Powerhouse Pollinator Plants

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

With declines in bee populations from various causes, reduced monarch butterfly populations, bat population declines, and an increasing awareness of the importance of these pollinators to the food we eat, many gardeners are putting in pollinator gardens or adapting existing landscape to be pollinator-friendly.  This can be as simple as planting a small grouping of a flower, shrub, or tree attractive to pollinators.

Many garden-related organizations are collaborating on this topic through the National Pollinator Garden Network.  Founded in Fall 2014, they aim “to help restore critical pollinator populations in support of the President’s Executive Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”  Through the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge (millionpollinatorgardens.org), they are trying to register a million public and private gardens and landscapes to support pollinators.  At the Pollinator Partnership website (share.pollinator.org), you can register your garden or planting.

In addition to plants that provide nectar and pollen, you should provide a water source, sunny areas if possible with windbreaks, and minimal or no use of pesticides.  When choosing plants, you should include native plants as they are often best adapted to our native pollinators.  Make sure not to choose invasive species.  Plan for blooms throughout the growing season.  Plant a grouping of several of a particular plant, as groupings are more attractive to pollinators than just one or a few plants.

With all the interest in pollinators, there are an increasing number of research projects on pollinators, as well as resources.  One of the most extensive listings, and information, searchable by region of the country, is from the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org) under their Pollinator Conservation Resource Center web page.  You also can buy their book from Storey Publishing on Attracting Native Pollinators, which covers the pollinators, plants, and considerations for various landscapes and habitats. Another resource that I find useful, filled with facts, lists and photos, is the paperback by Heather Holm, Pollinators of Native Plants.

The Pollinator Partnership website already mentioned (pollinator.org) has extensive plant lists and 24-page leaflets (which you can download as pdf files for free) for each of 34 eco-regions of the United States and Canada.  You can find your region easily by zip code. Each of these leaflets gives information on plant traits, the pollinators you’ll find and support there and what flower features they prefer, plantings and habitats for various locations such as farms and homes, and plant lists with flower bloom times to aid in planning for continuous blooms.

For instance, my part of northern Vermont falls in the Laurentian mixed forest ecological province.  For this region, some of the trees and shrubs the Pollinator Partnership lists for May and June blooms are downy serviceberry (white flowers), chokecherry (white), and American basswood (yellow). A couple of large shrubs for later bloom are the bunchberry dogwood (white) and staghorn sumac (yellow green).  American witchhazel is a shrub with fall blooms (yellow).  Other native trees you might consider for pollinator habitat enhancement, such as serving as larval hosts, are birches, American beech, and both white and red oaks.

Some shrubs recommended for pollinators by the Xerces Society include highbush blueberry (white or pink flowers) and pussy willow (yellow or green) for early bloom.  Among those for mid-season are ninebark (white) and New Jersey tea (white).  For late season consider buttonbush both for flowers (white) and as a larval host.

Black locust is a good example of a native plant that bees love, is gorgeous in bloom, and that you may find recommended, but that also may be invasive outside of its native range.  Found growing naturally in parts of the southeastern states, it is planted and found naturalized in most other states.  Particularly in several northeastern and Midwest states, and along the west coast, it is considered by many as invasive—displacing native vegetation.  This particularly is a problem in prairies and savannas.

For perennials in this Laurentian province, the Pollinator Partnership lists a couple dozen.  Really early, when little else is out, is the marsh marigold (yellow), particularly adapted as its name indicates to wet areas.  Other early perennials are the wild sweet William phlox (pink to lavender), wild geranium (pink), and the Canada white violet (white with streaking).  For late spring and early summer, choices include red columbine (red and yellow), harebell (blue), water avens (purplish red), blue flag iris (blue purple), narrow-leaf blue-eyed grass (blue purple), red trillium (red), and golden zizia (yellow).

For summer, perennial choices for pollinators include turtlehead (white), flat-topped aster (white and yellow), Joe-pye (lavender pink) and boneset (white), swamp milkweed (pink), wild bergamot (lavender pink to violet blue), beardstongue (white), obedient plant (pale to dark pink), cardinal flower (red), and the common native black-eyed Susan (yellow, dark brown center).

For late blooms, choices include the calico aster (white and pink), New England aster (purple), and goldenrods (yellow).  In a Delaware study by author and entomologist Doug Tallamy on best bets to attract moths and butterflies (www.bringingnaturehome.net), goldenrod attracted the most species (115) with asters a close second (112).

In another study, this one at the University of Vermont, graduate student Annie White has collected data on the attractiveness of native species to pollinators, compared to cultivar selections of these species (“nativars”).  Of the 13 pairs of plants she compared, seven of the native cultivars attracted significantly fewer bee pollinators than the species. These were  ‘Strawberry Seduction’ yarrow, ‘Corbett’ columbine, ‘Twilite Prairie Blues’ baptisia, three coneflower cultivars (‘Sunrise Big Sky’, ‘Pink Double Delight’, and ‘White Swan’), ‘Moerheim Beauty’ Helen’s flower, ‘Alma Poetschke’ New England aster, and ‘Red Grape’ spiderwort.

The five pairs in which there was no difference in bee attraction included ‘Golden Jubilee’ anise hyssop, ‘Hello Yellow’ milkweed, ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ cardinal flower, ‘Husker Red’ penstemon, and ‘Claire Grace’ bee balm.  ‘Lavender Towers’ Culver’s root attracted more bees than the species.

