Holiday Mini-Container, Book Signings and a Very Chilly Dog

It’s a big weekend ahead for me, with two book signings and lots of holiday decorating to do around the house. I love putting together holiday containers for outside my front door, so I thought it would be fun to do a mini-container to take with me this weekend to spruce up my table at the signings.

The first event is from noon to 4 at the Warden House in Stillwater, where I will be one of several authors signing books of regional interest. Stillwater is a fun town for shopping and wandering around—it reminds me of another terrific Minnesota town: Northfield! I hope folks will come down and check it out. The second signing is at the Minnesota History Center, where it is double discount days for members of the historical society. I’ll be hanging around on Sunday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. signing books. A whole bunch of the Minnesota Historical Society Press authors are being featured this weekend.

Once everything was assembled, putting this together took about 10 minutes.

Because it’s nice to have something to talk about with people (besides the book, of course), I put together this simple pot. The container is a small terra-cotta pot that I painted red and black, and filled with dirt. I found the reading Santa figure at Joann Fabrics for 60 percent off and he seemed like an appropriate addition. I glued a large nail to his base so he would be anchored during transport. Then, I surrounded Santa with greens, mostly from my yard, such as spruce, arborvitae, rhododendron and sedum. The boxwood and other greens came from a bouquet I purchased at the store, most of which is available for other decor.

We really do not keep our house as chilly as Lola’s blanket might indicate. She watched the container decorating with interest.

Once I had painted the pot, snipped the greens and bought the Santa, the whole project took less than 10 minutes to put together, under the watchful gaze of Lola, the dog, who is not enjoying our recent cold weather. While I like the way the pot looks, I may add a bow or something to brighten it up.

I’m working on a bigger container for my porch, which I hope to get finished soon since the holidays are coming on fast.

What are your favorite holiday container ideas?

Best of the New Annuals

Like a lot of garden writers, I get to try out newish plants, courtesy of plant wholesalers. For several years, I’ve gotten plants from Proven Winners and invariably there are indeed some winners among the plants.

This year, I grew two annuals from the sample plants that have grown really well, and definitely are among the “best of” plants for their categories.

He’s not visible in this shot, but there was a bee all over these guys when I took the photo.

Playin’ the Blues salvia — Part of a series called Rockin™, these deep purple-blue salvia have gotten zero attention from me, but have bloomed and bloomed and bloomed all summer long. Even in August, the foliage looks healthy and shiny and the flower spikes keep growing. I planted these in a bed that I’m planning to use for strawberries next year, so I basically threw whatever into it this year—the garden equivalent of a junk drawer. (That’s why there is a monster squash edging its way around the salvia.) The bed gets part-sun at best, and other than a little slow-release fertilizer in the planting hole, nothing else has been done to them.  Pest and disease free, the bees seem to love these plants.  The foliage looks better than any of my other annuals. They are winter hardy in USDA Zone 7 and higher, so for cold-climate gardeners these will have to be annuals.

Playin’ the Blues looking great in my “junk-drawer” garden bed.

 

Superbells® Over Easy™ is a Calibrachoa hybrid that does really well in containers. I planted these with some lilies, which have bloomed already, and some marigolds grown from seed. The white color with a dot of yellow at the center does remind you of over-easy eggs and the plants brighten up whatever else they are planted with. White is such a great color for adding contrast to the garden. Unlike some of my other petunias and calibrachoas, I did not need to give the Over Easy plants a mid-season trim in order to keep them blooming. The plants don’t get huge — staying under 12 inches tall, but they look neat and perfect flopped over the edge of a terra-cotta container.

Marigolds pair well with this yellow-centered calibrachoa, which is called Superbells® Over Easy™a new plant from Proven Winners.

What have been your best-performing annuals this season?

Disclaimer: I received free plants from Proven Winners to test for readers of this blog and Northern Gardener magazine. The opinions are my own and no other compensation was exchanged.

A Succulent Pumpkin Centerpiece

A couple of weeks ago, photographer (and regular Northern Gardener contributor) Michelle Mero Riedel posted some photos on Facebook of a pumpkin decorating class she attended, where the students used succulents to create a funky, fun centerpiece.

