important pollinators of our food and flower crops.  To keep them coming, or if you just enjoy their beauty, provide them with the habitat they need.  Butterflies are attracted to landscapes that provide warmth, water, food, and shelter—preferably all near each other.

The first step in creating a butterfly garden is to choose the proper site for them, and preferably one where you can observe them. Butterflies are most active in warmth and bright sunlight, so pick a spot that gets plenty of sun.  The air temperature must be at least 40 to 60 degrees (F) for them to become active.  Place perches for their sunning in, or near, the garden where butterflies can land and spread their wings.  These include flat stones, wooden fence posts, and areas of mulch.

Water for butterflies should be provided in the form of a puddle, not birdbaths, ponds, or large water features. Containers could be a small trench in the soil lined with plastic, a plastic pail buried in the ground, or a dish.  Fill the container with sand.  Place a few rocks and twigs on the sand to provide landing sites within reach of the water.  Then fill the container with water to the level of the sand.

Provide the least hostile environments to butterflies—those least attractive to birds and other predators.  One way to keep birds away is with the use of inflatable snakes. Or you can place birdbaths and feeders a distance from the garden.  Sticky tape and flytraps will help catch preying insects, as you want to avoid the use of insecticides.

The same products that kill undesirable insects, including electric bug zappers, also kill butterflies and moths.  At some stage of their life cycle, all butterflies are susceptible to chemicals, even some of the least toxic ones such as biological Bt products.  Some of the feeding damage you’ll see on leaves is probably caused by caterpillars, which you need to tolerate in order to later have butterflies!  Usually such feeding is minor, and doesn’t pose a significant nor long term threat to your plants.

A wide variety of plants attract butterflies. Remember that you’ll need to provide food for the larvae, as well as the adult butterflies (mainly flower nectar).  Most species are fussy about where they lay their eggs, selecting plants from specific families that will provide appropriate food for hatching caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweeds.  Black swallowtail larvae eat leaves of dill, parsley, carrot, and fennel.  Painted lady caterpillars eat thistle leaves.  In general, caterpillars like weeds such as clover, thistle, and milkweed. If possible, leave a few weeds for them along the edge of the garden or in nearby areas.

Add some vegetables and herbs to encourage butterflies to lay eggs in the garden.  Caterpillar forage plants include parsley and ornamental cabbage, which are excellent edging plants for the flower garden.  Clover makes a good “living mulch path”.  Carrot and dill add fine-textured, attractive foliage to the flower garden.

In general, adult butterflies are attracted to red, orange, yellow, purple, and pink flowers.  Also they prefer flowers that are in clusters or flat-topped groupings, and which have short flower tubes.  Since they have evolved with flowering native plants, it is important to include these in your landscape. A good listing of native plants, by region or state, can be found from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org/collections/).

To encourage butterflies to stay all summer long, select plants that flower at different times of the season to provide a continual supply of nectar. Since butterflies are near-sighted, plant  more than one of a particular flower to attract them.  Butterflies rely on smell more than sight in locating nectar plants, so scent increases the chance of a flower being visited by them.  (Their sense of smell is located in their clubbed antennae.)

Planting nectar sources in sites protected from wind  helps butterflies fly and forage in the garden with less effort.  You could plant windbreaks of trees and shrubs that would provide cover and perhaps even food.  Houses, garages, wood fences, and stone walls also serve as windbreaks.

Some butterfly species prefer, even require, overripe fruit to feed upon.  Plant some shrubs and trees that produce fruit, such as shadbush, crabapples, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and viburnum.  Just keep in mind that too many such fruit on the ground also may attract bees, hornets, and wasps.

Since species may overwinter in any of their four stages— egg, larva or caterpillar, chrysalis or pupa (which is the stage that metamorphoses), and the adult butterfly– a variety of winter cover is needed.   Butterflies overwintering in the adult stage may use the peeling bark on trees, perennial plants, and old logs or fences.  Old sheds, barns, or houses also provide overwintering sites.  Similar sites are used by overwintering pupae.  Butterfly hibernation boxes are seldom used by them, but more frequently by wasp colonies.

Butterflies overwintering as caterpillars or eggs use herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and trees.  Leave the leaf litter and dead plant parts of perennials in the garden until spring to provide cover for them from predators such as birds.

You can learn more about butterfly gardens, and how to officially certify yours, from the North American Butterfly Association (nababutterfly.com/).

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The Versatile Clematis Vine

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Are you looking for an easy perennial vine that can grow in various situations, has a range of flower colors in both singles and doubles, and that provides a long flowering show in spring or summer?  If so, then consider the versatile clematis.

Although there are many other common names for clematis, the most common is “virgin’s bower.”  Perhaps this was named for Queen Elizabeth I of England, the “virgin queen”, as during her reign is when a popular species was brought to England from Spain.  Yet some say this name was used before her time, and instead comes from the German legend that this vine sheltered Mary and Jesus during their flight to Egypt.  The word “bower” would fit this legend, as it comes from an old English word for dwelling, currently referring to a shady, leafy recess.  The word “clematis” is from the Greek word for a climbing vine.

Clematis is often called the “queen of the vines” as the flowers are so attractive, in singles or doubles, and from one to five or more inches across.  Some bloom early in the season, some later in summer.  In warmer climates, or with some, they may bloom again in fall. Flower colors range from deep purple to shades of blue, mauve, pink, red, yellow, cream, white, and bi-colors.  Generally they are flat, but a few are lantern-shaped.  What we call the flower petals are actually and botanically modified sepals called “tepals”.

Although there are many species and cultivars (cultivated varieties), literally hundreds, that vary in their growing needs, most that you commonly find are hardy in USDA zones 4 (an average low of -20 to -30 degrees F in winter) through 7, or even warmer.  Although some tolerate more shade (Jackmanii, Henryii, and Nelly Moser for instance), most need sites with at least six hours of full sun.

While their tops like part to full sun, a key to growing clematis well is keeping their roots cool.  Remember the old saying, “tops in the sun, feet in the shade.”  This can be done by planting in the shade of a small perennial or shrub (the vines will grow above it), or mulching.  Watering during hot spells cools the soil too.

Best soil for clematis is a well-drained loam, with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.  Water weekly during the first season, if there isn’t sufficient rain, and in subsequent years during droughts.  Fertilize plants after planting with a plant starter fertilizer, or liquid seaweed or fish emulsion.  In subsequent years, fertilize in spring with a granular organic fertilizer according to directions.  Also each spring, add a shovel-full or two of compost around plants.

Another key, that you often see in catalogs and references, to getting the most bloom from your clematis is proper pruning.  Many references list cultivars in three pruning groups or categories, depending on whether vines flower on stems from the previous season (group 1), both old and new stems (group 2), or just on current season’s growth (group 3).  This is important in the sense that if you prune group 1 for instance in spring before bloom, you’ll be cutting off this year’s blooms.

Without getting too confused as to what to prune when, just keep a couple points in mind.  Prune any dead wood off in spring, back to above new growth or emerging buds.  Since best flowering is on newer stems, for older plants remove any stems in spring that are 4 years old or more—those that are thick and woody.

If you need to reduce the size of the plant (they often get 10 feet or more high), or keep it more bushy and stimulate more flowers (such as group 2), prune in spring or early summer after bloom back to about one to two feet of growth.  For those that bloom later in the season (group 3), prune these back in early spring when you see new growth. Don’t worry about getting the pruning wrong or making a mistake, as clematis are forgiving and at most you might lose a season’s blooms.

Unless you are growing clematis as a groundcover (such as the ground clematis species), they are best grown on some sort of support.  As they attach themselves to supports by means of short leaf stems, supports shouldn’t be too wide—generally under a half inch.  Thin-wire ornamental trellises work, if tall enough.  Otherwise you can just use a fine-thread netting such as used for peas, wide-mesh fencing, twine, fishing line, or even twigs.  By using these you can grow clematis on sides of walls or around lamp posts, or let them ramble up through shrubs.

Since clematis may take a few years to reach maturity and full blooming potential, it’s best to start with plants from nurseries already a couple years old.  Choose ones in quart or preferably gallon pots.  Work plenty of compost into the soil prior to planting.  Then, be careful when planting as stems can be broken easily.  Make a wide planting hole, and plant slightly deeper (2 to 3 inches) than they were in the pot.   You can plant potted vines any time between spring and early fall.

