2015’s top plants in my garden

For normal people, I gather, New Years is all about making resolutions to loose weight or spend more quality time with family. For me, New Years means reviewing everything I grew in the garden in the past 12 months and deciding what I love and what I’m over. I always try lots of new things, and so I thought I’d share my top new favorites for 2015.

Dianthus chinensis 'Chianti' and 'Victoriana'
Dianthus chinensis ‘Chianti’ and ‘Victoriana’

The only Dianthus chinensis I’d grown before are the modern selections which are about three inches tall with huge flowers and as ugly as can be (in my opinion) but ‘Chianti’ and ‘Victoriana’, two charming old-fashioned seed strains won my heart in a big way this year. Annuals, very easy from seed, and blooming all summer with these wonderfully romantic double blooms that made wonderful, long-lasting cut flowers. I’m hoping they decide to self-sow and return next year.

Populus alba 'Richardii'
Populus alba ‘Richardii’

Poplars are, generally, terrible trees. Weak wooded, short-lived, and weedy with few redeeming characteristics. But I bought this Golden Poplar, Populus alba ‘Richardii’, on a whim, and am absolutely thrilled with it. The foliage stays this bright, beautiful shade of yellow all summer, even in full sun (or at least what passes for full sun in cloudy Michigan) without burning. Great in the garden, and cut branches look amazing in a vase. I suppose it could eventually get large, but I’m planning to keep pruning it back hard to the ground to force it to push out lots of lush, long new stems of bright leaves.

'Little Comet' x h2.3
‘Little Comet’ x h2.3

I love breeding plants, and for the past few years I’ve been deeply obsessed with breeding gladiolus… I had a lot of new seedlings this year, but this one, a cross between the wonderful variety ‘Little Comet’ and one of my unnamed hardy varieties I call h2.3, is my favorite of the year. I just LOVE those colors, and love that the come on a strong stem that doesn’t need staking. If it keeps performing well, I’d love to make it available for sale in a few years.

Finally, I forgot to get a picture of this, but I have a new favorite tomato! For years, my favorites have unequivocally been ‘Black Krim’ for large tomatoes, ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ for cherries, and ‘Opalka’ for paste, but ‘Black Krim’ has been replaced! My new favorite: ‘Sweet Scarlet Dwarf’ This plant combines a wonderful compact, tidy, attractive growth habit with big yields and really terrific flavor. It isn’t widely available (the only source I know is Heritage Seed Market) but do track down some seeds. You’ll be happy you did.

Now, please, let me know your favorites in the comments so I can expand my shopping list for 2016!

Joseph Tychonievich

An idea worth stealing: Mesh pots for bulb collections

Last year I was in England, and a snowdrop obsessive there (aka, a Galanthophile) showed me this cool trick, using mesh pots to keep her vast collection of different varieties organized.

meshpot

She puts her bulbs in these pots (designed for use in hydroponic systems, I believe), and then sinks the entire pot down in the ground, so that the pot is invisible. The pot keeps the bulbs contained and easy to find so you can dig them up to divide or share even when dormant, and keeps different varieties growing next to each other from getting mixed up. But unlike a regular solid-sided pot, the open mesh allows roots and water to move freely so the bulbs grow just as easily and with as little care as if they were planted directly in the ground.

Corydalis turtschaninovii
Corydalis turtschaninovii

I’m not a snowdrop lover, they frankly bore me, but I have been getting more and more obsessed with bulbous corydalis, selections of C. solida and the amazing true blue Corydalis turtschaninovii. The tiny bulbs are impossible to find once they get dormant, and my collection is already beginning to get mixed up as the different varieties begin dividing and encroaching on each other… I’m going to start planting new editions in mesh pots to keep everything organized.

Joseph Tychonievich

The “safe seed pledge” is meaningless

The seed catalogs have started showing up in the mail, and a great number of them include something like this on the first few pages:

safeseed

Here’s the thing: NO ONE is selling genetically engineered seeds to home gardeners. There is one company, funded by kickstarter, that is trying to sell genetically engineered seeds of a glow-in-the-dark plant sometime in the future (though, like a lot of kickstarter project, the actual release date keeps getting delayed) but other than that, genetically engineered varieties are only being sold to commercial farmers, and only after the farmer has signed a pretty comprehensive licensing agreement.

You can go to the store and buy food made from genetically engineered varieties — essentially anything that contains corn and isn’t labeled as organic will be — and you can stop by the pet store and pick yourself up a fish with jellyfish genes, but no one is trying to sell you genetically engineered seeds.

So those pledges in seed catalogs promising they contain no GMO seeds are technically true, but also pretty meaningless. So if you are worried about accidentally getting a GMO variety, don’t be. And if you wish you COULD grow one, sorry, you are out of luck, unless that kickstarter project ever actually gets up and running.

— Joseph Tychonievich

Cold Stratification for seeds

You may think of spring as the time for seed sowing, but I do a lot of seed planting now, in the fall. The reason is that most of the cold hardy perennials, trees and shrubs that I like to grow produce seeds that require cold stratification.
This simply means that they require a period exposed to cold temperatures while the seeds are moist and hydrated before they will germinate.

