Container Gardening Basics

Container gardening is fun for everyone and easier than most people think. Containers are easier to maintain in areas where space is limited, easy to move around depending on the light requirements, can be rotated depending on the season, and will break up the monotony of a deck, patio, or terrace.

It is entirely up to you, the gardener, whether to select the container before or after the plants are chosen.  Just make sure the plants and the container complement each other in size and color and remember that drainage in the container is a must!

Container gardens require a soil mix that is light and well drained.  Many potting mixes also have fertilizer added and contain ingredients to help retain moisture, both of which are helpful for container plants.  It is best to purchase soil labeled exclusively for container gardening.  These mixtures are usually made from ingredients that—oddly enough—don’t include soil, thereby making them “soilless” mixes.  If you find the bag too heavy to pick up it’s probably too heavy to use in a container.

Haupt Garden container garden

A variety of heights, colors, and textures in this Enid A. Haupt Garden urn make for an exciting container garden.

Plants with the same growing conditions and water and light requirements should be planted together.  Consider using non-flowering plants for unique leaf texture and color along with flowering plants, perennials, herbs, and even vegetables.  This type of planting is called “fusion” gardening in the green industry.   Perennials used in containers during the season can then be planted in the garden bed for the following year.

For a great looking display, a mixture of tall, medium-sized, and trailing plants is important.  Tall plants can be planted in the center, off to the side, or at the back of the pot.  Shorter plants can be placed around the tall plants and trailing plants close to the outside edges.

Smithsonian Castle hanging basket

Short on space? A hanging basket is the perfect solution if you’re lacking in square footage. This simple but colorful summer arrangement gussies up a lamppost next to the Smithsonian Castle. Eric Long, photographer.

The plants will only receive nutrition from you so using a well balanced fertilizer is important for overall plant health.  Top dressing with a slow release fertilizer helps get the plants off to a good start. The more water you add to the soil, the more fertilizer the plants will need.  An all-purpose food mixed with water is an easy and fast way to feed your plants.

A daily watering check is a must, especially if the container is displayed in full sun during the summer months.  Watering in the morning is best.  Plants will be able to quench their thirst through the warmer parts of the day and the risk of foliar diseases will decrease if the leaves are kept dry in the cooler temperatures at the end of the day.

Many varieties of plants need to be deadheaded to remove spent flowers and encourage more branching and new flowers.  Routine maintenance will also alert you to any diseases or pest problems that may occur in the container garden.

Inspire yourself to bring color and excitement to every area around your home through the wonderful world of container gardening.  Start out small and simple.  Gardening is a perfect way to achieve some quiet time and interact with nature.  Discover how fulfilling and fun container gardening really can be!

-Jill Gonzalez, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist

April 15, 2014 at 8:15 am Leave a comment

Lost Bird Project: Modern Extinction

Interning at the Smithsonian Gardens this winter has been an enriching and rewarding experience.  Getting the opportunity to work on so many different projects with so many different people in an intellectually-stimulating environment makes every day exciting and gratifying.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to assist in The Lost Bird Project’s arrival at the Smithsonian. Sculptor Todd McGrain began The Lost Bird Project to bring awareness to North American birds that have become extinct within the last two centuries. Todd has made five cast-bronze statues to immortalize five extinct birds: the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, and the Great Auk. He has traveled across the country installing his statues at locations where the birds were last seen. His statues have also been displayed at various institutions across the country.

Heath Hen sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Heath Hen installed in its new home in the Enid A. Haupt Garden parterre.

Smithsonian Gardens is proud to host Todd’s statues in the Enid A. Haupt Garden located adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle. The Passenger Pigeon statue will be on display at the Urban Bird Habitat Garden located at the northwest corner of the National Museum of Natural History as a companion piece to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America opening on June 24, 2014. The five sculptures will be on display through March 15, 2015.

Lost Bird Project sculptures

The Lost Bird Project bronze sculptures in situ.

The stories of these birds are tragic and highlights just how fragile nature can be. One-hundred years ago, massive flocks (numbering in the millions) of Passenger Pigeons flew across the Unites States. It was inconceivable at the time that the huge Passenger Pigeon population could become extinct. The birds became a stable food source across the country and as the demand for Passenger Pigeons grew, the birds were hunted to the point of extinction. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in 1914.

Carolina Parakeet sculpture by Todd McGrain

Artist Todd McGrain unveils the Carolina Parakeet.

