Michigan Gardening To-Do List: February

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February is not exactly a flurry of activity as far as gardening is concerned, but there are definitely a few things you can do this month to prepare for spring.

1. Get Ready for Seed Starting

There are a few things you can sow indoors now if you want an early spring crop (which I’ll list below) but the bulk of our seed starting will begin in March. Either way, it’s a good idea to find all of your flats, pots, humidity domes, lights, and other seed starting equipment. In addition:
Clean flats and pots (use a tiny bit of bleach, especially if you had pest or disease issues last year)
Make sure your lights are working, and get new lights if you need them.
Buy or make some seed starting mix.
Make sure you have the seeds you need. Most nurseries and big boxes have plenty of seeds out right now.

2. Start Some Seeds!

For a spring harvest, there are a few things you can sow indoors now:

  1. Broccoli
  2. Cabbage
  3. Kale
  4. Kohlrabi
  5. Leeks

3. Do some winter sowing.

There is still plenty of time to do some winter sowing. If you don’t have the space or inclination to start seeds for perennials indoors under lights, you can sow them right now, outside. You can also sow seeds for many annual flowers, herbs, and veggies this way. More on winter sowing here.

4. Houseplant Maintenance

I’ve noticed that my houseplants have already put on a bit of new growth in response to the lengthening days. If yours are rootbound, this is a good time to repot them into a slightly larger pot and give the fresh potting soil. You can also start fertilizing with a weak solution every week or so of compost tea now.

There isn’t a whole lot to do beyond those few tasks right now. If you have veggies growing under a low tunnel or in a cold frame, keep them watered and make sure to vent the structure on any warm, sunny days we may happen to get.

Enjoy the rest now. Next month, the real seed starting begins!(Hooray!)

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: January

January. The holidays are over, and a long, cold Michigan winter stretches before us. While some of us embrace winter, some of us are chomping at the bit to get back out into the garden.

The good news for those of us who are counting down the days until spring is that we can start growing several vegetables, herbs, and annuals indoors from seed this month. Below is a list of what you can start sowing now, depending on your approximate last spring frost date.

If your last spring frost is between April 15th and May 1st:
Herbs and Veggies:

  • Onions
  • Parsley
Annuals:

  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus
  • Lisianthus
  • Viola
If your last spring frost is between May 1st and May 15th:
Vegetables and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • Delphiniums
If your last spring frost is between May 15th and June 1st:
Vegetable and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • None yet.
If your last spring frost is after June 1st:
Vegetable and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • None yet.

So, there’s not a ton going on yet, but spring will be in full swing before we know it. This is a good time to gather any seeds and seed-starting supplies you need so you’ll be ready to go when the time is right.

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: December

Photo credit: Borgtex

Here’s your garden to-do list for December:

Seed Starting

  • This month is generally when we begin winter sowing, as long as the weather is consistently below freezing. Even if you’re not able to wintersow yet, you can prepare  your containers and make sure you have plenty of seeds and soil.
  • Sow pansies indoors this month so you’ll have nice-sized plants ready to plant out in containers in March.

 

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Some years, we are still experiencing mild weather, even in December. If we are, chances are good that you still have a few things, such as kale, chard, mache, and carrots growing happily. Continue to water and harvest as needed.
  • If we’ve had a good freeze already, it’s time to sit back and dream of next year’s garden!

Perennials

  • Once the ground has frozen, use fall leaves or other organic matter to mulch perennials that are prone to frost-heaving.

Bulbs

  • As long as you can still find bulbs in the garden center, you can buy and plant them in containers for a beautiful display next spring. Simply plant the bulbs, then place the pot in a protected location such as an unheated garage, covered porch, or garden shed. This is an excellent way to add color to your garden next spring and take advantage of end-of-season bargains!

Trees and Shrubs

  • If the ground hasn’t frozen yet, make sure that you water if we’ve had a long period of drought.

Houseplants

  • Winter is our houseplants’ time to shine. Make sure yours are watered regularly and are getting the proper amount of light.
  • Watch out for pest problems.
  • Consider misting your plants once or twice a day, since dry, heated air in our homes can stress houseplants.
  • Force some bulbs for the holidays: amaryllis, paperwhites, and  hyacinths are all classic bulbs to force at this time of  year.
  • If you’ve purchased a poinsettia for the holidays, make sure to water when the surface of the soil feels dry and give it a nice, bright location in your home.

