Best Supporting Actor – Dark Opal Basil

The Star of the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Some plants are meant to be the star of the garden.  Dahlias, for example.  You can see them from across the yard and they elicit gasps of delight at their beauty.  While stars do make the garden, they only really dazzle when surrounded by a strong supporting cast. And that’s where Dark Opal Basil really shines. Its black shiny leaves provide a color background that makes white and brightly colored flowers in the garden “pop.” But as they say on late night TV, “That’s not all…”

Here are five more ways Dark Opal Basil really is a superstar.

Dark Opal Basil is super cute planted as a border in front of the tomato bed. Brushing along the basil releases its great hot summer aroma.  Some say Dark Opal Basil, like all basils, helps repel tomato hornworm.

Its own pink to white flowers on dark purple bracts shine on their own.

Its dense foliage fills all the empty space in containers and display beds.  Visually, it pulls together a lot of other plants like zinnias and salvias that can look bare at the bottom.

It is yummy.  I like it growing near the cherry tomatoes so on a warm summer afternoon I pick one leaf of basil and wrap it around one cherry tomato for a refreshing flavor burst.

Dark Opal is said to be the favorite purple basil for cooks because of mild flavor and a tender leaf.  It looks and smells great in a salad, served with fresh mozzarella or use a sprig of it in a Bloody Mary.

Hurry up Springtime. I’m ready to plant today!

Photo Credits:
gardening.ktsa.com/pages/7670364.php?
foodwineclick.com/2013/08/25/basil-tasting/

 

Start Your 4th of July Party Now

Celebrate with Firecracker Penstemon

By: Sandy SwegelFirecracker Penstemon with brilliant red tubulalr flowers on tall stalks

Get your Fireworks and start your 4th of July party now.  One of my favorite things about perennials is that you plant them once and they bloom year after year.  Their appearance every year becomes one of the sweet rituals of the garden.  Bright red Firecracker Penstemon is a favorite neighborhood ritual of mine.  Some 15 years ago an older lady in the neighborhood planted red firecracker penstemons around her mailbox on the street.  She called it the 4th of July flower because the little stand of 3- ft tall red flowers that had grown around her mailbox in the hot beating sun were always in bloom on the 4th of July.  Over time, the display got more elaborate as purple salvia were planted at the base of the penstemon. Later white alyssum was growing all around in the rocks.  It was a true red white and blue extravaganza.

A few years later I noticed other mailboxes in this suburban neighborhood had firecracker penstemons growing up around them.  The whole street was decorated for the 4th of July.  I never did find out if everyone liked the idea and planted penstemon too or if some middle of the night guerilla gardener spread penstemon seed everywhere.

Firecracker penstemon is a good choice for mailboxes in the sun next to the street because it tolerates high heat and drought which both plague mailboxes in the sun next to concrete sidewalks.  The only caveat is that penstemon is one of those perennials that doesn’t bloom until its second year, so you’ll have to wait a bit for the start of your annual your 4th of July explosion of red.

 

Photocredits:

https://nargs.org/forum/penstemon-eatoni-eaton-firecracker-or-firecracker-penstemon

http://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/htm/firecracker-penstemon

Best of Show for Fall Flowers

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

And the nominees are:

Asters, Asters and Asters.

I am always entranced by asters. They offer intense color at summer’s end and an alternative to the perfect rounded chrysanthemums you see for sale everywhere.  I don’t have many asters because sometimes they just dry up in late summer heat or they flop all over because I was too busy with the tomatoes to stake them…This year the asters bloomed and bloomed and bloomed.  Even wild asters were beautiful.  The Aster novae-angliae is a wonderful performer that does well even in partial shade.  Included with the nominees this year is the Daisy Aster, not a real aster but an Erigeron, but I have it lined along the edge of the garden where it has formed a mat of little white flowers for months this year.  Next year, I’m trying all of the blue asters.  They are just magnificent this year leaning through the neighbor’s chain link fence.

Yellow Columbine

Always a good performer, yellow columbine is still pumping out flowers this fall. One little plant will probably get the “Most Determined” award by managing to seed itself and then grow up through the juniper. Yellow Columbine and Blue Scabiosa have competed in past years for being both the earliest and latest bloomers.

