Terrariums-A Great (and Cheap) Horticultural Gift Idea for the Holidays

This post marks a first at the Masters of Horticulture.  Today, I bring you my first ever guest author.  Today’s author is an incredibly intelligent, beautiful and charming museum professional.  She is also my daughter.  Heather is the Tour Programs Coordinator for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH).  Heather is a young professional that shares my love of writing, gardening and saving money.  When I saw what she had I done with these terrariums, I wanted to do a post about them.  I was thrilled that she volunteered to write it.  So, without furhter ado, here is Heather:

Terrariums-A Great (and Cheap) Horticultural Gift Idea for the Holidays

While browsing through a magazine article about gift giving, I came across a description of terrariums that contain tiny vignettes (see examples here: http://twigterrariums.com/photos).   I thought they were very cute.  As a frugal shopper, and the daughter of a DIY gardener, I was inspired to create my own glass container gardens, with just as much character as those in the magazine, but without the big costs. With just $30 and a few hours of time, I put together 8 terrariums that will make great holiday gifts.

Here’s how I did it:  After some research, I made my shopping list of the few key ingredients that I would need to create my terrariums:

  1. Glass Containers with or without lids
  2. River rocks or gravel
  3. Spanish Moss
  4. Plants
  5. Character additives

To find my terrarium containers, I hit my favorite local thrift store, St. Vincent DePaul’s Resale Shop. Most thrift stores are full of unwanted glassware, and I found perfect vessels priced from $0.25 to a whopping $2.50. As usual, signs in St. Vincent’s remind you that “If you steal from St. Vincent DePaul’s, you’re stealing from Jesus.” Since I paid my bill of $7.50 in full, all was well with the Lord.

My terrarium that I call "A stranger in Strange Land". This glass container was purchased for $2.50 at the thrift store.

Next I went to a home and garden store and bought a few plants. For some of my terrariums, I purchased small succulents, choosing varieties that included multiple plants in single pots so that I could split them into multiple containers later. I also grabbed a few easy to care for ivies, like Fig Ivy and Devil’s Ivy. You really don’t need a lot of plants per terrarium and I had more than enough plant material from just 6 single 4” containers. I also picked up a bag of dry Spanish moss. Finally, I needed river rocks. I found them in the potted plant area. A small, one pound bag of beautifully packaged “decorative” river rocks was listed at $5. I then visited the gravel and mulch area, where I found a 40 pound bag of the exact same river rocks, in less attractive packaging, for the same price. The large bag provided more than enough rocks, and I’ve used the leftovers for other garden projects. If you have decent gravel or pebbles around your house, you wouldn’t need to buy rocks at all.

The last item on my list, character additives, were mainly things I had around the house. I did find one small Asian-warrior-with-a-sword sculpture at St. Vincent’s for $2. I also used a small robot bought in Chinatown during a trip to NYC, some sculpty sculptures that I has made previously, and two small ceramic chickens inherited from family. You can use any small sculpture that will bring a little story or personality to your terrarium. For example, in my robot terrarium, dubbed “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a small lonely robot has wandered into a rocky alien wilderness of ornamental cabbage and Aloe Vera.

A double decker with chickens

To assemble the terrariums, I created a bottom layer of river rocks. Not only do the rocks provide a decorative element to the terrarium, they also help with drainage. Next I added a layer of Spanish moss. The moss ensures that the soil in the next level up, does not filter down into the rock layer. The terrarium doesn’t require much soil. An inch or two will be more than enough for the third level. It is this third level in which the plants are arranged. In your own terrariums, you can make infinite plant combinations. Plants with different textures will be most interesting when used together; just make sure that they all have room to grow. In some of my terrariums, I added a final layer or moss or rocks for visual interest, and then placed my robot/chickens/sculptures where they fit best in the final “landscape.”

I am a beginner terrarium creator, and my 8 new terrariums are only about a week old, but they seem to be doing really well so far. I plan to continue experimenting as I make more terrariums for the holidays. There are lots of great websites that can provide more information. I’m sure some of my open air “terrariums” aren’t quiet self-sustaining, but nevertheless, they are attractive and fun to make and give as a gift.

