Winter sowing: How I get a jump start on my summer flower garden

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. Continue reading

Cardinal Flower Is for Hummingbirds

Cardinal flower
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Photo: C. Carignan

I gave up on my hummingbird feeder years ago. It was more than I wanted to do to keep up with changing the sugar solution every two to three days, as recommended to keep the food free of spoilage that could be harmful to the birds. I saw that hummingbirds would visit some of my garden flowers just as much as the feeder, so I decided just to provide flowers for them. More flowers for me, more natural nectar for them. A win-win.

In my garden, ruby-throated hummingbirds most often fed at my scarlet bee balm, blue salvias, brilliantly colored zinnias, and orange butterfly weed. This year they have an additional choice that appears to be their new favorite. It is the flower whose color resembles that of a different bird, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

This Maryland native plant produces 2-4′ tall spikes of bright, cardinal-red flowers that are irresistible to hummingbirds in mid to late summer. In fact, hummingbirds are an essential pollinator of these plants.

Cardinal flower was easy for me to grow from seeds sown directly outside. In the fall of 2016, I scattered seeds in a low area of my yard where water frequently would puddle after heavy rain. They sprouted and grew low foliage and a few small flower spikes the following season. This year I have plants that are well established and the flower spikes are tall and brilliant. Cardinal flower grows best in moist to wet soils, so this has been a fabulous year for it!

If you have a shady or partially shaded area that tends to stay moist in your yard, cardinal flower might be a great choice for you. Allow these plants to reseed naturally so you’ll have flowers — and a natural hummingbird feeding station — year after year.

Additional Resources

By Christa K. Carignan, Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center

Q&A: What’s wrong with my hydrangea flowers?

hydrangeaQ: My hydrangea bloomed white but instead of turning red it turned brown. What is happening to the petals and what can be done?

A: A disease called Botrytis blight can cause spots and browning symptoms on the flower petals of Hydrangea and other types of flowers as well. Extended periods of cloudy, rainy weather like we had recently can favor the development of this fungal disease. Botrytis first appears as water-soaked spots that gradually expand into brown blotches. There is no remedy for this damage. Prune out and dispose of the damaged flower parts.

The spotting on the leaves is common on Hydrangeas in late summer, especially in our humid climate. Leaf spots can be caused by fungal and bacterial pathogens. The leaf spots are mainly a cosmetic problem. They will not kill the plant. Chemical control is not recommended in most home garden situations.

Keep Hydrangeas watered regularly during drought periods and avoid overhead watering to minimize wetness on the flowers and foliage. Clean up and dispose of symptomatic leaves at the end of the growing season.

Visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information on common problems of trees and shrubs.

By Christa K. Carignan, Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center

Have a plant or pest question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert.

Hibiscus sabdariffa

One of our favorite plants this year at the Derwood Demo Garden is Hibiscus sabdariffa, or roselle hibiscus (or sorrel, sour-leaf, flor de Jamaica, and many other names).  It is an Old World plant (Africa and Asia) that is also grown extensively in the West Indies.  In its natural warm habitat, it can be a woody shrub, but here it’s grown as an annual.  I started the seeds inside in March and by July it was over two feet tall.

The roselle flower looks a lot like that of okra; they’re in the same plant family, Malvaceae.  One of the useful parts of the plant is the flower bud:

which is picked when about an inch long and completely red.  To make a simple nutritious infusion, use 2-3 buds per measured cup of water, and simmer the buds in the water for about ten minutes until the water is a rich red.  You can drink this tea hot or cold, and add herbs to it for variety.  The commercially sold Red Zinger tea has roselle hibiscus as its base.

MG Millicent Lawrence told me how roselle or “sorrel” is used in Jamaica for a winter drink (alcoholic).  Here’s her recipe:

Jamaican Sorrel

Ingredients (makes about 2-3 pints of liquid)
1 cup dried sorrel buds
2 Tbs grated ginger (no need to peel)
5 cups boiling water
10-20 allspice (pimento) berries.  If the allspice berries are large (pea size) use the lower amount
rum and sugar to taste
wine (optional)
Place the sorrel, ginger, and allspice in a large container and pour in the boiling water.  Cover and let steep overnight.  Strain through cheesecloth or a fine meshed sieve to remove all solids.  Add a little rum to preserve and sugar to sweeten, and wine if desired.  Pour into a glass bottle and refrigerate.  The end product should be a rich ruby-colored spicy beverage.

You could also use fresh buds for this, but you’d need much more than a cup, and you’d need to infuse them, not just pour boiling water on.  Dried sorrel or flor de Jamaica can be found at Hispanic groceries.

credit Barbara Dunn

This aerial shot of the demo garden was taken from a kite flown by the indefatigable MG Barbara Dunn.

You can see our fat patch of roselle hibiscus next to the blue-green coiled hose.  There are perhaps seven plants in there – I can’t remember now – and the patch is about seven feet long.

Here’s a closeup of the pretty leaves – look, no bug damage!  And it turns out the leaves are edible as well.  I’d read this but hadn’t tried them, and then a very nice Burmese-American visitor to our garden saw the plant and recognized it and asked for some leaves to show us how it was cooked – and the next week we got a dish with “sour leaf” and bamboo shoots to sample.

I took some home that night and cooked them, but I won’t post the recipe because I’m still working on it.  The leaves have a strong sour taste that needs to be complemented with other tastes, and the Indian spices I used weren’t strong enough to do the trick.  I ought to have properly caramelized the onions, too.

Here’s a shot of my dinner, accompanied by a glass of roselle infusion.  I served the roselle greens on a chickpea flour pancake (recipe here, from a delightful food blog).

So give roselle a try in your vegetable or flower patch next year!  The seeds are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and other sources (more next year, I expect, since this is a hot plant in the food gardening world right now).