Red Salvias

The blue salvias were nice enough this year, but the red salvias rule this fall, having tall bright flower heads in full bloom, glorious when highlighted by the gold foliage of nearby trees and shrubs.  The Salvia coccinea in the wildflower garden and the Salvia greggii and Salvia splendens in containers are competing for who can be the most vivid.

Agastache

Hummingbirds and bees love the red salvias, but the agastaches must be very tasty this year.  A couple of weeks ago some wild winds had knocked over the agastache so I went out to try to stake them up a bit.  The bees that were out there happily feeding had a definite opinion. Their hum changed from a happy “I’m just eating and going here and there” to a menacing “Don’t touch my dinner” as I was jostling the plants and I decided the flowers looked just great, leaning over the nearby echninacea.

The judge for the garden awards isn’t very impartial, so the asters will probably win because they haven’t gotten any awards in recent years, but I think all four of these flowers would look fabulous planted together in a wildish meadow type design.

Primping for Winter Interest

How to Prepare the Garden For Winter

by Sandy Swegel

As Fall proceeds at full speed, our tasks in the garden take a new direction as we start primping for winter interest.  There’s no longer time for flowers to set new buds to bloom before frost.  There won’t be any tomatoes that aren’t already on the vine.  A killing frost will come soon and kill off many of the annual flowers. So it’s time to start getting the garden ready to look good this winter.  Now instead of thinking about colorful flower displays, we turn our thoughts to structure and texture in the garden.  We want to leave tall flower seedheads to dramatically collect snow in winter as well as feed the birds.  There’s no more deadheading roses – now you want to see the rose hips mature and redden as the air gets cooler. Tall ornamental grasses will sway dramatically in winter winds.

In short, here are the things you don’t need to do anymore this year.

Stop deadheading flowers.

You want to see stately stems of echinacea and rudbeckia in the winter garden. Blooms of butterfly bush frozen in place will give a hint of color into the winter.  Small plants you thought were finished like scabiosa or dianthus will throw out a few final blooms that provide some late bee nectar.

Let dying foliage stay in place.

Earlier in the season, I’d pull off dead leaves from daylilies, so things would look their best.  Now, brown and golden foliage against green leaves is part of the vibrancy of Fall.

Let vines wander where they may.

I spend a good part of the summer garden season trying to prevent aggressive Virginia Creeper from pulling down branches of the wild plum and apple trees. Now the crisp red color of the Virginia Creeper delights me and I love seeing its leaves vining all throughout the garden.  Even the weedy self-sowing morning glories have beautiful golden tones as they twine up and down flower stalks.

Let your flowers reseed. 

The easiest way to garden is to let your flowers reseed themselves.  Bachelor Buttons and Mexican Hat and California Poppies are all dispersing their seeds to soak in the winter moisture and cold so they can burst forth again next Spring.  Some seeds I’ll collect for starting in pots next Spring, but it’s nicest when they just seed themselves in place.

Let the annual weeds be.

It’s always time to keep after perennial weeds like thistles and dandelions, but annual weeds that crop up now won’t usually have time to make flowers much less set seed before killing frost.  It’s usually safe to just leave them alone.

Let your vegetable garden reseed itself.

I’ve left the leek flower stalks in place.  Big seed heads of dill and parsley and anise are allowed to stand in the vegetable garden.  Even the lettuce and spinach and chard that bolted in summer heat now remain and drop their seeds to return next Spring.  I usually absentmindedly forget some of the garlic and potatoes….that will all return next year to be vigorous new plants.  Arugula has already multiplied itself a thousandfold in my lettuce bed.

The one task still to do?  WATER if needed.  The dry low humidity days of Fall can desiccate the garden.  If you don’t have rain, be sure to do some supplemental watering so that your perennial plants go into Winter well-watered.  Desiccation from dry air and winds is responsible for more winterkill than mere dry soil.  So give everything a good drink now before all the leaves fall.  You may have to water again in November and throughout the winter if it’s dry, but a well-watered Fall garden has an excellent chance of surviving even brutal winter conditions.