The message so far from Annie’s research (pollinatorgardens.org) is that bee preference for cultivar or species will vary with the plant but, in general, native species are a better bet.  If you can’t find native species, cultivars of flowers are usually better than none.  Future research may show that many of our introduced non-native flowers also are useful for pollinators.

If all these lists and research results seem a bit overwhelming, you might start with Annie’s ten top plants.  These are herbaceous perennials that are native to the Northeast, attract a diversity of pollinator species, and perform well and look good in home landscapes.  They are the blue giant hyssop, purple coneflower, trumpet honeysuckle, sundial lupine, Helen’s flower, Culver’s root, foxglove beardtongue, Joe-pye, New England aster, and wild bergamot.

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Caring for Container Gardens

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

Container gardens are increasingly popular for several reasons.  They’re an attractive way to add color to a patio, porch, or small space.  They satisfy the urge to garden if you have a green thumb but have limited space in which to plant flowers, or even some edible plants. Although  easy to plant and to get a more instant effect, they do need some care throughout the season to ensure healthy plants and continual bloom.

If the container plantings you made in spring are beginning to look a little leggy, or the foliage is yellowing, or they’re not blooming, don’t despair.  These and other problems are generally readily fixed.   Here’s a list of common problems–and the solutions–to help you get your container gardens back on the road to recovery:

Problem: You water regularly, but wilting still occurs.  The probable cause is poor drainage and aeration of soil. The solution is to repot using a lighter soil mix containing more organic matter. Or, if that’s not a viable option, increase the number of drainage holes in the container.

Another possible cause is too many plants in the pot, taking up too much water.  You may need to repot,  removing a few plants.

When repotting, add a water absorbing or soil moistening ingredient.  You can buy these at full service garden stores.  They are generally pellets that absorb many times their weight in water, releasing it and keeping soils moist.  They’re especially useful in clay pots or coir (coconut husk) lined baskets that dry out quickly.

Problem: Plants are tall and spindly. The probable cause is too little light, and perhaps too high nitrogen levels.  The solution is to  move the containers to a location that receives more sun or light a day. Stop fertilizing the plants, or decrease the amount.

Problem: Plants have stopped flowering.  There may be several possible causes.  An end to its flowering may be natural for this variety.  However, if you planted annuals, deadheading (removing spent flowers) often promotes branching and rebloom.

If the buds don’t open, the cause could be disease and rots.  Dig up a plant; if roots are brown and not white, root rots are likely.  Dispose of infected plants and replant the container with fresh potting mix. Use one made for pots, and not garden soil which usually has disease organisms and doesn’t work well in containers.  If tops appear to have disease, this could be gray mold (botrytis).  Give plenty of air movement around plants to help dry leaves off, and don’t water late in the day so leaves will be dry over night.

Too much fertilizer can cause excess leaf growth at the expense of flowers, so fertilize less if the plant is lush but has no flowers. On the other hand, if leaf growth looks fine and not excessive, plants may need more fertilizer.  Many of the new “vegetative” varieties (those grown from cuttings and not seeds) need very high levels of fertility.

Problem:  Yellowed foliage, especially the lower leaves. The probable cause is too much water or too little fertilizer. If leaves yellow from the bottom of the plant first, and plants lack vigor, it often means excess water in the soil.  If leaves are just generally a bit yellow overall, this is likely from too little fertility.  The solution would be to water plants less often if the soil appears wet, and make sure the container has adequate drainage. In addition to watering less, fertilize more, especially if using low nutrition organic sources.

Problem:  Edges of leaves are brittle and dry. The probable cause is too much salt present in the soil, most likely from overfertilizing. (You might notice a whitish crust on the soil surface or pot edge, another sign of excess salt.) Moving containers quickly from shade to more sun also may be the cause. The solution, if from too much fertilizer, it to water generously–until water pours out of the drainage holes–to cleanse the soil and remove the salt. Avoid changing locations and light levels rapidly.

Problem: Leaf spots, powdery or rusty areas. Probable causes are low temperature, inadequate phosphate, or disease. Solutions are to move the container to a warmer location. Apply a fertilizer containing high phosphate (the middle number of the three in the analysis), such as a plant starter fertilizer. You also might try fungicides, although if the problem is serious you probably will need to toss the plant. To help identify if a disease, and if so which one, work with your local garden center or contact your state master gardener network to help identify the pest.  (For Vermont it is www.uvm.edu/mastergardener).

Problem: Foliage is riddled with small holes. The probable cause is insect pests. Again, work with your garden center or local master gardeners to identify the pest.  Solutions are to apply the least toxic insecticide that will do the job, following the instructions on the label carefully. If the pest problem isn’t serious, you and the plants may be able to tolerate some damage.

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Proper Lifting for Gardeners

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Back injuries are second in the number of injuries, only to fingers and hands.  Most back injuries come from improper lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, and carrying—all activities we perform in the garden.  Here are some basic principles which apply to any means of lifting, lowering, and carrying, whether at the gym, home, store, or in the garden.  They apply whether lifting bags of fertilizer off a shelf, bags of compost, lifting rocks or pulling weeds.

