In this month’s episode, we are talking about container gardening with Ashley Bachtel-Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator for the University of Maryland Extension in Garrett County. If you are limited on space and time, a container garden may be a perfect way to add in the garden you’ve always wanted. We talk about picking the correct size container for your plant needs, drainage tips, and growing media.
We also have our:
Native Plant of the Month (Sweet Bay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana ) at 26:00
Bug of the Month (Spongy moth, Lymantria dispar) at 30:45
Garden Tips of the Month at 38:45.
If you have any garden-related questions please email us at UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook.
The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley, Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture; Rachel Rhodes, Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County); and Emily Zobel, Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).
Every time we plant a seed or baby plant in our vegetable garden we are hoping for the best outcome- a healthy crop and big harvest. Gardening success comes from learning about the needs of our crops and doing all we can to meet those needs. Climate change is causing us to think a little more deeply and holistically about those plant needs and our gardening practices.
In addition to making sure that plants have enough space, water, and healthy soil, we can alter how and where we plant our crops (“comfy places”) to help them adapt to increasing summer temperatures. We can also consider ways to expand or shift our food garden spots (“new spaces”) to better manage growing conditions and produce more food.
Spring is almost almost aaaaaalmost here, and if you’re like me, you have already started visualizing what flowers will grow where and what pollinators you’ll need to keep an eye out for. Unlike in other posts, where we talked about how to help pollinators in large spaces, today we’ll talk about how to help them in very small yards, balconies, porches, or other small spaces.
If you have access to a small yard, plenty of opportunities are available! Of course, you will not be able to plant lots of large plants, but that doesn’t mean you cannot plant anything. When offered little space, you can use not just the horizontal, but also the vertical space. While it is possible to cover the ground with a mix of perennials and annuals, there are also possibilities of installing trellises on which flowering vines can grow.
Sphagnum peat moss is valuable in horticulture because its fibrous structure helps it retain a lot of water and air while draining excess water. This has made peat a primary ingredient of soilless growing media (potting mix) around the world. These stable, light-weight, and porous products have been filling the benches, flats, and containers of greenhouse and nursery operators and flower and vegetable growers for decades. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gardener who has not benefited from soilless potting mixes for starting and growing plants, inside and outside.
What’s the problem with peat?
Peat is an organic substance formed from mosses, reeds, and sedges that accumulates and decomposes very slowly in waterlogged soils (bogs). Peatlands hold 30% of the earth’s soil carbon and occur mostly in cold, temperate regions. “Peat moss” used in horticulture typically refers to mosses in the Sphagnum genus.
The problem with peat is three-fold: stripping off peat from peatlands disturbs complex ecosystems; excavation releases enormous amounts of CO2, a major greenhouse gas driving climate change; and demand for peat-based soilless media is growing.
For decades, there have been calls to conserve the U.K.’s dwindling peatlands. Timelines are in place for soon phasing out peat as a growing media for gardeners and commercial growers. Most sphagnum peat is from Canada and there are no indications that Canada, with its vast peat reserves, will follow suit. But public demand for peat-free alternatives will drive the industry to develop new products.
Reducing the use of peat in horticulture will mitigate climate change and increase reliance on local materials as peat substitutes.
Q: Is there any outdoor garden task this time of year that I may be forgetting to do? I’ve foregone a fall clean-up for the benefit of overwintering wildlife, and the lawn and veggie garden are “asleep” for the season.
A: There are a few things that are good to accomplish during the dormant season. Yard tools like pruners, loppers, shovels, spades, and mower blades are best stored clean, sharpened, and oiled. There may be local businesses that offer sharpening services, but you can also do it yourself with a metal file or sharpening stone or rod.
Ideally, sharpen mower blades annually so the turf doesn’t have the added stress of ragged, torn leaf blades which can be more vulnerable to infection. A steel wool scrubber or a wad of sandpaper can take off early stages of rust and caked-on sap before you focus on the blades of pruning tools and shovels. Good-quality hand pruners can usually be disassembled for easier maintenance, and lightly wiping with oil afterwards helps lubricate the metal and resist rust. Linseed oil (or vegetable oil in a pinch) can be rubbed into wooden tool handles to protect them from aging.
