YOU KNOW THE ROUTINE: I ring up my longtime friend Ken Druse on Skype each month and then we tackle your Urgent Garden Questions—which this time range from growing lily bulbs and also pansies from seed, to trees in pots, to keeping garden journals and more. (That’s Lilium martagon ‘Claude Shride,’ above.)
Thanks for submitting lots of good Urgent Garden Questions this month to me and Ken. You can always ask us anything, urgent or otherwise, on Facebook, or in comments on this website, or using the contact form here or on Ken Druse dot com.
Plus: We’re giving away a copy of Ken’s book “Making More Plants.” See details for entering at the bottom of the page.ligustrum
Read along as you listen to the Jan. 29, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
january q&a with ken druse
Ken. Margaret, you know I was lecturing in the Berkshires recently …
Margaret. You were lecturing me again.
A. Lecturing you.
A. You were there and you were lovely.
Q. It was sweet of you to shout me out; thank you very much for the nice kind regards in our local crowd here. It was very fun and a great lecture, so thank you, thank you.
A. Thank you.
Q. And there were cookies. And if there are cookies, I’m happy.
pansies from seed
Q. So pansy germination: Rosa from Facebook says, “Help about how to germinate pansy seeds please.”
She thought they needed to be surface-sown, very lightly covered in soil and then left in darkness or covered with dark plastic or something like that to germinate. And now she’s reading they don’t need darkness. She likes to grow Swiss Giants, and also little Johnny jump-ups. She was just curious, has something changed? Have you grown them from seed?
A. Not for probably 30, 40 years, so I am going to let you take this. [Laughter.]
Q. Yes and you remember the darkness thing too, right? What I have read everywhere doesn’t indicate if anything changed, but what I do know is that one of the keys to growing them is growing them cool, because they’re a cool-season crop. And the worst thing you can do is put them under hot lights or in a really warm room, and let them stretch and grow too fast, reaching for light or just from the heat and so forth. And they take a long time. So it’s can be two to three months, even three months before [final] frost, that you sow them, so it’s not something you do at the last minute at all.
I think the key is you cover the seeds lightly and what you don’t want to do is splash water on them from the top—which actually I think is true with a lot of things you sow in cells or flats. You want to bottom-water, because what you don’t want is for them to get buried, swamped, with soil, with potting medium splashing up on them, and them getting deeper and deeper and deeper [or uncovered and washed away].
I haven’t read lately anywhere that they say absolute darkness. Cool I think is important. And high light levels [once up] to really minimize stretching with these guys. Just a teeny bit of soil on top [like ¼ inch]. What do you think, sound good? [Laughter.]
A. Yes it sounds hard, too, if you look at a house.
Q. And that’s why I think a lot of us just buy them, as an early spring crop, when the garden centers open. That’s usually the first thing they have in the North where we live, right? It’s pansies and violas.
A. But in the South, you buy them in the fall and they bloom sometimes through the winter and then the spring or even March, they’re in full bloom.
Q. Yes. I think probably again it’s that time investment, it’s like growing onions from seed. It’s not going to happen … you don’t just give it two to three weeks inside like you might a squash. You might give a little headstart to something like that, whereas you’re talking 10 weeks or something. You’re backed up so far before frost when you’re starting. A lot of people aren’t in gear yet for their seed starting that far out. I’m not in gear, I’ll tell you that much. [Laughter.]
trees in pots to create a privacy screen
Q. Al on Facebook wants to know a kind of trees or shrubs would be good in a pot for privacy on a patio. It doesn’t have to be evergreen because he uses the patio seasonally. He’s in zone 6B, and would like to be able to leave it out all year. And it’s the southwest side of the house, so sun from sunrise to roughly 5 PM in the summer. Some of the things he was thinking about were boxwood, or an espalier dwarf apple.
You grow a lot of things in pots, so do I. [Above, photo by Ken Druse of potted Ligustrum by a terrace edge at Greenwood Gardens, New Jersey.]
A. I used to have a roof garden and I grew a whole lot of things.
Q. Like everything. [Laughter.]
A. It’s all I could do. The first thing I would say is choose a plant that’s hardy to at least one zone colder than where you are because containers not only freeze down from the top like the earth, they freeze in from the sides and up from the bottom, so you really need a very hardy plant. And then there’s heat tolerance and reflected light from the patio.
