Tags Posts tagged with "Gardening"


Don't cut your lawn shorter than 3 inches or you'll damage it. Stock Photo
A baker’s dozen lawn tips

By Ellen Barcel

Well, winter is over and it’s time to think about spring and gardening and that includes your lawn. If you followed recommendations, you fertilized your lawn last October and patched bare spots. You removed fallen leaves. Now, what should you be doing?

1. Remove any leaves from the lawn that may have accumulated over the winter. These can be composted, but leaves do take longer to break down than greenery so it’s best to shred them. The more surface exposed, the faster the composting process will happen.

2. Gather up any broken branches that came down during the winter’s storms. I use this wood for my fireplace, but each wood has a different scent. Apple wood is wonderful but weeping willow wood is definitely not. If you have a chipper you can turn downed wood into mulch.

3. If you had a lot of weeds in your lawn last year, consider applying pre-emergent weed killer. Personally, I just mow them over since they’re green, but if it’s a problem for you, spread the weed killer.

4. If you haven’t patched bare spots or new ones developed, spring is the ideal time to do that. Most of the lawn grasses we grow on Long Island are cool weather grasses and grow best in spring and fall.

Don’t plant grass right up against tree trunks as the bark can be damaged during mowing. Photo by Ellen Barcel

5. In general, grass won’t grow well in very shady areas. The plants need sun, but fescue tolerates some shade. So, when patching, look for mixes that note that they do well in some shade.

6. Turn on (and repair as needed) any irrigation system you have once the danger of frost has passed.

7. You can spread fertilizer after the beginning of April. (Suffolk County law prohibits spreading it before that time to prevent chemicals from polluting the groundwater. Lawns just don’t take up fertilizer from November through March.) Don’t apply fertilizer to zoyzia grass until it has greened up, however, since it is a warm weather grass.

8. When mowing, don’t cut the lawn shorter than 3 inches. Remember these are plants and if you “scalp” them, you can kill them. They need a certain amount of greenery to thrive. While it’s tempting to cut the lawn really short so you don’t have to do it that often, you’ll damage the lawn.

9. Leave the clippings on the lawn as they will break down and return nutrients to the soil. If you must gather them up, then compost them.

10. Don’t walk on the grass, for the same reason. You wouldn’t walk on your tomato plants or bean plants, so don’t walk on the grass. Install some sort of walkways for frequently trodden paths.

11. If your soil is substantially below a pH of 6.0 to 7, you need to periodically add lime to sweeten the soil. So, test your soil, then follow the manufacturer’s direction on quantity and frequency of application.

12. Generally, on Long Island, your lawn needs 1 inch of water per week. On average, Long Island gets 4 inches of rain per month. During spring and fall, and with cooler temperatures, rain frequently takes care of this need, but come the heat of summer you will probably have to supplement the rain. However, be on the lookout for periods of drought like we’ve had the last two years. Remember that two inches of rain all at once, quickly drains from the soil.

13. Don’t plant grass close up to the base of trees. If you do, the trees may be damaged as you mow each week. Instead, put mulch and/or annuals or perennials around the base of trees. That way, a “weed wacker” won’t damage the tree bark.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

By Ellen Barcel

You may have seen ornamental pepper plants in the stores this time of year. NuMex Easter Ornamental Pepper (Capsicum anuum) is a neat plant for Easter decorating. The plant look like a bouquet of peppers above the dense greenery. This is a small plant, generally about 8 inches high and 10 inches wide, making it ideal as a hostess gift or a table centerpiece. It produces beautifully colored ornamental peppers (purple, cream, yellow and orange).

Yes, it can be grown from seed, but you won’t have a plant ready for this Easter. The ornamental pepper blooms and produces peppers all summer long, maturing in 72 days. While there are many varieties of peppers that are available as heirloom plants, the NuMex Easter is a hybrid. Can you save the seeds to grow in future? You can try it, but as with all hybrids, it’s unlikely that the plants will breed true. Buy the hybrid seeds if you want to grow this one in your garden or the plants from a nursery.

The name Easter pepper came from the pastel color of the peppers when they first appear on the plant. The plant was bred by the New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute — it also developed a Valentine’s Day pepper (red and white), a St. Patrick’s Day pepper (green) and a Halloween pepper (orange and black) among many others.

