you can grow that
Framed against a dirty, south-facing basement window that will soon be blocked by the foliage of outdoor plants, these kalanchoe blossoms exist against all odds. The kalanchoe plants blossom nearly continuously despite receiving little sunlight and sporadic, meager watering.
At least three years ago, I picked up two kalanchoe plants from a vendor who gives away inventory at the end of the spring flower season. Kalanchoe is a succulent that, sadly, isn’t cold-hardy. As a houseplant, however, kalanchoe is indestructible.
In mid spring, I’m pushing hard to get the vegetable garden planted, so I had no time to deal with the kalanchoe. I set it on the only south-facing windowsill in the basement and got on with the gardening.
Actually, the flower pots holding the kalanchoe plants were quite small. I’d add just a little water and it would flow through the soil and out the bottoms of the pots. This was messy, so I considered options for capturing the overflow. Turns out, there was a windowsill planter “lying fallow” near the south-facing window. It was full of soil but without plants growing in it.
While these look like neglected plants, they’ve experience neglect that would kill a huge number of houseplants. Water runs straight through those tiny flower pots and the soil dries out in a day or two. Still, the plants remain green and in bloom even after three months without watering.
For expediency, I moved the windowsill planter to the south-facing windowsill and set the kalanchoe plants in it. And there they sat.
And there they sit.
My kalanchoe today
Here, years after I acquired them, my kalanchoe plants remain in their original pots. I water them, perhaps, 20 times a year… but not at regular intervals. There have been several three-month periods in which the plants got no attention. The soil has gone dry, light from the window has gone dim (when plants outside the window leaf up in spring, less sunlight comes through the glass), and I’ve added no nutrition by way of plant food or compost.
I picked up this pink-flowered kalanchoe at a bargain price and will plant it between my two white-flowered plants in the windowsill planter that has served for several years to capture excess water. With a bit of attention, these hard-to-kill plants should become a nice accent in my nascent houseplantscape.
Through most of the year, there are flowers on those kalanchoe plants. What’s more, the leaves are always green; they don’t shrivel, they don’t dry out, and they don’t fall off. Oh! And the plants continue to grow larger (if not attractively).
The point: I’ve neglected these plants like no plant I’ve ever owned, and they continue to grow and flower. Imagine how amazing they’d look if I actually took care of them. Actually, that’s the plan. They’ve performed so well, I’m finally going to reward them by moving them into the windowsill planter where they’ll have fresh soil and room to spread. I even bought a contrasting pink-flowering kalanchoe to set between them.
Want a nearly indestructible houseplant that responds to neglect by thriving and flowering against all odds? Try kalanchoe. You can grow that.
A lot of what’s in my dad’s garden was there when he moved into his apartment. There’s a boxwood on each side of his entrance walk and an impressive assortment of hostas for such a small space. At first, there might have been a Sundrop or two. Three years later, when I captured this photo, there was a jungle of Sundrops.
I’m still learning to want to grow ornamental plants. For me, gardening has always been about food. Touring show gardens, writing about gardening, and having many friends who are geniuses at landscape architecture and garden design has awakened in me a desire to have a pretty yard. Last summer a planting bed at my dad’s apartment reinforced that desire.
In very early summer, my dad’s garden sported a dense cloud of yellow: Flowers that glowed in the sunlight on 12-to-18-inch stalks. It was one of the most striking features I’d seen in any private garden, and I’ve visited a lot of stunning private gardens.
My Sundrop Awakening
I asked my dad if he knew what plant produced these arresting flowers and, happily, he did! “Sundrops,” he said.
I snapped a few photos and moved along but Sundrops were now in my mental catalog of plants to consider for my own yard. I hadn’t yet tracked down a nursery or garden center that sold Sundrops when this spring I once again visited my dad.
With virtually nothing growing, my dad’s garden still caught my eye. Where last summer there had been stalks of gorgeous yellow flowers, this spring there was a dense ground cover of green-and-purple-leafed plants. They were already growing despite spring having barely started.
My dad’s Sundrop plants had shallow roots and I was able to dig about ten of them in just a few minutes. I’ll probably plant them in the corner of the yard under the apple trees and see how quickly they spread.