These two exhibits remind us of the importance of understanding how as humans we are intrinsically linked to our environment.  Whether directly or indirectly, humans have a huge influence on our natural world and our every action affects many other organisms. These birds represent just a mere fraction of the species we have lost over the past two centuries. Pollution, excessive hunting and fishing, global warming, habitat loss are all anthropogenic factors that have contributed to the extinction of many species across the globe. By bringing awareness to this issue, we can work towards preventing such extinctions from happening in the future.

 -Tammy Lee, Smithsonian Gardens landscape architecture intern

 

Map of The Lost Bird Project in the Smithsonian gardens.

April 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Plant Pranks

It’s April Fool’s Day! You know what that means . . . Don’t worry, we don’t have any tricks up our sleeves today. We’re going to let the plants pull all the pranks. We asked Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists to think of a few of their favorite plants that deceive and mislead both pollinators and gardeners alike. (Yes, we are anthropomorphizing here; guilty as charged!)

Maianthemum racemosum

Maianthemum racemosum a.k.a False Solomon’s Seal -suggested by James Galgliardi, Butterfly Habitat & Urban Bird Habitat Garden horticulturist: From its foliage one would think this plant to be Solomon’s Seal, but this native plant reveals its true self in bloom. Instead of the drooping bell-shaped flowers from the leaf axils seen on Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum racemosum’s flowers appear at the end of the stems as fragrant plumy racemes. Attractive berries turn ruby red in summer. These berries serve as a food source for a variety of birds in the Urban Bird Habitat.

Lycoris squamigera

Lycoris squamigera -suggested by Brett McNish, Supervisory Horticulturist: This lily loves to play tricks on unsuspecting gardeners. The green foliage grows in the spring, then dies back in the summer, leaving little evidence the plant ever existed. In late summer the flower scapes shoot up quickly and burst with beautiful pink blossoms. This is why Lycoris squamigera is also know as the ‘Resurrection’ or ‘Magic’ lily. Isn’t nature cool? (Image via eol)

Exochorda

Exochorda -suggested by Erin Clark, Victory Garden & Heirloom Garden horticulturist: Exochorda, also known as pearl bush, has flower buds that look like little pearls. At a glance out the window, it can also fool some of us paranoid sun-seekers into thinking spring has dropped yet another snow. Not to worry, it is just a sign that spring is truly here. Watch for this to bloom within the month. While we grow an heirloom species, there are many modern cultivars to choose from. (Image via eol)

Lithops

Lithops- suggested by Joe Brunetti, Victory Garden & Heirloom Garden horticulturist: Lithops, also known as ‘living stone,’ is a succulent native to southern Africa. Mimcry helps this plant blend in with its environment. The leaf pairs look like rocks and pebbles, which helps the plant to avoid being eaten. Leaf pairs can be shades of brown, green, cream, or tan and produce yellow or white flowers.  (Image via eol)

Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens orchid specialist and horticulturist, had many suggestions! Orchids are masters of trickery and deception. 

Bulbophyllum beccarii orchid

Bulbophyllum flowers often look and smell like dung, dead animals, or bloody dismembered parts of animals. They do this to attract carrion flies which pollinate them . . . but alas, the flies have been duped and get nothing in return for their pollination services. (Pictured: Bulbophyllum beccarii via eol)

Ophrys orchid

Most famous are the various orchids such as Ophrys (from the Mediterranean ) that use sexual deception to attract bees to their flowers. They have lips that strongly resemble lovely female bees to attract the young, naive male bees. Furthermore, the fragrance of their flowers contains a bee’s sex pheromone, attracting the males and tricking them into ‘pseudocopulation’ to spread the flower’s pollen. (Pictured: Ophrys scolopax via eol)

April 1, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Hope for the American Elm

American Elm

The American elm at the intersection of Constitution Ave. and 9th St. on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History. Eric Long, photographer.

Smithsonian Gardens manages the health and maintenance of 1,873  trees in the Washington, D.C. area. As you walk around the Smithsonian gardens and museums you may notice a common theme: many of these trees are mature specimens with historical context and connection to the museums they surround. This is extremely evident as you walk the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History, where the extensive American elm plantings bring us back to a time when Ulmus americana was the predominant street tree in America. In fact, the large specimen on the corner of 9th Street and Constitution Avenue predates the museum, which celebrated its centennial in 2010.

As Dutch Elm Disease (DED) has wiped out the majority of stately American elms throughout the U.S., we at Smithsonian Gardens work diligently to monitor and manage our trees in order to prevent the spread of this lethal disease.

