Desperate to Grow Citrus? Try Trenching!


Russians developed trenching techniques to grow citrus well beyond its normal range. Photo:

In a logical world, you’d grow citrus (Citrus spp., including oranges, lemons and mandarins) outdoors in an appropriate climate—in a tropical or subtropical area with winters on the cool side but frost free—and that would be the end of it. But humans always try to push the limits on everything, so you see citrus being grown on a huge scale in areas where frost does occasionally occur (leading to generalized panic and a media frenzy in those few years when frost does happen) and even indoors as houseplants where most produce no more than a few fruits per year. But the most extreme case I’ve heard of is growing citrus in trenches in cold climates.

This is not a technique for laidback gardeners. It’s extremely labor intensive and you have to be really keen to grow citrus to succeed with this. But in an article in Low-Tech Magazine (Fruit Trenches: Cultivating Subtropical Plants in Freezing Temperatures), writer Kris De Decker explains how the Russians, desperate for a local source of citrus fruits in the first half of the 20th century, pushed the limits of where they could grow citrus to the point where they were succeeding in places with truly cold winters: areas where temperatures could drop to -22 ºC (-30 ºC) and where the ground could freeze to a depth of 20 inches (50 cm).

This was never commercially viable, but that was not an issue in communist Russia. The country wanted to be self-sufficient in citrus production no matter what the cost. And it succeeded! From 1925, when citrus-growing was first introduced, until the 1950, the area consecrated to citrus-growing went from 0 to 74,000 acres (0 to 30,000 hectares), giving 200,000 tonnes of fruit, enough to make the country independent of fruit imports. Mandarins were the main crop, as they are fairly hardy, but oranges and lemons were also grown.

One technique used to push the culture of oranges further north was pruning the trees low to the ground to gain protection from ground heat. Ill.:

Various techniques were used to get citrus to grow beyond their normal range, including choosing and developing extra hardy clones, using dwarf and semi-dwarf trees pruned to remain low to the ground so as to profit from ground heat, planting on south-facing slopes and heavy mulching. But those would only bring in decent results in areas where winter temperatures dropped to no less than 5 ºF (-15 ºC). To go even lower took trenching.

Versailles Was an Inspiration

Gardens of Versailles with citrus in large pots and orangerie in the background.
The orangerie at Versailles is in the back. The rounded “shrubs” in containers are moveable citrus trees. Photo: Djampa, Wilkimedia Commons

That citrus could survive and thrive in temperate climates as long they were kept frost free had been known for centuries. At Versailles, in France, citrus have been grown in a special structure called an orangerie since 1686 and similar structures were common on large estates throughout Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries until the introduction of modern greenhouses in the 1840s. There were even orangeries in Russia, including one at the Kuskovo estate in Moscow. 

Orangerie at the Kuskovo estate, Moscow. Photo; A. Savin, Wikimedia Commons

Orangeries are often considered greenhouses, but they aren’t covered in glass like a true greenhouse. Typically, they’re buildings with an opaque roof and thick walls on three sides that let in no light. One side, usually south-facing, has huge doors with glass panels so citrus plants in large pots, called Versailles planters, can be dragged indoors for the winter and put back outside for the summer.

Usually heated by coal-fired stoves that belched black smoke, the plants were soon covered in soot and thus received relatively little light. And temperatures were kept just above freezing.

However, for some citrus species, capable of tolerating near darkness and near-freezing temperatures for 3 to 4 months a year (not something most truly tropical plants can take!), that was enough to keep them alive and productive. And also to please the chateau’s owners, who could put exotic fruits on their table to impress guests.

Citrus Trenches

By the 1940s, trenching had really pushed the limits of where citrus could be grown in Russia into areas with truly cold, snowy winters. 

Drawing of two trenches protected for the winter.
Trenches protected for the winter. Ill.: ;

Trenches were dug from 30 inches (80 cm) to 6 feet (2 m) deep, depending on how deep frost could be expected to extend into the soil in a given region. They were oriented from east to west for optimal sunlight during the winter and angled slightly to catch more light. Obviously, special care was also needed to permit good drainage. 

Drawing of a trench showing its winter insulation.
Drawing of a trench showing its winter insulation. Ill.:

Dwarfed and low-pruned citrus were planted permanently in the bottom. Glass covering was expensive, so was used sparingly, only a few sections here and there to provide some light and even then, covered with straw mats when necessary. Otherwise, the trenches were instead covered with thick boards, then straw mats for extra insulation. The covering would be raised or removed on days when temperatures were above freezing and put back into place at night.

Free trade and the resulting easy access to inexpensive citrus from other countries has wiped out citrus trenching on an agricultural scale after the collapse of Soviet Russia. But some Russians still grow their own citrus in trenches at their dacha to this day.

If you want to try citrus trenching, go for it! But if you live in a climate too cold for citrus, might I suggest instead following the Versailles model and just bringing your citrus indoors for the winter, then putting them out for the summer. That somehow seems a lot easier!

Lichens on Trees? Not to Worry!


Lichens are often found on trees and are not harmful. Photo: Neil Sperry,

When trees lose their leaves in the fall, you sometimes discover crusty or fibrous grayish or milky green growths on the branches and trunks of your trees. These are not fungus, but lichens: composite, symbiotic organisms formed by the association of algae or cyanobacteria and a filamentous fungus. You’ll also see lichens on rocks and sometimes on the bare ground. And while ghostly gray and muddy green are their main colors, they can come in all sorts of shades, even bright oranges, yellows, yes, even pink!

In no way are tree lichens harmful to the bark on which they grow. They are strictly epiphytes, that is, organisms attached to the outside of the bark. They are not parasites (which, by definition, harm their host) and seek nothing from the tree other than a support on which to grow.

Benefits of Lichens

Lichen on apple tree bark.
Lichen on the bark of an apple tree. Photo:

Lichens are even considered beneficial.

First of all, they make interesting pollution indicators, as they won’t grow in polluted air. If lichens start to grow on your trees, that’s good news: a sign that the air is fairly pure! In fact, lichens are moving back into cities after decades of absence as air quality improves compared to what it was in the 1970s and 1980s, back when leaded gas and industry chimneys belching toxic smoke were the norm.

Also, lichens have the capacity to absorb nitrogen directly from the air. When it rains, some of this nitrogen trickles down to the roots of the host tree, helping it grow better.

Hummingbird nest covered in lichens
Baby ruby-throated hummingbird in its nest made of lichen. Photo:

Many birds—including hummingbirds!—use lichens to build their nests.

Also some animals feed on lichens, including reindeer and caribou (caribou moss, the main winter food of caribou, is actually a lichen: Cladina spp.), but also many others.

Finally, indigenous peoples all around the world use lichens in medicinal treatments and in preparing dyes. Some lichens (but not all!) are even edible!

Disadvantages of lichens

Various lichens on a branch
A mixture of lichens on a branch. Photo:

There aren’t any.

