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The 8 Best Trailing Plants for Container Gardens

trailing verbena and creeping jenny

One of the best but often underrated elements for containers are trailing plants. Whether it’s hanging baskets or large patio pots, there’s always a little thrill in seeing plants tumbling over the edge, like they’re sneaking off to find even more places in your yard to grow. 

Trailing plants can really elevate style for pots and containers. Generally, most of the trailing plants people use for pots or containers are considered annual plants in our hardiness zone in Iowa. While all of these would be annuals if they were left in containers outside through the winter, most of them are technically tender perennials, so they could be brought indoors as houseplants for the winter if you wanted. 

We’ve picked eight beautiful and reliable trailing plants to grow in your container garden this summer. 

Flowering Trailing Plants

Trailing plants that also produce flowers work twice as hard as other plants. They bloom profusely while also cascading down the sides of planters or spreading to cover a lot of ground.

1. Calibrachoa, or Million Bells, is one of the hardest working trailing flowering plants that exist. Calibrachoa comes in what must be nearly a million different colors. It flowers all summer profusely, doesn’t require deadheading, and makes a beautiful cascade over the sides of pots and planters. It doesn’t trail down a long way, but if you have several plants in one hanging basket, they usually fill out enough to hide the basket itself. Calibrachoa is technically a tender perennial.

calibrachoa and lobelia annuals

2. Trailing lobelia is another tough and long-lasting flowering trailing plant with a more delicate texture. It comes in shades of pink, white, purple, and blue, and the small flowers bloom along fine dark green stems and leaves. It will trail quite a ways down the outside of a pot, up to 12-14 inches, and if you have enough plants in the pot, it will create quite a dense curtain. Lobelia is technically a tender perennial. 

3. Trailing verbena is another flowering option that is also quite drought tolerant. They feature clusters of pretty flowers in reds, pinks, whites, and purples. Trailing verbena doesn’t hang down quite as far as others, but it does create a beautiful mound that tumbles over the edges of the pot it’s grown in. Trailing verbena is also a tender perennial.          

4. Wave petunia is the queen of hanging baskets and flowering trailing plants. Their large blooms are just stunning, and they produce them profusely all summer long. They’re the plants that most cities use in their vast hanging baskets on the street because they will essentially create what looks like a giant ball of flowers. They’ll be so dense you usually can’t even see the pot. They do need frequent fertilizer to keep blooming. Wave petunias are a tender perennial.

Non-Flowering Trailing Plants

1. Sweet potato vine is a favorite foliage trailing plant because of its large leaves and vibrant colors. Sweet potato vine is usually a super dark purple, almost black, or vibrant chartreuse green. There are palmate-shaped leaves or heart-shaped leaves. This stunning vine will trail quite a long way over the edge of a planter. Sweet potato vine is a tender perennial. If your sweet potato vine is an edible variety, it may also produce a sweet potato by the end of the season!

2. Silver falls dichondra is on the opposite side of the spectrum with tiny little leaves. It’s a pale silvery green, and the leaves have a soft texture. They’ll trail down a long way from a container, up to 48 inches. Silver Falls is a tender perennial.

3. Vinca vine, or common periwinkle, is another excellent foliage vine. They do flower, but not very profusely, so they’re usually used for foliage. Variegated varieties are very common, with pretty heart-shaped leaves that have medium green centers and white edges. The vines may trail down as long as 18 inches. Vinca vine is a tender perennial.

4. Creeping Jenny also has smaller texture leaves, but not as small as Silver Falls. Creeping Jenny leaves are round and vibrant chartreuse green. The vines may grow as long as 18 inches. This plant is a perennial, hardy to zone 3, but only if it gets planted in the ground. Some cultivars can be invasive if planted in the ground, so be sure you use a non-invasive variety for that. It will also grow fine in a pot in the house for the winter. 

Add some whimsy and excitement to your outdoor planters and containers this year with any of these great trailing plants. Stop by the garden center to check out what’s in stock right now.

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The Best Mini Vegetable Ideas for Small Space Gardening

vertical gardening

While all of us would love to have a sprawling yard with room for a large abundant garden, and perhaps even your very own greenhouse, that just isn’t the case for many people. But who needs the extra work of all that clean-up and maintenance, anyway?

Even if you’re living in an apartment building and only have a small balcony to content yourself with, don’t let it deter you! If you select the right vegetables, you can garden successfully even in the smallest of spaces.

1. Sweetheart of the Patio Tomato

The sweetheart of the patio tomato accurately lives up to its name because it’s just so easy to grow—a real sweetheart if you will. These baby cherry tomatoes are also sweet in flavor, making them a perfect snack to pick straight off the vine while you soak up the summer sunshine. You can either grow them in a small container or, if you really want to utilize your space, from a hanging basket.

tomato plant in pots

2. BushSteak Tomato

These tomatoes are also commonly known as beefsteak tomatoes for their big and meaty size. Unlike the dainty sweetheart tomatoes, these ones are hefty but still grow compactly enough that they’re easy contenders for small space gardening. Depending on your space, you can grow these in a small garden or even in a container. BushSteaks offer a classic tomato flavor but don’t let their big and burly stature fool you; they’re still known to be a bit on the sweet side!

3. Sweet Golden Baby Belle Peppers

These lovely peppers grow in tight bunches of vibrant yellow, making them an ornamental addition to your gardening space, as well as a nutritional one. This particular variety only grows up to three or four inches. But, what they lack in stature, they make up for with big and sweet flavor. They grow in a bush-like pattern, so they are ideal for containers.            

cucumber plant in pots

4. Spacemaster Cucumber

This is one versatile variety of cucumbers, which is why we consider them to be a gardening must! Grow them in small gardens, containers, and even hanging baskets; no matter the size of your gardening space, these cucumbers won’t disappoint. If you pick these vegetables while they’re still small, they’re excellent for pickling. Or, you can let them grow fully and enjoy their sweet and crisp flavor—perfect for a light summer salad.

