How to Protect Your Garden from a Spring Frost

Whether you push the gardening season or not, here in Michigan there’s always a danger that a late spring frost will wipe out your lovingly planted spring veggies. The earlier you plant, the more likely this is. The easiest way to almost guarantee that you’ll avoid a frost is to resist planting your vegetable garden (or tender annuals or herbs) until after the last spring frost date. Depending upon where you are in the state, that could be anytime between the first week of May to early July.

However, if you just can’t resist getting your garden started as soon as possible, there are still several things you can do to protect your plants if frost (or even snow) is in the forecast.

How to Protect Your Plants from Frost

If we have a prolonged period of freezing temperatures, your plants may be in trouble no matter what you do. However, if it’s just a day or two, with a bit of protection your plants should be able to come through just fine. The best thing to do is place some kind of barrier over your plants to keep cold air, wind, and frost out of them. Some ideas:

  • Plastic milk jug with the bottom cut out off it, placed over individual plants
  • Old-fashioned garden cloches
  • A cold frame placed over part of a bed
  • A low tunnel covered in plastic
  • A plastic tarp, set over stakes to lift it off of the plants
  • A floating row cover (best for when there’s just a chance of light frost)
  • A sheet or blanket (again, this is a good option for a light frost, not for snow or really frigid weather)
  • A drink cooler, overturned over a few plants. Remove it as soon as possible to ensure that your plants get enough light.
  • A cardboard box. Depending on the size this can cover several plants. Remove the box as soon as possible to let your plants get the light they need.

These ideas will help because they use items that most of us have around the house. We might not all have a cold frame, but chances are good that we can come up with a milk jug or cardboard box if we really need one. Keep these ideas in mind, and you’ll be able to save your garden from those annoying late spring frosts that are a common part of gardening in Michigan.


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.




Favorite Plants: Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis, the plant formerly known as Dicentra spectabilis) is one of the highlights of the spring gardening season in our family. Those delicate, dangling pink hearts with their backdrop of ferny foliage are so romantic and old-fashioned looking. I vow every year that I’m going to plant a few more. Hopefully, this year will be the year.

Here are ten tidbits about bleeding heart:

1. Hardy in zones 3 through 9.

2. You can find bleeding hearts that bloom in pink, white, or red.

3. Bleeding heart goes dormant in the heat of summer. The foliage turns yellow and starts to die back. It’s a good idea to have a container or some annuals ready to fill the space once this starts happening, or you’ll have a gap in your garden.

4. You can grow bleeding heart from seed. You need to start with freshly ripened seed, and sow in a cold frame. I’ve also heard of people winter sowing them, but I haven’t tried that yet.

5. Bleeding heart grows best in light shade (sunny mornings and shady afternoons are optimal) but will also grow well in part-shade and even full shade.

6. Bleeding heart prefers evenly moist soil, especially while blooming. In fact, if you keep the soil moist, you’ll extend the bloom period for your bleeding hearts, possibly as late as mid-summer.

7. Bleeding heart rarely, if ever, needs dividing. I’ve had mine for eight years, and it’s still growing strong without division.

8. Mulch your bleeding heart well to help maintain that all-important soil moisture.

9. Bleeding heart is also known as Lady in a Bath, Lyre Flower, or Dutchman’s Trousers.

10. The most common folklore behind the bleeding heart is, of course, a tale of unrequited love. Here is one lovely variation of the story of the bleeding heart, told with parts of the flower itself.

If you’ve got a moist, shady spot in your yard, and a bit of a romantic streak, this may be the perfect plant to add to your garden. And if you have kids, they will love exploring the flowers with you.


Best Spring Perennials for Michigan: Bergenia

These gorgeous plants are grown as much for their foliage, which forms a pretty little rosette, and their flowers. Blooming in shades of white, pink, red, and purple, held aloft on sturdy maroon stems, they are a unique addition to the spring garden.

Where to Plant Bergenia:

Bergenia grows best in full sun to partial shade, in moist, rich soil. It is a good idea to plant them in groups of three or more plants for a nice display of color. Plant them 10 to 20 inches apart.