Name Your Garden!

Gardens Name Themselves

by Sandy Swegel

A friend told me years ago that everything should have a name, even inanimate objects. She was helping me garden one year and within just a couple of weeks, everything we might ever have a need to refer to had a name. The big orange wheelbarrow, of course, was “Pumpkin.” The red bargain shovel was “Scarlet.” My little hand shovel was “Scout.” Soon my old truck had a name (Zohar) and it just went on and on from there. Her premise was, that if you’ve named something, you take better care of it. This must be true because I lost my good pruners that season, most likely because they were anonymous.

I love gardens. In the past few months, I’ve become so infatuated with making my garden look as amazing as humanly possible, and I’ve even managed to get my friends doing the same. Just the other day a friend of mine had new composite fencing installed by Ecomposite, whose fences are made from recycled plastic and wood. However, out of all of my friends, none of them have the passion for gardens that I do, to the point where I even have names for the gardens that I see.

Gardens just begged to be named. They even name themselves. The wild area with the chokecherries and wild roses is “The Thicket.” A client’s garden that is full of lavender and has the best mountain view in town is “The Anti-Depression Garden.” The part of the yard with two apple trees and a cherry is “The Orchard.” My names aren’t particularly clever sometimes, but they either convey the essence of the garden to me or they are a convenient way to talk to other people. Or most other people. A gardener who happened to be an engineer left me a message once asking me to weed in the “Ovate” garden. The what? I said. But ovate was very clearly the proper technical name for the shape of the bed.

You get the idea. You can name your garden after the plants that live there or the shape of the bed or the emotion the garden evokes. Garden writer Lauren Springer coined the phrase “hell strip” years ago to describe the space between the sidewalk and the street. Everyone knows what you mean when you say “The Hell Strip.” For years a favorite area at the Denver Botanic Gardens was the Red Garden…every plant, every foliage and bloom, was red.

Other gardens I’ve named are the grassy area in the back where I threw the wildflower/grass mixture, “The Meadow.” The small bed near the entry door to my house is “The Nursery” where I heel in all the plants I acquire but don’t know where to put them. My very friend Rosemarie’s garden beds are very practical and organized like the busy engineer and supermom she is. Her favorite bed though is a small strip we named “The Diva Garden” where she can plant outrageous purples and reds and those “OMG I have to have that plant” purchases to nurture her wild side.

I think the plants in the named beds do thrive better. Maybe it’s because once garden areas have a name, I have a relationship with them and take better care of them. I named my new pruners “Snippy” so I won’t lose them so fast this time. Now if only there were a way to link them to the ICloud so I could just hit the button “Find my Pruners” and they’d ring until I found them.

Less is More!

Give Your Current Plants The Love They Deserves

by Sandy Swegel

One of my favorite things to do is spend other people’s money.  Or better said, to go shopping with them and encourage them to buy the cool things they want to buy.  I always covet plants and yet I know I don’t have the time or space to buy as many as I want, so it is fun to live vicariously through others. “Yes that Japanese maple would look beautiful by your front door.”  “You just have to get this hand forged trellis, wooden ones are so dinky and break after awhile.” etc.

I’ll still encourage people to buy quality garden structures or funky garden art, but I’ve slowed down on encouraging them to buy lots of plants.  It was writing last week about biointensive gardening that reminded me. One of the themes of John Jeavons’ book is to create one garden bed and create it well (double dug, good soil amendments). Better to have one bed producing a lot of food than three beds barely eking out enough for dinner.

Plants need attention to establish, at least if you live in a difficult climate like Colorado.  You can’t just plant a bunch of plants and ignore them.  I know, I’ve accidentally killed a lot of plants that way.  You just end up guilty at the waste or feel like a failure as a gardener. So slow down before you buy out the garden center or plant out hundreds of seedlings. Just because it’s inexpensive to grow from seed doesn’t mean your work growing and planting isn’t valuable. We’ll leave for another day, and a bottle of scotch, the esoteric discussion of the karmic implications of killing plants.

