Healthy soil plus healthy plants equal a healthy planet. I saw this headline once, and it is a constant reminder of what gardening is all about — even a garden that needs weeding.
We all know how important healthy soil is. (Remember the rule: plant a $1 plant in a $20 hole—not a $20 plant in a $1 hole.) If you are doubtful about the quality of your soil, contact the County Extension Office for a soil sample test kit. It’s a free service in Arkansas.
While I applaud the new breeders and love and advocate their many new hybrid plants for their beauty and disease resistance, planting a few heirlooms and natives are a “must” on my gardening list. Fortunately, natives are showing up in garden centers now, so we don’t have to visit our neighbors’ gardens and hint and hint until they share their precious heirlooms.
Horticulture education as a way to help save the planet is part of the Master Gardener stewardship so we strive to include natives in our gardens and in our annual plant sales — not only here but also in Master Gardener projects statewide.
“We all can change the world, one step at a time. It is not the number of people you impact but the fact that you impact someone,” State Master Gardener coordinator Janet Carson pointed out recently. “Master Gardeners impact people every day in such positive ways — working with county agents and other volunteers to make a difference in our communities and in our programs!”
The local plant sale Saturday will include some plants that you usually see only in fields and prairies or along the roadside, or in seed catalogues or that you can buy only online. In fact, catalogues are where Master Gardeners found the seeds to start many of the plants that will be in the sale.
Coincidentally, Saturday is Earth Day. The observance, which dates back to 1970, is a reminder of the importance of keeping our planet healthy and clean. Many celebrate the day by planting trees.
Two native plants at the sale that will attract attention are:
• Echinacea pallida has unique purplish rose or lavender petals and a spiny copper cone. Its thin, extremely reflexed flower petals (also called ray flowers) droop straight down, and the leaves are narrow and toothless.
• Echinacea paradoxa, also called Ozark coneflower or Bush’s coneflower, has long and narrow foliage and oblong yellow petals that slump down. It is a rare native wildflower found only in the Ozark region of Arkansas and Missouri. The paradox in this plant’s name is that it is yellow and all other natives are in shades of pink and purple.
According to some growers, paradoxa is a tap-rooted plant that requires several growing seasons to reach its full size and reproduces by reseeding itself. It is also the most fragrant of all the coneflowers. (Do not confuse this plant with Rudbeckia, also called yellow coneflower or Black-eyed Susan.)
All Echinaceas — native and hybrid — love our Arkansas summers and bloom from early summer until late fall, provided they are deadheaded to encourage new growth. Although they can handle a variety of soil conditions, they prefer a sunny, evenly moist, well-drained location. Once established, they are heat and drought tolerate.
Butterflies love them and deer hate them. And during the winter, the seed heads provide food for birds.
With our growing trend in sustainable gardening, you’ll see paradoxa and pallida paired with its deep purple cousin, Echinacea purpurea, which is the species most often hybridized to create some of the unique colored coneflowers on the market today.
But Echinacea is only one of the cultivars at the plant sale. Other natives include:
• Amsonia, also called blue star, which is a native to the Ouachita Mountains.
• Hoary vervain is a verbena that is an important nectar source for butterflies and many other pollinating insects. The blue-purple flower spikes will persist for four to six weeks (July and August).
• Blue indigo boasts short spikes of blue, pea-like flowers that cover dense, blue green foliage. This showy, long-lived bushy perennial is excellent for massing or at the back of the border. Attractive seedpods in early summer follow the flowers. Great cut flower.
• Bush’s poppy mallow (wine cups) can mature to 2-feet in height but will often spread out rather than up. Its magenta flowers are a real standout in any planting.
• Indian paintbrush is a biennial member of the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) that typically grows on native prairielands and can be spotted by its bright red paintbrush colors.
• Perennial sunflower thrives in almost any sunny spot and produces masses of bright yellow, daisy-like flowers from mid-summer to fall. Mature flowers attract masses of colorful songbirds that feast on the oil-rich seeds.
• Turtlehead’s two-lipped, deep rose flowers resemble the head of a turtle, earning the plant its popular name. Many gardeners grow turtlehead around the perimeter of their vegetable gardens, as a deer repellent. It is a clump-forming perennial that can reach 2-3 feet in height.
• Bear’s breech, whose real name is acanthus, is grown as much for its attractive foliage as its bold 3-foot-tall flower spikes that resemble huge snapdragons. The eye-catching white or pink flowers are clasped by showy purple bracts. Often, it is described as a living sculpture.
• Butterfly weed and milkweed that are necessary for butterfly gardens.
• And an annual called snow on the mountain that is not as invasive as the perennial cultivars. Grown as much for its foliage as for its flowers, it is a self-sowing annual that's dramatic in the garden and beautiful in the vase as a cut flower.
There also will be many varieties of vegetables, annuals, perennials, shrubs, grasses and a couple of plants grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello — sesame and black hollyhocks. Plus several cultivars of figs (including Celeste — sometimes called sugar fig — and Sister Madeline’s Green Greek) that are growing well in the fig trial underway at The Learning Fields as well as unique baskets of flowers.
Lots of Master Gardeners will be standing by to help you make the perfect selections for your garden and yard and to help you carry your purchases to your car.
This sale will be held from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the parking lot of First Christian Church, across from Sweet Bay by Creekmore Park on Rogers Avenue. But this sale is about more than selling and buying plants. It’s about bringing together gardeners and wannabe gardeners. It is a place and time for sharing gardening knowledge. It is a chance to see plants not often found in garden centers.
Next week, the topic will be red okra — in the garden, on the table and in a vase.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to email@example.com.