Southern Gardening for November 24, 2014 – Pretty poinsettias make ideal Christmas accent

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Although it seems like Christmas decorations have been in the stores since Labor Day, what really tells me it’s beginning to look like Christmas is when the poinsettias hit the garden centers.

Poinsettias may be the perfect plant for the Christmas season. In their native Mexico, the poinsettia’s bright red flowers of are known as Flores de la Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, as they bloom each year during the Christmas season.

Poinsettias, which are known in their native Mexico as Flores de la Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, may be the perfect Christmas plant. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)
Poinsettias, which are known in their native Mexico as Flores de la Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, may be the perfect Christmas plant. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)
Garden centers carry a wide variety of poinsettia colors and styles to match nearly any decor. Colors range from traditional red to whites, pinks, maroon and more. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)
Garden centers carry a wide variety of poinsettia colors and styles to match nearly any decor. Colors range from traditional red to whites, pinks, maroon and more. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)

Poinsettias come in colors to fit almost any decoration scheme. There is the traditional bright red, but I really like the whites, pinks and marbled bicolors, too. There’s even maroon available to help celebrate the football success of the Mississippi State University Bulldogs. There are rose-flowered selections, and if that’s not enough, growers even paint them and add sparkles.

More growers and florists use poinsettias in combination containers. For many years, Southern Gardening has promoted combining the poinsettia with Mississippi Medallion winner Diamond Frost euphorbia. Both plants are in the euphorbia family and have similar care requirements. The contrasting poinsettia colors and the white Diamond Frost are really attractive.

One question I get every year involves the poinsettia’s “flowers,” which are actually modified leaves called bracts. The true flowers are yellow-green, bead-like structures called cyathia. Your poinsettia will last longer if you select a plant with unopened or partially opening cyathia. You can even carefully remove these structures for longer lasting color.

When poinsettia shopping, don’t be tempted to grab the first plants you see. Take your time to find that perfect plant. Poinsettias are fragile, and the stems are brittle. Even with careful handling at the greenhouse, stems can be broken when the sleeves are put on, and the damage may not be readily noticeable.

Pay attention when removing the paper or plastic sleeves that can hide damage. Never try to slide the shipping sleeves off because you could damage the plant. Always carefully tear or cut the sleeve off.

One of the most widely reported urban legends at this time of year is that poinsettias are poisonous to our pets. This is not the case.

According to Animal Poison Control at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, if your pet chews on or eats some poinsettia leaves, it will induce only GI tract irritation. No ornamentals or houseplants are meant to be eaten by our animals, so try to keep the poinsettia out of your pet’s reach.

Some humans, myself included, may be sensitive to the milky, latex sap in the poinsettia, which can cause a skin rash or contact dermatitis. To prevent this problem, always wash your hands thoroughly after handling a poinsettia.

To help keep your poinsettia looking good long after the Christmas holidays, make sure it gets at least six hours of indirect sunlight a day, and keep it at a comfortable room temperature. If you’re comfortable, your poinsettias will be, too.

Don’t let the leaves or bracts touch the window glass as the cold outside will transfer through the glass and hurt the plant. Poinsettias look great by the front door when guests arrive, but to keep them looking good, avoid the sudden temperature changes from drafts as the door is opened.

Be sure to brighten your Christmas celebrations with several of your favorite poinsettias.

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Southern Gardening TV for November 24, 2014 – Pansies

If there’s one bedding plant that just can’t be beat in our cool season landscape, it has to be the pansy. As a group, pansies are great for outstanding performance.

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Southern Gardening for November 17, 2014 – Snapdragons meet winter challenges

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The snapdragon is a longtime favorite flower of mine for the cool-season landscape.

Many home gardeners seem surprised when I tell them snapdragons are pretty tolerant of cold weather. We are lucky to be able to grow these great landscape plants in Mississippi from the cool, fall season to the rising temperatures of spring. Once planted and acclimated, snapdragons seem to say, “Bring on the cold weather.”

An old standby is the Sonnet snapdragon. With colorful flower spikes available in a kaleidoscope of colors, it is easy to see why Sonnet snapdragons are so popular. Flower colors include orange, scarlet, pink, white and yellow. These plants, which will grow up to 30 inches tall with numerous flower spikes, are thrilling in a cool-season combination container. They are also great for cut flowers and have a soft cinnamon scent.

