Brighten your garden with fall-blooming perennials

Mum’s the word. Or is it?

Chrysanthemums are ubiquitous, popping up in gardens, on doorsteps, by mailboxes and storefronts, a sure sign of fall.  

I have a soft spot for the tumble of peach-toned blooms that are Sheffield mums. Naughty kids that bumble over other blooms in rowdy heaps, they are gorgeous and reliably hardy, unlike many other mums. But why limit yourself – and your garden – to mums? Many other perennials jazz up the fall garden, adding delicious colors, textures, and scents.

Aptly named by Carl Linnaeus after the Latin word for “star,” asters boast abundant daisy-like flowers in pink, purple, blue, or white. Ranging from one to six feet tall, they fit every garden. Two-foot ‘Purple Dome’ needs no staking, but taller varieties such as the striking native New England aster need support to avoid the dreaded flop. 

I have a thing for anemones. Their delicate flowers dance in the slightest breeze. Single or double blooms in white, pink, or lavender float on tall stems like leggy chorus girls. Also attractive are anemone’s seed heads: fluffy cotton balls sprinkled with seeds. Kids love to play with them. Me, too. 

Goldenrods stretch their arms through gardens in late summer and fall, adding a flash of gold. Tall airy types abound as do compact cultivars such as ‘Golden Fleece.’ Ten native goldenrods thrive here.

Scoliid wasp on chives

The garlic chives in our demonstration garden are going bonkers, their white pom-poms bustling with pollinators. A clump-forming perennial herb, its flowers and leaves are edible.

Garlic chives produce abundant seeds, so be ruthless in cutting off their flower heads before they go to seed. And yes, you can get your jollies by shouting, “Off with their heads!” My apologies to Lewis Carroll. 

Call them commoners, but native black-eyed Susans are tough broads that look good in fall. Their golden blooms surround a dark “eye” that fills with seeds to feed birds and other wildlife. 

Maryland’s state flowers, they are often marked “vigorous” on plant tags, meaning they tend to spread. So place them carefully with other robust plants or let them go unbridled in a wilder area.  

Leave black-eyed Susans’ stems standing to add winter interest. In fact, leave all of your perennials standing except those that had serious disease or insect issues or are spreading beyond reason.  

Why? Beneficial insects overwinter in their stems and under fallen leaves. Their seeds provide food for wildlife and their structure offers cover. So wait to cut perennials back until spring.  

Fall is here. I hope I’ve inspired you to look beyond mums to rev up the color, impact, and wildlife value of your fall garden.    

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.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

How to adapt your garden to climate change

The news is filled with references to global warming and climate change. In fact, 99% of scientists agree that climate change is real with negative impacts on the environment, weather, human health, and agriculture. In Maryland, climate change is already causing higher average temperatures, more drought, longer heat waves, more intense storms, and flooding. 

So what can we do as gardeners to help the cause and help our gardens adapt to these changes?

Adopt sustainable practices. Environmentally smart practices build climate-resilient gardens and can slow future warming by reducing emissions and boosting carbon in soil and plants. Here are a few ways to get started:

Plant more trees

Trees filter air and water and are carbon sinks, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas. When placed well, trees can save up to 30 percent on heating and cooling costs.  

  • Plant deciduous trees on the west, east or southwest side of your home to block summer sun then let it in to warm your home in winter. Site evergreens to the northwest to buffer winter winds. 
  • Lean toward native trees. They’re well-adapted and need less water and fertilizer, the manufacture of which can contribute to greenhouse gases.  

Add or nurture native plants

Don’t stop with trees. Native shrubs, perennials, grasses, and groundcovers also help build a climate-resilient landscape. Native plants, once established, require less water and fertilizer, help store carbon, and reduce soil erosion. Since they co-evolved, native plants best support native pollinators and beneficial insects which provide chemical-free pest control. 

