Thrills, Fills, Spills

Flower Pot Rhyme

by Sandy Swegel

These are your clues today to have a container garden that causes people to stop in their tracks. This cute little rhyme is how the professional designers make fabulous flower pots. If you learn how to follow this basic rule, your designs will be breathtaking whether you are using traditional annuals or native plants or succulents.


The thrill is the highlight of your pot. It’s tall and commands space and attention. Often the thrill is brilliantly colorful with big flowers or something unusual like red foliage. Some of the thrills I use are

Large tropical hibiscus or canna lilies or castor beans if I’m going for color.

Red grasses if I’m going native, a knockout rose if I’m going for an English garden look.

An agave or euphorbia if I’m going desert garden, big multicolored coleus if you’re in the shade, a mini tree or shrub works too.  A thrill is a big plant that catches your eye from a distance.

You place the thrill slightly to the back of the center of the pot.


The fill is next. This is several plants of medium flowering height. They provide fullness and reliable color. Don’t be stingy with plants: the secret is to have no soil showing. Geraniums or salvias or shorter zinnias or daisy-like flowers do the job well. Place two or three “fills” around the central “thriller.”


Finally, two or three “spillers” are needed around the edge of the pot. Anything from sweet potato vine to creeping Jenny, or petunias or million bells. You want to have overflowing plants soften the edges of your pot…and it makes the planting look twice as big and luxuriously abundant.

That’s it….the basic recipe. Now you can read the container gardening magazines and books and see how most ‘artistic’ designs are just variations on this theme.

Photo credit:

Sandy Swegel

No Neonics: Three Easy Ways to Help

Protecting Yourself and Creatures from Pesticides

by Sandy Swegel

Just a moment to be serious now. Spring has arrived and stores are filling with bedding plants and seeds. At the same time, homeowners are noticing all the weeds in yards and some still go out to buy weed killer.

There are three easy quick things you can do that make a difference to help protect bees and yourself from the “neonic” pesticides.

Learn One Name

That’s the neonic most likely in retail products. If you’re an overachiever, the other names are Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Acetamiprid, Dinotefuran. These are ingredients in weed killers, especially products marked Bayer or with names like Systemic or Max. Just check your labels and don’t buy these.

Watch For the Label

Customer pressure led Home Depot and Lowe’s last year to agree to put labels on all plants treated with neonics. The label is deceptive….makes it sound like neonics are better…but watch for the label.

Ask Your Retailer

There’s no government regulation (Alas!) that says neonics have to be labeled. The best thing you can do is ask at the garden center if the plants you are buying have been treated with neonics. If they don’t know…then you can probably assume the plants have been sprayed. The treatments can last up to two months in your garden…making your pretty flowers potentially lethal to bees that land on them.

Every time you ask a garden center employee or a grower if their plants have been treated with neonics, you are educating them. That’s what we are after. Nobody really wants to harm bees or the environment. Two years ago when I asked a major grower here in the Denver area if they used neonics, the owner looked at me like I was some crazy Boulder liberal. Which of course I am. He said, “Bah humbug, there’s no way to grow plants without neonics.” But last week, his greenhouse (Welby) had an open house in which they proudly said that most of their plants were grown without neonics and they were continuing to work on how to get neonic-free.

Oh, and of course there’s a fourth thing to do to help the bees. Grow your own plants from good non-pesticide treated, non-GMO, often organic, often heirloom, always neonic-free seeds like ours!
For lots of info on neonics in consumer products, you can read this pdf put out by Xerces.

Photo Credit


It’s Spring. Oh, so Ephemeral!

The Beauty of Spring

by Sandy Swegel

Spring Equinox is officially upon us. All the joys of the season abound. Birds singing, Crocuses blooming, Baby lambs gamboling in the fields outside of town. Yet one of the dearest and most fleeting of Spring delights is the annual blooming of the spring ephemeral wildflowers.

This is a great season to walk through meadows and along forest trails to catch glimpses of great swaths of these very clever flowers. Ephemeral means lasting a very short time or transitory and these flowers that appear above ground for only a couple of months per year are very crafty. They grow in woodland areas and come to life in the brief interval between the end of winter and the time when the deciduous trees start to grow leaves again.  As the sun streams through the bare treetops, hundreds and thousands of flowers throw out wonderful blooms in celebration of their moment in the sun. Wait two months, and everything will be dark and shady in the woods.  But once you’ve walked and maybe danced among the spring ephemerals, you’ll always remember their hidden presence.

