Charlie’s Early April Newsletter

Stunning Sweet Peas, Colorful Coral Bells, Growing Asparagus and Gardens To Visit

lettuceWell, if I ever forget where I live all I have to do is watch the weather in April. In Vermont, we went from 70F and sun to 30F and snow. Spring is coming, just not as fast as I’d like. But the warm spell did pop lots of spring flowering bulbs. I see buds swelling on the trees and perennials popping out of the ground. Of course, the deer found the crocus, but that’s all part of gardening.

In this newsletter I focus on a fragrant, beautiful annual flower I haven’t grown for a few years, but my wife Wendy is growing this year. Sweet peas are a classic English cottage garden flower and a delight to grow. I talk about them here.

Shade perennials are very popular because many gardeners have small yards with a lack of sun. One of the best is Heuchera or coral bells. This part shade loving perennial has really seen a renaissance in the last 10 years with many new varieties on the market. The leaves are gorgeous, featuring a full range of colors. I talk about coral bells in this newsletter.

We love eating asparagus, so have decided to plant another 12 plants this spring. Asparagus is a long lived perennial and produces tasty spears that I often eat raw in the garden. They’re that good.  We’re trying a new variety, ‘Millennium’ this year. It should work well in our cold, clay soils. I talk about planting, caring for and harvesting asparagus here.

Most of us haven’t been visiting public gardens because of the pandemic. A fellow garden writer is inspiring us to get moving by publishing a compelling, digital e-book of 50 American Public Gardens to visit this summer. I won’t make it to all these gardens, but I know many of them. If you’re ready to travel a bit, even just regionally, check out this guide. Just reading about these beautiful gardens gets me excited.
VPR No-Dig event
If you’re curious about my new book,
The Complete Guide to No-Dig Gardening, then you might want to check out this Zoom presentation I’m doing with Carolina Lukac (Vermont Community Garden Network) and Kim Dostaler (Gardeners Supply Company), in conjunction with Vermont Public Radio and AARP Vermont.

No-Dig Gardening with Charlie and friends will focus on the different ways to no-dig, the benefits of this technique and ways to plant, maintain and build the soil fertility of your beds. The event airs April 11th at 4pm eastern time and attendance is by donation. Join us!

Happy Gardening. Until next time, I’ll be seeing you in the garden.


Charlie & Sharon


Where to Find Charlie:(podcasts, TV and in-person)

How to Grow: Sweet Peas

sweet peasThere is no spring flower that delights like a sweet pea. I remember during one of my garden tours to England just marveling at the colors, vigor and scents of this beautiful annual flower. We haven’t grown them in a few years, so Wendy is excited about having a clump of sweet peas on the garden fence. And why not? They love our cool spring weather, grow quickly and produce gorgeous blooms for the garden and table.

sweet peasIt’s good to be selective about the varieties of sweet peas you grow. ‘Royal Blend’ is a mix of majestic colors that grow on 5- to 6- foot tall vines. This variety is more heat resistant than others, so lasts longer into summer. It also has a strong fragrance. ‘High Scent’ has as delicious scent on ruffled, pale cream, colored blooms with a lavender edge. The large flowers are perfect for cutting. ‘My Navy’ is an unusual sweet pea for its deep, navy colorful blooms and light scent. For smaller space gardens, try ‘Knee-Hi Blend’ that only grows 2+ feet tall and needs little support. They’re perfect for container growing. There’s even a perennial sweet pea with lavender, white or pink colored blooms, no fragrance. It comes back each spring.

sweet peasPlant sweet peas directly in the soil in spring once the soil has dried out and threat of frost has passed. To hasten germination, scar the seed coat with a file or sand paper and soak the seeds overnight in warm water. Another way to insure good germination is to grow them indoors, under lights, and transplant them once their true leaves form. The key is to get them up and growing while the weather is cool. Thin the plants for good spacing to avoid powdery mildew disease.

Grow most varieties on a sturdy trellis, post, netting or fence. They need something to grab onto as they grow. Keep the plants watered and mulched. Cut sweet pea blossoms in the morning for the best fragrance.  

