Monthly Archives: March 2016

‘Orchidelirium’! New York Botanical Garden’s Orchid Show

Marc Hachadourian agrees that his job makes a lot of people envious. As curator of orchids at the New York Botanical Garden and director of the garden’s Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections in Bronx, N.Y., he cares for more than 10,000 plants, including roughly 7,000 orchids.

For the garden’s annual Orchid Show, Hachadourian participates in what he calls “the display, theme-ing, and interpretation” of the spectacle. Planning for each show begins about a year ahead of time. The theme for this year’s dazzling exhibition, timed to coincide with the celebration of the NYBG’s 125th anniversary, is ‘Orchidelirium.’ The title refers to the period in 1880’s Victorian England when orchids were highly coveted but hard to come by. Successful orchid propagation was, as yet, unheard of, and the competition to find plants and ship them to collectors was steep. Tales of derring-do and dastardly, sometimes deadly deeds abound. (For a terrific write-up, read William Grimes’ ‘Orchidelrium’ in The New York Times, and, best of all, see the show for yourself.)

nybg_The centerpiece of the 'Orchidelirum' show is a recreation of a mountain of volcanic rock, complete with%2
The centerpiece of the ‘Orchidelirum’ show is a recreation of a mountain of volcanic rock, complete with waterfall and smothered in orchid blossoms.

The show, which runs through April 17, fills the better part of the garden’s iconic glasshouse, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Its centerpiece is a recreation of a mountain of volcanic rock, complete with a working waterfall, that is smothered in orchid blossoms of all colors and sizes. Hachadourian estimates that the show includes 3,000 to 5,000 orchids at any one time. Plants are swapped out regularly so those with fading flowers are returned to the greenhouses and plants in bloom are added to the show. Getting thousands of orchid plants to blossom almost simultaneously is part of Hachadourian’s job, and he does it by “manipulating light, temperature and water, and understanding what the plant is so you can speed it up or slow it down,” he says.

Interspersed among the orchids, creating the lushness of a rainforest, are many of the plants that grow alongside them in their natural habitats: ferns, palms, bromeliads, and aechmeas.

The show’s designer Christian Primeau, who is manager of the conservatory, has layered the plants to spectacular effect, creating arresting vistas that flatter but never upstage the orchids. Scale is its own star, with giant palm leaves serving as canopies or contrasting elements for smaller orchid blossoms, and large-blossoming orchids nestled beside the miniatures.

nybg_Part of the wonder of 'Orchidelirium' is the way in which designer Christian Primeau plays with color an
Part of the wonder of ‘Orchidelirium’ is the way in which designer Christian Primeau plays with color and scale.

Threaded throughout the show are stations designed to outline ripping tales of orchid hunting, the transport of plants across the high seas, and the scientific progress that led to the eventual cultivation and hybridization of these treasured plants.

One station details the contributions of London doctor Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward,  who accidentally stumbled on what became the world’s first terrarium. The doctor had a side interest in entomology, the study of insects, and, in 1829, he sealed a moth chrysalis and a bit of soil inside a bottle. A week later, he found fern and grass seedlings sprouting inside, and was able to conclude that the sheltered environment with constant moisture was conducive to supporting plant life. Ward experimented with larger cases made of glass and wood. Ultimately, he set two cases aboard the top deck of a ship bound for Australia. Six months later, the cases and the plants had arrived intact, and his Wardian Case became instrumental in ferrying plants from one climate to another in overseas voyages that could last for many months.

The propagation of orchids is chronicled in another vignette, which explains that in the 19th century, “scientists discovered that orchid seeds need nutrition from fungus near their roots in order to germinate.” American scientist Lewis Knudson is celebrated as “the first person to germinate orchid seeds using an artificial culture of nutrients in laboratory conditions,” according to show materials. Knudson’s discovery made it possible “to raise orchid seedlings by the millions,” and it opened the door to the development of today’s orchid industry.

nybg_Show designer Christian Primeau has layered plantings to great effect, combining orchids with bromeliads, fern
Show designer Christian Primeau has layered plantings to great effect, combining orchids with bromeliads, ferns, palms, aechmeas and other plants that are companions in their native habitats.

The hazards of orchid hunting and collecting were many. The naturalists and hunters who voyaged into strange lands faced the threats of disease, wild animals, accidents, and, of course, the dastardly deeds of their more ruthless competitors. To foil rivals in the trade, hunters were known to harvest as many plants as they could then destroy those left behind, a scorched Earth policy that led to the destruction of the plants’ natural habitats.

In 1906, German-born orchid collector Frederick Sander, the so-called Orchid King, rattled off a list for The New York Herald Tribune of orchid collectors in his employ who had come to bad ends. Grimes quotes the following passage in his article in The New York Times: “Among my collectors who have died in harness I remember Falkenberg in Panama, Klaboch in Mexico, Endres on the Rio Hacha, Wallace in Ecuador, Schroder in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa, poor Arnold on the Orinoco, Digance in Brazil and Brown in Madagascar. All these have met more or less tragic deaths through wild beasts, savages, fever, drowning, falls or other accidents.”

Grimes’ article also makes note of a hunter who, upon meeting a competitor aboard a ship bound for Venezuela, was instructed by his boss to follow the man, collect the same orchids, and urinate on his rival’s plants.

Other hazards waited on the return trip home. Plants could die, glass cases could shatter in a storm, and entire boats could be swallowed by the sea.

Nowadays, orchid hunting and orchid growing are far simpler. While there remain a handful of orchid hunters who take their chances in undiscovered corners of the globe, most of us can rely on a few clicks of the mouse to bring a beautiful orchid to the front door.

nybg_The New York Botanical Garden's Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is filled with 3,000 to 5,000 blossoming orchid
The New York Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is filled with 3,000 to 5,000 blossoming orchids for the show.

The adventure now lies in keeping them well and supporting them properly so they thrive. This can be a challenge for many in the typically hot, dry environment of the average home.

Although Hachadorian has a greenhouse in the backyard of his residence in New Jersey, he is adamant when he says, “You definitely don’t need a greenhouse to grow orchids.”

Hachadourian has a bit more practice growing plants than most, having begun his botanical experiments as a child. “I still have the first Sansevieria my grandmother gave me when I was 3 or 4 years old,” he says. “It’s in a coffee cup. It survived a house fire and keeps on going. I’ve divided it many times. I’m 43 now, so that means it’s almost 40 years old.”

When growing orchids at home, Hachadourian has several recommendations:

“First and foremost, match the plant to the conditions you have. It’s just like choosing plants for your outdoor garden,” he says. “Orchids are such a diverse group of plants.” (He estimates that there are “over 30,000 naturally occurring species with over 150,000 man-made hybrids.”) “There is an orchid for every location.” Light, temperature, and the amount of care you’re willing to give your plants all factor into the choice. Do you have sun or shade? Warm temperatures or cool? Are you neglectful of plants, or do you find pleasure in hovering over them?

For help in choosing the right orchid for your conditions, Hachadourian recommends “informing yourself” by reading books. (He politely declined to name any specific titles but did caution that there’s a lot of misinformation on the Web.) Hachadourian also suggests contacting any local nursery that grows orchids in your area. “Call the nursery and let them know what you have in terms of conditions. There are many orchid growers all around the country. The local nursery will know your conditions.” Too often people choose a favorite plant and force it to grow in conditions it doesn’t like, Hachadourian says. “But eventually favorites are the ones people have success with. Match the plant to conditions first, and you’ll have greater success.”

For our recommendations, click here to see our  Orchid Growing Guides.

For information about the New York Botanical Garden’s ‘Orchidelirium’ show, visit

For more information about orchids, visit the website of the American Orchid Society,

To involve yourself with a local orchid group, check out the CT Orchid Society at

Cleaning & Sharpening Your Pruners

With Matt Scace, Grower for the White Flower Farm Store

The gardening season is about to get underway in the Northeast, so it’s a great time to clean the garden tools.

Up at the farm, we asked Matt Scace, grower for the White Flower Farm Store, to walk us through the steps. For starters, he points out that there are a lot of different tools that would appreciate attention: axes, edgers, shears, hoes, swoes, shovels, trowels, pick mattocks, forks, and saws. For purposes of this post, we’ll concentrate on one of the most commonly used garden tools: pruners. The same techniques used to clean and sharpen pruners can be applied to lopers and the blades of some other garden tools as well.

To begin, the materials you’ll need to clean and sharpen a pair of pruners are:

dish soap, a nylon scrubby sponge, a whetstone or sharpening stone, a few drops of oil (any kind will do, from canola to WD40), a rag or paper towels, and a bit of elbow grease.

Step #1: Soak or Oil Your Stone

Some whetstones and sharpening stones require that you soak them in water for a period of time before use. Others require a few drops of oil. Follow the instructions that came with your stone. Soaking or oiling “prevents teeny, tiny bits of steel from getting stuck in the stone,” Matt says. “It’s the way oil works in a frying pan.”

Matt uses an all-in-one-tool to disassemble his Felco pruners.

Matt uses an all-in-one-tool to disassemble his Felco pruners.

Step #2 (optional): Disassemble Your Pruners

This step is optional because not all pruners or garden tools are designed for easy disassembly. Tools that don’t encourage disassembly should be left intact.

Well-made pruners, including the Swiss-made Felco models preferred by most of our garden staff, are easy to take apart. Disassembling should be done whenever possible because it’s the best way to clean and sharpen the full blade and to clean the interior junction where the blade pivots.

To disassemble: use a screwdriver, all-in-one tool, or, in the case of Felco and some other brands, the mini-wrench or disassembly tool that comes with your pruners. If you’re afraid you might not be able to put your pruners back together again, Matt has great advice: “Take out one screw, and take a picture with your cell phone. Take out another screw, and take another picture with your cell phone,” and so on. That way, you’ll have a visual record of how to put everything back together.