The belief that lichens kill tree branches is an old myth. True enough, lichens are often numerous on old, weak or dying branches, but it’s not the lichens that are killing them. Lichens have just settled in because there is less leaf coverage on those branches and they need sunlight in order to grow. 

Dead tree covered in lichens.
Dead tree covered in lichens. Photo: Walter Baxter, Wikimedia Commons

The presence of abundant lichens on a tree could indicate that it’s in decline, with a less dense leaf covering than it should normally have. If so, don’t blame the lichens, but give the tree better care. You could try fertilizing it modestly and watering it in times of drought. Or if there is a drainage problem, fix that. And sometimes trees just die and nothing can be done to save them. That’s just something that you, as a gardener, have to learn to accept. 

But while lichens may warn of a problem. they aren’t the problem. So, don’t shoot the messenger!

What Should You Do?

Normally, if you find lichens growing on one of your trees, you should simply leave them alone. Think of their presence as a sign to visitors that nature is welcome in your garden.

If you simply cannot tolerate the presence of lichens, just rub the bark with a soapy brush to knock them free. Rub gently, being careful not to damage the bark or dormant buds.

And no, fungicides won’t kill lichens, so don’t waste time spraying them. After all, lichens aren’t fungus, are they?

Article adapted from one published on October 17, 2015

Maryland Senna: A Perennial to Discover



Botanical name: Senna marilandica, syn. Cassia marilandica
Family: Fabaceae (legumes)
Height: 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 m)
Width: 2 to 3 feet (60 to 100 cm)
Exposure: sun to light shade
Soil: well drained
Flowering: late summer, early autumn
Hardiness zones: 4b to 9

If you want to give your landscaping a touch of the tropics, but dragging a palm tree outside in June then bringing it inside in September doesn’t appeal to you, you could always plant a Maryland senna. This perennial belongs to genus renowned for its tropical trees and shrubs and I’ve seen many exotic senna trees in my travels, notably the stunning emperor’s candle stick (Senna alata) with its upright stalks of brilliant yellow flowers. With Maryland senna, I feel I have much the same thing in my own backyard, but on a much smaller scale. With its pinnate leaves like miniature palm fronds topped by bright yellow flowers, it makes my garden feel a lot more exotic. It doesn’t even seem logical that such a tropical-looking plant could survive temperatures of -30 ̊F (-35 ̊C) and yet it does.


Stems of Maryland senna in bloom.
You’d be forgiven for mistaking Maryland senna for a shrub: most people do! Photo: Hardyplants, Wikimedia Commons

Maryland senna is a perennial that thinks it’s a shrub! And evolutionarily, that is indeed what it is. Its ancestors were originally tropical shrubs that, over the millennia, learned to tolerate increasingly colder climates. It’s strategy? When temperatures drop, it retreats underground where it’s warmer, its crown just under the surface of the soil, but then in early summer, it produces tall, upright stems. Not just your typical soft perennial stems prone to flopping, but woody ones, like those of a shrub, as if it thought its branches would be permanent. They won’t be, of course: they freeze to the ground in winter and the plant then starts all over again. 

Distribution map of Maryland senna
Maryland senna is widely distributed throughout the Midwest and the East of the United States.

Despite its long-ago tropical origins, the Maryland senna is itself quite widely distributed in northern climates, found not just in Maryland, as its botanical name suggests, but through much of the Eastern half of the United States, almost to the Canadian border.

The plant is slow to awaken in the spring, but quickly makes up for lost time, producing woody stems that reach up to 6 feet (2 m) by late summer. They start directly from the stump, without branching, giving a “shrub” with a flared, symmetrical habit. The dull green leaves are pinnate and composed of four to nine pairs of oval leaflets reminiscent of the leaves of the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia).

Closeup of flower of Maryland senna.
The flowers are wide open and ook nothing like pea flowers. Photo:

In mid-summer or early fall, depending on the local climate, masses of yellow flowers appear on the upper part of the branches. The senna is a legume, but doesn’t have typical pea-shaped flowers. Instead, the buds open wide into a five-petaled bloom with dark brown stamens. The flowering lasts about a month and attracts a lot of bees and butterflies.

Seed pods of Maryland senna
The seed pods are most noticeably after the leaves drop off. Photo: Paul Rothrock,

After flowering, long sword-shaped seed pods appear whose seeds can be harvested for propagation. Otherwise, leave them on the plant in the fall, as they attract seed-eating birds in the winter. There is no noticeable fall coloring.

The plant forms a single dense clump at first, but it has lateral rhizomes which can produce suckers, forming a colony over time. However, this multiplication takes place over many years and it could scarcely be called invasive.


Maryland senna prefers full sun or only very light shade, becoming droopy and failing to bloom when it doesn’t get enough sun. In nature, it’s found in rich and rather humid soils. However, like many plants, it’s more adaptable in cultivation and grows well in just about any soil, moist or dry, acid or alkaline, fertile or rocky. As a legume, it lives in symbiosis with bacteria that fix nitrogen from the air, which means that the plant provides its own nitrogen. In other words, there is no need to fertilize it too diligently.


Seeds of Maryland senna
The seeds are large and very hard, needing scarification to soften and allow germination. Photo: Steve Hurst, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Usually, sennas are propagated by seeds which germinate after 2 months of moist cold stratification. Their germination is irregular, taking from 1 to 12 weeks, but thereafter, growth is rapid. You can also remove and replant elsewhere offsets if and when they appear. Mature clumps can also be divided, but a saw or ax will likely be needed.


Since sennas are large shrublike perennials, use them as if they were shrubs, that is, as a screen, hedge, backdrop for a flower bed, etc. They can also be naturalized in a meadow or along a stream.


Try this plant with silvery leafy plants, such as Elaeagnus × ‘Quicksilver’ or various wormwoods (Artemisia spp.). They also make a wonderful background for Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum × superbum) and daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.).


Infrequent. In their natural range, the larvae of various species of sulfur butterflies (very attractive, with bright yellow wings) feed on them, but they’re mostly present only in the plant’s natural range and even then, usually don’t do much noticeable damage. 

The ants that frequent sennas are looking for the sweet nectar produced by special nectar glands located on the stems. The ants in no way harm the plant and it’s believed that the plant produces the nectar especially to attract them, as ants are ferocious predators that will kill most other insects that try to invade their territory.

The Other Hardy Senna

Field of wild senna in bloom.
A field of wild senna (Senna hebecarpa). Photo: Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve

There are over 260 species of Senna, but the majority are of tropical origin. At least one other species is quite hardy, perhaps even hardier than S. marilandica: so-called wild senna or American senna (S. hebecarpa, syn. Cassia hebecarpa).

This species shares much the same distribution as Maryland senna, but extends further north: as far as southern Ontario. The few nurserymen who offer it give it a hardiness rating of zones 4a to 9, while Maryland senna gets a rating zone of 4b to 9. That’s not much of a difference, but if you live in zone 4a, it’s important! 

Wild senna is of about the same dimensions as Maryland senna: about 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 m) tall and 2 to 3 feet (60 to 100 cm) wide.

