Episode 31 – Advice and plant suggestions for beginning gardeners

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

The topic of today’s podcast episode is encouraging beginning gardeners. The plants that are traditionally the most appealing to new gardeners include houseplants such as pothos, cast iron plant, ZZ plant, or sansevieria; tomato plants; beans and peppers; and bulbs such as tulips or daffodils. Once you have success with one of these, you may find yourself moving on to more challenging plants like hydrangeas, gardenias, and kohlrabi.

However, succulents and cactus may not be the best first plant for new gardeners, as they still require proper watering and care. It’s important to consider the location of your plants, just like you would consider location when buying a house. Don’t put sun-loving plants in the shade and vice versa.

Rick’s approach to beginning gardeners is similar to advice given to beginning golfers: take things slowly and learn from your mistakes. Gardeners and green industry professionals are often willing to share their knowledge and experiences with new gardeners, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Remember to pace yourself in the spring and take things in bite-size pieces. Gardening is a marathon, not a sprint, so stay committed for the long haul. Focus on the fundamentals, such as proper soil quality, and don’t overfeed, overseed, or overwater your plants.

The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the fresh air and exercise that gardening provides. You don’t need a huge garden to be successful, and curb appeal should not be your only focus. Some great plants for beginners include daylilies, Siberian iris, nepeta, pansies, alliums, nasturtiums, cosmos, gomphrena, marigolds, panicle hydrangeas, vista supertunias, daffodils, spirea, ninebark, sedums, basil, oregano, chives, tomatoes, beans, peppers, snapdragons, own-root roses, ornamental grasses, potentilla, peonies, heuchera, and cleome.

Why: If I had to pick one plant that was perfect for beginning gardeners – or even one for those who know absolutely nothing about plants and gardening – it would be a panicle hydrangea. This isn’t just because panicle hydrangeas are easy to grow – they are, but so are lots and lots of other plants. It’s because they put on such an incredible display of flowers for so long and require so little effort that they are simply one of the most satisfying plants you can grow, and that’s what helps beginning gardeners (and non-gardeners) get hooked. We have a lot of different panicle hydrangeas, but I picked Little Lime to feature in this particular way because of its beauty and its size. Little Lime hydrangea is basically a dwarf version of one of the best selling and most loved hydrangeas of all time, ‘Limelight’ hydrangea. At 3-5’ tall and wide (as opposed to 6-8’ or more for ‘Limelight’), it fits just about anywhere, works with any size and style of home or garden, is the right size for cutting blooms to bring indoors, and is just all-around a great-looking, easy-care plant that will make anyone feel like a rock star.

Beginning gardeners may balk a bit when I say I’m recommending a hydrangea because they’ve likely heard whispers here and there that hydrangeas are difficult or don’t bloom reliably. Well, that simply doesn’t apply to panicle hydrangeas: they are hardy all the way down to USDA zone 3, which is extremely cold, heat tolerant through USDA zone 8 and cool zone 9 areas, bloom reliably every year, keep the same beautiful lime-green cone-shaped blooms no matter what the soil is like, and whether you prune them or not, they’ll still bloom all summer. They’re pretty much trouble-free, rarely plagued by insects or disease, especially if they are sited properly. Panicle hydrangeas give gardeners three to four months of colorful flowers from summer through first frost, and the spent flowers can be left in place to provide winter beauty as well.

Who: Little Lime panicle hydrangea was developed right here in West Michigan, with the specific goal of having a dwarf version of Limelight. However, we got lucky and got not just a smaller plant but one with two notable other improvements: the flowers turn brighter, more vivid colors in late summer/fall, and the stems are much stronger, with no risk of the blooms ending up on the ground. In the ten or so years since its introduction, it has grown to nearly match the popularity of Limelight.

How to grow: The number one requirement for success with well-drained soil. Panicle hydrangeas are probably our most popular type of shrub here at Proven Winners ColorChoice, and over my years here, I can say without question that when someone has struggled with one, it’s been because of wet soil. In fact, the number one cause of these problems is not something inherent in the soil where they plant the hydrangea but their well-intentioned addition of potting mix, compost, topsoil, and so forth to the hole when they plant. This creates what’s known as “the bathtub effect” – that light, fluffy soil added to the hole can hold on to a lot of water, whereas the natural soil surrounding it can hold on to far less. So when you water or it rains, there’s more water in the new soil than the surrounding soil can hold, and all that water ends up sitting around the roots of the plant. Panicle hydrangeas are very sensitive to these conditions (so are lilacs), and will show their displeasure by wilting dramatically. Since most people associate wilting with too little water, they apply more water, further exacerbating the situation. So for the best results with panicle hydrangeas, choose a well-drained spot and do not amend the soil or add anything to the hole when you plant.

One of the things that makes panicle hydrangeas so easy to grow and such a great choice for beginners is that they are tolerant of a wide range of conditions. They can readily grow in full sun in the cooler parts of their hardiness range, but can also take some shade. The hotter your climate, the more shade they can take, particularly during the hottest part of the day. They’re not finicky about soil type or pH, aside from the drainage issue, and the soil chemistry does not impact their flower color in any way. They can be pruned, or not, as you prefer. We do generally recommend pruning panicle hydrangeas for the strongest stems and nicest flowers, but this isn’t strictly necessary – more like a best practice. So if you don’t do it, or you skip a year or two, it’s really not a problem. You might find that Little Lime, in particular, is slightly less compact if not pruned, but the plant will still bloom prolifically and look great. Fertilizer is not required, but you may apply a granular (not liquid) rose fertilizer in early spring, and continue to apply that monthly through late July, if you wish. Like all hydrangeas, Little Lime has fairly shallow roots, so a good 2-3” layer of shredded bark mulch is helpful to conserve moisture, reduce stress, keep the roots cool, and ensure the best flower color development.

