Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden

You can attract a variety of butterflies to your garden by offering some of the blossoms they love best and by incorporating accessories that provide support. The plants highlighted here all produce nectar-rich flowers that are vital sources of food for pollinators, and all offer beauty and color for human admirers. Asclepias (Milkweed), Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Liatris, and Lantana are among the best plants for butterflies.

1. Liatris ligulistylis

In our gardens, Liatris ligulistylis is a butterfly magnet during its long run of summer bloom (July to September) and a feeding station for goldfinches come fall. It is particularly popular with Monarch butterflies, and you can always spot the plant in the garden because it’s where you see a lot of orange-and-black wings fluttering.

2. Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’

A compact selection of the prairie native that’s commonly called Blazing Star, Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’ is a butterfly favorite. These plants thrive in full sun or partial shade and well-drained, even dry, soil, but they struggle in the desert Southwest. Best planted in groups, they will create a lot of pollinator traffic at the edge of the border.

3. Phlox paniculata Candy Store® Coral Crème Drop

This important genus of valuable garden plants includes reliable and colorful species that bloom both early and late, in sun and shade, and in a range of rich colors that is equaled by few other genera. The hardy Candy Store® series was developed in the Netherlands where it was bred specifically for a compact habit, attractive leaf and flower coloration, and good disease resistance. Coral Crème Drop offers rosy coral petals highlighted with white and a deep-pink eye. Its long-blooming and sweetly fragrant flower clusters are closely packed on compact, well-branched plants.

4. Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is a vigorous grower that produces showy, dense heads of lavender-pink flowers that are adored by butterflies. This variety has proven to be extraordinarily mildew resistant, and it blooms all summer into fall. ‘Jeana’ was included in an extensive Phlox trial at Mt. Cuba Center, where she was deemed “without a doubt, the best-performing phlox,” and the one that attracted more butterflies than any other variety.

5. Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’

Echinacea Magnus

Butterflies love Echinacea (commonly called Coneflower), a North American genus in the Daisy family  that features big, bright flowers that appear in late June and keep coming into September. The popular Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ variety features petals that are an especially vibrant carmine-rose shade and are held almost horizontally, which makes for a more open face than the shuttlecock shape of the species. Butterflies and other pollinators feed at the large cones, and in autumn, the seed heads attract birds including goldfinches.

6. Buddleia davidii Buzz™ Ivory

Buddleia Buzz Ivory

Sized perfectly for large pots or smaller spaces in the garden, compact Buddleia davidii Buzz™ Ivory produces lovely panicles of white blossoms that attract a wide variety of pollinators. Deadhead this 4′ Butterfly Bush to keep the blossoms coming from summer to fall.

7. Asclepias tuberosa Gay Butterflies Mix

Asclepias tuberosa Gay Butterflies Mix

Asclepias, commonly called Milkweed, is the essential plant for Monarch butterflies, providing nourishment through all their life stages. Our Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mix not only feeds Monarchs and other beneficial insects, it offers boldly colored, ornamental blooms in shades of fiery red, orange, and yellow in June and July. We sell it as a collection of 3 plants to provide a sampling of the full color range.

8. Zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame’

Zinnia 'Zowie! Yellow Flame'

Nothing ignites a bed or mixed border like a mass planting of Zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame.’ Its brilliant, yellow-tipped petals start off magenta-pink then turn to scarlet-rose around a dramatic red-and-yellow cone. An annual in cooler climates such as ours, the plant is a hit with gardeners and pollinators alike. Deadhead the spent blossoms regularly, and the flowers will keep coming over a long season.

 

Stars of the Late-Season Garden

As summer draws to a close and blossoms begin to fade, it’s important to rely on plants that bring late-season interest to borders and beds. Among the autumn and winter stars of the garden are perennial favorites including fall-blooming Anemones, Asters, Ornamental Grasses, Perovskia (Russian Sage), Rudbeckias, Sedums, and Symphyotrichums, and shrubs including Aronia (Chokeberry), Itea (Sweetspire), Oakleaf Hydrangea, and Viburnum. Every garden needs a sampling of these easy-care plants to maximize the season of bloom or foliage interest and to carry the garden and landscape into autumn and beyond. A number of these plants also provide essential food for pollinators, who need nourishment and support as the season nears its end. Below are a few of our favorites.