10 Ways to Recycle a Jack O’ Lantern

It’s the day after Halloween. No sign of the Great Pumpkin yet again, and I’m doing my best to resist the 4 huge buckets of candy in the kitchen. Mmmm….Snickers….

The other sign that Halloween has passed us by is the sight of dozens of carved, soggy, perhaps squirrel-chewed Jack O’ Lanterns sitting on the curb. Much like my obsession with leaves, I confess to wanting to give people who throw pumpkins away a good talking-to. Nearly half of all U.S. households carve a pumpkin every year (at least one!) That’s a lot of waste if even some of us just toss them in the garbage. So rather than raving like a lunatic, I’ll post some constructive ideas here, instead.

10 Ideas for Recycling Your Jack O’Lantern

  1. Chop them up (I just use a shovel) and toss them in your compost bin.
  2. If you like squirrels, leave the pumpkin out and let the squirrels devour it.
  3. If you have a worm bin, cut your Jack O’Lantern into smaller pieces and give it to the worms. They LOVE pumpkin, in my experience.
  4. Via my About.com colleague Melissa Mayntz, cut it in half and use it as a bird feeder.
  5. Chop ‘em up a little and place them at the bottom of a lasagna garden or new raised bed. (I think just about every raised bed in my garden was started on a foundation of old Jack O’Lanterns and fall leaves.)
  6. If your Jack O’ Lantern is still pretty fresh (not moldy, soft, or smelly – meaning you just carved it in the last day or so) you can turn what’s left into pumpkin puree. Just remove any soft spots, wax or soot from candles. {You can also turn your puree into pumpkin butter — yum!}
  7. Pamper yourself with a pumpkin puree pedicure.
  8. Puree the flesh, and make your own pumpkin body moisturizer.
  9. Bury it. If you’re not starting a new garden bed, you can dig a hole in an existing bed (perhaps you’re planting some trees, shrubs, or perennials anyway?) and place pieces of the pumpkin in the bottom. Instant boost of nitrogen and organic matter!
  10. Science experiment. If you have curious kids, just let the Jack O’ Lantern sit in your yard for as long as you can stand it. Let them note all of the fun, gross things that happen to a pumpkin as it decays: the mold, the sogginess, the eventual collapse into itself. If you think ahead and happen to set your Jack O’ Lantern on top of your compost pile, you won’t have any slimy clean-up to do afterwards!

So, no more Jack O’ Lanterns on the curb after Halloween, right? Right.

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: October

October Raspberries

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in October:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Plant garlic for harvest next summer.
  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Reduce the numbers of overwintering pests and diseases by cleaning up garden debris.
  • Sow more fall crops directly into your garden, including mesclun, spinach, mache, radishes, and carrots.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Remove summer annuals that may be looking ragged and replace with fall flowers, such as mums, asters, ornamental kale, or pansies.

Perennials

  • October is a great time to dig and divide any perennials that look overgrown to you. To protect against a sudden freeze mulch the newly divided plants heavily with fall leaves. Check out our Michigan Frost Dates to find your frost dates.
  • You can usually get good deals on many plants this month, when garden centers and nurseries start running their “fall planting” sales. As above, make sure you protect these new plants with a thick layer of mulch.

Bulbs

  • You can continue planting spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, muscari, and snowdrops.
  • If squirrels or other wildlife dig up your bulbs, place a section of chicken wire or metal hardware cloth over the area. Pin it down and cover it with mulch. This should protect it from those pesky critters.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.

How to Make Dill Pickles

We plant several cucumber varieties each year, at least half of which are pickling cucumbers. (An aside: a common source of confusion is what makes a pickling cucumber a pickling cucumber. The simple answer is that they have thinner, bumpier skin — the better to absorb all of that lovely brine!)

Dill pickles are actually really easy to make. Here’s how to do it!

I used this recipe because, as written, it’s good for making a small batch of pickles (three to four pints) but, even better — you can halve everything, and make just a jar or two if you don’t have that many cucumbers on hand.

