Monday, September 22, 2014

Making Good Scents With Indoor Plants

Tired of our artificially-scented and perfumed world, bubbling with pots of potpourri and plug-in air fresheners? A more natural choice to add aroma to our homes and offices can be found in an amazing assortment of plants which are as beautiful in bloom as they are richly laden with extraordinary fragrance.

The most popular fragrant plants for the gloomy days of winter are usually spring-flowering bulbs or corms, which are easily forced into bloom, sometimes within weeks of planting. Favorites include sweet-scented paperwhite narcissus, which can be grown in soil-less media like sphagnum moss, attractive pebbles, or even glass marbles. These and similar species can be stylishly arranged in exotic Asian cache pots, shiny copper trays, or homespun wooden baskets.

Paperwhites, despite their name, can also be purchased through catalogs offering single or double white petals framing a central cup of lemon yellow, gold, and orange, and providing varied intensities of aroma.

An undisputed champion of fragrance is freesia, another bulb, which blends the warm sweetness of paperwhites with a spicy citrus-like aroma. Freesia’s characteristic scent is so popular that it has unfortunately become one of the most overused fragrances in candles, sachets, bath soaps, lotions, and related personal care products. These synthetic versions are often cloyingly sweet and fail to capture the delicate nature of the flower itself. And while the traditional tubular flowers are a pale yellow, it is also possible to find plants with purple, pink, white, red, lavender, and orange blooms, as well as dwarf varieties, which can be grown without staking.

Hyacinths are undoubtedly one of the showiest and most pungent of indoor bulbs. While frequently associated with outdoor planting beds, mixed in with narcissus and tulips, hyacinths are readily grown in either containers or aptly named "hyacinth glasses" and can be found in shades ranging from deep to light blue, red, pink, gold, light yellow, and pure white. Typically, the largest mass of bloom is found in the exhibition Dutch hyacinths, which are more suited for forcing in a glass. French Roman varieties are best planted in a light soil medium and often produce several stalks of closely packed star-like flowers.

Incidentally, the notion of forcing bulbs in glass containers has become increasingly popular, perhaps even trendy, with paperwhites, where special “forcing vases” filled with some pebbles and water help focus more attention on the plant and its dainty blooms than on the container.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria maialis) is one of the most sweetly scented plants available. It is not actually grown from bulbs but from rhizomes called “pips,” which can be set either into a soil medium or grown in pebbles and water like paperwhites. Its familiar aroma is rather much the mainstay of the soap and toiletries industry, although there is a more pleasant association in older legends in which the gentle fragrance is said to attract nightingales. Like hyacinths, rooted Lily of the Valley pips can be readily transplanted to the outdoor garden in spring after their blooms have faded.

Beyond the world of bulbs and pips, there are a great many traditional and unusual plants which can add color and fragrance to tabletops and sunny windowsills. One of the most common is the gardenia, which dramatically balances it bright, creamy blossoms against dark, glossy foliage. There are some 200 species of gardenia, but the most readily found is the common gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), which grows as an evergreen shrub in southern latitudes, although gardeners in our area must maintain it as a potted specimen. While in bloom, a single plant can send its sweet odor through an entire house. However, the plant is rather sensitive to changes in humidity, temperature, soil moisture, and light, and will readily – and annoyingly – drop its waxy buds and sulk for the remainder of the season.

Another inspired selection is jasmine, a tropical plant which can be grown outdoors during warmer weather, but must be overwintered indoors, where its rich fragrance will fill a room and delight family members and visitors alike. Although there are scores of plants called jasmine, only some of them are true jasmines, belonging to the genus Jasminum, many others are jasmines in name alone, and there are almost as many synonyms for the most popular species as there are species overall. Be sure to order the jasmine you want by botanical name, if purchasing a plant on-line or from a catalog. Otherwise, let your nose be your guide.

Among the most exquisite olfactory candidates are angelwing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum), normally a 20 foot tall shrub with strongly scented pinwheel-shaped blooms, easily kept under control in pots or planters through regular pruning. Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) is one of the most frequently sold species, and is the plant used in Asia and the South Seas to flavor tea. With proper care, this variety will bloom time and time again, gracing both indoor and patio spaces. Note that there are numerous cultivars of Arabian jasmine which can provide either simple, five-petalled starlike and glistening blooms, like “Maid of Orleans” or large, showy two-inch blossoms resembling small white roses, such as “Grand Duke of Tuscany.”