5. Carrots

Danvers carrots are a gardening favorite of veggie lovers for their sweet flavor and higher fiber content. They are easy to grow in containers, small garden spaces, or raised beds.  

Nantes carrots are another contender and offer just as sweet of a flavor. When growing either of these vegetable varieties from seed, it’s important to plant them in loose soil and keep them consistently moist.

If your space is a small garden, carrots are also happy to be planted with friends! Tomatoes, peas, onions, and lettuce can all be grown in the same gardening space as carrots.

pea plant growing vegetable

6. Tom Thumb Dwarf Peas

These peas are the ultimate container vegetable and a must-have for any gardening space, big or small. They are so incredibly sweet and only grow up to 18 inches at full height, so you can even grow them in a cute decorative pot. The Tom Thumb variety is also a heavy producer, which means you’ll get to snack on this tasty vegetable all summer long.

7. Tom Thumb Lettuce

Incredibly, the Tom Thumb lettuce variety reaches full maturity at only 4-5 inches. This, of course, makes it an ideal vegetable to grow in small spaces like containers. As lettuce is a common staple vegetable, this one, in particular, is popular because an entire head can be used as a convenient single-serving salad. No worries about it wilting and going to waste in the fridge!

fresh radishes

8. Radishes

It may surprise you to learn that radishes are actually fantastic container vegetables. These fast-growing root vegetables range in flavors from spicy to sweet, so simply choose the one that appeals to you!

9. Pole Beans

Pole beans are pretty self-explanatory. Because the plant grows long vines, you’ll have no choice but to stake them on poles so that they can bear the vegetables. This actually works in your favor, though, if your gardening space is a small balcony or patio —the vertical growth pattern will allow you to tactfully utilize your space! Your ideal container is long, about two or three feet, and at least 10 inches in width.

10. Green Onions

This is such a versatile vegetable and another one that is small yet packs a big punch of flavor. Being a bulb vegetable, the best way to grow green onion is in a container. A pot that’s at least eight inches deep and wide enough to allow up to two inches of space between the bulbs is all you need!          

herb pallet garden

11. Herbs

With all these vegetables you’re growing, why not also grow some herbs to season them with? It’s always handy to have fresh herbs, and they don’t take up much room at all. Some of our favorite herbs to plant in containers are basil, parsley, oregano, rosemary, mint, and thyme.

Check the growth requirements of each before planting if you want to plant them together, as some may have different requirements than others. For example, parsley and rosemary can’t be planted together because parsley needs to be watered more frequently.

 

         So, now that we’ve filled you in on all different kinds of vegetables you can plant in small gardening spaces here in Iowa, which ones are you going to choose? Let us know in the comments below, and if you have any further questions, feel free to stop in or contact us! We’d be happy to help you.  

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5 Houseplants That Bring Spring Color from the Inside Out!

gerbera daisies

Have you started planning your flower beds and patio pots for the summer yet? You may be surprised to hear, but lots of your favorite houseplants can do double duty. After keeping your house green and fun throughout the winter, you can bring them outside to add some extra color and excitement to you pots and flower beds for the summer season! 

These five common houseplants are sure to bring vibrant color to your outdoor flower beds in Iowa this spring. 

oxalis

Oxalis

Also called wood sorrel or false shamrock, oxalis are common favorite houseplants. The purple version of oxalis is the most popular, but there is a wide variety of colors across the genus of some 900 cultivars. These beautiful houseplants can add elegance, color, and delicate texture to your outside flower beds this spring. 

You should not plant oxalis outside until nighttime temperatures stay above 55º in the spring, usually around mid-May. There are two cultivars of oxalis, Bermuda buttercup oxalis, and creeping wood sorrel, which are considered invasive. Other varieties are not invasive, and most won’t survive an Iowa winter outside.

Oxalis prefer bright, indirect light, but they can take a few hours of direct sun. They should have dappled shade in the hottest part of the afternoon to protect them. Allow the soil to dry to a depth of 2-3 inches before watering. 

Caladium

Caladiums are commonly called elephant ears or angel wings. They’re closely related to alocasia and colocasia, which share the common name of elephant ear. The foliage of these gorgeous houseplants will add unique leaf shapes and striking color patterns to your outside flowers in spring. 

Caladiums are tropical, so it’s ideal to wait until spring has actually almost passed to plant these striking houseplants outdoors. Around June 1, or until nighttime temperatures are 60º is ideal. These beauties work well in patio containers, hanging baskets, mass plantings, or window boxes.

The most common color combinations for these houseplants are pinks, greens, and whites, and they have gorgeous variegated leaves. With so many different cultivars, they come in a wide variety of patterns and sizes. 

Caladiums tend to prefer partial to full shade, though some varieties will take quite a lot of sun. Generally, in the north, they can take more sun but should have dappled afternoon shade. Caladiums need good drainage but also need to have consistently moist soil through the season.

croton

Croton

Crotons are popular, colorful, low-maintenance houseplants that can brighten up your outside planters in spring. They feature large shiny leaves with bold variegations in red, pink, orange, yellow, black, white, and green. They’re very eye-catching! 

Croton houseplants prefer warm weather, so you can move them outside once nighttime temps are consistently above 60º. Crotons need excellent drainage. They don’t tolerate wet feet, but they do like slightly moist soil. They prefer to be planted in full sun, though they will take some shade. Their color variegations will also be more vivid in full sun locations. 