Bergenia looks great at the front of a border or along a walkway. Even when it’s not blooming, the rosettes of shiny green leaves will give you something attractive to look at.

Growing Bergenia:

Bergenia are actually pretty carefree plants. Other than making sure to water properly while they’re getting established, they can be left pretty much on their own. You’ll want to deadhead them after bloom, and divide regularly (see section on propagating Bergenia, below) to keep the plants growing strong. Once established, Bergenia are fairly drought-resistant, though you will want to give them some water (an inch or so per week) during an extended hot, dry spell.

Bergenia Pests and Diseases:

The most common pests you’ll encounter when growing Bergenia are slugs. If you start noticing holes in the foliage, look underneath the leaves and near the soil surface for the slimy pests, and hand-pick regularly to remove them. You can also try sprinkling coffee grounds or crushed eggshells around your plants to deter the slugs.

Propagating Bergenia:

You can start bergenia from seed, but it doesn’t always grow true from seed. It is better to start with plants or (if you’re lucky) rhizome divisions from another gardener.

You can dig and divide Bergenia by cutting and transplanting extra rhizomes in other spots in the garden. When making divisions, just make sure that at least one leaf shoot is attached to each section. Bergenia should be divided every two to three years to maintain the plants’ vigor.

Good Partners for Bergenia:

Ferns and irises both provide nice contrasts to the round, shiny foliage of Bergenia. Other good companions include spring-blooming bulbs such as scilla, snowdrops, or crocus.

Garden Tip: Make Your Own Seed Tape

Soon, we Michigan gardeners will be stuck indoors, staring forlornly out at our snow or frost-covered gardens. While I’m not in a hurry for that, I know that there are several ways I can keep myself busy, and get my garden off to a good start next spring. One of those ways is to make seed tape. An afternoon or two of work during the winter, and I’ll have perfect, evenly-spaced seeds ready to plant once the time is right.


* Newspaper (black and white, plain newspaper pages) cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch strips, paper towel, or toilet paper
* Flour
* Water
* Seeds
* Ruler

How To Make Seed Tape

1. Make a paste out of flour and water. Start with 1/4 cup of flour, and add water until you have a paste-like consistency. it should easily coat a spoon, not just drip off.

2. Check the instructions on the back of your seed packet (or at the end of this post) to see how far to space seeds apart. Use the ruler, and write marks on your strips of newspaper at the correct intervals.

3. Dab a bit of flour paste onto the marks you wrote.

4. Place a seed (or two, if you’re concerned about whether they’ll germinate or not) into each dab of flour glue.

5. Write the name of the variety on each strip of newspaper.

6. Wait for the flour glue to dry completely, then store your seed tapes in an airtight container, preferably in a cool place until it’s time to plant. The refrigerator works well, as does an unheated garage.

When it’s time to plant, simply place your seed tape in the garden, and cover with soil, 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, depending on what type of seed you’re planting. Water in well, keep it moist, and wait for those first sprouts to show up.
Seed Spacing for Common Herbs, and Vegetables

Space your seeds on the seed tape according to the following general recommendations. You can also find this information on your seed packet.

* Basil: 4 inches
* Chives: 6 inches
* Cilantro: 6 inches
* Dill: 12 inches
* Mint: 12 inches
* Oregano: 6 inches
* Parsley: 6 inches
* Sage: 12 inches
* Thyme: 8 inches

These are small-seeded vegetables that are commonly sown directly in the garden.

* Arugula: 4 inches
* Asian greens (bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna): 4 inches
* Beets: 3 inches
* Carrots: 3 inches
* Collards: 6 inches
* Kale: 6 inches
* Lettuce: 6 inches
* Mustard greens: 6 inches
* Radishes: 2 inches
* Rapini: 6 inches
* Spinach: 4 inches
* Swiss chard: 6 inches

Seed tapes are an easy way to get your garden planted. Even better, you can make these seed tapes during the winter and early spring, while you’re waiting to get out into your garden. They’re also a great project to do with kids.

