Ornamentals: Blooms for Beginners

A red and yellow Daylily. Daylilies fall into ...

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You’ve chosen the location, tilled the soil, and all that stands between you and beautiful flower garden is choosing the right plants. There are a lot of cheap varieties of perennials (plants that go dormant in winter and return each spring) and annuals (plants that flower for one season and die after the first frost) that are easy for beginners to grow in Midwest gardens. Filling your beds with the right blooms for beginners will give you a vigorous, colorful garden while you’re building your expertise.

Most important when choosing inexpensive and easy-to-grow flowers is making sure they are suited to your particular geography in the Midwest. Pay attention to the USDA Hardiness Zones to which each plant is suited while you’re looking through nursery catalogues or perusing the offerings at your local garden center. Daylilies, for example, are tolerant of just about any weather conditions the Midwest can throw at them, while tropical plants such as elephant ears can be grown here during the warmest months but must be brought indoors before the first frost. For beginning gardeners, simpler is better. Stick with plants that are hardy in your zone.

You can find your zone at the National Gardening Association website at http://garden.org and click on the Zone Finder link on the left side of the page. In my area of the Midwest, zone 5A, average minimum temperatures are -20 to -10F. Perennials recommended for zone 5A or above are hardy enough to survive those winter lows. When choosing easy-to-grow perennials for your garden, stick with those recommended for your zone.

Populate your garden by choosing a few varieties of perennials that are suitable to your zone and that bloom at different times of the year. Tulips and daffodils bring early spring color. In my own garden, bearded iris blooms late in spring. Bee balm starts to bloom in early summer. Black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower follow in mid-summer; daylilies and hostas in late summer; Sedum in early fall. These are all relatively carefree, hard plants that thrive in spite of temperature extremes and unpredictable precipitation. The University of Illinois Extension website at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/perennials/ offers a directory of perennials to give you a few ideas.

Consider the amount of light your flowerbed will receive in summer, too, before buying plants. Shade-lovers can tolerate only a small amount of direct sunlight, while sun-lovers don’t grow as vigorously and often won’t bloom without at least 6 to 8 hours of it. Always respect the stated growing requirements when choosing plants for best results.

Once you perennials are in place, add all-season color with annuals. You can start them from seed indoors in the early spring, or purchase inexpensive flats from your local garden center. Although there is more cost involved in buying plants, the advantage for beginners is that anything sold locally is guaranteed to be suitable for your hardiness zone. The following season, you can buy less expensive seeds to start your own plants

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Herbs: Basil

Basil plant leaves.

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Basil is both aromatic and attractive in the home garden and a staple among cooking herbs. It’s inexpensive and easy to grow, and can be used fresh off the plant or preserved for future use. There are more than 160 varieties of basil. The most common are sweet and Italian basil and both grow well in the Midwest. Less common varieties include purple, lemon, cinnamon and licorice basil.

Beginning gardeners will enjoy the ease of growing basil. Plant it in a location with good drainage and at least 6 to 8 hours of sun. If direct-sowing outdoors, wait until late spring when all danger of frost has passed. Seeds require soil temperatures of 70 degrees to germinate.

Give basil a head start by planting seeds indoors in the spring. Sow the seeds about a half-inch apart and a quarter-inch deep. Keep the soil moist until the germination, which should occur within a week. When seedlings sprout their second pair of true leaves, transplant them to individual containers. Provide adequate light and water indoors until outside temperatures reach about 70 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night. Basil is a tender plant and won’t tolerate cool temperatures.

When deciding on a location in the garden for your new basil seedlings, check the seed package to determine how tall the plants will grow. Basil reaches heights of 12 to 30 inches depending on the cultivar. Its foliage is green or deep purple and blossoms are white, pink or lavender. Place them where their height and color will complement other elements in the garden.

Prepare the soil by adding organic material and tilling well, Don’t add fertilizer unless your soil is depleted. Fertilizer decreases the production of aromatic oil in basil. Place seedlings in holes about twice as big as the root ball of the plant, about a foot apart, and water well at the base only.

When the plants are about 6 inches tall, begin pruning them about every two weeks to encourage a round habit and healthy development. Simply snip the top few inches of each stem, saving the leaves for culinary use if desired. Pinch off blossoms as they appear to encourage continued leaf development.

Basil will be ready for harvest in 2 to 3 months. Cut stems a quarter inch above ground. It’s best to take no more than a third of the stems on a given plant. This will leave enough of the plant intact so it can continue growing. Preserve leaves by tying a small bunch of stems together with string and hanging the bunches upside down in a cool, shelter place. You can also dry them in the microwave oven on low power for up to three minutes.

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