Check on the location of pesticide containers and protect them from extreme temperatures (including freezing). Always store them away from human and animal food and well-secured from children and pets. Products you rarely use should be dated (if you recall when you bought or opened them) since they may only have a useful shelf life of a couple of years. Old pesticides can be disposed of by looking for household hazardous waste collection sites near you.
If you have staked any new plantings, check their ties to make sure the plants still have wiggle-room and bark isn’t being abraded. Stakes that have been in place for six to twelve months can be removed; they’ve either done their job by now or weren’t working in the first place. (Staking is actually not often needed, but at the very least it’s key to let a staked plant’s trunk sway in the breeze so stabilizing root growth and trunk thickening are stimulated.)
Similarly, if you left ID tags tied to any plants, remove them and any other plastic or elastic nursery tags before they damage the stems. Otherwise, any material that gets embedded in expanding growth will be impossible to remove and could cause branch decline in the future if it interferes with sap flow. Alternatively, tags may disintegrate over time and fall off, which means you’ll have lost your plant name. Tags will be easier to spot now on deciduous plants. Keep a record of the plant ID another way – a garden diagram or journal, or written on a stake at the plant’s base – as variety-specific features might impact care advice or future troubleshooting.
Lastly, if you’re overwintering hardy plants in containers, consider using “pot feet” or “pot risers” to raise the pot’s base off decking or pavement by an inch or two. This lets excess moisture clear the drainage holes so it doesn’t freeze into an ice dam, which would risk flooding roots. Any sturdy material where you can find several pieces the same height would suffice, but you could also purchase them in an array of materials, often in packs of three or four “feet” per pot.
It’s well known that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the leading causes of climate change and that plants play a role in mitigating its impact by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. But did you know that even the smallest gardens can make a difference? Container gardens can be effective ways for adding plants to the ecosystem, nurturing pollinators and other beneficial insects, and even providing food for your table.
High above Columbia’s Wilde Lake at the Residences at Vantage Point, long-time gardener Barbara Schuyler continues the gardening that was her passion when she and her wife Pat Wilson lived on a rural property. More than 90 containers of shrubs, annuals, perennials, and vegetables grace two balconies that face west and south.
Barbara’s approach to container gardening
Shrubs and perennials comprise a significant part of the garden. Hardy perennials winter over and are especially effective at drawing down carbon dioxide. Some of the perennials, like the orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) pictured below, are natives. Native plants are well-suited to our climate, require less care than imported species, and support native insects. Barbara’s native plants also include lots of Rudbeckia, some Echinacea, and several Heuchera.
In addition, each year Barbara and Pat decide on a theme and collect annual seeds to plant when the temperature warms up each spring. Last year, the blue flower theme provided a consistent backdrop for the foliage and flowers of other plants.
She uses regular potting soil and each spring spreads the old soil on a tarp to remove roots and debris and returns it to the pots with a portion of fresh potting soil added.
Her collection of containers is eclectic and includes salad tables for vegetables, wine barrels, ceramic and plastic pots. A container exchange in the building helps many patio gardeners find pots that meet specific size and decorative needs. Reusing and sharing materials can help reduce CO2 associated with buying and shipping new products. She also tried felt bags but was not pleased with the results.
Watering 90 containers with a watering can during dry spells would be a major challenge, so Barbara purchased a garden hose sink adapter to allow her to connect a lightweight flexible hose to the kitchen sink.
One big advantage of balcony gardens is that deer can’t get to them, though she has seen a squirrel or two.
Visiting her garden every morning is a joy in itself. It provides Barbara the opportunity to be present with her plants, be aware of their needs, and appreciate what they offer throughout the seasons.
Even at this extreme height, pollinators are attracted to and supported by the garden. Three species of bees, several types of moths, and even a few monarchs have been spotted.
Lettuce and arugula do well in pots, and along with cherry tomatoes provide healthy super-local produce — yet another reduction in their carbon footprint. One lesson Barbara’s learned about cherry tomatoes is not to crowd them. Plant just one to a large pot and prune assertively to be sure the energy goes into making tomatoes rather than excess foliage and that there’s sufficient air circulation.
