Paul’s Plant Pick: Week 5 Succulents

I could easily rattle off a dozen or more reasons why I like succulents so much – their rich diversity, mind-blowing colors and textures, ease of care, and so on – but what I like best about them is they’re just plain cool. And funky. And in some cases downright bizarre.

Succulents are native to arid regions all around the world, including the United States. Botanically speaking, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Nevertheless, they all share the ability to store water in their fleshy leaves and stems, a trait that makes them extremely drought tolerant.

They’re also among the easiest plants to grow, which is to say they’re difficult to kill unless you overwater them. They grow in poor soils. They don’t need fertilizer. They don’t need to be pruned. And they’re rarely bothered by pests or diseases. About the only thing easier to grow are plastic plants (and we have plenty of plastic succulents available that look remarkably like the real thing!).

Most succulents are grown as houseplants, but there are several that are perfectly hardy and dependable perennials in our area such as Hens and Chicks, Sedums, and Yucca. Most succulents are also easy to propagate: just stick a leaf on top of the potting mix and it’ll root in no time. And most succulents will grow well in average household light. I overwinter mine on the shelf of a bay window that never gets direct light and they do just fine.

The real trick to keeping succulents healthy and happy, especially during the winter months, is to let them dry thoroughly between waterings. I generally water mine once a month in winter.

You can grow succulents in just about any container, from the traditional to the unusual. At one of our recent Planting Bar classes, a woman showed up with an old, rusty toolbox and proceeded to fill it with succulents. It looked great!

Fun Factoid: Asparagus is a succulent. And when roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon, the taste is truly, well, succulent!

Paul’s Plant Pick Week 4: Japanese Snowbell

Paul’s Plant Pick Week 4: Japanese Snowbell

Twenty-five or so years ago, I planted a tree that at the time I’d never heard of, let alone seen growing anywhere around Tulsa. It was a Japanese Snowbell, known botanically asStyrax japonicus. I treated it as an understory tree, sticking it in a spot that received dappled light all day thanks to a twisted, strangely contorted old hackberry that looked like it belonged in a scene of The Hobbit

Paul’s Plant Picks: Week 2 Japanese Maples

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a Japanese maple I didn’t like. After all, few trees evoke a sense of tranquility the way Japanese maples do. And few trees light up a landscape the way they do, regardless of leaf shape or color. What’s more, they’re small trees – rarely growing to more than 25’ – and they’re slow growers, making them ideal for small gardens.

Generally speaking, Japanese maples are divided into two distinct leaf shapes: palmatums (from the Latin, shaped like a hand) and dissectums (finely dissected). The latter are also known as lace-leaf maples. Both groups have red and green selections and are available in a range of sizes. They’re further divided into two distinct forms: uprights and weepers.

Despite their fragile appearance, Japanese maples are tough and easy to grow, assuming they’re planted in the right spot. First and foremost, that means a shady spot, ideally on the north or east side of your landscape, or in an area that gets filtered light throughout the day. The red-leaf varieties will color up best if they receive a few hours of morning sun, while the green-leaf varieties can handle pure shade. Dissectum varieties, regardless of color, need more shade than palmatum varieties. And among the palmatum varieties, there are some reds that can handle more sun than others.

(Still with me? Good. The hard part is over.)

In a perfect world, all Japanese maples would be planted in a slightly acidic, well-drained soil enriched with a good deal of organic matter. If that describes your soil, then do yourself a favor and never, ever move. Unfortunately, most of us are forced to deal with soil that falls short of perfect. But fear not. Japanese maples are actually quite adaptable, so long as the soil drains well. That’s the most important consideration.

All Japanese maples make outstanding specimen trees in the landscape, whether upright forms or weepers. They also look great in groups, with a mix of red and green varieties or uprights and weepers. The upright reds combine well with a number of plants, but I especially like the look of Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa) planted at the base of the trees. The green varieties contrast beautifully with Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon), especially the slow-growing but gorgeous black variety. Japanese maples also do quite well in containers for dressing up a porch, patio, or courtyard, and they’re hugely popular among bonsai enthusiasts.

If you forced me to pick a favorite Japanese maple, I’d have to say it’s the Full Moon, known botanically as Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium.’ It has an awesome, open growth form, which is to say you can see through it. That’s a great trait, because it allows you to plant in front of a window but still see the view beyond. Its deeply lobed leaves emerge light green in spring, and turn an amazing crimson in fall. Its ultimate height is maybe 18’ in as many years, although around here I’ve never seen one grow to more than about 12’.