Symphyotrichum 'Purple Dome'
Symphyotrichum ‘Purple Dome’

The first true dwarf among the New England Asters, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’ offers perfect 1″ flowers of bright purple in such profusion that they completely cover the compact plant for a full month starting in mid-September. Plants are sturdy enough never to need support and they make a delightful mass of rich color. Late in the season, the seeds provide a high-energy food source for chickadees, titmice, and wrens. Try them with Japanese Anemones.

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'
Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’

One of the best and most beloved garden plants of all time is the Black-eyed Susan, a glorious and traditional highlight of summer. While the native plant Rudbeckia fulgida is enchanting, sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ improves upon an already good thing by providing more and bigger flowers in a consistent bright golden yellow on upright plants that reach 40″. It blooms prodigiously from late July to early October.

Aronia Low Scape® Mound
Aronia Low Scape® Mound

From the UConn breeding program run by Mark Brand and Bryan Connolly comes Aronia melanocarpa Low Scape® Mound, an improved, low-growing form of our native Chokeberry. It welcomes spring with a profusion of white flowers that turn to nearly black fruit. The berries are a favorite of birds, including mockingbirds, warblers, and vireos. The glossy green foliage provides a lovely backdrop for the blooms before changing to red and orange for fall.

Symphyotrichum 'Purple Dome'
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (‘Herbstfreude’) is one of the highlights of the late-season garden. Its leaves are blue green, thick, and succulent. Its flowers, which begin to open in August on 18–24″ stems, start rosy pink, deepen to salmon, then to rust, and finally turn rich brown in an evolution that takes place over many weeks. The blooms are long lasting in a vase and are superb dried, whether brought indoors or left standing in the garden to catch light snowfalls.

Ornamental Grass "Karl Foerster'
Ornamental Grass “Karl Foerster’

As an exclamation point in a border, Feather Reed Grass is one of our favorites because of its upright habit and good manners. Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ forms neat clumps of foliage 18–24″ tall. In June, the toasty brown, feathery flower spikes rise up to 5′ or more. By August they are narrow shafts of a buff color. Despite their delicate and graceful appearance they hold their shape through the winter.

Perovskia 'Blue Jean Baby'
Perovskia ‘Blue Jean Baby’

A hardy, compact Russian Sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Jean Baby’ is a great choice for anyone whose garden is too small for the original. Stems of silver-green foliage with small purple flowers erupt in a lilac haze in midsummer, and the color lasts until fall.

Viburnum trilobum 'Wentworth'
Viburnum trilobum ‘Wentworth’

‘Wentworth’ is an outstanding native Viburnum trilobum that has three seasons of interest. In late spring, it produces abundant heads of white flowers. The flowers are followed by clusters of ¼” berries that turn bright glistening red as they ripen in late summer, attracting thrushes and cardinals among other species. Finally, in autumn, the 3-lobed foliage takes on stunning shades of burgundy. ‘Wentworth’ has an upright habit that makes it useful as a screen or an informal hedge.

5 Tools for Bulb Planting

We’ve spent decades testing tools and supplies for planting bulbs each fall and we keep coming back to a few favorites. Using the right tools and supplies makes the planting easier, and more importantly, ensures that you get the desired result come spring.

1. Bulb Planter for Naturalizing

Bulb Planter for Naturalizing

This planter for naturalizing features rugged steel construction, a red finish for high visibility, and a lifetime guarantee on its performance and durability. It’s specially designed with a bend in the blade to offer better leverage for planting bulbs in unprepared, even inhospitable ground—in the lawn, in a meadow, in the woods. At the business end is a notched, 2½″ wide blade that slices easily through compacted and rocky soils.

2. Essential Garden Spade

Essential Garden Spade

This Essential Garden Spade should be kept within easy reach of every gardener. It has a comfortable Ash wood “D” handle that invites a sturdy grip. The hand-forged stainless steel blade is topped with boot protectors to increase leverage. We use our shovel to dig holes for new plants, move small trees and shrubs, create new beds, and turn over the soil in our vegetable garden.