While there’s some level of physical work involved, container gardening is within the reach of nearly everyone – no matter your available space, skill level, physical abilities, or budget. Start small. Share stories, plants, and pots with other gardeners, and enjoy the benefits for yourself, your community, and the planet!
While it seems that everything in our world is different today than it was two months ago, one thing hasn’t changed — nature! Maryland’s stay-at-home order has given everyone the opportunity to explore their natural surroundings and given them the itch to garden to relieve tension and do something productive.
So what do University of Maryland Extension horticulturists do to stay grounded during ‘gardentine?’ Just like you, we take pictures of our flowers, gardening projects, and all things nature and send them to each other, natch!
Stephanie got us started by wishing us a happy Earth Day!
Stephanie and I went on a socially distant walk, participating in the City Nature Challenge iNaturalist project for the Baltimore area. Here are a few of the 53 species we identified for the project. Not too shabby!
Scroll over or click on the images to see the plant names.
Bloodroot with seed pod (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis)
Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Yellow morel (Morchella esculenta)
Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
Sassafras in flower (Sassafras albidum)
One of my neighbors really upped the game by providing informational signs along the sidewalk for everyone’s enjoyment! Thanks, Kathy!
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Golden ragwort (Packera aurea)
Christa started her “Sketches from the Yard” journal on the 10th day of quarantine. She says drawing, painting, and writing about her observations around the yard and garden is a creative thing she can do at home and is something that helps her relax during these strange times.
“When I look at the details of a plant and try to document it, it gets my mind off the coronavirus news for a while and helps me focus on what is still normal and beautiful around me. I have appreciated my garden harvests of fresh greens, herbs, and even a few carrots that survived our mild winter. And the new tulips I planted last fall were delightful to see in bloom! At the end of this project, I will have a record of my garden and how meaningful it was to me as a place of serenity during this quarantine time.”
Two tulips in watercolor
Carrots in watercolor
Ranunculus in watercolor
She is quite the garden journalist! You can follow her on Instagram @mrscarignan.
Debbie is growing microgreens in a salad box on her balcony.
Miri has quite the impressive indoor garden! The ridiculous volume of houseplants keeps her sane! (Her words, not mine!) Maybe Miri will write a blog post featuring her various mini orchids and Tillandsias and include the routine she uses to keep them all so happy! (Hint hint!) She also entertains herself by secretly diagnosing plant problems on walks through the neighborhood. No photo evidence of that here!
Miri’s basement set up including a 40 year old wooden plant stand.
Tillandsia funckiana (Ya gotta love that name!)
Tillandsia ionantha ‘Druid’
Bulbophyllum pumilio, a type of orchid
Haraella odorata, an orchid with a slight citrus scent
Marian is helping her daughter plant a salad box from a distance by sharing the Home & Garden Information Center’s salad box instructions. See how you can build and plant a salad box or a salad table too!
Jon has a huge and very productive garden every year! He always gets his garlic planted in the fall.
Jon also grows his own seedlings every year and generously supplies the office with baby plants! Thanks, Jon!
Wanda enjoys tending her orchids indoors.
Wanda has lovely gardens outdoors too.
Jean has a passion for pink and her houseplants prove it!
Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)
‘Pink Princess’ Philodendron cutting
Hoya carnosa ‘Krimson Princess’
Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema sp.)
Ria – I sheltered in place for part of the last 6 weeks at the home where I grew up in Virginia. I went on several walks taking photos of things in bloom, but I needed to get my hands in the dirt! I had assured Jon in February that I was absolutely not going to create another garden to manage there. He had a good laugh when he saw the photos of my new garden! So much for my resolve, I needed to garden!
For the last 40 years, only daffodils and a perennial hibiscus have grown in the small triangle of space bordered by the split rail fencing, if you don’t count that sneaky Bermuda grass. If you look closely, you might be able to see the pomegranate that I got in Colonial Williamsburg about 5 years ago. It has never even bloomed, let alone produced fruit!
Please join us by taking time each day to connect in some way with nature and stay grounded during ‘gardentine’ and beyond!
By Ria Malloy, Program Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension