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Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in Polk County

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  • 15 Oct 2020 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Forcing Bulbs Indoors | What is Layering Bulbs?

    Step by Step Forcing Bulbs

    Throughout the years, I have forced a variety of bulbs in a variety of pots.

    • The first step is selection. Tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, crocus and other smaller or “minor” bulbs can be forced. Experience has taught me that the earlier cultivars of tulips and daffodils force best. Either plastic or clay pots will work.


    This year I am forcing two pots of bulbs. One pot is ‘Miss Saigon’ hyacinths, and the other is ‘Delph’ blue hyacinths.

    •  Next, I select a rather large plastic pot, probably 10-12 inches in diameter. Make sure the pot has drainage hole(s) on the bottom. Line the pot with several layers of inexpensive coffee filters, then fill half full with potting soil mix.
    • As usual, this year I’ve forced fived bulbs per pot, pointed side up, with the bulbs not touching. Place enough potting soil into the pot to fill it, which will bury the bulbs by a couple of inches.

    What is Layering Bulbs?

    In addition, I am trying something new this year. I placed Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica, in both pots after they were filled. Place them on top of the pot, pointed side up, then gently press them into the pot with your fingers until the very tip is at the surface of the potting soil. This process is called layering, and I’m anxious to see how it works. Water thoroughly as the potting soil will be dry.

    Forced bulbs require a cooling period, so they are sitting on a patio table. When the temperature is predicted to go below 28 degrees, I bring them into a cool porch for the rest of this cool time  a garage will also work well). In this area, the temperature averages about 50 degrees, and never gets below 40. Roots form first, so don’t look for sprouts for a couple of months.

    Should I water bulbs being forced?

    Yes, keep the soil moist, but avoid over-watering. A shallow saucer at the base of each pot will help insure that excess water is drained. Dump the extra water on any neighboring plants that need a drink, and wait for results. After sprouts appear, bring the pots indoors so that growth and flowering occurs at a faster rate. Then, Enjoy!

    Anything that can be done to help the winter pass more quickly and cheerfully is appreciated. Therefore, forcing spring bulbs is uplifting, as well as fun and easy.

  • 15 Oct 2020 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Daffodils in the Bulb Bed at Demonstration GardenMany varieties of Daffodil can be found at Demonstration Garden in April and early May.

    Planted initially in 2009, there are many bulbs at Demonstration Garden.  The bed was originally three separate areas of lilies, irises and mums.  The plants were marked, removed and replanted into one location.  The bed now features bulbs, tubers and corms proving a lovely display of blooms throughout the seasons.  

    What’s a Tuber?

    A tuber is a horizontal, underground storage organ made up of stem tissue. It contains eyes on the surface from which shoots may arise. A potato is an example of a tuber. Like bulbs and tubers, a rhizome is a storage organ. They are underground stems that grow horizontally. Buds sprout on top while roots grow beneath. A bearded iris is a plant which produces rhizomes. Corms are short, thickened, upright, underground stems in which carbohydrates are stored. Corms may function as a vegetative reproductive structure.  Crocus and gladiolas are examples of corms.

    Bulbs at Demonstration Garden

    Demonstration Garden bulb display features a wide variety of  bulbs, tubers, and corms:

    • Allium ‘Persian blue’
    • Cannas 
    • Daffodils (assorted varieties)
    • Dahlias
    • Daylily (mixed colors)
    • Elephant Ear
    • Iris (mixed varieties) – Bearded Iris ‘Burgundy Party‘ and ‘Batik’
    • Lilies: Day Lily, Surprise Lily, Casablanca and Oriental ‘Starfighter’
    • Spanish Bluebells
    • Starflowers (blue and white)

    Gardening in the Zone: Spring Flowering Bulbs

  • 11 Sep 2020 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Good Pepper Cultivars

    Pepper Basics

    The varieties of peppers and good pepper cultivars to raise and eat are astounding. This is why it is one of my favorite crops to grow propagate. Starting from seed is not recommended for Iowa due to their long growing season. Always plant transplants. I have purchased a wide number of plants from both local and mail order sources. Peppers belong to the night shade family. They will reach their maturity in the fall months.