So this Christmas, if your list is long and pockets are shallow, why not head out to local thrift shop and nursery? With a little effort and creativity you can make a very creative, gift that will continue to brighten someone’s home for as long as they continue to add water.

Another great terrarium in a great and inexpensive glass container

Nut Sedge-The Worst Weed in the World!

Nut Sedge (Cyperus rotundus), or nut grass as it is often called around here, is one of the most invasive weeds in the entire world.   I am not making that up.  It is currently listed as invasive in over 90 countries across the globe.  Since there are only about 196 countries out there, that means that nut sedge is a major problem for 46% of the entire world.

The origins of nut sedge are most commonly attributed to Africa.  However, there are varieties that are native to southern and central Europe and southern Asia.  Where ever it came from, everyone that I know wishes it would have stayed home.

In my mind, nut sedge is the quintessential weed.  It grows where it is not wanted, it spreads incredibly quickly and it is almost impossible to control.  In fact, it is one of the very few weeds that will not be stopped by rubber mulch or plastic sheating.  My botanical brother Morgan McBride loves to tell the story of his above ground pool.  Before installing it, he stripped the site of vegetation, sprayed with round up and brought in sand to level the site.  He worked all of two days to get it all assembled and then he left it alone until the next weekend.  When he went out to fill it, 5 DAYS LATER, the bottom of his brand new pool had 50+ nut sedge sprouts sticking right up through the rubber bottom.  Needless to say, he hates nut sedge too.

I am writing this post because, once again, I am faced with a major outbreak in one of my beds.  Three weeks ago, I cleaned out a large bed.  I pulled all of the weeds that I could see, laid down eight layers of newspaper and then covered it all with about 6” of hard wood mulch.  Imagine my surprise when I was watering just two weeks later and discovered approximately 100 of these little green devils all over my freshly mulched bed!

Until this last bit of mulching I thought I had eradicated most of it in my beds.  I am certain that most nut sedge comes into my yard concealed in the materials that I am applying.  There is just so much nut grass in my newly mulched bed that it had to be in the mulch I used.  And here in lies one of the major problems with this green devil.   You can mulch it, you can dig it, you can compost it and you can run it through a shredder and it will still come back.

Biology of a Pest – Why is nut sedge such an effective weed?  Well, the answer lies in its biology.  First of all, it’s a sedge.  All sedges have a very thick cuticle covering them so many topically applied herbicides do not even get into the plant.  And, even if it did, it wouldn’t solve your problem.  You might kill the parts of the plant that are showing but the tuber (or “nut”) of this plant is what allows it to come back time after time.  This tuber lies deep in the soil and it is connected to the plants by very fragile roots.  That’s why pulling it does very little good.  You may get what you think is the plant and all of its roots, but in reality, you most likely left the nutlet behind.  This nutlet can lie dormant for up to two years.

Another problem with nut sedge is that in addition to the tubers, it also spreads by rhizomes.  These underground roots shoot out sideways from the nutlet and create another tuber that will, in turn, sprout another plant.  These rhizomes and tubers can be as deep as 14” in your soil.  Digging, and I mean deep digging, is really the only way to get rid of this pest in an organic manner.

If you are not of the organic mindset, then there are a couple of chemical products out there that have been shown to be fairly effective against nut sedge.  First is a product called Sedge Hammer (which I think is a really cute name).  Sedge Hammer contains a chemical called halosulfuron and it is the very best thing out there.  It requires you to coat the plant with it through a spray or a direct application.  I have used it both ways (in a previous garden, before I tried to be an organic grower) and for me, it was most effective when I used a brush like applicator and actually “painted” each plant with it.  Another trade name for halosulfuron is Manage.  This product is readily available at most garden centers.

Another effective product is imazaquin.  Imazaquin is sold under the brand name of of Image.  Both of these products are designed to be absorbed by the roots so you should water soon after application.  Also, for best results, treat your nut sedge when it is young.  The bigger it gets , the harder it is to kill.  Also, don’t be surprised if you have to apply several treatments to get the control desired.

P.S. Round Up (Glyphosate) also works somewhat against this scurge.  If using Round Up, make sure to spray when the plants are young, spray often and make sure there is nothing that you care about growing anywhere close to nut sedge.

Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani)

Maximilian Sunflowers lining the entrance of Wldseed Farms in Fredericksberg

As you drive along the high ways and by ways of our great state this fall, notice all of the native plants that are in full bloom.  Fall is a great time for many native flowers and perennials.  One of the most stunning and prolific of the fall blooming Texas natives is the Maximilian Sunflower.  It is hard to drive anywhere in Texas right now and not see this stately and beautiful plant.  Maximilian Sunflowers produce stalks that can reach 8’ to 10’ in height.  The tall stalks can be completely covered with bright yellow flowers from their base to their tip.  These flowers produce tons of little seeds that ensure that they, and many species of wildlife, will survive until next year.

Close up of the heads of these beautiful flowers

Maximilian sunflowers are actually a perennial plant.  Even though they flower and disperse their seeds like an annual, their roots will survive even the harshest of Texas winters.  Due to this combination of perennial roots and very productive seed heads, Maximilian Sunflowers often develop into very large and thick colonies of plants.  The yellow flowers of these colonies result in fabulous drifts of yellow that paint the fence rows and ditches of fall rural Texas.

The stalk of my Maximilian right before it bloomed, This stalk is about 9′ tall

Even though Maximilian’s are native, they do very well in cultivation.  I have this plant in my beds and so do many of my friends.  It is a great pass along plant.  In fact, that is how I got mine.  My friend Cynthia Mueller brought me some shoots from her established colony this previous spring.  Cynthia has a very beautiful stand that she divides every year and shares with all that want them.

Maximillians in the front border of my potager

Since Maximilian Sunflowers are a native plant, they will do well in low water situations.  However, if you want them to be truly spectacular, water them just like any other bedding plant (about 1” of water per week).  They love full sun and will grow in just about any soil type.  Because of their tall foliage, you may be required to stake or prune them.  If pruning, trim them down to about 2’ or 3’ in late June or early July.  This will keep the plant from growing much over four feet.  When pruned in this manner they can make a very attractive hedge or border. Also, since Maximilians are sunflowers, they last forever as a cut flower in your fall bouquets.

Maximilian’s in mixed Fall bouquet from my beds

My wife and I recently visited Wildseed Farms in Fredericksberg.  They use Maximilian Sunflowers extensively throughout their property and the results are beautiful.  While on their property, I noticed Maximilian used as a stand-alone specimen, in stunning combinations and in mass plantings.  Each use of the plant was very appealing to the eye.   This large scale, fall blooming plant will reward you with beautiful flowers for years to come and, as an added bonus, this tough and reliable fall perennial will draw in several species of birds, moths and butterflies to your garden.  If you would like some for yourself you can order on-line (or visit) Wildseed Farms or  get a start from a friends garden.  This lovely perennial will reward with years and years of reliable blooms.

Four Tips for Growing Outstanding Fall Color

Nothing says fall like flats and flats of pansies. Photo by Morgan McBride

If you haven’t already done so, right now is a great time to plant your fall color. If you have been to a garden center lately you probably knew this. Every garden center that I visit is covered in pansies, snap dragons and kale; and with good reason. These cool season crops grow really well here, they look great in the landscape, they brighten up the gloomy days to come and they can take just about the worst that a Texas winter has to throw at them. In addition, if properly cared for, they will continue to bloom right up until your spring annuals begin to flower and take over.

The secret to success with your fall planted annuals lies in your soil. While these crops will all survive in a wide range of varying soil types, they will thrive in a well prepared bed. Every year I hear different people give tips about what you should add to your soil to properly prepare it for planting these fall annuals. Since I hear the same tips year after year, the advice must be sound. Listed below are the top 4 organic soil amendments that you can add to make sure your fall annual plantings thrive.

Kale and other brassicas are excellent for the fall color bed. Here is a curly purple variety that will compliment the yellow pansies in the prexious picture. Photo by Morgan McBride

Organic Material-Good soil is full of organic material. Organic material, or compost, makes the soil more arable, increases its ability to hold water and nutrients and feeds the microorganisms in the soil that convert the stored nutrients in compost into a form that is usable by the plant. Certain types of compost do have small amounts of NPK that are instantly available to the plant. However, it takes time for nature to convert the majority of the nutrients in the compost into a form that the plant uses. So, truly healthy soil is amended twice a year, every year.