One warning with crotons, as houseplants or if you are planting them outdoors, is that they don’t love to be moved very much, so try not to shift them around too many times while deciding where to place them. And don’t be surprised or worried if these houseplants drop a few leaves shortly after moving outside in the spring. 

gerbera daisy pink

Gerbera Daisy

Gerbera daisies are cheerful houseplants with vibrantly colored, long-lasting flowers. The flowers are gorgeous in the garden, as a houseplant, or as cut flowers in a vase. They come in just about every color in the rainbow and there are even varieties with double or crested flowers. 

These popular flowering plants need excellent drainage and a full-to-part sun location when planted outside. A little afternoon shade is helpful. Try to avoid planting them too close to cement or patio pavers since the heat that reflects from them can be overwhelming. You can plant gerbera daisies outside once nighttime temperatures are consistently above 40º.

To keep your gerbera daisies blooming, as houseplants or outside, deadhead them as soon as a bloom starts to fade. Keep them watered consistently, and fertilize them once a month for best growth and flowers. Gerbera daisies are a relatively short-lived perennial, with most of them starting to look a little sad after three to four years. 

rex begonia

Rex Begonia

Rex begonias are beloved houseplants because of their uniquely patterned leaves. There are over 1,000 species of begonia, and the color variance on their leaves and vibrant flowers are a welcome addition to indoor jungles. But, they also make a fantastic statement in planters or flower beds outside in the spring. 

The sunshine is more popular with rex begonias than other types of begonias, but they should still have some shade to protect them from the hottest part of the day. If you can’t get your rex begonias to bloom as houseplants, they probably need more light. You can plant them outside once nighttime temperatures are above 60º. 

Humidity is important for all begonias, so ideally they should have a humidifier nearby as houseplants and will do best when planted near water features or ponds outside. Begonias like consistently moist soil, but they need good drainage to avoid root rot. You can fertilize them monthly through spring and summer for strong growth. 

Getting Your Houseplants Ready to Go Outside

If you have some of these houseplants in your home already, and you want to use them in your outdoor decor, we have a blog post that explains how to get your houseplants ready for summer vacation outside safely. 

Once we hit mid to late August, you should start to think about transitioning your houseplants back indoors, and we also have a guide for how to do that, the shock-free way.

If you don’t have any of these houseplants in your collection yet, what are you waiting for? Snap them up at the garden center, enjoy them outdoors all summer, and then add them to your beautiful indoor jungle in the fall.

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The Best Cool-Weather Veggies to Plant in Iowa

radish, beet, and carrots
 “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” – Audrey Hepburn   

 

Hope for tomorrow. Isn’t that what we all need right now? What better way to show our belief in the future; our optimism for a better tomorrow, than by planting a vegetable garden?  There is nothing more satisfying than pushing that tiny seed down into the damp dirt and waiting, hoping for its green head to pop up and say, hello! 

However, we live in Iowa, and Iowans know we can have happy hopes of tomorrow bringing sunshine and ‘shorts weather,’ when it surprisingly brings frost and finds us back to parka-like temperatures. Living in a state like Iowa where it’s not uncommon to wear boots and sandals in the same week, our best chance at gardening success is to plant cool-weather veggies— especially at the beginning of spring when we are eager to get our veggies planted, but Mother Nature may not agree.

man and woman in the vegetable garden

The Best Cool-Weather Vegetables to Plant in Iowa

There are a few steadfast vegetables that are hardy enough to withstand Iowa’s cool, and fluctuating temperatures. When one day presents 80-degree weather and the next a chance of snow, here’s are some of the best cool-weather vegetables to plant in your Iowa garden:

  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Swiss chard
  • Beets
  • Green onions
  • Lettuce
  • Arugula 
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage 
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Radishes (my personal favorite!)

All of these vegetables are cold hardy and can survive the unpredictable weather that Iowa brings. In fact, the cool Iowa spring weather brings out the best in many of these vegetables. Short bursts of colder temperatures can actually make some of these veggies, such as kale and spinach, slightly sweeter in taste.

How to Begin

If you plan to grow vegetables from seed (a worthy endeavor for any Iowa gardener!) our best piece of advice is to find a trustworthy seed source. Not all seeds are made equal, and it’s worth it to be picky when it comes to the food you plan to grow and put in your family’s mouths. 

Some very seasoned gardeners have the knowledge to harvest and store their own seeds from last year’s crop, but that’s not always realistic. If you are a beginner or you just want to keep things simple, your best bet is to visit a local nursery and speak to a specialist.  Planning, designing and building a dream veggie garden fits us pros as snug as a garden glove, and we are always happy to share our knowledge.  

If starting from seed doesn’t appeal to you, no worries, as many of these plants can be purchased as established, ready-to-grow seedlings.

Pots or Plots

The next step will be choosing the best place to grow your vegetables. Do you have a plot of land that can become a designated vegetable garden? No worries if you don’t as many of these cool-weather veggies are ideal for growing in containers. 

In fact, veggies such as lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, and cauliflower are all lovely as garden accents, and their foliage provides a beautiful aesthetic when planted in pots around decks and outdoor patio spaces.

Some of the other vegetables on our list require something to climb on. Peas and beans in particular will do well in a container, but will also require a small trellis or deck railing to climb.  Again, imagine this as a natural and unique landscape accent—one that not all your friends will have.

Water, Watch, and Wait

It’s all planted, now what? We water as needed (general rule of thumb is one inch of water a week, but do the finger test to see how dry the soil is, and remember containers dry out quickly). We watch the beauty of nature do its thing as our vegetables begin to grow and develop, and we do our best to nurture our crops through the blissful Iowa summer until the day when we can harvest our bounty.

carrots growing in garden

A Few Final Tips

While these are some of the best cool-weather veggies, some extreme weather can still put a damper on their success. We recommend keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast (I know, a bit of a joke for us Iowans) and watch for frost advisories. 

