Monthly Archives: April 2012

Curcuma or Cootie?

Over the years I’ve grown lots of different plants from bulbs, tubers, rhizomes and corms. I often laughed when planting instructions provide information on what is the top of the bulb and what is the bottom. I thought it was obvious… that is until this past week.

Recently I’ve been growing more tropical plants in the summer garden. I have the standard canna lilies and hibiscus but I also like to try growing more unusual plants. This year I found rhizomes of curcuma for sale at Roberta’s Unique Gardens and knew that this was the new tropical for 2012.


Curcuma (Curcuma alismatifolia) aren’t very common. I’d never heard of the flower until a few years ago when I was working for a florist and we used them for a wedding. This member of the ginger family is originally from Nepal and has interesting flowers that are sometimes called Siam Tulips.

The rhizomes of the curcuma arrived this week and when I opened the package, I was shocked. I didn’t know whether I was looking at a plant or a “cootie” from the ’60’s Hasbro game! There was a small knob of tissue that had some roots coming off of it, each ending in a bulbous knob. All I could think was “What the….?”

I might have laugh at planting guides in the past, but this time I read it closely. I thought I knew what was the top and what was the bottom but I had to check to make sure since this didn’t look like any rhizome I’d ever seen.

Curcuma Rhizome/Root Structure

Rhizomes are fleshy stems used for storage of food and water. Plants like iris, canna lilies and ginger produce rhizomes. However the curcuma goes one step further in storing food and water. It develops a rhizome but also produces marble-like knobs on its roots for additional storage. The top of the plant is the rhizome; the knobs are the bottom.

The curcuma has already been a learning experience for me. Now that I know “which end is up,” I’ll be planting them in the coming week and will look forward to seeing this interesting tropical grow and bloom.

And I’ll never laugh at a planting guide again!


Common or Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart

The bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is in full bloom right now. There’s something very appealing about this flower – it provides color after the spring bulbs have ended and before the peonies and iris start to bloom. Also the individual blossoms are very unusual.

Common Bleeding Heart Inflorescence

When in bloom, it’s easy to see where the bleeding heart gets its name. Each of the little pink flowers (there are also white varieties) is shaped like a heart with a protruding tip that looks like a drop – a bleeding heart. The flowers form along an arching inflorescence called a raceme, an arrangement of flowers where each individual flower is attached by a small stalk (pedicle) to the main stem. These racemes allow the individual flowers to dangle above the foliage of the plant. At maturity a bleeding heart plant is about 2-3′ tall and 3′ wide and is a very long-lived perennial.

This is one of those plants that I tried in a number of different locations until I found the right spot. Bleeding hearts need some sun but also a fair amount of shade. The other distinctive thing about their growth habit is that after blossoming, the plants goes dormant during the heat of the summer.

I first planted the bleeding heart in a location that was too sunny – it grew but the plant was small and it died back very quickly in the spring. I then moved it to a location that was too shady – the plant was much larger but it didn’t flower like it should. Now I’ve found the perfect location. It’s near a fence and lilac bush where it gets morning light but is shaded during the heat of the day. This is also a location where, when the plant goes dormant, it doesn’t leave a gaping hole in the landscape.

If you’re growing a bleeding heart in a mixed flower bed, it’s suggested that it be planted with hostas or ferns. These shade loving plants will just be beginning to grow when the bleeding heart is in bloom and when the plant goes dormant, the leaves of the hostas or ferns will cover the area where the bleeding heart was growing.

There is another species of bleeding heart called the fringed leaf bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia). This plant has flowers like the common bleeding heart but if it’s grown in an area that’s cool and moist, this species will stay green all season and blossom periodically during the summer with another burst of blooms in the fall. I haven’t tried growing the fringed leaf bleeding heart but if you want bleeding hearts throughout the year, this might be worth a try.

When the bleeding heart is blooming, I know spring is here. I like this plant because of its flowers and the fact that it requires almost no care. Now that I’ve found the right location for it, I just let it grow, knowing that each spring the bleeding heart will grace tha garden with it’s distinctive blossoms.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes

When you start shopping for tomato plants, you’ll usually see on the label that the tomato is either determinate or indeterminate. This designation makes a big difference in the kind of harvest you’ll get and also how you’ll grow the plants.

Determinate Tomatoes in Cages

With determinate tomatoes, once the plant gets to a certain size, the growing tip of the vine(s) will stop producing new stems and leaves and will instead produce a cluster of flowers called an inflorescence. Because the tip of the vine now ends in an inflorescence, there’s no more growth and plant won’t get any taller. Once that terminal flower cluster has formed, the plant puts all of its energy into ripening the tomatoes that have set on the vines.

Because of this, determinate tomatoes tend to produce a big harvest over a shorter period of time. In my experience, while the biggest harvest is over a few week period, I’ve always a few tomatoes to harvest for at least 6 weeks. If you’re looking to preserve tomatoes, determinates are great because you get a large harvest in a short period of time.