How to Practice Less is More Focus on one section of your garden for new plantings Decide to spiff up just one area this year with new plants. I encouraged my friend to focus on the entry bed for now and later get plants for the rest of the yard. Many gardeners have “nursery” beds for new plants where they let them grow the first year.  They can remember to take care of the babies in the nursery.

Pick a learning theme of the year. I kept twenty new plants alive and thriving the year I made an herb bed and planted twenty different herbs just to learn how they grew. (FYI it’s easy to grow lots of ginger and one tansy plant is enough for the rest of your life.) Another year I focused on containers and planted containers of annuals each of one color in a matching pot.  So cute.  The focus on one kind of plant helped me be a better gardener.

Repetition I love one plant of every kind, but a designer friend showed me how cluttered and unattractive that can be.  Pick a few plants and repeat them and your garden will look professionally designed.  For example, in a perennial bed, plant one kind of grass as a “bones” of the bed and plant a few native flowers around the base of each grass.

So enjoy the season and the new plants…but make “Less is More” your mantra. Unless of course you have a full staff like Martha Stewart does.

Ode to Lavender

Why You Need to Grow Lavender

by Sandy Swegel

I awoke this morning dreaming of lavender. I adore everything about lavender.

The Fragrance: exotic yet tender and sweet.
The Blossoms: intense purples and blues and even dusty whites and pinks.
The Herbal Essence: healing, calming, sedating yet inspiring.
The Foliage: lavender plants paired with sages and blue fescue grasses in a blue border.
The Smudge Stick: foliage, stems and blossoms mixed with white sage purify home and heart.
The Oil:  condenses all its attributes and essences in a single drop.
The Woody Stems: reminders of the Mediterranean climate it adores and fragrant thrown on a campfire.
The Seed: easy to germinate and though perennial can often produce flowers the first year.
The Plant: low maintenance, sturdy, tolerates even thrives in drought.

Lavender is a wonderful plant to think about in the fall.  It continues to bloom a bit, even after killing freezes. Stalks of lavender blossoms erupt through mats of fallen leaves offering food to the bees and encouragement to the gardener.  Lavender reminds us in the fall how many home-crafted gifts from the garden we still can make.

Friends who don’t wait till the last minute to make holiday gifts have been busy turning lavender into treasures to be shared with friends.  Julia makes the most exotic of lavender gifts:  white chocolate lavender popcorn.  She also infuses jams with lavender.  Sarah takes lavender essential oil and mixes it with the unscented all natural body lotion from Costco or mixes the oil with rose oil and bath salts.  I mix the oil with spring water in a mister for spraying the bed linens. Elise grabs leaves and stems and flowers that have dried on the plant and with adjacent white sage and a little twine created those smudge sticks that cost $10 at the health food store.  A bit of purple ribbon for wrapping all these simple creations turns Lavender into a thoughtful gift from the heart.

May your dreams be so sweetly scented.

Popcorn recipe:http://www.howsweeteats.com/2012/07/white-chocolate-lavender-vanilla-popcorn/

Mums & Asters

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Fall in Colorado and the most colorful gardens are the shelves at the hardware store garden centers.  Thousands of mums are for sale. I’m not that fond of the one-on-each-side of the front door look, but I do like to get the small 4 in and 6 in containers and plant them here and there in the garden where things look drab.

You’ve probably figured out that those mums you’re planting this year will never look the same as they do today.  They’ll be taller for one thing….so if it’s a permanent planting, take that into account when you choose their spot.  They’ll also be sprawlier, which is a good thing in my book.  They look a bit too controlled and tidy if you ask me. Much too alien from my garden which is not controlled and tidy.

Do you know the history of your mum? Most likely it started back in June or July when three plant plugs were evenly placed into your 6-inch pot. They had ideal indoor growing conditions with fertilization for bloom…and the part that makes them most distinctive…regular applications of growth inhibitors that keep them short and stocky for that perfect Fall round look.  By next year, the growth inhibitor has long since worn off and no matter how much you cut them back by the Fourth of July, they won’t be so compact.  Which I think is a good thing as you can see in the garden picture of the orange and yellow and red mums I planted two years ago.