    In my youth,  my mom only raised bell peppers in the garden. Due to our rich soil and plentiful sunshine, they did well, not prone to many diseases or animal predation.

    Good Pepper Cultivars

    As an adult gardener, both sweet and hot varieties peak my curiosity. By and large, the bells have not done well for me. They set late, their production has been limited, and in heat over 92 degrees F blossoms will abort. On the other hand, the cultivar ‘Sweet Banana’ is a consistent winner. It is prolific, mild, tasty, and freezes well. Their walls aren’t as thick as the traditional sweet bells, but their production makes up for that.

    Hot varieties and cultivars have also done well. My favorite to raise are habaneros, and I have many friends who will take the peppers off my hands. ‘Hungarian Wax’, ‘Carolina Reapers’, ‘Ghost’ and Jalapeños also do well.

    It is not true that deer and rabbits will not eat hot pepper plants. My pests have been equal opportunity eaters, so I treat sweet and hot peppers the same way with a frequent dusting of an animal repellent powder. It works well, unless you forget to re-treat after a rain. Proper fencing will also keep animals out.

    Pepper Do’s and Don’ts

    Pepper plants love rich soil, plenty of water, and hot weather. However, be careful not to over-fertilize them, for if you do, you’ll have all foliage and no peppers.

    Next year I plan to raise some new cultivars. We’ll see what is available in seed catalogs as well as locally, and take it from there. In the meantime, happy pepper eating this autumn!

    Learn more about good pepper cultivars, planting, potential problems, harvesting and storage, and pepper hotness in your home garden.

  • 2 Sep 2020 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Lettuce and Autumn Vegetables

    When to Plant Autumn Vegetables

    September is here, and it is time to plant a second crop of vegetables for October harvest. Due to the dry and warm weather, the planting is somewhat delayed this year. Some seeds, like lettuce, will not germinate in soil warmer than 80 degrees. Rain and cooler weather will arrive sooner or later, so planting time is here!

    How to Plant Autumn Vegetables

    This  example of planting will be confined to containers. The first step is to hoe up and loosen the soil. Two of the beds received cocoa bean mulch after the spring crops were harvested, so little work is needed. Another bed still has tomatoes in it, and I will loosen the soil near them, and plant around them. By the time the fall crops are mature, the tomatoes will be history. A hoe without a handle works great for this purpose, as does a large trowel.

    What Autumn Vegetables to Plant

    These seeds all require shallow planting, so the next step will be to hoe several parallel trenches in each raised bed at about a quarter inch of depth. I will plant seeds thickly to allow for possible germination failure. The young plants can always be harvested for early greens, thinned, or pulled out. In the case of radishes, thinning is beneficial to allow for room to produce better roots. Other autumn crops would include microgreens, beets and spinach. Be creative and discover even more possibilities.

    List of Cold Hardy Vegetables

    You can find a complete list of cold hardy vegetables for early spring and fall here. For fall, the main thing is to look at your “dates to maturity” data on each seed packet. Then, add 7-14 days to this amount due to shorter day length, and temperatures which will be cooler as the season progresses. Consider when the first frost will be and if you plan to do any covering of crops. If you have a cold box that too can extend your season.

    And don’t forget to stop by the Demonstration Garden to see what is growing in our vegetable garden! If you have questions about other late fall plantings in Iowa find answers from Iowa State Extension.

  • 28 Aug 2020 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Surprise Lilies

    Although I’ve been aware of them for over fifty years, surprise lilies still impress and amaze me. The first experience with them was in my Mother’s garden, and she called them “naked ladies.” Another common name for them is hardy amaryllis. Their botanic nomenclature is Lycoris radiata.

    Hardiness is definitely one of the Surprise Lilies strong points giving enjoyment and wonder year after year.

    Surprise lilies deliver a double bonus. Depending on planting location and weather, they may emerge as early as March 1, an extremely welcome harbinger of spring. By April 1, their strap-like leaves may be over a foot long, and will remain green for the next two months. In June they will die, and all appearances point to their season being finished. So, it is helpful to mark their location when the leaves start to die, as the best is yet to come, and you don’t want to miss or disturb it.