If there is a risk of a hard frost or that four-letter word (snow!), then it’s advised to cover your newly planted vegetables with a sheet overnight, or better yet, if you planted them in containers, move them into a covered area or garage overnight.

Besides that, simply hope for tomorrow, enjoying the satisfaction of growing your own veggies that nourish your body and soul.

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Mulch: Different Types, Benefits, and How to Apply

organic mulch in garden

Mulch is one of the most popular garden and landscaping products. Mulch makes spaces look great and generally require less maintenance since there is less mowing and weeding to do. But there are also some disadvantages to different types of mulch. Here’s what you need to know about types of mulch, as well as some tips for applying mulch to your Iowa landscaping. 

Advantages and Different Types of Mulch

There are two main categories of mulch: organic or inorganic mulches. The key difference is that organic mulch decomposes over time and turns into soil. Inorganic mulch does not decompose, though it may slowly break down into smaller pieces over time. 

Organic mulch types include: 

  • Leaves 
  • Straw 
  • Grass clippings 
  • Compost 
  • Wood chips 
  • Bark
  • Pine needles 

landscape fabric garden

Inorganic mulch types include: 

  • Plastic sheeting
  • Landscape fabric 
  • Rocks 
  • Gravel
  • Rubber 

A few advantages of mulch are that it usually helps to retain moisture in the soil, slows or prevents the growth of weeds, helps regulate soil temperature, reduces watering, and helps repel some pests. 

The main advantage to organic mulch types is that they improve your soil over time because they break down and add structure, nutrients, and air to the soil, making it healthier. But the fact that they decompose can also be a disadvantage because it means you’ll have to top them up every few years, forever, to keep things looking nice and keep weeds at bay.

The main advantage of inorganic mulch types is they last a long time. You don’t have to top them up that often because they don’t decompose. Rock mulch can look nice for decades if you stay on top of weeds, whereas bark mulch will need to be top-dressed in just two years and may look pretty messy by three years. 

The Disadvantages of Inorganic Mulch

Disadvantages are more specific to certain types of mulch. Here are some of the disadvantages of inorganic mulches.

Rock mulch can absorb and reflect heat from the sun, making an area very hot and dry, so not many plants can survive in the area. Rocks also do not add any nutrients to the soil over time. If a rock mulch layer isn’t thick enough, the weeds will grow right through in no time and can be more challenging to remove. It’s also quite heavy and quite physically demanding to apply. 

Plastic sheeting can suffocate the soil, killing not just weeds but also other plants and all the soil’s microorganisms, effectively killing the soil. Plastic sheeting also does not allow water, air, or nutrients to get down to the soil. 

High-quality landscape fabric keeps weeds down, but the roots of shrubs and trees will grow through it eventually, making it extremely difficult to remove in the future. Cheap landscape fabric tears easily, breaks down quickly, and only suppresses weeds for a year or two, and then it’s difficult to remove. High-quality landscape fabric is expensive. 

Rubber mulch, while produced from recycled materials, doesn’t have much long-term study done on it. There is the risk of rubber releasing chemical compounds into the soil, it also doesn’t break down over time, and it doesn’t improve soil, and it’s also one of the most flammable options. 

The main disadvantage of inorganic mulches is the upfront cost: all inorganic mulch types are generally more expensive than organic mulches, but they also don’t have to be top-dressed every 2-3 years. 

The Disadvantages of Organic Mulch

The disadvantage of leaves as mulch is that if you leave them as whole leaves, they blow around a lot, and once they stop blowing around, they can start to look messy, slimy, and dirty. If you mow over them to chop them up, it takes way more leaves to create a decent mulch layer. You can’t exactly buy more leaves to add to your mulch, although you could volunteer to rake all your neighbor’s yards to collect their leaves. If you don’t have lots of deciduous trees, you’ll have difficulty getting enough leaves to mulch anything. 

Straw can be a convenient type of mulch, and it’s often used around things like strawberries to keep the fruits from rotting on the soil. The disadvantage of straw is that it doesn’t look that nice. It looks a bit messy. It’s also not that nice to walk on. And while it does break down and improve the structure of your soil over time, it may also contain the seeds of weeds that grew in the farmers’ field. It also takes a long time to break down, and it can be slippery to walk on when it’s wet.

The disadvantage of grass clippings is that if they’re piled too thickly, they get really hot, which can make the soil underneath them too hot or even potentially start a fire. If they’re spread too thin, they don’t do much to keep the weeds down. When grass clippings dry, they can blow around a lot and are hard to keep tidy, and they don’t look that nice, though they are soft to walk on, and it’s free every time you mow your lawn. 

Compost is an excellent mulch type that should look pretty similar to ordinary soil. But, it can be hard to get enough to mulch a large area, and it takes time to create from your own compost pile. Getting enough to mulch your whole garden is challenging. It may not keep weeds down that well since it’s full of great nutrients that plants need to grow. 

Wood chips and bark chips are one of the most common mulch options. They’re overall an excellent mulch, but they do have a couple of disadvantages. One being the mold that can grow in and on bark or chip mulch. Slime mold is pretty gross looking, although harmless. Bark and woodchips also take a long time to break down and improve the soil, but in just 2-3 years, they start to look pretty tired and need to be top-dressed. 

If you’ve got lots of evergreens, chances are good they’re making their mulch when they drop needles. Getting enough pine needles to make a thick enough layer of mulch to suppress weeds is challenging. 

pine needle mulch

They’ll make enough for the area directly underneath them, but collecting more for other areas of your yard is going to be a slow process. Pine needles can also acidify the soil over time as they break down. It’s not a fast process, but it does happen. Pine needles are also called needles for a reason. So you’ll need to wear thick gloves if you’re attempting to plant under it, and it’s not pleasant to walk on, especially in sandals or barefoot. 

Generally, organic mulches are more affordable upfront, and they’re a little easier to apply, but they have to be topped up every few years. 