3. Daffodil Fertilizer

Daffodil Fertilizer

Exclusive. We developed our own Daffodil Fertilizer, a slow-release 5-10-20 formula with trace elements, that gives the Daffodils a continual supply of nutrients while they are growing, from the time they initiate root growth in fall until the foliage matures in June. Daffodils and other bulbs like the extra potassium. It’s easy to scatter the granules on top of the ground in fall after planting your bulbs or to apply a light dressing (1/4 cup per 10 sq ft) as new growth begins to push through the soil in spring

4. Bulb Trowel, 18″ Long

Bulb Trowel 18"

This 18″ durable trowel is ideal for planting large numbers of small bulbs because it’s designed to stab, not scoop. Jab the trowel straight down and pull the handle toward you to create a slot. The sharply pointed, stainless-steel blade slices effortlessly through sod or garden soil.

5. Ultra-Cushion Knee Pads

Ultra-Cushion Knee Pads

Take good care of your knee joints and your clothing, too. These deluxe knee pads are made of shock-absorbing EVA foam that’s surrounded by 2 layers of memory foam. They fasten securely with flexible, adjustable hook and loop straps that won’t grip your legs too tightly. The blue exterior is made of waterproof, durable neoprene that dries fast and can be wiped clean.

 

Roses & a Few Favorite Friends

Plants are like people in the sense that they thrive in communities, and they tend to shine brighter in the company of good friends. This June, our Rose Garden at the farm provided a glorious illustration of the power of harmonious relationships. In a long, meandering border planted with roughly 70 Roses, each variety is enhanced by its proximity to perennials that provide complementary or contrasting color, form, and texture. As the garden hit its peak in June, it offered visitors a textbook example of how to plant Roses and their preferred companions for best effect. While the peak has now passed, the garden will continue to provide rolling waves of bloom, thanks to the perennials that keep company with all the Roses. If you happen to live nearby or are in range to make a visit, we hope you’ll come by and take a stroll. In the meantime, we thought it might be helpful to showcase some of the perennials that do such a great deal to bring magic to the Rose Garden. We hope they inspire you to plant some of your own.

The red spires of Lupine ‘Red Rum,’ the lavender-blue spikes of a Nepeta, and stands of dark purple Salvia ‘Caradonna’ provide contrasting colors amid the white blossoms of Rose Easy Spirit™.
The golden blossoms of Rose Easy Elegance® Yellow Submarine are enhanced by the blue flowers of a Campanula, which have the charming habit of intermingling with their neighbors.
Rose Easy on the Eyes™ finds flattering company amid mounds of Baptisia australis (rear), red-leaved Penstemon ‘Dark Towers,’ lavender-blue Nepeta Junior Walker™ (left), and the felted gray foliage of Stachys byzantina ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ (Lamb’s Ears).
The airy, creamy plumes of Aruncus dioicus (Goatsbeard) form a lovely backdrop for two pink-flowering Roses, while an Iris creates a dreamy pool of lavender-blue.

Click through to our website to find more perennials that serve as excellent companions for Roses, and consider adding some to your garden.

Beauty & Perfume in Our Rose Garden

A few years back, we repurposed a somewhat tired shrub border and installed a new garden highlighting Roses and some of their favorite companions. After all, there are sooo many Roses out there – we can’t grow them all, but we wanted to get to know a few new cultivars, learn about unfamiliar older varieties, watch for cold hardiness and disease resistance, etc. It’s been very educational and, in fact, we’ve had very few outright “misses”; no plants that clearly aren’t what we thought they were.

Aside from all that, it’s a lovely garden, and it’s perfuming the entire nursery at the moment. If you live in the area or can manage a visit, we hope you’ll swing by.

1. Easy On The Eyes™

Rose Easy on the Eyes™

2. Easy Elegance® Music Box

Rose Easy Elegance® Music Box

3. Easy Elegance® Yellow Submarine 

Rose Easy Elegance® Yellow Submarine

4. At Last®

Rose At Last®

5. Easy Elegance® Champagne Wishes

Rose Easy Elegance® Champagne Wishes

6. Double Knock Out®

Rose Double Knock Out®

7. Bonica®

Rose Bonica®

What’s Going On in the Garden?

At White Flower Farm, we welcome hundreds of visitors each year during the growing season, and we invite them to take leisurely strolls around our display gardens. But because not all of our customers and fellow gardeners are in range of the farm, and because even those who visit might like an occasional behind-the-scenes peek at what’s happening here, we’re introducing What’s Going On in the Garden?, a series of occasional emails devoted to providing glimpses of what’s blooming in our borders, along with notes about the activities in our gardens and greenhouses. We hope you’ll enjoy this chance to garden alongside us.