The finished product
The finished product

I just loved the idea, which is generally credited to designer Laura Eubanks, and after watching a couple of youtube videos discovered that it is a fairly easy fall decorating project. This could be a very expensive project, but with a little scavenging, I was able to create my succulent pumpkin centerpiece for under $20, plus I have a whole bunch of cold-hardy succulents left over that I can plant in my garden. If you have a large collection of succulents at home already, you could do it for less.

Here’s what you will need for the project:

  • A pumpkin with a flat top. I found a pretty cheese pumpkin (yes, that’s what they are called!) at eco gardens in Northfield.
  • Some moss. I bought a couple of bags of this from EcoGardens as well. Keep it dry.
  • A bunch of succulents! I had a gift certificate from Knecht’s Nursery and bought their last succulent bowl for half price. (With the gift certificate, this cost me only $7.) I also cut some tops off of succulents from a bowl that my mom gave me a couple of years ago. The bowl goes outside during the summer and comes back in healthy and lush. I also had a cactus that was on its last legs, which I cut the top off of. Life is cruel.
  • Spray adhesive and glue. I had both of these on hand.
  • A scissors or floral snip or some other cutting thing.

Process

Spray adhesive on the top of the pumpkin and press moss on it.
Spray adhesive on the top of the pumpkin and press moss on it.

This is not usually part of the process, but I decided coat the pumpkin with a sealant to help it keep longer. I’m a big fan of Mod-Podge, so the pumpkin got three thick coats of it, which then dried over night. Do not seal the pumpkin! It will ooze from the inside and stink. Take my word for it!!!

The next day, I sprayed the top of the pumpkin with Elmer’s Spray Adhesive and pushed the moss onto it to create a soft medium in which to stick the succulents. Some of the succulents may actually root in the moss, helping the display to last longer.

A little tail helps you to snuggle the succulents into the moss. Put craft glue on the end of the plant.
A little tail helps you to snuggle the succulents into the moss. Put craft glue on the end of the plant.

Then, the fun started! Time to add the succulents.  I added a little craft glue to the bottom of each succulent piece then pushed it into the moss.

I started by adding the cut-off cactus, which was the biggest and trickiest piece.  Most guides suggest putting the biggest piece a little to one side of the center of the pumpkin. Then, I added more succulents, working around the pumpkin, filling the spaces as full as possible. The succulents I had included crassula, hens and chicks, echeveria and a couple of things that I think are sedum. For texture, I also added seedpods from Baptisia and some rosehips from the garden.

Basic container principles, such as thriller, filler, spiller, apply to the pumpkin centerpiece.
Basic container principles, such as thriller, filler, spiller, apply to the pumpkin centerpiece.

The whole process only took about an hour and it was creative and fun. For care, it’s recommended that you spritz your succulents with water about once a week to prolong their life. I’m hoping this little centerpiece will last from now through Thanksgiving.

What are your favorite fall decorating projects?

New Plants for 2016: First Impressions

I’m one of those lucky garden writers who receives plants from several plant wholesalers to test before the plants are introduced to the public. The companies—Proven Winners and Bailey Nurseries this year—use feedback from writers (and many other plant testers) to make sure the plants will perform well in home gardens.

These are plants that you will likely see in nurseries and garden centers next year. Maybe I’m getting better at growing these new plants or maybe this is just a particularly good year for introductions, but the plants I tried this year were overwhelmingly great.

Here are five that you may want to look for next year.

Campfire bidens blooms weaved around Autumn Joy sedum in my garden in June.
Campfire bidens blooms weaved around Autumn Joy sedum in my garden in June.

Campfire™ Fireburst bidens was one of the most commented on plants when my garden was on a tour earlier this summer. The bright yellow and orange flowers add a dainty element to containers. The blooms were prolific and the plant bloomed most of the season. They took a bit of a break in August, but revived with some fertilizer and more attention to watering.

Holy Moly calibrachoa blended nicely with pink and green coleus. (Note to self: wash off pot before taking photos!)
Holy Moly calibrachoa blended nicely with pink and green coleus.

Superbells® Holy Moly™ calibrachoa is a cousin to Superbells® Cherry Star, which I loved for its bright pink and yellow petunia-like blooms. Holy Moly is predominantly yellow with red-pink accents. It is a prolific bloomer and looked fantastic in several containers. This calibrachoa is known for continuing to bloom even in the fall, and that certainly proved true in this warmer-than-average October. The plant took a break in September, but has been blooming away since then.

container with sedumAnother container plant I really liked was Lemon Coral™ sedum, a  short, chartreuse annual sedum. I used the plant in containers and it added a textural element as well as brightness. This sedum can handle part sun and is great for brightening up a shady corner. Some other garden bloggers have commented that the plant is a bit too aggressive, but I grew it only in containers and did not find that it took over. That may be because the containers were usually in part shade areas.