Bottom Line: Mulch is Worth the Investment

In general, the advantages of mulch far outweigh the disadvantages. It comes down to your personal aesthetic preferences and your budget. Mulch will help keep your yard tidier; it can improve the soil over time, it can reduce how much you need to water plants, trees, and shrubs, keep the weeds down, and reduce the amount of lawn area you need to mow, water, and fertilize. 

Do’s and Don’ts of Applying Mulch

mulching do's and don'ts
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How To Tell What Kind of Light You Have for your Houseplants

indoor fern in sunlight

Indoor plants need light, and you might be inclined to think, “the more light, the better,” but that’s not necessarily true. Different plants have different light requirements, and like other things, there is such a thing as too much light for some plants. 

If you’re considering indoor plants on a spectrum of the light they need, on the low-light end of the spectrum, you’d have something like a ZZ plant that can survive with no direct light or even in fully artificial light. Comparatively, in the full bright direct sun every day for hours on end, you have cacti. All the other indoor plants fall in between those on the light requirements spectrum. 

But, knowing if you can meet the indoor light requirements for your houseplants can be a bit challenging. So how do you tell what sort of light you have in different rooms of your home? 

Well, there are two main ways: estimate based on general guidelines (that’s what we’ll show you how to do in this post), or you could get technical, buy a light meter, and start tracking and measuring the light levels at different times of day in different areas of your home. 

If you’re a tech or data lover, then that might be right up your alley, and we say, all the power to you. But, for the rest of us, here are some general guidelines on how to estimate if you have the correct light requirements for all your favorite indoor plants.

bedroom with sunlight and houseplants

Mapping the Light in Your Home 

There are three things to keep in mind when you’re thinking about how much light your plants get during the day:

  • Light duration: the number of hours of light a plant receives in a day. 
  • Light intensity: how bright the light is that your indoor plants get.
  • Season: the angle of the sun in your windows changes throughout the year.

Light duration, light intensity, and the season will factor into deciding where you should place different plants in your home based on their light requirements. Throughout the year, the angle of the sun in your windows changes. In winter, most north-facing windows don’t get any sun at all. But at our latitude, in Iowa, in mid-summer, most north windows will get some late afternoon and evening sun. They won’t get much, and the intensity will be pretty low, but there will be some. 

Indoor plants are usually categorized as having low-light, medium light, or bright light requirements. 

  • Low light: somewhere that receives no direct sunlight, for example, near most north-facing windows in winter
  • Medium-light:  windows that receive some natural light during the morning or evening, so east or west-facing windows, and some north windows in summer
  • Bright light: is very brightly lit areas, south or southwest windows that receive full sun for several hours per day

Most indoor plants need about 12 hours of their preferred type of light per day.

How to Create a Lightmap

You can estimate how much light is in each room of your home by just starting to pay attention to where the shadows are during the day. As you begin to look for shadows and notice the intensity of the light during the day, you’ll start to see patterns and get an idea of what areas of your home are best for your plants bright light, medium light, and low-light requirements. 

There is another way you can measure it a little more precisely without buying a light meter. You can create a lightmap for the rooms in your house, just like you could for your yard. To make a lightmap of your home, you’ll need four copies of your house’s layout and a pencil. If you want a detailed map, you can do this in each season. If you want a more basic idea, you can just do it once during midsummer. Doing it on each equinox and each solstice would give you a good guideline for the year, but you don’t have to do it on the exact solstice. 

In summer, set yourself alarms for 7 am, noon, and 7 pm to create your lightmap. In the winter, start about an hour after sunrise, and do the last one about an hour or two before sunset. At those times, sketch where the shadows are in each room of your house on a fresh copy of your floor plan, and write the time of day on it. 

It’s generally best to do your lightmapping on a sunny day so you can see clearly defined shadows, but if your day starts sunny and then gets cloudy, don’t worry too much; you can complete it on another sunny day. 

When you have your maps done, take your last clean copy, and then layout your 3 completed maps and compare them. 

woman drawing by window

Color-Coding Your Lightmap

On your last map, color the areas of each room that got no direct light at all during the day in dark gray. Then, color in areas in each room that got direct sunlight for only part of the day as light gray. Now, what’s left uncolored should match the areas of each room that got direct light for most of the day, and you have a completed lightmap for your home. 

In general, you can consider the areas that are white or uncolored areas as bright light, the light gray areas medium-light, and the dark gray areas low light. 

If you do decide to do this for each season of the year, you’ll probably want to stick with four different final maps, or your color-coding could get complex and challenging to understand. 

Just having this map done for midsummer will still give you good guidelines for the rest of the year. As the sun changes, you can check a room at mid-day and compare where the shadows are at that moment to your summer lightmap. If you had medium light requirement indoor plants across the room from a south-facing window in the summer, they might be getting lots of direct light during the winter, so you may want to relocate them for a few months. 

Last but not least, light intensity depends on the weather in Central Iowa. Bright sunny days will obviously have lots of bright light, overcast days will turn bright light areas into medium light areas, and really dark stormy days will turn every area into a low-light area. 

And there you have it, your very own personal color-coded lightmap for your household. This should make it easier to decide where to put your houseplants, so they are able to thrive throughout every season of the year. Happy mapping! 

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Understanding Fertilizers for the Garden & Landscape

birds eye view of growing garden

Fertilizer is something that many of us regularly use for our houseplants, gardens, and lawns. In theory, fertilizer should help your plants or lawn grow better. It seems easy; you go to the store, pick up a fertilizer that says it’s best for grass, houseplant, or vegetable garden on the front label, apply it per the instructions, and voilà, plants grow perfectly. 

Unfortunately, the reality is not quite that simple. 