If growing clematis in containers, unless you’re doing so in a mild climate, pots will need to be brought in over winter into a non-freezing location, such as cool garage.  Since containers should be large—at least 18 inches high and wide— you may consider casters on the bottom to move these large and heavy pots more easily.  Don’t use garden soil, but rather a potting mix, such as one containing a large percent of peat moss. Use more compact varieties for pots.

Planting several different varieties almost guarantees you a continuous sweep of color from spring to the first hard frost. You may find several species and quite a few hybrids bred from them, some being classics dating back to the 1800’s.  Early flowering (pruning category 1) include the single Nelly Moser (pale pink with carmine midstripe), ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’  (white with yellow stamens), or the double Belle of Woking (silvery mauve).

Popular ones flowering later in the season on current year’s growth (pruning category 3) are ‘Ernst Markham’ (red with gold stamens), Perle d’Azur (single pale blue with purple midstripes), ‘Hagley Hybrid’ (single pink), ‘Jackmanii’ (rich purple single), or ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ (single rose pink).

Then there are those that often bloom early and late, on both old and new growth (pruning category 2).  ‘Lincoln Star’ is an attractive bi-color with raspberry flowers edged white.  ‘Elsa Spath’ is a prolific bloomer, producing lots of lovely single blue-purple flowers. In this same group, blooming from mid-summer into fall with lantern-shaped yellow flowers is the Chinese species known as Golden Tiara.  It is followed by attractive silvery, fluffy seedheads. Another Chinese species that has lantern-shaped flowers, but lavender-blue, is the downy clematis.  It blooms in early spring, and often again in fall.

Keep the basics of growing clematis in mind—at least half day of sun, cool roots, well-drained soil, and proper support—and you should be rewarded with many years of blooms.

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Horticultural Health

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Do you do repetitive gardening chores? Strenuous garden tasks? Are you in the sun a lot? If so, you should be concerned with your “horticultural health.”  Being aware of potential health issues, how to avoid them, healthy habits to practice and proper tools to use, you should remain a healthy gardener for many years.

To avoid physical problems in general, make sure your body is conditioned prior to heavy activities, and that you have stretched.  Just as you shouldn’t work out at the gym without stretching first, neither should you garden without such.  You’ll find great exercises and tips on preparing your body for gardening in the book by Barbara Pearlman, Gardener’s Fitness:  Weeding Out the Aches and Pains.

Some of the more common “horticultural injuries” are back problems. To prevent these either don’t lift heavy objects or, if you have no choice, lift with your legs and not with your back.  Start slowly, don’t jerk, keep objects close to your body when lifting, and avoid twisting– turn your whole body instead, leading with your waist and not shoulders.  Knees should be directly above your toes when lifting, your shoulders above your knees.  Use a dolly, cart or wheelbarrow if possible, rather than carrying heavy objects. Or merely drag them on a tarp.

Perhaps the most common injuries are to fingers and toes.  Wearing gloves helps protect the former, just make sure they’re out of the way when using heavy or sharp tools.  Proper footwear not only protects feet from stone bruises, insect bites, slipping, or falling objects, but also from injuries to the soles of feet.  Work boots help to prevent the common and painful injury to soles– plantar fasciitis– such as from working on ladders or lots of digging.

Speaking of ladders, make sure they are sturdy and balanced properly on the ground.  Keep tools out of harm’s way, so you don’t inadvertently get a concussion from stepping on the end of a shovel or hoe and having it hit your head.  If working in trees, wear a hard hat.

The most common ailment while gardening is probably allergies– either skin rashes from touching certain plants or sinus allergies from wind-borne pollen. An allergy specialist can conduct tests to determine your allergies and recommend treatments or medications. Many over-the-counter allergy medications are available for you to try. Always follow directions on the package label and be aware of possible side effects. Start the medications at least a couple weeks prior to your allergy season so your body can get prepared.

Although poison ivy is the most well known plant that causes skin irritations, many other plants may as well, depending on the individual. One of the better websites for information related to plants poisonous to humans (many listings are for livestock) is from North Carolina State University (plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/category/poisonous-plants/).  A couple of leaflets from the University of Vermont may be helpful too (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/oh20.htm), one just on perennials (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/oh63harm.html).