I’ve never been a huge fan of potentilla, but I really liked the look of the new First Editions® Lemon Meringue™ potentilla from Twin Cities-based Bailey Nurseries. The blooms on this plant look like tiny, yellow roses and the foliage is neat. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, making it a good option for smaller landscapes. Potentilla is completely hardy to northern climates and virtually maintenance free. This looks like a great addition to potentilla options.

divine imptiensThe last plant I’d like to recommend is not new per-se, but is a recent introduction for those who love impatiens but are concerned about downy mildew on impatiens. Northern Gardener Plant to Pick columnist Debbie Lonnee recommended the Divine series of New Guinea impatiens in her column. Since my garden was on a tour and I have a lot of shady spots, I bought an entire flat of them to use to brighten up parts of the garden. They were a bit slow to get going, but once they took off they were gorgeous. (For the tour, I grew some of them in containers, which got them to a bigger size faster, then planted them on the edge of some of my tree, shrub or perennial beds.) While the small frosts we’ve had recently, have nipped some of the Divine impatiens, many are still going strong.

Which plants did well in your garden this year?

Disclaimer: I was sent some of these plants for free, but am under no obligation to write about them and have no financial relationship with Proven Winners or Bailey Nurseries.

 

 

From Container to Cookpot: A Squash Soup Story

soup 2Earlier this fall, I bought three nice squash from the Northfield Farmers Market to use in a fall container. When the weather turned cold (and then nasty) a week or so ago, I brought the squash in to put them to use in a soup. Squash are ornamental, and most are edible as well, so there was no reason to let the squash rot on the porch.

This soup turned out especially good and I think it’s in part because I had more than one kind of squash and because of the way they were prepared. The squash included a blue Hubbard squash, a red Kabocha squash and a buttercup squash. (Here’s a great guide to all things squash.)

I have been reading chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s book Old-School Comfort Food (Clarkson-Potter, 2013). For her squash soup, Guarnaschelli first roasts the squash with a rich coating of butter, sugar and molasses. I cut the butter by about half, but it was still plenty rich and delicious. After the roasting, I freelanced things and made a squash soup the way I normally would with onions, wine and warm spices. (Guarnaschelli’s soup sounds delicious, too, but this is my preferred recipe.) It turned out beautifully, elevating a simple soup and sandwich supper to gourmet levels. Of course, I served it with the red pepper relish that I make each fall.

That's a lot of squash!
That’s a lot of squash!

A couple of notes: 1) This is not a quick meal. Do it on a day when you will be hanging around the house for several hours. 2) The amounts of some of the ingredients are variable. Because I had lots of squash, I used six cups of cooked squash for the soup and the rest went into a squash custard. You may need more or less liquid depending on how big your squash are. 3) This soup calls for an immersion blender. If you don’t have one, you could mush up the soup with a potato masher or use a regular blender and blend the soup in batches, though I think that’s a bit dangerous. (Immersion blenders come at a variety of price points. Walmart has one for less than $15; if you spend $40,  you can have this nice one I got for my daughter when she got her first apartment.) It’s a good kitchen investment.

Squash Soup from a Container Garden

2-3 winter squash (your choice on type) If very large, you may only need one

5 TBSP butter, melted in a sauce pan

2 TBSP brown sugar

2 TBSP molasses

2 TBSP olive oil

1 large onion chopped

1 TBSP chopped garlic

1 jalapeno or other hot pepper diced finely (totally optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp Garam masala

1 tsp cumin

Salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp)

1/2 cup white wine (optional)

1-2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or water)

Water as needed

1 cup (more or less) whole milk or half-and-half

Prepare the squash: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Also, check to make sure your oven shelves are far enough apart — especially if you have big squash. Wash the squash, then cut them into large pieces and scrape out the seeds. Place the pieces on large trays, preferably with a 1-2 inch lip, and drizzle the melted butter over them. Sprinkle on the sugar and molasses and some salt and pepper. Put a little water in the bottom of the pans to add some steam. Then cover it all with foil and crimp the edges around the pan. You want the squash to be semi-sealed in to prevent the sugars from browning too much. Bake for 90 minutes or more until the squash are soft. Take it out of the oven (carefully!!!) and let it cool so you can handle it.