Blood Meal- Blood meal is a by-product of the beef industry. It is basically dried and powdered cow’s blood. Blood meal is one of the highest non-synthetic sources of nitrogen. In fact, it is equivalent to an application of a 13.25% commercial nitrogen fertilizer. It also contains a trace amount of phosphorous and potassium. In addition to being a great source of readily available nitrogen for plants, it also activates many of the microbes that are feeding on the organic material.

Pansies are one of the most planted flowers in America. Photo by Morgan McBride

Bone Meal-Another by-product of the slaughter industry, bone meal is an organic source of phosphorous. Ground bone meal works as a slow release treatment. This is fine since most soils are better at holding phosphorous and potassium than nitrogen. Bone meal contains roughly 12% phosphorous and 4% nitrogen. Calcium is another essential nutrient for plants and bone meal is an excellent source of this.

Peat Moss-Peat, as Peat Moss is often called, is a dried form of moss. It is an excellent soil conditioner and provides nitrogen to the soil as it breaks down. However, the reason most people recommend adding peat to your beds is because of its amazing water holding capabilities. Peat can hold up to 20 times its own weight in water. This is very important to us in the arid southwestern part of the U.S.  By adding peat your will improve your soil and reduce your water bill.

Thornless Prickly Pear-The Perfect Plant?

Thornless prickly pears and maximillian sunflowers at Wildseed Farms in Fredericksberg.

My botanical brother Morgan McBride swears that thornless prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is the perfect plant. You don’t have to water it, it flowers, you can eat the pads and the buds, and it’s evergreen. Plus, if a piece of it falls off onto the ground, it will grow you another plant. I am not sure if I agree with him completely, but you have to admit, he makes a good point.

While I am not as enamored with thornless prickly pear as Morgan is, I do really like the plant. One of my favorite plant combinations of all time was at the weekend place of Dr. Bill Welch. He paired the sculptural, medium green cactus with a dark burgundy castor bean that he got from my plant mentor, Cynthia Mueller. The dark burgundy was a perfect back drop and the combination was stunning. I also felt it was, for lack of a better word, appropriate. Texas is a big place. Some think of it as a southwestern state while others consider it definitely southern. The pairing of the quintessential southwestern plant (the cactus) with the very southern castor bean made me conclude that this was the perfect plant combination to express the dichotomy of Texas.

Thornless prickly pear fruits ready for harvest

Thornless prickly pear does appear in the wild. However, the plant that most of us grow is a hybrid developed by a California breeder named Luther Burbank. Mr. Burbank was busy developing plants around the turn of the century. His two biggest successes were the Russet potato and the thornless prickly pear. Mr. Burbank was a shameless promoter and rather sloppy plant breeder. Because of his poor record keeping, we have no idea what plants he actually used to create the plant we now call thornless prickly pear. Regardless, he was very proud of his creation and he sought to market it as dry land forage for cattle. While the cactus did not catch on as a forage crop (turns out it will grow all of its thorns back if it is subjected to extreme drought), no one can argue with its success as an ornamental.

The cactus blooms in the spring (and sometimes fall). The flowers are typically yellow but can be found in white and red. The fruits of the cactus are very sweet and some say they taste like a very sweet watermelon. Native Americans loved the fruits of this plant so much that they are often called Indian Fig.

Thornless prickly pear and fall asters

Like any cactus, the thornless variety is incredibly easy to grow. Just stick a pad (or nopal) half way in the ground. Water every once and a while and in no time flat you will have a very large mass of cactus. In fact, this stuff is so hardy that it is difficult to control if it is planted in a well drained site with plenty of water.

I don’t know if thornless prickly pear is the perfect plant or not. However, you have to admit, it does have a lot going for it. It is attractive, durable and makes quite a statement in the landscape. Very few plants evoke as strong a sense of place as do cactus. So, if you are looking for something that is guaranteed to grow, thornless prickly pear may be the plant for you.