Garden Tips

When to plant annual flowers, vegetables, and herbs

After a cool and blooming Spring—daffodils have never lasted so long, the days are warmer and it seems time to plant those beautiful annuals that will bloom their heads off all summer and we can’t wait to eat those vine fresh tomatoes.  BUT, BEWARE!   Even with climate change we had a hard frost on May 18th last year that did in planted annuals and vegetables.

Even if we do not have a hard frost, most annuals and vegetables enjoy warmer soil temperature.  A few years ago, we did an unplanned experiment:  a few days before Memorial Day we planted half of our tomatoes, then we got busy and didn’t plant the rest of the tomatoes until June 8th.   The tomatoes planted June 8th did much better the whole season than the ones planted in May.   Cold soil temperatures can stunt the growth of plants such as eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes

It is worth investing in a soil thermometer.  Eggplant and peppers like soil that is 70 degrees or higher.  (You can put black plastic down to help warm the soil before you plant) Night time temperatures should not go below 50 degrees.  Basil is particularly sensitive to cool temperatures. 

Fortunately, some annual flowers and vegetables can take colder temperatures such as lettuce, spinach, radish, and petunias.   Pansies can take freezing temperatures—mine were covered with snow in March and bounced back admirably!

Good luck with planting and don’t hesitate to give me a call if I can help you with a vision for your greenspace.


Late Summer and Fall Garden

How is your garden faring now that it is August and late summer?  What is your expectation for your garden this fall?   I am surprised how many gardeners feel their gardens don’t perform well after mid-July.   I plan my gardens around different peak times and work with texture, three-dimensions, focal points, annuals and a few workhorse perennials to maintain interest during the rest of the year.  

My shadiest garden is sparkling with blooms in the spring but I use annuals especially impatiens and browallia to add color the rest of the year.  Also I have included blue hostas with lovely summer blooms along with interesting leaves and textures through maidenhair and painted ferns and tiarella ‘sugar and spice.’  My yellow wax bells (kirengeshoma palmata) will bloom in late August.  I also have given the garden a third-dimension and a sense of enclosure with a trellis behind it with blooming vines. The garden, dedicated to my mother, has a focal point of a stone and statue. All summer and fall through October, this garden elicits raves from visitors.  

Shady Garden in Mid-August

My yellow and red garden peaks in late June and early July – a light fence is almost covered by tall goatsbeard (aruncus).  However, now in mid-August, yellow hostas, red and yellow heuchera, cardinal lobelia provide color while aruncus and 

astilbe provide texture.


End of June

  Mid August

 My most formal gardens peak in June with peonies, allium, baptisia, and delphiniums.  However, kalimeris incisa (fast becoming one of my favorite perennials) blooms its head off from June through September.  My eight-foot orienpet lilies are still blooming after a month.

Formal Garden in Mid-August


8-foot lilies still blooming in mid-August

Most of my front gardens are scheduled to peak in August–these are simple, part-sun gardens with very few exotic or expensive plants.  Incredibly beautiful pink garden phlox, black-eyed susans (rudbeckia), and daisies predominate in these gardens.


There are so many great plants that bloom in the fall including fall anemones, monkshood (aconitum, mine blooms in late September), perennial helianthus, asters of all types, rudbeckia triloba, montauk daisies (it has succulent leaves), and some types of  dark cimicifuga (name recently changed to Actaea)

Fall Anemone

Monkshood (poisonous) 

Perennial Helianthus

 Montauk Daisy 

  Rudbeckia triloba


 This blog may make it sound like I have it all figured out–but that is far from the truth.   I have had countless plants die on me, not perform as expected, or become invasive and hard to control.  Right now I am dealing with one garden bed that was gorgeous last year and this year is frightening.  This year slugs have ravished my annuals.  But my attitude is to look at what is beautiful in the garden. There is always something!