Q. Baking the roots, right?
A. And you also said it’s going to get the winter sun, which is not so great for evergreens.
Q. Yes. He’s saying evergreen is optional, but the boxwood he’s suggesting would be evergreen.
A. I don’t know if Al’s interested in pruning but I would definitely consider beech trees because you can just prune them and prune them and make anything you want. You can make a solid screen, but you would have to prune them every year probably twice. You could get Carpinus –what do you call that, ironwood?—and what’s another name for Carpinus betulus? You know all the common names.
Q. You think I’m going to think of it when you give me a quiz out loud like that? [Laughter.] But I know Carpinus, yes. [The other common name is hornbeam.]
A. We always do that. There’s Carpinus ‘Fastigiata,’ which is narrow growing naturally and I think those would be great in pots. Very similar looking to the beech trees; the leaves are a little bit smaller.
Q. Now the beech sometimes hold on to their lives into the winter.
A. So does the Carpinus.
A. There’s also European beech like ‘Dawyck Purple.’ That’s Fagus sylvatica. I’m into pruning, I’m like excited about this; I think this is great. [Above, a tightly pruned beech in Ken’s garden.]
Q. He said “espalier dwarf apple tree,” so that gave the hint that he was almost thinking of a living, flattened wall that involves pruning.
A. That’s harder. Also you could see through it and certainly if he’s into espalier that’s a whole lot more pruning than a beech tree. So I guess choose what you can choose. I think the espalier, if he’s into it, espalier would be great. Apples, but you could see through it and it would take a lot of pruning, maybe even spraying of some kind. An organic spray. But fruit trees, that’s work.
Q. I find that among the espaliered things—I was given a tip on this years ago when I was going to invest in one for a particular spot at my house. The nurseryman said Asian pear—that they have more disease resistance, the leaves stay nicely unblemished and glossy, the flowers are beautiful and profuse and early. You don’t lose the flower to a late frost. There seem to be tougher, the fruit is lovely, round, it can be various sizes and mostly it’s yellow.”
Q. And some varieties are less or more watery, and some are more tasty. But that’s less troublesome to grow, I think, that way, in terms of the disease stuff than an apple, for example. Asian pear.
A. I know you have an Asian pear and it’s espaliered, but it’s on the wall.
A. That’s a different story than having some kind of structure or frame. Because that Asian pear’s a little vigorous.
Q. It is.
A. If you can keep that shape it would be quite a bit of work.
Q. I was just reacting to the idea of espaliered fruit. If you’re going to grow a fruit thing I’d grow the Asian pear that way because they look less messy from diseases.
I think the other thing is that you were inferring from the boxwood, when you were mentioning that evergreens–being out there in the sun in the winter, implying that they might get beat up, wind-burned and sunburned. I think that’s what you were hinting at.
Q. One of the things I do with all the things I grow in pots, except for one—I have one yew, in a very big pot when you first come up the walk, and that’s out all the time but that’s a protected spot, not a spot that bakes in the winter or gets too wind-whipped. With all the rest, I roll them on a hand cart into a more protected place or even into the garage.
Since he doesn’t need the screen in winter, the other thing Al can do if he picks something that he wants to give a little protection is it could be mobile. It’s still going to be a big pot but I have giant pots. They’re thigh-high, top-of-my-thigh high. Two and a half feet high, whatever the width of a big pot is. What is it—30 inches, 20-something inches? They’re big.
They can’t take it out in the winter; the things would be a mess—evergreen things would be a mess. So I put them … I have conifers. I have that Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ [below in pot]—do you know that one? It’s kind of narrow.
A. No, that sounds good.
Q. Nice, it’s very nice. Is it a Thuja, is that what I meant to say?
Q. ‘Degroot’s Spire.’ So again, I’d give them a little protection in the winter, out of the sun and wind. I think the possibilities are limitless. Then there’s also staging to create privacy. Say you had an espalier, as your backdrop, if you’re really attached to espalier. You could stage in front of it toward where you sit. You could stage smaller pots. Have that as the backdrop.