–Start slowly, don’t rush, don’t jerk.  Move weights or objects in an unhurried, controlled manner.
–Use good form, or body position.  This is more important than the amount you can lift. If you have problems keeping good form, decrease the weight or get help from another person or with some aid as a dolly.
–Make sure to breathe; the tendency for some is to hold your breath when lifting.
–Make sure to keep your feet all on the ground, don’t rock back on your heels.
–Lift with your legs and not your back.  Not doing so is the main cause of back injury when lifting.  Lift with your knees and waist bent, not your back.  Keep your back straight. Knees should be directly above your toes, your shoulders above your knees.  If this isn’t happening, try taking a wider stance with feet further apart, and toes pointed outward slightly.
–You can look down at the object to lift, but when lifting keep the head in a neutral position looking forward—not up, not down.  This creates less stress on your neck muscles.
–Keep objects close to your body when lifting.  Holding them at arm’s length increases the weight on your lower spine by 15 times.  Stand close to the object when squatting down to lift.
–If lifting an object, particularly if heavy, onto a shelf, keep the object close to you and walk toward the shelf rather than stretching your arms out.
–Be careful when raising objects higher than your waist, as this can throw off your balance.  Standing with one foot slightly ahead of the other may help with balance. If lifting higher than your shoulders, you may need to lift less (if possible), or use a step ladder.
–Make sure you plan ahead when lifting where the object will go.  This avoids twisting improperly, carrying around heavy items, or lifting too much too high.
–Make sure you have good footwear to provide solid support, and that surfaces you’ll stand or walk on when lifting and carrying aren’t slippery, or with hazards such as cords, ropes, or stones.
–If lifting large items that obstruct your full vision, make sure you know where you’re going first; that there aren’t obstructions below or above.
–Don’t twist or turn at the waist while lifting; turn your whole body instead, leading with your waist and not shoulders.
–Don’t ignore pain.  The saying of “no pain, no gain”, doesn’t apply here. Take time to rest if your body calls for this.
–If you’ve been sitting, stretch your muscles when getting up before beginning to lift.
–As with any garden activities, do 15 repetitions or so, then rotate to another activity.  Especially in the case of lifting motions, doing too many and getting tired often leads one to start using the back and lifting improperly.


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Hellebore: The Lenten Rose

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

This perennial often is just called “hellebore” from its genus name (Helleborus), and is not a rose at all.  It gets this name from the fact the flowers somewhat resemble a small single rose, and it blooms in the north in early spring—the Lent religious season.  There have been many improved selections introduced in recent years, and it was named the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2005 by the Perennial Plant Association.

There are about 15 species of hellebores, with four more commonly found, the most common being the Lenten Rose (orientalis) and the Christmas Rose (niger).  The Christmas rose blooms much earlier in mild climates such as in Britain, hence its name.  One of the legends about it concerns a country girl, Madelon, who visits the Christ child in Bethlehem.  Seeing her sadness for not having a gift to bring him, an angel brings her outside and touches the ground.  There arise blooms of the Christmas Rose that she can then present as a gift to the baby Jesus.

It is odd to have such a plant celebrate Christ’s birth, as this species and the other members of this genus are highly toxic.  It is one of the four classic poisons, together with nightshade, hemlock, and aconite. In fact, the name hellebore comes from the Greek “elein” meaning to injure, and “bora” meaning food.

Use of hellebore dates back to 1400 BCE, when it was used as a purgative to “cleanse the mind of all perverse habits”.  It is found in writings through the ages, from the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages, when it was used by herbalists.  It has been used for animal ailments, to bless animals and keep them from evil spirits, to repel flies, to “purge the veins of melancholy, and cheer the heart”, or even in one superstition to make oneself invisible if scattered in the air!

Hellebores are native to southern and central Europe, and from Slovenia to Macedonia.  They are often found in mountains, and on stony clay soils.  Although the Lenten rose is listed as hardy to zone 4 (-30 degrees F), and the Christmas rose to zone 3 (even colder), both are usually battered by or under the snow in these areas.  Mine, in a cold zone 4, often start the spring in a sad state, with unattractive or few flowers, but rebound with nice leaves in the summer.  Cutting back damaged spring foliage can result in new growth more quickly.

Most species are not as hardy, and most hybrids that one finds include these less hardy species as parents.  These hellebores, often hybrids (x hybridus) with the Lenten rose prefer and grow best in mild climates, such as in Britain, our mid-Atlantic states, the Pacific Northwest, and even the upper Southern states.  If you have a mild climate (USDA zones 5 to 6 or 0 to -20 degrees minimum), or a protected location, you may wish to try some of the newer hybrids.  When buying from catalogs, look for hardiness zone designations.

Hellebores grow best in part shade, with moist but well-drained soils. They will, however, tolerate most soils as long as not waterlogged.  In the north, if hardy, they can be grown in full sun if sufficient moisture.  They need little fertilizer, just an application in spring of compost and perhaps a light sprinkling of a slow-release organic fertilizer (such as a 5-3-4 analysis).

Plants are slow to get established, but once they are growing they seldom need division, unlike many perennials.  If you do want to divide, or need to transplant, September or October is best.  Dig the whole plant, wash off soil, then divide with a sharp knife between growth buds.  Leave at least 3 buds on each division.