Go here for more on growing sweet peas

How to Grow: Coral Bells

coral bellsI’m always inspired by Heuchera or coral bells. This part shade loving perennial has had a dramatic facelift in the last few decades. Now there are so many beautiful varieties that feature colorful leaves, that I’m always drawn to buying more when I visit garden centers.

The selection ranges from varieties with deep purple leaves to chartreuse colored foliage. ‘Palace Purple’ is an award winning variety that grows 18 inches tall. It features deep burgundy/purple colored leaves and cream colored flowers that stand out in a shade garden. On the other end of the color spectrum is ‘Champagne’. This variety has peach to gold colored foliage with burgundy colored stems and white flowers. It’s a compact, 12 inch tall plant and really brightens a shady nook. ‘Caramel’ has warm tones of yellow, pink and red with pink flowers. It also only stands 12 inches tall.

coral bellsCoral bells are hardy and there are selections that can grow from Southern California to Maine. They thrive in part sun locations. In colder climates they can take full sun and in warmer climates will need more afternoon shade. Plant these low growers in groups to really have the foliage colors pop. Some good, low growing shade perennials to pair with coral bells include brunnera, astilbe, lungwort and forget-me-nots.
coral bells
Clean up this perennial in spring, removing dead leaves and adding some compost around the plants. The flowers are small and not the main attraction, but can be cut for indoors. In fact, I’ve seen flower arrangements featuring the colorful leaves as well.  

Learn more about growing coral bells


Growing Asparagus
asparagusThere are few true perennial vegetables that most people are familiar with, and asparagus has to be my favorite. We have a 10 year old patch that still produces well and are planning on expanding to plant more asparagus this spring. The plants can last for decades, if well tended and weeded. The flavor and tenderness of fresh asparagus cut from your garden can’t be beat. I often munch on small spears for a snack while doing spring garden work.

The big revolution in home asparagus growing started with the introduction of all-male varieties. Many of these were bred at Rutgers University in New Jersey. All male varieties such as ‘Jersey Knight’ and ‘Jersey Centennial’ don’t produce many female plants. This means all the energy goes into producing spears and none into producing flowers and berries. The result is better production and fewer seedling asparagus weeds to dig out.

asparagus fernsIn a sunny, well-drained soil location, plant in spring once the soil has dried out. Purchase crowns of asparagus on-line or locally to grow. You can start asparagus from seed, but it will take longer to reach the mature stage. Dig a 1 foot deep trench, create compost mounds spaced 1 foot apart in the trench and lay the spider-like asparagus crowns over the compost. Back fill with native soil to the top of the crowns. As the spears emerge continue to back fill until the trench is filled. Water well and keep weeded.

blanched asparagusFor the first two years, don’t harvest. Let the spears grow and form ferns to build up the crown. In year 3 begin harvesting for a few weeks selecting only the larger diameter spears. Cut and snap them off at ground level. After that harvest for about 6 weeks, or until the spear size gets small. Watch out for the asparagus beetle and control by handpicking and using organic sprays.

If you keep the bed healthy with annual additions of compost and regular weeding, it will produce spears for years.

Learn more about growing asparagus

In Our Garden: 50 Gardens to Visit

 50 American Gardens e bookWe’ve all missed visiting public gardens this past summer. I had to cancel all my tours and only got to one public garden in fall. It had limited numbers of people it would allow to visit. But 2021 promises to be better for garden visiting with many people getting vaccinated. So, I’m excited.

To spur us on and help lead the way, fellow garden writer, George Weigel has put together an on-line, digital e-book called 50 American Public Gardens to visit. I have visited many of these, but a few of these gardens, such as Brook Green Gardens in South Carolina and  Stan Hywet Gardens in Ohio, were a surprise to me. The gardens run from Maine to California.

gardens to visitNot only does George give us an overview and highlights of each garden, he offers his take. After years of traveling, George knows many of these gardens intimately and offers some nice insights.

Of course, he also includes a few photos for each, but really if you find a garden in your region or place you’ll be visiting this summer or fall, google it! You’ll get all kinds of information and ideas from the gardens’ website and traveler’s comments.

So, check out the 50 American Public Gardens to visit e-book.

Learn more about 50 American Public Gardens



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