Pesticides also may cause allergic reactions, especially if not used properly. Be sure to always use in accordance with label directions. Insect and spider bites are common and may cause allergic skin reactions, even swelling. There are many sprays and lotions available, including “organic” or naturally derived ones, to repel flying insects. With ticks increasing in most areas, and so the Lyme disease they may transmit, it is important to use such insect repellents and to dress appropriately.  Much more is available on Lyme disease and ticks from websites, such as from the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/lyme/).

Depending on the year and the season, stress from cold (frostbite) or heat (stroke) may be a health concern for some people. Be sure to dress properly, and avoid working outside for long periods in extreme cold or heat. When in the sun, always use sunscreen lotion unless your skin is covered (as in winter). A sunscreen product with a rating of 30 is recommended to provide adequate protection. Sun hats and sunglasses help avoid future eye damage.  Keep a large bottle of water with you in the garden to avoid dehydration.

Do you mow grass? Trim weeds? Till Gardens? Operate a blower to clean sidewalks? Then noise may be a health concern as well for you. Use of earplugs or other ear protection headgear will help prevent hearing loss or injury.  These activities, plus mixing dry potting soils or spreading dry soil amendments, may stir up unhealthy particles.  To avoid breathing these, have a dust mask handy.  Use safety glasses to avoid eye damage when using power blowers or mowers, or working around stakes and sharp plant stems.

A problem receiving much attention in recent years, usually with activities such as computing rather than gardening, is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). This is a type of repetitive motion or strain injury to the nervous system which may cause numb hands and fingers, tingling or “pins and needles,” cold fingers, wrist and finger pain, or reduced grasping strength. An important rule is to never work through pain.  Listen to your body.  If it aches, rest.

Some activities that contribute to this (and so should be avoided) are repetitive motions (like weeding), improper stretching prior to heavy labor, prolonged exertion, pounding or pushing with the hands, improper body positions, or low climatic temperatures. Certain hereditary factors also may make certain individuals more prone to CTS.  Alternate gardening activities frequently, perhaps every 20 or so repetitions, even if it is just raking from the other side, or taking a break from potting to water or move plants.

Whether you have CTS or want to avoid getting it, you may want to look for “ergonometric” tools the next time you go shopping. These are lightweight tools with larger, softer handles and shafts with handles attached at 90-degree angles. These tools often  have moveable parts so that the tool, and not your body, does the actual moving.

Small hand tools often have extension handles or arm cuffs to keep your wrist straight. Most tools are made so you can use either your right or left hand. Ergonometric power tools cause minimal noise and vibration.

If you’re tall, make sure handles are long enough to avoid back strain.  If you’re small or with small hands, make sure hand tools aren’t too large. For heavy jobs, get the right tools such as ratchet loppers or a sharp pruning saw for large branches.  Use knee pads or a kneeling cushion when working on the ground.  If your back is sore or you’re less agile, use a low seat or mobile garden cart to sit on while weeding.  If doing much potting or standing, consider a stool for periodic sitting.  If you need to stand for long periods, use a rubber, foam or gel mat.  These can be found in both kitchen and farm stores.

As important as all these are for your physical health, your mental health is important too.  Gardening should be fun, not a chore.  It is always a work in progress, so don’t focus on all you have to do—usually more than one person can possibly get done.  Focus on what you “did” get done, tackle small projects or amounts at a time, try to get a small project completed rather than getting sidetracked as is so easy.  Then stop to smell the flowers, taste the vegetables, and admire what you did get done.  This will lower your stress—a benefit of gardening, and a less stressed body is less subject to injuries.  Gardening is a great form of exercise yet, unlike other exercise, you’ll end up with something to show (or eat) for your efforts.

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Tuberous Begonias

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

If you are looking for a colorful, attractive flower to grace your garden or provide colorful containers, try the tuberous begonia. It is easy to grow, blooms well in the shade, needs moderate care, and will reward you with a lovely display of blooms all summer long.

Tuberous begonias come in shades of white, pink, red, yellow, orange, and salmon, as well as bi-colors. If they have a darker edge to the petals they are called “picotee.” Double flowers are male, and single flowers female. The large flowers are usually double and may be six inches or more in diameter. Plants generally grow 12 to 18 inches tall.

Depending on the cultivar (cultivated variety), plants may have camellia, ruffled, or rosebud type flowers. The hanging basket types such as the Illumination series have smaller, more numerous flowers than the more erect types.