Seed pods of wild senna in winter.
Wild senna seed pods open in the fall and drop their seeds, so are empty by winter. Photo:

So … what’s the difference between S. marilandica and S. hebecarpa? During the flowering season, you can’t, in fact, tell the two apart! But the seed pods give them away. Those of S. hebecarpa are hairier and open in the fall, so the seeds drop before winter. Those of S. marilandica are less downy and remain closed through much of the winter, only dropping their seeds at the end of the season. There are also some minor differences in the flowers, but from a gardener’s point of view, there is no discernable difference in blooming plants. Buy one or the other: you don’t have to have both.

Fun Fact

Bag of dried senna leaves
Dried senna leaves. Photo:

You may know of “senna” as a medicinal plant, as dried senna leaves are widely available. They’re derived from the leaves of a different species, one originally from Africa: Senna alexandrina, syn. Cassia angustifolia. It was already well known to Europeans as a medicinal plant when they arrived in America. They discovered that indigenous peoples used the leaves of native sennas in much the same way, especially for its laxative effects.

Where to Find Plants?

Neither Maryland senna nor wild senna are found in just any nursery. Try a local nursery that specializes in perennials. In the United States, a native plant nursery is likely to carry one or both. 

Or do as I did and order seed by mail. The nice thing about buying seeds is most companies ship worldwide, so you can order them from any country. Here are a few sources: Prairie Moon NurserySheffield’s Seed Company and Prairie Nursery.


Hardy sennas: grow them for their beauty and ease of growth … and so you have something your neighbor doesn’t!

Garden Myth: Is Dish Soap Safe for the Garden and the Science Behind It


Ill.: &

Guest article by Jeffrey Douglas

With more and more people “greening” up their daily living, it isn’t surprising to see this trend move into the garden. With so many different chemicals out on the market and rising recognition of the harmful effects of commercial pesticides, it’s no wonder people want to find a more natural solution. Look at it this way, do you really want to put more chemicals into your body that our commonly purchased foods already contain? It seems that the desire to get away from chemicals we ingest that are deemed “safe” by the FDA and EPA is a never-ending race. 

So, let’s get into it, shall we? Continue reading to learn the science behind why dish soap is not safe for use in your garden.

How the Myth Developed

The recent history behind using dish soap as a safe alternative to commercial insecticides is rooted in a desire to be kinder to the environment while still removing common garden pests. According to an article written by Linda Naeve, a program specialist for the Iowa State University Extension office, it all started about 15 years ago when, “a celebrity gardener promoted the use of all types of household products to green up a lawn.” An endorsement that may not be the best solution to your pest control problem. 

Ultimately those concerned about the environment and what they are potentially putting into their bodies had their hearts in the right place by spreading this method around as a “viable” solution to pest control without using a store-bought insecticide.

The Ins and Outs of Dish Soap

Dog being washed with superimposed warning label stating to not use Dawn dish soap on dogs.
If dish soap is considered toxic to pets (and it is!), why would you think it is safe for plants? Ill.:

Let’s break dish soap down into its components. The most commonly used dish soaps (Dawn, Palmolive, and Ajax) have ingredients in them that aren’t great for our bodies. This may seem counterintuitive since we wash the dishes we use to use with these soaps. 

Two of those common ingredients that have gotten some news time lately are sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS and SLES as they are commonly known. SLS and SLES are surfactants, which we will cover further below, but these chemicals also contain measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1.4-dioxane. Both ethylene oxide and 1.4-dioxane are chemicals that take a long time to degrade and therefore remain in the environment long after they are rinsed down the drain. 

With this in mind, think about the homemade insecticides that are made of store-bought dish soaps. Even though you might imagine that the chemicals are washed away after thoroughly watering your plant or after a rainfall, the substances are actually still around. Only now, it is in the plants’ soil affecting your plants. 

With the potential of these chemicals lingering in your soil and potentially affecting your plants’ growth, is it still worth the risk of trying to use dish soap as an insecticide?

Why You Shouldn’t Use Dish Soap in Your Garden

Spraying plants with spray bottle
Be careful what you spray on your plants. Photo:

Dish soaps are detergents that act through their surfactants. Returning to SLS and SLES, they are surfactants that dissolve the barriers between water and oils or dirt.

Your garden is full of what now? … Dirt, plants, water. 

These surfactants can’t tell what is good or bad in your garden, what needs cleaning and what doesn’t. While they may eliminate some insects that are pestering your garden, they have the potential to damage the plants in your garden.

Most plants have waxy coatings on their leaves as natural protection. Because surfactants naturally break down the barriers between oils and water, it can interfere with this protective barrier. 

Furthermore, dish soaps may also kill beneficial insects that help your garden flourish and would otherwise get rid of the very insects that you are trying to control.

So, What Can You Use Instead?

To avoid chemical use, you may have to let nature take its course. Allow insects created for destroying the insects that destroy your plants do just that.

Three brands of insecticidal soap.
You may have to purchase insecticidal soap, but at least it won’t harm your plants.

If that’s not for you, the best alternative may be a product from the store that will protect your plants and control your pest problem. Commercial insecticidal soap has gotten safer and is effective at pest control without harming plants. While it might not be your desired option for your pest problem, it is a viable, safe solution that will keep your garden thriving and isn’t the worst thing you could be putting into the environment.

You can check out more about what insecticidal soap is here. If you are interested in more gardening tips, you can also visit

Garden Myth: You Don’t Need to Water Succulents


Succulents may store water in their leaves and stems, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be watered! Photo:

Question: I bought three succulent plants last July. The guy at Ikea told me they didn’t need any watering. Just to put them on my windowsill and they’d do fine. But they’re not growing at all. They’re even shrinking and I actually think one might be dead. A friend tells me they’re dying of thirst. Who’s right?

Brown Thumb

Answer: Your friend! 

The idea that any living plant needs no watering at all is ridiculous. All plants need water. Yet I too keep hearing that strange bit of bad advice that succulents (and cactus, which are a kind of succulent) don’t need watering.

True enough, by definition, succulents store water in their tissues (stems or leaves): that’s what makes them so thick! They can then use that water during times of drought. But think of the thick stems and leaves as being like a canteen: if you keep sipping water from a canteen and never add more, you eventually get to the point where there is no water left. So it goes for succulent stems and leaves. They can go for long periods without water, but do need watering eventually. 

Little Dab Won’t Do It!

Watering can pouring water into pot of succulents.
When you water a succulent, always water thoroughly. Photo:

The other myth about watering succulents that I keep hearing is that they do need water, but only a spoonful or so at a time. That is a step up from no water at all, but is still no way to treat a living plant. 

The proper way to water a succulent or cactus is to pour on water abundantly, totally soaking the root ball. This replicates the conditions found in nature: even arid climates get a soaking every now and then. You can even let the roots of houseplant succulents soak in water for a while: say, 10 to 30 minutes, even overnight, but then empty any excess water from the saucer underneath and wait until the soil is thoroughly dry before you water again. (You can test dryness by touching the soil.) 