To start the series, we had to begin with this year’s Tulips, which were spectacular. In the midst of a cold and often gusty spring, these jewels of the early season taught us all something about beauty, resilience, and grace.

There is tremendous range of color and form in the Tulip world, and the variations extend to Tulip foliage. The bold colored blossoms of Tulip ‘Arjuna’ were enough to make this variety a standout in our spring border, and the rippled leaves with golden edges added another layer of interest.

The farm’s head gardener, Cheryl Whalen, and her staff always incorporate plenty of Tulips into display beds, but new this season, we had the pleasure of watching the Tulip trial garden we planted last fall come to life. Last October, our horticulture team and gardening staff worked together to plan and plant the garden, and the bulbs were laid out in neat, tidy rows, each carefully labeled. The purpose of the trial was to grow each and every variety we offer – roughly 130 in total – and watch the individual varieties develop, study their characteristics including color, height, and blossom time, and make certain their performances were consistent with what we advertise. The trial also allowed our staff to conceive of new Tulip combinations. The earliest Tulips began blossoming in early to mid April. Mid-season varieties came on strong shortly after, and the Tulip season ended with a grand finale in mid-May. As the trial garden demonstrated, planting an array of Tulips with various bloom times allows gardeners to orchestrate waves of color, a rolling sequence of bloom at a time when the garden – and gardeners – are starved for color.

On a chilly morning in April, members of the White Flower Farm staff review the activity in the Tulip trial bed.

This year’s unusually cool spring meant the Tulips were forced to endure a hard frost, and we all kept our fingers crossed that night. In the morning, the plants were bowed down and seeming to shiver, their stems and foliage showing the alarming watery appearance that indicates potential tissue damage. When this happens, the key is to leave the Tulips undisturbed. Touching them may cause tissue damage that could significantly worsen the effects of the cold. In this case, the sun’s heat soon warmed the atmosphere, and by that afternoon, the Tulips were standing themselves back up by degrees. Plants subjected to a freeze may not always rebound, but if the duration of the freeze is short, they are often able to shake it off. The Tulip show went on, the flowers bringing bright pops of gorgeous color to the landscape. The spectrum of Tulip colors, sizes, and forms – from classic goblets and Parrots to fringed and Peony styles, made the trial beds pure joy to behold, and they were a magnet for visitors to the White Flower Farm Store and display gardens.

Tulip ‘Purissima Blonde’ and other Tulips were bowed down in the trial garden after the temperature plummeted to 30 degrees F overnight. But the plants all shook off the cold and got on with the show.

Elsewhere around the farm, Tulips were showcased in a variety of ways that offer plenty of inspiration for home gardeners. Cheryl and her staff always plant bulbs in strategic places throughout beds and borders, and this year was no exception. In the beds nearest the store, Tulips were densely planted amid Daffodil bulbs. When the flowers emerged together this spring, the effect was a confetti of spring color.

Head gardener Cheryl Whalen creates new bulb mixes each year. This combination featuring two Tulip varieties and one Narcissus was a favorite that will be appearing in our fall catalog.

Along the Lloyd Border and in other display beds, clusters of colorful Tulips were planted out amid existing shrubs and emerging perennials, creating a river of bright, bold color to draw the eye along. In some cases, Cheryl and her staff planted Tulip bulbs amid perennial ground-covers such as Myosotis sylvatica (Forget-Me-Not), Ajuga (Bugleweed), or Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (Creeping Jenny).

Different Tulip varieties in a range of harmonious colors are woven into the display beds at the farm. The blue ground cover is Myosotis sylvatica (Forget-Me-Not), a pretty partner for Tulips.

Tulips were also positioned in front of emerging shrubs such as Viburnum carlesii Spice Baby™ and Cotinus coggygria Winecraft Black® (Smokebush), so the emerging foliage or flowers could serve as an attractive backdrop. The colors provided by ground covers and shrubs heighten the effect of any Tulip display, creating a layered look and lively color contrasts.

Tulip ‘Sweet Light’ glows in the early spring garden with the fragrant flowers of Viburnum Spice Baby™ and our Hyacinth May Day Bouquet Collection adding color and perfume in the background.

Tulips, generally speaking, should be treated as annuals. While some varieties, including Species Tulips and Perennial Tulips such as Darwin Hybrids and Impression Tulips, may flower for up to three years, the majority should not be relied upon for repeat bloom in subsequent springs. At the farm, we are in the process of digging up and composting all of this spring’s Tulips and ordering the varieties we will be planting this fall. The fun of this process is that each autumn brings the opportunity to try new varieties and color combinations. Removing spent Tulips from the spring garden also opens up bare spots that can be filled with annuals or perennials that add a different kind of beauty to the garden as the season progresses.

What are we planting in the trial garden in place of the Tulips? Loads and loads of Dahlia tubers. And we’ll have plenty to tell you about that as the flowers begin to emerge in late summer.

Five Ways to Use Woodland Strawberries (Fraises des Bois)

Woodland Strawberries are about the smallest you will find. But don’t let their diminutive size fool you. These oblong berries, each about the size of a small almond, pack a remarkable amount of flavor, a burst of true, scrumptious Strawberry that puts the taste of many bigger berries to shame. You won’t find woodland Strawberries at the grocery store for the simple reason that they don’t keep. They should be picked when deep red and ripe, and eaten right away. At the farm, we love the variety called ‘Red Wonder,’ which produces intensely flavorful berries all season long.

‘Red Wonder’ also has great value as a garden plant. It does not produce runners, which are common to many Strawberry plants. Instead, it grows in neat, low mounds. Strawberry ‘Red Wonder’ flowers all season long, but in a very hot summer, it may take a break before blooming again as the nights cool down.

1. Edge a Mixed Border

Our White Garden has for years featured a neat row of these ornamental plants.

2. Edge a Vegetable Garden

We sprinkle a few of these berries atop our breakfast cereal in the morning.

 

3. Plant in Containers

Using a Strawberry Jar makes it easier to grow more berries since you can pick them from all sides of the container. We used Mara des Bois Woodland Strawberries in this Strawberry Jar.

4. Create a Strawberry Patch

Strawberry ‘Red Wonder’ is perennial in zones 4-8, and will return year after year.

5. Line a Walkway

Plant these berries along your walkway in sun or part-shade and enjoy the cute white flowers and tasty Strawberries all season long.

 

Our Top 5 Gifts for Mother’s Day

For moms everywhere, the last year has been a tremendous challenge. In addition to juggling the routine demands of family life, many were called upon to manage daily child-care duties and the ups and downs of remote learning all while trying to hold down their own jobs. Mother’s Day, May 9th, is a terrific time to show your Mom a whole lot of love and appreciation. Scroll below, and you’ll find a broad array of botanically inspired gifts. (For order deadlines for all of our Mother’s Day gifts, click here).

1. Lavender ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ in Pendu Pot

Moms who love the soothing sight and scent of Lavender will delight in this beautiful, fragrant favorite. We ship bushy plants in a handmade clay pot with saucer. The plants thrive indoors in a sunny room.

2. Burgundy Compact Moth Orchids in 5″ Ceramic Cachepot

Burgundy Compact Moth Orchids in 5" ceramic cachepot
Treat Mom to beautifully proportioned, long-blooming Moth Orchids that bear 2″ velvety blooms in rich burgundy. The plants are larger than Mini Moths and more compact than taller, standard-size varieties. We ship budded plants with blossoms that will open in sequence and last for weeks.

3. Lavender Fields Wreath

Lavender Fields Wreath
Picture our bestselling dried wreath in your Mom’s house. Sprigs of lovely Lavender and blue-gray Eucalyptus are arranged with the subtle purples, blues, and whites of dried Caspia, Phalaris, Rice Flower, Statice, and Larkspur. Our wreath is great for indoor decorating, and it’s a lasting beauty that mom will cherish for many months to come.

4. Grace Bouquet

Grace Bouquet
Send Mom a bouquet that’s as special as she is. The Grace Bouquet was designed exclusively for us by floral designer Semia Dunne of Providence, R.I. It showcases Roses in a smoky lavender color, vibrant Iris, and boldly hued Statice. In addition, fragrant Eucalyptus, Freesia and elegant white Peonies add beauty and unforgettable perfume.