Opening your garden to the public is slightly risky.   One time I was on a garden tour just after Hurricane Irene. Yikes!  However, I want to share the beauty so I am inviting you to my garden on September 10, 2023 from 2 to 4 pm at 533 West Pelham Road.

Weeding and What to do in the Garden in July.

Yes, it is hot and you are thinking about vacation but a little TLC (tender loving care) in your garden can refresh both your garden and you.  Yes, weeding can be a meditative experience.  I choose a time for weeding–maybe early in the morning when it is cool or a time when your garden is in the shade.  I get a large bucket, a knee pad, and a trowel and pick a specific section of the garden.  This time is only devoted to weeding; I don’t run off for some twine to hold a flopping plant, I just weed. I know my weeds, the ones that have shallow, easy to pull roots and the ones that  require my trowel.  I pull most of my weeds by hand.  I feel in touch with the soil and the land.  The Cardinal chatters in the tree.  Soon, a whole bed is cleared of weeds and looks and feels so much better and likely you will too!

Keeping after the weeds makes everything so much better.  This is particularly necessary if there is a lot of rain.  If you get the weeds before they produce seeds or expand through runners, the number of weeds you will have will lessen considerably. (Any weeds that set seed should not be put in the compost but thrown away in the garbage.)

While I have times set aside for weeding, I also weed compulsively.  I often take my cup of coffee out to the garden to see what is happening–almost any weed I see is pulled immediately.  I weed when I walk out to get the mail.  I weed all the time–I even weed at restaurants when I am waiting for a table!  It is actually one of my most favorite parts of gardening; I stay relatively clean and the feeling of accomplishment is so satisfying.  Try it, it might also work for you!

What else to do in July in the garden?  You can cut back plants that have flowered, give them a haircut and they will often flower again.  You can edge your beds and cut the grass–two of the best ways to make your garden look better.  If it is not too hot of a day and overcast, you can also transplant.  You do not have to wait for the fall, although you need to make sure to water if it doesn’t rain. 

Another fun thing to do is visit nurseries, they often have great sales on plants that have already flowered and you can plant them now, as long as you remember to water.  I just stopped by (July 17, 2023)  SugarLoaf Nursery on 116 and they had weigela, ninebark, lilacs, spirea, and other plants for 75% off.  Their rhododendrons were 50% off.  

Have a great summer and if you need some fresh eyes to help you make your green space more exciting,  please let me know.   

Annuals:  A Secret to a Beautiful Garden

I have always been surprised by many people’s resistance to annuals.  “I plant them and then they die at the end of the season.”  Yes, they do die, but from May to October they bloom their heads off giving you beautiful color.   Perennials are great but very few bloom all season–some bloom for only a few days. 

In my opinion, annuals are easier to take care of than perennials.  You can spend an hour or two planting them at the end of May or early June and then there is not much else to do.   I plant my annuals with a sprinkle of Osmocate (a slow-release fertilizer) and then give them a monthly spray of Miracle Grow bloom booster 10-52-10.  I water when dry.  

Most perennials have a mind of their own–they will overspread, fall over, overtake other plants, and look ratty–they also need feeding, cutting back, and water when it is quite dry.  They often die without a discernible reason.   I spend a lot more time taking care of my perennials than my annuals.

Annuals are incredible in pots or boxes–the perfect way to dress up a patio.   I use Soil Moist in my pots. It looks like salt crystals; when they are watered they expand to a jelly-like consistency and then release the water slowly, delaying how often you need to water. However, in very hot weather, pots do require frequent watering.  (See the picture of my back porch.)

Annuals are an essential part of my design strategy.   People often say,  I want something in bloom the whole season.   Doing that with only perennials means that your garden can be nice but it is not going to be spectacular.   A few flowers blooming at all times does not make a statement; the flowers don’t speak!   Instead, I decide what season I want a bed to shine and plant perennials that bloom together. (See photo below.)  At other times the bed is held together with texture, colored foliage, a few blooming perennials, and Annuals.  I like to border my beds with annuals.  In the third picture below impatiens are holding my shade garden together in October!