Another outstanding selection is pink or winter jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), a twining subtropical vine with a soft fragrance, not as pungent as the Arabian or angelwing varieties, but noticeable and appealing. Flowers begin with pink-hued buds which open into small white flowers. The vining habit makes the plant a perfect choice for training on hoops or small trellises.

One of the most interesting non-jasmines is night jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), also commonly called “Night Queen” or “Queen of the Night” in India. This fast growing evergreen shrub is actually native to the West Indies, and is widely, if not wildly, popular in many tropical regions. Night jasmine produces countless masses of light greenish-white or greenish-yellow flowers several times a year, which open only at night. The intoxicating fragrance from even a small, five-foot container grown specimen can reach for many hundreds of yards. Some Cestrum aficionados actually bring their plant indoors during summer evenings to fill their home with an aroma which seems to last throughout the day.

Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda) is another popular non-jasmine. This familiar tropical vine is also commonly referred to as "Bridal Veil Vine" or "Wedding Plant," as the clusters of sweetly aromatic blossoms are frequently used by florists in wedding arrangements and bouquets. At home, Stephanotis can be grown in a pot with a trellis or other support, or trained as a hanging basket with frequent pruning. Those cuttings, preferably four-inch tip sections, can be readily propagated by sticking them into a moist rooting medium.

Naturally, there are fragrant plants which do not even pretend to be jasmines. Two of the most spectacular are fragrant Bouvardia, a Mexican plant which grows well in containers and provides clusters of aromatic white flowers in tight racemes, much favored in cut floral arrangements. Another is ylang ylang (Cananga odorata), an Indonesian native with greenish-yellow petals appearing in large clusters. The name means “flower of flowers,” and those allegedly seductive flowers are credited with everything from inducing hypnotic and euphoric states, to being a potent aphrodisiac. Most commonly this plant is known for the essential oil derived from the blossoms.

Finally, not all fragrant plants have to actively broadcast their scent. For example, scented geraniums (Pelargonium species) are easily grown indoors on windowsills and offer an unmatched array of botanical and culinary aromas and flavors, from rose and lime, to pineapple, ginger and nutmeg. The fragrance is easily released by lightly brushing against the foliage. Leaves can be used to flavor jellies, sugars, potpourris, and sachets.

Rosemary is one of the few culinary herbs which happily grows indoors. Just rubbing against the stiff needles releases an amazing aroma. The plant can be trimmed and grown as a miniature Christmas tree, or trained into other fanciful topiary shapes. You can also let the plant grow haphazardly on a sunny kitchen windowsill, where ends can be snipped-off for use in freshly baked foccacia.

In the end, why bother with spray can room deodorizers and pint-sized potpourri crock pots when you can fill your living space with real fragrances, brilliant blooms, and the quiet joy that living plants can bring?

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Fall -- And the Garden Year Begins

The days are growing shorter and colder, and your mailbox is already full of winter catalogs. You might think your garden chores are finished for the season. Think again. The garden year actually begins with the misty, mellow days of autumn.

Spring only seems like the perfect time to resume work on your landscape. After all, garden centers are overflowing seductively with flowering plants, community groups plan Arbor Day celebrations and all around, you can hear lawnmowers chomping on fast-growing grass.

However, planting trees and shrubs in the spring gives the plants very little time to overcome transplant shock and develop essential root systems before summer's scorching heat and dry conditions.

Fall is the ideal and appropriate time to plant and transplant trees, shrubs and many perennials. In fact, it is important to get both broad-leaved and needle-leaved evergreens in the ground no later than mid-autumn. Species like holly, spruce, juniper, pine, fir and hemlock do not enter a dormant phase. Instead, they continue to transpire actively through their leaves during winter, which requires fully functioning root systems capable of taking water from the soil.

Planting as soon as possible allows roots to reestablish vital root hairs or fibers, which will begin supplying water. This is especially important for any plant with a root system that may have been damaged while being dug up for transplanting. Moreover, fall planting gives transplants two full growing seasons to become settled in before the dog days of summer. Water thoroughly after planting – and keep watering every week, if dry conditions ensue.

Planting and transplanting deciduous trees and shrubs — like maples, dogwoods, lilacs, hydrangea and viburnum — is best done after their leaves have fallen, signaling dormancy. Without the burden of supplying water and nutrients to leaves and branches, the tree can focus on growing new roots and preparing for blooming and leafing out in spring.

Fall is also the season for planting almost all hardy spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips, scilla, crocuses, hyacinths and narcissus, which includes daffodils and jonquils. Some gardeners prefer digging individual holes for each bulb, especially with more formal species like tulips. Prepare a hole two-and-one-half times deeper than the bulb’s diameter. Before setting the bulb in place, toss in a handful of bonemeal or a dose of a “complete fertilizer,” then fill in the hole.