Indeterminate Tomatoes on Stakes

Indeterminate tomatoes are different. In these plants, the growing tip never end in an inflorescence; they just keep growing. These plants produce tomatoes at a steady rate throughout the season. If you’re only growing a couple of tomato plants and want fresh tomatoes through the growing season, indeterminate tomatoes are the way to go.

While both types of tomatoes grow in the same conditions, the growth habits are very different. Determinate plants will get no more than 3-4′ tall and they can easily be grown in tomato cages or left to grow on the ground. Indeterminate tomatoes become very large plants because they just keep growing taller and taller. I grow the indeterminate grape tomato “Juliet” and by the end of the growing season it’s always more than 12′ tall! If you grow indeterminate plants you’ll need to stake them or grow them on a tall trellis – a little tomato cage won’t be able to contain these huge plants.

I grow both types of tomatoes. This year I have plants of “Pony Express,” a saladette tomatoes for canning and making sauce. These are determinate and I’ll be growing them in tomato cages. I also have a couple of grape tomatoes, “Juliet” and “Gold Nugget,” both of which are indeterminate. I’ll be growing these on the frame of an old swing set which will let them to grow as big as they want.

You’re Cutting Off the Flowers???

The garden centers here in PA are filled with trays of flowering annuals that are already in bloom. These easy to grow plants are a great addition to the garden because most of them flower all season long.

This past week I picked up a tray of snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) to plant in the garden. Despite our amazingly warm spring, I’m still a little nervous about planting tender annuals like marigolds and zinnias this early. Snapdragons are cold tolerant and if there is a frost, it won’t hurt them.

The snapdragons were healthy plants, each topped with a blossom or a flower bud. After I removed them from the tray and transplanted them into the soil, I then did something that would cause many gardeners to gasp. I snapped off all of the flowers and flower buds.

Snapdragon After Removing Flowers
(the white granules are rabbit repellant)

No, I hadn’t lost my mind – there’s method to my madness! When you transplant any plant into the garden, it’s being stressed. You’re changing its environment and it needs time to re-establish itself in the ground by growing new roots and acclimating to its new location.

If you leave the flowers and flower buds on a plant when you transplant it, you’re forcing the plant to make a choice. It can either grow new roots and get established in its new location or it can try to develop the flowers it has and reproduce. A stressed plant will always choose to reproduce. As a result, the plant will use all of its energy to develop the flowers and buds it already has. In time the plant will establish itself and acclimate to the garden but it can be a slow process.

However, if you snip off the flowers and buds of snapdragons, petunias, marigolds and zinnias when you transplant them, the plant will put all of its energy into getting established in the garden. Once it’s established – the roots are growing and the plant is over the shock of transplanting – then it can and will put its full energy into making flowers. Often removing those initial flowers will result in more flowers over the long-term.

If I had my choice, I’d buy trays of annuals without blossoms but they’re hard to find. People want to see flowers on the plants that they’re buying. That’s why I grow most of my own transplants. But when I do buy plants from the garden center, I snip off all the flowers when I transplant them. I’m willing to sacrifice those initial blooms in order to help my plants get established in the garden more quickly.

Weed Du Jour – Dandelion

If there is one weed that deserves to be called ubiquitous, it’s the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). This weed can be found everywhere. It’s in lawns; it grows in fields; you can find it in urban areas. If there’s even a small crack in a black-topped driveway, it’s a safe bet that sooner or later a dandelion will grow in that crack!


The dandelion is one of the few weeds that most people recognize. The bright yellow flowers in the spring and fall and the globe-shaped grey seed heads make them hard to ignore.

Dandelion leaves grow in what is called a basal rosette. What this means is that the leaves of the dandelion plant grow in a circular cluster at ground level. The internodes of the plant (the portion of stem between each leaf) are very small and this results in a short plant with leaves that appear to radiate from one spot. The individual leaves are also distinctive. They’re oblong with very deeply cut margins. This gives the leaf a tooth-like appearance and usually the “teeth” point back to the base of the rosette.

In researching this plant, I found some interesting things about the dandelion.

This plant can produce seeds without pollination (a process called apomixis). While the flowers of the dandelion often attract bees for pollination, it’s not necessary. No wonder the dandelion is everywhere – because of apomixis, it’ll always produce seeds.

Dandelion Flowers and Seedhead

The distinctive white seedhead of the dandelion is made up of many mature seeds, and attached to each is an 8-10mm stalk with a feathery umbrella on it called a pappus. These pappi allow the seeds to be scattered by the wind for miles. Every child who has ever picked a dandelion seedhead and blown on it to watch the seeds and their pappi float in the breeze has helped to spread this weed! One more reason why dandelions are everywhere.