When planting divisions, or even new plants in pots, keep the “crowns” (where stems join the roots) at soil level and no more than one inch deep.  Prepare the soil well prior to planting, and deeply, as many have deep roots and they’ll likely be in the same spot for many years.  Make sure not to mulch excessively (this can lead to rots) or cover with compost too deeply.

They grow well on hillsides and slopes.  Since they are low (12 to 18 inches high), and flowers are at or below the leaves, they are better appreciated if placed in raised beds, along walks, or on slopes.  Much breeding has focused on not only new and better flower colors, and larger flowers, but upward-facing flowers.  To better appreciate the flowers you can cut them, and place in a vase with floral preservative.

Leaves are divided into leathery leaflets with coarsely cut, or spiny, margins.  The nodding flowers, up to two inches across, are generally in shades of white, rose, green or purple.  Some new hybrids have spotted flowers, others are quite double or bicolors or streaked. What we call the flowers are actually the sepals, the flower petals being inconspicuous. Flowers and leaves of some species, such as the Lenten and Christmas roses, are stemless– they arise directly from the roots.  Other species may have stems.

Plants are generally purchased, already started.  As with other members of the Ranunculaceae or Buttercup family, growing from seeds can be difficult. The Christmas rose may be difficult to establish, not tolerate climate and cultural extremes, and may grow well in one area and not one adjacent.  The Lenten rose is much easier to grow if you are just trying these plants for the first time.  Check with local perennial nurseries to learn which of the many selections might grow best in your area.

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Spring Training for Gardeners

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Just as spring is the time baseball players get ready for their season, so should you get your body ready for the gardening season.  Unless you’ve been shoveling lots of snow and participating in vigorous winter outdoor sports, your body is probably out of shape.  Beginning easy exercises indoors now will help prepare you for gardening activities outdoors later, and reduce the chance of body discomfort or injury.

When you bend over to pick up something, you’re doing a “deadlift”.  Think pulling weeds, lifting a bag of compost or potting mix, or picking up rocks.  Practicing deadlifts now will strengthen your legs and lower back.  You can do these using dumbbells—those hand weights you can buy in sports stores— or anything similar.  Make sure, when you bend over, to keep your back straight.  Bend with your knees and at the hip joints but not at the waist.  Squat, don’t stoop or hunch over when lifting. Use your thigh muscles when lifting.  Keep your head looking forward.  When lifting properly, toes, knees and shoulders should be aligned.

The “front-loaded squat”, along with deadlift, is one of the best exercises you can do to build strength for the gardening season.  The squat helps your thighs, buttocks, and body core in general.  It will help you too in lifting, as well as in carrying bags of compost, mulch, rocks and the like.  For the squat, hold the dumbbells or weights up by your chest.  Then squat down, bending and keeping the posture as with the deadlift. Begin with light weights, increasing the weight as you get stronger.

A variation on the dumbbell lift is the “wood chop”.  Think of swinging an axe to chop wood, or the rotational motion used in weeding with a hoe and raking.  With this exercise, squat (remember, back straight) and lift a dumbbell or weight diagonally from the outside of one knee diagonally up and over the opposite shoulder as you stand, then back down.  Do a few repetitions on one side, then the other.  Your body should rotate, but your feet should remain flat and in place. As you build up to more repetitions, this can be a good cardiovascular exercise too.

What is called the “farmer’s carry or walk” will help you get ready to carry watering cans and pails of compost around the garden.  This exercise helps strengthen your grip and forearms.  When you leave the grocery store with a bag of groceries in each hand, you’re doing the farmer’s walk.    At home you can use jugs of water.  A gallon of water weighs just over 8 pounds, so a half gallon would be just over 4 pounds, a 3-gallon jug about 25 pounds.  Focus on keeping the abdominal muscles tight, and keeping the weights by your side with no big swings as you walk.

Push-ups help get you ready for pushing wheelbarrows and mowers about the yard.  There are variations if you don’t feel up to the full traditional push-up.  With a modified push-up you have your knees resting on the floor, but when pushing up shift your weight off your knee cap and onto your lower thigh muscle. As you push up and lower, keep your back straight.

Partial pushups also decrease back strain. Lying on your stomach, hands under shoulders, elbows bent, push up.  Raise the top half of your body, keeping hips and legs on the floor.  Hold for a couple seconds, slowly return, then repeat, doing this several times a day if possible.

Just as push-ups get you ready for pushing, “renegade rows” gets you ready for pulling rope, vines off of trees, and pulling cords to start engines.  Start with a dumbbell in each hand, in the position as if doing a full push up.  But this time, with your weight on one arm, raise the other holding while holding the weight.  Raise it to about shoulder height, elbow at about a 90-degree angle.  Repeat one side, then the other.  Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart to maintain balance.

Lunges are a great workout for your buttocks and thighs, and help train you not to arch your back in other activities.  Examples of lunges are when you get down on one knee to tie a shoelace, or when someone proposes.  Start with one leg in front of the other, then (with back straight) bend the knees, going down then up in a smooth motion.  If you can’t bend the back knee all the way to the ground, go as low as you can comfortably for now.  Make sure not to bang the knee against the ground.  Lunges are great practice, too, for balance.

A back bend is simple, helps decrease back strain, and is a great warm-up. Standing with your feet apart, place hands in the small of your back and bend backwards, keeping knees straight.  Hold for a couple seconds, return, then repeat.