Other favorites, at least among those that are readily available, include the following:

Coral Bark – As the name implies, the bark of this beauty is a beautiful coral color that really stands out in winter. Its deeply cut green leaves turn golden in fall. Gets 15’ tall and wide.

Red Dragon – A great weeper with spectacular blood-red foliage, and it holds its color well even in our summer heat. Grows slowly to 12’ tall and wide.

Viridis – An equally great green weeper with terrific fall color (orange and yellow, with shades of scarlet). Ultimately grows to roughly 8’ tall and wide.

Fireglow – Hugely popular upright red form that tops out at around 12’ (okay, maybe 15’ in time).

Emperor – Another nice red upright form that’ll grow to 15’.

Osakakuzi – Maybe 20’ by 20’ in time. Leaves appear green, then turn crimson in fall.

Katsura – In a word, amazing. Leaves are yellow-orange in spring, green in summer, then yellow-orange again in fall. Grows to about 10’.

Shaina – Only 6’ to 8’ at maturity, this maple is great for containers and courtyards. Leaves emerge bright red, then turn dark crimson.

Got a favorite Japanese maple that’s not on my admittedly short list? Click on comments and tell me all about it.

Photo Gallery: Click on each photo for a description or visit on flickr for additional details:

Paul’s Plant Picks: Week 1 Oakleaf Hydrangea

Paul’s Plant Pick

This is the first installment in a series that’s likely to last a while. After all, the list of plants I love is long and includes members of essentially every plant group. But I’m going to kick things off with what I consider to be the absolute best plant for area gardens, one that happens to be native to the southeastern United States.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

If I could have only one plant in my garden, it would be an oakleaf hydrangea. If that’s not a testament to my love of this plant I don’t know what is. And when you consider its many attributes – including incredible ease of care – I think you’ll agree it’s a great choice for just about any garden.

For starters, and unlike every other hydrangea on the market, the oakleaf hydrangea can be grown in shade OR sun. Protection from the afternoon sun is ideal, but not altogether necessary if you keep the soil moist during the summer months. Also ideal – but not entirely necessary – is rich, well-drained soil with a slightly acidic pH. However, I’ve had total success growing oakleaf hydrangeas in fairly heavy and slightly alkaline soils as well. In other words, this is a very adaptable plant, and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much.

But there’s more to like than this hydrangea’s adaptability. Take, for instance, the gorgeous leaves it produces in early spring. They start out light green with a silvery-white underside, turn a little darker green as time goes on, and then turn red, bronze, and even slightly purple in fall. The leaves resemble those of oaks, which is where this hydrangea gets its name (Quercus = oak and folium = leaf.)

Then there are the flowers, which arrive in May as huge, upright panicles. Most oakleaf hydrangeas bloom white, but ‘Ruby Slippers’ blooms a beautiful reddish pink. (Note: pH does not affect flower color.)The flowers are born on old wood, so the time to prune is after they flower. Personally, I like the look of the flowers even after they’ve faded, so I usually leave them on until late fall (they make great dried arrangements!). And unless I spot damaged, dead, or diseased wood I don’t bother with pruning.

Oh and let’s not forget the bark, which peels with age and turns a cinnamon-brown along the way, making this deciduous shrub interesting even in winter.

The classic oakleaf hydrangeas (such as ‘Alice’) will grow to around six- to eight-feet tall and six-feet wide. Smaller cultivars such as ‘Pee Wee’ grow to around three-feet tall and wide. All plants will sucker a bit, but not to the point of being the aggressive by any means. They look great as specimens or in groups, and once established are fairly drought tolerant.

I’ve never seen a pest attack an oakleaf hydrangea, although I’ve heard aphids can be an occasional problem. Leaf blight will sometimes appear late in the season, but it’s usually just a few weeks before leaf drop so I’ve never bothered trying to control it. Besides, it’s not that unsightly.

So let’s summarize:  easy to grow, low-maintenance, native, adaptable, tough, nearly pest and disease free, beautiful foliage and flowers.

Need I say more? Then what are you waiting for?