The flowers of Little Lime panicle hydrangea will naturally change from the beautiful lime green color to a mix of red, pink, and burgundy, starting in late summer. This color change is triggered simply by the longer nights and cooler nighttime temperatures of late summer – it has nothing to do with what’s going on in your soil. If the flowers of your Little Lime hydrangea are not changing color, there are two possible explanations: one, your plant dried out or otherwise became stressed while it was blooming, which causes the blooms to brown prematurely instead of develop color, or two, you live in a hot climate where the nights remain too warm for the color change to take place. Obviously, there’s little that can be done in the case of the climate, but if you find that your flowers are browning prematurely, you may want to provide some supplemental water during the hottest part of the year, as well as ensure you’ve got a good layer of shredded bark mulch over the plant’s root zone.

If you’d like to add Little Lime panicle hydrangea – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

A rose of Sharon with purple flowers on it, but several unopened flowers have fallen to the green lawn below.

The issue here isn’t mites – it’s stress of some sort. The yellow foliage in the center of the plant does suggest it might be a bit low on nutrients, so I would suggest fertilizing now (a granular rose fertilizer works great), and then monthly through late July. That should help. Rose of Sharon are drought tolerant once they are established, but since your plant is still fairly new, it would be a good idea to provide supplemental water through the hottest part of the year and see if that will help. Once it has more time to get established and has a bigger root system, it’s better equipped to withstand stress and this should no longer be an issue.

The reason that neonicotinoids were used by growers is because they were applied as a systemic drench – that means applicators could basically just water plants with the chemical and it would work its way through the plant, eliminating the risk of overspray and making it much safer for both humans and surrounding plants. But studies did show that residues of the pesticides persisted in the nectar and pollen of some plants, which caused the entire industry to re-examine their use. Consequently, these tags showing that plants have been treated are rarely seen anymore. As for their role in colony collapse disorder, that’s not widely understood. What is known is that a number of factors contribute to CCD, so it’s crucial that everyone control their use of pesticides and plant plenty of native plants that can serve as food and shelter for bees of all types.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above.

Branching News - Rick

  • As gardeners, we know plants and pots are affected by the freeze-thaw cycle, but did you know the roads are as well, and it’s a major cause of potholes? Any time temperatures fluctuate between above 0°F and below 0°F, especially if those shifts are large, pot hole season begins. The problem for roads comes when water infiltrates the subbase beneath the top layer of asphalt. Once frozen, it expands, which puts pressure on the soil and the pavement, which then cracks. When it thaws, the water droplets start to move toward those cracks that it previously made, and through subsequent freezing and thawing, the holes and cracks expand. The more freeze-thaw cycles occur, the more of these expanding, ice-filled voids form and the larger they grow. When it warms and the ice melts, the top layer of asphalt is unsupported. As a truck or other heavy vehicle drives over that spot, the asphalt can give way, revealing the void underneath. And so a pothole is born. Research is underway to find more environmentally and climate-friendly alternatives to traditional asphalt, which uses the crude oil product bitumen as a binder. With “warmer” winters and more freeze thaw cycles in our climate they are investigatingpartially substituting an alternative binder called lignin, a plant polymer and abundant waste product from paper mills.
  • This just in: take me to your weeder! Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), arch- nemesis of early spring gardeners, is everywhere. This favorite weed of foragers starts to emerge in rather cute clumps in spring, but it has actually been lurking near the surface all winter, having germinated in the fall and waited out the cold temperatures before sending up flowers and seeds. Hairy bittercress leafs out in a basal rosette, and like other members of the brassicaceae, or mustard family, its tender greens are edible. Don’t be fooled by the common name—its flavor is mild and peppery, perfect for microgreen salads. The flower stalks shoot up above the rosette, topped with clusters of tiny, cross-shaped white flowers. Called siliques, (pronounced sill-leeks) they look like purplish-green toothpicks standing upright around the flower. As the seeds mature, the pods begin to coil tightly until—pop! A gentle touch or passing breeze triggers the pods to explode and send the seeds flying as far as three feet from the mother plant. This ballistic dispersal strategy is known as ballochory or explosive dehiscence. 
  • Our listeners/viewers already have the gardening hobby….how about adding knitting? Men’s knitting clubs are enjoying a renaissance. It’s not all that surprising, considering that boys in World War II were taught knitting in school and made blankets for the troops. The members of the Washington, D.C. Men Knit group spark a degree of fascination when they meet in public places — but no hostility or discrimination.”It’s always some grandmotherly type person that… stares at us, like we just landed from Mars,” the founder says, “And then they’ll just start asking us questions about what we’re working on.” For those who are passionate about the craft, the latest craze is nothing out of the ordinary. 
  • Shocked witnesses captured photos and videos showing a cow wandering around tennis courts and trying to get into the clubhouse through the automatic doors in England last week. A 10-month cow escaped from a field in England and ended up spending more than 10 hours on a tennis court about a mile away.