So, I asked my dad, “Are those Sundrops?”
He gave an affirmative and told me they were getting out of control. I was thrilled when he agreed I should dig some from around the edges of the patch. I filled a bucket with plants and quickly realized they spread via rhizomes: root-like shoots that radiated out through the soil specifically to push up new plants.
I’ve been warned that Sundrops spread aggressively… which was obvious from my dad’s Sundrop patch. When he moved into his apartment four years ago, I didn’t notice Sundrops there; in only three years they took over a six foot diameter area.
Sundrops in your garden
I did a little reading and found that Sundrops — also known as Evening Primrose — are hardy in zones 5 through 8. Supposedly, they need lots of sunlight, but sunlight reaching my dad’s garden is best suited for hostas; his Sundrops were doing fine.
Your Sundrops will do best in well-conditioned soil, but they grow naturally in many soil types from sand to loam. They handle drought well and once they’re established you may need to be brutal to keep them from spreading beyond your flower bed.
With gorgeous yellow flowers, attractive bi-colored foliage, and a tendency to spread aggressively, Sundrops make a terrific ground cover whose character changes from season to season.
Want a fast-spreading patch of bi-colored leaves that throw up a cloud of bright yellow flowers in late spring? You can grow that with Sundrops.
I dug about a foot into the soil and still had to pull the roots of my horseradish plant. These are just over a foot long and I don’t know how much broke off in the ground.
Remember when I said you can grow horseradish? Do it! My three year horseradish project was very satisfying this Christmas. You might have a similar experience.
In mid autumn, I harvested from my horseradish patch. I’d heard that horseradish is hard to kill; it will take over your yard if you don’t manage it carefully. Harvesting helped me understand the problem.
I dug alongside a root and tried to follow it to its deepest point. Fully a foot into the soil, there was no end in sight and I simply couldn’t dig deeper. So, I pulled and the root broke someplace beneath the bottom of the hole. I suspect the piece left behind will send up a new plant pretty much as a dandelion would under similar circumstances.
I had to break the top of each root I harvested away from the other roots. They were all joined at the top by a raft of root tops and emerging plant stalks.
I dug a second root with similar results. If we used a lot of horseradish, I’d have dug more, but we go through about a half cup of horseradish sauce in a year—pretty much all of that on Christmas Eve.
A horseradish condiment
A few days before Christmas, I took a horseradish root from the refrigerator, rinsed it thoroughly, and used a vegetable peeler to remove the skin. Then I grated the root into the consistency of fine (wet) meal. This I loaded into a one-cup jelly jar; there was a half cup of grated horseradish.
To finish, I added exactly enough white vinegar to soak the horseradish—this involved slowly dribbling in vinegar so the grated root could absorb it. I stopped when the top of the horseradish was obviously moist. Then I covered the jar and set it in the refrigerator.
How we use horseradish
Our traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a beef fondue extravaganza. We cook our own cubes of filet mignon in a fondue pot of hot oil.
I shredded the horseradish on the face of my grater that seemed most suited to scraping things rather than shaving them. A single, peeled root generated a half cup of horseradish crumbs.
To prepare, my wife mixes up several meat sauces, a few of which incorporate horseradish. I’ve always bought a jar of pickled, grated horseradish to use in the sauces, but this year my wife used my homemade pickled horseradish. It tasted fine.
It took three years to go from my brother’s garden to my refrigerator to my garden and finally to my dinner table. It’s a very satisfying story to accompany dinner.
Want horseradish to make your own meat sauces? You can grow that!
With just enough vinegar to cover the shredded horseradish, after a few days in the refrigerator the horseradish seemed a bit dry. It was nearly exactly enough to flavor our Christmas Eve beef fondue; this is all that remains.
Among the things left by a vendor packing up after a hort industry trade show was a modest basil plant that I set under lights on my ping-pong table.
I attended a horticulture industry conference in January of this year. When the conference ended, vendors packed up their valuables and left. Some vendors left things behind.
Apparently, when your company produces hundreds of thousands of seedlings for garden centers all over the country, it’s not cost-effective to pack up a few dozen after a trade show and take them back to headquarters.