If you like more of a wildflower look in your garden, go with asters.  You’ll probably have to plant them from seed because they aren’t sold commercially as much as mums.  But the reward is they’ll reseed themselves (usually not too aggressively) and their flowers will be light and airy and move with the breeze in the Fall sun.

The Midsummer Lull

Preparing for Late Summer Harvest and Beyond

by Sandy Swegel

I was surfing the garden internet last night at Garden Rant http://gardenrant.com/2012/06/grazing-my-way-through-the-lull.html where blogger Michele Owens is lamenting the midsummer lull in her vegetable garden.  It’s so true, late June is a difficult time in both the vegetable and flower garden.  There was the wild early June flush of color on roses and spring perennials.  Mid-June brought peas and tons of chard and kale and spinach.  But the intense unusual heat of the last couple of weeks made the spinach and arugula bolt and the peas and fava beans quickly went hard in their shells.  Tomatoes are full of flowers and tiny green tomatoes, but there’s not much for eating.  The one exception is zucchini…The zucchini are pumping out a new zucchini or two a day….but it’s hard to find other vegetables for dinner. How can the basil be so small when I started them months ago?

The flower garden is similar. The hot season rudbeckias are finally starting but there isn’t the lushness the garden of a few weeks ago had.  First of July is a great time to notice what’s in bloom in your (or your neighbor’s) vegetable and flower garden and vow to plant that this year or next.  Ideas I’m stealing that look great in this otherwise lulling time:

Leek seed heads.  I let the leeks perennialize and plant themselves each year….so right now the flower heads are tall and a lovely pink, covered with bees.

Monarda.  Drifts of monarda are abloom…and full of bees and butterflies.

Echinacea.  Although some think of echinacea as a full sun xeric plant, it is at its prettiest with some shade and with irrigation. Some of the nicest echinaceas grow at the edge of apple trees where the extra coolness makes them vibrant.

Daylilies.  Get the camera out so you can document the daylilies you really like (in your yard or your neighbor’s) so you can make divisions next Spring.

It’s great anticipating the bounty that’s about to burst in mid-July.  Hard to believe during this lull that we’ll soon be leaving tomatoes on the vine because there are too many to eat.

Tough Love

Getting Bigger, Stronger Plants

by Sandy Swegel

Ok, your seedlings are up and growing. Whether in the ground or growing under a light, your plants have one or two sets of true leaves. You can’t wait to have a big beautiful and blooming plant.  Now you have to be brave.  You have to take that nice tall plant and cut it down.  Ouch.

The result of this tough love is that you get better, bigger, stronger plants.  The gardening term is “pinching back” because you want to get “branching.”  When you pinch back your one main stem, the plant responds by sending up two stems. Presto chango, you have doubled your plant.  Let the plant grow another two sets of leaves on each new stem and again pinch back to the first set of leaves. Now where you once had one measly little stem, you have four stems growing out and a strong bush plant.

This works especially well with basil and other herb foliage plants.  It’s also amazing with petunias and annuals you want lots of flowers from.  Even if you’re buying plants from the store, pinching back can be a good idea. When the commercial growers are producing plants for sale, they want a plant that has a flower as soon as possible because even one flower makes a plant sell. If that plant is spindly or just very full you have to be strong and even pinch back that flower.

Pinching back is only for plants whose stems are branching,  It doesn’t work for herbs like parsley or flowers like lilies.  With perennials, it’s best to pinch back before the first flower buds have started.  The only other time I don’t pinch back is when I’m willing to sacrifice the greater good of the plant for the instant gratification of flowers.  Sometimes I just need a flower RIGHT NOW.

Knowing how plants act and react is the secret to having a beautiful garden.  You can learn about how plants behave by observing them and noticing things like how they branch when you pinch back a set of leaves. There are good scientific reasons the plants are doing what they are doing.  Scientifically, you are “interrupting apical dominance” and stimulating “axillary buds.” If you want to understand plant behavior more thoroughly, one way to do that is to read Brian Capon’s book, “Botany for Gardeners”  It explains plant physiology with words and pictures that are easy to understand.
www.amazon.com/Botany-Gardeners-Third-Brian-Capon/dp/160469095X/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1