Grow It Eat It in Montgomery County, May 14

April greetings, and that freeze we had earlier this week was no joke, right? Hope none of your plants got zapped. I was grateful for my own procrastination; my brassica seedlings won’t go into the ground until this weekend.

The uncertain temperatures of early spring make me think longingly of the more settled weather of mid-May (before I start complaining loudly about how hot it is). Another reason to look forward to May: the return of Montgomery County’s big Grow It Eat It open house on May 14!

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Vermicomposting: turn food scraps into compost indoors

Backyard composting isn’t an option for everyone. If you live in an apartment or condominium, worm composting or vermicomposting is a simple and inexpensive method you can use indoors to turn food scraps into compost for your houseplants or garden. Composting food scraps keeps organic waste out of landfills and reduces climate-warming gas emissions too.

In this video, Master Gardener Susan Levi-Goerlich demonstrates how to set up a basic vermicomposting system at home.

Visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for additional information on indoor worm composting.

Lettuce in the midst of winter

hydroponic lettuce under a grow light
Hydroponic lettuce under a grow light.

Homegrown lettuce in the dead of winter or the heat of late summer? It’s possible with hydroponics. And you don’t need a fancy setup with electric pumps and a water circulation system. The Kratky method lets you do it with a grow light and an empty coffee bin. 

Developed by horticulturist Bernard A. Kratky of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the Kratky method is ridiculously simple. Plant roots need access to oxygen. When grown outdoors, a plant’s roots find this oxygen in air pockets within the ground. In a commercial hydroponic system, pumps circulate air to the plants’ roots. In the Kratky method, an air pocket is formed as the roots take up water, lowering the water level. This air pocket provides all the oxygen a plant needs at the root level.   

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Curl up with a good gardening book

stack of garden books
Books for gardeners. Photo: C. Carignan

The holidays are over. The temperatures have plummeted. Now is the perfect time to curl up with a mug of tea and a good gardening book.   

Yes, I have go-to reference books when I have a gardening question. But I treasure a handful of gardening books for sheer reading pleasure. Yes, you will learn. But, oh the beauty of the language.

I just finished reading Diane Ackerman’s Cultivating Delight, a lyrical ode to her garden. You sit beside her in her window seat to watch birds building nests. You hear a garden center’s siren song. You can smell her roses.  

She tells more, more deeply, and with intrigue. She weaves tales of intrepid plant collectors risking life and limb, Greek gods becoming flowers, the glory of a summer storm, and cricket sex.  

Along the way, Ackerman quotes Kipling and Longfellow, Muir, and Blake and gives us lessons on botany, biology, ecology, history, and garden design. You’re not aware you’re being taught, only lulled with lush language. 

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Variety is the spice of life: creating a new garden with native plants

Nothing like starting out a blog with a cliché, right? But this perfectly sums up one reason to change from a monotypic lawn to a mix of native plants. Instead of looking out at a sea of sameness, the diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes of plants offer a more pleasing landscape to view. And, bonus points, more and different kinds of plants attract more and different kinds of butterflies, birds, and beneficial wildlife!

butterfly milkweed with monarch caterpillar
Butterflyweed planted in spring 2020 provides food for Monarch caterpillars later in the summertime.

A do-it-yourself garden is harder but more fulfilling

Once you figure out that you do want more variety of plants instead of lawn in your yard, the real planning begins. But, it can be hard to know where to start – do you just chop up the lawn and start planting? How much will it cost? What’s the maintenance on these plants? What about soil conditions? Don’t worry! There are some really good online tips for beginners. To sum mine up: start small, don’t overthink it, and stick to things you like looking at.

For example, my sister moved into a small house with a fenced backyard. She knew she wanted to avoid the pain of mowing. She knew she wanted low-maintenance, flowering plants. And since she’s a redhead, she knew what colors she liked (hint: little to no red flowers). The first thing we did was start tracking the sun, in both the front and back yards. Each month over the winter, we took a picture in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. We also got started on the paths needed through the garden areas.

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Norfolk pine is a charming Christmas tree

branches of Norfolk Island pine trees
Norfolk Island Pine

Uh oh. You need a last-minute gift or a tiny tree to brighten a corner of your holiday home. Here comes a Norfolk pine to the rescue. Whew. That was close.

Looking like miniature Christmas trees, Norfolk pines pop up at garden centers and other stores over the holidays. Bedecked with bows and balls, they’re festive and cute as can be.

With a graceful, pyramidal shape and tiers of gently arched branches, they are loaded with appeal. They look delicate but are actually tough, long-lasting little trees.  

Technically a Norfolk Island pine, this pint-sized evergreen is native to – you guessed it – a place called Norfolk Island, just east of Australia. Captain James Cook discovered this tree on his second expedition to the South Pacific in 1774.

