Maryland Grows

For Those Who Are Looking, There Are Sycamores

sycamore tree

American sycamore tree in winter. Photo: Paul Wray, Iowa State University, Bugwood.org

I knew I had to go back to school to study horticulture when I was in my mid-twenties. Every day on my way to work I found myself looking out the windows at trees instead of watching the road. The Catoctin mountain forest was particularly enticing. Route 15 was a much quieter road then, and fortunately, there were no mobile phones to provide additional distractions. Although I admired the landscape in general, there was one tree that stood out amongst the others: the sycamore. Against a blue daytime sky or a sunrise dancing with pink and purple hues, its white bark was remarkable. The shape of this towering tree with its dazzling bark and color contrast inspired me to leave a secure job in search of knowledge for the things that ignited curiosity in me. Read More

Tulsi Basil and Anise Hyssop: Easy, Useful, and Adaptable

My brother mailed me some anise hyssop seeds 20+ years ago and a UM student gave me two tulsi basil plants several years ago at “Maryland Day” on the College Park campus. I am deeply indebted to them both for introducing me to these mint family members that quickly became mainstays in my garden. I love both plants for being easy to grow, healthful, and attractive to many species of beneficial insects. They grow abundantly in my yard with little human assistance. They seem pretty dependable under the extreme weather conditions of climate change, although varieties within each species will certainly differ. They tolerate hot, dry weather, as well as periods of high rainfall, as long as soils don’t stay wet. Big bonus: deer don’t seem very interested in these plants!

Every part of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) smells and tastes of anise. It is native to the U.S. upper Midwest and Great Plains and is also commonly known as blue giant hyssop and lavender giant hyssop. It grows well across Maryland as an annual or tender perennial (overwinters most years at my Howard Co. home). Although it self-sows readily it has not been terribly aggressive; I haven’t seen it spread beyond its main planting sites.

Robust anise hyssop plants in mid-summer holding their own in a weedy bed. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Robust anise hyssop plants in mid-summer holding their own in a weedy bed. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Bumble bee on anise hyssop flower. Spikes produce many flowers that are frequently visited by insects. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Bumble bee on anise hyssop flower. Spikes produce many flowers that are frequently visited by insects. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Tulsi basil (Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum) is also known as holy basil. It is revered in India as a sacred, medicinal plant. Tulsi grows rapidly and blooms continually from June through first frost. Individual plants can easily cover 10 sq. ft. but can be pruned to fit smaller spaces. It’s one of the very few types of basil not infected by basil downy mildew, the scourge of basil lovers. It is not a culinary substitute for Italian basil but is widely used in South Asian cuisines. Read More

Deer: Stay Out of My Garden!

white tailed deer

White-tailed deer. Photo: Pixabay

Q: I had great plans for my vegetable garden last year, but it was overrun with deer. They nibbled my seedlings down to the ground and ate my tomatoes. What can I plant this year that these varmints won’t eat?

A: Unfortunately, the answer to your question is “nothing.” Although there are ways to make your garden less attractive, none are truly foolproof. Here are a few ways to deter deer looking for a free lunch.

Deer-resistant plants. There are many lists of plants less appetizing to deer. Remember, though, that a plant’s lack of appeal is a function of weather, availability of preferred foods, and the need to compete with other foraging deer. A deer eats seven to 12 pounds of food per day; competition with many other hungry deer leads them to consume even the least palatable plants available. Read More

Q&A: What kind of soil should I use in raised beds?

raised bed garden

Raised bed garden. Photo: Pixabay

Q: I plan to build four raised beds for vegetable gardens in the spring. I need to purchase garden soil to fill these beds. What kind of soil should I use in raised beds? What do I look for when shopping for garden soil?

A: Try to locate a landscaping business or garden nursery that sells a compost-topsoil mixture. If you purchase topsoil with no added compost, plan on working in at least two inches of compost.

Maryland does not have regulations that set standards for topsoil sales. Go to a reputable nursery or topsoil dealer. Ask questions about where the soil comes from, what kind of soiling testing is performed, what the pH is, and whether anything has been added to it. Examine the soil before purchasing it.

Topsoil should be dark and crumbly with an earthy smell. Do not purchase soil that is foul smelling, mottled gray, or chalky in texture. Examine the soil again before it is unloaded at your home.

Learn more about soils and compost on the Home and Garden Information Center website.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Monthly Tips for February

Soil

  • Cover cropsTest your soil. Be prepared to raise soil pH with lime or lower soil pH with iron sulfate and elemental sulfur this spring according to the written recommendations you receive.  For more information on soil testing see: Soil Testing
  • Bare soil is prone to erosion and should be covered with mulch, cover cropsgroundcovers, or turf.
  • Poor, compacted soils can be improved through the generous addition of organic matter. This spring, spade or till in a 6-8 inch layer of compost for new flower and vegetable garden beds.

Wildlife

  • BirdfeederContinue to feed wild birds through the remaining winter weeks. Black oil sunflower seeds and suet cakes are a good choice for a wide variety of birds. Keep bird feeders clean and provide your wild birds with fresh water.
  • Squirrels will come to eat the bird food you put out even when your bird feeders are advertised as “squirrel-proof.” Squirrels quickly become tolerant to the hot pepper repellent added to some bird feeds. Place squirrel baffles around feeders to keep them out, learn to live with squirrels, or offer them alternate food like ears of feed corn. Consult the staff at your local wild bird store for more detailed feeding suggestions.
  • This is the mating season for foxes. Late at night, they make a loud noise that sounds like a person screaming. (Listen)

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Papalo: the “summer cilantro”

Have you ever been tempted by an article or blog post, or maybe a seed collection, suggesting that you grow a salsa garden? Tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro are the usual recommendations for growing and making your own salsa. But the timing for this type of garden can be tricky. Tomatoes and peppers mature in the summertime. Onions planted in the early spring are ready about the same time, or can be stored for use. Garlic should have been planted the previous fall, but if you got that done you’re all set. But cilantro—that’s where salsa gardeners get frustrated.

Cilantro is a cool-weather herb; in summer’s heat, it bolts and goes to flower, and then produces seeds (which we call coriander). By the time your tomatoes are ripe, cilantro planted in spring is done. You can get around this to some extent by choosing a slow-bolting variety of cilantro and planting it every few weeks, but those summer-planted succession crops have spotty germination and bolt really fast.

Or you could try another herb with a similar flavor that likes growing in heat. I suggest papalo.

papalo bunch flickr.jpg

Papalo bunch, photo by mcotner, Flickr/Creative Commons

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Winter Sowing: How I Get a Jump Start on My Summer Flower Garden

poppies

These June-blooming flowers were started by winter sowing. Photo: C. Carignan

Winter sowing is a technique gardeners can use to start growing seeds outdoors during the winter months. If you have limited space for starting seeds indoors, winter sowing might be an option for you, depending on what you want to grow.

I first tried winter sowing last year with several types of flower seeds. Winter sowing works best for plants that are cold tolerant or even require a period of cold in order to germinate. When you are looking at seed descriptions, look for words like “cold tolerant,” “cool season”, “hardy annual,” “perennial”, “sow in autumn”, “sow in early spring”, or “self-sows”. These words indicate the best candidates for winter sowing. Read More