First, you need to assemble your equipment:

 

pick1You need a boiling water canner (if you don’t have one, a stainless steel stockpot will do. A cotton dishtowel folded and laid inside the pot will help stabilize the jars), pint jars, rings, and new lids. **If you want to forego the boiling water processing all together, you can also make refrigerator pickles with this recipe. If you do that, you can use any clean jar you want, and you don’t have to worry about having a pot to process your jars in. I’ll explain more later.

Not necessary, but it’s also helpful to have jar tongs, a magnetic lid lifter, and a jar funnel.

Fill the big pot so that the surface of the water is two inches higher than the tops of your jars. Place jars and lids in the pot (you can do lids in a separate pot, or the same one as your jars — doesn’t matter) and bring the water to a boil to sterilize everything.

While your jars are sterilizing, it’s time to assemble your ingredients.

 

You’ll need:pick2

  • 2 cups of white vinegar
  • 2 cups of water (tap water is fine)
  • 2 tablespoons of salt (pickling or kosher — not iodized table salt)
  • 4 heads of fresh dill, or 4 tsp of dill seeds
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 8 to 10 cucumbers

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and salt, and heat over high. You want to bring this mixture to a boil. Meanwhile, start preparing your cukes. Cut a bit off of each end, if necessary, to ensure that the pickles will be about an inch shorter than your jar.

 

You can also cut them into halves or quarters if you want.

 

pick4Once your cucumbers are ready and your brine is boiling, it’s time to get ready to add everything to the jars. Remove the jars (carefully!) from the boiling water canner. Add a head of dill and a clove of garlic to each jar.

 

Then, start packing your cukes in. You want to jam them in pretty tightly. This keeps them from floating in the brine.pick6

 

As you can see, my nine cucumbers was only enough for three pints of pickles. That’s fine, it just means I’ll have some brine left over. Once you have them packed in, it’s time to pour the hot brine into the jars. Do this slowly, and use a jar funnel if that makes it easier for you. You want to fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top.

 

pick7Canning:

  1. Use a flat spatula, butter knife, or bamboo skewer, and press the cukes together to try to release any air bubbles trapped in your jar. If you find that the level of the brine has fallen after doing this, top it up to keep your 1/2 inch of headspace.
  2. Wipe the rims of your jars with a clean, damp cloth, set the lids on, and tighten the rings. You don’t have to go crazy tightening it — just finger-tight is good enough. The seal doesn’t come from the rings at all, but from the lid itself being vacuum sealed on as the contents of the jars cool after processing.
  3. Place your jars into your boiling water canner, and process for ten minutes. Lift them out, carefully, and set them on a counter to cool. They’ll be quite warm for a few hours yet.

You’ll start to hear the lids make popping sounds. This means they’re sealing properly. After about an hour, all of your lids should have sealed. If you press on them and they’re solid, they’ve sealed right. If the lid still pops up and down, you don’t have a good seal. You can either re-process the jar in boiling water, or just put them in the fridge and eat them within a month. Properly sealed jars will keep for a year.

 

If you want to do away with the boiling water processing all together, simply add the cukes, dill, and garlic to any jar, pour boiling brine over it, cover, and let it cool down to room temperature. Then put your pickles in the fridge and eat within a month.

pick8As you can see, it’s not difficult. And believe me, the flavor is definitely worth the effort!

 

Pickling Resources:

While this is a basic recipe I found online a few years ago (and it’s great!) my favorite book about pickling and canning right now is Homemade Living: Canning & Preserving with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Chutneys & More. It’s a beautiful book full of well-written recipes that definitely inspired me to try different things in my kitchen. Definitely worth a look.

As you can see from the post, I’m still using traditional canning lids. You may have heard that these types of lids are lined with BPA — this is a concern for many of us, myself included. I do have some reusable, BPA free lids on order, but they haven’t arrived yet. If you’re interested, here is a source that Julia from Snarky Vegan shared with me.

For more pickle-y goodness, please check out this post I wrote for Planet Green: 20 Pickle Recipes to Help You Preserve Summer’s Bounty.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: September

Northern Sea Oats

Northern Sea Oats

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in September:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Deadhead herbs such as basil regularly to keep them productive.
  • Check plants regularly for signs of pest or diseases.
  • Remove any summer veggie plants that are looking ragged or becoming less productive.
  • At least once this month, feed your vegetable plants with a foliar feed of fish emulsion.
  • Sow more fall crops directly into your garden, including mesclun, spinach, mache, radishes, and carrots.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Fertilize once a week with a diluted (1/4 strength) solution of fish emulsion.
  • Remove summer annuals that may be looking ragged and replace with fall flowers, such as mums, asters, ornamental kale, or pansies.

Perennials

  • September is a great time to dig and divide any perennials that look overgrown to you.
  • You can usually get good deals on many plants this month, when garden centers and nurseries start running their “fall planting” sales.

Bulbs

  • You can start planting spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, muscari, and snowdrops.
  • If squirrels or other wildlife dig up your bulbs, place a section of chicken wire or metal hardware cloth over the area. Pin it down and cover it with mulch. This should protect it from those pesky critters.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

I reached a point last week where I Bowl of Green Tomatoesjust got tired of looking at tomato plants, tired of pruning, harvesting, and battling septoria — just kind of over tomatoes this year. I left my favorite variieties growing, but I ripped out plenty of plants so i could make room for our fall crops.

Since I hate wasting food (and doubly hate wasting food that we put all of this effort into growing!) I harvested as many of the green tomatoes as I could. Several have ripened over the last week, and we’ve been eating them. The rest….I needed to figure out how to deal with.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I love pickles. I just do. And I knew I’d heard of green tomato pickles before, so I looked it up and made a few batches. The good news: they’re delicious, and it is SO EASY.

Here’s how.

What You Need:
(for 3 quarts of green tomato pickles)

8 pounds of green tomatoes
4 cups of white vinegar
4 cups of water
4 tbsp. of kosher salt
dill seeds
whole black peppercorns
garlic
red pepper flakes

Jars — either 3 quart-sized jars or 6 pint-sized jars, as well we lids and rings (or any old jar you can find, if you’re going to make refrigerator pickles)
Hot water canner (if you’re planning on storing your pickles long term)
Jar lifter

Prepping Your Tomatoes

(Note: If you’re planning to process your pickles in a hot water canner, you should fill the canner with water, add your jars, and turn the water on to sterilize and warm your jars. Just leave the jars in the water until you’re ready to use them. Place the lids and rings in another pan with simmering – not boiling- water until you’re ready to use them.)

**One of the sites I found when I searched for green tomato pickles online was Garden Betty — who wrote a great post on the topic. I adapted the spices and quantities to work for me, but she has some great ideas for other spice blends.

Gather and wash 8 pounds of green tomatoes. After tasting the ones I made, I prefer cherry tomatoes because they seemed to stay firmer after processing, but any tomato will work.

Then, cut your tomatoes in half. If they’re larger, cut them into quarters.

Preparing Green Tomatoes for Pickling
Now, it’s time to make your brine. Add the vinegar, water, and salt to a pan, and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, it’s time to start filling your jars.

Remove the jars from the boiling water canner with your jar tongs. Set them on a towel on your counter (so they don’t crack when they come into contact with the cool surface) and add the following to each jar:

  • 1 tsp. dill seeds
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 tsp (or more if you want them spicier) of red pepper flakes

Pickling Spices
Once your spices are in, start packing your tomatoes into the jars. Really, pack them in. Once they’re packed, add brine to fill the spaces between tomatoes. Use a chopstick or knife to go around the inside of the jar and remove any air bubbles, then fill with more brine if you need to. Leave 1/4 inch of headspace, then wipe the rims of your jars to clean up any brine, add your lids and tighten your rings.

Put your jars in your hot water canner, and cover with a lid. Once the water comes up to a boil, start your timer — you’ll be processing your pickles for fifteen minutes.

Once time is up, remove your jars — carefully — and place them on a towel on your counter. They’ll have to sit there for several hours to cool.

Pickled Green Tomatoes
Making Refrigerator Pickled Green Tomatoes

You can also forget about the boiling water processing if you just want to make a few jars of pickles to be eaten within the next month or so. Prep your tomatoes, add your spices, tomatoes, and boiling brine to the jars, and place in the refrigerator. They’ll be ready to eat in about a week.

What to Do with Pickled Green Tomatoes

You can snack on them, of course. Or slice/dice them up to top a hamburger or hot dog. I also diced some of mine up and added them to chicken salad that I was making for sandwiches — really good.