While you disassemble your pruners, take care to set the parts on a clean, uncluttered surface so nothing gets lost. For his demonstration, Matt used the back of a legal pad.

pruners and dish soap
Use warm water, dish soap, and a nylon scrubby sponge to remove sap and clean the blade.

Step #3: Dish Soap & Water

Washing your blade is next. If you’ve disassembled your pruners, carry the blade to the sink. (If you didn’t disassemble, give the whole tool a bath. It won’t hurt anything as long as you dry the pruners thoroughly and coat the metal parts with oil later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves . . .)

Under warm running water, Matt uses Dawn dish soap and a nylon scrubby sponge to clean the blade. The results are rather remarkable. The blade emerges shiny, and looks almost new. Cleaning the blade not only removes grit, sap and dirt, it also enhances your view of the blade’s beveled edge. Taking care of that is the whole point of sharpening, which comes next.

pruners and sharpening stone

Matt holds the blade at the angle of the bevel as he rubs it down the sharpening stone.

Step #4: Sharpening the Blade

“The bevel on any blade is the angle at which it is ground at the factory,” Matt says. “If you look straight down on the blade of a food processor, the shiny part is the bevel. The purpose of sharpening is to maintain the existing bevel on a blade. While sharpening, you are essentially grinding along that existing bevel.” It’s important to sharpen while the bevel is easy to find, Matt says. “If you wait until you can’t find the bevel, you’re in a bit of trouble.”

Sharpening techniques vary, and they may depend on the size and shape of your whetstone or sharpening stone. Place the stone and blade in contact, and “feel for the angle,” Matt says. When you’ve found it, move the blade gently against the stone (or the stone against the blade, depending on the type you have) so abrasion begins to sharpen the edge. “Some recommend using a circular motion,” which means moving the blade or stone in small circles along the bevel, Matt says. Others run the blade down the stone in a linear fashion. The key is to maintain the angle of the beveled edge. Check your progress as you go. In the places where you’ve rubbed the blade against the abrasive stone, the blade will appear shinier. Make sure the shine corresponds to the factory-made bevel. You can check the sharpness of your blade by cutting a piece of paper: Hold the paper in one hand and slice at the edge with the blade. The blade should cut into the paper, creating a shred that curls away.

oil for pruners
After sharpening, it’s time for oil. A drop or two protects steel blades, preventing rust and corrosion, and it keeps the pivot mechanism moving smoothly.

Step #5: Oil

Once you’re done sharpening, it’s time for oil. A drop or two protects steel blades, preventing rust and corrosion, Matt says. It also keeps the pivot mechanism moving smoothly. Any type of oil will do, from canola or vegetable oil to WD40, honing oil, or household 3-in-1. “Use just enough to coat the surface,” Matt says. He rubs oil all over the metal surfaces and wipes off any excess with a cloth. “The oil shouldn’t run or collect.”

Step #6: Always, Always Use the Right Tool for the Job

There will be a future post on this topic, but for now, Matt reminds all of us to use the right tool for the job. “The right tool for the job is going to reduce wear and tear, and that means you sharpen less often,” he says. The Felco #2, which he uses frequently, “is capable of cutting a great many more things than you should cut with it. When you have your nice Swiss-made Felco pruners, and you’re out cutting your Roses, you might see a coated wire tie on a Rose, and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just cut it with the pruners, and it’ll be OK because I’m only going to do it this once.’ It is not OK.” Tools that are misused are subject to dings, degradation, and breakage. “The relationship between care and use goes together like teeth and gears,” Matt says. Make that extra trip back to the shed for the wire cutters, or whatever tool is designed for a specific purpose. “This might sound like a sales pitch, but in the long term, having the tool that’s made for the job you’re doing is less expensive.”

disassembled pruners
TIP: If you’re worried you won’t know how to reassemble your pruners, take cell phone photos as you disassemble a pair, then you have a record of what goes where and in what order.

Ongoing Care & Rubbing Alcohol

Ideally, you should clean, dry and oil your tools after each use. Not many of us are that diligent, but the point is, buy good tools and treat them with the respect they deserve, cleaning them often.

For tools that come in contact with plant material, it’s wise to clean the blades with rubbing alcohol. “It can dramatically reduce insect and disease issues,” Matt says. A good number of plant diseases are plant-specific and won’t spread from one type of plant to another on a pair of pruners, but others can be transmitted that way, and a bit of alcohol can hinder the spread.

The Store Is Open for the Season!

After weeks of unseasonably warm weather here in Morris, CT, the White Flower Farm Store opened Monday, March 21, just in time for what we hope was the last snowstorm of the season. We were spared the worst, and the dusting of snow (which, we confess, looked absolutely beautiful on trees and shrubs), melted away before noon.

Adromeda ‘Brouwer’s Beauty’ is ready to burst into bloom.