    Usually, sometime between July 25 and August 15, stems poke above the ground. In only a few days the tips will split, flower buds will appear, and you’ll see a cluster of flowers at the end of each long and narrow stem. The flowers are lavender to pink, and have a very slight fragrance. Their bloom time is brief, but fascinating. No leaves will appear until next spring.

    Surprise lilies are bulbs. I have planted them in spring and in fall, and they don’t seem to care. Look for them in catalogs and at garden centers. Planting them 4-6 inches deep, pointed side up, is a safe bet.

    Like all bulbs, they like well-drained soil, and sunshine. I have never fertilized them. Some of the lilies are in a more shaded area, and as a result, they are later to sprout and bloom, although this is not a problem.

  • 11 Aug 2020 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak


    I have been in the garden, or tending my own garden for over 65 years. One of the mainstays has been tomatoes of all types and sizes.

    I was raised as a nontraditional tomato grower. On the farm, we didn’t stake, we didn’t water, we didn’t pinch off the suckers. The only concession we made to them was to place water in the planting hole, and protect them from the sun for a couple of weeks with broken clay tile, which we stood on end. This kept them from getting too much sun during their first two weeks after transplant; it also helped retain moisture. Mom’s favorites were Rutgers, as she canned countless quarts of tomatoes, sauce and juice.  I have fond memories of sitting out in the garden on hot August afternoons, looking for ripe tomatoes, and eating so many of them that my chin broke out.

    When is a tomato ready to eat?

    I have been blind since birth, but that hasn’t stopped me from planting, caring for, or harvesting tomatoes. They ripen from the bottom of the vine up on, so that’s where I start to look. When they change from hard to being slightly firm and a little soft they are ready to eat.


    In the container garden, I raised determinant varieties such as Better Bush and Bush Champion. Tomato cages help to keep the plants upright, and if necessary, tie them with loose string as well. The crop has been tremendous this year, and they just keep being tied up, and producing. Since they are in containers, they get watered often.

    Tomatoes love three things:

    1. rich and well-drained soil
    2. plenty of water
    3. and lots of sunshine.

    In my nontraditional view, plants don’t care when they get watered. Morning may be best, as any water that gets on the leaves will be evaporated by the sun.

    Disease Prevention and Troubleshooting Problems:

    Now that August is here, the plants are looking a little weather worn. The bottom leaves are drying up, and production has slowed down in the determinant cultivars.  Watering occurs from the bottom in saucers, or where a saucer is lacking, a watering can is used to water the soil only. Tomato diseases love damp foliage, and since they are not treated, prevention is my best weapon.

    Five cherry tomatoes are growing in pots in the garden. They are not trimmed, but are vining along a fence, where they get the frequent tie up treatment so they are upright, receive better air circulation, and promotes an easier way to find the tomatoes. They are so prolific that some of them will split, but that is a minor problem. Tomatoes that fall off as they are ripening is a bigger issue for me.

    When weeding the ground garden earlier this summer, several volunteers were noted. They are growing among the flowers, and now they are tied in baskets. Their fruits are small, bigger than cherries, but smaller than the full-sized fruits. Nonetheless, they are tasty and welcome. Since they got a late start, they will ripen a little later, which is an additional bonus.

    Don’t Compost Old Diseased Leaves

    Autumn is here. Old dead vines end up in a recycling bin for pick up. Since they are so plagued by diseases, composting them is not a good idea. If you like green tomatoes, or wish to ripen them indoors when frost is close, pick off the most mature green ones for storage. Then, wait until next year, and look forward to fresh tomatoes again.

    The vegetable garden at Demonstration is a great place to observe a large variety of tomato plants. Plants in this garden get better care than mine do, so this will be a good model for you.

  • 26 Mar 2020 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Grape Hyacinth | Demonstration Garden

    The Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) is a compact perennial with royal blue to purple bell-shaped flowers that bloom in mid-spring.  It’s fine textured leaves and masses of purple flower spikes do well in group plantings. The fine texture offers good contrast larger leafed foliage and different colored bulbs which also bloom early spring.