What about the expense of buying annuals that will die in a year?  Yes, flowers are expensive but there are amazing annuals you can get cheaply in six packs.  For example, I love melampodium; I buy six packs and by July or August, each plant is the size of a dinner plate. (See photo below.)

Some good places to get annuals are:  

The West Springfield Garden Club sale May 19, 20, 9 am-3 pm Mittineague Park. Route 20, West Springfield.

Andrews in South Amherst  Their quality is excellent and they offer a great variety.

Swawski Farm in Hatfield

Hill Top Farm in Granby especially for impatients and begonias.

Try some annuals this year!  If you need any help with your landscaping design decisions please let me know.

Mary Jo Maffei — 413 265-6390  maryjo@gardenpathdesign

My back deck.  I leave the coleus flowers on because the hummingbirds and pollinators love them.

My late June early July garden. Annuals, texture and colored foilage hold it together later in the year.

Melampodium (yellow)  in my garden.   Vinca (pink in front) are also annuals.

Late Summer and Fall Garden


Frequently when working with a client on a garden consultation, I will be led to a plant that looks like the one above.   This is a hydrangea macrophylla (mop-head),  the beautiful plant you see when you visit Cape Cod in the summer, covered with many large blue flower heads.  Well, the sad truth is that this plant does not do well in Western Massachusetts.   It is a zone 6 plant (I have even read that it isn’t always hardy in zone 6),  and most of us are in zone 5. (Plants viability and success is based on many factors besides the zone.) Most people will report some blooms near the base of the plant in some years.  Buds on hydrangea macrophylla grow on old wood; this means the buds are set the summer before they bloom.  The buds are extremely susceptible to cold weather in the winter and frost in the spring.   Another problem is pruning; pruning after buds are set – mid-summer, fall, winter, or spring– means that buds to produce flowers next year are cut off.   

But what about these leafless sticks growing out from the base?  First, you need to determine if they are dead wood or live wood.  One of the best tests for this is to scratch the stem with your fingernail, if you see green the stem is alive.  You should try this test at several places along the stem.  Also, look for branches off the stem that are green and may have leaves.  If the stem is truly dead, cut it off at the base.   If the stem looks alive, I would wait until the end of June to see if  it leafs out.  If it doesn’t,  I would cut it off – this is a matter mostly of aesthetic preference; there is a possibility these stems may leaf out later or next year but do you want to wait?

There are breeders working hard to develop mop-head hydrangea macrophylla that will work in colder climates. The  Proven Winners brand has tested new varieties in Michigan and has introduced the Let’s Dance series.  However, they do provide the caveat that Let’s Dance is not for every garden and that gardeners in zones 4 and 5 without reliable snow cover or that have frequent spring frosts may be better off with the reliable hydrangea paniculata or the hydrangea arborescens.  I couldn’t agree more!

Hydrangea arborescens 'Haas' Halo'

Hydrangea Paniculata ‘Fire Lite’

I also love Hydrangea Quercifolia (oakleaf), which can have amazing fall color and can take a fair amount of shade; just don’t plant it in soil that is water soaked in the spring (as I did).

Hydrangea Quericifolia

August in the Garden

Wow, it has been hot!!  We are looking for any way to stay cool!  But what about our greenspace? What should we be doing there?  Well, the good news is our well-established shrubs and trees do not need watering—it is actually difficult to water these plants and watering a little can be worse than not watering at all.

 We want our established plants to reach their roots far down into the soil and if we water a little, the roots will tend to stay nearer to the surface where they are likely to dry out. I have a Doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum) that is around seven years old and bloomed amazingly well this year but was quite droopy during the heat spell.  Fortunately, the unexpected shower helped.