So, what’s on offer at our plant nursery at this time of year? Our remodeled, expanded display space has more room than ever for lovely spring-flowering trees (most in landscape size, which means 5- to 15-gallon specimens), evergreen shrubs including the budded and blossoming Andromedas that are great for year-round structure and color, espaliered fruit trees that can be used to create living “fences” around or in a vegetable garden or soften the existing walls of a home or shed, and container pots that add interest and color to porches and patios. While here, be sure to see our selections of berry plants as well. We offer three types of Grape vines, numerous Blueberries, and at least four different Raspberry selections, all of which will have you harvesting delicious fresh fruit from your garden.

As you peruse our selection of trees and shrubs, bear in mind that we now offer delivery service. If you purchase plants at our Morris store, we’ll be happy to deliver a van full for a small fee. We also offer tree-planting services for a nominal fee for any tree purchased at our nursery. Ask one of our staff members for details.

Air Plants and African Violets

Inside our freshly painted store, we’re welcoming the new season with a wide array of plants, gardening supplies, and gifts. The African Violets are particularly beautiful this year, their colors ranging from rich purple and deep pink to bicolor. They look marvelous alone or displayed with foliage plants. Many are available in tiny teacup-sized cachepots that would look just right on a desktop or bedside table. Distinctive flowering and foliage houseplants are a great gift or table decoration for the upcoming holidays.

A teak wood bowl is filled with a variety of different Air Plants.

We’re offering a broad selection of beguiling Air Plants (Tillandsias), which subsist on nutrients in the air and the occasional spritz of water. Mary Valente, visual merchandiser and gift buyer for the White Flower Farm Store, is showing them suspended from the ceiling on fishing line, overfilling teak bowls, and tucked into displays here and there.

Fans of miniature gardens will find supplies aplenty – from miniature plants to miniature props – for creating tiny, highly personalized gardens under glass.

Mary Valente, visual merchandiser and gift buyer for the White Flower Farm Store, loves this seed blend, which attracts hummingbirds.

For those who enjoy starting their own seeds, we’re offering a broad selection of packets for individual flowers and edibles (the majority organic), plus seed collections, including some that attract hummingbirds and pollinators.

All the tools we offer are put to the test at the farm. These are some of the best.

In our Tools of the Trade section, we’re showcasing a selection of the professional-grade garden gear we use at the farm, along with the garden supplies we deem essential – from Tomato ties and blossom-boosting fertilizer to deer and rabbit repellent.

What else? There are bird feeders (including a new hummingbird feeder that invites hard-working flyers to perch on a raised rail as they feed), birdhouses, Lily bulbs, (the Dahlia tubers are arriving soon), stationery, postcards, garden hats, and glass hummingbird ornaments that, hung near a window, sparkle in the light.

A visit to the display gardens is a must on any trip to the White Flower Farm Store. It’s a bit quiet in the beds and borders, but there’s no question the garden is waking up. Some of the Hellebores are in full bloom. The Tulip foliage is way out of the ground. The colorful foliage of Heuchera plants can be seen bursting through the soil, and the spring-flowering trees and shrubs are covered in plump buds (only the Andromeda is in bloom as this scribbling occurs). As Mary put it, “It’s a great time to walk around the garden because you can see everything that Cheryl [our head gardener] is doing.” Which shrubs has she pruned? How severely has she cut them back? What is she planting now? Visitors who care to study the scene can watch how various plants shake off their winter slumber. Which bulbs blossom together? Which perennials arrive first? Which look best at this very early stage of the season? The display gardens are a great classroom and observatory for gardeners of all stripes, and the store’s staff members are delighted to answer questions. Keep a jacket handy until the mercury rises a bit, but come by and visit any time you like. The store is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. We look forward to seeing you. (Please note: We are closed March 27th for Easter Sunday.)

Do You Know Your Lily Varieties?

Lilies are one of the truly great garden plants for their flower forms, diversity, extended season of bloom, graceful stature, and reliable disposition. Their bulbs can be planted in spring for bloom the same year, or in fall for bloom the following year.

The sequence of bloom begins in early summer with the colorful Asiatics, Martagon Lilies (also called Turk’s Cap Lilies), and then continues until late summer with other Species Lilies and three tall, fragrant groups: Orientals, Orienpets (hybrids between Orientals and Trumpets), and Trumpets.

Here’s a primer to help familiarize you with the different types:

Asiatic Lily ‘Red Twin’®: The large, 7″ salsa red double blooms of this Asiatic variety add fire to the summer border. Note the elegantly formed inner bloom with narrow reflexed petals.

Asiatic Lilies

Asiatic Lilies are early-blooming, colorful, and vigorous. Colors range from the softest pastels to fiery reds and oranges that practically ignite in the sun. Blooms vary from simple open bowls to exquisite recurved flowers. Their straight stems and high bud count make them superb cut flowers.

Lilium ‘Star Gazer’: When Leslie Woodriff, a Lily breeder in California, created 'Star Gazer' a quarter of a century ago, it instantly set a new standard for Oriental Lilies. This fragrant hybrid grew beautifully in the average garden, and its large, upfacing blooms on strong stems were outstanding as cut flowers.
Oriental Lily ‘Star Gazer’: When Leslie Woodriff, a Lily breeder in California, created ‘Star Gazer’ a quarter of a century ago, it instantly set a new standard for Oriental Lilies. This fragrant hybrid grew beautifully in the average garden, and its large, upfacing blooms on strong stems were outstanding as cut flowers.

