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Soil is the root of the issue

Matt Hickman portrait courtesy Mother Nature Network

Matt Hickman portrait courtesy Mother Nature Network

Research indicates that 80% of all plant problems relate to poor soil. Most soil we work with in the home garden is considered “disturbed urban soil” and it often contains only 2% (or less) organic matter. According to the Perennial Plant Association herbaceous perennials require a minimum of 5% organic matter for optimum growth. Organic matter can improve drainage in clay soil and increase water and nutrient holding capacity in sandy soil.  Research has also show that organic matter can increase plant growth by anywhere from 20-100% while maintaining higher than average survival rates. How does your soil stack up? Now is the time to test your soil and amend it to create a living soil that will help you be successful without synthetic chemicals.  But all amendments are not created equal. Learn more about soils in my first book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden ( Chapter 2 Bed Preparation: Insurance for Success) and click here to read Matt Hickman’s blog from Mother Nature Network “The First Amendments” and view my video on “Improving Garden Soil”.

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Sow annual poppy seeds now

As plant nerds we all go through different plant fetishes. I’ve been through numerous “species obsessions” including the Geraniums, the lilies, and the Dianthus just to name a few. And currently I’m into Carex in a big way. But I’ve been in love with poppies (both annual and perennial) for about as long as I can remember. I even have a history of “smuggling” poppy seeds into the USA in my “unmentionables”J when returning from a year and a half of work/study abroad 28 years ago. The best germination success of annual species, for the home gardener in colder climates, seems to occur when the seeds are sown directly in February or March when the ground is free of snow. Also to ensure success I’ve learned to order fairly large quantities of seeds—one small packet just doesn’t cut it. I’m talking about getting ¼ lb. or even 1 lb. of seeds when available. I sow seeds of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Red Corn Poppy or Flanders Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), and Bread or Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum) about the gardens in any available space. It is harder to find large quantities of opium poppy so it may require numerous smaller packets for best effect. A great source for seeds of poppies is Wildseed Farms Also remember to allow poppies to go to seed once you’ve got them established in the garden. You can even cut off the mature seed pods and spread them about in the desired location. Good luck with these gorgeous plants.

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Have you ever been given as a Christmas gift?

It’s happened to me! People have given my garden design/consulting services as a present. Of course I’m partial but what a great and unique idea!! (Click here to send me an email)  Besides hiring the services of a designer, you could hire a maintenance company for so many hours to help a friend get their garden into shape in 2009. Other upscale gift ideas include commissioning an artist to do a one-of-a-kind piece of art for the garden. What about in copper or glass? Two very talented artists I’ve worked with for pieces for my gardens and clients gardens are Renate Burgyan Fackler (Bronze Sculpture) and Jacob Stout (Glass) Jacob does some amazing pieces that gardeners would appreciate for their homes as well (see photos ).

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More gifts for gardeners (inside the home)

In response to my blogs on gardener’s gifts I was asked about suggestions for gifts for inside the home that gardeners would love. Some of my favorite garden/ “natural world” inspired things are works by artists Robert Held Check out his California poppy series—one of these vases adds amazing energy to a lit cabinet in our kitchen. On my wish list this Christmas is a BOBtanical by Bob and Laurie Kliss—these “drop-dead” gorgeous and quirky glass pieces are a must for every garden-lover . I’ve been admiring them for several years. Also something I eventually want for our home is one of the autumn or winter nature paintings by Laura R. Joseph . Her work is full of emotion and passion for nature—something shared by gardeners.

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Holiday gifts for the gardener you dig!

There are so many fun and creative holiday gifts you can give to the gardener in your life. Of course we gardeners love plants but then there are also all the tools we use, the beautiful containers we adore, the books we read, the lotions we need for our working hands and ailing nails, and what about art supplies—that’s right—art supplies to keep our creative juices flowing over the long winter months. Here are some gift ideas from the “Queen of Deadheading” that are sure to please your favorite gardener. (Note fellow gardeners: Feel free to forward this information to your family and friends to avoid those unwanted non-gardening gifts!)

Plants: Buy gift certificates to local garden centers or go on-line to mail order from specialty nurseries. Wonderful and often unusual plants can be found at Klehm’s Song Sparrow Nursery , Heronswood Nursery , and  Wayside Gardens

Tools: Stainless Steel Red Handled Trowels are fantastic and relatively obscure so probably a safe gift for the gardener who has everything. B & B also carry another favorite of mine: Garden Knife with Sheath.(see photo in my blog on Pruning for Winter)

Supplies: Looking for all things ORGANIC? Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply is where I turn for safe pest control but they carry a bit of everything including organic seed. They are offering beautiful gift cards with hand written messages-cool!

Garden Accessories: Birdbaths, birdfeeders and bobbles…Oh my! Bobbles add color and charm to any scene (photo) check out great bobbles, gardening tree ornaments, and accessories at and .  Or how about a beautiful accent light fixture made out of copper that looks like a wildflower? See photo on page 131 from my book The Well-Designed Mixed Garden. Visit

Books: I hope you will consider a gift certificate for my upcoming new book: 50 High-Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants, Tough But Beautiful Plants That Anyone Can Grow. (January release) If they don’t already have Well-Tended Perennial Garden & Well-Designed Mixed Garden perhaps they deserve all three! Other titles I love are Plant Driven Design: Ogden/Springer-Ogden, Restoring American Gardens: Denise Adams, and Grasses for Livable Landscapes: Rick Darke.   Thanks to popular blog “Lilacs and Roses” for recommending one of my books as a favorite gift. Read it here.