Even if you’re using organic fertilizer products, it’s still not that simple. And applying fertilizers regularly over time can have significant negative impacts on your soil health. Soil science is complex, but the two basic things you need to know are:

  1. Synthetic fertilizers feed the plant, organic feed the soil.
  2. Nutrient excess can be just as bad as nutrient deficiencies.

Nutrient deficiencies can cause plants to be weak, turn yellow, not bloom, or create fruit. But nutrient excesses can make it look like you have a nutrient deficiency, when in fact, the nutrients may be available but inaccessible. An excess of one nutrient, like phosphorus, can block plants from absorbing other nutrients in the soil already.

The bottom line: before you apply any fertilizer, you should test your soil.

soil sample from garden in bag

A home test kit purchased from the garden center will give you enough information to use fertilizer sustainably and efficiently for the average home gardener. The test kit will tell you the nutrient levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as the pH of your soil.

If you have significant problems, though, and can’t seem to grow anything very well, you may want to consider sending soil samples to one of the soil labs for more in-depth analysis. Many county extension offices can test your soil for you or give you information about sending it to the nearest soil lab. 

healthy green plant in garden

Nitrogen

Nitrogen is the nutrient that helps support lush green foliage growth. It’s essential for all plants. Legumes like peas, beans, and lupins are nitrogen-fixing plants, so planting them can naturally help improve your soil’s nitrogen levels. Tomatoes, peppers, corn, cucumbers, and squash use lots of nitrogen, so growing them can help lower nitrogen levels if they are too high.

If nitrogen levels are too low, what little nitrogen exists may be used up temporarily by bacteria in the process of breaking down organic material. High sources of nitrogen that you can add to the soil are blood meal, bone meal, coffee grounds, fish scraps, hoof and horn meal. You can also add nitrogen with inorganic fertilizer supplements; slow-release organic fertilizers are usually the best choice.

Too much nitrogen will inhibit the development of fruits and flowers, and it will often get washed away with rain. If it runs off into the local water systems, it can cause algae blooms in ponds and lakes that can choke out aquatic life. 

Because garden plants use a ton of nitrogen, and it is highly water-soluble, so some may wash away, it is normal to need to apply more nitrogen every year, in addition to rotating nitrogen-fixing crops through your garden. 

colorful flower blooms in garden

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is the nutrient that supports the growth of flowers and fruits. The challenge with phosphorus is that it doesn’t get used up by plants in the same way that nitrogen does. It tends to stay in the soil for a very long time. 

If phosphate levels get too high in your soil, it can inhibit plants from absorbing and using iron, zinc, and manganese from the soil, which are minerals they need to produce chlorophyll. If your phosphate levels are too high, you may need to apply iron and zinc as a foliar spray. Fortunately, plants absorb iron and zinc very well through a foliar spray method, so you can still grow healthy plants in high phosphate soil.

If phosphorus levels are too low, your plants may fail to bloom or produce fruit. You can naturally increase phosphorus levels by applying amendments like manure, bone meal, fish scraps, and cottonseed meals. 

Overuse of manure in your garden can throw your phosphate levels out of balance over time, and it can be really difficult to get the balance back, so apply fertilizers, organic or inorganic, with high P levels (like bloom fertilizers) very carefully. 

Potassium

Potassium is important for photosynthesis, water regulation, and building strong cell walls in plants. Potassium is one of the nutrients that doesn’t tend to fluctuate as much as the other two. 

However, potassium levels can get much lower in the soil your lawn grows on if you consistently remove grass clippings. If you’re using the grass clippings as compost in your garden, it’s good news for your vegetables, but you should make sure to check the soil nutrient levels around your lawn as well. Wood ash, corn fodder, kelp, or seaweed, and dried manure from beef cattle are high in potassium. 

Too much potassium can disrupt plants’ ability to absorb and use calcium, nitrogen, and magnesium. Sometimes very rocky soil can be high in potassium. 

What You Need to Know to Fertilize Vegetables

Vegetables, in general, require more fertilizer than trees and shrubs because they need a ton of nutrients to create all that nutritious produce for us to eat. But that still doesn’t mean you should just automatically apply a vegetable fertilizer to your garden every two weeks all summer long. 

Your soil is a dynamic thing, and its chemistry changes from year to year as you grow things in it and add organic matter to it. So it’s important to monitor the changes in your soil over time, and adjust your use of fertilizer accordingly. 

The best fertilizers for your vegetable garden will vary depending on the nutrient levels that already exist in your soil, what plants you’re trying to grow, and what the pH level is, which is why it’s so important to test your soil. 

If your phosphorus and potassium levels are good, then you’ll likely just need to add a nitrogen fertilizer to your garden. Vegetables and annual flowers use a lot of nitrogen since they grow so much and produce so heavily in a relatively short period of time.

What You Need to Know to Fertilize Trees, Shrubs, and Lawn

Trees, shrubs, and your lawn need less fertilizer than your garden vegetables and flowers. As with fertilizing your garden, though, the best plan is still to get your soil tested to determine what the nutrient levels are and decide what fertilizer you should use to achieve the growth you’re looking for. 

Trees & Shrubs

Trees and shrubs don’t generally need fertilizer. They have much deeper root systems and access to soil and nutrients that aren’t available to surface plants like most flowers and vegetables. They also have much broader root systems than most plants, which means they benefit from your fertilizer application on the lawn or even in your garden. 

Check for problems like drainage, pest infestations, disease, less than ideal location, or breakage that may be affecting your trees or shrubs before you start applying fertilizer. If your trees and shrubs are having problems and you cannot identify the cause, it’s best to get a professional arborist to give you the best course of action.

If you have to apply fertilizer for trees and shrubs, it’s best to do it in really early spring or late fall, once all the leaves have turned color and are dropping. Don’t fertilize trees in mid-summer, as it encourages them to put out new growth, which may not toughen up enough before winter. 