“Nonstop begonias”, which were first developed in Germany, are perhaps the most popular upright series, with double blooms in many colors. They are so named because if given some light during the night during winter months (indoors or in a greenhouse, of course), they will bloom nonstop. Other upright ones include the Panorama series with smaller but more flowers, and the Ornament series with burgundy leaves and red or pink flowers.

Many people don’t realize that begonia flowers can be eaten! The lemony sour flavor goes well with fruit salad, salads, yogurt, or ice cream. Just make sure if you are going to eat flowers, you don’t use any pesticides on the plant.

Tuberous begonias grow best in a location that has partial to full shade, but bright light.  They don’t like dense shade.   An ideal site might have morning sun, or sunlight filtered during the day by trees.  They prefer a light, rich, well-drained soil.  Prepare the site by incorporating organic matter, such as peat moss or compost, into the upper 8 to 10 inches of the soil.

If starting them yourself, purchase only high quality, firm tubers. Unlike other begonias, these grow from this bulb-like structure.  Tubers can be started early indoors four to eight weeks before the frost-free date for your area.  Plants usually flower about three months after planting tubers.

Use flats or pots filled with equal parts of moist peat moss and perlite, or three parts soilless potting mix with one part builder’s sand . The depressed or hollowed (concave) side of the tuber should be facing up. The tubers should be sprouted in the dark at about 70 degrees (F). If the air is cooler, you can place pots on a heating mat.

As soon as shoots develop, cover the tubers with more potting mix, and move to a bright location such as a sunny window. The young plants should not be transplanted outdoors until all danger of frost has passed.  If started indoors, gradually acclimate them over a few days to temperatures and the brighter light of outdoors.

When planting outdoors, place them at the same depth as they are growing in pots.  Tubers rot easily when planted too deep.  A minimum of 8- to 12-inch spacing apart is recommended to allow the plants to fill out properly. After planting, do not cultivate around the root system or the fibrous roots will be damaged. Since the stems are quite brittle, they often need staking, especially in windy areas.

Plants should be watered when the soil begins to dry. The tubers will rot if they are overwatered and soil remains soggy, or stems may snap off at the base. Try to water in the morning if possible so that any moisture that gets on the foliage will have time to dry before evening. Wet foliage increases the chance of disease.

Feed every two weeks with a general purpose liquid fertilizer, or according to label directions. Use half strength when the plants are young and just sprouting. You may also use a slow or controlled-release fertilizer in the final beds or pots.

They also make excellent patio plants in containers. Start tubers in 4- to 6-inch wide pots, or if buying such, transplant when well-rooted into 7- to 10-inch pots.  You may even put two or more plants in larger pots, window boxes, or long planters.

Pick flowers off as the edges turn brown to prevent them from rotting and starting disease. If plants are dry and stressed, and the leaves turn brown, the cause may be too much sun, too much heat, or too little water. If upright plants are leggy, this means that they are getting too little light.  Too little light for hanging basket cultivars will make them grow upright and not cascade over the container sides.

Yellowish leaves indicate more fertilizer may be needed. White growth on leaves is powdery mildew disease. Fungicides can be used, but wider spacing and more air circulation may be all that is needed.

If you’ve brought plants indoors before frost, force them into dormancy by gradually watering less often.  Remove the stems and leaves once brown and dry.  If left outdoors, after the first fall frost, dig the tubers and remove the foliage. Dry the tubers for a few days, and store them overwinter by placing them in dry peat moss or sawdust in a paper bag at about 50 degrees. Give them some water in late March or early April, bring into bright light when growth resumes, and start the process again.
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Witchhazels

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Witchhazels are landscape shrubs deserving of wider use, attractive for their nice habit, fall foliage and long-blooming fragrant flowers.  In fact, they are the earliest and latest shrubs to flower during the season.   While the native species is the most hardy, its yellow-orange fall flowers are not as attractive as those with more colorful yellow, orange or red flowers in spring.  They’re easy to grow, require little maintenance, and have few if any pests and problems.

If you haven’t heard of these shrubs, you may have heard of the medicinal products made from them now, and originally by Native Americans.  The extract from leaves and bark is used for sores and bruises.  The distilled oil is used in skin care products for a range of purposes, from aftershave to skin ailments such as psoriasis and eczema, to insect bites and poison ivy rashes.  You will find it in many hemorrhoid preparations too.