On the other hand, we need to be watering very well new shrubs and trees planted this season (or even last fall). When the temperature is over 90 degrees with no rain, we should be watering these every other day.  The best way is by putting a slowly dripping hose on these new plants for 15 plus minutes. Annuals in pots and baskets need a good soaking every day and when the heat breaks, annuals need a blast of a water-soluble fertilizer with a high phosphorus number on the label. Fertilizers usually show three numbers indicating the amounts of Nitrogen(N), Phosphorus(P), Potassium(K). Right now, I am using Scotts Super Bloom 12-55-6 (N-P-K).  For perennial flowers, we usually only water when plants look stressed.

Weeding!  I love weeding—I think of it as a practice in slowing down.  I weed when the weather is comfortable and I try to set aside a time when I only weed.   When I’m only weeding, I don’t run off to find twine to stake a fallen plant or do other tasks; I just weed.  While taking time out to just weed is calming, I also weed constantly. That is, whatever else I’m doing, if I see a weed, I pull it. (I pull it even when I have good clothes on and am going out—OK yes, I am a bit compulsive.) 

August is also for walking around your yard and thinking about your space -- what works? what doesn’t work? What do I want to do in the yard? What changes can I make this fall in preparation for next year?  I can help you with this.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me for advice. I would love to come to your place and help you make your greenspace more beautiful and functional.


Off to the Garden Center –Tips for a Successful Adventure

It is that time of year, the weather is fresh and warm and the green surrounds us.   It is time to add some interest and color to our landscape, off we go to the plant nursery where blooms envelop and intoxicate us.  So, we fill our cart with beautiful flowers and plants envisioning a summer of pleasant blooms.  However, when we get home, we have the vexing question of where to put our beautiful flora.  Have we thought about what each plant needs, sun, shade, type of soil, drainage?   How will the plants we purchase go with our established shrubbery? How much room will a shrub need when it matures?

So, what if we reversed the process?   What if we first looked around our yard and decide where we want to focus our attention?   Is it where we might eat dinner outside, is it along the path we take from our car to our door every day?   Is it a window we look out when we are washing dishes?   Focusing on one or two areas that we see or visit often will provide so much more beauty than the same number of plants scattered around our property.  Say we decide to focus on our patio where we often sit for our morning coffee and maybe a drink in the evening.   What are the conditions in the area—sunny or shading?  What would liven up the space?  Often a few beautiful pots with annuals can do wonders.  Is there a view we would rather block?  Would a few well-placed bushes hide it?

Now we may want to take a little time to do some research, So, we google shrubs for the shade, zone 5.  (What is zone 5?)   The zone we live in gives us an idea of what will grow here and is based on the average lowest temperature in an area.  Most of Western Mass is zone 5 although with climate change, Hadley and Northampton may be able to grow zone 6 plants.  In general, the lower the zone the hardier the plant.)   When we see a plant we like we research it further:  I often use the Missouri Botanical Garden site.

 Now it is time to go to the nursery.  So, we decide we want some pots with annuals.  We look around to see what strikes our fancy.  We read the tag, if it is beautiful now but it says “cool-weather annual” we know the plant will likely fade away in July.  We read the tag of the plants that have not flowered yet.   We google a plant we like to see what its requirements are. 

We see beautiful annuals and perennials in large pots—wouldn’t those look nice near our patio?  But when we see the price, we are a bit stunned.   Do we need to have flower power now or can we wait a little while?   Because I buy so many plants I almost always go for the smaller, less expensive plants.   For example, I buy a six pack of melampodium (see picture below) knowing they will be dinner plate-size plants in July.   I buy the quart size perennials instead of the gallon size one because the following year they will both be the same size.    I also buy plants that have yet to flower—I buy black and blue salvia (the absolute favorite of hummingbirds) knowing one plant will fill the pot by July and I will be thrilled by watching and hearing my hummingbirds zipping by.

Shrubs and trees are an investment so it really pays to do some more research.   Find the expert at the plant nursery and get them to give you the rundown; they can be extremely helpful.

I hope this helps you have a vibrant and wonderful garden this summer!