A better approach for other bulbs might be to treat them like perennials. Prepare a well-drained planting area or bed by removing any weeds and debris and topping the area with four to six inches of compost. Incorporate the compost into the existing soil with a shovel, spade or rototiller, working the amendment down into the top 10 or 12 inches of existing earth. Then insert the bulbs into the fluffy, organically-rich planting medium, preferably in groups or clumps — far more attractive than formal rows Many gardeners use this type of preparation to “naturalize” bulbs like crocus and daffodils, thereby creating a flow of bright, nodding blooms between trees on a lawn, or down a hillside. Such plantings, also called “drifts,” are often seen along parkways and in natural garden areas.

Rescue, renovate or rethink your lawn during the fall as well. If you have not worked on it in autumn, anything you do in spring will be too little and too late. Start by investing in a simple $5-10 soil test through your local cooperative extension service office. The test will provide complete and sound directions for applying lime and fertilizer. Remember that autumn is the best and sometimes the only time to feed most turfgrasses.

Like trees and shrubs, grass plants continue to develop roots throughout winter. Feeding the roots and aiding their development now will ensure a healthier, more drought-tolerant lawn come spring and summer.

Lawns could also do with a breath of fresh air about now. Consider contracting with a landscaper to core aerate the lawn, or rent an aerator and do it yourself. The process, which normally costs less than $100 regardless of who does the work, will remove plugs from the soil and allow air to infiltrate deeper into the ground and stimulate grass roots. The small holes will improve drainage and help nutrients and organic matter — such as grass clippings and leaves — work their way into the soil horizon.

You also can add valuable organic matter to your lawn by mulching or grinding up leaves with a mower. Otherwise, rake up fallen leaves and other debris and add them to the compost pile to prevent the spread of fungal diseases during the wet winter months.

If your lawn has been a disappointment, cut it down to size. Autumn is the perfect time to create new planting beds. Either remove sod with a shovel or leave it in place and smother it with cardboard and newspaper. Apply six, eight or more inches of mulch over the top of the bed and walk away. Worms and microorganisms will gobble up grass, roots and mulch while you sip hot cocoa indoors, leaving you with a brand-new planting area to play with in spring. Instead of complaining about your lawn, spend winter thumbing through colorful garden and seed catalogs.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, September 19, 2014

"Mums" the Word

Shorter days -- cooler nights.  Perhaps you've noticed.  Fall is fast upon us!  Not surprisingly, a recent visit to my neighborhood Whole Foods market was greeted by an exuberantly colorful sight. Mums. Mountains and mounds of them. And how timely. After all, as the sun slips lower in the sky, we'll find a new kind of light. An "autumn light" which is mellow, warm and golden, and almost seems to glow across our landscape. Gardeners, looking to respond to that gentle light, will find no plant which can echo the gentle colors of fall more kindly and completely than the chrysanthemum.

The chrysanthemum is often called the “queen of fall flowers,” and is actually the largest commercially produced flower in the United States, both as a potted plant, and in floral arrangements, where chrysanthemums are valued as one of the longest lasting cut flowers.
Mums are members of the Asteraceae (or Compositae) family, the largest family of flowering plants, and is related to asters, dahlias, marigolds, zinnias, and most other daisy-like flowers. A closer look at a plant will reveal that the single bloom is actually made up or “composed” (hence Compositae) of hundreds of small flowers or florets, with ray florets on the outer edge of the flower, and disk florets at the center of the blossom.

The origins of the mum take us to China at least as far back as the 15th Century B.C., where the plant was cultivated as a flowering herb for use in salads, brewing beverages for special celebrations, and curing headaches, possibly caused by those celebrations.

Please note that only the flower petals of today’s ornamental mums are edible. While there is an edible chrysanthemum called garland or vegetable chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), with leaves reminiscent of today’s ornamental variety, hungry gardeners should not attempt to eat the foliage of garden chrysanthemums.

During the eighth century A.D., chrysanthemums began to appear in the literature and art of Japan. Called Ki-Ku, “Queen of the East,” a single blossom of the flower was used as the crest of the emperor, and Chrysanthemum Throne is the common name for the Imperial Throne. Today, chrysanthemum is the national flower of Japan.

Chrysanthemums gained attention in the West in the 17th century, and were so-named by the botanist Linnaeus who combined the Greek “chrysos” with “anthemon” to describe a “golden flower.”