This is a great plant for Long Island considering it tolerates heat, humidity and drought. Tiny white flowers form first on the plant to be followed by the brightly colored peppers. Tidy up the plant periodically by removing old, dried peppers and there’s more of a chance of new peppers forming.

Like tomatoes, a close relative, pepper plants like sun. A soil pH of 6.0 or above provides optimal growing conditions, so yes, you probably need to lime your soil if growing them in the ground. If you are growing your peppers in a container and you’ve bought it already growing, the soil is probably just fine.

Is the Easter pepper edible? Different authorities have different opinions. Some say it’s purely an ornamental plant with taste varying from plant to plant. Other authorities, including the NMU say yes, it is edible but extremely hot. In any event, do not consume peppers from the plants grown commercially as ornamentals because you won’t know what kind of chemicals have been used on them.

This is also true of plants like potato vines. Yes, you sometimes get sweet potatoes from the vines in fall, but again, you don’t know what chemicals have been used by the grower, since they are not intended for human consumption. If you want peppers, or sweet potatoes, to eat, select varieties and plants that are grown specifically for human consumption. Besides unwanted chemicals, these plants have been selected for various qualities like taste, time to maturity, keeping quality and highest yield.

The NuMex Easter pepper plants are not frost tolerant, so, if growing them outdoors over the summer, you need to either treat them as an annual or bring them indoors for the winter. According to NMU, chili plants grown indoors in a sunny location and given optimal care can last for 10 or more years.

The plants are available locally usually where ornamental or house plants are sold. Seeds are available from a number of growers, but the seeds of this ornamental as well as many others developed at NMU are available from the Chili Pepper Institute itself (www.chile.nmsu.edu).

Looking for other Easter plants? Consider the Easter cactus — similar to the Christmas cactus but it blooms in spring — as well as a pot of spring flowering bulbs for this time of year. Remember, Easter lilies are highly toxic to cats. So, if you have cats either don’t bring Easter lilies into the house or make sure that the plants are in a room that the cats can’t get into. Not only is the plant toxic but the water that the cut flowers are in can be dangerous for them as well. Happy spring!

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Beautyberry plants are lovely shrubs but also provide berries for birds. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

If, for one reason or another, you have limited gardening space, there are ways of maximizing the space that you have. However, you need to think outside the box.

Vertical gardening

Clematis, which grow up rather than out, are ideal for vertical gardening. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Consider using plants that grow up rather than out. Vining veggies (indeterminate tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, etc.) can be trained up a trellis or fence. The same is true with flowering plants, like clematis. This allows you to put in more plants in a given space.


Several large planters, strategically placed on a deck or patio, add to the growing space as well as the beauty of the area. Window boxes and planters, attached wherever there is a railing, will add to your growing space as will hanging baskets. Small tomato plants can even be grown in these hanging baskets.

Succession planting

You can also make efficient use of your gardening space by succession planting. When an early crop has come in, plant a second or even third crop of late summer or autumn veggies in the same space. Intercropping is something that Native Americans did by planting corn (which acted as a support) between vines like beans or squash. You can also scatter annual flower seeds in the same bed where you are growing spring flowering bulbs. By the time the bulbs have bloomed and the greenery faded, the annuals are sprouting and will soon bloom.

Dwarf plants

Azaleas tend to be smaller shrubs and can easily be pruned to keep them the size you need. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Using dwarf plants allows the gardener to grow a larger variety of plants since each dwarf plant takes up less space. Small rhododendrons include ‘PJM,’ ‘September Snow’ and ‘Cappuccino.’ Most azaleas stay relatively small and are easy to prune to keep to the size you need. Small rose bushes are nice in a sunny area. When you have a small amount of land, go for dwarf varieties of trees or trees, which generally don’t grow very large, like dogwood, Japanese red maple or crepe myrtle.

Less lawn

Unless you have a really pressing reason not to, cut back on the amount of land devoted to growing a lawn. It will be less work for you (mowing, spreading fertilizer and weed killer) and less chemicals will go into the environment. This frees up land for fruits and veggies, specimen trees, shrubs, etc.