When you apply fertilizer to trees and shrubs, you should spread it evenly over the entire root area, which means going at least as far out from the tree’s base as the drip line, how far out the branches reach. 

Lawn

Similar to the garden, you should test the soil for your lawn. Generally, for the average homeowner, a test every 3-5 years is sufficient. You can do a test yourself or send off samples to one of the soil labs. The bonus of sending your soil samples into a lab is that you’ll get customized fertilizer recommendations to help you get the best results from your specific type of grass. 

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Guide to Spring Pruning in Central Iowa

woman pruning in early spring

Spring is pruning season, and it’s best to get it done sooner than later for many plants. You should prune many trees and shrubs in late winter or early spring, while they’re still dormant. But there are also a few that you should not prune in early spring. 

 

Pruning can be intimidating, but it’s not as difficult as many people expect it to be. This pruning guide will help you know when and what to prune, what not to prune, and how to prune properly in central Iowa.

pruned back dogwood in spring

When & What To Prune

Generally, you should prune most deciduous and fruit trees and shrubs in early spring while they are still dormant. For central Iowa, that’s anywhere from the end of February until mid-April. Trees and shrubs that you can prune in early spring include:

  • Potentilla 
  • Dogwood 
  • Juniper 
  • Yew
  • Rose of Sharon 
  • Knockout roses 
  • Tea roses 
  • Large leaf hydrangea 
  • Ninebark
  • Boxwood

You should prune early spring-flowering shrubs immediately after they finish flowering in late spring or early summer. These include:

  • Lilac 
  • Forsythia 
  • Quince 
  • Magnolia 
  • Spirea
flowering shrub weigela

What Not To Prune

Some shrubs don’t need annual pruning; you can leave them for several years in a row. These shrubs include: 

  • Burning Bush 
  • Summer Sweet
  • Sweetspire
  • Weigela 
  • Viburnum
  • Panicle hydrangeas

Rhododendron and azalea are shrubs that don’t require pruning at all.

Do not prune maple, birch, or elm in late winter or early spring. Their sap is flowing heavily then, and they will “bleed” a lot of extra sap. It doesn’t harm the tree, but it can be messy, and it will take longer for the wound to heal.

Do not prune oak trees in spring. Beetles that carry oak wilt are active in spring, summer, and fall. The safest time to prune oak trees is in winter, between November and February.

senior man pruning shrub

How to Prune

To make sure you get your pruning done well, you’ll need a few different types of pruning tools, which you can pick up at the garden center:

  • Hand pruners for small branches up to .5 inch in diameter.
  • Loppers, for larger limbs up to 1.5 inches in diameter.
  • A pruning saw, for extra large limbs, over 1.5 inches in diameter.

Staying safe while pruning is essential. If you’re looking up into a tree and cutting above your head, it’s surprisingly easy to end up with sawdust or wood chips in your eyes. For pruning its best to wear:

  • Long sleeves
  • Long pants
  • Work gloves
  • Safety glasses

If you’re dealing with larger limbs, you should have a hard hat, but that’s the time to call in professional arborists to tackle the job. 

Pruning for Fastest Healing

When you prune your trees and shrubs, make clean, angled cuts so that they heal as quickly as possible. In most cases, you’ll want to cut at a 45º angle, so water doesn’t sit on top of the cut and cause rot. 

When you’re removing large limbs, it’s best to start at the tip and take the stem down in shorter chunks so that you have less chance of causing any tearing. Aim for pieces that you can easily handle, 1-2 feet long, is good. It’s also important to undercut large limbs just above the branch collar to avoid tearing. 

How Much to Prune

It’s easy to get carried away in pruning and over-prune your trees or shrubs. The general rule of thumb is to never remove more than 25% of a tree or shrub’s total volume in one year. 

When you first start pruning your trees and shrubs, look for the 3 D’s: branches that are damaged, diseased, or dead. Remove these types of branches first, then step back and take a look at your tree or shrub and decide if it needs more. 

For most trees and shrubs, that will be enough. But for fruit trees or ornamental trees, you may want to open up the tree’s crown to let more light and air movement in, which will help your tree produce better and prevent disease. 

rejuvination pruning technique

How to do Rejuvenation Pruning

There are a few exceptions to the 25% rule, including shrubs that benefit from rejuvenation pruning every 3-5 years. Rejuvenation pruning means cutting back a significant amount of the shrub to encourage it to focus on fresh, new growth. 

In many cases, rejuvenation pruning means cutting a shrub right down to about 6 inches tall. This encourages new, young growth to shoot up. It will take a few years, but before too long, your shrub will be blooming or fruiting like a young shrub again.

Pruning Hedges

Hedges should be pruned 1-2 times a year, in spring and mid-summer. Prune your hedges to be slightly wider at the base than the top, at a slight angle, so that the leaves and branches at the bottom also receive plenty of sunlight, and don’t become leggy and sparse. 

Have Spring Pruning Questions?

It’s always better to ask a question before you start pruning than after! You can ask our staff at the garden center for pruning advice, or you can send a quick email to the local Iowa State University Extension office.

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Refreshing Houseplants in Spring

woman touching monstera plant leaf

Everything starts waking up in spring, including your houseplants. After a long winter of short days, they might look a bit tired. Giving your houseplants a little spa treatment and spring care will help set them up to produce lots of new growth over the coming spring and summer seasons this year.

Spring Houseplant Care Tips

Get your houseplants ready for a beautiful summer with these seven spring care tips.

