Do you need a thriller in your garden?

Farm Forum

I encounter many gardeners at McCrory Gardens and often they are older folks that perhaps used to farm or live out in the country where they had lots of room for gardens of all kinds. Now they are looking to continue gardening but just don’t have the space or the ability to garden like they used to. Container gardens can be a great way to continue gardening or expand the way you are gardening and add color to your landscape, no matter what the size. You can even add edibles to your container so that you can have your pot and eat it too! There are many ornamental edibles like kale, mustard, Swiss chard and even peppers and tomatoes that are quite pretty when loaded with fruit.

Containers come in all shapes and sizes. Smaller containers are easy to move around and look good when grouped together but you will be limited in the number of plants you can fit in each one and you will have to water more frequently. Larger containers give more flexibility in the kinds of plants you choose, can go for longer periods without watering but can be very heavy to move around. Some containers are like the old style terra cotta pots, very porous, while others may be glazed or plastic, which will help to keep the potting soil moist longer too. Containers also come in a variety of shapes from the standard to the shapes of animals, decorative to outrageous. Use your own taste to select the containers that you like and that will fit into your own personal landscape.

Always make sure that whichever container you choose it has good drainage holes in the bottom. Sometimes you will see where the holes could be but they still need to be opened up by chipping out some of the hole or a rubber plug removed. It is important that you always water your plants thoroughly but yet allow excess water to drain out the bottom of the pot. I have seen many cases of plants dying because of a lack of water, despite the owner telling me that they were good about watering their plants. You want to apply enough water so that the excess drains out of the bottom of the pot. Wait for the plant to start to get dry, then water thoroughly again. Stick your finger into the soil to feel if it is dry or watch your plants carefully for signs of wilting. But don’t let them wilt too much or they may not come back.

Whenever you are growing in containers it is a good idea to use a potting soil, not garden soil. Garden soil is usually going to be too heavy, and too poorly drained to work in a container. It may also contain weed seeds, harmful fungi, bacteria, insects or other critters that you really don’t want in the roots of your plants. Potting soil can be purchased at just about any garden center or discount outlet store. There are many different types to choose from. Years ago, many of these contained actual soil. Now most of them contain mostly peat moss and other components. They also usually contain some fertilizer but in most cases, that will not be enough to sustain your plants’ needs throughout the growing season. You can either plan on watering your plants periodically with some water soluble plant fertilizer or you can mix in some slow-release fertilizer before you plant. You can also sprinkle it on top after planting but it is better to incorporate it into the potting soil so it is down where the plant roots are. Check the label instructions to find out how much to use for your container size.

Now that you have your container and the potting soil ready to go, it is time to select your plants. The basic recipe for a container is that you need a “thriller”, a “filler” and a “spiller”. I remember working in a greenhouse while I was in High School. The standard container was a red geranium, a white dusty miller, some vinca vine and a spike. This made for a pretty container, especially for Memorial Day but now most containers are a lot more dramatic than those old standard plant combinations with the greatly expanded plant pallet that is now available.

A thriller is a plant that really catches your eye, has dramatic foliage, flowers, texture of all of the above. It might be tall or short but it should probably be the first thing you see when you look at your finished container. Think of it as your focal point. There are many different kinds of plants that could be the thriller in your container. What you choose will depend on the size, shape and color of your container, and of course what catches your attention at the garden center. Consider a Coleus, Caladium, Colocasia, Gerbera, Hibiscus or other flower as your thriller. Next you want a plant to fill in the bulk of the space in the container – your filler. Usually this is a plant that has an upright or mounding growth habit like a Petunia, Geranium or Vinca but again, there are many plants to choose from. Finally you need a spiller to finish off the appearance of your container. A spiller is a plant that will grow down over the edge of the container. This will help to make the plants look more connected to the container, instead of just being stuck into the top of it. Some classic spillers include Calibrachoa, Sweet Alyssum, Scaveola and Vinca Vine but there are some fun new things like Fiber Optic Grass and many others.

