December 2007
How's Your Garden?
Are Orchids Scary to You?

  The moth orchid, Phalaenopsis is an easy orchid for the home.
At one time, orchids seemed to me they were the domain of folks with lots of expertise and a greenhouse or perfect sun porch. They were too exotic for me to expect success. Well, no more. Today’s most popular orchid, the moth orchid (Phalaenopsis), is a great house-plant. Lots of hybridization has gone into making this an easy orchid for the home. You’ll find a nice selection of them available now because they not only make good houseplants but they are beautiful gifts. The blooms will last up to three months. Look for flowering stems that have all their flowers intact, preferably with a few buds yet closed. Because the stems bloom from the bottom up, you can figure the freshness of the blooms by how many are open and if any of the oldest have fallen off. To care for your orchid, put it in a spot with soft light, not direct sunlight, and away from vents or drafts. Also be sure that it is potted in orchid bark or a mixture that drains well. The fastest way to kill one is to rot the crown by over-watering. Sometimes they will come with moss packed around the base for decoration. Take it off when the party is over. It traps moisture next to the crown.
A Good Thorny Gift

For the people on your gift list who have everything they need and much of what they want, consider a rose. Of course, include yourself on this list! Soon you will be reading about all the new roses released for 2008 including the latest All America Selections. You won’t actually find the plants now, but a gift certificate and a card to your favorite rose source will give your gardening friend something to look forward to in January and February. You might even offer to plant it. The American Rose Society finds men favor red roses, so leave the other colors for the ladies on your list.
Let These Be

Bottle Tree at Oklahoma State University.  
After frost many of the perennials in your garden are begging for a cleanup. However, there are a few best left alone until spring. Some of the most widely planted least-hardy, (sometimes called half-hardy) plants grown in North and Central Alabama include lantana, Mexican petunia (Ruellia) and most salvias. Cutting them back exposes the crowns to severe cold, if it should come along. Perhaps you’ve lost these plants in winters before. Another killer is poor winter drainage, so now would be a good time to move any in a bad spot and hope we get rain.
How Healthy is Your Prized Tree?

City trees seem to get most of the attention of the garden press, which left me wondering about the prized old shade trees on country homesteads that might need some expert care. If you have a tree you are concerned about, read on. There are a few certified arborists in the state who are especially trained and equipped to provide proper tree care. This could mean anything from proper pruning, shaping, fertilizing, pest control, bracing, lighting protection, opening the canopy to minimize wind damage and more. You can find out more about certified arborists and collect lots of helpful tree care information (like why topping hurts trees) at the website of the International Society of Arboriculture,
Got Peat?

Some folks consider Canadian sphagnum peat moss the Cadillac of soil amendments. Garden beds containing peat need less watering since peat holds up to 20 times its weight in water. It also improves sandy soil by adding body and helps to retain moisture and nutrients. Peat also aerates heavy clay and protects the soil from forming a hard crust. So, if you want to splurge and add some to idle beds, especially for flowers and vegetables, now is a good time. Use a layer about 2 inches thick worked into the top 6 inches of soil; at this rate a 3.8 cubic foot bale covers about 45 square feet.

Also take advantage of this time to add lime and other soil amendments when the ground is still workable. Use a pH meter and soil test kit in a few weeks to check pH and fertility. Remember, peat is very acid. There have been a lot of write-ups in the media about peat harvesting and the question of sustainability. If you want to read about this issue from the producer’s point of view, visit the website of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association at
A Different Kind of Tree at Christmas

Last October I visited the Oklahoma State University Demonstration Garden in Stillwater where they film a weekly television show. I saw this pretty bottle tree that would make a fun addition to any garden, but especially around Christmas-time. So here it is. Bottles are hung on the post over very long nails or short pieces of rebar stuck into predrilled holes. We have a bottle tree in our garden made from an old cedar trunk and only blue bottles; it never fails to attract compliments. Sometimes we wind Christmas lights through it.

The idea of a bottle tree originated in Africa where bottles were hung from trees so the light shining through the bottles would attract evil spirits that would then get trapped inside. Today, these trees are a fun garden ornament and great way to utilize pretty colored bottles just collecting dust. If you don’t have enough, just get the tree started (from the top down). Soon friends will be offering theirs.

Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Garderner’s Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.