Dump old plastic containers. Many garden centers now have recycling bins where you can drop off or pick up used plastic flower pots and trays. Either way, you're keeping plastic out of landfills. Box stores like Lowe's and garden centers like Primex in Glenside offer this service. For more recycling ideas for the garden, go to http://mypennfuture.org/siteMessageViewer?em_id=40561.0
Try growing hops. The plants, which grow from rhizomes, shoot up about 20 feet a year and the flowers smell wonderfully sweet. Hops work great for privacy screens, arbors, trellises, and espaliers on a wall. Cut vines dry beautifully and can be used indoors as mantel decoration or for roping on Christmas trees. Oh, and the hops can be used to make tea or home brew! See http://morebeer.com/content/growing-hops or http://www.keystonehomebrew.com/
Look for plants that like it dry. Often called xeriscape plants, these include sedum, hardy catcus, mullein, and rose campion. They can take our hot, dry summers and once established, rarely need watering. Many have colorful blooms with silvery foliage. If you want to see a "dry garden" up close, visit Chanticleer, the public garden in Wayne (www.chanticleergarden.org).
Check out exotics. Many tropical bulbs do well here, especially large, lush foliage plants like Colocasia or elephant ears. Although the bulbs have to be lifted out of the ground in late fall each year, they're worth the extra work for the bold colors, patterns, and textures of their foliage. Look for hardy alstromeria (Peruvian lilies), too. There are even hardy bananas, such as Musa basjoo, that provide a true tropical feel; the bananas at Temple University's Ambler Arboretum get 10 to 12 feet tall.
Consider hardy violets. I love decorating cakes in spring with these lovely flowers. Pick and wash the blossoms, let dry, then dip into a freshly beaten egg white and dredge in regular white sugar. Place on wax paper to dry. You're ready to decorate. Flowers can also be refrigerated for later use. Violas/pansies can be prepared the same way. They all make delectable salad toppings, too.
Make sure to water. New plants are especially at risk until we get some rain. Consider installing an automatic drip irrigation system for vegetable gardens and large flower beds or, for your outdoor potted plants, use water-wise containers with reservoirs in the bottom. The latter start at a reasonable $30 or so.
Check out Under the Sea coleus. These wonderfully bright new plants are this year's must-haves. Their colors and textures bring to mind sea creatures like crab, shrimp, and lobster, and the toothy leaves are thicker than standard coleus, so they can be planted in direct sun without getting scorched. The series, developed by college students in Saskatchewan, Canada, are carried at better garden centers in the region. Revenue from breeding royalties goes right back into the student research fund. For a full visual of these fun new plants, go to www.youtube.com watch?v=v4z9pvKiyuI.
Embrace dandelions. Don't bother fighting them anymore. Leaves and flowers are delicious in salads; the blooms make a wonderful specialty wine, too. There are many dandelion recipes online; dandelion fritters, anyone? Dandelions also contain a powerful bactericide used in herbal medicine for sores and cuts.
Take a second look at invasives. Just the other day on my daily walk, I met a woman looking for goutweed, which is on the "most wanted" list of invasives at www.nps.gov/plants/alien. In her native Korea, however, goutweed is considered an iron-rich spring tonic to be used in soups and stews or served over rice. And, as a Chinese friend explained, invasive bamboo makes an excellent stir-fry. Pick new shoots when they're six to eight inches tall, parboil, cut, and saute. They're delicious. I sometimes think invasive plants are invasive so we can feed the world.
Eva Monheim is a certified arborist, master floral designer, and fulltime lecturer in horticulture at Temple University Ambler; she is also an instructor at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.