Oriental Lilies

Oriental Lilies are best known for their huge flowers and intense perfume. They come in a wide variety of heights, forms, and colors, and put on a magnificent, late-summer show.

Trumpet Lily ‘Ice Caves’: An abundance of big white blooms with frosty green throats are presented on long graceful stems. The flowers appear midsummer on statuesque plants about 5′ tall, and they produce a delightful fragrance.

Trumpet Lilies

As the name might suggest, these Lilies have lovely, trumpet-shaped flowers borne on long graceful stems. Their intoxicating scent can perfume an entire garden.

‘Silk Road’: Here is an Orienpet Lily with huge, intoxicatingly fragrant 8″ flowers that are borne on spires up to 2′ across for longer than you thought possible. It’s the winner of the North American Lily Society's popularity poll for 4 straight years.
Orienpet Lily ‘Silk Road’: Here is an Orienpet Lily with huge, intoxicatingly fragrant 8″ flowers that are borne on spires up to 2′ across for longer than you thought possible. It’s the winner of the North American Lily Society’s popularity poll for 4 straight years.

Orienpet Lilies

Orienpet Lilies are crosses between Oriental and Trumpet Lilies. They combine the best features of both groups — fragrance, large flowers, and sturdy garden performance — and they bloom about 2 weeks earlier than Orientals.

Lilium langkongense: These recurved, lavender-pink bells possess an exquisite charm and grace. They deepen in color as they age and are heavily spotted in maroon. This fragrant Species Lily comes from the mountainous regions of southwestern China, and prefers regular moisture, well-drained soil, and a bit of shade in the heat of the day.]
Species Lily langkongense: These recurved, lavender-pink bells possess an exquisite charm and grace. They deepen in color as they age and are heavily spotted in maroon. This fragrant Species Lily comes from the mountainous regions of southwestern China, and prefers regular moisture, well-drained soil, and a bit of shade in the heat of the day.

Species Lilies

Delicate and graceful Species Lilies carry their flowers on candelabra-shaped stems, and are generally more tolerant of shade. Their elegant show improves with each passing year. They combine well with perennials and annuals in a mixed border.

Claude Shride
Martagon Lily ‘Claude Shride’: A cherished classic from the 1970s, this Martagon (Turkscap) hybrid displays a tall candelabra of downward-facing, recurved, dark red blossoms highlighted with yellow-orange spots. Because the small, waxy flowers will bloom in light shade, highlight this fine variety with Hostas and other woodlanders.

Martagon Lilies

A subgroup of Species Lilies also known as ‘Turk’s Caps,’ Martagons are lovely and elegant plants whose graceful, willowy stature and shapely flowers are entirely captivating and perfectly magical in the lightly shaded nooks they seem to prefer. Traditionally this species has been known to be tricky to keep happy since it is slow to establish, but newer hybrids take hold more quickly.

Lily leaf beetle

Battling the Lily Leaf Beetle

Gardeners in the Northeast must be on the lookout for the Lily leaf beetle, which feeds on Lily foliage, buds, and flowers in both its larval and adult form. Luckily, both life stages are easily recognized: the adult is slightly less than ½” long, with a brilliant scarlet body and black head and appendages. The larvae look a bit like lumpy slugs but are orange, brown, or greenish yellow with black heads; they pile their black excrement on their backs as they feed. (Gross, right?) From March through June, look on the undersides of the leaves for the orange eggs and destroy them. Handpicking works if only a few plants are present; for a larger planting, neem products are effective for young larvae and will deter adults, and insecticides containing spinosad will control the insect (but avoid using these when bees are active). Occasionally, aphids will infect Lilies with Lily mosaic virus, which results in yellow streaking or mottling of the leaves; this virus is mainly problematic in the species. Watch for aphids and rinse off with a forceful water spray.

Harvest Fresh Fruits & Vegetables From Pots on Your Patio

By Barb Pierson, Nursery Manager

lettuce as container gardens
The options for container pot edible gardening were once limited mainly to salad greens and herbs, but there is now a wide variety of plants that thrive in pots and smaller garden spaces.

For gardeners with limited outdoor space or the desire to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables a few steps from the door, container pot gardening is a great way to go. While the options for container pot edible gardening were once limited mainly to salad greens and herbs, there is now a wide variety of plants – from Tomato varieties to Peppers and Eggplants – that thrive in pots and smaller garden spaces.

Growing vegetables in containers can be done in any location that has 6-8 hours of sun per day.

The benefits are obvious: There’s no need to dig and prepare a garden bed. Gardeners enjoy easy access to the pots for watering, fertilizing and harvesting. Containers can be moved to suit the needs of the plants or the gardeners. And, best of all, there’s no weeding.

There are a few obvious drawbacks: Some varieties of vegetables such as large pumpkins cannot be grown in containers. And more water and fertilizer is needed to produce a good harvest in a container. But the extra bit of effort is worth the reward of a delicious harvest.