A. Or even make a backdrop behind that. [Laughter.]
Q. Exactly. So layering the pot display.
A. I did grow boxwood, B. sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy,’ in pots [above, Ken Druse photo] because I didn’t get them in the ground. They were in pots for probably five or six years, and they did just fine but they didn’t really grow. They stayed the same height, even though they survived. So that’s something else to think about is that it’s going to dwarf the plants.
Q. It does dwarf, my ‘Degroot’s Spire’ is a fraction of its potential self [laughter] because it’s root-pruned. It’s being kept small.
A. A demi-semi-bonsai.
Q. I think there’s a huge palette depends on your preference visually and what the place looks like and what will go with it. Like you said a little hardier. As I said: maybe if it has evergreen foliage maybe you want to move it slightly into a protected spot for the winter etc. lots of possibilities though. On to the next question yes?
garden journal ideas
Q. Joan, also on Facebook is asking, she says by the way not at all urgent, just curious. [Laughter.] “Do either of you maintain any type of written garden journal?” she asks.
Now we have to tell the truth,Ken.
A. Oh my gosh.
Q. If so, what have you found useful to record? I can answer the second part of the question better than I can answer the first because since I started the website—which is actually 10 years in March 2018; 10-year anniversary. When I started A Way to Garden dot com, that became my record keeping in a way. And that and my photo library [above], which is chronological, those two things helped me to know what’s happened. But then I also do write some things down. What about you?
A. Of course when I started the garden here 22 years ago, I had all these journals and I was going to write in them. That lasted about a week and a half.
Q. 46 seconds. [Laughter.]
A. Right. I put it in the computer and make notes of what I want to buy or what I want to prune. I make most of the notes in the winter, about things I walk around thinking I have to do that in the spring—because you’ll forget.
If I see a plant I write it down in the computer and just have a file. But like you said, the pictures are great because you take a picture of something and it’s got all the information, the date, the time that you took it, sometimes what the light was like, there’s all this hidden information and that can be your version of a journal.
Q. Yes, and I think one of the other things about pictures is that when we go out to our own gardens, or for that matter when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we have a different filter about what’s going on. We have a subjective view. Or, maybe we’re going out and we think we’re taking a picture of X, but actually we stepped back a little bit and we’re showing six things that are near X, that are around X. We’re getting a lot of information about: is this combination working? Or: Oh, look that thing over there is looking ratty, and I never noticed that.
I get more out of my pictures, I see more bloopers, I see more opportunities in the picture. Once I’m inside the house and looking at it a little less, I’m still subjective but a little less so, just a smidge less so. I sometimes get ideas so I think photos are super-important.
You could just open an Instagram account and slam them up there or if you don’t have a photo-organizing program. You could just do it that way, or if you have a Mac you could use their Photo program [above].
A. We didn’t even mention that people are using their phones. That’s because …
Q. That’s what I’m saying: You could just do it right from your phone to an Instagram account and then there it is chronologically arranged forever, so to speak.
A. I think the thing that’s happening with what you’re talking about also is that you’re seeing things flat in two dimensions.
A. And we’re used to seeing things moving in three dimensions and shadow, light.
Q. And the wind is blowing and the sun is warm and it smells pretty and the bird is chirping. That’s a different experience when I’m out there.
A. I call that sometimes “the third eye.” [Laughter.]
Q. Yes. The other stuff about what’s useful to record which I don’t get out of a picture and I don’t get out of the blog, unless I write a story that cites it… I think is very important because I’m in an older garden like you are; we’ve been at it a long time. From time to time, ahem, more than from time to time—all the time—a label will show up in the compost heap.
Q. It never happens to you, I know, Ken.
A. Oh my gosh.
Q. Some of my labels that show up, they’re from Heronswood Nursery, which has been closed for eons out in Seattle—it was a rare-plant nursery back in the day. I don’t remember which Epimedium that is, I bought six epimediums 15 years ago from there or 20.
If I had written it down or if I had saved my order print out, or printed out my confirmation email from a more recent order from a seed company or plant company, I think those are really great to keep in a folder because then at least you can say these are the five epimediums I bought. O.K. this one’s yellow-flowered; that’s the yellow one. O.K. the purple one’s over there, O.K. that’s what that one …
You can almost deduce, even if you didn’t keep perfect records.