To help strengthen your back and legs, practice wall slides.  Stand with your back against a wall, your feet shoulder-width apart.  Slowly slide your back down the wall, into a crouch position, with your knees bent at 90-degree angles.  Hold this for 5 seconds, then slide back up the wall, and repeat.

Leg raises also help strengthen your back and legs.  Lying on your stomach, tighten the muscles in one leg and raise it from the floor.  Count to 10, then lower that leg.  Repeat for the other leg, then repeat both in this manner.

Another exercise for back and leg muscles is similar, only lying on your back.  Raise one leg off the floor, count to 10, then lower and raise the other leg, then repeat.  If difficult at first, keep the leg not being raised bent with foot flat on the floor.

Knee lifts while lying help decrease back strain.  With feet flat on the floor, knees bent, raise knees to your chest, put your hands under them and pull toward your chest.  Lower legs back slowly, but do not straighten them.

For stomach muscles, do repetitions of partial sit-ups.  Lying on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, slowly raise your head and shoulders and reach both hands to your knees.  Count to 10, then relax and return.

To help your back, do leg raises while seated.  Raise legs at an angle to the floor, then raise one waist high.  Slowly return, then repeat with the other leg, and repeat.

For hip and back muscles, do repetitions of leg swings.  Standing behind and holding onto a chair, lift one leg back and up, keeping it straight.  Return slowly, then repeat with the other leg.

Keep in mind some key points and tips that relate to any exercises or gardening later.
–Start with easy or lighter weights, and work up gradually as your body gets in shape. Add a pound or two at a time, rather than doubling the amount of weight lifted.  Be careful not to lift objects too heavy if the weight is unknown.
–For most, 12 to 15 repetitions of an exercise is sufficient for strengthening.  If this seems too easy, try more weight or repetitions.  If too exhausting, back off until you are stronger.
–Work opposing muscles, such as working on both the front and back of shoulders.
–Don’t do the same exercises each day, rotate them so you’re working on one set of muscles one day like arms and shoulders, another set like the legs the next day.
–Don’t ignore pain.  The saying of “no pain, no gain”, doesn’t apply here. Try the exercise again later, another day, or with less weight.  Take time to rest if your body calls for this. If you have health issues, make sure and check with your doctor on appropriate exercises and activities.

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Why Houseplants Drop Leaves

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Houseplants drop leaves for many reasons, but most are related to improper care or poor growing conditions. Often just giving plants the correct light and temperature, or controlling pests, is all that is needed to prevent future leaf drop.

Either too much or too little watering may cause leaf drop. A common problem is that when you see leaves droop or even fall off, you may be tempted to think the plant is thirsty and needs more water.  This could lead to overwatering and even more leaves dropping.  Make sure when watering, especially in northern climates in winter, to use lukewarm water.  Icy cold water can chill the soil and injure roots of tropical plants, leading to root rots, leaves dropping, and perhaps even dead plants.

Extremely low humidity will cause sensitive plants, such as gardenia, to drop leaves although most common houseplants will not show leaf drop in response to low humidity only.

Fertility, or rather lack of sufficient nutrients, can lead to leaf drop.  With this, usually you will notice leaves lighter in color first, so you have a chance to correct this before leaves totally turn yellow and drop.  Use a houseplant fertilizer, according to label directions, particularly while plants are growing or flowering.

Plants in pots that are too small may drop leaves. Why? Because there may not be enough root room to support all the leaves the plant tries to form, so the oldest leaves drop off. Because the space for the roots is inadequate, the plant may not be able to absorb enough water and nutrients.

Some leaf drop occurs when plants are subjected to a big change in environment. Such changes occur when plants grown outside for the summer are brought inside for the winter. Greenhouse-grown plants may drop leaves if placed in dimly lit house conditions, when they’ve been grown in high light. Some plants just may require higher light to grow and keep all their leaves. Leaf drop brought on by a change in environment should be temporary and non-life threatening (to the plants), new leaves forming that are adapted to the new site.

Chilling is one cause of leaf drop related to environment. Tropical plants are sensitive to low, but above freezing, temperatures. Plants on windowsills may be exposed to chilling temperatures.    Hot or cold drafts may be a problem for some plants. The poinsettia is a prime example of a plant that drops leaves due to exposure to cold drafts of air.

Insects and diseases can cause leaf drop, but are not as common as the previously listed causes. Recently I had a variegated English ivy that was losing leaves.  On closer inspection I found leaves infested with spider mites. Washing plants well with mildly soapy water is a good start, and often all that is needed, for pest control.

Some leaf drop on houseplants is normal. Older plants should be expected to drop a leaf or two occasionally. This is particularly the case with plants that grow upright like umbrella plant or cane plant, losing lower leaves as newer ones form on the top.  The only solutions for this are to stake plants and live with this habit, to propagate new plants by air layering the canes, or to give away the plant and get a new more compact one.

If you’re not sure of the correct culture and conditions for your houseplants, check any directions that came with them, look online or in books, or ask your local full-service garden center.

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The Best Succulents for Indoors

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

So just what are “succulents”? Generally, they are tender (not tolerant of cold) plants with thick or fleshy leaves. In recent years a whole range of species have been introduced to gardeners, mainly as outdoor seasonal plants, but which make great plants indoors too.  Here are ten good choices, starting with three of the older standards—aloe, ponytail palm, and jade plant.