The soup: Remove the squash flesh from the skins with a spoon or knife. For my soup, I used 6 cups of squash, but you could use more and just increase the liquid. Have your onion and garlic chopped and your spices ready. Put the oil in your soup pot and warm it slightly, add the onion and a bit of salt and pepper. Let it cook until it’s translucent. Then add the spices, garlic and hot pepper, if using, and let them cook for a minute or two. Pour in the wine and let all the goodness meld for about 2 minutes. Then, add your squash, the broth and enough water to just cover the squash. Bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. (If your squash is not perfectly soft, it may need more time. If it is soft, less.)

Blend the soup. When everything is soft and smelling good, blend the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. You may need to add more water because it should be rather thick. Add in the milk (as much or little as you like) to get it to your preferred consistency. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or (my preference) some red pepper relish.

 

Fall Container Idea

Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.
Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.

A week or so ago, while I visiting my daughter in Chicago, I happened upon a fun idea for a simple fall container. The container (shown below) was on display at the Morton Arboretum in suburban Chicago. The container itself was large, wide and made of terracotta. It was filled with an assortment of gourds and squashes. Simple, and very pretty.

The inspiration for my fall container
The inspiration for my fall container

I knew that was an idea I could easily replicate at home, and I had just the container to do it with. A couple of years ago, I bought a small, metal horse trough to use as a planter. I ended up making it into a small water feature this year, which I had emptied out a few weeks ago.

At the Northfield Farmers’ Market last Friday, I found an assortment of squashes. One of the sellers was also selling bouquets made of ornamental cabbage and kale. Cute! I bought one and decided to use it as an accent in the container. The kale and ornamental cabbages are basically cut flowers, so I needed to keep them in water. To set up the container and keep the squashes elevated, I flipped a couple of pots over and set them in the trough. Then I filled a couple of tall canning jars with water and placed one in the back of the container and one in the front.

Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.
Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.

I put the kale in the water jar in the back and three of the cabbage in the water jar in front. The squash were balanced on the upside down pots. It looked nice, but I had one more cabbage and a pumpkin left. I put the cabbage in another jar of water set inside a colorful container and set the pumpkin down in front of the trough. Voila! Instant fall container.

Once I had everything bought, putting the container together took less than 20 minutes.

I’ve tried a couple of fall container ideas before including planting a pumpkin here and here. What’s your favorite fall container idea?

Fall container in less than 20 minutes!
Love the texture in this arrangement.

Beauty in the Vegetable Garden

During these last cold days of winter (hope, hope, hope!), I’ve been taking refuge in the garden photos I took last summer. Among the images are many from vegetable gardens that are truly beautiful spaces as well as nourishing.

mixed lettuce bowlMy vegetable garden usually has the shabby chic look (or maybe just shabby), but I’ve found that lettuces planted in pots or window boxes can be very attractive, especially those with rose-tipped, ruffly foliage. But a couple of the gardens I visited last summer took vegetable gardening beauty well beyond that.

vertical cabbageThe vegetable garden at Squire House Gardens in Afton, for example, was lush, colorful and full of texture on the warm August afternoon when I stopped by. Planting green and purple cabbages together created a round contrast. Big ripe peppers hung from plants, like green ornaments, ready for plucking. A tall trellis covered in green beans created a produce wall at the back of the garden. The gardeners included a water feature and garden art, too, which encourage visitors to linger. Even the asparagus plants, long past their picking prime, added soft texture with their mature fronds.

Amy archwayEarlier in the summer, I visited the garden of Amy Andrychowicz, proprietor at the Get Busy Gardening blog. You can read all about Amy’s garden in the March/April issue of Northern Gardener, which will be out in about two weeks, but suffice it to say, she has a way with vegetables. The big arch covered with squash is like a grand entry to the garden, and she mixes annuals, such as nasturtiums among the vegetables to add color and encourage pollination. It’s a lovely garden and I was delighted to be able to write about it for Northern Gardener.

For more photos of vegetable garden prettiness, see the gallery below. What will you be planting in your vegetable garden this year?