• Planting the Hardy Chicago Fig

    Posted by Pop on 10/6/2019

    Question: Hey Pop! I was gifted a Hardy Chicago fig tree to plant in my back yard in the spring. I just am wondering where it would grow best.

    Answer from Pop:

    The Hardy Chicago fig is a great choice for planting in Loudoun County because of its relative hardiness.  Figs like as much sun as they can get and require a well drained location.  They are native to the Mediterranean area, so tolerate drought well.  Plant your fig where it gets as much sun as possible and in a location protected from prevailing winter wind.  It is advisable to wrap it in straw or old blankets for the winter from about December through early March.  We will do this with the Frederick Douglass fig tree late this year.  Typically, exposed branches will be killed by extreme cold, but they can be pruned back once new growth appears to show where viable wood starts.  Figs are rampant growers, so they recover quickly.  In more temperate climates where they do not get killed back, figs become huge and have to be cut back drastically unless you have the space to let them continue to increase in size.  To give you an idea of how large they can get, in the Bible one reads of people sitting in the shade of their fig trees and Christ praying under a fig tree.  In a year or two you should have enough figs to satisfy your needs and those of most of your neighborhood.

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  • Raised Bed Construction Plans

    Posted by Pop on 5/15/2019

    Many of you have asked us for plans on how we constructed our raised beds:  Please click on the following to find out:   Raised Bed Construction Plans

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  • Table Plans: Construction plans for the large garden lab table

    Posted by Pop on 5/15/2019

    Many of you have asked us for plans for our large garden lab table in the center of the garden lab that we use for instruction and other special activities or lunches:

    Click on the following for the plans:   Large Center Garden Lab Table

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  • How should art and other accents be used in the Garden?

    Posted by Pop on 4/28/2019

    How should art and other accents be used in the Garden?


    Whole books have been written on how to use art and useful objects in the garden.  I will make just a few suggestions.  If you are planting an herb garden and want to use containers.  Plant things in containers that can be invasive and take over the garden.  Mint, bee balm, garlic chives and oregano are good examples of what should go in containers.  Tender plants that you want to over-winter, like tropical hibiscus, need to be planted in containers.  Place your containers where they serve as an accent, maybe on each corner to define the garden or in the center to serve as a focal point or on a patio or deck.  Put a birdbath in your garden, for these always are useful and of interest.  Put an interesting stone in the center of the birdbath for birds to sit on and lend further interest.  Be sure to use plants like lavender, rosemary, bee balm, and butterfly weed to attract pollinators. These plants can be used just as well outside of the herb garden, on patios, decks and your ornamental gardens. Be careful not to plant things that will hide or overtake the objects that you put in your garden.  For example, you can grow sunflowers that will reach a mature height from 15 inches to 12 feet.  So, I probably would not plant a ‘Russian Giant’ sunflower in the middle of my 8 foot by 8 foot herb garden.  It might do just fine as a backdrop or accent hedge at the back of my whole garden.  If you want a pretty, small green border around a small garden, try using closely planted parsley or even carrots.  A wonderful accent plant in either an herb garden or ornamental garden is ‘Rainbow’ Swiss chard.  The nice thing is these are all decorative and you can eat them.  By the way, pansy and nasturtium flowers make a wonderful addition to salads and are gorgeous in the garden.  If you want decorative, edible vines you might want to use ‘Red runner beans’ or hyacinth beans.  Just be sure to cook your hyacinth beans before eating them.  Don’t forget to check plant labels and seed packets to determine mature size and maybe even hints on how to use what you purchase.  The nurserymen who grow and sell their plants love to be asked for information and how to use their plants.

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  • What is hypertufa and why does it make a good planter? Is it better than terra cotta?

    Posted by Pop on 4/28/2019

    What is hypertufa and why does it make a good planter?  Is it better than terra cotta?


    Hypertufa is a product made from gravel mixed together with Portland cement so it can be made into various shaped planting containers. The advantages of hypertufa is that it is very porous and the Portland cement slowly releases some calcium and magnesium that plants need for healthy growth.   Additionally, you can get quite creative with the container objects that you create, and this can be done fairly easily at home.  There is plenty of information on-line about how to make hypertufa and create interesting containers.  The fact is that both hypertufa and terra cotta clay pots are excellent decorative planting containers that share the advantage of being porous for good drainage and air infiltration to the soil.  Hypertufa may last longer in freeze/thaw environments.  Terra cotta containers cannot be made at home unless you have a kiln.  Both serve a wonderful, creative purpose in the garden, so one cannot say one is better than the other.

