Charlie’s Late December Newsletter
The first area is the wildflowers that grace our woodlands each spring. While I normally focus much attention on growing flowers, edibles and shrubs in gardens, let’s not forget the wildflowers. I talk about some of the best wildflowers to plant in woodlands for a spring burst of color.
But I also don’t want to forget about today’s garden. There’s still gardening happening, even if your garden is buried in snow. Root crops that have been protected by hay, chopped leaves or snow are ready to harvest now. One of my favorites this time of year are parsnips. I’ll talk about harvesting and growing this root here.
Begonias are popular bedding plants in spring, but there are also selections that make excellent houseplants. You probably have seen beautiful Angel Wings and Rex begonias with intricate leaf colors and shapes. I talk about these leaf begonias and how to grow them indoors.
Finally, I continue with my coverage of tropicals by talking about hibiscus. This is the shrub hibiscus that graces gardens and landscapes in frost-free climates. Learn more about them here.
Have a Happy New Year. Until next time I’ll be seeing you… in the garden.
- Vt Garden Journal on Vt Public Radio- This week; Seed Packets
- Ct Garden Journal on Ct Public Radio- This week; Holiday Houseplant Care
- In the Garden (WCAX-TV CBS)- This week; Indoor Succulents
- Where’s Charlie Speaking? February 22th, 2019, Northwest Flower & Garden Festival, Seattle, WA
Even with lots of winter still ahead of most us, it’s not too early to think spring. One of the first harbingers of spring for me are woodland wildflowers. They start poking through the leaf littler at various times to provide a burst of color after a long brown or white winter.
While nature provides the glory of these wildflowers, you can compliment them by planting more. First of all, never transplant wildflowers from wild areas to your woodland. It may be illegal and is not good to disrupt established patches of these spring beauties. Luckily, you can purchase wildflowers to plant.
One of the first wildflowers to bloom is Hepatica. These low growing, small white to purple colored flowers provide hope for more wildflowers to come.
Red, White, Painted and Yellow trilliums burst forth with their nodding flower heads. I love to watch the white trillium flowers fade to pink with age. Blood root is another early spring wildflower with bright white, daily-like blooms. The name comes from the red sap in stems that emerges when you break them open.
Other spring ephemerals include Dutchmen’s breeches, Mayflowers and wild ginger. Each has unique properties. Dutchmen’s breeches is a wild columbine with interesting shaped white flowers. Mayflowers are low growing beauties that spread by underground runners. They have white and pink colored blooms. Wild ginger has subtle dark colored blooms near the ground with a gingery taste to the roots.
When planting spring woodland wildflowers, first look for areas where these plants are growing naturally. In that way you’ll know the soil, sunlight and habitat is right for your plants. Some spring ephemerals, such as trilliums, grow best in well-drained, rich soil. Other wildflowers, such as columbine and hepatica, seem to thrive on rocky ledges and shallow soils.
When planting, group multiple plants together in an area just like they would grow naturally in the woods. Many of these wildflowers will spread once established. If you plant them all together, they will form the attractive mat of blooms in spring that we love.
It may be too early to think about growing begonias outdoors in your shade garden, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them indoors. While we mostly think of begonias as the wax begonias that are found in trays in garden centers in spring, there are many other types of begonias worth growing. Some of these are grown not for the colorful flowers, but the unusual and colorful leaves.
Angel Wings and Rex begonias are two types found in greenhouses and garden centers this time of year. Just look in the houseplant department and you’ll see them.
Angel Wings begonias feature leaves shaped like an angel’s wing. Some have dark green leaves and metallic silver specks while others are multi-colored. The stems grow in segments. Once the plant receives enough light, it will produce clusters of white, pink, red or yellow flowers. If you have grow lights indoors, you can get your Angel Wing begonias to bloom now. Otherwise most Northern gardeners will have to wait until March for the flowers to form. If plants receive too much direct light, the edges of the leaves will brown. Gardeners in warmer climates can grow these begonias in containers or in the ground year round for their beauty and flowers.
Rex begonias are considered “fancy-leaf” begonias. They are primarily grown for the range of leaf shapes and colors, depending on the variety. I’ve seen some of these specimens in greenhouses and flower shows that are truly jaw dropping. I like Rex begonias because you don’t have to wait for the flowers to have a show. In fact, the flowers are insignificant in comparison.
Plant these begonias in an area with bright, indirect light. They can be grown under grow lights, but watch for signs of too much light on the leaves. Keep the soil evenly moist, but not wet. Begonia stems rot easily in wet soils. Keep the room warm, avoiding cold drafts. Both types of begonias are easy to propagate from leaf cuttings.
One of the fun parts of gardening are surprises. I still remember the first time I “forgot” the parsnips in my garden in fall and accidentally dug them up in late winter. They were still in tact and solid. The biggest surprise was the taste. I never was a great parsnip fan until I tasted these cold-touched roots. They were sweet and delicious. Ever since, I plant parsnips in spring, but leave them buried under hay or chopped leaves until late winter to harvest. It’s great being able to harvest some edibles when little else is growing in my zone 5 garden.
Plant parsnips in spring around when you plant carrots and beets. I like to plant them all together in a bed. This makes it easier to protect them in fall and winter. Keep the bed well weeded and thin the parsnips, in particular, so they’re spaced 4 inches apart. Keep well watered.
Come fall, before a freeze, cover the parsnip bed with a thick layer of hay, straw or chopped leaves. The colder the climate, the thicker the layer. In our garden where it occasionally gets down to -20F, I place about a 2 foot thick layer on the bed to protect the roots from freezing. In milder climates you can use a thinner layer. In some winters, you may not need any protection at all, but it’s hard to predict the weather.
The goal is to keep the ground from freezing. Freezing and thawing will cause the roots to rot. Periodically dig through the mulch layer in winter to harvest. Slowly cool the sliced up parsnips to caramelize them. The flavor is earthy, yet very sweet. I like to eat them just sauteed with butter, salt and pepper. There are many other recipes where you can bake, roast, steam or make soup from them as well. You can even make a parsnip pie for fun.
Tropical Corner: Hibiscus
One plant that’s hard to miss in zones 9 and warmer are the shrub or tropical hibiscus. In warm parts of Florida, the Gulf Coast, Texas, Arizona, California and Hawaii these are classic landscape plants. The beautiful shrubs have flowers that range from pure white to the deepest burgundy with single or double blooms. The shrubs can grow big, too. Some will reach 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Mostly, I’ve seen them used as foundation plants in a tropical landscapes and pruned to stay small. You can also mix and match them with other tropical shrubs. Many gardeners grow them in containers, even in warm climates. This keeps the plant dwarf and makes them easy to move around the landscape.
Tropical hibiscus looks best if allowed to grow into their natural shape. Unfortunately, many warm weather gardeners prune them like some Northern gardeners prune over grown spireas or yews. This drastic pruning reduces flowering and makes the hibiscus look like a box or ball. I think they look best planted in the landscape where they will have room to grow and spread. I’ve also seen them planted in informal hedges to spread and create a wall of color when in bloom. Keep the soil well watered and watch for pests such as scale and mealybugs.
Tropical hibiscus can be overwintered indoors in Northern climates, but expect leaf drop and no flowers. The goal in the North is to keep the shrub alive until spring. Don’t over water and in spring move them outdoors to grow.