I want to talk about a flower I fell in love with growing this year. It’s called Tithonia rotundifolia, commonly known as Mexican Sunflower or Rundblättrige Tithonie in German. There are many things about this plant that I love, but the main reason is that it’s easy to grow from seed and very forgiving, so beginner balcony growers take note!
Tithonia rotundifolia produce sturdy stems and have the ability to reach over 1.4-2m (4-6ft) in height, which is tall for a small balcony space but the wonderful thing about this plant is you can control its height by pinching out its growing tips to induce compact branching growth, much like basil, and grow them in a small sized container to restrict overall growth. Their leaves have a large beautiful triangular shape with a velvety soft touch. The flowers present sunny yellow disks with otherworldly electric orange petals that almost seems to glow. When fading, unfortunately we have to tolerate the less vibrant bright orange. Their flat upright facing blooms invite native bees and other insects to land on them and if deadheaded regularly, they will produce buds until frost. Collecting seed is also easy when a few flower heads are left to seed.
Missouri Botanical Garden
I’m really excited to grow these plants again next year because I think they will make a beautiful shade screen on our hot south facing balcony. They were grown in balcony boxes with 15cm (6in) depth and grew 60-70 cm (24-27in). Next summer, they will be planted in a tall 60cm (24in) pallet pot to see if they’ll reach their full height. I tried growing tomato vines in the tall pallet pot in order to create a shaded section but they were too much of a hassle for our space.
They are, however, greedy plants requiring full sun, weekly/biweekly feeding, and daily watering when grown in containers. If forgotten for a day or two they will wither to the point of seeming lifeless but don’t worry, they will quickly forgive you once provided with water again, almost expanding before your eyes. Next year I’ll try growing some in the Kleingarten and imagine once planted out they will take care of themselves so long as they are not in a waterlogged area. Slugs will probably be the biggest problem.
If you need a back of the garden border plant or have 15l (4 gal) or larger container, give this beauty a try next season; it will not disappoint.
Over the past few years I’ve been changing my gift-giving game. I used to give generic items that people might like but might not be useful to them. When receiving items like this I thought, “if I don’t like receiving gifts like this then why should I give them?” It’s a waste of money and the person is stuck trying to figure out what to do with it. I’ve changed my mindset to giving things that I know they need/want, are useful, something enjoyable, or money when nothing fits the above criteria. At any point during the year, if a person says they’d like something, I make a note of the need/want on my phone for future gift-giving occasions. One Christmas I gave jars of red and green M&Ms with a little cash hidden in the center, creating a 3-in-1 useful gift with the delayed experience of finding money. I’ve also thrown parties that the person will enjoy, but lately I’ve been giving plants to friends who I know will enjoy them.
If you’re at a loss for a gift, consider giving a plant. Plants are wonderful gift-giving investments as they are constantly morphing through the seasons in life, hibernation, and death, and we are privy to watch. When in bloom, they can attract visiting pollinators causing you to pause, observe, and enjoy the present moment, while they are busy sipping away at the sugary reward within. Live plants provide more value than any cut flower arrangement can, and if you give something that is not obvious at first, like the M&M jar, the mystery will reveal its secrets over time.
In October 2018, I gave what seemed like a bowl of rocks and dirt for a friend’s birthday. I told her, “place it outside for winter, keep it moist, and you’ll be rewarded in spring.” To her delight, in March she produced yellow and purple crocuses, in April came the daffodils, and in May tulips should have popped up—but they never did. This might of been a bad batch of tulip bulbs, or my excitement in overstuffing the pot. Either way, she loved it.
Inspiration for this surprise spring bulb planter came from an act in October 2017, when I took advantage of a half-off spring bulb sale and planted over 100 bulbs at my mother-in-law’s house. She forgot about them and the following spring was pleasantly surprised with a bounty of color in her front yard. Over time, the bulbs will multiply and provide even more color for her to enjoy.
If you don’t want to delay the gift’s suspense, you can always pot-up a variety of plants, creating a unique planter to tailor someone’s specific interests. In the summer of 2019, I gave a group of friends a hummingbird planter. The group was so generous allowing my husband and I to crash at their place for over a week, I decided to give them a special planter. The idea came from one of the researcher’s subjects of study, hummingbirds. He travels a lot and doesn’t have time to maintain a traditional feeder which requires cleaning and refilling every few days to prevent spoiling. I potted-up a large container with a few varieties of hummingbird favorites and told them to wait. It attracted multiple insect pollinators including bees, butterflies, and wasps and a month later, they spotted a hummingbird feeding from it!
This fall, a friend is expressing her desire to create a Balkongarten for next year and it just so happens that I have a strawberry plant with runners which I can give for her birthday in December.