This genus (Hamamelis) is the main member of the Witchhazel family.  The name comes from an Old English word for pliant or bendable branches.  Or the “witch” may be related to the centuries old use of stems as divining rods in dowsing for water.  They’re not closely related to the true hazels (Corylus) that bear the nuts of the same name.

Witchhazels are deeply rooted, multi-stemmed shrubs with a rounded to irregular upright growth habit.  They often have an attractive branching structure.  These medium to large shrubs reach 6 to 12 feet high or more.  They spread (they’re not aggressive spreaders) to eventually form large clumps 12 to 15 feet across.  Leaves are rounded to elongated, 2 to 5 inches long.  Flowers are rather unique, consisting of four narrow, strap-like petals under an inch long, in various colors and often twisted.  Blooms appear either in spring or fall, depending on selection, and last 4 weeks or more.  They have an elusive fruity to spicy fragrance.

In nature, witchhazels grow along the edges of woods, so are fine in part shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun a day).  They will grow in full sun as well, where they’ll be more dense, rounded, and with more flowers.  They won’t grow well in deep shade.

Although adaptable to a range of soils, they don’t grow well in ones that are too wet or prone to dry out frequently.  Add lots of peat moss or organic matter when planting.  Water well and deeply when the top 2 inches of soil dries out, particularly in the first two years after planting.  Fertilize with product of your choice each spring, or simply top dress around plants with an inch of compost.

Witchhazels are good choices for naturalistic landscapes with plants such as viburnums, winterberries, redosier dogwood, serviceberries, or foamflowers underneath.  They make a nice contrast to evergreen shrubs.  Being large, consider them for backs of borders, or used singly as accent plants.  In sun, where they become dense, they make good screens or informal hedges.  If you want to enjoy the subtle fragrance and beauty of the flowers, plant witchhazels near walks or patios.  If used near buildings, make sure they’ll have enough room to grow over time.

Cut branches of witchhazels during late winter to “force” into bloom indoors in one to two weeks.  Place the base of branches in warm water, changing the water every day or two.  Keep them in a cool area, out of sun, with a clear bag over branches until flowering to keep the humidity high.  If branches are already beginning to bloom when cut, place in warm water containing flower preservative (from floral shops).  These are often best used in simple or Japanese-style arrangements.

The native common witchhazel (H. virginiana) has yellow flowers in October when the golden leaves begin falling, so are really only seen once all leaves are off.   ‘Harvest Moon’ is a selection from breeder Richard Jaynes of Connecticut, with lemon-yellow flowers that appear a couple weeks later, once leaves have fallen, so are better appreciated.  Flowers of this eastern U.S. native are hardy through USDA zone 4 (to -30 degrees F).  This plant can become one of the largest in this genus, reaching 20 feet tall and wide with an open, spreading habit.

The vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis), native to the Midwest and South, is very early spring blooming with a pungent fragrance.  The yellow to red-orange flower petals, about a half- inch long, appear before the leaves which have a reddish cast as they unfold.    These are slightly less hardy than those of the common witchhazel, but still through much of USDA zone 4. You may find the cultivars ‘Autumn Embers’ with orange flowers or the yellow ‘Sandra’.

Chinese witchhazel (H. mollis) is less hardy, being marginal in USDA zone 5 with flowers damaged at -10 to -15 degrees (F).  It and its cultivars have flowers in varying degrees of yellow to gold.  Japanese witchhazel (H. japonica) is similar to the Chinese, with similar hardiness, but with less showy and less fragrant flowers and is less commonly found.

Most commonly found are the hybrids (H. x intermedia) between the Chinese and Japanese, with more vigor than either.  Upright and spreading with time, they are usually 12 to 15 feet high and wide, but could grow even larger.  They often flower into USDA zone 5 in the north in early spring, as their parents, with their flowers hardy to about -20 degrees.   There are many cultivars of the hybrid witchhazel, ‘Pallida’ with its sulfur yellow flowers being one of the best.  ‘Diane’ has orange red flowers, while ‘Jelena’ has coppery orange flowers and orange red fall foliage. ‘Arnold Promise’, originally named in 1963 at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, has yellow flowers arising out of a red cup (“calyx”). It is one of the best and most popular.

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Caring for Cut Tulips

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Although the outdoor landscape may be bleak right now, the greenhouse industry has found a way to bring spring into our homes.  And that’s by fooling tulips and other spring flowers into blooming early indoors.          When properly cared for, cut tulips will stay fresh in a vase of water for seven to ten days.