Of course, mums are a lot more than golden flowers these days. Horticultural breeding now provides a dizzying variety of forms, colors, and growth habitats. The National Chrysanthemum Society recognizes 13 different classes of mum, many of which are familiar to gardeners, such as spider, anemone, quill, spoon, and pompon, although marketing efforts also tout mums with fanciful names such as football mums, maxi-mums, pin cushion, and many more.

Beyond interesting floral shapes, these jewels of autumn are resplendent in russets and gold, red, yellow, gold, orange, pink, purple and white, and can be planted in solid masses of color, or mixed together like a living tapestry.

Of special interest is a fairly recent and popular mum, ‘Silver and Gold,’ which provides variegated foliage along with attractive blooms and desirable winter hardiness.
Chrysanthemums can be sited almost anywhere in the landscape, in planters by a front door, as border plantings along a driveway, or mixed into a year-round garden bed to provide a quiet splash of color.

Planted in beds around and beneath trees, the colors you select can mirror or complement the seasonal color of the leaves overhead. Above all, the mums can provide a dramatic climax for your landscape before the arrival of winter.

However, before you run off to your local supermarket to pick up your bounty of mums, you should consider a few important details. Most important of all, be sure to select hardy garden mums, not the foil-wrapped, potted florist mums. The mums commonly given as housewarming gifts are probably not winter hardy, and also tend to become quite tall, and will provide few blooms beyond the care and feeding of a greenhouse manager.

Instead, turn to a reputable garden center, where the mums are already somewhat acclimated to cooler temperatures, and where the plants were initially bred for use as perennials. Seek advice from a staff horticulturist if you are uncertain about your selection.

You will want to ensure that your mums will receive about six hours of sun, and should be planted in organically-rich, well-drained soil. Consider improving your soil by adding compost and prepare the planting bed eight to 12 inches deep.

After planting, water the mums thoroughly and water weekly thereafter, carefully avoiding wetting the foliage which can cause mildew. After the flowers have faded, snip off spent blooms and mulch the bed with shredded leaves or shredded hardwood mulch about three inches thick.

Keep in mind that there may be some losses if the winter months are especially harsh. Generally, spring-planted mums have a better survival rate than those planted in fall, but proper care can make a significant difference.

In early spring, pull back the mulch to allow new shoots to emerge and prune back old stems to the ground. After plants start growing fully, pinch back about four inches of growth every three to four weeks until July to encourage bushy growth, a full head of flowers, and an autumnal blooming period.

Every other spring, starting in about two years, divide your mums by digging up the entire plant, then use a sharp knife to separate well-rooted outer pieces from the original plant. Space out and replant the new pieces, and send the old woody core to the compost pile.

Interestingly, you will find that chrysanthemums seldom receive the recognition they deserve. For example, Preakness fans think they are seeing the winning horse and rider presented with a blanket of Black-eyed Susans. Not so! Those flowers are actually mums, substituted for the summer-blooming Maryland state flower.

A rose by any other name? You will also find that there are few roses adorning those colorful floats in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. Instead, delighted viewers are enjoying a kaleidoscope of mum blossoms and petals. But mums the word on that!

For more information on growing and appreciating mums, turn to the National Chrysanthemum Society and their website:

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, September 18, 2014

D.C. Tour of Solar & Green Homes - Oct. 4-5

Attention all homeowners, green advocates, and smart investors! The 24th Annual Metropolitan 2013 solar tour guideWashington, D.C. Tour of Solar & Green Homes will be held on October 4th and 5th from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. This fall, green enthusiasts like you have the unique opportunity to view over 50 energy-efficient homes and solar throughout D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

D.C. metro area residents will open their homes on the tour to showcase a variety of solar design, technology and sustainable living concepts, including solar electric (photovoltaic panels) and solar hot water systems, passive design, radiant heat, energy-efficient appliances, and energy-saving building construction techniques. Many homeowners also practice energy and water conservation measures, recycle and compost, and charge their energy efficient plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles from the solar panels on their homes! Nissan is cosponsoring the event and will have Nissan Leafs plugged-in at several homes on the tour.