That can still take quite a while, depending on the conditions in your home: perhaps 10 to 14 days in the summer when your plants are growing actively (succulents grow slowly, but they do grow), maybe after a month or so in the winter. Even 3 or 4 months if the plant is kept very cool. 

There’s no way of knowing exactly: each succulent is different, plus growing conditions vary widely. Let your finger will tell you when!

No Drainage Hole?

Succulents planted in teacups with no drainage hole. A red X points out the error.
Never plant succulents in a container without a drainage hole. Photo: Albert & Moo

If you’re presently feeling a bit confused, because your succulents are growing in a pot without a drainage hole and therefore don’t have a saucer to catch excess water, you have a worse problem. Never grow a plant, succulent or otherwise, in a pot without a drainage hole: it just makes no sense. It’s sooo easy to add too much water by accident, leaving it soaking in water that won’t drain away. 

Drill and pot with hole drilled into it.
You can simply drill a hole in containers that don’t have a drainage hole. Photo:

If your succulents are growing in a pot without a drainage hole, it’s more logical to either unpot them and replant them into a true plant pot or take the plant out of its container, turn the latter upside down and drill a hole in the bottom. (Use a ceramic drill bit if it’s a terra cotta or ceramic container.)  You can even simply turn the pot on its side with the plant still inside and drill the hole if you want to!

Succulents in grow pots ready to be inserted into a cachepot.
If you don’t want to drill, simply insert the “grow pot” into an ornamental cachepot. Photo: &

If you don’t want to drill, you can use the container as a cachepot: an ornamental receptacle used to conceal a flowerpot. Plant the succulent in a regular pot small enough to fit into the container, then slip the pot into the container. That way, after watering, you can take the pot out and empty the cachepot of any excess water. Problem solved!

Drainage layer at bottom of a Mason jardin, succulent nearby.
Adding a drainage layer to a container with no drainage hole changes nothing: water will simply move up from the drainage layer to the plant’s roots, leading to rot. Photo:

Some ill-advised people justify planting succulents in containers with no drainage hole by claiming that as long you put a drainage layer of gravel or pebbles at the bottom, no drain hole is really necessary. That’s ridiculous! Drainage layers simply don’t work. If excess water ends up in a drainage layer at the bottom of a pot, the water will simply move up into the potting soil by capillary action, leaving the soil soggy and leading to rot. 

Growing succulents in containers with no possibility of drainage is a sure way to kill them. Just don’t do it!

Succulents and cactus are indeed low maintenance plants, but they do need watering—thorough watering!—occasionally.

7 Tips for Readying Your Outdoor Power Equipment for Winter Storage


The following article is taken from a press release offered by the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI)

Prep Equipment for Season Changes, Save Time and Future Headaches 

After your lawn gets its last cut before winter, it will be time to put away spring and summer outdoor power equipment, like lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and trimmers. What’s next? Snow throwers, generators and other small engine equipment need to be readied for winter use. How and when you prepare your equipment for seasonal changes can save you time and money later, says the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI).

With record-breaking sales of outdoor power equipment, and homeowners spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic working or renovating their family yards, this means more people are using outdoor power equipment, and OPEI reminds everyone the importance of proper outdoor power equipment storage, maintenance and safe handling. 

“During this very challenging pandemic, we’ve learned our outdoor spaces are more important than ever,” says Kris Kiser, President and CEO of OPEI and the TurfMutt Foundation, which encourages outdoor learning experiences, stewardship of our green spaces, and care for all living landscapes. “Our yards, parks and schoolyards are our safe space for connecting with friends and family, acting as outdoor classrooms and offices. Green space also contributes to the health and wellbeing of people, pets and wildlife, and having the right outdoor power equipment to take care of it is key. But preparation is everything—understanding how to store equipment and get it serviced, how to operate it safely, and how to ready your space to use that equipment.” 

He adds, “Always follow your manufacturer’s guidelines, and remember to keep kids and dogs away from operating equipment at all times.”

Here are a few tips from OPEI to ensure your lawn mower and other spring equipment will be available for use when warmer temperatures return, and snow throwers and other winter equipment will be ready for use when the snow falls.

Lawnmower owner's manual.
Photo: Lepra Society

1.    Review owner’s manuals. Re-familiarize yourself with how to handle equipment safely. Lost manuals can be found online. Save a copy on your computer if possible, so it can be consulted when needed. Be familiar with your equipment, and all its features, including how to turn it off quickly and safely.

2.    Service all equipment. Before storing spring and summer equipment, clean and service it or take it to a small engine repair shop. Drain and change engine oil and safely dispose the old oil. Service the air filter, and do other maintenance as directed by the owner’s manual. Check winter equipment and see if any maintenance and repairs are required.

Gas can

3.    Handle fuel properly. Unused fuel left in gas tanks over the winter can go stale and even damage equipment. Before storing equipment, add fuel stabilizer to the gas tank, then run the equipment to distribute it. Turn the engine off, allow the machine to cool, then restart and run until the gas tank is empty. For winter equipment, buy the recommended type of fuel no more than 30 days before use. Use fuel with no more than 10% ethanol in outdoor power equipment. Use a fuel stabilizer if recommended by the manufacturer. Get more information on safe fueling for outdoor power equipment at

4.    Charge the battery. Remove and fully charge batteries before storing. Don’t store batteries on metal shelves or allow them to touch metal objects. Store them on a plastic or wood shelf in a climate-controlled structure.

5.    Shelter equipment from winter weather. Store spring and summer equipment in a clean and dry place such as a garage, barn or shed. Winter equipment should be kept away from the elements, but be easily available for use. 

Man fixing lawnmower

6.    Prepare, prepare, prepare. Make space in the garage or basement before the weather changes, so there is room to store larger yard items. Clean up the yard of sticks, debris, dog and kid’s toys and other items that can damage or destroy equipment. Clear the paths used regularly in your yard, especially during the winter when snow can “hide” things. 

7.    Have the right weather appropriate extension cord for your generator. Keep heavy-duty weatherproof extension cords on hand to use with it. Ensure the length of the cord is necessary to operate the generator a safe distance from the house or building. Never operate a generator indoors, in a garage, breezeway or under an open window.

Why Are the Leaves of My Geraniums Turning Yellow?


Pelargonium going through an awkward phase after being brought indoors. Photo: CriticallyChallenged,

Question: I saved a few geraniums from my garden and brought them indoors for the winter. Now they’re losing a lot of leaves: they turn yellow and cling to the plant. When I touch them, they fall off. What am I doing wrong? Am I going to lose my plants?

Alex Hardy

Answer: The garden geranium is actually a pelargonium (Pelargonium × hortorum). It’s a shrubby subtropical plant whose ancestors originated in Southern Africa. Generations of gardeners have been bringing these pelargoniums indoors for the winter in colder climates and most manage to keep them alive, so I don’t think you need to be too worried about losing yours completely. However, yellowing leaves are fairly normal experience.