A. It’s also nice to know when you planted something, that is if you do know what it is. That tree, was that 12 years ago, was that six years ago, was that eight years ago?
Q. So I think at the minimum take pictures and keep all your orders, all your plant orders.
A. I like this.
Q . And when you buy something at the nursery, you’ve got to keep your receipt. You’ve got to put that in that folder, too. O.K. there we go, we just invented a new version of “garden journal.”[Laughter.]
A. It’s a lot quicker than writing it down.
best shears for deadheading
Q. So speaking of quick, here’s a quick question from Sarah, also on Facebook, about shears—“the best shears for deadheading.” She wants “ones with big blades but for one-handed use so you can hold on to and gather the debris you’re cutting.” So she wants to use one hand to hold and one hand to shear. What do you use when you go and shear something?
A. She’s talking about shears. I’m not sure exactly what that means, because I use shears to cut the edge of the grass sometimes, to edge the grass. I might even—though I don’t recommend it, I can’t believe I’m saying it—because we had such a juicy year last year, I had a lot of fresh growth on some of the boxwood late in the season and it just burned. As soon as we had warm weather, then we had a freeze so I have a lot of light brown growth on the boxwood.
Q. I’m seeing it everywhere as I drive around the neighborhood, too.
A. I should do a really good job with my secateurs, with my Felcos—No. 2 is my favorite—and hold each piece and cut it which would take a day. I’d just go out there sometimes with scissors and I just trim off the dead stuff. I know that the new growth is going to cover that little stubby thing I’ve done. Actually, I was doing it last weekend. So I just go out with shears and I let the pieces fall to the ground [laughter] because they’re going to disappear. Just give it a haircut. I use sheep shears for edging, or edging shears, and then scissors.
Q. I have what are called shop shears [2 pairs in photo above]. So shop shears like workshop or tool shop—shop shears are like craft scissors, which have the bigger plastic handles and the slightly longer, if you’re going to do a textile project, they’re like craft scissors. They have a plastic handle and slightly longer stainless or whatever blades than a regular scissor that you might just use for clipping something in the house. Shop shears are just a little bit bigger, the handle is, so they might be used in a workshop for cutting not metal but for I don’t know …
Q. Something like that. I always have them; every few years I buy two or three pairs [like this kind or this by Wiss]. I have them in every tool bucket around the place. I use them for clipping the edges of the grass. I use them for shearing, like a mass of something.
But I have to say I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even—speaking of not wanting to spend a whole day cleaning something up—I’ve become a maniac in the spring with my big masses of Epimedium and my Geranium macrorrhizum after it blooms. Epimedium after the winter, before it puts up its flowers for the new year, and Geranium macrorrhizum or the equivalent groundcover, after it blooms in late spring.
I use hedge clippers [laughter] and I go [makes noise of hedge clippers]… I like go at it. Isn’t it terrible? I just don’t have the time; I have a big garden I don’t have the time. So I’ve started using hedge shears for big shearing projects. But I love the shop shears.
A. I could picture this. So you’re on your knees, basically. [Laughter.]
Q. I am, and I’m going whack whack whack.
A. Whack whack whack.
Q. With two hands, it’s a two-handed thing, but it’s great on epimediums. You clean a whole huge stretch or swath of that in two seconds. So FYI. [Laughter.]
A. FYI, right.
growing lily bulbs from seeds
Q. So another question: Barbara asks about “Making More Plants.” She’d love to hear about making more plants, which is the title of a Ken Druse book, one of my favorites of your books. She wants to know about lily seeds for bulb production. Do you know anything about this, because this is not something I’ve done.
A. I have done this.
Q. O.K., cool, so we can make Barbara happy.
A. So some of the lilies in the world come up right away from seed. And some of them don’t. The ones that come up right away are called epigeal. And you can look online for the name of the lily or the lily seeds that you might buy, or if you’re harvesting from your own plants.
And ones like Lilium formosanum, I put those dry seeds in some moist vermiculite and they sprout in about three or four weeks and then I move them into a flat. Just pick them up by a true leaf if you can; the leaves are sort of like grass. And they just slip right out of the vermiculite, and I pot them up.