So, I scored some edible plant seedlings: two rosemary plants, three sage plants, and a basil plant.
Herb seedlings in winter
It’s not convenient to acquire seedlings in January in central Pennsylvania. Last winter was particularly cold, and soil was hard frozen. Without a jackhammer, I couldn’t plant the seedlings outside. And anyway, basil dies when the temperature drops to 32F degrees; in central PA, basil is an annual.
Ping-pong never caught on with my kids, and my wife and I haven’t played in years. To-boot, the only south-facing window in my basement illuminates the ping-pong table; it’s a natural place to winter over plants. I hang four-foot-long shop lights from the suspended ceiling to drive 850spectrum fluorescent tubes.
I had some stuff under lights on the ping-pong table—a whole bunch of elephant ears I’d peeled apart from the original corm I’d planted in the spring. It was a simple matter to slip the herbs in among them.
Every now and then I’d harvest a few leaves from the basil plant, and it did OK under lights. Finally, in June I planted the very mature seedling in my herb garden. It didn’t do well, but it grew and between it and a stand of purple basil plants, there was plenty to season salads and sauces. Then winter loomed.
When weather forecasts threatened frost, I cut several stems from the basil plant and stood them in water as you would cut flowers. Years ago I’d done this to hold some sprigs over a few weeks for cooking and was impressed at how easily they’d sprouted roots. This time, roots were my intent.
The basil wasn’t particularly eye-catching in my garden this summer, so I never once focused my camera on it. However, in several photos, the basil plant provided delightful contrast for the lavender.
The cuttings rooted quickly, and I moved them into flower pots after about four weeks. They’re just now fully acclimated to living in soil, and I’m seeing signs of new growth.
I’ve never grown herbs indoors specifically for cooking. When I have grown them, it’s been as starts for spring planting. This year, however, my basil cuttings are (nearly) entirely about seasoning. Under intense lights, I expect they’ll grow enough to flavor many meals.
I’ll harvest lightly so the cuttings remain strong, and I’ll plant the basil out next June. This will become a rhythm in my gardening year: Set the basil plants in the garden, harvest as-needed, root cuttings in autumn and pot them up, grow them under intense light, harvest modestly through winter, repeat.
It’s easy. You want basil for life? You can grow that.
Basil is one of the easiest food plants to grow from cuttings. About three weeks in water was enough to produce healthy roots on a tiny sprig.
I wonder how a well-managed five-year-old basil plant looks in the landscape. Similarly, I wonder whether a rooted cutting counts as a new plant, or just more of the original. This seedling started as a cutting from my herb garden and should provide seasoning for at least a few meals through the winter.
I spent a dollar to buy two Hen and Chicks plants at a yard sale in autumn. With snow predicted, I “heeled in” the plants in my vegetable bed. When the snow finally melted in March, I found this little family looking healthy and ready for action. Eventually, these will find a home in a rock garden I plan to build where the compost heap now rests.
I’ve been a sucker for succulents since I grew a jungle in my bedroom during my high school years. So, despite my garden’s intense focus on food plants, I’ve mused for a long time about establishing a succulent garden in my yard. Near the end of last year, I was working specifically toward that end: I had packed several carloads of rocks back from my brother’s farm to use in building a rock garden that would host a variety of cold-hardy succulents.
One afternoon in late autumn, I stopped at a yard sale. There, the only items that interested me were foam coffee cups planted with Hens and Chicks. Each cup had a price of fifty cents—lower than I’ve seen nursery plants discounted at the end of the season. I bought two. I hope my experiences with them so far inspire you.
No Garden Yet
By the time it got too cold to garden, I’d not yet prepared my new planting bed. I had enough rocks stacked on the driveway, but I needed to move the compost heap and it became too unpleasant outside for me to feel motivated.
To emphasize the certainty that you can grow Hens and Chicks, I captured this photo of a border along a sidewalk in Toronto. Toronto is well north of me and they experienced as punishing a winter as ours. However, by early March, snow had melted off and revealed this healthy-looking planting bed. Hens and Chicks have crowded the bed enough that it could benefit from thinning—a procedure the harsh winter failed to accomplish.