To start a container garden of edibles, here are 9 steps to get you started:

Barb with pots
Keep in mind that the pot or pots you select must be large enough to hold soil and the roots of whatever plant or plants you wish to grow.

1. Choose Your Pot

Keep in mind that the pot or pots you select must be large enough to hold soil and the roots of whatever plant or plants you wish to grow. Tomatoes and vining crops produce best in containers that are at least 20–22” in diameter. Peppers can go a little less at 16” diameter. Greens such as Lettuce prefer a broad flat pot such as a large bowl-shaped container.

Drainage is imperative! Make certain that each pot has several holes in the bottom. It is NOT necessary to put stones in the bottom of the pot.

As long as there is drainage, pots made of almost any type of material will work. Fiber pots work well but are not decorative. There are many plastic pots that are decorative, functional, and lightweight. I prefer something that’s easy to move and to empty at the end of the season.

bags of compost
Use a lightweight, high quality potting soil and mix it at 2/3 potting soil to 1/3 compost.

2. Soil

Use a lightweight, high quality potting soil. Never try and use garden soil from your yard. After you have purchased your potting soil, mix it at 2/3 potting soil to 1/3 compost. This mixture allows the plants to retain moisture and nutrients. Types of compost can include: leaf mold compost you have made, dried aged manure, or shrimp and seaweed compost. I create a mix in a wheelbarrow or garden trug. Lightly water the mixture before placing it in your pot so the peat moss in the mix isn’t too dry.

When filling your container, firm in the soil without compacting it too much.  Unpot your vegetable plant and place it in the center, if you wish, or spaced with other plants if you’re creating a combination. Add more of your container mix, pressing down gently and adding more soil until the pot is filled to about 2-3” below the lip. Always leave space at the top to create a watering reservoir.

3. Planting Depth

This is key. For Tomatoes, remove the lower leaves and plant the Tomato deep in the soil. Roots will form along the stem. (The only exception is Grafted Tomatoes, which should not be set in soil below the graft line, which is generally marked with a tie or piece of tape.)

For Cucumbers, Squash, Lettuce, Eggplant and most other vegetable starts, plant at soil level.

Tomato cage
Pepper ladders (shown here) or Tomato cages can be used to support smaller Tomato plants, Peppers and Cucumbers.

4. Support

Tomato cages can be used for smaller Tomato plants, Peppers and Cucumbers. Cone or pyramid-shaped trellises usually work better than flat types. Chicken wire can be bent and used to make a cage. A few stakes can be placed around the perimeter of the pot to form a teepee.

Pot platforms or deck protectors can be used to move your pots around, protect your patio or deck, and allow air to circulate and water to drain from the pots.

5. Watering

Container plants in full sun need to be checked every day. Using organic compost will help reduce the need, but the hot sun will require that you check your plants daily. The best way to see if your plants need water is to stick your finger in the soil. If it’s dry to the touch below the surface ½” or so, it’s time to water. Learning to see signs of wilting is something that will happen as you grow plants every season. Look for the plants to be flagging a bit, or for the soil to begin separating from the sides of the container. Those are signs your plant needs water. But overwatering can also be a problem, in particular for Tomatoes and Peppers, so make sure you observe carefully and do not water during cloudy or rainy weather unless you see that the soil is dry under the surface.

Tomatoes and Peppers need regular watering and feeding while they’re growing, but when the fruit starts to mature, it’s important not to overwater or over-fertilize as this will cause your fruit to be susceptible to disease and reduce the flavor.

6. Fertilization

After the vegetables have settled into their new pots and new growth can be seen, it’s time to fertilize your plants. If your potting soil has slow-release fertilizer, you should wait at least several weeks before adding more. Use fertilizer at the rates recommended on the label. There are many organic and synthetic fertilizers on the market, and some of them specifically are for vegetables. If you use a fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium, it will promote more fruit. Read the labels carefully and apply what’s recommended regularly – in particular if you are watering often and the plants are actively growing prior to harvesting, make sure you are feeding. Hot sun and frequent water will leach out valuable nutrients.

7. Staking, Tying and Pinching

Stakes should be inserted into your containers at planting time. As the vegetables grow and produce fruit, tie the large branches so they have support but aren’t girdled.

To fully understand Tomato pruning, visit the Fine Gardening magazine website,, and enter “tomato pruning.” They offer a detailed explanation of the process.

8. Insects and Disease

Prevention is the best organic method of pest control. Proper watering techniques avoid most issues with vegetables and herbs. Fertilization, full sun and air circulation are also imperative. If you do have insects or disease, use organic control measures such as horticultural oil and insecticidal soap.

9. Harvesting

Each type of vegetable has specific harvesting techniques. For Tomatoes, allow them to ripen to their mature color and feel the fruit to make sure it has soft give to it. Some varieties twist off easily when they are ready to be picked. Know the mature color and age, and resist the urge to pick too early!!



pots on roof
Many herbs, such as Mint, Thyme, Oregano, Sage and Rosemary do well in containers.