Double duty

Make your plants do double duty. If you need a hedge, consider planting blueberry bushes. You’ll have your hedge and a bountiful crop of berries. Plant dwarf tomatoes in hanging baskets. They’ll dress up the outside and at the same time give you tomatoes for your salads. If you want to attract birds to the garden, consider any plant that produces berries that birds enjoy such as beautyberry. The berries can also be used to make jelly as can rose petals and rose hips.

For a kid’s play tepee, wire together a few poles to make the supports, set up as an inverted cone and plant pole beans or scarlet runner beans around the outside of the tepee, making sure you leave an opening for kids to come and go. If you don’t want veggies, plant climbing flowers instead.

There are several things to keep in mind when maximizing gardening space:

• Make sure you water you plants sufficiently. Those growing in pots can dry out more quickly than those raised in the ground. Those grown as part of a vertical gardening system may require more water in general than smaller plants raised in the same space.

• You may need to use more fertilizer than you would normally for the same reasons as needing to use more water. Be careful here, however, not to burn your plants. It’s safest to use compost.

• Keep out weeds as they will compete for resources in the garden.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from the seed of the previous generation. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Sometimes when we buy seeds or plants there will be terms listed on the label or packaging that tell us that plants are raised in a certain way or have certain characteristics. Many gardeners will seek out special types of plants, such as heirloom or hybrid. What do these terms mean and how can the gardener use them to his or her best advantage?

Heirloom plants

Virtually all veggies are available in the form of heirloom seeds including green beans. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Each autumn when I was a kid, my father used to select the best tomatoes he had grown the past summer and save the seeds. He’d remove them from the tomato and dry them on a paper towel. Come spring, he’d plant the seeds to get the new generation of tomatoes. He didn’t use the term then, but they were what was known as heirloom plants. Heirloom plants are ones grown from seed openly pollinated and produced by the parent plant. In general, heirloom plants breed true to the parent. We generally think of heirloom plants in terms of tomatoes, but the term refers to any older varieties of plants, generally passed down through the generations.


Hybrids are crosses between two different varieties of a plant in an attempt to get the best qualities of both. Seeds from hybrid plants do not breed true, so saving them for future generations is not really an option. Gardeners therefore must buy the hybrid seeds (or plants grown from them by plant breeders) each year.


Sports are unexpected mutations of a plant. Saving the seeds from sports is iffy at best. The seeds might not be viable, could produce the new characteristics or could produce the original plant. Generally, if a sport has desirable qualities, like an apple tree with a branch that produces larger, sweeter apples, the plant is reproduced vegetatively by cuttings since cuttings will breed true.


GMOs are genetically modified organisms. A scientist in a laboratory has taken genes from one organism and added it to another. The foreign genes could come from any type of organism, other plants or even animals. Supporters of GMOs say that the resulting product is safe and has superior qualities, such as it may be more disease resistant, have a longer shelf life or the plant may produce a heavier crop. Opponents are concerned about unexpected consequences — is the product safe? What are the long-term results? You may see products in the supermarket marked non-GMO because of these concerns. Legislation passed last summer in the U.S. will require foods with GMOs to be labeled. Some foods that have been genetically modified include soybeans, corn and tomatoes.

Organic gardening

Organic gardening refers to any plant — heirloom, hybrid, sport or GMO — raised without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic gardeners use compost or other nonchemical fertilizers like compost tea, bone meal, holly tone, etc. To avoid pesticides, organic gardeners will sometimes hand pick pests like slugs, encourage birds to nest in the garden (to eat insects) and use companion planting, for example, surround tulips with daffodils, to keep the squirrels away. For farms to be certified organic, chemical pesticides and fertilizers cannot be used on the land for a number of years before the beginning of organic gardening.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Native to North America, mountain laurel produces beautiful white to dark pink flowers with purple markings in May and June. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Most varieties of holly need at least one male plant in the area to produce an abundance of red berries. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Broadleaf evergreens are not conifers (which evolved about 300 million years ago), but flowering plants (which evolved about 125 million years ago). It’s just that broadleaf evergreens happen to keep their leaves throughout the winter and in many cases can be used the same way that conifers can — as a year-round privacy screen. Yes, eventually they will lose their leaves, but they will stay on the plant over winter and will present a beautiful, almost Christmas card, scene covered with snow.