If cherry and apple blossoms are starting near you, make haste to the nearest wooded area.  Lots of botanic gardens and parks schedule hikes during these times. The Great Smoky Mountains are home to an especially large variety of ephemerals from February to April.  But even in your own neighborhood, walk along the creeks to find flowers with delightful names like Shooting Star or Trout Lily, Spring Beauty, Trillium and Bleeding Heart.  Keep an eye out for other spring flowers who aren’t officially ephemerals but thrive in the same conditions like Wild Geranium and Pasque Flowers.

William Cullina, author of Wildflowers: A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America, suggests planting spring ephemerals in early spring or late summer in the shade of deciduous trees. He says to prepare the site by incorporating four to six inches of compost in four to six inches of soil. Well-drained soil, rich in organic matter is essential. And remember to plant as nature does…in broad swaths of color.

Life is ephemeral…. So get out there and enjoy Spring, our most hopeful season. Or as my favorite (if not most poetic) quotation about the season says:

 “Spring is Nature’s way of saying, Let’s Party!” – Robin Williams

Photo Credits:

Saving the Monarch—one yard at a time

How You Can Save the Monarch

by Sandy Swegel

Native plant advocate Doug Tallamy tells a wonderful story about how the Atala butterfly was saved from the brink of extinction.

“…the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. Then landscapers started placing the insect’s food source, a native plant called the coontie, around houses – not to help the butterfly – but because the plant was attractive in home landscapes. The result – a butterfly thought to be extinct found the suburban plants and today appears to be on the rebound.”


The greatest challenge for the monarch butterfly has been the loss of habitat across all of its migratory path. The monarch only feeds and lays eggs on one kind of plant: milkweed. Milkweed is considered a weed by Big Ag, and large farming operations have done their best to kill all the weeds including milkweed. Highway departments also have helped eliminate habitat as they found it was cheaper to pour weedkiller on roadsides rather than mow.

It’s difficult for us as individuals to change Big Ag, or highway departments or to stop deforestation in the Mexican winter habitat monarch. But the story of the Atala butterfly suggests that the monarch can be brought back from its hurdle toward extinction. And we, in individual suburban and city yards, can do something. We can plant native milkweed, a beautiful flowering plant, in our own gardens. Our hope will be that the monarch will figure out that the milkweeds are now in a new place…our individual yards…rather than along highways and farms.

For the last couple of years, I’ve lived in the city where my yard has space for maybe two milkweed plants if I smoosh them together. It seems like a pretty tiny impact I can make. It’s hard to buy milkweed plants in garden centers, so I have to grow from seed. What I’m doing this year is germinating the entire packet of seeds in little pots. After I plant my two plants, I’ll give the other baby plants to as many of my neighbors as I can and ask them to grow the plants. With any luck, our entire block (or two) will have milkweeds growing that will be beacons to overflying monarchs. It might be hard for the monarchs to see one or two plants in my yard….but I think they’ll notice a whole neighborhood worth of milkweed.

Habitat restoration on a grand scale is a great idea. But I feel powerless as an individual to accomplish that. But in the meantime, maybe we can offer new habitat in our collective yards. I can grow out a packet of seeds and change my neighborhood.

Another quote from Tallamy:
If half of the American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

If you have more space in your yard, Tallamy tells about a great experiment in Delaware where researches planted Common Milkweed in a naturalistic planting in a 15′ x 15′ plot. That plot produced 150 monarchs in one season.

Let’s create this new hidden monarch habitat in our yards. Whether you have two square feet like me or space for a 15′ x 15′ plot, you can help save monarchs from extinction. One yard, one packet of seeds, one plant at a time, we can provide food and a place to raise baby monarchs.

Photo Credit:

7 great reasons to put up some bat houses this weekend.

Help House the Bats

by Sandy Swegel

Need a project this weekend while you’re waiting for winter to finish? How about building a bat house, or just installing one in the eaves of your house. This is an excellent weekend project and there are lots of great reasons for sharing your property with bats.

7. Bats eat mosquitos. Each bat can eat 500 mosquitos just in the first hour after dark. Think about bats eating all the mosquitos in your backyard or near your grill. That’s 500 fewer possible bites on you!