Now the other kinds, like Lilium martagon, the martagon lilies [above photo, at Ken’s garden], they take …
Q. I love those.
A. I love them. And I love the white ones, so I harvest my own seed from the white ones and they come true—they come white from seed. So I take the seeds in August when the seedpods—the fruits—are ripe, and I open up the fruits and I take the seed and I put them in a Bounty paper towel that I fold and then fold again—or you can use a select-a-size and just fold it over once. [Above, Ken’s photos of the process and result.]
Q. “Select-a-size,” I love it. You’re so crazy, this guy.
A. I moisten that, and put them in and slip them into a sandwich bag and close it. And it’s a good idea to write on it what it is.
Q. Like you’re doing a germination test of seeds.
A. Exactly. And in about three weeks on the counter–not in the refrigerator or anything, you just put them on the counter in the kitchen where you’re going to see them–in three weeks they don’t make leaves like the other ones, they make little tiny bulbs. It’s so cute.
Q. Oh, you’re kidding.
A. So I take the bulbs and I pot those up usually in a flat, and not too big a flat, I’ll stick it in the refrigerator, believe it or not. Write “do not eat” on it and the date that I did it and what it is. I take it out in March, put it in a sunny window or under lights, and they’ll sprout leaves. In that way you’re getting your lily plants going one year faster than they would in the garden by themselves. It’s fun, too. I do it every year. [Above, Ken’s L. formosanum seedlings ready to pot up.]
Q. And so that works with the ones that are not what’s called epigeal?
A. Those are the hypogeal ones.
Q. Hypogeal. I gotta look this up. [A list of lily species divided into epigeal germination versus hypogeal.]
A. So you look online, if you look up Lilium martagon you can find that it’s hypogeal and you know it’s going to take, in nature it takes two years to germinate. Warm moist, cold, moist, warm moist, etc. you just follow those directions.
Q. Is that like a double dormancy? I don’t know; I wonder if that’s what that is. So with the epigeal ones, if we want to get started in lily growing from seed 101, we could pick an epigeal one and even have faster results.
A. Right. Because Lilium formosanum, if you live in Zone 6B or warmer they can sometimes bloom the first year from seed. Just one flower and they’re short but they grow to 6 or 7 feet with many flowers.
Q. Very interesting; I didn’t know.
tangle of rose, wisteria and honeysuckle
Q. I’m going to ask you a really quick question from Loretta, who has “a four-year-old wisteria intertwined with a honeysuckle and a ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ climbing rose.” She’s got a real tangle. Will this affect the wisteria from blooming; is it too crowded? She’s not had a lot of flowers and she’s wondering with these three vines, is that too much?
A. Oh my gosh. [Laughter.]
Q. That sounds like a lot to me. And especially with the wisteria.
A. Like the fight of the century.
Q. With three fighters in the ring. [Laughter.]
A. You don’t say how big the space is, but the wisteria—do you know how long she’s been doing this?
Q. No, she said she trimmed back last year—she “trimmed back the wisteria last year, but then it only had two single long cascading blooms.” And that was it.
A. I think it’s dangerous.
Q. Maybe a little much.
A. Better to have them on their own, but for the wisteria: I prune my wisteria about once a month until August and I cut it back to about five nodes from the main stem. And then that’s how I really get bloom, and I got bloom when they were pretty young doing that. Because they’ll make those giant, big wands, and they wind everywhere. It also depends on what kind of wisteria. I’m imagining it’s the Japanese floribunda or the Chinese—those are just monsters. I wish her great good luck, and I hope it’s not too close to the house.
Q. [Laughter.] Yes. We got through a lot of questions. Thank you, thank you, Ken Druse.
enter to win ‘making more plants’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Ken Druse’s propagation book called “Making More Plants” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box, all the way at the bottom of the page:
Is there some plant in your garden that you have deliberately multiplied by saving seed, the way Ken does his white Lilium martagon, or by some other deliberate method? Do you ever find yourself “making more plants”?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 6, 2018. Good luck to all; U.S. and Canada only.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 29, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).