Spring Clean Your Houseplant Leaves

Over the winter, your houseplants may have gathered a layer of dust. This layer of dust can impede their ability to transpire as well as photosynthesize. Spring is a great time to either wipe down the leaves of your houseplants with a soft, damp cloth, or shower them with the gentle spray setting in your shower or at the kitchen sink. Make sure to get the bottoms of leaves as well as the tops! Keep a close lookout for evidence of pests while cleaning your plants.

houseplant being repotted into new pot

Check if Your Houseplants Need Repotting

Houseplants recover from the stress of transplanting quite quickly in the spring, so it’s a good time to check if they need a new pot. Many houseplants like to be a little bit root-bound, but not excessively so. One of the most obvious signs is if you’re starting to see roots on the soil’s surface or coming out the drainage hole of the pot. 

Other symptoms include having to water your plant frequently. If it seems to use up water fast and then get droopy within a day or two, it probably needs a new pot. Even if your plants are very root-bound, it’s still best to only go up to a pot size a little bigger than its current one (generally 2 inches larger in diameter at a time). Pots that are too large for the plant they are holding can cause the soil around the root ball to hold too much water, potentially leading to root rot, mold, or other diseases.  

As your houseplants start to focus on growing rather than retaining energy, they’ll begin to use more water. If you only checked the soil once a week during the winter, it’s time to start doing it a little more frequently now. Some plants go from requiring barely any water over winter to needing quite a lot as they start pushing out new growth. 

Start to Fertilize Your Houseplants 

As your houseplants start to wake up and put out new growth in the spring, you can begin to fertilize them. Start slowly, mixing your fertilizer to ½ the usual strength, and only fertilize once per month for March. In April, you can start to work up to more frequent fertilizing and build up to a regular mixing dose for May.

Prune Spindly and Leggy Plants

If you had a few houseplants that got spindly and leggy over the winter (looking at you, Chinese money plant!), you could prune them back to encourage bushier growth. Do a quick internet search about pruning your particular type of houseplant before you start snipping. Save your cuttings and put them in water to try propagating new plant babies you can share with friends!

Start Collecting Rainwater

Tap water is treated with products like chlorine to make it safe for us to drink. This isn’t ideal for plants, so consider collecting rainwater to water your houseplants with. It contains trace minerals that are important for plants, and it’s also softer than tap water, which is easier on plants. 

Adjust Your Houseplant Positions

As the seasons change, the angle of the sun changes. Since they’re at a sharper angle, the strength of the sun’s rays are more concentrated in summer, so houseplants close to windows, especially south-facing, are at a higher risk for sunburn. If you don’t want to move your plants too much, you can add a sheer curtain to protect them. Houseplants that may have gotten direct sun from across the room in winter may not be getting enough light now that the sun’s angle has changed. 

Need some fertilizer, curious about collecting rainwater, or want to add some new houseplants to your collection? Stop by the garden center! We’ve got new houseplant stock coming in regularly, and our staff can help you find the answers to your spring plant care questions. 

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How to Make Your Hydrangeas Turn Blue

blue hydrangeas

Have you ever planted a blue hydrangea and had it change color on you, blooming pink the next year, or even within a few months of being planted? That means the soil it’s planted in is alkaline, or “sweet.”

Not all hydrangeas can change the color of their flowers. Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) flowers can be changed from pink to blue. Keep in mind you can’t change the color of white hydrangeas. 

The color of the blooms on bigleaf hydrangeas is influenced by the pH of the soil they’re planted in. Acidic soil will make the flowers blue; alkaline soil will turn them pink. The level of acidity or alkalinity will also affect the intensity of the color. Very acidic soil will deliver deep blue flowers, highly alkaline soil will deliver very vibrant pink flowers.

You can change your pink hydrangea back to blue with soil amendment. Iowa’s soil is naturally quite alkaline, so over time, they will revert back to pink if you don’t continue to amend the soil. But, it may never go back to bright pink. Changing the color of hydrangea flowers planted in the ground takes time. It’s not an overnight process. It can take several months to change the color and even longer get very dark shades. 

soil products for blue hydrangeas

The Fastest Way to Turn Your Hydrangea Flowers Blue

If your hydrangea is in an area with other acid-loving plants, you can get straight to work with a soil acidifier amendment. An organic soil acidifier will adjust the pH of your soil over time. Soil acidifiers are usually a powder or granule applied on top of the soil and then watered in. Follow the application instructions on the package. 

Watering your hydrangea with a fertilizer for acid-loving plants will also help, in addition to using a soil acidifier. We carry Color Me Blue Hydrangea Feed and Color Me Pink Hydrangea Feed at the garden center. 

You can naturally shift your soil more to the acidic side of pH, but it’s very slow. Try adding coffee grounds, crushed eggshells, peat moss, evergreen needles, and citrus peels to the soil in the area you want to acidify. It does work, but it is a prolonged method and will take quite a while to see significant results. 

Alternatively, if your hydrangea is near plants that need alkaline soil, your best bet is likely to move it, or the other plants, somewhere else. When planting your hydrangea, add a soil acidifier, and use a fertilizer for acid-loving plants for the fastest results. You’ll need to continue applying soil acidifiers once a month during the growing season to maintain the blue flowers and achieve deeper hues.

blue hydrangea in garden

Concrete Can Affect the Color of Your Hydrangea

If your hydrangea is growing near a concrete driveway or sidewalk, you may have a more challenging time making the flowers change to, and stay, blue. This is because lime is commonly used as a binding ingredient in concrete. Lime raises the pH of nearby soil, making it more alkaline.

If your hydrangea is not near concrete, or if you haven’t planted it yet, you can test the soil where you want to plant it. Soils in Iowa are pretty alkaline across the board, but if you want to see for yourself, try a simple home test with vinegar. Scoop some soil into a pail and add 1/2 cup of vinegar; if it fizzes, your soil is definitely alkaline and will need acidifiers to turn your hydrangea flowers blue.

Excited to try this backyard experiment, but haven’t picked out your hydrangeas yet? Visit our nursery and browse the varieties available today!