I originally wrote this post for Planet Green, and wanted to share the info with my readers here at Gardening in the Mitten. You can view the original post here.

All through October, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite gardening tips. To check out other “31 Days of…” bloggers, check out this post.

brandywine tomato

Three Types of Tomatoes, and How to Decide What You Should Grow

It’s easy to see why tomatoes have so many fans: not only are they delicious, but they are also visually stunning, with a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. But did you know that there are actually different types of tomatoes, and that some are better suited to certain types of dishes than others? The three basic types of tomatoes are slicers, paste tomatoes, and cherry-type tomatoes. Here’s what you need to know about each.


These are the tomatoes that you eat, apple-style, right in the garden warmed from the summer sun. They are superior for slicing for sandwiches and burgers, or chopping into a salad. They tend to be juicier than paste tomatoes, and are therefore much better for fresh eating.

While people generally think of “beefsteak” type tomatoes when they think of slicers, that is only one type of slicer. Slicing tomatoes come in many different sizes and colors, not to mention flavors. Some wonderful slicers include:

Cherokee Purple
Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato
Aunt Ruby’s German Green
Black Krim
Japanese Black Trifele
Uncle Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

These tend to be indeterminate varieties, though some varieties, such as Sub-Arctic Plenty and Celebrity, are determinate, and therefore better suited to small gardens.

Paste Tomatoes

“Paste tomato” is somewhat of a misnomer, because there is so much more you can do with these types of tomatoes than make tomato paste or sauce! Besides the requisite sauces, you can make fresh salsas, ketchup, tomato juice and dried tomatoes. In general, these tomatoes are “fleshier” than slicers, with less juice and gel and thicker walls. Some of the most popular paste tomatoes are:

San Marzano
Polish Linguisa
Hungarian Italian
Italian Red Pear
Principe Borghese

These are almost always determinate tomatoes, making it easy to harvest and sauce or can all at once.

Cherry-Type Tomatoes

One thing you can say for almost any cherry-type tomato (which includes not only cherry tomatoes, but currants, pear, and grape tomatoes)is that they are prolific. These tomatoes are excellent for eating raw in salads, or just popped into your mouth as a snack. Cherry tomatoes are usually indeterminate, and will produce lovely little snacks for you until the plants are killed by frost. Some favorite cherry-type tomatoes are:

Chadwick Cherry
Yellow Pear
Juliet Grape
Red Currant
Super Sweet 100
Sweet Million
Tiny Tim

If you only choose one of each type of tomato, it’s safe to say you’ll be able to fill just about any tomato-related need you may have.

How to Grow Amaryllis


The dramatic blooms of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) add even more beauty to the holiday season, or any time of year. While we traditionally think of amaryllis as a holiday flower, they are really just tropical bulbs that can bloom at any time of year, after a period of dormancy followed by plenty of light and warmth (more on that later). You can find amaryllis in just about any color, from pure white, to dramatic red, and even lime green, depending on your tastes.

Amaryllis are quite easy to grow, and not even all that difficult to get to re-bloom. Amaryllis bulbs grown in containers and maintained properly can live as long as fifteen years.

The first thing you need to do is purchase some good-quality bulbs.


Purchasing Amaryllis

Starting in November, you’ll start seeing amaryllis bulbs and kits in nurseries and home centers, and they are very common impulse purchases, providing the opportunity to grow flowers even when the outside world is covered in snow. Usually, you won’t find a ton of variety in your local nursery or big box, so if you want something beyond the typical red or white, you’ll probably want to see what is available through catalogs or online.

The amaryllis kits sold in nurseries and home centers usually come with a plastic pot, a bulb, and a disk of compressed coir, all packaged in a box. You’ll want to try to inspect the bulb before you buy. The bulb should be heavy for its size, firm, and not shriveled. Sometimes the bulbs in the kits are already growing leaves and/or a flower stalk, and that’s fine as long as they look healthy and the bulb feels firm and heavy.