Aloe (Aloe vera) is an ingredient often found in many skin and hair care products. It also is known to be very effective in treating burns, thus, it’s a good lotion to keep handy in the kitchen near the stove. Or, gently rub some sap from a leaf on the burn, then repeat after a few minutes. The burn will go away, and the skin should heal quickly. In fact, some of the newer sunburn lotions are close to 100 percent aloe sap.

Although aloe is grown in desert gardens in mild climates, it can easily be grown as a potted plant in our climate as well. The aloe will produce offshoot plants, which can be removed and potted.

Pony-tail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is not really a palm at all.. It has a characteristic palm-like shape, stem and leaves, with an expanded and flaring base.  The leaves are two to six feet long and are often twisted. The leaves actually do look like a pony-tail. The flowers and fruit are seldom seen in cultivation as plants must be quite large to produce them.

Pony-tail palm has a moderate growth rate and is often used in interior beds or as a potted specimen. Indoors, it usually reaches a height of one to three feet and a width of one to two feet. Under high light in conservatories, or where it can be grown outdoors, it may reach 20 or more feet high, with the flaring base several feet across!

The Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) gets its name from the Latin crassus meaning thick or swollen, which refers to the leaves and stems of this and many other species. The leaves are glossy green (dark jade color, hence the name), and occasionally have red margins. One cultivar even has variegated leaves. The flowers are star-shaped and white to pale pink in color.

Jade plant has a moderate growth rate and may grow one to two feet in height and width. The plant may need a heavy soil or pot to keep from toppling as older plants become top-heavy.  When watering the jade plant, do not let the leaves get water on them because this will cause leaf spots. If you are successful with this plant and want more, simply take leaf or stem cuttings and root them in potting mix to grow additional plants.  Watch for mealybug insects, small white masses particularly where leaves join stems.

Zebra plant (Haworthia fasciata) is appropriately named for it thick, dark green, fleshy and quite pointed leaves that arise from low on the plant.  They are quite marked with regular, horizontal white stripes.  Since its roots are shallow, you can give it a shallow pot.  Repot every year or two, as the plants need to get rid of old roots to grow new ones.  It only grows about 5 or 6 inches tall and wide.

Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) has whitish leaves from the soft hairs covering them, making them irresistible to feel.  Leaf edges often have attractive contrasting red hairs.  This succulent grows upright, from 12 to 18 inches tall.

Hahn’s bird’s nest (Sansevieria trifasciata) often goes by its genus name of just sansevieria (said as san-se-Veer-ee-ah).  It has a rosette of wide, tough leaves with irregular horizontal lighter bands.  It tolerates low light.  It is compact, only getting about 6 inches high and tall.  Leaves are typically green, but you may find ones with some gold.

There are a range of echeveria (said as etch-eh-Veer-ee-ah) you may find, with thick leaves in rosettes of white, roses, and blues.  Most remain a few inches high and wide. Don’t let water sit in the rosettes or it may lead to rots.  Remove any dead, lower leaves as these are a haven for mealybugs.

There are several senecio (said as sin-Ess-ee-o) you may find, generally with tubular steely blue  or grayish green leaves, and going by descriptive names such as “chalk fingers” or “blue chalk sticks”.  Some of these remain low, others can reach a foot or more tall and easily stretch if not in full light.  If too tall, simply “pinch” them back to promote branching.

Tree houseleek (Aeonium) come in many variations, from upright with shiny black leaves (‘Zwartkop’ black rose), to bright colors of pale yellow, white, green, and pink tips (‘Sunburst’), or pale yellow centers when young maturing to red and green (‘Kiwi’ or ‘Tricolor’).  Aeonium often have woody and long, sometimes arching, stems with the rosettes of leaves on the ends.  They somewhat resemble echeveria, only with stems.

Pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) is actually related to the poinsettia, having a white milky sap (and other common name of Milkbush).  Avoid getting the sap on skin or in eyes, as it may cause a reaction.  Leaves as you might guess are pencil thickness, or less, and long.  Plants can be highly branched and get 2 or 3 feet tall and wide inside (up to 30 feet tall in their native Africa and India), but are easily kept in bounds with judiciously pruning.  This also helps correct leggy plants.  One selection with fiery red and orange young leaves, turning green with age, is called Firesticks or a variation on this name.

Although succulents prefer high light, they often adapt well to low light of homes. Best is bright light most the day, such as a south-facing window, or at least a half day of good sun as in an east-facing window.  If your plant starts to “stretch”, getting tall and lanky with space between leaves, it isn’t getting enough light.  Also, rotate plants weekly if they are bending toward a light or window.

Succulents prefer the dry humidity of indoors, and don’t like overwatering. But they do like warmth. Be sure to keep them away from door drafts, and from touching cold windows in winter.

A well-drained soilless mix with sand or perlite is the best potting medium. Although the fertility needs for succulents is low, plants may become pale and red if it is too low or they are too dry. One fertilization in spring, with a general houseplant fertilizer, usually suffices.

Allow the potting medium to dry between waterings. Make sure pots don’t sit in a saucer of water.  Water less when the plant is inactive, perhaps only once every couple of weeks, but water well when you do. When plants are actively growing, probably water them once a week. One rule of thumb is that the thicker the leaves, generally the less water the plant needs.  The thick leaves that make them “succulent” are designed to store water under dry conditions.