HGIC Website: Native Plants and Climate Change

Keep it diverse

Plant diversity also boosts resistance to pests and disease, so add many different types of plants to your gardens. Yes, more is better. 

Save the soil

Washington County Master Gardener Gary Stallings turns compost, a tool in building soil health and climate resilience

Great gardens grow from the ground up. So protect and improve your soil which stores massive amounts of carbon as carbon dioxide and organic matter.  

  • Keep soil covered since bare soil invites problems. Soil covered with plants, mulch, or cover crops best stores carbon, resists erosion, holds moisture, and has more even temperatures. 
  • Minimize soil disturbance from digging and tilling which speeds up the loss of organic matter and disturbs the soil community.  
  • Recycle nutrients by making and using compost. Compost adds organic matter, helps soil hold water and nutrients, and reduces the need for fertilizers. 

HGIC Website: Improve Soil Health for a Climate-Resilient Garden

Water wisely

  • Save water to make your garden more climate-resilient. Use a rain barrel or create a rain garden to capture and filter rainwater.  
  • Water when plants need it, not on a fixed schedule. And plant in the spring or fall when plants need less water to become established.

A few more tips:

  • Limit the emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases. Use gas-powered mowers, trimmers, and other equipment less and opt for alternatives. 
  • Shrink your lawn and replace it with groundcovers and other alternatives which need less water, mowing, herbicides, and fertilizer. When you do fertilize, do it based on a soil test to use only what you need. 
  • Help more by growing some of your own food or supporting local growers to cut down on emissions from long-distance transportation. 

You can make your garden more climate-resilient. Start with a few steps and build on them to help your garden successfully adapt to climate change.   

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.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Learn what not to do in your garden this summer

Do you do to-do lists?  I do. They help keep me focused and organized.  And boy is it satisfying to check things off.  But this time of year, I have another list, a summer What Not To-Do List for my garden.  This keeps me from serious missteps which can harm plants or waste time and money.   

Don’t: Plant

First on my What Not To-Do List is planting.  It’s just too hot and dry for plants to establish well.  Spring and fall are your best planting times.  Be wise and wait.  I know there are plant bargains to be had now.  As a career tightwad I’m tempted, too.  Don’t succumb.  

Don’t: Dig or Divide

No digging and dividing either.  Most plants prefer to have this done in spring or fall so they can settle in and develop robust roots before extreme weather.  So step away from that shovel. If you do plant or divide plants in summer you will need to water, water and water again, a significant time drain.  And still, your plants will be stressed. Very stressed.  

Don’t: Prune

Third on my What Not To-Do List is pruning.  Trees hate to be pruned in summer.  They weep copious sap and those wounds attract the abundant insects and diseases afoot now.  Summer pruning courts disaster.  Instead, prune trees in the dormant season – January to mid-March – when they are less vulnerable.  

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Manage bagworms now so they don’t harm trees

“Why are the pinecones on my tree moving?” a client asks.
“Because those aren’t pinecones, they’re bagworms,” I reply.  

Dangling from evergreens like teardrop-shaped Christmas tree ornaments, bagworms cause many a homeowner to scratch their head in wonder. Pinecones that dance?

Bagworms dangle from a juniper branch.
Credit: Erik Rebek, Bugwood

But the tell-tale thinning of trees that can follow is no laughing matter. Covered with bits of needles and leaves, the bags that give bagworms their name serve as protection for the caterpillars inside. Bagworm caterpillars are the juvenile form of a moth.  

That sounds innocent enough, but like all caterpillar-like insects, they are born hungry. Walking stomachs, they prowl among your trees, munching away to cause sometimes serious defoliation. They particularly enjoy evergreens such as arborvitae, cedars, junipers, and pines. But they will also dine on maples, locusts, lindens, and other deciduous trees.  