NMNH, 1909. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Center Market vendors outside of the National Museum of Natural History in 1909. Dutch Elm Disease wiped out many of the majestic elms that predate the museum. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

It is with this management strategy in mind that we carefully select replacements when elm trees at the Smithsonian need to be removed. When one of the younger elms on the north lawn of the National Museum of Natural History was critically damaged during a storm, we once again debated and discussed which “resistant” elm to replace it with. One of the best choices for a true Ulmus americana replacement is the ‘Jefferson’ Elm (Ulmus americana ‘Jefferson’), selected through the collaborative efforts of the National Park Service and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

This tree was selected for its excellent DED resistance and the fact that as a true species, it exhibits the classic American elm form, unlike some of the resistant hybrids.

‘Jefferson’ elms leaf out earlier in the spring and maintain their green color better in the summer than other U. americana specimens. We were very lucky to receive this tree from the National Park Service as it is just becoming available in the commercial trade at this time, and can be difficult to find. The National Park Service propagates ‘Jefferson’ by cuttings from the original tree, located on the National Mall, and grows the seedlings for six years at its National Capital Region Nursery. It is a long process and a difficult one, as only about 5% of the cuttings live to become mature trees. Hopefully this selection will become more common in the nursery trade so that we can once again plant these majestic trees with confidence. Until that time, we are very thankful for the ongoing collaboration between the National Park Service and Smithsonian Gardens to ensure that the American elm still graces the Washington, D.C. landscape.

-Jonathan Kavalier, Smithsonian Gardens Supervisory Horticulturist 

March 20, 2014 at 2:22 pm Leave a comment

Orchid Oddity: Habenaria medusa

Anyone who’s seen specimens from the Smithsonian Orchid Collection knows that this most diverse and species-rich plant family can display truly bizarre yet strangely beautiful forms. Literally every day, some improbable flower comes into bloom in our greenhouses. But there is one plant that invariably causes jaws to drop when viewed in full bloom. Most onlookers agree it is among our most spectacular and prized orchid species in the collection.

Habenaria medusa

Habenaria medusa via eol.

Habenaria medusae is a terrestrial orchid from monsoonal habitats in Indonesia and mainland southeast Asia. Producing a basal rosette of leaves from a subterranean corm, the plant is fairly nondescript until it sends up a 20-inch inflorescence bearing ten to twenty or more truly astounding flowers. Most prominent is the outstanding lip, composed of finely dissected, radially arranged fringe reminiscent of Medusa’s head of snakes, from which it gets its name. One might ask why such a lip evolved in the first place; in this case it is still somewhat of a mystery. Thought to be moth-pollinated because of its white color, sweet evening fragrance and nectar spur, the deep fringe is actually a fairly commonplace feature of moth flowers. Though no one knows exactly why, something about these deeply fringed flowers acts as a highly effective attractant to moths.

Habenarias are known for being difficult to cultivate, intolerant of poor or chemically treated water, and needing a strict, dry winter dormant period. They rot easily if watered during their dry season. Despite its sensitive nature, the Smithsonian’s specimen has proven to be more amenable than most to cultivation and has bloomed three times since being purchased as a small bulb from a vendor from Singapore at the World Orchid Conference. This year the plant was selfed (pollinated with its own pollen) to create more seedlings of this delightful species and also crossed with a related species with a deep coral pink lobed lip in the hopes of producing flowers with a colorful medusa lip.

-Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens orchid specialist

Visit our orchids at the United States Botanic Garden’s exhibit Orchid Symphony, a collaboration between Smithsonian Gardens and USBG, now through April 27th, 2014!

March 10, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

It’s official: Spring is coming soon!

One of the most glorious harbingers of spring, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ is in full glorious bloom in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.  The blooming of the Witch hazels is a sure sign that the end of this dreadful winter is near.

Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’

You cannot miss these beauties—they are often referred to as trees, but in actuality they are mature shrubs.  The specimens in the Ripley Garden are probably over forty years old and are about twelve feet tall and fifteen feet wide and covered in small golden spider-like flowers.  What I find so magical is that the flowers will curl the petals up on a cold day and unfurl once again when the sun hits them.  Although they look dainty, they are built for cold temperatures.  I have often seen them blooming while covered in snow.

Witch hazel in bloom in the Ripley Garden.

Witch hazel in bloom in the Ripley Garden.

Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise' (with yellow flowers) and Acer 'Sangu Kaku' (with red stems)

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ (with yellow flowers) and Acer ‘Sangu Kaku’ (with red stems)

Oh, and did I mention the fragrance?  Exquisite, dreamy sweetness.   The entire south end of the garden is perfumed.