6. Bats eat bad bugs.
In addition to mosquitos, bats also eat garden pests like rootworms and cucumber beetles.

5. Bats are a lot like us. They are mammals like we are. They have long life spans and can live as long as 40 years. It’s a myth that they are dangerous dirty creatures carrying rabies. They clean themselves constantly (like cats). They don’t bite unless you try to pick them up. Raccoons, skunk and fox are much more likely to have rabies.

4. Bats need our help. Suburban development has wiped out lots of the natural wild habitat of bats. Female bats, like humans, generally only have one baby per season. They need a home to keep their only baby safe and keep the species going. Nearly 40% of American bat species are in severe decline or already listed as threatened or endangered. Spring is bat mating season, so hurry up with the new house.


3. Bats make gardener’s gold, i.e. bat guano. Bat poop is an excellent fertilizer. In the days before growing marijuana became legal and high tech, weird hippy guys would come into our garden center every Spring to pay cash for the 50-pound bags of bat guano we ordered every year just for them.

2. Bats give us tequila. Yep, bats are the pollinators for blue agave, the tequila plant! No bats, no new blue agave plants, no summer margaritas.

1. Bats are super cool to watch on summer evenings. You can see bats in the magic hour between sunset and full darkness. They fly erratically in the darkening sky, flitting and diving for insects.

Here’s one link to building your own bat house or you can buy bat-approved houses or bat house kits from Amazon or your local wildlife store.

Windowsill Arrangements

Why You Need Windowsill Arrangements

by Sandy Swegel

“It’s strange the way, after a while, we seem to stop looking out the windows of our home.” This clever observation by Nancy Ross Hugo led her to many days of creating tiny arrangements of flowers on her windowsill. She muses, “when you’re arranging on the windowsill, the backdrop (the scene outside the window), almost insists on being seen.”

I recently ran across Nancy’s blog of windowsill arrangements (and a book just published) and just fell in love with the idea of these small whimsical arrangements of nature. Growing up in traditions of the deep South, my family often had little bud vases of a single bloom in the guest bedroom or the bathroom counter. I like windowsill arrangements because they draw on that same idea of delicate touches of natural beauty dotted here and there throughout the house. I also like that a windowsill arrangement unites the creativity of using found pieces and perhaps a single flower with the use of an unusual container such as a bud vase or perhaps a crystal glass or a china egg cup or a mini terrarium. I also like it that windowsill arrangements don’t cost much.


Give windowsill arranging a try. You don’t have to be a great artist to create a lovely bit of art that unites the backdrop of your outdoors with a bit of beauty and color right on your windowsill. Delightful.








Photo credits:


Early Spring Flowers for Pollinators

Why to Plant These Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Hungry pollinators are starting to wake up. Well, maybe not this week in Colorado if they are smart. We still have a foot of old snow on the ground, but the sun will come out later this week and I expect to see the first crocuses poke out from the melting snow.

The first warm days of Spring bring out lots of our pollinator friends. In a long winter like this, honey supplies are running short and honeybees are eager for fresh food. Wild bees and bumblebees who don’t have honey stores are very hungry. Ladybugs that woke up a few weeks ago and have been eating aphid eggs in the leaf litter are eager for some sweet nectar or pollen. Everybody’s hungry and are flocking to the first flowers to gather nectar and protein. They need to build up their own strength and to provide food for Spring babies.


You can spot some of the first pollinators of the season if you look closely at the first Spring bulbs. Plan to plant more flowers for pollinators in your garden if you want to attract more. You can lure pollinators to your yard by having the first flowers. Then they’ll stay for the rest of the season if you have flowers in bloom all year.


Some of the easiest spring flowers to grow are:
Grape hyacinths
Tulips, especially native tulips.

Little bulbs like snowdrops and grape hyacinths re-seed themselves and naturalize a good-sized patch. If you don’t have these in your own yard, it’s easy dig up a few bulbs from a friend’s overgrown patch and transplant into your own garden. They don’t mind the transplanting too much and will bloom as usual…attracting more pollinators to your yard.

So bend down close to those little crocus flowers to see our pollinator friends. Bring a camera. The bees get groggy from gorging on pollen and are often moving pretty slowly, so it’s easy to get a good picture.


Photo credits:
Mason bee on crocus:

Bee on tulip:

Bee on muscari and fly on snowdrop:

To make your pollinator garden click here!