Eggs hatch out from bagworms’ bags in May. Tiny larvae spin an eighth-inch bag with bits of needles or leaves glued together with webbing. Like tiny backpackers, bagworms tote those bags around as they feed. As they grow, the bags get bigger and bigger and your tree foliage gets thinner and thinner.  

I don’t know if bagworms have an adventuresome streak, but they do a bit of hang-gliding. They spin a fine web and use the wind to glide to other trees in a stunt called “ballooning.” 

By August or September, the bags – and bagworms – are 1- to 2-inches long.  They stop wandering and feeding and tie up to a twig using tough silky threads. In late summer, they transform into moths. But get this, ladies, only the males have wings.  So the gals just hang out in their bags and wait for the boys to, um, visit. Post rendezvous, each female bagworm lays 200 to 1,000 eggs in its bag. Next spring, the eggs hatch to start the cycle over again.

Stopping that cycle is important and now is a crucial time. Mid-June to mid-July is the best time to treat trees with bagworms with a very effective organic control called Bt. A naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis kills only small caterpillars. And guess what? Bagworms are just the right size right now.  Bt doesn’t harm humans or animals and is easy to find. It’s sold in hardware stores and garden centers under names like Dipel and Thuricide. Applying Bt is a do-it-yourself job if you can reach your trees with a sprayer. If not, call in a pro.

Even easier is picking off the bags if you have only a few bagworms. Snip them off with scissors or pruners, bag and trash them. Don’t leave them on the ground where the eggs can hatch. Since there can be as many as 1,000 eggs in each bag, removal is important. Get those bags gone. And gone before the eggs hatch in May.  

Tiny bagworms are hard to spot when they first appear in May on plants such as this Colorado blue spruce.
Credit:  Dave Lantz

Learn more about bagworms and see some great photos on the HGIC website.

You can beat bagworms and keep your trees safe. Fortunately, this is one insect for which there is an easy – and organic – fix.  So get out there and bag some bagworms.

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.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Understanding plant tags: light, zones, natives and more

Gardening beginners and pros alike can get flummoxed by plant tag terminology.  What do words such as full-sun, zone, native and determinate mean? Allow me to elucidate, um, explain.  See, even I can make things complicated.

Light is oh-so-important.  Matching the right plant to the right lighting is crucial.  So tags tell you how much light each plant needs to not just survive, but thrive. If a tag says “full sun” that means the plant needs at least 6 hours of sun a day.  If it says “full shade”, that means it wants deep shade.  Part sun or part shade means it can handle a bit of both. 

In trying to find the perfect lighting, remember that buildings, trees, sheds, and other structures cast shade.  So what might be full sun now may be shaded later in the day.  It pays to note where sun and shade fall across the days and seasons.  Visit your gardens at different times to see where you have true full sun, deep shade, and those grey areas in-between.  

Not all plants do well everywhere.  Some prefer heat.  Others prefer cold. So the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, came up with a map divided into numbered strips or zones, where particular plants survive an average low temperature.    It’s called the hardiness map.   

Here in Washington County, we are in zone 6B which means that any plant with a hardiness range that includes the number 6 should survive our winters.   For example, a river birch is labeled with a tag that says “zone 4 to 9,” so it will do well here.  A gardenia labeled for zones 8 to 11 will not.   So you enjoy it until the weather gets cold.   

Plant tags help you know which plants will survive and thrive in your gardens.  
Photo credit:  Annette Cormany

You may see the word “native” on a plant tag.  Native plants naturally occur in an area and have been here since European settlers arrived.  They’ve survived hot, dry, cold, and wet years and are tough, naturally resisting drought and disease.  Native plants also co-evolved with native insects and wildlife and support them with better nutrition and habitat. So if you want to help pollinators and other wildlife, native plants are a good choice.  

Look for them.  Ask for them.  That’s how we get more in the marketplace. Learn more about native plants and get some plant suggestions on the HGIC website.