Also in bloom, but a little more subtle:

Adonis amurensis

Cheery Adonis amurensis

-A couple of newly-planted Adonis amurensis have recently bloomed. Golden two-inch flowers peak out just above the soil on naked stems. After the flowers start fading the lacy foliage will emerge for a few months then go dormant in the summer.

-Dainty little yellow Eranthus hyemalis—this ground-hugging Winter aconite looks like little yellow bubbles above a ruff of foliage.  The “bubbles” are actually the five-petaled flowers curled up before they fully open.

-The first signs of Daffodil ‘Rinjvelt’s Early Sensation’ –not a prize daffodil, but one of the earliest, so thus it is very special to me!

-And a few Crocus tommasinianus, the sweet, self-sowing, little ‘Tommy Crocus’ which I have planted under a mature Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana).

Come on out – I am sure every day something new will be emerging from a snowy slumber. We will post more photos of the Ripley Garden soon.

-Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

AFTERNOON UPDATE:

Did I jinx myself by saying that I had seen the Witch hazel in the snow?  Guess what is happening in Washington, D.C. right now?. Yep,  More snow. YUCK.  (But, I must confess, right now it is pretty magical out there.)

Just of few things that caught my eye:

Galanthus (Snowdrops)

Galanthus (Snowdrops)

Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise' braving the snow.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ braving the snow.

Young stems of Acer 'Sangu kaku' -(Coral Bark Maple)

Young stems of Acer ‘Sangu kaku’ -(Coral Bark Maple)

Ripley Garden wit ha dusting of snow on February 25, 2014.

Ripley Garden with a dusting of snow on February 25, 2014.

Eranthus hymalis flower "bubbles"

Eranthus hymalis flower “bubbles”

February 25, 2014 at 10:30 am 2 comments

A Second Life for a Tree

In the summer of 2013 a specimen lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) at the National Museum of Natural History had been in decline for several months. An investigation by Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens arborist, found very large girdling roots growing just below the soil surface. In his report Lacebark Pine # 122 Evaluation at NMNH he determined there was little to no chance that the tree could be rehabilitated. Within two months of issuing the report the tree turned completely brown and it was clear that it need to be removed.

Or did it? Could the once stately pine on the corner of Madison Drive and 9th Street that formed the border between the Butterfly Habitat Garden and the newly established Urban Bird Habitat find a second life?

As a mature specimen of this slow growing pine the tree exhibited extraordinary exfoliating bark in a patchwork of white, olive, light purple and silver. The multi-stemmed trunk was a striking structural element in the landscape that would be a significant loss. Luckily, there was a way to save this feature and in doing so support wildlife enhancing the value and educational lesson of the space. The tree was the perfect candidate to become a snag.

By turning the soon to be rotting trunk and branches into a snag it gains a new purpose in the Urban Bird Habitat serving as a space for nests, nurseries, storage, foraging, roosting and perching for birds, small mammals, and other wildlife in the city.

Here is how we did it:

Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana)

By September the tree had turn completely brown. Alas, it was dead and we sat early in the morning waiting for a professional tree crew arrive.

Creating the snag.

To create our snag we removed the top third of the tree and half the remaining side-branches. This method facilitates the inside-out decay process best for attracting cavity-nesting birds.

Removing the top third of the tree.

The jagged top and broken side branches give a more natural look to the snag. Furthermore, they speed up decay and provide hunting perches for hawks, eagles, and owls. (Note: this is the only instance when this is desirable pruning – don’t be surprised when your tree care professional gives you a strange look and makes you repeat your request several times to make sure that he or she is hearing you correctly).

Putting the finishing touches on the snag.

The tree crew puts the finishing touches on their masterpiece which quickly became an attention grabbing feature at Smithsonian Gardens.

Snag, before and after

The before and after images of the tree show how we were able to maintain the great bark and interesting structure of the tree as a structural feature in the garden. (Perhaps our snag is some competition for Graft, the 45 ft. stainless steel tree installed by Roxy Paine in the neighboring National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in 2009)

The garden is a dynamic landscape and one must be prepared to deal with the changes that nature brings.  Through creative thinking the Smithsonian Gardens’ staff discovered a great opportunity to turn what could have been a significant loss to gardens into a valuable resource.  Today many museum visitors stop to look at this unique tree along the National Mall.  Most seems puzzled by its presence but their questions are answered by the Snag interpretive panel.

So what do you think?  Does your garden have a spot for a snag?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

-James Gagliardi, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist

Further Reading:
Living with Wildlife: Snags – The Wildlife Tree from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

February 17, 2014 at 7:30 pm 2 comments

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