Azaleas and rhododendrons immediately come to mind, especially in Long Island’s acidic soil. But, there are a number of other evergreen shrubs to consider.

Euonymus come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. Small cream-colored flowers will produce red berries in autumn on some varieties. Some are fast growers that reach an enormous size and need to be pruned back several times a year — unless you really want a massive shrub. The golden variety can revert to type (that is, have its leaves turn all green), resulting in a shrub that’s part golden and part green.

The foliage on the euonymus often reverts to green, so you wind up with a bush that’s half green and half yellow. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Some are considered invasive in Suffolk County, including Euonymus alatus (winged euonymus, also called burning bush due to its red leaves in autumn) and E. fortunei (winter creeper), and are on the Do Not Sell/Transfer list. I had one that had a branch root underneath a house shutter — how’s that for invasive? Since this shrub has a number of negatives, why plant it? Do so only if you find noninvasive varieties and are sure you have the room to grow it to its potential.

Holly is one of my favorite shrubs, although over time, they can reach the size of small specimen trees. Most varieties need at least one male plant (which does not produce red berries) in the area to pollinate the female shrubs. Even holly varieties that are self-fertile will produce more red berries with a male plant in the vicinity. Holly prefers an acidic soil, so is ideal for Long Island’s soil. Another plus is that they are fairly disease and insect resistant. Some varieties are even deer resistant. While a number of my shrubs has been munched on by deer, the holly have never been touched.

Native to North America, mountain laurel produces beautiful white to dark pink flowers with purple markings in May and June. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), in the heather family, is native to North America. It blooms in May and June and is hardy in zones 4 to 9. This can be a very large shrub, maturing at 7 to 15 feet tall and easily about as wide. Do not plant this one in front of a window, unless you really want to block the view. However, it is a slow grower. It prefers full sun and, like rhodies, prefers an acidic soil (in a pH range of 4.5 to 5.5). The plant is toxic to humans and some animals — this is strictly an ornamental here. Its uniquely shaped flowers bloom in white to dark pink colors, all with purple markings.

Firethorn (Pyracantha) are thorny, evergreen shrubs in the Rosaceae family. They tend to be upright, rather than bushy shrubs, and due to the thorns should not be planted anywhere near walkways or pools. The plants can get to be quite tall, up to 12 feet at maturity. They present small white flowers in spring and summer that mature to either orange or yellow berries in autumn, which the birds love but are not edible for humans. They are hardy in zones 6 to 9. It’s an easy plant to grow and pretty much pest free. They grow in a wide variety of soil pH levels from acidic to alkaline. They grow well in shady areas and, an added bonus for those of you with clay soil, do well in sandy, loamy and even heavy (clay) soils. If it wasn’t for the thorns, this would be pretty much a perfect plant.

No plant is perfect for every location. Always read plant tags carefully to check for requirements and final size. You don’t want your home to have its windows blocked by giant shrubs or spend entirely too much time pruning them back.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Attract chickadees to your yard in the winter by filling your feeder with a mix of sunflower seeds, peanuts and cracked corn. Stock photo

By Ellen Barcel

Before the holidays I wrote a column on the Christmas Bird Count, a citizen-scientist effort to preserve and count birds, rather than hunt them as had been done in the 1800s. Now it’s time for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Let the count begin

The GBBC will be held on Friday, Feb. 17, through Monday, Feb. 20. Billed as a “real time snapshot of where birds are,” the count helps not only the Audubon Society but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as well. The GBBC organizers note that bird populations are in constant flux. Having people count birds in their backyard (or any location they select) does something that scientists can’t do since they are simply not enough to do the job. Last year, over 160,000 people took part in the count.

Participants count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes, or any length of time they chose and report their findings online. This makes the count a “real time” picture of what’s happening. The website for the count notes that some of the questions being studied are:

• How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?

• Some birds, such as winter finches, appear in large numbers during some years but not others. Where are these species from year to year, and what can we learn from these patterns?

• How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?

• How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?

• What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?