The cut tulips you find at your florist shop, local greenhouse, and supermarket this time of year are “forced” tulips that were grown in greenhouses in the United States or as far away as the Netherlands.  Growers have used special temperature treatments to confuse the biological clocks of the flowers and force them to bloom on a different schedule than they would if grown outdoors.  It allows them to produce flowers of uniform height and quality for sale during winter months. This is similar to the method you can use at home with potted tulips, placing them at around 40 degrees (F) in fall for at least 10 to 12 weeks before bringing back into warmth.

For long-lasting tulips, buy ones very “tight” or unopened, with buds still green and just showing some color. Recut the stems when you first get them home.  Lay the bouquet on its wrapping paper or newspaper, or over a sink, and cut the stems diagonally using a sharp knife or scissors, removing about one-half inch of stem.

Place the stems directly in the vase, or if holding for a while just in water, recut the stems before placing in the final vase.  Many recommend cutting stems under water or under running water, so no air enters the stems to block the water vessels there. Make sure the vase is clean before using.

Fill the vase with lukewarm water, not ice cold, which is taken up better by the stems.  Use a floral preservative— a powdery mix of plant food and bacteria inhibitors– available at all floral shops, and often coming with the bouquet you buy in stores.

Although many people believe that adding a dash of carbonated lemon-lime soft drink, a teaspoon of sugar, a penny, or even a bit of bleach to the water will help extend the life of the flowers, none of these folk remedies are as effective as commercial cut flower food. While some say that a preservative is not needed for cut tulips, a study published in 2012 (Kumar and others, Journal of Applied Horticulture) showed that any of 10 different preservatives kept flowers longer than if just in water.

The general rule of thumb for arranging flowers is that the bouquet should be about one and one-half times the height of the vase.  Tulips work well in tall, straight vases, although they can be arranged in a fan shape in a low, wide bowl.  For the latter you will need to keep the flowers in place, anchoring with a florist “frog” or block of florist foam, these held to the bottom of the vase to support the arrangement. Don’t mix tulips with cut daffodils, as the latter exude a sap that clogs the water uptake of other flowers.

Make sure and check the water level daily, as tulips use much water, and for longest life you don’t want the vase to dry out.  Place the bouquet out of direct sun, and away from heating vents or drafts.  Top off the water level daily to keep the arrangement fresh, and replace every 3 to 4 days or when it becomes cloudy.

An interesting fact about tulips is that they continue to grow after being cut, up to an inch or more.  They are “phototropic”, bending towards the light, so rotate containers daily to keep stems more upright.

Want to buy some cut tulips for Valentine’s Day, but not sure about the color?  Then consider these facts from a research study published in 2010 on color preferences (by Yue and Behe in the HortScience journal).  Both men and women chose a red or bronze color most often then, followed by a peach or pink color.  This makes sense, since red is considered a color to express love.  Yellow was the least chosen color then, as well as overall through the year.

Of buyers of cut flowers through the year, 70 percent were women and 30 percent men.  Women bought 44 percent of cut flowers for themselves, 56 percent for gifts with only 6 percent bought on Valentine’s Day.  Only 6 percent of purchases by men of cut flowers through the year were for themselves, 96 percent bought for gifts, with 23 percent of their yearly purchases on Valentine’s Day.

While cut tulips are a lower cost flower gift for Valentine’s Day giving, and make great gifts through the winter and into spring too, you may find tulips planted in pots.  If buying these, similar to the cut tulips, buy with buds still unopened, and keep in cooler temperatures for longest life.  Since most tulips are not perennial, they likely won’t rebloom in future years if planted outdoors in spring.

(author’s note: Any videos or ads appearing here, added by WordPress, are not in any way related to nor have been approved by the author.)

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Wood Ashes in Gardens

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Winter in the north means wood ashes, even more in recent years with the higher cost of heating oil and many homes converting to wood stoves or wood pellets.  Rather than sending the wood ashes that are left to the landfill, they can be used “judiciously” in landscapes and gardens.