If you’re buying tomatoes, you may have noticed the words “determinate” and “indeterminate” on the tags.  These are tomato types.  Determinate or bush tomatoes max out at 4 feet. They produce their fruit all at once – at a determined time – which makes them great for canning.  They also need less staking.

Indeterminate or vining tomatoes keep growing all season and produce fruit over a longer time so you can enjoy them for slicing, cooking, side dishes, and more.  They need to be staked.  

I hope I’ve simplified some plant tag terms.  No get thee to a garden center and check out some plants! 

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.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Deciphering plant tags: annuals, perennials and biennials

Do you remember the first time you went to a garden center? All those colors. All those plants. All those fancy tags with gobbledygook. Help! Plant terminology can vex everyone, even plant geeks. So let me give you the lowdown on some terms that flummox newbies and pros alike.  

The first thing you need to know is that for plants, it’s all about sex. Their number one priority is to make more of themselves. So they are committed to growing robustly to make flowers and seeds. How they get there is different. So we use words like annual, perennial, and biennial. These often confuse folks. Which one do I want? How do they work? What’s the best deal?

It’s all about a plant’s life cycle. Annuals live for a year. Perennials live longer. And biennials take two years to complete their life cycle. Annuals are especially driven to produce seeds because they only have one year to do so. So they push out flowers like mad to make more seeds.

Tithonia – an annual flower. Photo by Marie Bikle.

Annuals’ key selling point: color throughout the growing season. That’s why they are the darlings of container gardens, a blessing for filling gaps and ideal for a sweep of long-lasting color.  

Annuals are less expensive since they last only one season, dying with the first frosts. You can save seeds and replant them, but few do. Some come back from dropped seeds, but that’s rare. 

The downside to annuals is the need to replant them every year. So the cost savings may not be there in the long run and you spend much more time planting. 

In gardens, geraniums, begonias, pansies, marigolds, zinnias, petunias, and snapdragons are commonly treated as annuals.

Perennials are one and done, planted once and persisting for years. Most die to the ground with cold weather, but come back again from their roots, bulbs, or tubers. Most perennials bloom for about a month, but some bloom 2 or 3 times a season if deadheaded. So you don’t get the long flowering time of annuals, but they return year after year.

Perennials cost more but don’t need to be replanted. Plus, they give a different look to your garden throughout the growing season with myriad colors and forms. Perennial gardens have spring, summer, and fall wardrobes. They also are the gift that keeps giving, since you get free plants by dividing perennials every few years. This mitigates their initial higher price tags.  

There are hundreds of perennials including coneflowers, lavender, coral bells, coreopsis, columbine, bee balm, phlox, asters, and goldenrod.  

Biennials flower in their second season. They push out leaves the first year, then flower, make seeds and die in their second year. Hollyhock, foxglove and Sweet William are common biennials. Some biennials reliably reseed so they act like perennials with new plants coming from dropped seeds. Hollyhocks are notorious for rewarding growers year after year.   

I hope I’ve simplified some plant tag terms and made it easier for you to pick what’s right for you – and your gardens – on your next visit to a garden center. 

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.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Grow your own vegetables – Veggie 101

Become a Veg Head.  Seriously, if you’ve always wanted to grow some of your own vegetables, now is a great time to try your first vegetable garden. Why grow your own?  Taste, nutrition, availability, safety, savings and pride.

Nothing tastes like a sun-warmed tomato fresh from the garden. It hasn’t traveled miles to get to you, losing nutrition and consuming resources.  

Homegrown means you’re not vexed by limited availability at stores. And you know exactly what those vegetables have been treated with – or not.  You can save money, too. Yes, there are start-up costs. But you can save on secondhand tools, seeds from friends, DIY supports and more.  Compare store-bought and homegrown prices and you usually come out ahead.

And then there’s pride.  You will grin big time when you harvest your first handful of peas, your first whopping zucchini, your first bell pepper.  It. Just. Feels. Good. And it tastes better.

Harvested vegetables
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