You may be wondering why the GBBC takes place in February, notoriously the coldest month in the United States. The answer is that when the count first started 20 years ago, the goal was to check out the bird populations just before their spring migrations began, usually in March.

Getting started is easy. Go to www.birdcount.org and register. The website is very useful. There’s even a way online to help identify birds and details on a related photo contest. EBird, another program, is a way for Cornell Lab to keep track of bird populations throughout the entire year.

Attracting birds to the garden

Attracting birds to your garden in winter is easy. Just put out one or more bird feeders and keep them filled with seed. A heated water supply is nice, if you can manage it.

Black-eyed Susans provide seed for birds as the growing season comes to a close. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Attracting birds to the garden in late summer and autumn is just a matter of growing plants with seeds that the birds enjoy. Consider, for example, growing sunflowers. They’re beautiful annuals, come in a variety of colors and sizes, and the birds love the seeds in late summer and fall (and sometimes even into winter). Birds also enjoy all sorts of seeds, including the seeds of the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Liatris, Coreopsis, zinnias, marigolds, poppies and cosmos.

Note that virtually all of these flowers prefers a sunny location to grow to their full potential. Birds are also attracted by plants that produce fruit in the fall, such as the dogwood, elderberry, beautyberry and grape.

Another way to attract birds to the garden is to provide one or more birdhouses and to make sure that some brush and twigs, etc. are available in your yard for birds to use for nesting material. Keep a birdbath or two in the yard as well. Remember to change the water frequently so as not to provide a breeding place for mosquitoes.

So, as you plan next year’s garden, consider adding one or more of these flowers, which add not only lovely color to your garden but lots of nice food for the local birds. Since many birds eat insects as well as seed, attracting birds to the garden is an easy way to help keep those harmful insects in check.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850. 

Monarch butterfly caterpillar

By Ellen Barcel

Often when I’ve gone out to pick some parsley, I’ve found some parsley caterpillars on the stems. The question always becomes: When finding a caterpillar, to remove or not to remove it from the plant? As a kid, I liked playing with the little brown fuzzy ones. As a kid, I also remember my father removing tomato hornworms. So, the question is: Which, to gardeners are beneficial and which should we remove?

The two caterpillars that look the closest to me are the monarch butterfly caterpillar and the parsley caterpillar. Both feed on local plants and both turn into beautiful butterflies, a definite plus in my garden. The monarch obviously becomes the beautiful black and orange butterfly. Plant lots of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) for its food, a native plant with beautiful orange flowers. Cultivars include white, purple and bicolor flowers in addition to the native orange.

The parsley caterpillar turns into the beautiful blue and black eastern swallowtail. Since I grow a large pot of parsley each year, I’m more than willing to share a bit with this caterpillar. But, it can be a nuisance to professional parsley farmers.

Wooly bear caterpillar

The black and brown wooly bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella) are funny. Picked up they roll up it a ball. It emerges from of its egg in the fall, freezes over winter and turns into a light brown and black-spotted tiger moth in spring. It feeds on a whole variety of foliage. According to old lore, it’s a predictor of a harsh winter if the brown strip (not all have a pronounced strip) is wide, mild if it is narrow. I’ve read that there are even wooly bear festivals with weather prognostication (move over Holtsville Hal), crafts and races.

Tomato hornworms are green with small black and white spots. Their heads are larger and they are attracted to tomatoes — a plant that they can devastate. They also like related plants like peppers, potatoes and eggplants, which are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae.

Tomato hornworm caterpillar

The tomato hornworm moth emerges in late spring, just in time for the nice tender shoots of its host plants. Handpicking is the easiest way to get rid of them for the home gardener. When my father removed one, it was covered in white eggs — wasp eggs. He didn’t realize that the wasps would become a natural control to this pest (as it was its dinner) and quickly removed the hornworm with its eggs. For those into companion plantings, it is said that dill, basil or marigolds can be planted among your tomatoes to control these hornworms.

Outside of the gypsy moth caterpillars (a real pest), you mainly see caterpillars alone or in groups of just a few. Make sure you identify each one before removing it from your plants.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

When feeding the birds, use a 'patio mix, seeds without shell, so there is less mess. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Winter’s on its way, despite the really mild autumn we’ve had. And yes, as of this writing, I still have geraniums and roses blooming. Here are some things to remember for the cold days and nights ahead.