The main benefit of wood ash in the soil is to raise the soil pH, or make it less acid.  Soil pH is a measure of acidity on a 14 point scale, with 7 being neutral.  Below 7 is acid, and above is alkaline.  Most our northeast soils tend to be acidic, often 5.5 to 7.  Slightly acidic is ideal for many plants, as this is the range in which most nutrients are available to them.  Generally, wood ash is from 25 to 45 percent calcium carbonate, a common liming agent, so you can use twice as many ashes as you would this lime.

So what this means for wood ashes is that if your soil is 6.5 to 7 or above, don’t add them.  If you’re not sure of your soil pH, do a soil test in spring when the ground thaws (kits are available from your local Extension office and many garden stores), but in the meantime go lightly on the wood ashes.  Adding too much may do more harm than good, particularly since wood ashes change the soil pH much more quickly than most liming products.

Keep in mind a plant or crop’s preference for soil acidity, and so wood ashes.  Asparagus, conifers, and juniper tolerate more alkalinity, and so wood ashes.  Potatoes, blueberries, and rhododendrons prefer a fairly acidic soil (less than 5.5), so don’t add any wood ashes for these or where they’ll be grown.

When wood burns, it gives off nitrogen and sulfur as gases, but leaves behind other plant nutrients in small amounts.  Hardwoods such as maple and oak provide up to 3 times as much ash, up to a third more calcium, and slightly more nutrients, than softwoods such as fir and pine.  The main nutrient added is potassium (the third number on fertilizer bag analyses), perhaps up to 10 percent “potash.”

Adding wood ashes to plants is not a new practice, being first documented centuries ago by the Romans.  Its benefits became widespread in this country in the 18th century when the method was discovered for making potash– potassium bicarbonate– from wood ashes.  In fact, this method of basically soaking ashes in a pot received the very first U.S. patent in 1790.

Although the amount to add will vary with soil and crop, a good rule is 20 pounds (roughly a 5 gallon pail) per 1000 square feet of garden.  This is the amount you may get from one cord of firewood. You also may see recommended ashes “topdressed” or spread evenly up to one half inch thick. Tomatoes in particular like potassium, and so wood ashes.  For lawns, go a bit lighter—10 to 15 pounds per 1000 square feet.  For individual plants, spread one-half to one pound of ashes evenly around a mature shrub or rose bush.  For trees such as apples, you can spread around them up to an inch thick.

Clay soils usually tolerate more wood ashes than sandy soils.  Don’t leave the ashes in piles or clumps, as concentrated nutrient salts can leach from these and damage roots. It’s best to spread them in winter or early spring, a month or so before planting or adding other fertilizer.  This gives the ash time to fully work, and not interact adversely with some nitrogen fertilizers.

Since wood ash is about a 0-1-3 analysis (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium), and many soils contain sufficient phosphorus already, perhaps the only additional nutrient you may need to add is a source of nitrogen.  But a professional soil test will recommend any additional fertilizer.

Wood ashes also can be added to compost piles to keep the acidity more neutral.  Sprinkle some on each layer of compost as you build the pile.  If stockpiling wood ashes to use later, keep them dry.  Rain will leach the nutrients, and so benefit, from them. If storing, use a metal can so any hot coals in the fresh ash wont cause a fire.

Another option is to store wood ashes dry, then make a “tea” with them during the growing season for watering plants and so providing some nutrition.  Put about 3 pounds in a permeable bag or wrapped in burlap into a 30-gallon garbage can of water, leaving it there for at least 4 or 5 days.

When dry, wood ashes can be spread around perennials such as hostas to physically deter slugs and snails (they don’t like to cross dry ashes).  But when they get wet they lose this effectiveness, so you would need to reapply.  If done too often, this could end up adding too many ashes and so too high levels of salts in the soil.

It probably seems obvious, but bears mention, that ashes from burning trash or treated wood shouldn’t be used on gardens. They may contain chemicals, or elements in high amounts, toxic to plants. Since wood pellets are made from sawdust or wood particles held together with natural lignins from the wood when heated in the molding process, they’re fine to use.

So this winter as you snuggle by a wood stove or fireplace, or see a neighbor burning wood but who doesn’t garden, consider recycling the ashes from this natural product back to the soil.  Just make sure to not use too much, and avoid spreading around acid-loving plants.  If your soil is already fertile or of the correct pH, wood ashes can be used to hide stains on paving, melt ice on walks, make soap, shine silver, or even neutralize skunk odor on pets.

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