There are lots of good reasons to plant sunflowers: They’re tall and cheerful. The flowers can be cut for Van Gogh-worthy bouquets. They’re inexpensive and easy to grow from seed. Dried heads of sunflower seeds provide a treat for songbirds. As the state flower of Kansas, my home state, they’re also a reminder of my roots, which is reason enough for me to include them in my Pennsylvania garden. In return for all this, the only demand that sunflowers make is that you plant them in full sun.
There are so many varieties and colors and sizes of annual sunflowers in seed catalogs, it’s hard to choose. I look for branching varieties in the six-foot range; these types tend to bloom all summer long, offering lots of flowers for cutting. Varieties grown for their edible seeds are worth growing, too, although this type usually expends all its energy in producing one huge flower and then calls it quits. If you want to win popularity contests among the neighborhood squirrels, harvest the saucer-sized seed heads and store them in a dry spot indoors to bring out as a midwinter indulgence. —Doug Hall
At this time of year I have to remind myself to notice how beautiful snow is. I’m not talking about the filthy, salt-splashed chunks that have been plowed into mounds along the streets of Emmaus, but the unblemished blanket of pristine white over my garden. Eager to get on with the pleasure of gardening, I wish it away. But before it melts, I should pause to admire.
Snow is nature’s eraser. It blots out the fussy details of gardens and landscapes, leaving only the bold strokes drawn by walls and hedges and tree trunks. Winter is the best time to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a garden design, as Gordon Hayward wrote in his column “Winter Bones” in the current issue of Organic Gardening. In winter, there are no colors to distract, no veil of lush foliage to blur the lines.
In my garden, a 40-foot picket fence serves as a backdrop for perennials. In past years, I’ve left many of the plants standing after frost—sedum and coneflower seedheads, grass plumes, Siberian iris stems, the twiggy tangle of baptisia and gaura—for the sake of “winter interest.” This year, in a fit of fall tidiness, I clipped everything to the ground. You know what? I like it better without all the brown stuff. The clean and orderly look of white pickets against snow is a minimalist counterpoint to the lavishness of the same border in summer. Swept clean of past glories, my garden is poised to sprout again. —Doug Hall
With snow still ankle-deep in Emmaus, outdoor gardening is weeks away. That gives me some time to delve into the stack of gardening books on my desk. Here’s what I’m reading:
The Truth About Organic Gardening by Jeff Gillman. The title suggests an exposé, but this book turns out to be a even-handed analysis of the practices and products that organic gardeners rely on. Dr. Gillman is on the horticulture faculty at the University of Minnesota, and he applies a healthy dose of skepticism to the organic status quo.
The Natural Habitat Garden by Ken Druse. The author advocates studying the natural plant communities of your area as the starting point for a landscape. I don’t have the room at home to replicate the expansive naturalistic plantings shown in the book, but that won’t keep me from making a scaled-down grassland in my sunny back yard and a woodland vignette under the maples and dogwoods in front.
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael Dirr. Anytime I’m planning garden renovations of any sort, I reach for this fat and authoritative encyclopedia of trees and shrubs. This spring I’m planning a screen of flowering shrubs along one side of the back yard, and I’m looking to Dr. Dirr’s book for plant recommendations.
Improving the Soil from Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening series. I’ll be preparing some new planting beds this spring, so a refresher course in soil science can’t hurt. This book (no longer in print, I’m sorry to say) explains everything a gardener needs to know on an unglamorous topic.
I’ve also been fantasizing over gardening picture books, of which there are many in the Rodale company library. I am fortunate to have access to this wealth of information and inspiration. It allows me to escape from my glowing computer monitor and rest my eyes on the printed page. And when spring arrives, I’ll be primed to dig. —Doug Hall
As I write this, Emmaus is getting socked with another winter storm. While I wait for warmer weather, here’s a quick project that will keep my mind focused on the garden: I’m making a planting calendar.
I start with a wall calendar that leaves plenty of blank room for writing, and I mark my “frost-free” date on it: May 10. That’s the day I can be 99 percent sure that all spring frosts are history in this part of Pennsylvania—and the day that all my planting calculations are based on.
Next I go through the packets of seeds I will be sowing this spring and read their advice for when to plant. Some seeds will be direct-sown in the garden. For example, the spinach packet tells me to sow seeds four weeks before the frost-free date. I count back from May 10, and on the week of April 10–16 I write “sow spinach outdoors.” (Determining the week for planting is close enough. It doesn’t have to be the exact day.) For seeds that I’ll start indoors, it’s a two-step process. First I need to decide on the transplanting date—for cold tolerant transplants like lettuce, that might be three weeks before May 10, while heat-lovers like peppers must wait until two weeks after May 10. I mark the transplant dates on the calendar, then count backwards to determine when to start the seeds indoors.
When it’s done, the calendar is a week-by-week checklist of all my planting and transplanting dates. Can you tell I like to be organized? I would hate to realize in June that I forgot to plant the kohlrabi! —Doug Hall