When you are done planting, water thoroughly and enjoy! Containers can be placed just about anywhere but having them somewhere near a source of water is helpful because they will often need to be watered every day or two. Place them where you want to add interest, attract attention or just add a bit of a thrill to your landscape.

Get the Quack Out of Here!

By David Graper

SDSU Extension Horticulture Specialist

Quack and brome grass are often two of the worst weeds in perennial flower gardens and in perennial vegetables like asparagus. They are both aggressive perennial grasses that can grow among other plants so tightly that it is difficult to get them out. In addition, they both produce creeping, underground stems called rhizomes that allow the plant to spread a foot or more in a season, producing new plants as they grow. You will be able to see those when you dig the plants up. They are usually white and about 1/8” in diameter. Note that quack grass is entirely different from crabgrass. Crabgrass is an annual that only germinates from seed in the spring and it does not produce rhizomes. I frequently get asked by gardeners how to get rid of these tough weeds, so here are a few tips.

First of all, prevention is almost always the best way to deal with a weed problem. This is the place to start if you are thinking of establishing a new garden somewhere. Check the site to see if quack or brome grass, or other perennial weeds are already established there. If they are, you are going to want to try to control them with repeated cultivation or better yet, a couple applications of a non-selective, non-residual herbicide like glyphosate. Wait until the vegetation has gotten several inches tall, then treat it according to label directions. If you are doing this during cool, spring conditions, try to wait about a week before tilling up the site. You only have to wait a couple days if you are doing this later in the season in warm weather. If you can, wait a month or so and repeat the process to get rid of as many of the perennial weeds as you can before planting.

If you are dealing with an established perennial flower bed, using an herbicide like glyphosate gets much more difficult because you have a much greater chance of misapplication, getting the spray on some of the plants that you want to keep. You might be able to do a little spot spraying but you may still get damage if you are not extremely careful. Use a coarse spray and only when there is as little wind as possible. Cover desirable plants with buckets or other containers to protect them from the spray if possible. There is another option in using some of the spray foam formulations of glyphosate. These products shoot out a narrow stream of the herbicide solution allowing you to pinpoint where you apply it, allowing you almost surgical precision during application. But, it does take some practice to hit what you are aiming for so still be very careful. Keep some water handy so you can immediately wash off any leaves from desirable plants that get hit with the foam.

Hand digging can be very difficult and often just results in causing more plants to spring up as you cut rhizomes in the process. But, at this time of year, the newest plants, which are sprouting up from nodes along the rhizomes, are just beginning to form their roots. So, they are easier to dig now, than they will be any time during the rest of the season. Use a sturdy trowel to dig a few inches back from the new leaves you see growing from the ground. Lift up the soil and plant to loosen it from the ground. Then, rather than just jerking it out, see if you can loosen up more of the connecting rhizome and additional plants. You might be surprised as to how far one individual but connected plant can reach. If you dig carefully, you can get fairly close to established perennials and get rid of at least some of the quack or brome.

A question from Minnehaha County, SD

Q He has a fire maple (he thinks dark red leaves—leaves fall after Thanksgiving) and last year during the ice storm the buds were just beginning to open. The top of the tree never had leaves due to the bud damage. The bottom of the tree did leaf out and looked fine. This year the tree is looking the same. Could the top of the tree suffer permanent damage from the ice storm last year? Is there anything that he can or should do to help the tree? Please feel free to leave a long voice mail message if he does not answer the phone. The tree is probably about 15-20 years old. The tree has always been healthy, did not have much limb breakage in the ice storm.

A I think the type of tree is probably an Autumn Blaze maple or something similar to it. The damage he is describing is quite common in many areas of the state. But, it was not due to the ice storm but rather the drought from 2 years ago that caused the tops to die out in maples and other trees. If those branches did not leaf out last year, they will not leaf out this year either. Eventually you may see some of the outer limbs and branches grow up to partially hide the dead top of the tree but your better approach might be to replace the tree. There is nothing you can do now, short of removing the tree or you could try pruning out the dead wood. But you will likely end up with a pretty ugly tree.