Which is Better? Processed or Refrigerator?

I made mine both ways so I could see which version tasted better. At this point, I prefer the refrigerator method because they are crisper than the ones I processed in the boiling water bath. However, if you added something like “Pickle Crisp” to the jars, processed green tomato pickles would probably be much more crisp.

I hope you try these! They’re easy to make, and it’s always great when we can avoid wasting food from our gardens.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Dill Pickles

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: August

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in August:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Deadhead herbs such as basil regularly to keep them productive.
  • Check plants regularly for signs of pest or diseases.
  • At least once this month, feed your vegetable plants with a foliar feed of fish emulsion.
  • Plant transplants for fall crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale.
  • Direct-sow quick-growing fall crops, such as mesclun, spinach, turnips, small carrots, radishes, and kale.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Fertilize once a week with a diluted (1/4 strength) solution of fish emulsion.
  • If summer annuals are looking tired, consider replacing them.

Perennials

  • Regular maintenance, such as staking and deadheading, will keep your perennials looking their best.
  • If perennials are overgrown, you can start digging and dividing them this month, and into autumn.

Bulbs

  • If you’re growing tall plants, such as dahlias, stake them as needed.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Prune any summer-blooming shrubs this month.
  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: July

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in July:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Deadhead herbs such as basil regularly to keep them productive.
  • Check plants regularly for signs of pest or diseases.
  • At least once this month, feed your vegetable plants with a foliar feed of fish emulsion.
  • Start figuring out what you want to grow for your fall garden. Either start plants (such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, etc.) from seed now, or track down a good source of transplants.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Fertilize once a week with a diluted (1/4 strength) solution of fish emulsion.
  • You can still sow seeds for many annuals, such as zinnias and marigolds, all through July for fall color as well.

Perennials

  • Regular maintenance, such as staking and deadheading, will keep your perennials looking their best.
  • If you haven’t mulched your perennial beds already, this is a good time to do so. It will keep weeds down and reduce how much watering you’ll need to do.

Bulbs

  • If you’re growing tall plants, such as dahlias, stake them as needed.
  • If you still have foliage from spring bulbs (tulips, daffodils, etc.) in your garden, you can remove it once it turns brown.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Prune any spring-flowering shrubs this month.
  • Feed your shrubs with a granulated organic fertilizer, or topdress with some good compost.
  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.

How to Fertilize Tomato Plants, Organically

littletomatoesTomato plants grow with such speed and vigor that it’s easy to be tempted to keep feeding them, thinking that we need to add nutrients for all of that new growth our plant has put on. But the truth is that over-fertilizing tomato plants is just as bad as under-fertilizing them.

Over-fertilized tomatoes develop lots of green growth at the expense of fruit production. And as if that isn’t annoying enough, all of that tender green growth is like a dinner bell for nearby pests and a magnet for disease problems. Under-fertilization results in slow plant growth and poor fruit set, as well as blossom drop and fruit drop.

So, how do you strike the right balance between under- and over-fertilizing your tomatoes? It’s actually pretty simple, and something you only really have to worry about twice during the growing season. (Less work!)

Fertilize at Planting

At planting time, I like to add a bit of compost the the planting hole, as well as several crushed eggshells or bonemeal to fend off blossom end rot. If I have it on hand, I also like to add a bit of granulated organic fertilizer to the soil at this time.

Fertilize at Fruit Set

When you see your first tiny fruits start to form on your plants, it’s time to do the second fertilizer application of the season. This is when I break out the fish emulsion, and give each plant a good, thorough foliar feed, as well as the soil around each plant. This will provide valuable nutrients just when your plants need it most.

Supplemental Feeding

If you find that production seems to be dropping off, or your plants just look “tired,” there’s no harm in giving them another foliar feed with the fish emulsion, or with compost tea or manure tea. This can be done once per month during the growing season to keep the plants growing and producing well.

Good Soil = Good Tomatoes

As with any kind of gardening, success with growing tomatoes starts with the soil. You will want to grow your tomatoes in rich, fertile, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. Incorporating compost and composted manure at planting time, as well as mulching with organic mulches such as grass clippings or fall leaves will make a huge difference — and every year, the soil will just keep getting better.