Jade plant and succulents with fleshy leaves are easy to propagate.  If you want to make more plants, simply place leaves on damp soil to root and grow new plants.

Consider and look for succulents this growing season for outdoor containers, particularly smaller containers you might bring indoors to enjoy over winter.  Many garden centers, greenhouses, and even mass market stores now offer succulents.  Look for small ones for smaller containers, dish gardens, or terrariums.  Keep in mind they will eventually grow, some faster than others.  Although they do well pot-bound, and this will slow growth, in a year or two they may need larger pots or at least repotting.

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Flowering Amaryllis Indoors

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Although poinsettias remain number one in popularity for holiday plants, another plant that you’ll find commonly during late fall and winter is the amaryllis. It’s usually sold either in bloom or bulb ready to pot, is a fast grower, has a long bloom period, and requires minimal care.  This makes it a perfect choice for beginners or those without “green thumbs”, but its beauty is appreciated by even the more advanced gardeners.

The large trumpet flower resembles a lily, although it is not a member of that family but is a tropical bulb, originally imported from Central and South America. What we usually call an amaryllis (said as am-ar-ILL-iss) or Dutch amaryllis (since most of these hybrids were bred there) is actually a different genus (Hippeastrum).  The true amaryllis, or Belladonna lily, that you may find in specialty catalogs or stores originally came from South Africa.  Since either of these do not tolerate frost, they must be flowered indoors. Although the normal flowering season for the Dutch amaryllis is January through April, many greenhouses force it into bloom earlier to be ready for the December holidays.

Amaryllis (the Dutch hybrids) most commonly found include red, pink or salmon, whites, and bicolors of red and white. You may be able to find some miniature varieties at complete garden stores, or through mail order and online catalogs.  These smaller plants grow to only a foot or so high and have smaller flowers, but otherwise look like the traditional ones.

Many amaryllis plants are sold already potted.  All you do for these is to just add water.  The larger the bulbs, the more likely you will have multiple flower stalks. You can make a plant flower for a special occasion by starting it five to seven weeks before the selected date.

If you buy bulbs separately instead of pre-potted, or in kits complete with soil and pot ready to assemble, store them in a cool and dry location if you need to hold them for later potting or giving as gifts.  Although these will keep for long periods, if sprouts start to develop you’ll need to plant them as soon as possible. Be careful not to expose the bulbs to freezing conditions.

Pot bulbs in containers just slightly wider than the bulb, such as a 5 to 6-inch wide pot.  There should be about an inch between the bulb and side of the pot.  Or, you may want to put three bulbs in a 10 to 12-inch wide container.  Amaryllis grow best if slightly crowded.  Use a standard houseplant potting medium– one containing a large amount of peat moss and no soil.  Pot at a depth so the top third (the “neck”) of the bulb is exposed.  The potting mix should end up about a half inch to inch below the pot rim.  This allows space for watering.

A good way to not overwater (they don’t like to be waterlogged) is through sub-irrigation with warm water.  Do this by filling a pot saucer or tray underneath, then letting the soil absorb the water. After 30 minutes, discard any water that remains in the saucer. From this point until flowering stems are a couple inches high, water sparingly—only when the top inch or so of the potting mix feels dry—perhaps once a week. Watering too frequently or too much can cause the bulb to rot. Also when watering, make sure and use water that is slightly warm.

Put the freshly potted bulb in a warm location above 60 degrees (68 to 75 degrees F is ideal—remember these are tropical).  Near a heat vent or wood stove (not on the woodstove), or on top of a refrigerator are good locations.  Place your amaryllis in a warm location that gets about 4 hours of direct sun daily, such as south-facing window.  When the flower bud stalk is about eight inches tall, you can place the pot in a cooler location if you want to slow growth. When the first bud is about to open, keeping cooler (such as 50 to 60 degrees) will prolong the bloom period. Warmer temperatures speed up and cause earlier flowering.

Since bulbs are self-contained packages, containing much food for the season, they don’t need much fertilizer.  You may fertilize lightly—about half strength of your normal houseplant fertilizer– every couple weeks, especially while the plant is in bloom.

After your amaryllis has bloomed, don’t throw them out!  You can save the bulbs to reflower in subsequent years. Start by removing the flowers as they fade. Continue to water the potted bulb regularly throughout the spring and summer. Apply liquid fertilizer, according to label directions.   After all danger of frost is past in the spring, you can plant the bulb, pot and all, in the garden in a semi-shaded spot. Don’t place in full sun or the leaves may “burn” and turn brown.

Next September, take the potted amaryllis out of the garden before the first frost, and place it in a dry, warm place. Stop fertilizing and water less.  Leaves should start dying back, at which point you can cut them off.  Place the pots in a cool, dark place, and leave them alone.  If you use the crisper drawer of a refrigerator or cool cellar, make sure they are not stored with apples (these give off ethylene gas that may prevent bloom).

Bulbs are dormant and need a rest for at least six weeks.  Check weekly, and later in the fall when you see a new shoot emerging, start watering and treating as when you first got them— keep crowded in their pots, don’t overwater, give minimal fertilizer, keep warm, and give bright light (preferably direct sun) at least half a day.