The requirement for cold is a pretty straight-forward adaptation to life in cold climates. Seeds that ripen in the summer and fall might not have time to get established before winter if they germinated right away. The requirement for cold means the seeds don’t actually sprout until spring, giving them a full growing season to get ready for the next winter.

seedbed
An outdoor seed bed is an easy way to stratify seeds

You can — and I used to — give seeds this cold period in the refrigerator. Three months in the fridge in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel to keep the seeds moist is long enough for most everything, though the exact period of cold required varies by the plant. The fridge works, but I think it is way easier to just do it outside. So the past few days I’ve been busy sowing seeds out in my outdoor seed beds. They’re just raised beds, filled with potting media, and covered with a screen lid to limit the number of weed seeds that blow in and keep disruptive animals out. I plant my seeds in the fall. Come spring, after the seeds have had their dose of cold, they sprout.

Dianthus seedlings ready for transplanting
Dianthus seedlings ready for transplanting

Once the seedlings have grown on a while, I dig them out, separate the individual plants, and put them out into their final locations in the garden.

Individual seedlings separated and ready for planting
Individual seedlings separated and ready for planting

I do this with more and more seeds every year, even for perennials that don’t require a cold period to germinate, simply because it is so easy. No fussing around with lights or checking the calendar or even much watering. Just plunk the seeds in, and dig out the plants once they are big enough.

Microclimate follow-up

Last year I talked about using cheap min-max thermometers to get a handle on the specifics of the micro climates in my garden, and I was reminded recently that I never followed up on what I actually found out, so that’s what I’m doing today.

Remember that these results are just ONE data point, specific information about conditions in my particular garden. Your conditions will probably be different, so don’t try and extrapolate from these to your garden. Instead, if you are curious about your micro-climates, get a few thermometers, scatter them around, and see what happens.

20141104_130607

What I did:

I placed thermometers three different locations – up in the air on the north side of a shed, on the ground out in the middle of an open area, and on the ground up against the south side of a shed. I expected the ground thermometers to be warmer, thanks to the insulation of snow, and the one on the south side of a shed to be warmer still, thanks to the added heat from the sun.

What I found

I was surprised on several fronts. First, the south side of the building was, for me, only warmer during the day. I recorded higher high temperatures, but at night, it dropped down exactly as cold as everywhere else. This may be partly because we have extremely cloudy winters here in Michigan, so there isn’t a whole lot of sun to warm up the south side of anything. The wall is also an unheated shed, so there was no extra heat leaking out from inside the way there would be up against the walls of a house, particularly if it is old and poorly insulated.

Ground level, under the snow, was as I expect warmer than the air temperature above. Much warmer than I had expected, in fact. We had about a foot or so of snow during the coldest part of the winter, and that snow kept thing more than 20 degrees F (~11 degrees C) warmer than the air temperature above the snow line. Keep in mind that the USDA hardiness zones are based on 10 degree F differences, so that thick layer of snow kept things almost two zones warmer. I knew snow was a good insulator, but I didn’t realize it would make that big a difference. Thank you Lake Michigan for all the frozen white stuff!

What I’m doing with the information:

I’m no longer trying to put tender plants against the south wall – Instead, I’m piling on a layer of mulch after the ground freezes to augment the insulating power of the snow. And given that south facing wall is much warmer during the day, I’m using it to grow heat loving plants that tend to pout in my cool, Michigan summers. Melons, peppers, and eggplant all adore the extra 5-10 degrees F (~2-5 degrees C) that south wall adds to my daily high temperatures.

Easy Overwintering

I love growing tender plants as annuals over the summer. But I don’t like buying them again every year, so I try to overwinter as many as I can indoors once frost threatens. However, I have pretty limited windowsill space, so I can’t keep many plants in active growth all winter. Luckily, I’ve found a simple hack that works for a surprising number of plants.begoniaoverwintering

The above begonia is on a high dark shelf. It will sit there all winter, getting essentially no light, and I won’t water it. All those leaves will drop off, leaving nothing but dead looking stems. But come spring, when I put it back outside and water it again, new leaves will start growing and it will come right back.

Quite a lot of tender plants can do this. Just keep them dry, preferably on the cool side (unheated basements are perfect), and they’ll go dormant, usually dropping their leaves, and wait patiently for spring. I personally have done this with both cane begonias (as pictured) and the rhizomatous rex begonias, pelargoniums (the annual “geraniums”), and lots of succulent plants like agaves and cacti. I’ve seen first-hand other people using the same method with great success with brugmansia, bananas, and tender shrubby hibiscus. It seems like it is works most often with plants with thick, woody or succulent stems, but I keep trying it with new things and being surprised when they come through just fine. So if you’ve got some cool tender plant you’d love to over winter, but no window space left, shove it in the basement and see what happens. If it comes back fine in the spring, please comment on this post so the rest of us can learn from your experience!

— Joseph Tychonievich