Essentially, when the plant is first brought indoors, it has to adapt to vastly different growing conditions: a more stable temperature, lower air humidity and, especially, a severe drop in light levels. Even in your brightest window, it receives much less light than it did when it was outdoors. Add to that situation the fact that daylight hours decrease rapidly over the fall. So, in spite of what may seem like a bright sunny windowsill to you, your sun-loving pelargonium is now growing in the plant equivalent of fairly deep shade. 

Pelargoniums with red flowers in front of window, snow outside.
With the yellow leaves removed, these pelargoniums a looking a bit thin, but will soon produce new growth. Photo:

Under those circumstances, most pelargoniums react by losing older leaves, those formed in full sun and adapted to that condition. It replaces them to some extent with new leaves better adapted to lower light, but still, the leaf loss can be quite important. Don’t hesitate to remove yellowing and brown leaves and right away your plant will look much better: a bit more open, perhaps, but at least decently green.

Helping Your Pelargonium Through the Winter

Pelargonium with pink flowers stretching a bit for the light.
This geranium is etiolating a bit (notice the amount of bare stem between the leaves), so not quite getting the light it wants, but it’s still able to bloom. Photo:

Overwatering becomes a problem with overwintering pelargoniums and can accentuate leaf loss. Since they receive less light, they need less water. They’re already semi-succulents, with thick stems that store moisture, so they need less water than most other houseplants. If you’re used to watering your plants on a regular schedule, say once a week, you might want to skip your pelargoniums every now and then. Actually touch the soil and if it’s still moist, as it might well be only a week after the last watering, wait until it’s dry before you water again. How frequently you need to water will vary according to conditions, so it’s impossible to give a fixed schedule, but you may only need to water yours every 10 days or so in a sunny spot, every 2 or 3 weeks in a shadier one. 

Careful watering when light is low will greatly reduce leaf loss.

If you have a light garden, try moving your pelargoniums there. Photo: Gardeners Supply Company

So will giving them the most light you can. A large window facing south is best; east or west windows, acceptable. If feel you don’t have enough light, put them under grow lights, either fluorescent or LED, and give them 16-hour days.

Pelargoniums tolerate a wide range of temperatures, from near freezing to over 80 ºF (28 ºC), but if you keep them cool, say below 60 ºF (15 ºC), they’ll need much, much less watering.

Very dry air can also lead to some leaf loss, but there’s no need to get obsessive about it. Other plants may like 70% humidity, but pelargoniums are fine at 40%, something your home humidifier can easily handle. Certainly, don’t mist the leaves (a waste of time at any rate), as this can lead to disease problems.

In normal window light, it’s probably best to avoid fertilizing from October to late February. Under lights, fertilize only lightly. Any fertilizer will do.

With these few steps, you ought to be able to reduce leaf loss and enjoy your pelargoniums again, especially since they will flower indoors even under short days, although not as abundantly as outdoors in the summer.

Hardy Kiwis for Cold Climate Gardeners


The conventional kiwifruit is fine in mild climate, but you need extra-tough kiwis where winters are cold. Photo: homesteadersonline

Who wouldn’t recognize a kiwifruit, the goose egg-sized fruit with a fuzzy brown outer skin and delicious green flesh inside? They’re sold in supermarkets everywhere all year long. The fruit comes not from a tree, like an apple or cherry, but form a vigorous twining woody vine: the kiwi, kiwifruit or Chinese gooseberry: Actinidia deliciosa, formerly A. chinensis.

Traditional kiwifruit whole and cut in half.
The traditional fuzzy kiwi: delicious, but none too hardy. Photo: André Karwath, Wikimedia Commons

While the kiwifruit is abundantly found in supermarkets ready to eat, it’s not all that hardy. It’s limited to hardiness zones 8 to 9; sometimes, with special care, to zone 7. Some of the readers of this blog can grow it, for example those in the southern US or on its west coast, milder parts of Europe and temperate regions of Afric, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, but most live in cool to cold temperate climates. The best you could do would be to grow this vigorous, domineering plant in a greenhouse. Good luck with that!

Fortunately, there are other species of Actinidia, ones with small fruit often called kiwiberries, that are very hardy and which can easily be grown in outdoors in all but the coldest climates, in particular A. kolomikta and A. arguta. Yet, they don’t absolutely require subzero winters, so can also adapt to mild climates. In other words, these hardier kiwis can be grown by just about anyone outside the tropics. Maybe there is a place for a few of these hardy kiwis in your garden?

Vigorous Climbers

Hardy kiwi covering a pagoda
A hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta) can practically take over a pergola if not pruned back occasionally. Photo:

Hardy kiwis are vigorous climbers with twining woody branches that twist around their support. They therefore require a solid support: a trellis, pergola, arbor or other. You can also let them climb a tree, but then, how will you harvest the fruits? Especially since kiwi vines can reach more than 35 feet (10 m) in height! 

Another possibility is to grow them as large shrubs, 6 to 10 feet (2 to 3 m) in height and as much in width. You can easily create this effect simply by regularly snipping off any branches that grow too long. By preventing the plant from climbing, it will reluctantly take on a shrublike form.

Flower of hardy kiwi
To fully enjoy kiwi flowers, you have to be underneath the plant, looking up. Photo:

Kiwifruit blooms profusely in the spring, producing small, fragrant, but relatively inconspicuous white flowers, since they are produced among the leaves and are therefore rather hidden. They are best appreciated when grown on a pergola or arbor where they can be admired from below. Suddenly the otherwise hidden flowers dangle down over your head by the hundreds if not the thousands! Quite a display!

It Takes Two To…

However, it’s very important to plant hardy kiwis of both sexes. That’s because the male and female flowers are produced on separate plants (the’re dioecious). So, you need 1 male plant for a maximum of 9 female plants; otherwise you won’t have fruit.

Hardy kiwis can be grown in the sun or shade in almost any well-drained soil, but preferably in rich and rather moist conditions, as that gives the most abundant fruits. A kiwi plant can easily live 150 to 200 years. Just plant yours in spring or fall … and wait patiently, as, like most fruiting plants, they usually take a few years before they start to produce fruit.


Kiwiberries cut in half, held in a hand
Kiwiberries are eaten without peeling. Photo:

The fruits of hardy kiwis are small and produced in clusters, like grapes. Since they aren’t covered with fuzz, there is no need to peel them: just pop them in your mouth and eat them whole. They ripen in late summer or fall and are often difficult to see, as most are green, almost the same color as the foliage. Few change color when ripe, although there are some exceptions to that rule, as some varieties of Actinidia arguta, like ‘Mirzan’, do turn red at maturity. 

Usually, the best way to tell the fruits are ripe is to touch them. They soften a bit at maturity, so a bit of a squeeze will tell when to harvest.

Two Kiwis That Tolerate the Cold

Arctic kiwi

Map showing original distribution of arctic kiwi
The arctic kiwi is native to mountainous and northern areas of Asia. Ill.:

The hardiest kiwi is the so-called arctic kiwi, A. kolomikta, native to northern Asia, particularly Siberia and China. It doesn’t really grow in the Arctic (the common name is slightly exaggerated), but still, plants in the northernmost part of its range are not that far from the Arctic Circle. Plus, it can take temperatures down to -40 °F/C. 