    Facts about the Grape Hyacinth:

    Grape Hyacinth FACTS
    Scientific Name : Muscari armeniacum
    Bloom Time,Color blooms in mid-spring, Royal blue with thin white rim
    Type or Average Life Span:  Perennial, Up to 5 years
    Height:  8 ” at flowering
    Width/Spread:  4″

    Good things to know about the Muscari armeniacum :

    Native to Southeastern Europe to Caucasus Muscari armeniacum grows best in full sun to part shade, remaining compact with an upright flowering aspect.  It prefers consistent soil moisture, but does not tolerate wet ground. The plant spreads through multiplication of underground bulbs, and is hardy to zones 4-8.

    You will find Grape Hyacinth in the Purple Passion Bed at Demonstration Garden.

    Grape Hyacinth can be found early spring in the “Purple Passion Bed” near the bubbler fountain at Demonstration Garden. Easy to grow and maintain, the plant propagates slowly through bulb naturalization. The plant is dormant from late spring to autumn when the leaves again appear. They are best used for edging beds, in rock gardens, and naturalized drifts and offer a pop of color in the early spring.

  • 20 Nov 2019 12:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Planting Bearded Iris Iris rhizomes should be divided every 3-4 years.

    What is a rhizome?

    If you’ve dug up a bearded iris, a canna, or a lily of the valley, you’ve dug up a rhizome. What’s a rhizome? It’s a thick, elongated horizontal stem that stores food.

    How does a rhizome grow?

    Not all rhizomes grow alike. Canna rhizomes, for example, grow underground, while the rhizomes of bearded iris must be at least partly above ground to avoid rot. All rhizomes, however, store food and create new plants by creeping outward from the original plant.

    Nodes occur at points along the rhizome. At each node, leaves grow upward, while roots grow downward, anchoring the plant in the soil and drawing up food and moisture.

    Some gardeners might confuse “rhizome” with “stolon” (runners). Rhizomes are thick (like bearded iris). Their main purpose is food storage, and they lie partially or entirely underground. Stolons are wiry horizontal stems that lie mostly or entirely above ground. Examples of stolons are strawberries, creeping charley, a number of grasses. As with rhizomes, nodes occur all along the length of the runner. When the node encounters soil, it creates leaves and roots—then continues “running.” The purpose of a stolon is to create new plants.

    Propagating Rhizomes.

    It’s easy to propagate rhizomes. Dig up all or part of the original plant and cut the rhizome into sections that have at least two or three nodes. Let the cut edges dry then replant at the original depth. Avoid bruising rhizomes, as they may rot if bruised.

    If, on the other hand, if you want to remove a rhizomatous plant, be sure to get all of it, or new plants will spring up from whatever is left in the ground. The same is true of stoloniferous plants like creeping Charley!

    Common and Less Common Rhizomes.

    Common rhizomatous hardy perennials include brunnera, iris (bearded and Siberian), lily of the valley, Solomon’s seal, native switch grass (Panicum virgatum), and some varieties of coreopsis, mint, miscanthus, and ferns.

    Less common include hardy bamboo, geum (avens), ginger, pitcher plant, and thermopsis—among many others.

    Tropical rhizomatous plants include rhizomatous begonia (e.g., Rex begonia), canna (“canna lily”), and sympodial orchid.

    Look around the Demonstration Garden—and your yard—and you’ll probably find several rhizomatous plants!

  • 15 Nov 2019 12:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Daffodils in the Bulb Bed at Demonstration Garden

    Many varieties of Daffodil can be found at Demonstration Garden in April and early May.

    What is a bulb?

    What is a bulb? It’s a rounded underground storage unit consisting of a short stem surrounded by scales that feed and protect the growing point. Picture an onion. Not all bulbs are the same shape and size as an onion, but the most common and popular bulbs look and grow pretty much the same as an onion. 

    Bulbs hardy in Iowa include daffodil, tulip, lily, crocus, snowdrop, and hyacinth. 