This is an image of Sonnet snapdragons in various colors.
Sonnet snapdragon plants grow up to 30 inches tall and offer colorful flower spikes in a kaleidoscope of shades that are great as cut flowers. They are thrilling in a cool-season combination container and have a soft cinnamon scent. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)

If you don’t want to have big and tall snapdragons, there are nice dwarf-growing types. One of the best is the Montego series. Montego snapdragons will grow to only 10 inches tall and wide. Like their big cousins, they are available in a variety of colors that would be gorgeous lining the front edge of a flower bed, including red, yellow, white, pink and bicolor.

 

This is an image of a bicolored Montego snapdragon.
Montego snapdragons will grow to only 10 inches tall and wide. They are available in a variety of colors, including this bicolor, and they are gorgeous lining the front edge of a flower bed. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)

These plants are ideal for planting in the full sun to partial shade. The individual flowers are aligned neatly and tightly bundled on the many stems. The flowers are big for the size of the plant, so it’s good that the Montego snapdragons have strong and sturdy stems. The flower heads will stay compact and not stretch in the warmer weather next spring.

Another good dwarf snapdragon is the Snapshot series. These plants will be a little shorter than the Montego, reaching 6 to 10 inches tall, but they will spread up to 14 inches. There are plenty of flowers with soft, pastel colors, as well as bicolors and a mixture.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least write a little about the Twinny compact snapdragons. I like these plants because of their double flowers that are sometimes called butterfly blooms. Twinny Peach was an All-America Selection in 2010 and has gorgeous flowers of distinct shades of peach, yellow and light orange. The Yellow Shades selection has flowers that are a beautiful combination of orangey-yellows.

Snapdragons require only a little bit of care to keep them looking good. Deadheading will keep them blooming and looking tidy. These plants are tolerant of low temperatures, but to prepare for extremely cold nights, cover them with a sheet or box until the cold spell passes.

Plant them in a well-drained landscape bed or container. Snapdragons need consistent moisture but don’t like wet feet. When planting, put a teaspoon of slow-release fertilizer in the hole first to keep the plants well fed. When warmer weather arrives in the spring, feed them again for a great colorful display.

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Southern Gardening TV for Novemebr 17, 2014 – Amaranth

Several years ago if a gardener told me they had amaranth growing in their landscape I would have envisioned a weedy mess. But lately my opinion of this group of plants has changed. 

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Southern Gardening for November 10, 2014 – Random garden questions keep gardening interesting

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Through the year, I get quite a few questions concerning landscape issues, plant care and plant identification. Answering questions and helping home gardeners find success in their gardening endeavors is fun.

I’ve gotten questions from as far away as California. I have to admit that some of the questions make me think I’m on a game show called “Stump Gary,” and I learn a thing or two researching the answers. This question and answer time feels kind of like two gardeners sharing landscape tips across the back fence.

Here are a couple of questions I’ve recently received:

Q: Hey Gary, lately while driving, I’ve noticed these plants that are loaded with bright purple berries. What are these and where can I get one? Becky

This is an image of beautyberry.
American Beautyberry is a fall-blooming plant commonly seen in the wild growing at the edges of wooded areas all across Mississippi and the Southeast. It produces clusters of bright purple berries. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)

A: Becky, you’ve been noticing one of my absolute favorite native Mississippi plants, the American beautyberry. This plant is commonly seen in the wild growing at the edges of wooded areas all across Mississippi. In fact, this plant is enjoyed all across the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions.

As you’ve seen, its clusters of bright purple berries put on quite a show. Despite its native status, American beautyberry is quite at home in the landscape.
This plant is one of those great native deciduous plants that have three seasons of interest. In the spring, it has small, pink flowers. Summer brings rich, green foliage that is a good background for summer color, and in the fall, it has purple berries and colorful foliage. The purple berries appear to have a metallic quality when the sunlight reflects off them. Quite often, the berries can persist well into the winter season. Contact your local garden center for availability.

Q: Gary, earlier in the summer you wrote an article about a tree you recommended to plant in south Mississippi that has colorful, purple flowers, is small in height and is drought tolerant. Can you tell me the name of that tree and a nursery in this area that might have it? Thanks, Jackie

This is an image of a beautiful purple flower called Vitex.
Beautiful purple flowers and tolerance for drought make Vitex an outstanding small tree to be grown in the full sun of Mississippi landscapes. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)

A: Jackie, I know exactly what small tree you are asking about. The vitex is another of my favorite landscape plants. Vitex tolerates hot and humid Mississippi weather extremely well, which makes this an outstanding small tree for our landscapes. It is also a good choice for the droughty periods we typically have each summer.