Oddly, I keep seeing websites that underestimate its hardiness: commonly, they give zone 4. Calculate instead hardiness zone 3 or even, for some cultivars, zone 2. In other words, if you can garden in your climate, you can likely grow this plant. (My apologies to the very rare people who do garden in zone 1!)

Variegated pink and white leaves of Arctic Beauty kiwi
Most arctic kiwis are somewhat variegated. Some, like this ‘Arctic Beauty’, distinctly so. Photo:

The arctic kiwi is actually more commonly grown as an ornamental plant, because its leaves are often abundantly variegated pink and white. 

Unfortunately for fruit-loving gardeners, most of the arctic kiwis sold in garden centers are male plants, the claim being made that male plants have the most colorful foliage. In fact, though, leaf coloration seems to be spread unevenly through both male and female clones of hardy kiwi. Many females are variegated too and some male clones, barely so. However, the most heavily variegated cultivar on the market is indeed a male clone, often sold with no name or under the cultivar name ‘Arctic Beauty’. If you grow arctic kiwis from seed and choose plants with the greatest variegation, you’ll inevitably find female plants among the lot. So, if you want to play the role of hybridizer and produce a female plant with brilliantly colorful leaves, go for it!

The arctic kiwi begins to produce fruit at a relatively young age, after about 3 years. The fruits ripen early, in August or September, as befits a fruit adapted to cold climates where summers are often short. The main flaw of this kiwi, though, is that the fruits drop off the plant soon after ripening, so it’s easy to miss the harvest window if you are not there at just the right time.

Aromatnaya arctic kiwi with fruits
Ripe fruits of the arctic kiwi ‘Aromatnaya’. Photo:

As mentioned, the most common cultivar is the heavily variegated male cultivar ‘Arctic Beauty’, but there are other male clones. And, of course, you’ll want a male plant to pollinate your females. Among the female cultivars are ‘Aromatnaya’, ‘Krupnopladnay’, ‘Pavlovskaya’ and ‘Sentyabraskaya’ (‘September Sun’). 

If the names seem Russian to you, you’re right. This fruit has been, until recently, largely developed in Russia.

Hardy Kiwi

Geneva hardy kiwi showing reddish fruits
‘Geneva’ is a hardy kiwi with fruits that redden at maturity, a fairly unusual trait. Photo:

Another kiwi to try in colder regions is A. arguta, often referred to simply as “hardy kiwi”, although it’s not nearly as hardy as the arctic kiwi.

Its foliage is entirely green, it’s so is less ornamental than the foliage of the arctic kiwi, and it’s slower to start producing fruit, usually only doing so after 5 to 9 years. It’s not actually that well adapted to truly cold climates, either. Perhaps zone 4b, max. North of that, the late-maturing fruits (they often don’t ripen until the end of September or October) are often killed by frost. If frost threatens yours, harvest them: they will continue to ripen indoors, but won’t be as sweet as fruits that ripened on the vine.

Wide variety of different hardy kiwi fruits
Hardy kiwis grown from seed show a wide range of forms, sizes and colors. Photo:

Male cultivars for pollination include ‘Weiki’ and ‘Meader’, but are often sold without a name other than “male”. There are dozens of female cultivars, including ‘Ananasnaya’ (‘Anna’), ‘Dunbarton Oaks’, ‘Geneva’, ‘Ken’s Red’ and ‘Mirzan’.

The Least Hardy Hardy Kiwi

Issai kiwi with fruit
‘Issai’ can fruit abundantly, but only in mild climates and only with a male pollinator nearby. Photo:

The most popular hardy kiwi, widely sold everywhere and often the only hardy kiwi offered, is ‘Issai’, a Japanese hybrid. However, it doesn’t live up to its reputation, especially in cold climates, and, in many situations, is a very poor choice indeed.

You hear a lot about the advantages of ‘Issai’ and at least one is true. It’s claimed to be able to set fruit when very young. Indeed, ‘Issai’ means “first year” in Japanese. Actually, it usually takes 2 to 3 years to produce its first fruits, but that’s still very young for a kiwifruit. So, give it full points for speed to first fruiting.

Next, merchants often claim it’s both male and female and self-pollinates. Thus, it’s a space saver: you only need one plant to get fruit. In fact, though, ‘Issai’ is 100% female, but somewhat parthenocarpic: it can produce a limited amount of fruit without pollination. However, if you want abundant production, you still need to plant a male A. arguta plant as a pollinator. So, take off a few points there.

And thirdly, the claim that most bothers me, since I live in a colder zone myself, is that ‘Issai’ is a hardy kiwi. In fact, it is not a true hardy kiwi (A. arguta), but a hybrid between the hardy kiwi (A. arguta) and the subtropical russet kiwi (A. rufa). It seems to have inherited enough subtropical genes from its A. rufa parent to make it unsuitable for growing beyond zone 6. North of that and it gets killed back by the cold most winters or, at least, its dormant flower buds are killed, and therefore it neither blooms nor fruits most years. Still, the label says zone 4 and gardeners in zones 4 and 5 plant it, confidently awaiting a good harvest. Most never get to taste a single fruit. Take off any remaining points there!

You’d think garden centers in colder climates would pull it from their shelves and only offer truly hardy varieties, but no such luck. Most still offer ‘Issai’ to gullible gardeners and, indeed, it’s generally the only “hardy” kiwi they sell. I must point out that this happens not only in those know-nothing box stores that regularly sell climatically inappropriate plants, but in local garden centers and nurseries in cold climates that should know better. Shame on you for scamming your clients! 

In short, in cold climates, zones 2 to 5, ‘Issai’ isn’t as much a kiwifruit as a real lemon!

Where to Find Hardy Kiwi Plants

Sadly, you won’t often find acceptable hardy kiwis in local garden centers. You’ll have to turn to a specialist fruit nursery and very likely will need to order them by mail. Here are a few sources:

Nutcracker Nursery & Tree Farm

Planting JusticeRaintree Nursery 
One Green World.

Pépinières Quissac 
Pépinière Villeroy.


Good luck with your cold-climate kiwis! They can be truly easy-to-grow plants with abundant and delicious fruit that any gardener would be proud to grow … but you still have to choose the right ones!

The Odd and Edible Zigzag Cactus


A young zigzag cactus, whose stems are just starting to arch down. Photo:

Certainly one of the strangest looking cactus, the zigzag cactus or fishbone cactus, Epiphyllum anguliger, now more correctly Disocactus anguliger, has been around for years, but suddenly seems to be catching on in a big way. 