    Spring Flowering Bulbs

    Plant spring-flowering bulbs in fall from late September up until the soil freezes. Be sure to plant the pointed end up and the larger end down. The roots grow from the base of the bulb–the basal plate. If uncertain, place the bulb on its side. It knows which way is up! (Again, picture an onion. The base is where roots emerge.)

    Summer Flowering Bulbs

    Plant summer and fall-blooming bulbs in the spring as soon as the soil temperature (not the air temperature) reaches a minimum of 60 degrees. Popular summer bloomers include anemone, begonia, caladium, calla lily, canna, elephant ear, gladioli, and tuberose. Because these are not winter-hardy in Iowa, they must be dug up in the fall and stored in cool (but not freezing) temperatures.

    Fall Flowering Bulbs

    Fall-bloomers include some varieties of crocus and cyclamen. These are winter-hardy and don’t need to be stored inside.

    Bulb Planting and Maintenance tips:

    1. Light: Choose a site with a minimum of four hours of sun. Six is better, but avoid hot, dry locations suitable for cactus!
    2. Location: Nearly all bulbs require excellent drainage. They will rot in soggy soil. If your soil is poorly drained, either consider another site, aerate the soil with perlite or coarse sand, or plant in a raised bed.
    3. Depth: Dig a hole between two and a half or three times the height of the bulb and place the base of the bulb at the bottom of the hole.
    4. Spacing: Bulbs multiply, so allow adequate space between them. The larger the bulb, the more space is required. For daffodils, four or six inches. For crocus, two or three inches.
    5. Feeding: Apply fertilizer labeled as “bulb food” during planting. Mix fertilizer in with the soil, with a shallow layer of soil between the bulb and the soil-fertilizer mix. Follow package directions! Too much fertilizer will burn the roots, so more is NOT better. The following year, top-dress with fertilizer and work into the soil.
    6. After blooming: DO NOT cut green foliage unless you plan to discard the bulbs. Foliage provides food to the bulb—and ensures a good show next year. Wait until foliage has turned yellow and starts to droop.
    7. Maintenance: Keep the area free of weeds with an organic mulch.

    Bulbs at Demonstration Garden

    Demonstration Garden bulb display features a wide variety of  bulbs, tubers, and corms:

    • Allium ‘Persian blue’
    • Cannas 
    • Daffodils (assorted varieties)
    • Dahlias
    • Daylily (mixed colors)
    • Elephant Ear
    • Irises (mixed varieties) – Bearded Iris ‘Burgundy Party‘ and ‘Batik’
    • Lilies: Day Lily, Surprise Lily, Casablanca and Oriental ‘Starfighter’
    • Spanish Bluebells
    • Starflowers (blue and white)

    Gardening in the Zone: Spring Flowering Bulbs

  • 4 Sep 2019 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

    Dead heading in the garden

    What is deadheading plants?

    Deadheading is the practice of removing spent flowers from ornamental plants. It is a widespread form of pruning. Since fading flowers are not as appealing, this improves the appearance of some plants. It can even encourage continual blooming in some. Even more importantly, it keeps the plant from directing much of their energy into seed development if pollinated. The result is less “weediness” caused by self-seeding.

    About once a week, cut or snap spent flowers off at the base of the bloom. Some herbaceous ornamentals do not need deadheading, They are called self-cleaning. An example of a self-cleaning plant is an impatient.

    Flowers that benefit from deadheading:

    • Petunia
    • Marigold
    • Geraniums
    • Dahlia
    • Salvia
    • Delphinium


    Pinching is a little different than deadheading but is another form of pruning. You can do this to encourage fuller more compact and less gangly plant growth. The result is bushier, compact plants with many blooms. Petunias are good example of a plant which benefits from pinching. Peonies are example of an ornamental which does not benefit from pinching but does benefit from deadheading.

    Save some future food for wildlife.

    Toward the end of summer consider letting some spent blooms of native plants, such as coneflower and black eyed susan, go to seed. This will provide a natural food source for birds throughout the winter. Therefore, attracting wildlife to your yard which can observed and watched throughout the winter.

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