Always plant Mints in pots! It’s very invasive in the garden, but so good for drinks and as a garnish. Plant in large pots with plenty of soil depth. Mint needs quite a bit of water so make sure you check it and add compost to the potting mix for better water retention.


Thyme is pretty and creeping so it cascades nicely over the rim of a pot. Use a shallow container because Thyme has a fine root system and is prone to root rot when given too much soil.


Cut Parsley often to keep it from flowering or “bolting.” (If it does bolt, it tastes terrible.) It’s best planted in a large pot.


It can easily be overwatered so plant it in a container that is medium depth or shallow and has good drainage. To promote drier conditions, don’t add too much compost.


Delicious and aromatic, this is a fairly aggressive grower so use a large pot and treat it like Mint.


This favorite can be quite tricky when it comes to watering. Too much water, and it’s unhappy, not enough and it’s equally unhappy. Take care when combining it in a mixed container and be sure you have good drainage!!



Note: Many of these are compact or “determinate” varieties. The latter means they have a neater habit than “indeterminant” Tomatoes, which tend to sprawl and require more support.

grow bag, pepper mini red bell sweet
Many compact or dwarf varieties of vegetables are ideally suited to smaller quarters, but they can also be planted in small spaces in vegetable gardens.


Note: Many of these are compact or dwarf varieties that are ideally suited to smaller quarters. They also can be planted in small spaces in vegetable gardens.

There are several varieties of BrazelBerries® compact berry bushes such as Peach Sorbet™ that do well in containers.


Our Tuberous Begonias – Chapter 1: Waking Up the Tubers

By Cheryl Whalen, Head Gardener

Each year I look forward to Valentine’s Day with eagerness and anticipation. It’s not the chocolate and candy hearts I crave but something much more satisfying. That mid-February love-filled holiday marks the start of the Tuberous Begonia growing season here at the farm. And tending these Begonia beauties is what I love!

Each summer, our display of Tuberous Begonias attracts visitors from hundreds of miles. Our collection of the English-bred Blackmore & Langdon Tuberous Begonias showcases more than 70 varieties of this fantastic strain of Begonias. Perhaps it’s a rare sight to see on this side of “the pond” . . . so many B&L varieties all together composing a colorful symphony for the eyes.

Tuberous Begonias wrapped in paper for winter storage
The Tuberous Begonias, wrapped in paper for winter storage, are brought out of the root cellar on Valentine’s Day.

I keep the display tubers from year to year. The age of the tubers ranges from 2 to 15 years old. The tubers have been in winter slumber mode for nearly 3 months . . . each tuber wrapped in a paper blanket with its name label tucked inside. They have been carefully nestled into lily crates, the heaviest tubers on the bottom. The guest cottage here has a fabulous dirt cellar where I store the tubers. The temperature hovers around 50 degrees F.

Begonia tubers with tags
Our tubers range in age from 2 to 15 years. It’s important to keep a tag with each one so you know which is which.

I like to have all the tubers potted up by March 1. In between Amaryllis photo shoots and garden planning sessions at my desk, I scramble about scaring up plastic nursery pots of various sizes, anywhere from 4” to 10” diameters. Barrels of Begonia soil are churned out for me by our potting department. On potting day, I carry my crates of precious cargo up from the basement to my potting station in the headhouse. And then, the fun begins.

Small tuber and large tuber
The size of the tubers varies considerably.

Working through a crate at a time, I unwrap each tuber and, after a brief health examination, lay them out on the table being careful to not separate the name label from its owner. I keep a running inventory of the varieties and how many I have of each. Ideally, I like to have at least 3 of a variety because these are living beings and sometimes I do lose a few to rotting in storage or during the growing season. It’s a sad day if I lose a tuber that was my sole representative of a variety.

Begonia tubers and pots
When selecting a pot for each tuber, choose one that’s just big enough to hold its occupant. The plants will be transplanted into larger pots once they’ve rooted in the first.

Recently, I had the table covered with tubers and I was taking my tally. A co-worker happened by and asked, “Cheryl, what are you doing with all of those cow pies?” I had to laugh, and I could see his point. The tubers do look like non-descript, brown lumps to the passerby. To me, they are beautiful. Each is unique in shape and size. Some are quite large, nearly the size of a human brain, while others fit quite comfortably in the palm of my hand. I once had a ‘Tahiti’ tuber that looked like the Starship Enterprise! (When you receive your new tuber in the mail, don’t be alarmed at its smaller size. It’s just a baby. Young, happy tubers are eager to add girth increasing in size each season. Remember that my display tubers started out as tiny tots, too!)

tubers nestled in their pots
Here are the tubers nestled in their pots.

I assign each tuber to a pot that is just big enough to hold its occupant. This is only round one in the potting process. The plants will be transplanted into larger pots once they’ve rooted into the first. I find that stepping the tubers up in this way decreases the chances of rotting tubers. Putting a small tuber in a large, moist soil mass before the tuber can get growing can sometimes have disastrous results.

pot with potting mixture and tubers
Fill each pot about halfway with potting mixture, and settle the tuber in, making sure its eyes are looking up.

