Fertilizer or Composted Material: Which is Better for Your Garden?

To support the life of growing things over a prolonged period of time, all soil will inevitably need to be enriched in some way. Plants use up many of the nutrients within it, and others are leached away as water passes through. The vegetables, herbs, and flowers that we grow can obtain the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that they need from air and water. Any complete commercial fertilizer can provide the three other nutrients that they primarily use: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Relying solely upon fertilizers, however, can eventually result in soil that is stripped of many other health-giving ingredients. They cannot correct or improve soil structure, for example; this requires the addition of organic matter. Also, fertilizers cannot compensate for unbalanced soil pH.

Humus, the end result of composting, can sustain a garden just as well as fertilizers in the short term while also bringing with it such beneficial things as microbes, enzymes, and earthworms. Composted materials also improve the soil structure, providing it with aeration and allowing for greater moisture retention. Introducing composted soil into our gardens over time can adjust the pH and bring it into proper balance. Because it does not carry nutrients in concentrated form, there is no danger that the surface feeder roots of our plants will be burned when we apply it. Humus is, in short, the most natural and complete substance that is available to us for replenishing the soil in our gardens.

Unfortunately, a stretch of time is required before we are able to obtain it: as much as a year, or 6 or 7 months from early autumn until spring at the least. If we intend to use composted soil in our gardens then we have to plan ahead and begin setting out our organic materials to decompose long before the growing season begins. Frequent turning and moistening can speed up this process, as can the introduction of earthworms. Still, the period of time can be longer than the eager gardener is willing to wait through.

One compromise that works well for many gardeners is to use fertilizer to “jump start” the garden soil and then use composted soil to sustain it over the long haul. Most soil will benefit from a complete fertilizer – that is, one that contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium all in balanced proportion. This should be mixed into the soil, and watered in, before any planting is done. Our gardens will then have the basic nutrients that they need to thrive; and in the meantime, we can allow nature to do its work in the compost. Once the compost is ready to be drawn from, we can begin to rely upon it more and more until, finally, it is supplying everything we need to sustain our gardens – in a never-ending cycle.

Read more

Cold-Hardy Banana Trees, Bamboo and Orchids: Do They Exist?

When you garden in a cold-winter area, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking certain plants are just off limits.
With some careful research, however, you may find there are exceptions to every rule….

Winter bananas, anyone?

Nothing gives the look of the tropics like a banana tree. If you’d like to have a banana tree in your yard, but you don’t have a greenhouse to move it to in winter, there are a couple of types you might want to try.

The Japanese fiber banana, Musa basjoo, is an interesting possibility for cold-winter gardeners. But don’t bother to harvest it; the fruit is not edible. This banana tree gets 10 feet tall and is a reliable grower in Zone 8. For colder zones it requires heavy mulch. There are reports of Musa basjoo surviving -20 degrees F.

For a slightly warmer winter climate, consider the Chinese wax banana, Musella lasciocarpa. This banana is cold hardy in Zone 7. It has a pretty yellow bloom.

The Orinoco Banana, Musa Orinoco, is one of the most cold hardy of the bananas that produce edible fruit. It can reach 10 feet in Zone 7, or twice as tall in warmer climates.

How about bamboo?

Many people think of bamboo as a tropical plant. Actually, there are many varieties of bamboo that are cold hardy to well below 0 degrees F. Many are large in size, ranging from Ruscus Bamboo, Shibataea kumasaca, at 6-7 feet, to Greenstripe Vivax, Phillostachys vivax, topping out at 70 feet. These are often used as screens or for decorative groves.

A word of caution on selecting bamboos: Many of them spread rapidly and are considered quite invasive. Be sure to do your homework so you don’t create a monster in your yard. “Clumping” versus “running” is only the first thing to look for. Check out the second website below for a great explanation on how to choose the right bamboo for your yard.

Orchids in winter?

I was so pleased to learn about cold-hardy orchids. There are several types of Bletilla that are hardy in Zones 5-9. These hardy orchids prefer moist soil and a little shade. They get 15-18 inches tall and bloom in early spring. The flowers are white or pink.

Another delightful choice for cold-winter gardens is the native orchid called Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, Spiranthes cernua var. odorata. This hardy plant produces loads of white flowers August through November. It likes moist soil or bogs and is hardy in Zones 3-9.

Another popular cultivar is Spiranthes cernua ‘Chadds Ford.’ This hardy orchid is known for being a vigorous grower with large flowers that are extremely fragrant.

Northern gardeners not out in the cold

So even far northern gardeners can have some “exotic” plants in the garden. Do a little research and see which of these plants would bring an unusual element to your garden.

Read more

How to Care for Torch Lily Plants

Image result for torch lily

Torch lily (Kniphofia uvaria), also known as red-hot poker, gets its name from its 1- to 2- foot tall spikes of densely-packed tubular flowers in brilliant shades of red-orange and yellow. The spikes are said to resemble glowing torches or pokers, and bloom in late spring and summer. These flamboyant plants grow 3 to 5 feet tall, and look best planted in groups of 3 or 5. The foliage isn’t particularly attractive, but the flower spikes rise several feet above the foliage and look great in the back of a border. Use plants with graceful foliage, such as cushion spurge, white phlox, variegated ornamental grasses and licorice plant to hide torch lily’s ratty foliage.

Site Requirements

Torch lily prefers a humus-rich, well-drained soil in full sun. It won’t tolerate a wet or heavy soil. The flowers are top-heavy, so choose a location protected from strong winds. Torch lily is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 5 to 9.


In spring, cut back top growth to 4 to 6 inches to make room for new growth. Once the flowers on a stalk fade, snip out the stalk near the base to encourage fresh blooms. Use an organic fertilizer or compost in late fall.

Winter Protection

The crowns need winter protection in USDA zones 5 and 6. Mulch heavily or tie the foliage over the crown for winter protection. This prevents water from getting inside the crown and freezing. To grow them in colder zones, move them into cold frames for the winter.


Kniphofia doesn’t recover easily once divided, so established clumps are best left undisturbed. Propagate by removing crowns along with their attached roots from the outer edge of the clump in fall. Trim the roots and cut back the foliage to 2 or 3 inches before replanting. Space the plants about 18 inches apart. Kniphofia takes off slowly. Fill in the space between new plants with bedding annuals for a full look.

Seeds need a period of cold treatment before they will sprout. Plant them in pots or flats and place them in the refrigerator inside plastic bags for 6 weeks. Once moved to a warm location, seedlings emerge in 3 to 6 week. Remove the bags as soon as the seedlings emerge to allow free air circulation and prevent fungal disease.

Read more