5. Serenity Bouquet

Serenity Bouquet
Give your Mom a gorgeous bouquet in a soothing palette of pretty pastels. Our Serenity Bouquet blends white Roses, Peruvian Lilies, Carnations, and Baby’s Breath with pale lavender Stock and the leaves of Eucalyptus and Ruscus to create a bouquet that adds serene elegance to any room.

When in Doubt, Delight Mom With a Gift Certificate to White Flower Farm 

If you’re not certain what your Mom might like most for Mother’s Day, you can always delight her with a gift certificate to White Flower Farm. Our gift certificates never expire, and they invite your Mom to choose whatever she’d might like from our wide array of garden plants, houseplants, garden decor, decorative accessories and gift items. A gift certificate also welcomes her to White Flower Farm, where our knowledgeable, friendly staff will be happy to answer her garden questions. Gift certificates valued at $50 and more are 10% off. Click here to order.

 

Growing Roses Is Easier Than Ever

Today’s Roses are not your grandmother’s finicky, high maintenance plants. Thanks to the efforts of talented and patient breeders, many of today’s Roses are vigorous plants that more readily shrug off pests and diseases and bring years of classic beauty, and often fragrance, to the garden. What this means for gardeners is that growing Roses is easier than ever. For novices or those who could use a refresher, our nursery manager Barb Pierson offers these simple tips:

Helpful Tips for Growing Roses

1. If you live in a colder climate, as we do here in Connecticut, try growing Roses close to the foundation of your home. This provides plants with some degree of winter protection. Walkways are also good spots provided there is full sun. This is generally defined as at least 6 hours per day of direct sunlight.

Rose Suñorita™

2. Remember that light changes as the angle of the sun shifts throughout the season. If you live in the upper half of the U.S., choose a site that will offer full sun year-round. The more sun you have, the more flowers your plants will produce. In the lower half of the U.S., choose spots with a little bit of afternoon shade. This protects blossoms from the scorching sun and helps your flowers last longer.

Rose Ebb Tide™

3. Roses love sandy soil. Amend your soil accordingly to provide the best footing for plants. Also choose sites with good drainage, which helps ensure that Roses overwinter more successfully. They do not like wet, cold feet.

4. Do not crowd your Roses. Plants that don’t have adequate air circulation and sunlight are more susceptible to powdery and downy mildew. Remove any spent foliage from the ground around your Roses. The leaves contain natural fungal spores that can transfer to your Roses.

Rose Olivia Rose Austin™

5. Artificial liquid fertilizers tend to promote plant growth that is soft and tender, and this type of foliage can attract aphids and other pests. Instead, rely on compost and natural fertilizers to feed your plants.

Rose Julia Child™

6. If problems develop, horticultural oil and insecticidal soap can help control insects and mildews.

Rose Pretty Polly™ Pink

7. When pruning, be judicious. If you prune too hard in autumn, plants can be damaged beyond recovery. Instead, wait until spring, when plants begin to leaf out for the new season. (Roses are often not the earliest plants in the garden to respond to spring’s warming temperatures, so be patient.) Give the plant time to show its leaf buds then prune above that level.

Amending Your Soil to Maximize Tomato Harvest

One day's tomato harvest, rinsed and ready for cooking and freezing
Some of the fruits of our colleague’s 2015 tomato harvest, rinsed and ready for cooking and freezing.

When it comes to growing tomatoes, it seems every gardener has an opinion about how to get the biggest and best harvest. A recent staff discussion focused on techniques for amending the soil prior to planting tomatoes. The idea is to give the plants all the nutrients they need to produce a bumper crop of tasty fruits, a practice that’s particularly important for gardeners whose plots are smaller in scale or whose properties make it difficult to rotate planting beds.