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  • What is the importance of art in the garden and what function does it serve?

    Posted by Pop on 4/28/2019

    What is the importance of art in the garden and what function does it serve?


    Gardening is art, and art is the expression of human creativity.  The two are one and complement one another.  Therefore, including pieces of formal art, accents and accoutrements with an eye to what the gardener has planted and nature provided, when done well, creates an effect where the whole is made better than the individual parts.  The garden can be used to set off certain objects and art to highlight and complement them, and conversely these things can serve as focal points that bring attention to parts of the garden where they are placed.  For instance a statue, or a whimsical piece set in a corner of the garden, invites the visitor to view that part of the garden.  A bench invites one to sit down and enjoy the garden.  A bird bath, provides much needed water to animals in the garden, and serves as a point of interest because of the creatures that it attracts.  What makes this important is that both the garden and the art pieces make the whole scene better, more interesting, and memorable.

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  • Native Tree Recommendations for Fourth grade

    Posted by Pop on 3/28/2019

    Mrs. Vermaak's fourth grade class asked:  What type of native trees do you recommend for a Native Tree Walk at our school?

    The Fourth Grade started the Native Tree planting last school year with the new Linden tree.  Here is a partial list of Native Trees that could be selected for a Native Tree Walk:

    • Red maple, Acer rubrum - best dug when small from the local woods where they grow wild.  Best time to transplant is after they loose their leaves and go dormant in the fall or in late February and early March while still dormant.
    • Sugar maple, Acer saccharum -  ‘Legacy’ and ‘Green Mountain’ are varieties that do well in Loudoun County.
    • American beech, Fagus grandiflolia is a fantastic, stately forest tree with smooth grey bark, dark green leaves in the summer that turn beige in fall and stay on the tree into winter. It’s nuts are a favorite of wildlife.
    • Northern red oak, Quercus rubra supports much beneficial insect life important to birds and small mammals. Often has nice red fall foliage.
    • Black oak, Quercus nigra is a stately tree that holds its leaves into winter and produces acorns.
    • Willow oak, Quercus Phellos gets its common name from its leaves that resemble willow leaves which turn yellow in the fall. A fast growing, large tree.
    • Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis is like a fast food restaurant for birds and pollinators, as it bears nectar producing flowers in the spring for pollinators, summer leaves favored by a huge variety of caterpillars that attract birds, and winter berries that sustain birds in the cold months. It is tough as nails.
    • Tulip poplar, Liriodendron Tulipifera produces yellow tulip-like flowers in the spring and puts on a beautiful fall display of golden yellow leaves. It is a tall and stately tree.
    • Sassafrass, Sassafras albidum is a really fun tree and produces an aeromatic bark and roots that smells like root beer when peeled. Its berries are sought by birds and its fall color can be quite spectacular showing shades or red, orange and yellow.
    • Red hickory, Carya ovalis produces nuts loved by squirrels and wild turkeys. It is a large, upright forest tree with lovely yellow fall foliage.  It is somewhat intolerant of pollution, but worth a try.
    • Black walnut, Juglans nigra, produces a hard edible nut but the husk will stain one’s hands and cloths. Still, in the past it was a popular native that people planted where there was not a lot of foot traffic.
    • American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is a moderate size tree with lovely, smooth grey bark and a nice branching structure. The wood is very hard and heavy.  It produces small red flowers in the spring and small nuts later in the summer, all of which attract pollinators and birds.
    • Pawpaw, Asimina triloba is a small to medium size tree that produces an edible fruit that was favored by many old time southerners. It tends to grow as an understory tree where it gets some shade and protection.  I’ve seen it under oaks, maples and hickories in the woods.
    • Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, in my opinion is the monarch of the lowland woods. Its mottled grey bark stands out against blue winter skies and the browns and greys of the winter forest.  It will grow to an immense height and girth.  A huge, old sycamore can take your breath away.
    • Redbud, Cercis canadensis, produce some of the earliest flowers in our local forests. They are a striking purple that cannot go unnoticed.  It is a small understory tree of about the same size as dogwoods.
    • American holly, Illex opaca, is a beautiful evergreen tree that produces an abundance of red berries that the birds love to eat in the winter. It often is used in Christmas wreaths.  Gardeners often don’t like working around hollies because the leaves are prickly.