Get your “passport” or Tour Guide for $5 at area MOM’s Organic Markets. This guide is your admission to the tour. Not only does it serve as a map with locations and directions to each home, but it provides a wealth of information on what’s hot in renewable energy: new technologies for residential homes, solar leasing, and the incentives and affordability of green systems. The guide can also be downloaded for free at

Our sister tour, the 5th Annual Maryland Tour of Solar & Green Homes will highlight more than 35 green homes and buildings in Maryland from the Laurel area to Frederick and Washington Counties. The tour includes a variety of residential solar homes featuring many energy efficient improvements as well as renewable energy improved buildings and properties. The Maryland Tour Guide can be purchased for a tax-deductible $5 fee from participating distributors in Maryland. For the latest information on both tours, Like us on Facebook or visit

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Compendium of Compost Mythology

It is a tribute to composting that humans have taken such a simple, natural process and elevated it through myth and misunderstanding into a form of new age alchemy. The spread of these myths has been facilitated by word of mouth, misguided publications from solid waste managers, and, worst of all, hard-core marketing. In order to keep composting simple and inexpensive, let's put to rest some of the more popular myths.

Compost Bins
There are scores of weird and wonderful commercial designs available: from black plastic Klingon boxes to rotating drums to free-wheeling spheres. The prices range from tens to hundreds of dollars. Advertisements and popular literature lead many composting novices to believe that an enclosed bin is essential. The reality is that heaps or piles work just fine. If you want to keep your pile tidy, consider using wire mesh, or reusing scrap lumber, shipping pallets, cinder blocks, or an old trash can. If you want a prefabricated bin, consider volume before you buy: more money is often less capacity, with the highest capacity models generally selling for less than 40 dollars.

These bacteria-laden powders and liquids are the snake oil of composting. While they do contain "cultured" strains of bacteria and other additives, the fact is that special inoculants are unnecessary. Recent studies suggest that there are approximately 10 trillion bacteria in a spoonful of garden soil. Every fallen leaf and blade of grass you add to your pile is already covered with hundreds of thousands of bacteria -- more than enough to do the job.

Yeast, Elixirs, and Worms
There are a number of recommended additives for boosting compost performance, most of which are unsubstantiated or silly. Adding yeast is the most common, which is expensive and useless. Some practitioners suggest pouring Coca Cola into the pile to increase biological activity, which will take place, though mostly in the form of yellow jackets and ants. Adding worms or worm cocoons has grown in popularity due to some confusion with vermicomposting. Worms do a tremendous amount of good, but need not be purchased or transplanted: just build a pile and they will come.

Adding fertilizer to increase the nitrogen content of a pile is wasteful and expensive. More importantly, synthetically derived fertilizers contain high salt levels and other compounds (perhaps even pesticides) which are harmful to worms and microorganisms. If you must have additional nitrogen, use organic sources: spent grounds from a coffee shop, a neighbor's grass clippings, agricultural manures, or dried blood.

Many gardeners with a high proportion of acid-rich materials mistakenly add lime to their pile to produce compost with a balanced pH. Unfortunately, adding ground limestone will turn your compost ecosystem into an ammonia factory, with nitrogen rapidly lost as a noxious gas. Finished compost is almost always lightly alkaline naturally.

A properly built and managed compost pile should smell like the humus-sweet duff of a forest floor. Odors result primarily through mistakes: trying to compost grass clippings by themselves, adding too many food scraps (or the wrong types of food), and anaerobic conditions caused by poor drainage or lack of aeration.

Rodents and Pests
Compost piles almost never attract pests if they contain only yard trimmings. Adding food to a pile increases the attractiveness somewhat, but only if managed improperly, such as dumping scraps on the top of a pile or bin. Urban composters might want to avoid adding food altogether or use a worm box or a completely enclosed design. Meanwhile, compost piles fall well behind birdfeeders, outdoor pet food bowls, pet feces, and trash containers as residential causes for rodent activity.

Adding different types of material to a compost pile in varying proportions is appropriate only if all of the materials are on hand at one time, which is seldom the case. Moreover, lasagna-style compost piles must still be mixed and turned to evenly distribute materials: discreet layers of grass will simply clump together and become anaerobic. Mix, stir, and fluff to cook up your delicious batch of hard-working compost stew.

Fourteen-day Compost
A number of magazine ads have hoodwinked well-intentioned gardeners into thinking that they must produce compost in 14 days. Such expectations are unrealistic and unworthy. Decomposition takes time. While producing compost quickly has some merit, no one should feel compelled to purchase chipper-shredders or other elaborate equipment. In fact, even if material looks like compost after several weeks, it still requires a one-month maturation period before it should be used in the garden.

Compost Calculus
For years, books, periodicals, and composting brochures have obsessed on carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. Regrettably, the arcane charts, tables, and formulas provided overwhelm many gardeners. In truth, compost piles thrive when different types of material (moist and dry, green and brown) are mixed together. And while ratios are fine for compost hobbyists, regular gardeners need only remember that all organic materials will compost in a timely manner given some prudent attention.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser