Why Container Gardening?

Out of necessity, containers were my first garden.

When I first began to garden in Chicago, I had a third-floor balcony. Pots and containers and window boxes were my garden.

Here at Maplehurst, I have almost five acres at my disposal.

Why haven’t I “disposed” of containers?

With so much ground to cover and fill, why mess about watering pots?

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Here are the reasons why I STILL love container gardening:

 

  • Containers help bridge the garden with the house: I love to create mini-gardens in pots on front steps, porches, and patios

 

  • Containers offer a nurturing environment for small or special plants: sometimes my mail-order roses are too small to go straight into the garden. I give them a year to grow on their own in a container before letting them duke it out with other plants in a mixed border.

 

  • Containers help me manage my urge to collect: I want to grow every plant I read about, but not all of these longed-for plants fit the style or color schemes of my current garden. If I really want to try growing something but don’t know where to put it, a pot is a perfect solution.

 

  • Containers bring the garden up close: For instance, I grow tulips and daffodils in the ground, but I love growing them in pots. When in bloom, I can feature those pots right on our outdoor table. When the blooms fade, I can tuck them out of sight.

 

  • Containers need watering and feeding but they don’t typically need weeding: I like growing edibles in containers because I don’t have to keep them weeded while I wait for harvest

 

  • Containers allow us to grow heat and cold sensitive plants year round no matter our weather: because I grow my pelargoniums in pots, I can keep them outside in summer and inside in winter. I can also protect some plants from strong sun or intense heat by moving them into shadier or more protected places. Containers give us flexibility.

 

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Cold Frames: What They Are and How To Use Them

Oh, the hubris in that title!

For the truth is, I am only a beginner when it comes to cold frames.

For eight years, I have thought about asking my husband to build one for me. I have even gone so far as to mention the idea from time to time, but I never took the step of sending him links to “diy cold frame tutorials” because I was never quite sure how to use them in my harsh winter / summer climate.

Were these tools perhaps best left to the English gardeners with their mild climate and cool summers? I feared that a cold frame would be insufficient in January and altogether too much in July, so why bother?

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First: What is a cold frame?

It’s a bit like a small, unheated greenhouse.

A four-sided box is open on the bottom and topped with a removable pane of glass or clear plastic. The box can be placed on bare ground or on top of a raised bed. When the glass is lifted, seedlings and other vulnerable plants can be protected inside.

Second: How are they typically used?

Cold frames are used to protect plants from damaging weather: typically, cold and wet and wind.

They can be used to harden off seedlings as they help acclimatize them to outdoor conditions. Cold frames make a good way station between indoor growing lights and the outdoor garden. They can also be used to hold cold-hardy annuals like sweet peas that have been sown in fall but won’t be planted out until spring. This gives cool-season plants a head start.

Cold frames can protect potted bulbs from too much wet during the winter. They can also hold small plants grown from cuttings until they have grown enough to be planted out in the garden.

They can also be placed directly over soil–in the ground or in a raised bed–and seeds sown within, providing a protected environment for lettuces in cold weather, for instance.

Third: How will I use my cold frame?

No doubt I will learn through trial and error, but here are some of the ways I am already using my cold frame and how I intend to use them (yes, we are already building a second!) throughout this growing season:

  1. For growing trays of cold-tolerant seedlings like peas, sweet peas, violas, and pansies in order to save space under my growing lights for less cold-tolerant plants
  2. For hardening off all of the seedlings before planting them in the garden
  3. For holding pots of daffodil and tulip bulbs all winter, giving them some protection from cold and wet.
  4. For extending the season when I can grow salad crops: I will place over a raised bed and sow seeds directly
  5. I will remember to ventilate my cold frame–propping the top up on warm days–in order to circulate air and keep my plants from being burned

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It’s true that I might not use my cold frame year-round here in my zone 6 Pennsylvania garden. July and August are probably too warm to ever need a cold frame, but I am beginning to understand how I might come to rely on a cold frame–or two, or three!–the other three seasons of the year.

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Windcliff: A Book Review

Here is a book that surprised me.

I did not think that Daniel J. Hinkley’s book about his Seattle-area garden would be for me, but Windcliff: A Story of People, Plants, and Gardens is a special and often surprising book.

Hinkley is a global plant collector, nurseryman, and home gardener. His garden Windcliff sits on a windy bluff above Puget Sound with views of Tahoma, or Mount Rainier. I did not think this book was for me because in my zone 6 garden I cannot grow most of the plants Hinkley mentions, and I am much more interested in native plants than specimens from Asia and South Africa.

Or, so I thought before I read this book.

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A few quick things:

  • It’s beautiful! The photography by Claire Takacs is stunning. I also love that Hinkley admits that Takacs captures the garden in its most beautiful moments, but that these are only moments. Hinkley is eager for us to know that his garden does not always look this good.

 

  • It’s personal. Hinkley’s writing style is unique (he relishes big words and imaginative metaphors), and he is not afraid to offend. He speaks his opinions boldly, but he is also humble and spends as much time dissecting his mistakes and failures as his successes.

 

  • It celebrates a global abundance of beautiful plants. I love native plants and tend to read mostly about local flora and fauna. Hinkley’s descriptions of plant collecting trips around the globe helped me better appreciate this work which, at its best, is about conservation and education.