Clothing: Look for fun and colorful garden/rain boots at most shoe stores.

Beauty Aids: My favorite for years now is Gardeners Hand Therapy Cream, by Crabtree & Evelyn.

Professional Memberships: Consider giving the gift of membership into groups such as The Perennial Plant Association ,The American Horticultural Society , or The Royal Horticultural Society in the UK Informative magazines accompany membership!

Art Supplies: Gardeners are artists. Help inspire their creativity and use of color by giving them a set of watercolors, colored pencils, fine-tip ink markers, or pastels. Include a book such as The Tao of Watercolor: Jeanne Carbonetti or Creating Textures in Pen & Ink with Watercolor: Claudia Nice (both have nature/plant inspired examples)

Games: Garden-opoly

For Kids: Consider giving the gift of gardening to a child rather than a video game. Tool sets, Window Sill Seed Starters or Mushroom Gardens foster family interaction and an appreciation for nature and the environment.

Thanks, Smith & Hawken! Thanks to all the wonderful staff at Smith & Hawken, Easton Town Center, Columbus Ohio who loaned me the beautiful and functional gifts for my “Gifts for the Gardener You Dig” segment on NBC 41’s Daytime Columbus with Gail Hogan. I hope lots of gardeners are lucky enough to find one or two of these great gifts under the tree Christmas morning.


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September is Ideal for Planting and Dividing

September is an ideal month to plant because the temperatures are usually starting to lower and the rains are starting to return. Also planting or dividing now gives plants time to establish before winter sets in.  There are a few plants to note that don’t do well when planted in the autumn including coralbell (Heuchera sp.), Japanese anemone (Anemone xhybrida) and red-hot poker (Kniphofia hybrids ). These plants have a tendency to frost heave (push out of the ground) due to fluctuating winter temperatures. They are more successful with spring plantings.

Division now is particularly suitable to spring and summer flowering perennials. You know a perennial needs division if there is a reduction in the flowering or the vigor of the plant, a hole develops in the center, or there is a “traffic jam” appearance to the stems.

One of my favorite quick and easy methods of division, that I learned over 25 years ago (yikes!) while working at the Kalmthout Arboretum in Belgium, is the double-fork method. This is great for large thick clumps of plants, such as Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum xsuperbum), hosta, daylily (Hemerocallis) and border phlox (Phlox paniculata). To divide clumps using this method, first lift the entire clump from the ground with a spade. Then insert on spading fork into the center of the clump, and insert a second fork parallel to the first, setting the forks back-to-back with the tines of the two forks intersecting. Pull the forks inward and then out-ward, and the clumps will separate in two. You might have to repeat this process several times with a large clump. Once the large clump is broken up, a sharp nonserrated knife can be used for further divisions to obtain smaller pieces.  Perennials such as peonies, which are fleshy rooted, do not divide well with the double-fork method and are best divided using a knife.

Here’s a  quick video on this subject:


I cover division and planting in detail in my book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden and you may have heard us discuss this topic on Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius Satellite for the Living Today show with Mario Bosquez on Monday September 8, 2008.  You may have tuned into the new show Daytime Columbus on WCMH-TV, Channel 4 Columbus,, with Host Gail M. Hogan on September 23, 2008 where we demonstrated the double-fork technique and discussed follow-up considerations with soil and watering.  If so, welcome to the website!

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Hot colors and deadleafing in the garden: for the hot dog days of summer

I’m often asked “how do I keep my garden looking good in the hot humid days of summer?” Really the first step, as is often the case, goes back to good design and planning ahead. Remember when you are designing your beds to plan for summer color. We often think about what the garden will look like in the spring but we may forget that we also want outstanding flowers and foliage during the long hot days of summer. And I’m not talking color from “ho-hum” annuals like marigolds and petunias but striking outstanding intense hot color from perennials and unusual annuals (yes.. I’m a plant snob!).

Remember to use intense, highly saturated hot colors such as reds, oranges and yellows which will stand up to the hot sun and continue to shine through. Pastels or tints of colors look washed out in bright full sun and are best reserved to spring days unless you live in an eternally overcast climate. Some striking hot colored perennial flowers in the garden this time of year  include, summer sun heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra ‘Sommersonne’), Lucifer crocosmia (Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’), and Henry’s Lily (Lilium henryi).   One of my favorite hot colored annuals is the bicolor flowered– Canna ‘Cleopatra’. Wow this canna will have you drooling!!!

Ok so we’ve thought about design and brought in the right colors for summer now we need to maintain the garden this time of year. Some plants are starting to look a bit tatty—or worse for wear. Simply removing brown, yellow, or scorched leaves from such plants can give the entire garden a fresh look. This “deadleafing” has remarkable effects. Remember in some cases deadleafing may not be enough and the entire plant may need to be cut down. It’s the end of July and I’ve been shearing spiderwort (Tradescantia x andersoniana) down to the ground. All the brown and yellow leaves are on my last nerve every year at this time and rather than snip here or there—I like to just be done with it and allow fresh foliage to emerge later in the season.

Although this time of year is not normally the best for division certain perennials like bearded iris, poppies (Papaver orientale) and peonies prefer division now.

Let me know how your garden is fairing this time of year…and how are you coping? Take care and embrace these hot days and hot colors because before we know it the frost will hit and we’ll be finished with another season. 


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