Raising Chickens by Emmie Sherry

Raising chickens is a fun and rewarding activity for your family. It’s entertaining, educational, and you get fresh eggs! Chickens also eat bugs and aged chicken manure makes an excellent, all-natural fertilizer.  Here’s what you’ll need to get started.

Brooder Box

A brooder box is any cage or box with a heat source that provides protection from predators (including children and pets). A heat lamp will be needed if chicks are kept outside, while a standard light bulb will work indoors. Any box or tote will do as long as the heat source is attached in such a way that the box won’t melt or burn. When you buy your chicks, they are usually just a few days old. Young chicks will need to be kept warm, ideally around 90-degrees for the first week. Decrease the amount of heat they receive by 5-degrees per week until they develop feathers. Your chicks will let you know if they’re too hot or too cold by huddling close to or far from the heat source. Within four to six weeks, your chicks will have developed enough feathers that they no longer need a heat source.

Pine shavings are the ideal bedding material for your brooder box. (Never use cedar – it’s toxic to chicks.) The brooder box and bedding material must be kept clean at all times to minimize the threat of disease.

Food and Water

Non-medicated starter feed has all the nutrients your chicks need. As they mature, you should switch to adult feed and provide grit to aid in digestion. Fresh water at all times is essential. Chicks are messy, and they will walk, bathe and even poop in their water, so be prepared to change it at least daily.

Adult Chickens

After four to six weeks, your chicks – now chickens – will be ready to move into their permanent home or coop. Plan on providing roughly three- to four-square feet of space per bird, and be prepared to feed and water them daily. Make sure the coop is well secured to prevent predators from attacking your chickens. Chickens can be kept in a pen during the day or allowed to roam freely. They’ll return to their coop at night to roost. Hens will start laying eggs when they’re four- to six-months old, and at that point the real payoff begins.

Omelet, anyone?

My Favorite Tomatoes by Paul James

Before I get to the gist of this post, let me just say that as a plant, I don’t think tomatoes are all that exciting.  They tend to be a bit gangly, which is why they’re usually staked or caged. They hardly qualify as a thing of beauty, even when in flower.  They’re prone to several different diseases – bacterial, fungal,and viral – plus a few persistent pests.  And they’re kinda picky about where and how they’re grown.  Moreover, when it comes to nutrition, tomatoes lack serious credentials. Among all vegetables, they rank 13th in vitamin C and 16th in vitamin A. And at 93.5% water (more than watermelon!), they don’t offer much in the way of anything beyond a little fiber.  So why are tomatoes so hugely popular? In a word, flavor.  There’s just something incredibly enticing about the mix of sweetness and acidity that makes tomatoes irresistible to people all over the world.

When it comes to judging the flavor of tomatoes, opinions vary wildly. I have a friend who thinks Green Zebra is the best tasting tomato of all, and while it’s a fine tomato, it wouldn’t make the list of my five favorites.  But here are the ones that would:

Slicer: Brandywine

When I bite into one of these vine-ripened babies, my taste buds travel back in time to my grandfather’s farm. Brandywine – both red and pink varieties – has that classic tomato taste that I crave.  This is an amazing tomato any way you slice it.

Cherry: Sweet 100

Yes, there are all sorts of cherry tomatoes out there, but I tend to fall back on this old favorite for two reasons: It’s sweet but not too sweet (which is a problem I have with a number of new varieties), and it  produces like crazy, even in summer heat. Oh, and did I mention it tastes great?

Paste: La Roma II

Yes, San Marzano is the epitome of the classic paste tomato, but La Roma II is nearly identical in flavor and a bit more tolerant of our summer heat. If you’re a red sauce fan, you really should grow this variety.

Heirloom: Cherokee Purple and Black Krim

Okay, so I threw in a tie. That’s because these two heirlooms are equally great, and I simply couldn’t include one without the other. Depending on the soil they’re grown in, both can be a tad more acidic than sweet, but they’re both delicious. Really delicious.

Cluster: Juliet

This All America Selection winner is about as good as it gets for making salsa. Each “cluster” contains at least a dozen fruits, so you get a lot of decent sized “grape” tomatoes from each plant. You also get a lot of built-in disease resistance.


People often asked, “What’s the best tasting tomato?” Until recently, I had no idea how to answer that question because tastes vary enormously from one person to the next. But just the other day I heard our own Emmie Sherry, who for ten years has worked in vegetable and herb sales, offer a positively brilliant response: “It’s the first one you pick.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.