I didn’t want my Hens and Chicks—along with several other succulents I’d acquired—to spend winter outdoors in pots. And, there was no way I’d try to keep them growing indoors under lights. So, I decided to “heel in” the plants at one end of the vegetable bed.
Heeling in means planting a seedling poorly; without commitment. You can dig a shallow hole or find a bare patch of soil, lay the roots of the plant against the soil, and then cover the roots with more soil. I’ve seen young fruit trees heeled in while they were all but lying flat on the ground.
In any case, I heeled in the Hen and Chicks plants along with close to a dozen other succulents I’d bought at a garden center at “we don’t want these anymore” prices. Winter happened.
It was an impressive winter! We had more than a month where temperatures never rose out of the teens, and we had many, many days near and below zero. We also had snow, which is a blessing. Snow covered the garden continuously for several months and provided some relief from the cold for perennials.
A rule of thumb for central Pennsylvania is to plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. Usually by mid-February daffodils are at least sprouting and by March warm days beckon us to garden. This year St Patrick’s Day came and went and we got to April 1st before there was any real beckoning.
A chick must have broken off one of the potted plants when I heeled it in last autumn. Under snow at seriously frigid temperatures, the little plant managed to drop roots into the soil. It looked perfect when the snow melted, and it will look just fine in its new home when I get the rock garden assembled.
But look at the photos! Hens and Chicks are very well, thank you. The two plants I heeled in are healthy and ready to move. What’s more, a small “chick” that must have broken off last fall had rooted where it lay despite the cold and snow!
To reinforce the point, I’ve included a photo of a border along a yard in Toronto. I visited Toronto in early March—at least one hardiness zone farther north than central PA. In the city, snow had melted, and that dense growth of Hens and Chicks made a dramatic in-your-face, winter, statement.
If you have any doubts about succeeding with gardening, try growing a Hen and Chicks plant. If a small piece of this plant can break off and root itself during a miserably cold winter, I feel safe to suggest: you can grow that!
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After 17 months in my refrigerator, the horseradish roots my brother gave me looked pretty happy. Those are some seriously healthy-looking green leaves… despite that they’ve seen almost no light for more than a year.
How about a little horseradish with your steak? Once a year at Christmas, we have beef fondue with a collection of homemade steak sauces. At least two of those sauces include horseradish… horseradish from a jar. But that’s going to change.
In March of 2013, my brother gave me two horseradish roots dug from his garden. I was busy and so I left the roots wrapped in plastic in my refrigerator. I remained busy. Finally, on the last day of July of THIS year—fully 17 months after they went into the refrigerator—I took those horseradish roots out and planted them.
I don’t have much experience with horseradish in the garden, but I recognize a character when I see one. Almost nothing survives more than a year in MY refrigerator. Granted, I’ve witnessed spontaneous generation in there, but not of anything I’d want to eat. Horseradish roots emerged unscathed from their long imprisonment.
I’d heard horseradish will spread in a garden, taking as much ground as you’ll allow. And, I’ve heard it’s very hard to dig up horseradish adequately to shut it down. Pushy plant.
So, I took precautions. Photos tell the story. You want fresh horseradish and plenty of extra to preserve for year-round steak sauce? You can grow that!
I used an electric hack saw to cut the top and bottom thirds off a plastic 60 gallon food barrel. The middle third is an open-ended cylinder about 12 inches deep. Buried in the soil, it provides a root barrier for most plants. I hope it’s enough to control my horseradish.
After I set the two roots in soil, initial watering fully exposed the top of one of them. That naked root did nothing while the barely covered root put out new growth in just a few days. I covered over the exposed top and new growth came on almost immediately. From this I conclude: Plant roots so the tops are underground. (Please note this is not even vaguely scientific; it could be coincidence that the buried root grew when the other didn’t… )
From July 31 to September 10, this is what my horseradish did. I won’t harvest any this fall, and I’m going to let it alone in the spring. Had I planted it in April or May, I might try for a harvest, but two months hardly makes a full growing season. Christmas 2015? We’re having homegrown horseradish in our steak sauces.