Norfolk pines are subtropical, hardy in zones 9 to 11. So they can’t handle our winters but are happy to summer outside and hang out with us indoors when the mercury drops. 

They are fairly carefree houseplants. Put them in a bright spot with some direct light. Water them when the top inch of soil feels dry. 

Norfolk pines love humidity, so mist them or group them with other plants. Fertilize them every week to two from spring to fall.

Transition them to outdoor living in the summer by putting them in the shade for a few days, then introducing them to bright light. Just remember to keep them watered and bring them in before the first frost hits.

Norfolk pines’ roots resent disturbance, so repot them only every few years. Once they get three feet tall, replace only the top few inches of soil instead of repotting the whole plant. 

They are slow growers. Norfolk pines generally top out at three to six feet indoors, but they take their sweet time getting there. In their native climes, they can top out at 200 feet.

Oh, and did I mention that a Norfolk pine is not a true pine? Technically Araucaria heterophylla, is part of a genus of 19 species of pine-like conifers. 

But let’s not split botanical hairs. 

The Norfolk pine is an appealing tree. For those with small spaces, it’s an ideal Christmas tree. For the rest of us, it is just a tiny charmer, a sweet little elf of a tree.    

Big or small, I hope your holiday tree is the center of a warm and blessed holiday season spent with family and friends.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Tips for using garden evergreens for holiday décor

Using evergreen cuttings to decorate the home offers an easy way to incorporate different textures, shapes, and aromas. Evergreens add a touch of simplicity, elegance, and nostalgia to holiday décor. They can be used easily on doors and entryways, as garland, or centerpieces. Cutting materials from your own landscape can provide a thrifty option.   

Here are a few tips for making evergreens a beautiful addition to your holiday décor. 

  1. If cutting from your own landscape, be cautious not to cut too much. Pruning in the early winter is generally not recommended unless it is to remove diseased or damaged material. It won’t hurt a well established plant to trim off a few branches, but try not to cut anything from newly installed plants. Check out this factsheet for additional information on pruning evergreens
  2. Caution! Several critters are overwintering on evergreens so once they get warm in your home, they will become active. These uninvited guests can cause surprise and panic from those not expecting them this time of year. If you find spiders, etc., you can put them outside.
  3. Keeping evergreens cool and hydrated will extend how long they stay fresh and beautiful. Place the ends of cut branches into water.  
  4. Often mixing different types of evergreens is a fun way to add unique smells, shapes, and texture to your home. 
  5. Shorter needled (hemlock/spruce) plants tend to lose their needles faster than longer needled species.
  6. Evergreen boughs are easy to stick into seasonal planters before the soil freezes. Be warned that if the branches freeze in the soil, they will be impossible to remove until it thaws. 
  7. Don’t forget to gather interesting seed pods, ornamental grasses, pine cones, etc. These add additional interest and natural beauty.

Some favorite cuttings include Junipers, Arborvitae, Holly, White Pine, Rhododendron, Boxwood, Lavender, and Rosemary.  If you have a live Christmas tree, be sure to repurpose those trimmings as well.

wreath made with grasses, seed pods, evergreens, and a bow
Here is a wreath base made from dried ornamental grass. Also, ornamental grass seed heads, Monarda seed heads, pine cones, and mixed evergreen cuttings are included. Photo: A. Bodkins
wreath made with Juniper and lamb's ear leaves
This wreath uses cuttings of native Eastern redcedar and leaves of lamb’s ear. Photo: C. Carignan
door swap made with evergreens, pinecones, and a bow
Door swag. Photo: A. Bodkins

As you gather your materials and get ready for crafting, remember that:

  1. Sharp pruners give a clean cut that will help increase the life of your branches and prevent premature needle drop. Guidance on sharpening pruning tools can be found here
  2. Use green floral wire to put cut branches together. It blends in well and is easy to work with. It is widely available at craft stores and low in cost. 
  3. Repurpose metal clothes hangers for inexpensive frames for swags/wreaths/garland. 
  4. Swags are often simpler and easier than a wreath to make and require less material, but provide a nice garnish for your entryway. Think of making a bouquet and then turn it upside down to get an easy door swag.
  5. If you’re placing cut evergreen stems into a container, use clean water and clean containers to prevent fungal and bacterial growth.
  6. Keep arrangements out of direct light and as far away as possible from the heat source.
  7. Misting cut evergreens can help extend their beauty.
  8. Using cut evergreens outside the home will help them last the entire season.
  9. Ribbon with wired edges is easier to work with for beginner bow makers. 

You can create many beautiful decorations by working with nature! Be creative and enjoy the gifts that your garden continues to give all year round. And it’s never too early to start thinking about garden plant additions for 2022! Think about items you could use in future holiday decorations or another season’s decor. 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.