    There are more native trees to be considered, but this should be enough to get our FDES native tree enthusiasts on the way to planting a native tree walk.  You will note that I did not include native dogwoods because, sadly, they have been attacked by anthracnose and bark beetles.  Elms, ash, and chestnuts have suffered devastating attacks by imported insects, funguses and other maladies.  So, I have left them off this list.  Most of these trees can be found in our local forests and can be dug while small in late fall after they go dormant or in late February and early March as long as they are kept watered the first year.

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  • Why should we use native plants?

    Posted by Pop on 3/28/2019

    What’s special about native plants, why should we protect them and grow them?  Well, native plants have been in a particular area for hundreds, thousands, and in some cases millions of years adapting to the soil, other plants and animals, the weather and the environment in which they live.  They have established symbiotic relations, that is, relations that benefit both themselves and the life that surrounds them.  One such case that most of us are familiar with is the relationship between Monarch butterflies and the milkweed plant.  Monarch caterpillars are dependent upon milkweed as a primary food source that both nourishes and protects the caterpillars until they metamorphose into butterflies.  The adult butterflies are important pollinators that help the plants to reproduce by spreading pollen.  If all the milkweed is killed, the caterpillars would die, the butterflies would disappear, and many plants would go into decline for lack of pollination.  Another good example are many of our native trees; like oaks, maples, hackberries, and hollies.  Some of these are host to over a hundred different kinds of small caterpillars that you never see, but these caterpillars are the most important food source for baby birds.  What most people do not know is that these little caterpillars are a high protein, soft bodied food source that the baby birds can swallow.  They choke on seeds and hard bodied insects until they are older and can tolerate such food.  So, if you cut down these native trees or plant non-natives that the caterpillars do not like, the bird population drops, harmful insects that adult birds eat increase and destroy food crops.  Put simply, everything is inter-connected, and native plants have been around long enough to become an integral part of the environment in which they live.  When you grow plants that are native to the area you live in, you are encouraging the eco-system in which you live to be healthy.  Native plants tend to be stronger, better adapted to the area they live in, benefit the soil, plant life and animal life in that area.  They are not invasive because they are kept under control by the animal and insect life that they have adapted to and for which they serve as a food source.  So, make friends with the natives and enjoy them and all the good that they do.  Learn more about them by reading and studying them, so you can appreciate them.

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  • What pollinates cotton and is cotton a good companion plant? (The Soria family)

    Posted by Mary Cunningham on 3/17/2019

    Dear Soria family,  

         Some planting suggestions before addressing cotton as a pollinator.  Try planting cotton seeds indoors for the children to watch grow.  In late April you can direct sow them outside where they are to grow.  What you start indoors should be hardened before planting outside.  
         When cotton is grown as an ornamental, it normally is planted with other annuals that are the same height or a bit taller.  The taller growing zinnias and marigolds, salvia, celosia, and gloriosa daisies are easy to grow, pretty and will attract pollinators, mostly bees and butterflies.  All the nectar feeding pollinators will benefit and they will pollinate your garden while they feed.  I am not aware of other plants that are considered "companion plants" for cotton.  Plants that are considered "companions" provide a synergistic effect that benefits one another, so they are better off than when grown separately. Cotton is a heavy feeder, so it needs to be grown in fertile soil.  You can amend your soil with composted manure, which is readily available at Lowe's and Home Depot.
         Have fun in the garden.
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  • What kinds of pollinators are attracted to milkweed flowers?

    Posted by Pop on 3/17/2019
    The flowers of everything in the milkweed family, asclepias, which includes common milkweed of the type seeds you sell at school, as well as butterfly weed attract nearly all nectar eaters because it is not toxic.  This would include bees, butterflies of all types, and nectar feeding birds.  The plants themselves have a mild toxin, so as far as I know, only monarch caterpillars eat the leaves.
    One planting comment on the milkweed.  You can start your seed indoors now.  Once it has germinated and is about three inches tall, start to harden it for planting outside.  What this means is place the tender young plants outside in bright, but not direct sunlight, in a place protected from wind on days when the the temperatures are 50 or above.  Bring the plants in at night.  When the plants are 4 to 6 inches tall plant them where you want them in the garden.  Do not start all your seed inside.  Save some of it to be sown directly in the garden because that will let nature do it her way.  You can do that now, as well.  Cover the seed with just enough fine soil to keep it from blowing away.  Be sure to mark where you plant it, so you do not pull it up.  It will sprout naturally when the temperature is right for germination.  These plants will be a bit tougher because nature hardens them naturally.  When they are large enough to handle, you can transplant them, if you wish.
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