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Plant like a president


Seeds for this blacked-eyed Susan plant can be purchased online from
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate. (Courtesy Monticello)
Founding fathers knew their flowers, still inspire gardeners



Our founding fathers were gardeners. Beautifying our outdoor surroundings is part of our American DNA.

No wonder on Presidents' Day, our thoughts turn to spring. We want to plant stuff!

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid plantsmen. They collected unusual varieties and shared their enthusiasm with influential friends. Their private estates shaped landscape tastes for a new country.

Thankfully, their Virginia homes and gardens have been preserved. Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello are slices of living history, impressing visitors for more than 200 years.

Washington, whose 287th birthday is Feb. 22, is credited with bringing a more naturalistic look to American landscapes. He used native trees such as Southern magnolias to fill out his gardens and created a blooming oasis of beauty. In addition, he collected novel plants and experimented with growing different fruits and vegetables.

Well-traveled, Jefferson was constantly on the lookout for the next great plant. To test at Monticello, he imported seed and cuttings from around the world; according to his records, Jefferson grew 330 varieties of 89 vegetables and herbs plus 170 varieties of fruit. That doesn’t count his flower collection. He said, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

A packet of black-eyed Susan seed from Monticello made me a Jefferson fan. I got them on a Virginia visit while in high school and planted them back home in California. Effortlessly, they reseeded and bloomed reliably for decades. I loved the idea of a bouquet with flowers the founding fathers enjoyed. Those yellow-orange coneflowers connected me in California with those colonists. It was a little bit of American history in my own yard.

Mount Vernon still has extensive flower, fruit and vegetable gardens. This
photo is
from April 2015. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)
Seed from Monticello and Mount Vernon can be purchased online. Mount Vernon’s spring seed catalog is coming soon (at
www.mountvernon.org ), but the Monticello seed selection is well stocked and ready for orders (at www.monticelloshop.org ). Dozens of heirloom varieties are available including many rarities. A packet of black-eyed Susans ( Rudbeckia hirta ) is $3.95, with 40 seeds harvested from Monticello gardens. Seed samplers offer assortments of flowers and vegetables with themes such as “Birds, Bees and Butterflies” or “Monticello Herbs.”

With such heirloom seeds, American history will grow on you.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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