Last year, one of our staff members did a good deal of poking around on the Web, which, while sometimes a hazardous pursuit, inspired her to try some traditional but more recently underused ideas. She decided to take a few chances with amendments that are more common to the kitchen waste bin or compost heap than the nearest big box store. The result? She enjoyed her highest yields ever on a varied crop of tomatoes that ran the gamut from cherries and paste tomatoes to slicers and beefsteaks. She feasted on salads, BLTs, gazpacho, and stuffed tomatoes all summer and still had plenty of beautiful, ripe fruits for making sauce and roasting tomato wedges with basil (for a bruschetta topping). She froze chopped tomatoes to use in soups and chili recipes, and froze tomato sauce, as well as the aforementioned bruschetta topping. (We’ll be running these recipes later in the season.) Needless to say, she made some of us a little jealous with her wintertime lunches. Determined to enjoy similar results and to share her rediscovered techniques with you, we ran her list of amendments by our nursery manager Barb Pierson, another champion tomato grower. Pierson applauded some of our adventurous colleague’s amendments but voiced concerns about others. What to do? We thought it best to set it all down, and let you make your own decisions based on circumstances in your own backyard.

We start by digging holes about 15in deep
To begin amending the soil, start by digging holes about 15 inches deep (this is not your planting depth, but the space you’ll need for adding amendments).

Soil Amendments Used Successfully by Our Adventurous Colleague

Since Tomato plants are deep-rooted heavy feeders and thrive in highly organic soils, the ground must be well prepared with nutrients to sustain them throughout the growing season, optimizing growth and fruit development. Everyone has their own recipe for improving soil with organic matter, but here’s what our adventurous colleague tried with great results:

She dug deep holes (at least 15” deep, if possible. Note: this is not the depth for planting a tomato but rather it’s a hole deep enough to accommodate the amendments before planting). Into the hole, she added the following:

Fish
Fish heads, fish fillets from the supermarket freezer section, or a handful of fish and kelp meal help boost soil nutrients.
  • Fish heads (or frozen fish fillets, if you can’t get fish heads): Put 1 fish head or the equivalent in the bottom of each hole. You also can add a handful of fish and kelp meal to help boost the nutrients.
eggshells
As winter shows signs of coming to an end, we begin collecting eggshells. Just rinse them and keep them a bowl in the refrigerator or in a protected outdoor space. Before adding to the soil, crush them with a potato masher or with your hands.
  • Crushed eggshells: These add calcium to prevent blossom end rot. Throw a couple of handfuls in each hole.
bone meal
Here we add a handful of bone meal.
  • Bone meal: This promotes strong root growth and abundant blooms. Add a handful to each hole.
Compost and composted manure
Compost and composted manure are great additions to the soil for tomatoes and lots of other plants. Compost adds basic nutrients and improves soil structure. Composted manure provides nutrients all season long.
  • Composted manure: This provides a slow release of nutrients over the growing season. Add a couple of handfuls to each hole.
  • Compost: It will add basic nutrients and improve soil structure so the soil drains well yet retains some moisture. Add 2-3 handfuls in each hole.
Combine all the ingredients, and mix!
Combine all the ingredients, and mix!

Please note that the 15” hole will be partially filled with the amendments, which should then be partially buried by some of the soil in your garden (think of the hole as a big mixing bowl). This process of amending can be done prior to planting your tomatoes when the soil temperature is still on the cool side.

Pierson does not recommend fish heads or bone meal because “they would attract critters and most likely your plant will be dug up.” (It should be noted that a family of raccoons in the neighborhood of our adventurous colleague left her tomato plants alone, but depending on how many critters live in your area and how well your vegetable garden is fenced, you may wish to select and tailor your amendments accordingly.)

Pierson agrees that compost and eggshells add beneficial nutrients to the soil, but she isn’t sure the quantity of eggshells noted above would be enough to provide calcium throughout the season. Perhaps the thinking should be that that every little bit helps.

Pierson ends by saying, “Preparing the soil should focus on: Did you have problems the previous season? And practicing good sanitation [i.e. disposing of plants and clearing the garden beds] at the end of the season so that disease issues don’t start again. Moving your garden location is essential if problems were severe.”

But the main thing Pierson stresses for successful tomato harvest is soil texture. “Soil texture is important – turning the soil, adding high quality potting mix and focusing on drainage are very important. Roots need air to breath and to take up nutrients, compost creates air pockets in the soil. Having a light well-drained soil is the most important thing.”

So there you have it. An array of options, some or all of which are bound to improve your tomato yield. Our best advice is to take into account the conditions in your backyard and vegetable patch, and choose the amendments that work best for you. Some trial and error may be required, but that’s just the way things go in a garden. As Pierson put it, “I like the idea of trying things, that is what growing is all about. There are no right or wrong answers, only what works for you in your particular environment.”