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Who is this book for?

I assumed this book was not for me because I have never heard of most of the plants Hinkley rhapsodizes over, and I cannot grow them outdoors in Pennsylvania anyhow. But I was wrong.

This book is for anyone fascinated by the process of making a new garden from scratch. This book is for anyone who thinks “plant collectors” only lived during Queen Victoria’s day. And this book is for anyone who appreciates personal garden writing and gorgeous garden photography.

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Is this a book to buy or borrow?

I love collecting gardening books with beautiful photography and slightly out-of-reach inspirational gardens.

I bought my own copy of Windcliff because I was so curious to read it, and my library doesn’t carry it, but many of you will likely prefer to borrow a copy. Inter-library loan might be helpful here.

Some of my favorite quotations from this book:

 

“I have to come clean and break it to you as gently and kindly as I can. My garden is not the one captured in these extraordinary photographs at just the right moment, in the precise light, by a talented artist. It is an improv performance with more days dead in a ditch than anyone could imagine.”

 

Beginning a section titled “Garden as Play,” Hinkley immediately writes,

“Note to self: It is still a lot of work.”

 

“The downside of any deliberate rehash in the garden is, of course, that you are left with the embarrassment of a new beginning.”

 

“If shown any plant with even the most sensational leaf form or pattern, [the audience members] ask me the same question: ‘What does it do?’ I am often moved to reply, ‘Well, what do you do?'”

 

“There is no sacrifice to any season if thought is given to foliage, silhouette, flower, fruit, and bark. Nor is there a magic ratio of plants performing in spring or autumn, summer or winter. It is simply a matter of visiting gardens–and nurseries–in all four seasons and rationing your plant budget.”

 

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Ready, Set, Grow: My Spring Garden Tasks

Don’t Clean Up Your Garden, Restart It

Are gardens dirty places?

I suppose they are, but that’s a good thing, surely. Why then do we talk about “cleaning up” our gardens for the next growing season?

“While the conclusion of winter brings about a necessary period of garden work, I prefer to think of this as a restart rather than a refresh. As the garden reenters an active period, how you steward the return of life should be the focus of your efforts.”

I read these words by Kelly Norris in his book New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden, and I love the subtle shift in perspective he offers.

Rather than viewing our gardens as tattered and messy after the dormant season–in other words, in need of a good tidying–we can see ourselves as caretakers helping everything to get growing again.

Where a garden cleanup might focus on removing plant matter, a garden restart will focus on re-using plant matter, whether in a compost pile or right there as a mulch in the borders.

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Here are some of the chores I’ll be tackling in the next few weeks as I help prepare my garden for spring:

 

  • Cutting back the dead grasses: I am going to try chopping up some of this material and leaving it in place as a mulch

 

  • Pruning the roses: this will stimulate growth so I will wait till after the chance of really cold weather has passed

 

  • Removing some (but not all) of the drifted leaves from my flower beds

 

  • Cutting back the dead foliage of perennials: for instance, I have a lot of catmint (nepeta) needing to be cut to the ground

 

A Tip: For years, I would “clean up” the foliage of last year’s annual flowers by tugging them out of the ground, roots and all. Now I use clippers to cut them back to the soil. I leave the roots in place, which means I don’t lose any of my precious soil, and the old roots are left to decompose under the ground which improves the soil.

 

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The Joy of Seasonal “Emblems” in our Gardens

What do I mean by a Seasonal Emblem?

Think tulips in spring.

Sunflowers in summer.

Chrysanthemums in fall,

and holly with bright red berries in winter.

Seasonal emblems can be universal, but they can also be entirely personal and place-dependent.

Here at Maplehurst, there is the pink magnolia blossom in spring, the tall trumpet lilies in summer, the dahlias in fall, and the coral berries of the ‘Wintergold’ shrubs in, yes, winter. When I lived in Florida, summer was for the bright foliage of caladiums and winter was for orange blossom.

An emblem of a season is a snapshot, an image, and a powerful distillation of the season itself. It is not the plant that blooms and blooms from spring till frost.

Emblems are more ephemeral than that.

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I’ve been reading a book by Kelly Norris called New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden.

This book has been helpful for me because it emphasizes the ecological function of plants rather than their ornamental attributes.

If you are like me, you design your garden or imagine new planting possibilities by thinking of favorite blooms and much-loved colors. But Norris is challenging me–indeed my own garden has been challenging me–to think more about year-round function.

Instead of asking myself, what color flower do I want here? I am learning to ask questions like,

What plant will cover the soil and shade out weeds in this bed?

What plants will provide long-lasting structure?

What plant will shoot up quickly in spring in order to out-compete the weeds before fading away to let the summer perennials take over?

But as critical as such questions are, it is also important to ask ourselves:

What will greet me in spring when the long winter is finally over?

What says summer to me?

And what will I anticipate all summer long before it finally emerges in the fall?

 

In other words, in our search for plants that look great all year round, we must not neglect the “emblems” of each season.

As Norris puts it,

A garden without these seasonal pacesetters can lack rhythm and start to look more like the mass-produced landscapes of the commercial world than the kinds of lovingly crafted creations better suited for home.

What sets the pace in your garden?

What are the emblems you love best?

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