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National Ornamental Grass Trials–Vermont 2015 results

Dr. Leonard Perry
Horticulture Professor, University of Vermont

This past winter was the best test winter yet for hardiness, plants experiencing some of the coldest soil temperatures in at least the last three decades (as long as I’ve been monitoring soil temperatures). In my northern Vermont trials site, we once again were zone 4a, with 4 days in Feb, -20F (air) or below, with   -27F (air) on Feb. 24. In colder years of the past, soil temperatures on average reached 28F, perhaps a few days to 25-26F in colder winters. In several recent winters, soil temperatures seldom dropped below 32F. This past winter, soils were 28F or below 21 days in January, and 16 in February. Of these, soils reached 25F or below 17 days in January and one day in February.   Of these latter, soils reached 22F or below 6 days in January, the coldest being 17F on Jan. 18.

It was a good test “spring” for plants too. As they were getting unhardened we had 6 days the last couple weeks of MARCH with air temperatures 10F or below, reaching 0F on Mar. 24! Four days the end of March we had SOIL temperatures 28F or below, with 22F (as in January, the lowest in over 25 years) on Mar. 23.

So it was amazing that as many grasses survived as did. Several switchgrass (Panicum) cultivars in which new plants had been replaced fall 2014 had several die. Of those living, overall results were similar to the previous year, only with slightly more growth (a bit higher and wider), and a bit better floral display on several cultivars. Most cultivars that had several plants were quite variable in growth, as in the past, among the plants. Most uniform among all plants of a cultivar were Dewey Blue and Prairie Sky. Overall best, s imilar to 2014, were Northwind, Prairie Sky, and Shenandoah. Also good this year overall was Rotstrahlbusch. one plant each were outstanding too of Rehbraun, Thundercloud, and Trailblazer (not officially in trials, and only one plant).

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium) cultivars survived much better. Best overall as in 2014 was Blue Heaven, but joining it among the best this year was Blaze and Standing Ovation (added in 2014, not officially part of the trials). All plants of each of these three cultivars not only survived, but were uniform among plants. Standing ovation at about 50cm high was half the height of the other two. Prairie Blues fared the worst, only one of the four plants surviving and rating only average.

Hopefully one final winter of hardiness data can be collected before these VT trials end spring 2016.  More grass trial site results, previous years, and photos can be found online (grasstrials.com).

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Winterize Your Garden

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Just as you make sure your car is ready for winter this time of year, so should you make sure your garden is ready.  Cleaning up the debris in your garden, removing dead foliage, and cutting back dead growth on perennials are some of the ways to ready your landscape for winter.

These are all measures that not only get your garden and flower beds ready for planting and new growth next spring, but they also prevent overwintering pests and diseases on rotting foliage.  Rake leaves from under fruit trees, especially ones that may have been diseased.  Be sure to throw out or burn any diseased foliage. Don’t put it into the compost pile.

Have you raked those fallen leaves yet? The grass is still green underneath and can use all the light possible to prepare for winter. Removing leaves also allows water and air to get to the living plants, preventing them from suffocating. For this reason, leaves, especially tough ones that pack down and rot slowly like oak leaves, do not make good mulch for perennials and should be raked off perennial beds.

Now is still the time to plant peony roots.  It’s too late to divide other perennials, but there’s still time to mulch shrubs, trees, and perennial beds with a loose organic material such as bark mulch or shredded leaves. Do it now, and you will have one less job to worry about in the spring. Mulches also help protect roots during winter from cold and fluctuating temperatures.

Don’t mulch too thickly–no more than a few inches–around woody trees and shrubs as the mulch makes a nice home for mice which chew bark. If packed around tree trunks too thick, mulch can smother the tree and cause it to die.

Speaking of mice, they as well as rabbits and other animals often chew bark of shrubs and trees during winter when they’re hungry and there is little food around.  You can spray repellents on stems of shrubs, and put tree guards around trunks of young trees.  Older trees are more resistant to their chewing. You can buy tree guards that easily slip around trunks at complete garden stores or online, or you can make them simply with short sections of hardware cloth wire mesh.  Just make sure they extend above the usual snow level.

If you have heavy deer pressure in your locale, make sure to spray any valuable shrubs or trees with repellents.  Taste and smell repellents can be purchased that will last for weeks before reapplication.  If there aren’t many deer, or there is alternative food, simply hanging human hair or bars of soap near shrubs may suffice.  If there are many deer or they’re hungry enough, only fencing may work. Unobtrusive black mesh can be purchased in heights from 5 to 8 feet.

Have you protected your evergreens from drying winter winds? In colder weather the roots of evergreens are frozen and unable to take up water. Winter winds may “desiccate” or dry them out, eventually causing them to die. This is why leaves turn brown–from lack of water.

Protect them by putting up a screen on the windy sides, usually the north and west. This can be as simple as erecting three wooden stakes and wrapping burlap around them.  But whatever you do, don’t cover the plants directly with plastic. It will heat up like a greenhouse on sunny days and cook your plants. Or, you can spray evergreens with an “antidessicant”, available from your local garden center. This provides a protective layer on the leaves that will wear off by spring.  Some years this may work or not, depending on specific conditions and climate that year.  Research results are mixed on whether or not antidessicants are effective.

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