Making it through the Winter:  Starting Seeds Indoors

Making it through the Winter:  Starting Seeds Indoors

             To be honest, my husband and I plant seeds in March and April mainly to have something green growing!  We get most of our seeds from Fedco, a cooperative in Maine that sells at very reasonable prices.  Even if you don’t buy from Fedco, it is worth getting their catalog, which is illustrated in the manner of the early 1900s and has great information

If you are fortunate to have a sunny south window, you are all set.  Otherwise, you need to purchase a grow light.  I recommend buying a long LED full spectrum grow light, which has the advantage of producing little heat so that you can place the light close to the plants.

When it comes to growing media you can use seed starting soil, which is more finely textured, but I use regular potting soil and it works fine.   I do not like to buy soil with fertilizer already in it because I like to have more control over fertilizing my plants.  However, it is getting a bit harder to find potting soil without fertilizer.   If you want to keep expenses down you could try soil from outside, although it is much harder to work with and has poorer results.   You have a lot of options in the type of containers in which you can plant your seeds. I like seedling flats/cell packs & trays because you can fit a lot of plants into them.  Sometimes I buy new ones, but often I wash and reuse those I have gotten when buying small plants or leftover containers from last year. They should be washed well with soap and water and a small amount of bleach.  You need to have a tray to hold the water underneath the flat.

You then fill your containers with soil and wet the soil so that it is drenched.  After the soil has drained (the bottom of the soil should never be sitting in water) you are ready to plant your seeds.

What should you plant?  Some plants are super easy to grow from seed and some are extremely difficult, but the seed companies don’t tell you that.  A lot of plants such as impatiens and begonias are much, much easier to grow from cuttings. 

For a home enthusiast, generally. annuals that are planted six weeks before the frost date, in mid-April, are a good bet.  Marigolds are far and away the most enjoyable seeds to plant especially if you have children.  They come up reliably in less than a week.  Look through your seed catalogs and do some investigating – does the seed need light to germinate, or will it only germinate if it is covered?  What temperature is best for the plants?   You can jump-start plants that like heat by having a heating pad below the containers. 

 If you are using seedling flats, plant two or three seeds for each cup (depending on the size of the seed and germination rate) You can place the light very close to the seeds and prop it up with bricks or other materials, even books, then move the light up as the plants grow.  

Overwatering is the most common reason that seedlings don’t make it.  I water from the bottom but later check to make sure there is no standing water touching the bottom of the cups.

As the plants grow, you may want to thin them by snipping one of the plants off at the soil level. (This is recommended but I have a bit of a hard time doing this.)   As they grow you should transplant them into larger containers.  As the weather warms in the middle of May take the plants out during the day and bring them in at night.  Plant them in the garden after Memorial Day!


When to cut back perennials -- fall and spring

As we approach winter, the perennial (pun intended) question for gardeners is: should I cut back perennials or leave them to cut back in the spring?  For most perennials, it is up to you—they can be cut back in the spring or fall.   If plants look ratty, you may want to cut them back in the fall.  (It is best to cut them all the way to the ground.)  If plants are giving you some early winter interest or may have seed heads that can be food for birds, you can leave them.  Another question is: do you want plants to seed themselves so that you have more volunteer plants next year or do you want to keep that in check by cutting off the seed heads or the plant to the ground?   Another consideration is your schedule—the spring tends to be a very busy time for us gardeners, while the fall is much slower, so you may want to cut plants back in the fall when you have more time.

An exception is for plants with diseases—because of this summer’s excessive rain,  a lot of plants have powdery mildew (white or grayish on top of the leaves) or brown spot fungus (looks like brown patches on the leaves and can turn a whole leaf brown and dead). This plant material should be cut to the ground and picked up and thrown in the garbage—you don’t want the fungus hanging on through the winter.  I always dispose of the stems and leaves of my peonies in the garbage, since peonies are very susceptible to botrytis fungus.  You want the ground around the peony to be clean of stems or leaves.  Plants where the leaves grow close to the ground such as Hostas and Heuchera should be left until the spring.