To Plant Or Not to Plant
Posted: January 26, 2012
Plants are living things and as all living things they need specific conditions to be happy. Walk around your garden and take note of your growing conditions. How many hours of sunlight does each area get? Is there potential for standing water? Is your soil sandy or clay and what is the pH? A soil test kit may be purchased from your local Penn State Extension Office; the results will help you answer some of these questions.
Look at the area you want to plant. How tall and wide can your plant grow? Are there other plants in the area and are they doing well?
Second Challenge-Think outside the box
The environment we develop in our landscapes should consider not only our needs but the needs of nature’s creatures. Butterflies need host plants to raise their young, bees need pollen and nectar to feed themselves, and we all need food that is a result from their visits. Are the plants you choose friendly to pollinators, birds, and wildlife?
Consider that pollinators are three times more likely to visit a native plant than a non-native. Consider that some of the most common landscape plants can also be invasive in our woodland, wetlands and meadows and which cost taxpayers millions in eradication programs. Visit the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources at http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us to review a list of invasive trees and shrubs, many of which can still be purchased at nurseries, like Norway Maple and Japanese Barberry.
Third Challenge-Consider the uncommon
There are many underused wonderful plants that can provide you with many years of enjoyment. Here are a few of my favorites you may want to consider.
Small Tree: Oxydendrum arboretum, commonly known as Sourwood, is truly a four season tree. It has flowers in the spring, fruit through the summer, a pinkish red fall color, and unusual bark that can be enjoyed in the winter. It can be a challenge to produce in the nursery, so it can be hard to find, but I have seen it become more available in the last couple of years. It is a slow grower and can grow to 30’ in height and 20’ in spread.
Large Shrub: Physocarpus opulifolius, commonly known as Ninebark, is a very hardy shrub that would make a good replacement for the invasive Euonymus alatus, commonly known as Winged Euonymus or Burning-bush. It flowers in the early summer with white to pink blooms, has leaves that are green to purple, has yellow to bronze fall color, and has peeling bark for winter interest. I’ve had this plant overwinter in large landscape pots here in Central PA for several years. This shrub likes full sun.
Small Shrub: Fothergilla gardenia, Dwarf Fothergilla, has a height of 2-3 feet with a similar spread. This multi-stemmed shrub is native. It has white flowers that resemble bottle brushes in spring, dark green to bluish summer leaf color, and a wide array of spectacular fall color, that ranges from brilliant yellow to orange to scarlet. This shrub does well in semi-shade.
Ground Cover: Pachysandra procumbens, Allegheny Pachysandra, is the native pachysandra and should not be confused with Pachysandra terminalis, Japanese Pachysandra. This groundcover does well in full shade, with moist, humus, acidic conditions. It is semi-evergreen but don’t let that discourage you. The leaves are green to bluish green, often mottled, and stay nice throughout the winter. In early spring they die back with the emergence of white fragrant blooms that seem to burst from the center of the plant.
We do not want to forget our fruits, vegetables and herbs, here are a few that Master Gardeners feel are underused:
Fruit: Andrew Weidman's, Penn State Extension Master Gardener and active in the PA Backyard Fruit Growers, vote for underutilized fruit is the gooseberry, especially the variety Poorman. Gooseberries require moderate to full sun, well drained soil with plenty of organic matter, and most importantly, good air flow. Birds ignore them, deer avoid them, and there are very few insects which target them, although I must confess that I have to fight the squirrels for them. The berries are delicious in pies and preserves, and Poorman especially makes a wonderful fresh snack in the garden. They fruit heavily and ripen in late June, bridging the gap between strawberries and raspberries very nicely. One word of caution: they bear wicked thorns, and care must be exercised when pruning and picking them; but, oh, they're worth it!
Vegetable: Linda Siegel, Penn State Extension Master Gardener and chairman of the Backyard Gardeners in Lebanon County, nominates soybeans for the home garden, also known as edamame in stores and restaurants, as an underused vegetable. They are very easy to grow and can be planted sequentially so you have a continuous harvest. Plant small blocks of beans every one-two weeks from May 20 (usually when the soil is warm enough for beans in our area) until early to mid July. They take 75 days or longer to mature. Two varieties planted at the same time will allow two different harvest times. Harvest beans when the pods are green and full. I pull out the whole plant when I harvest as there are very few if any undeveloped pods; the whole plant matures at the same time. They are easy to prepare- DO NOT SHELL, wash (that is the chore, actually, because the pods are hairy and require several washes), steam for 8 minutes, and serve. Some people add salt to the water. When looking for a variety to plant, be sure to purchase the soybeans for home gardens, not the agronomic soybeans which are not as large or as sweet as the horticultural soybeans.
Herb: Debbie Hartman, Penn State Extension Master Gardner and chairman of the Amateur Herbalist in Lebanon County, votes for Lemongrass, botanical name: Cymbopogon citrates, as an underused herb. It is a tender perennial grass that grows to about 3-4 feet tall in a clumping fashion. It requires full sun and can be grown in a container as well as the garden. The plant has a nice lemon flavor that is traditionally used in Vietnamese and Thai dishes. It is very nice in a stuffed herbal chicken (try it with all lemon herbs…yum), or vegetables, pretty much any dish you would like to enhance with a lemon flavor. To harvest you remove a section at the edge of the plant. You will see a scallion like base, remove the tough outer edge and you will find a tender interior. What is so nice about the plant, other than the lemon flavor, which I am partial to, is that it grows large. So you can dig sections out and share with your friends. In the fall, pot up a section to grow indoors for the next growing season.
Written by: Ginger Pryor, Penn State Extension, Master Gardener Coordinator