Plant the vitex in partial shade to full sun for best flowering performance. While it tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions and textures, make sure the planting bed is well-drained.

Vitex also tolerates a wide range of pruning styles and can be maintained easily as an 8- to 10-foot-tall small tree. Pruning actually promotes more compact branching, which results in a thicker, bushier plant. Since vitex flowers on the current season’s growth, pruning actually encourages and enhances flowering.

Last year, a friend of mine pruned his vitex close to the ground. The plant started growing back in the spring and now is a beautiful, 3-foot-tall vitex bush. If left alone, vitex can grow up to 20 feet tall and wide. As for where to get this amazing plant, you should check with your favorite local garden center for availability.

So, if you have any gardening or landscape questions you’ve always wondered about, don’t hesitate to ask me. Send them to gbachman@ext.msstate.edu, and I’ll try to help.

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Southern Gardening TV for November 9, 2014 – Sunflowers

I consider sunflowers the royalty of sunny summer and fall gardens that attract all kinds of wildlife, from butterflies and bees, to the occasional hungry gardener.

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Southern Gardening for November 3, 2014 – Ornamental cabbage, kale give winter color

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This weekend, the thermometer in my garden got down to the low 30s and left me wondering if I’ve seen the last of my tomatoes and peppers. But it also reminded me that it’s time to transition to plants that thrive in lower temperatures.

Ornamental kale is one of my favorites for the cool season. There are so many different colors and leaf textures to add landscape interest. Don’t plant a single type. Mix and match for increased visual interest.

Ornamental kale plants are mostly green when first transplanted, but they begin to display colorful foliage as colder weather set in.

At garden centers, you will find ornamental kale and cabbage lumped together, which isn’t that much of a surprise since they are the same species, Brassica oleracea. Ornamental cabbage usually refers to selections that have smooth and more or less unruffled leaves. Kale, on the other hand, has ruffled, textured leaves, and many have feathered leaf edges. In my opinion, these features make ornamental kale much more interesting in the winter landscapes.

Although there are lots of great selections of ornamental kale, many garden centers won’t have them all. There has been a shortage of kale seed for growers, so you might have to shop around.

I like the red-colored selections, and a favorite is the Nagoya series of kale. This variety has uniform growth and attractive fringed leaves in red, rose and white.

Red Chidori kale is another good selection that forms loose heads that are extremely colorful. New foliage is a bright magenta-red that matures to a darker green with veins that maintain their magenta-red color.

Redbor kale is an outstanding choice that was named a Mississippi Medallion Fall winner in 2006. The frilly leaf color is a solid purple-red that intensifies as temperatures get lower during the winter. Redbor is also a long-lived plant; I’ve seen this plant still looking good in July and August in south Mississippi.

Good soil drainage is a must for growing kale and cabbage. I use raised beds for my in-ground ornamental plantings. Add composted organic matter at planting to increase drainage, but make sure the soil does not dry out. I really like growing these plants in containers because the excellent potting material available means I never have to worry about the plants having wet feet.

Everyone knows about droughts during the hot summer months, but it can happen in the winter, too. Cold fronts are often relatively dry, and the soil moisture can deplete rapidly. Kale likes consistent soil moisture, so apply a layer of mulch to help conserve soil moisture.

For best growth, don’t neglect fertilizer. Ornamental cabbage and kale are actually fairly heavy feeders. I like to add a tablespoon of a good, slow-release fertilizer into each planting hole to get the plants off to a great start. I use water-soluble fertilizer on a monthly schedule to keep the plants healthy and growing strong.

Don’t forget that ornamental kale is edible. The bright colors of these leaves can add pizazz to fresh salad or stir-fry.

Many Mississippi gardeners like to cut kale into squares and make kale chips as a snack. In the Bachman household, we grow the Nagoya ornamental kale because it is already chip-shaped. To prepare, mix with a little extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt and then bake at 240 degrees for about 45 minutes.

When growing ornamental kale and cabbage for snacks, consider starting your own from seed so you can control the plants’ environment. If this sounds like a tasty idea, it’s not too late in the season to get growing.

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