Young Zigzag cactus with stems still upright.
A pot of young cuttings like this may look mini, but your zigzag cactus will eventually become quite sizeable. Photo:

You may also see it labeled “mini fishbone cactus”. However, it will turn out to be more medium-sized than mini, with the whole plant eventually reaching about 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) in diameter. Still, this is small for an “orchid cactus” (the common name used for cactus of the genus Epiphyllum and their relatives); many orchid cactus have individual branches that measure over 6 feet (2 m) long! The smaller size of the zigzag cactus makes is a more convenient houseplant than some of its rangy cousins.

Zigzag cactus with arching stems.
Very odd stems indeed! Some people even mistake this cactus for a fern! Photo:

It’s obvious where it gets its common name! Its stems are very curious: flattened, yet succulent, they are deeply and alternately toothed, giving the stem a zigzag appearance. The lobes are also the origin of the plant’s name: anguliger means “angle bearing”. 

Seedling of epiphyllum with two cotyledons
Only a germination does the zigzag cactus have leaves: its cotyledons. They soon disappear and stems take over. Photo:

The stems are green (although older stems can become woody and brown at the base) and carry out the plant’s photosynthesis, since, like most cactus, it has no leaves. A lot of people mistake the broad, flat stems for leaves, but the only leaves this plant ever produces are the first two leaves (cotyledons) of its seedlings and they’re long gone by the time you pick up a plant at the nursery. 


Zigzag cactus in a hanging basket
Can’t you just imagine this plant dangling from a tree in Mexico? Photo:

E. anguliger is from Mexico, where it grows in evergreen oak forests in mountains along the Pacific coast, but not on the ground. It’s an epiphyte: it grows on tree branches, way up near the crown of the tree. The branches arch out from the base of the plant, then a down, making it a good choice for hanging baskets.

Zigzag cactus stem with aerial roots
Aerial roots? Who’da thunk it? Photo:

Two other curiosities. First, unlike most other cactus, the zigzag cactus is spineless. Secondly, you may also see aerial roots growing underneath the stem when the humidity is high. In the wild, the plant uses them to root onto other tree branches and thus spread. In your home, their only purpose is to make you ask questions.

Gorgeous Flowers

Zigzag cactus with many flowers
Spectacular, scented and short-lived blooms. Photo:

When you’re sold a “zigzag cactus”, it’s generally a pot of rooted cuttings and you buy it for its attractive and unusual form. There is no mention of the spectacular flowers to come. But by the time the plant is 3 years old or so (and that’s young for a Epiphyllum), it will begin to bloom, usually in the late fall, then sometimes a second time months later. The flowers are borne from tiny areoles (cushiony white growths) at the base of the stem’s teeth.

The bloom starts as a tube up to 8 inches (20 cm) long that opens into a cup-shaped pure white flower with pale yellow or orangey outer “petals” (actually sepals). At about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, they are smaller than most other orchid cactus, but proportionate to the size of the plant. 

Zigzag cactus flower
As pretty as the flowers are, the perfume will impress you more! Photo:

The blooms are strongly and deliciously scented, but only at night. It takes only one to perfume the entire room and several together are enough that you can smell the bloom throughout the house. It’s my wife’s favorite perfume and if you could put it in a bottle, you’d probably make a fortune! Of course, in nature, the perfume isn’t designed to attract humans, but rather to draw moths, the plant’s main pollinators, from afar.

Although I keep reading that the flowers last only one night, in my house, they last two, staying open the day in between, although odorless during the daylight hours. They fade at the beginning of the next day. Most are produced simultaneously although a few may be a day or two ahead of or behind the others.

Delicious Fruit

Zigzag cactus fruit on the plant
The fruits are small and none too impressive… until you taste one! Photo:

I’ve never taken the time to hand pollinate the flowers, but inevitably a few fruits form after each flowering. They take months to ripen; 6 months or more. They are green, ovoid and about 1 ½ inches (3–4 cm) thick. It’s hard to tell when they are ripe, but I harvest them when they turn a bit yellow and are soft to the touch and that seems to work well enough.

The fruit is small, but delicious. Photo: Matte Gray, Wikimedia Commons

The flesh inside the fruit is translucid and gelatinous with numerous tiny black seeds. Scoop out the flesh: it’s absolutely delicious and tastes much like a pitaya or dragon fruit (Hylocereus undata or a similar species): not surprisingly, since it is a close relative.

A Zigzag Cactus Doppelganger

Selenicereus anthonyanus with flowers
Selenicereus anthonyanus is a much bigger plant with longer, more widely spaced, longer and more pointed teeth. It blooms outdoors in the tropics, but only rarely indoors. Photo:

Not so long ago, the main zigzag cactus on the market was a different species, also called fishbone cactus or rick rack cactus: Selenicereus anthonyanus, formerly Cryptocereus anthonyanus. It has similar flat stems with the same pattern of alternating extended teeth, but it’s a much bigger and less elegant plant, and also reluctant to bloom. The flowers, if it ever does bloom, are twice as big and purple on the outside, pink, yellow or white inside. Like those of its cousin, they’re highly scented after dark. And they do last only one night.

S. anthonyanus is not in style currently, but is sometimes found in specialist cactus nurseries. If you have the space for a monstrously big spreading plant, it can certainly be impressive!


The zigzag cactus is a tough plant, very easy to grow. 

zigzag cactus indoors
Your zigzag cactus will need bright light in order to grow healthily and bloom. Photo: antonio peschedasch

Indoors, it prefers moderate light with a few hours of direct sun daily in the summer. It would be fine in front of an east window, for example, or somewhat back from a hotter south or west one. Full sun all day is fine in the fall and winter in temperate climates. 

Give it normal indoor temperatures, although it will tolerate cooler winter conditions, down to 40 ºF (4 ºC), as long as it’s kept very dry. It’s tolerant of both high and low atmospheric humidity.

Water as needed when the soil dries out, thus more often in summer than in the winter. 

Fertilize lightly from spring through early fall with whatever fertilizer you have on hand. 

zigzag cactus outdoors for the summer
The zigzag cactus likes nothing better than a summer outdoors, preferably hanging from a tree branch, like it would do in the wild. Photo:

A summer outside in partial shade is helpful. It helps recreate the moving air of the zigzag cactus’ natural environment. Just acclimatize your plant first by setting it in full shade for a few days, then in slightly brighter shade. It will especially like the dappled shade of an overhanging tree.

A zigzag cactus can live for years in the same pot, with only an occasional top dressing: scraping off the soil at the top and replacing it with fresh mix. It doesn’t mind being in a small pot—after all, in the wild, its roots are limited to a bit of leaf litter on the bark of tree—but you may eventually need a heavier pot to hold it up. When you do repot, any well-draining soil will suffice: regular potting soil, cactus mix, orchid mix, etc. I use regular potting mix to which I add about ¼ orchid mix or perlite for extra drainage.

Don’t hesitate to prune off damaged and old stems: even if you cut your plant back nearly to the soil, it will sprout and regrow.

Propagating Zigzags

Well, you could harvest the tiny seeds from the fruit and sprout them, but they’ll be a long way from a mature, presentable plant and some 7 to 8 yers from blooming. Or you could divide a mature plant. 