Potting Amaryllis

Once you have your amaryllis bulbs, it’s time to pot them up. There are two options here.

The first method you may want to try is to simply fill a pot or other dish with pebbles and set the amaryllis bulb on top. You’d then fill the container with water, to about an inch below the bulb. The roots will make their way down into the water, but you do not want the bulb itself to sit in water as it will rot.

The other method uses soil or the coir disks that come with amaryllis kits. Moisten you soil (or hydrate the coir disk by pouring warm water over it and letting it sit for at least twenty minutes) and fill the pot about half full with soil. Then place your amaryllis bulb, root end down, onto the soil and fill with more soil, but do NOT bury the bulb. You want at least 1/3 of the bulb, including the “shoulders” and the stem, above the soil. Once the bulb is planted, water it in and let any excess water drain.

Amaryllis bulbs can be planted in groups in larger containers, or one bulb to a 6 to 7 inch pot.

Caring for Amaryllis

Whether you use the pebbles and water method or soil method, once your bulb is potted up, you’ll want to place it in a warm, bright place. Ideally, your bulb should get at least eight hours of light per day, and should be kept around seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Water it when the soil dries out a bit, and be sure to let any excess drain to prevent rotting. The bulb will shoot up leaves and a flower stalk in two to eight weeks after planting,  Once it has started blooming, you can move it to any location; it does not need to stay in bright light, and, in fact, the blooms may last longer out of strong light. So if you want to move your amaryllis around for the holidays, that’s perfectly fine. You do not need to do any fertilizing during its bloom period.

Supporting Amaryllis Stems

The easiest way to support a tall, top-heavy amaryllis stem is to place a thin bamboo or coated metal stake deep into the soil, next to the bulb. Be careful when installing the stake; you don’t want to stab into the bulb. Once the stake is installed you can secure the stem to it with a bit of cotton twine or raffia. You don’t need to tie it tightly. A loose loop around both the stem and the stake will keep the stem supported well.

Caring for Amaryllis After Blooming

(Note: if you are not interested in saving the bulb, and plan on purchasing bulbs new every year, you can just compost your bulb after it is done blooming.)

Once your amaryllis finishes blooming, cut the flower stalk off, about two inches above the top of the bulb. Do NOT cut off the leaves, since the leaves will store food so the bulb can bloom again next year. If you grew your amaryllis bulb in water, you’ll now want to go ahead and pot it up in soil or coir, following the planting instructions above. Place the pot in a warm, bright location, and water when the top inch of soil is dry. Fertilize your amaryllis bulb monthly with a balanced fertilizer, compost tea, or fish emulsion. Once it is warm (consistently above sixty degrees) you can move your amaryllis outdoors for the summer. You can simply grow them in the pots, or plant them, pot and all, in your garden in a sunny area. Amaryllis sort of prefer being a bit pot-bound, so it’s better to leave them in their pots rather than transplanting them. Then, when it’s time to bring them back into the house, simply lift them, pot and all, out of the garden and bring them indoors.

Getting Your Amaryllis to Bloom Again

The whole point of keeping your amaryllis bulb was to get it to bloom again. Decide when you’d like it to bloom again. For example, for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or another holiday. You’ll need to do some planning if you have a particular bloom time in mind. You’ll want to bring the amaryllis indoors, cut the foliage off just above the bulb, and store the bulb in a cool dark place (no cooler than 55 degrees) for eight to ten weeks, without watering. This is dormancy, and is necessary for the bulb to bloom again. After the eight to ten weeks are up, you can give it a good watering, allowing excess water to drain, and move the bulb to a warm, bright location. Do not water the bulb at this point, unless the soil becomes very dry. When new green growth emerges, you can begin watering again when the top inch or so of soil is dry to the touch, and the cycle begins all over again.


In general, amaryllis are not very demanding. Plenty of light, warmth, and attention to watering, and you’ll be able to grow gorgeous blooms indoors. While keeping them and making them rebloom year after year is a bit more work, it can definitely be worth it for those who are collecting amaryllis or who want to eventually fill their home with these beautiful flowers.