It seems like it’s not enough; that it should be more complicated than that, doesn’t it? But that really is all there is to fertilizing your tomato plants. Most years, we don’t bother doing a supplemental feeding, and, to be honest, we’ve even forgotten to fertilize at fruit set a time or two and everything has turned out fine. One less thing to have to fuss over — always a good thing!

Great Plants for Michigan Gardens: Bearded Iris

Bearded irises are the stars of my perennial garden in May. Their tall, frilly blooms and strap-like foliage add a perfect upright element to the garden, and they come in such a huge variety of colors that you are unlikely to ever get bored growing them.

Where to Plant Bearded Irises

When planting bearded irises, you’ll either be started with dormant rhizomes or potted plants. Either way, you’ll want to plant your irises at least sixteen to eighteen inches apart to allow for plenty of air circulation. If you’re starting with a plant, simply plant it as deeply as it was growing in its container. If you are starting with a rhizome, you really want to make sure you don’t plant too deeply. Burying the rhizome will result in weak bloom or rot. The best way to plant the rhizome is to form a mound of soil in the planting hole. Set the rhizome on the mound, and arrange the roots around it. Then, backfill the hole, covering the roots, but leaving the rhizome exposed. I know — it looks wrong. Do it anyway. Your irises will thank you later with plenty of blooms!

Bearded irises really grow best in full sun. You’ll get the most numerous, larger blooms if they get at least eight hours of sun per day. However, if you have light or dappled shade, they’ll also grow and bloom well for you. Just as important as the amount of sun, however, is the quality of your soil. Bearded irises prefer fertile, well-drained soil. Lean soil will result in less-than-stupendous blooms, and soil that stays too wet will result in your rhizomes rotting over the winter.

Here in our garden, where clay is dominant (as it is in many Michigan gardens, at least if you’re away from the coasts) we’ve found it necessary to amend the soil before planting the rhizomes. Dig out an area, and mix a good amount of finished compost into the native soil. This will help lighten the soil overall for planting, and, if you side dress with compost regularly, over time the soil will improve a great deal. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid planting bearded irises in any low areas of your property — any place that water collects and sits will just spell rot for your rhizomes.

The best time to plant irises in Michigan is in June through September — this allows the plants to get established before winter.

 

How to Grow Bearded Iris

If you’ve planted your bearded irises in good soil in a sunny spot, there’s not much you need to do, day-to-day, to keep them happy. I side-dress my irises with fresh compost every spring, and deadhead them after they’ve finished blooming in May.

One of the most important things you can do for the health of your bearded irises is to make sure you remove all of the spent leaves and flower stalks after they’ve been killed back in fall. If you leave the foliage attached to the rhizomes, it provides the perfect place for iris borers (more about these vile jerks later) to overwinter.

You’ll also want to divide your bearded irises every three to four years to keep them growing strong. Once you start seeing decreased bloom, it’s time to divide. I’ll have more on how to do that in another post.

 

Bearded Iris Pests and Diseases

If bearded irises have a rep for being a little on the fussy side, it’s not their fault — blame the pests that like to plague them instead. The main one, which I alluded to above, is the iris borer. Here it is, in all its grossness:

 

Photo by: Bob Gutowski, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License.

Iris borers can absolutely destroy your irises. They start on the leaves, boring their way in, down into the rhizomes, and then back out again. They cause a lot of damage, and the holes they make encourage rot as well. The best way to fight them is to not leave leaves and stems available for them to overwinter in. If you find borers in your rhizomes, you can try to cut them out with a knife, then replant the rhizomes as long as there is at least one “eye” left. You can also soak the rhizomes in a bucket of water — the water will drown the borer, and then you can remove any damaged sections of rhizome, and replant.

Aside from iris borers, bearded irises also contend with a few other pests, though these generally don’t cause as much damage as the borers:

  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Aphids

 

Here in our garden, we have bearded irises planted with shasta daisies, oriental poppies, and alliums, and they bloom together and look wonderful. The shape of their leaves adds a nice, somewhat spiky touch to the garden, so even when they’re not in bloom, they have an impact. And because they come in so many colors and sizes, you can really have a lot of fun coming up with new combinations in your own garden.