Predictions for this winter include a milder (but still cold) and, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac for 2017, snowy winter. If you haven’t done so already, check out your trees for damaged and dead branches, which can easily come down in a storm especially an ice storm. Call in an arborist as needed.

Remove heavy wet snow from bent branches if can be done safely. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Remove heavy wet snow from bent branches if can be done safely. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Remove heavy wet snow from shrubs if possible to do it safely (safety for yourself first and then the plant), so that branches don’t break after storms. And yes, remove any icicles if possible, but not branches coated with ice. You’re more likely to damage the plant trying to remove the ice. Most plants survive icing well. Come spring trim any broken branches as needed.

Another prediction I’ve seen is that despite the last few rains, we may have a time of drought coming up. If the ground is not frozen and there hasn’t been much rain, you need to water accordingly, especially newly planted ones. Also, you may need to wrap some evergreens, again especially newly planted ones, to protect from dry wind.

Remember to water periodically (usually once a month) any potted tender plants, like fig trees, you’ve stored over winter in an unheated garage or basement. You’ll know when to bring them out in the spring when you see the green buds starting to open.

Salt is a big danger to plants. Some agricultural fields in the Netherlands that were flooded during World War II with salt ocean water did not produce for many years after. So, when you select plants that will grow near the roadside, make sure they are somewhat salt tolerant so that salt spray from the road in winter doesn’t damage your plants. Holly and crepe myrtle are just two of these plants. But your grasses may not like the salt, so when spreading an ice melt on your driveway look for one that doesn’t harm plants. Note, there are also ice melts that are safe on dogs’ paws. If your regularly walk your dog in a certain area that needs de-icing, looking for the appropriate one.

If you are so near the coast that your property floods with severe storms, grow your least salt-tolerant plants in containers that can be moved to a safer location when such storms are predicted.

If you feed the birds during the cold months, you may want to use a variety known as “patio mix,” seeds without shell. There’s less mess. Also, don’t put out so much bird seed that a lot falls on the ground and isn’t eaten, or you’ll find the excess seed sprouting come spring, making more weeds to pull. Been there, done that.

If you have a living Christmas tree (one with roots attached), move it outside as soon as possible after the holidays. Keep it watered during times of drought. Plant it as soon as the ground is workable in late winter or early spring. When buying a living tree, check to make sure you don’t plant a tender one outside, like the holiday-decorated Norfork Island pine, which can only be grown as a house plant in a climate zone (with summer’s outdoors).

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

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Botanical soaps, like these found at a recent holiday fair, make great stocking stuffers.

By Ellen Barcel

It will soon be time to select holiday presents for the gardener on your list. Of course, a gift certificate to a local nursery or gardening catalog or an amaryllis bulb (some even coated with wax for minimum care) are great gifts, but consider some more unique ones. If you’re looking for a number of small gifts, such as for stocking stuffers, here are a few suggestions.

One of my favorite periodicals is the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Published annually since 1792 this (2017) is the 225th issue. It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s filled with great information and unique advertising. Expect weather forecasts for the coming year (they claim 80 percent historical accuracy), recipes, calendar information and, yes, gardening information. In other words, everything that the farmer (yesteryear’s and today’s) could find useful. The reader will pick it up again and again throughout the year to uncover added info.

At just $6.99 it’s very affordable and perfect for that gardener’s holiday stocking. Note that the company also publishes several cookbooks, an almanac for kids and a History of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Check out the magazine section of your local store or go to www.almanac.com for details.

A Farmer's Almanac would make a great gift for a gardener.
A Farmer’s Almanac would make a great gift for a gardener.

In general, house plants are much smaller than “outdoor” plants (shrubs and trees). As a result, typical tools for the indoor gardener need to be much smaller to fit into the small houseplant containers. A set of these tiny tools makes a lovely stocking stuffer for the indoor gardener on your list. A package of plant food for indoor plants is also nice.

Scented candles remind the gardener of the past growing season. They come in a wide variety of scents including mint (frequently Christmas candles), apple cinnamon, floral and even thyme. Botanical soaps (lavender, rose, gardenia, etc.) are another option.