Actual potting is easy. I put soil in the pot and place in the tuber making sure its growing eyes are looking up. I add soil, firming in around the tuber as I adjust its potting depth. I like the surface of the tuber to be no more than 1” below the soil surface.

Begonia tuber in pot
Add soil, firming in around the tuber and adjusting its potting depth so the surface of the tuber is no more than 1″ below the soil surface.

The pots then take up residence shoulder-to-shoulder in our warm and cozy propagation house surrounded by the freshly rooted cuttings of annuals and tomato seedlings. I give everyone a good drink of water and then I wait.

Begonia tubers in propagation house
Properly potted and labeled, the tubers take up residence in our propagation house, surrounded by freshly rooted cuttings of annuals and Tomato seedlings.

To be continued . . .

Our Tuberous Begonias begin shipping around mid-March, and you can pot them then. For information, see our Grow Guide, and watch our video, How To Grow Tuberous Begonias.

Magnolia Branch

Forcing Branches for a Preview of Spring

Cherry tree blossom
Even a single branch forced indoors can bring a welcome preview of spring. This twig from a Cherry tree blossomed after three weeks indoors.

At this time of year, we’re always reminded of the benefits of having a variety of spring-blooming shrubs and trees in the garden. We’re midway through winter, and although it’s been a remarkably mild one here in the Northeast, the landscape of browns, greys, and whites has begun to prey on our spirits. To introduce a bit of vibrant natural color and beauty to our indoor rooms, and to do it economically, we force branches. You don’t need any special gear or know-how, just a pair of clean, sharp pruners and a few of the right trees and shrubs in your yard.

Witch Hazel in bloom
It’s been such a mild winter that the Witch Hazel had already bloomed outdoors before we went looking for cuttings.

Among our favorites for forcing are Witch Hazel (Hamamelis), Magnolia, Forsythia, Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Shadbush (Amelanchier), flowering Quince (Chaenomeles), crabapple (Malus), flowering pear (Pyrus), flowering Cherry (Prunus), Viburnum, and Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (Cornus mas).

Sometimes starting as early as January but more likely in February and March, we make regular forays into the garden. We choose days when the temperature is above freezing, and not only for ourselves. The milder temperatures help ease the transition the plants must make from outdoors to indoors. While enjoying the fresh air in our lungs and the physical exertion of wading through snow (if there is any), we cut our branches.

cutting branches
Using clean pruners, cut branches or twigs with plenty of buds on them. It’s best to do the cutting on a day when the temperature is above freezing.

The guidelines are very simple, the trees and shrubs generally very forgiving, and the results well worth the effort. Here’s how:

  • Cut only branches that are nonessential to the form of your shrub or tree, or make sure you confine your cutting to the back side of the plant, if there is one, or to crowded sections where a branch or two will not be missed.
  • Choose sections that are at least 1’ long and generously punctuated by plump flower buds. (In most cases, you will see leaf buds on the branches, too, but those are generally smaller and pointy at the tips.)
  • Use proper pruning techniques (see Pruning Tips below).
  • Bring the branches indoors and put them in a sink or sturdy vase or vessel full of warm water. (The vessel should be one that won’t tip when the weight and size of branches are added to it.)
  • Some gardeners recommend re-cutting the branches or goring the stems near the cut while the branch or stem is underwater. This can facilitate uptake of water and negate the possibility of air entering the stem and sealing out the water. We confess we do this only some of the time, and the vast majority of branches blossom either way.
  • Arrange your branches in the sturdy vase or vessel, and set it in a sunny spot indoors. Avoid locations atop radiators or near heat sources (although, we confess, we have broken that rule a time or two, and the buds still bloomed).
  • Replace the water in your container every few days. Bacteria will flourish and impede the progress of your forcing. Severe enough bacteria has the opportunity to set rot in your forcing branches.
fat buds of Cornus mas
The fat buds of a Cornus mas tree are almost ready to break open into yellow flowers.

Generally speaking, the nearer the date is to a plant’s natural blooming time, the sooner will begin flowering indoors.

Pussy Willow branches
Pussy Willows are a great choice for forcing indoors. They don’t require water, and they last for ages.

Pussy Willows can be cut in winter and brought indoors, too. Wait until the downy catkins have broken out of their casings. Cut lengths that measure at least 1’. Bring them indoors and put them in a vase with or without water. They will retain their good looks for a very long time either way.

Magnolia blossomo
A Magnolia blossom in full bloom.

The colors and natural beauty these branches bring to indoor spaces lift the spirits in winter. They leave no doubt that spring is on the march.

Pruners and vase
Cut branches and put them in water as soon as possible. Some gardeners recommend cutting stems again while they’re under water to prevent air from getting inside. We confess we haven’t always done this, and most of our branches bloom beautifully anyway.

Proper Pruning Techniques

  • Use a clean, sharp pruner
  • Make steeply angled cuts to encourage water uptake
  • Clean pruners with warm soapy water after each use