Dandelions are also difficult to kill without chemicals. Each plant has a thick taproot that can grow to over 3′ in length. If you snap off the top of the plant, new shoots will develop from the taproot. If you till the ground, pieces of the taproot can grow into new dandelion plants. For years gardeners have used weed knives to dig out dandelions and as much of their tap root as possible. This can work but if  you have a lot of dandelions in your yard, digging them out one by one will take a long time.

Any broadleaf herbicide like 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) will control dandelions in turf. Regular tilling will prevent them from getting established in a garden. But know one thing for sure: even if you remove all of the dandelions from your yard, you’ll never win the battle with this weed. More will come thanks to its wind blown seed dispersion.

No wonder the dandelion is ubiquitous!


Some plants are so common while others are seldom seen and difficult to find. For years I’d heard of achimenes and read about them in gardening books but I’d never seen them in garden centers. When I went on an internet search to find them, I only discovered one bulb site and a few eBay sellers who sold achimenes rhizomes. After finally growing them last year, I don’t know why they aren’t more popular.

Achimenes Blossom

Achimenes are part of the Gesneriad family along with african violets and gloxinias. The tubular pansy-like blossoms come in a range of colors including reds, purples, blues, whites and pinks. They grow from small rhizomes (underground stems) and are at home in any bright spot. The plant gets about a foot tall but the stems are not very strong so they’re best in hanging baskets or other containers that allow the plants to spill over the sides. While they need bright light, achimenes will burn if given more than a little morning sun. Last year I planted a small window box with about 10 rhizomes and placed it in an east window on an enclosed porch. I was amazed at the plant’s non-stop blooming from early summer until fall.

Achimenes are easy to grow. The rhizomes are planted about 2″ apart and 1″ deep in a container filled with potting mix. A 6″ pot will easily hold 5 or 6 rhizomes. After watering the pots, the soil needs to be kept just slightly moist until they start to grow. Once they begin growing, achimenes like moist soil and should be fertilized ever couple of weeks with 1/2 strength Miracle-Gro. That’s all it takes to have a summer filled with achimenes blossoms – I said this was an easy plant to grow!

I also like the fact that once you plant achimenes, you can have them forever with just a little special care. Here’s what I did to overwinter my achimenes.

Achimenes Rhizomes

After a summer of blooms, in October I stopped watering the soil and allowed the top growth to die naturally. I then cut off the stems and moved the pot to a cool place for the winter. During this resting time the rhizomes don’t need water or any other care – I just let them rest.  This March I carefully removed the top few inches of soil and sifted through it to find the 1/2″ long rhizomes. Last year I planted 10 rhizomes; this year I have over 20. Like I said, once you plant achimenes, with a little care, you’ll have them forever.

I don’t know why this easy to grow beauty is so hard to find. All I know is now that I’ve found achimenes, I can’t imagine not growing them. Maybe I should become the Johnny Appleseed for achimenes… someone needs to get the word out about these amazing plants.

Don’t Fence Me In!

Oh give me land, lots of land under starry skies above – don’t fence me in! These lyrics by Cole Porter should be in the mind of every gardener when they start to put plants into the garden or landscape. Some plants need “lots of land” to grow and for most plants, spacing matters.

I understand why plant spacing can be difficult. Annuals in 6 cell pack are so small – shouldn’t they be planted just a few inches apart? That little hydrangea bush in a 6″ pot gives no hint of how large it will become. And the tiny tree from Lowes that you can fit into the trunk of your car looks so nice in that little corner of the yard until it starts to grow into it’s genetically determined 75′ height and 30′ width.

When it comes to spacing plants, you need to think about what the plant will become and not what it is right now. If you don’t, you’re nice garden layout will turn into a jungle. And a crowded garden isn’t just an aesthetic issue – plants that are stressed by overcrowding are much more susceptible to insects and diseases.

Some plants can deal with crowding better than others. Annual flowers will usually adjust to be planted too closely. Leafy greens in the vegetable garden can adapt to crowding as well. But if you crowd zucchini or tomatoes, your harvest will decrease. Perennial flowers that are crammed together might look great for one year but in future years you’ll have fewer and fewer flowers. Shrubs can turn into a tangled mess without enough “elbow room.” And when it comes to trees, spacing is vital.

I saw a yard where the homeowner planted a row of white pine trees to block the noise of the road and to give them some privacy. This fast growing tree was a good choice for this purpose. But white pines can grow to 80′ tall and 25′ wide; the trees I saw were planted about 2′ from a fence and no more than 3′ apart! Those white pines needed “land, lots of land” but instead they were literally “fenced in!” I’m sure a tree removal service will be coming to that yard within a few years.

The simple way to prevent overcrowding is to read and follow the information about spacing on seed packets and plant labels. Think about what the plant will become. Wave petunias will spread to over 2′. A little zucchini seed will grow into a plant over 3′ wide. Forsythias become big bushes very quickly. And as they say, mighty oaks from small acorns grow, that is, as long as they’re not fenced in!