If you decide to give a friend or family member plants, be sure to give them something low maintenance or at their skill level. Spring bulbs in a yard require no maintenance. The spring bulb planter required minimal watering, maybe once a month to every other month in winter. Something she could handle since she and her husband grow a forest of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers on their balcony every summer. Balkongarten friend is a beginner and is nervous that she’ll have a brown thumb, so I’m giving her easy-to-grow seeds and a difficult-to-kill plant. How do I know it’s difficult to kill? Well, I abused this particular strawberry plant. A lot of events occurred in 2018—the homemade potting mix that killed a bunch of plants; the balcony being demolished for the entire summer—that caused this one euro strawberry plant to be severely neglected in its original tiny pot. Come spring 2019, it was still alive, barely, so I finally planted it in a larger pot thinking it was probably a waste of soil. Turns out it recovered and by late summer started creating runners! No strawberries have been produced on this particular plant, which isn’t a surprise due to its abused past, so I can’t guarantee she’ll get strawberries in spring 2020 but I can guarantee that they’re tough to kill.
The hummingbird planter requires a slightly higher skill level and one that I knew the group could handle. They already had planters of marigolds, hot peppers, and herbs on their deck, so I filled a large container with low maintenance, hummingbird-loving plants. All they had to do was water it, feed it every so often, and deadhead it so the flowers would keep coming back—the same maintenance they were already doing with their other containers. At the end of the year or next spring, they could also split the plants in half to create more containers and potentially attract more hummingbirds. Or, they could plant them out in the garden, so long as they don’t mind the Bee Balm and Giant Hyssop spreading. These are native to their region but are members of the mint family. If you’re familiar with mint family members you know they grow like weeds. So they either need space to grow or barriers to contain them, such as a berm—the strip of soil between a street and a sidewalk.
If you have a friend or family member expressing they’d like to grow something indoors, but are inexperienced or have a brown thumb, try Money Plant Epipremnum aureum (also commonly called pothos) or Spider Plant Chlorophytum comosum. These houseplants can handle neglect and recover well after neglected periods, especially the money plant. They are also great plants to learn propagation techniques. If giving a store-bought houseplant and you’re not short on time, I suggest repotting it into a slightly larger pot at least one or two weeks before giving it. Waiting, will allow you to watch and care for it during its recovery after transplanting, and when given, will have started actively growing roots and shoots providing a boost of confidence for the person. Just be sure it’s in a pot with drainage, whether it’s in a light insert pot or a decorative pot with holes. If you plant it directly in a decorative pot without drainage holes, you’re setting up your friend for failure.
Plants are wonderful gift-giving investments. Just be sure to give the person a plant they can handle and one that fits their personality in order for it to be a successful gift-giving experience.
My latest article is an overview of how to sow seeds. So if you’re like me and are a little intimidated by seeds, then this is the read for you. In it, you’ll learn the basics of what seeds need in order to survive. Happy planting!
This is the craziest time of the year for gardeners. Everything is growing so fast that we can’t keep up. For a while I managed to keep on top of everything but now I’m falling behind, in both the Kleingarten and my Balkongarten. The most pressing jobs in the Kleingarten, such as the grapevine roof trellis and winter rye cutting, are completed on time, but the balcony has taken a back seat. This past weekend I committed myself to the balcony, which is finally taking shape, although there’s still a lot that needs to be done.
My main task was to get plants into their final pots. Two tomato plants, dahlias, wallflowers, a cucumber, and pepper seedlings were all desperate for transplanting. All but one tomato plant made it into new pots. Unfortunately, it has to wait until I can get more soil, which adds to the delays.
Between the two tomato plants, I planted the worse-looking one. I was afraid that if I didn’t I would lose it. But on this seed-to-plant journey I’ve noticed a difference in stress and plant growth based on what type of pot they were grown in. The weaker tomato plant was in a peat pot and significantly shorter than the other in a plastic pot. The plastic pot tomato is taller, has dark green leaves and, even more surprising, has not one but two plants inside. Having multiple plants in a pot like this normally stunts their growth. I find it very interesting that the two tomatoes are doing better than the one alone in a peat pot the same size. This also conflicts with my desire to reduce plastic in the garden.
Both plants were doing equally well up to a certain point— the point when they needed to be planted out two weeks ago. It appears that biodegradable pots are great but you need to keep on top of schedule and plant out the plants the moment they are ready. Plastic pots may allow for a flexible time frame, keeping the plants happy awhile longer until you’re able to transplant them out.
At the moment, the plastic pot tomatoes are just now showing signs that they are desperate to get into their final place. Their lower leaves turning lime green/yellow, and they are beginning to produce flowers even though they are not yet at their mature height: since they are annuals, their goal is to grow, reproduce, and then die. These particular plants assume they need to reproduce sooner because of the poor conditions. From their viewpoint, producing a few fruits is better than producing none. So my plan of growing two meter tall plants, for both some shade on the balcony and a bountiful harvest, may be lost if they don’t get planted soon.
Keeping to the theme of biodegradable pots, I have mixed feelings about the newspaper pots I used to start seedlings. They are great but, again, only if you keep on top of the plant care, otherwise they turn into a nightmare. The pots dry out faster so they require constant attention to the moisture levels. They also dry out unevenly, with pots on the outside drying faster than those in the middle. And once the true leaves appear twice the size as the seed leaves, they require immediate potting on into a nutrient-rich soil.
I still need to do a few more tests, but my current advice for biodegradable pots is to stick to the plant’s schedule, not yours. As soon as you see these signals, you have to act quickly no matter how busy your life is, otherwise they’ll end up stunted or die. Pay attention to what your plants are telling you and they will reward you in kind.