Garden Guide '09: Get Ready For Gardening

By Carla Burgess
Garden Guide '09: Get Ready For Gardening

Starting seeds for spring

Many perennials and some annuals benefit from a head start indoors. People often start seeds in a sunny windowsill, but seedlings will grow straighter and sturdier if grown under lights. Incandescent bulbs do not provide the proper spectrum of light for plant growth, so you must use fluorescents. The setup need not be fancy. For most purposes, standard fluorescent tubes will work just as well as the more expensive grow lights. Choose a fixture that fits your space (home improvement stores stock these) and select lights to fit. Hang the fixture with a chain so the lights can be raised as plants grow. The lights should be no higher than 4 inches from the top of the seedlings. To know when to start seeds, check the seed packet. Most will say how many weeks in advance of warm weather (usually after the last frost date) to sow them indoors.

Free seeds of the Wildflower of the Year

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has picked Piedmont Barbara's-buttons (Marshallia obovata var. obovata) as Wildflower of the Year for 2009. The Botanical Garden praises this Southern wildflower as "simultaneously sturdy and delicate, cheerful and elegant, petite and eye-catching." The tiny white flower petals give each button-shaped flower head a lacy appearance. Single flowers about 1 inch across are borne atop upright stems in April and May. Stems may reach 2 feet tall, but the plant is typically shorter. Fire-pink (Silene virginica) and lobed tickseed (Coreopsis auriculata) are good landscape companions with similar stature and preference for well-drained soils in full sun. The natural habitat of Piedmont Barbara's-buttons is dry, open woodlands and sunny edges, such as power line rights of way. It ranges primarily in the Piedmont of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.

To receive free seeds of Piedmont Barbara's-buttons, along with growing instructions, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: 2009 NCWFOY, North Carolina Botanical Garden, CB 3375 Totten Center, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3375. The Botanical Garden and the Garden Club of North Carolina Inc. are co-sponsors of the Wildflower of the Year program, now in its 28th year. The project's aim is to actively promote attractive Southeastern wildflowers.

New sweets for the garden

The summer melon 'Lambkin' and fall squash 'Honey Bear' took top honors in the 2009 All-America Selections annual competition. The AAS organization's mission is to promote new seed varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America.

'Lambkin' is lauded as a 2- to 4-pound melon with a thin rind and sweet, white, juicy flesh. It is ready for the table earlier than most other gourmet melons, maturing in 65 to 75 days. Because of the early harvest, the vines produce more melons. 'Lambkin' is classified as a "Christmas-type" melon because of its long storage life. The oval melon has attractive yellow skin with green mottling. Seeds and plants should be available in retail stores this spring. Like other melons, 'Lambkin' should be planted after the last frost date and after the ground has warmed. You can get a jump on the season by starting seeds in pots a few weeks before the desired transplanting date. Or lay black plastic in the planting area to help heat up the soil before direct-sowing.

'Honey Bear' is an acorn squash, among the group known as winter squash. It has a sweet flavor when cooked. 'Honey Bear' is bushy and compact, growing 2 to 3 feet tall with a spread of 4 to 5 feet (no vines). It has a high yield, producing 3 to 5 squashes per bush. The robust production of 1-pound fruits is due to the plant's tolerance of powdery mildew. At the end of the season, many acorn squash varieties succumb to mildew, and fruit doesn't mature. From seed-sowing to harvest time is about 100 days.

A blue chip butterfly bush

One of the most unusual new butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) to hit the shelves is a compact variety developed by Dennis Werner at North Carolina State University. 'Blue Chip' has a dense, compact form—typically 2 to 3 feet in height and spread. This free-blooming dwarf shrub is loaded with bluish-lavender flowers. 'Blue Chip' is suitable for the garden and pots.

Take the strain and pain out of gardening

We now have a wide variety of options to make gardening easier and more accessible. People with impaired mobility and limited strength can benefit from specially designed tools and accessories, as can gardeners who want to prevent repetitive-motion injuries and back strain.

Tools with ergonomically designed handles help keep the hand in a natural position: wrists straight, hands rotated and relaxed, fingers curled and thumbs straight. "Pistol-grip" and curved handles encourage this posture. Tools with permanent or add-on arm braces and support cuffs further reduce hand strain, transferring strength from the forearm directly to the blades or tines.

Yard tools with telescopic handles help extend reach and are particularly useful for gardening in a sitting position, such as from a bench or wheelchair. This design is available in rakes, cultivators and trowels. Extended-reach pruners are also available.

Pruners and loppers with racheting mechanisms help boost cutting power. They grip and hold a branch, allowing the user to release and squeeze again, cutting a single branch progressively.

Oscillating hoes have hinged, stirrup-shaped blades that cut on both the forward and backward motion. Since dirt doesn't stack up behind the blade, there is less stooping and bending that causes back strain. The blades can be attached to a regular tool handle or broom handle.

Add-on T-grip and D-grip handles are available for straight-handled tools such as rakes and hoes. They help increase lifting/pushing power and leverage while decreasing back and wrist strain.

Gardening up

A raised bed is a cinch for creating good drainage and eliminating the arduous task of digging new beds. Growing vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers in raised beds also allows you to put more plants in a smaller area. The compact mini-gardens are easier to maintain than gardens laid out in rows. Walls for raised beds may be made of lumber, concrete blocks, bricks or any other material that will sufficiently contain the soil. Keep the size manageable, with beds no wider than 3 or 4 feet so that weeding and harvesting is practical. You can find simple solutions for construction and design at http://extension.missouri.edu/explore/agguides/hort/g06985.htm.

About the Author

Carla Burgess is a Carolina Country contributing writer who lives in Raleigh.

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