Cutting of zigzag cactus in a tray
Cuttings are easily rooted in regular potting soil. Photo:

Generally, though, it’s simpler to just insert 3 or 4 stem cuttings about 6 inches (15 cm) long into a 10 cm pot and keep the potting mix slightly moist. This is best done in spring or summer. Rooting hormone can be used, but isn’t absolutely necessary. 


Rot is the main enemy and usually results from soggy soil, so make sure you let the soil dry out before watering again. The zigzag cactus is not a desert plant, but neither does it necessarily need weekly watering. Touch the soil and let your finger be the judge. If it’s dry, water; if not, wait! In case of rot, which will see the plant start to collapse while the soil will smell like a rotting potato, start a new plant from cuttings from a still healthy stem or two.

Reddish stems in summer are not a problem: they’re like a sort of natural sunscreen and are the plant’s reaction to excess light. It reddens in its natural habitat as well. A bit of reddening actually leads to more bloom later on.

The main insect concerns are mealybugs and scale insects; less frequently aphids. You could try spraying with insecticidal soap or a half-and-half solution of isopropyl alcohol and water, but the best control is to keep your cactus far from any infested plants.

Slug or snail damage is possible if the plant is put on the ground outdoors. Hand pick the culprits … then hang your plant from a tree, out of the reach of molluscs.

The zigzag cactus: exotic and unusual; you’re going to love it!

What Makes a Flower a Wildflower?


A wildflower meadow dominated by black-eyed Susans. Photo:

  • A wildflower will grow on its own, without cultivation. 
  • It will live within an interactive plant community. 
  • Generally, wildflowers are used in an informal garden, rather than a high-maintenance formal garden. 
  • Wildflowers are the sources of all cultivated plant varieties. 
  • Some are native to a region; others are “naturalized,” that is, they have escaped domestication and now reproduce freely in the natural landscape. 

Use wildflowers in a perennial border, or create a pollinator haven by edging your property with them. Many are even suitable for container growing. 

How to Choose Wildflowers for Your Garden 

  1. Think regionally. Visit a nearby nature preserve in spring, again in summer, and in fall. This will give you no end of ideas. 
  2. Buy seeds from a company you trust to ensure that you are not introducing an invasive problem into your garden. 
  3. If you have doubts about whether a plant is safe to introduce into your garden, check the USDA PLANTS Database for information. 

Starting perennial wildflowers from seed is not difficult. Before you begin, consider the origin of the plant you are growing. If it originated in a cold winter region, its seeds probably have a built-in dormancy mechanism that will prevent germination until spring. 

There’s good reason for this: if the seeds were to sprout during a fall warm-up, the seedlings would undoubtedly be killed by freezing weather. Winter weather softens seed coats through the action of freezing and thawing, allowing them to break dormancy. The term for this is cold stratification.

Two Ways to Duplicate Nature’s Freeze-Thaw Action: 

Seeds stored in a bag of damp vermiculite
Seeds stored in damp vermiculite to be cold stratified in a refrigerator. Photo:
  • Mix the seed with equal amounts of damp sand or vermiculite and place the mixture in a sealed, labeled plastic bag or airtight container. Store the bag in the refrigerator for about two months. Plant the seeds just after the last spring frost. 
  • Or, sow the seeds directly in your garden in fall, being sure to mark the spot with the species and date sown. You could also sow seeds in pots, tucking them into a protected spot for the winter. 

Ten Easy-From-Seed Wildflowers 

Red columbine flower
Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Photo:

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), native to the woodland and rocky slopes in eastern North America, grows to 3 feet in height and attracts bees, hummingbirds and butterflies in spring. Seeds will germinate easily in spring when they are sown in late fall. Cover seeds minimally with soil. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Virginia Bluebells in flower
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Photo:

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), a spring ephemeral native to the moist woodlands of eastern North America, offers beautiful lavender-blue flowers on 1 to 2 foot (30 to 60 cm) stems. Plants disappear completely by summer. Directly sow the seed in late fall, or mix it with damp sand or vermiculite and store in the refrigerator for 60 days before sowing, just after the last spring frost. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Echinacea purpurea in flower
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Photo:

Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) require a period of cold to germinate. Native to moist to dry prairies, meadows and open woods of eastern and central North America, they reach about 3 feet in height. The native species are mostly purplish pink, but cultivars now exist in yellow, orange, white, and other colors. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Phlox paniculata in flower
Fall Phlox (Phlox paniculata). Photo:

Fall Phlox (Phlox paniculata) is a 3 to 4 foot (90 to 120 cm) tall garden favorite, with a bloom period that extends from mid-summer into fall. Butterflies flock to these late summer billowy blooms. Seeds require 2 months cold stratification. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Penstemon strictus in flower
Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus). Photo:

Penstemons (Penstemon spp.) are found throughout the United States in a range of habitats, from deserts to open forests. Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is easy to grow from seed and is a favorite of hummingbirds. Its 3 foot (60 cm) purple spikes thrive in the southern Rockies. Seeds require 2 months of cold, moist temperatures. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

California poppy in flower
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Photo:

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is perhaps the easiest wildflower to grow from seed. Native from California to southern Washington, it can be grown just about everywhere. Colorful and compact, it’s a favorite of gardeners and pollinators. Subjecting seed to a period of cold, moist treatment may help germination, though sowing right out of the packet generally yields good results. Annual.

Lacy phacelia in flower
Lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). Photo:

Lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) is native to the southwestern states and grows well in hot, dry conditions. A 1 to 3 foot (30 to 90 cm) annual plant, it blooms from June to September and is of special benefit to native bees. It germinates easily without any sort of cold treatment. Annual.

Swamp milkweed in flower
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Photo:

Asclepias species are famed monarch butterfly plants. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a 1 to 2 foot (30 to 60 cm) plant, is widespread in dry, open habitats in eastern and southern United States and will grow easily throughout the country. 4 foot (120 cm) tall swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is adapted to wet areas. Both require 30 or more days of cold, moist temps. Hardiness zones 3 or 4 to 8.

Three-lobed coneflower in flower
Three-lobed coneflower (Rudbeckia triloba). Photo:

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) are easy growers. Arguably, the easiest of all is Rudbeckia triloba, or three-lobed coneflower. Native to eastern and midwestern states, this 3 to 4 foot (90 to 120 cm) bloomer tends to be short-lived but establishes quickly though self-sowing. Sow in fall, or subject seed to a month of cold stratification. Hardiness zones 3 to 8.

Coreopsis in flower
Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). Photo:

Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) grows easily from seed. Colorful, heat and drought tolerant, and attractive to pollinators, it’s a good choice for the perennial border or wildflower meadow. For continuous bloom, deadhead frequently, and if plants sprawl, cut them back for a new flush of growth. Sow seed in fall, or in spring after a month of cold stratification. Hardiness zones 4 to 9.

The above article is derived from a press release by the Home Garden Seed Association which promotes gardening from seed—the easy, economical, and rewarding way to garden. Visit their website for gardening articles and information about their members and their activities. Members’ retail websites can be accessed through the Shop Our Members Online page.