Varietal honey is another lovely gift. I particularly like buckwheat with its stronger flavor, but clover, wildflower, orange blossom, blueberry and sage are just a few of the many available. Bees that gather pollen from fields of these flowers then impart the subtle taste to their honey production.

We all know that gardeners should wear gardening gloves, but we also know that many times we forget. So the hands take a beating. Consider super strength hand repair creams (O’Keefe’s Working Hands, Miracle Hand Repair, Burt’s Bees Hand Repair with Shea Butter, etc. are all possibilities). A nail brush to remove the soil from under the fingernails is also a possibility.

Field guides also make great gifts for gardeners and nature enthusiasts.
Field guides also make great gifts for gardeners and nature enthusiasts.

Membership in a horticultural society isn’t expensive, supports the good work they do, and usually comes with a newsletter or magazine. Suggestions include the Arbor Day Foundation, the American Chestnut Foundation, the American Horticultural Society, African Violet Society, American Rhododendron Society, American Fern Society, Holly Society of America, Long Island Botanical Society, etc.

If your gardener has a rock garden, consider tiny statuary, including fairy doors and other fairy pieces. Kids are not the only ones who enjoy these cute little pieces.

Another option is any of the National Audubon Society’s field guides (Trees, Mushrooms, Wildflowers, etc.). They are compact (easy to carry in a small backpack), detailed and filled with color photos making them extremely useful. Go to www.audubon.org for a complete list and details.

Remember that during December there are many craft fairs that have all sorts of gardening-related gifts including some of the above suggestions. Happy Holidays!

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Sunflower seeds are popular with birds. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Once our beautiful flowering plants have bloomed, the question then becomes, what do you do next, if anything. Deadheading is frequently recommended for plants with many or large flowers such as rhodies. But, the question is, should you deadhead your flowering plants? The answer is yes and no.

Deadheading helps the energy of the plant go into growing the plant rather than producing seeds. Some plants will bloom again or continue blooming if deadheaded. Coreopis, daylilies, roses and marigolds are all plants that will produce more blooms if deadheaded. So will cosmos and geraniums (Pelargonium). After all, the botanical purpose of flowers is to produce seeds. If you remove the remains of the flowers before they go to seed, the plant will generally send up more flowers so it can produce seeds.

In addition, deadheading makes plants look tidier by removing the brown/curled remains of old flowers. Some people don’t like the look of the flowers that form on hostas, planting them instead for their unique leaves. If you feel that way, remove the flower as soon as you see it.

However, don’t deadhead if:

• You plan to save the seeds of heirloom plants, particularly tomatoes, for next year. Take one of the best tomatoes, cut it open and remove the seeds and dry them. There are even seed exchanges where you can trade some of your heirloom seeds for others.

• The plant is a self-seeder (volunteer) like lunaria or columbine. Then you want the plant to go to seed, spreading the seeds throughout the garden for next year.

• Some plants bloom only once (like Hydrangea macrophylla), but the blooms stay on the plant all season. In that case, don’t even think about deadheading.

• You want the local birds to have a food source. Sunflowers are particularly popular with birds, as are tickseeds (from coreopsis) but so are most flower seeds.

• You like the appearance of the seed pods (for example, lunaria) or the remains of clematis.

• You plan to eat the seed pods (green beans, snap peas, melons, squash, apples, etc.) that form from or around the flowers. Or, in the case of roses, plan to use the rose hips to make jelly.

• You can’t comfortably reach the flowers. Don’t damage your plants by bending branches down just to reach and remove spent flowers, or climb on a ladder if it’s not safe to do so.

• You’ll damage the plant’s growing sections. For example, rhododendron’s new leaves come out from the end of the branch, where the flower has bloomed. When pulling off the remains of the flower, it’s easy to accidentally knock off the new leaves coming in. As a result, I never deadhead rhodies. I let the flower remains fall off naturally.

Remember that deadheading means just removing the spent flower, cutting as little of the stem as possible. It is not pruning where you cut back a plant drastically. However, if you are deadheading a plant that has a single flower at the end of a long stem, like a daylily, cut that stem back to the ground.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.