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  • Garden events in Middle Tennessee

    Now – April 27: Cheekwood in Bloom festival, six weeks of family-friendly activities – garden tours, live music, interactive programs and more – and showcasing 100,000 brilliantly colored tulips set to bloom across the grounds in early April. Complete schedule of activities at cheekwood.org.

    April 15: Orchid Society of Middle Tennessee meets at Cheekwood Botanical Garden. Speaker is Stephen Benjamin of Oak Knob Orchids on “Growing orchids the way we do,” and includes tips for beginners. Refreshments at 6:30, meeting at 7 p.m. open to the public.

    April 26: The sixth annual Herb & Craft Fair sponsored by First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville. Shop for herb seedlings, heirloom tomatoes and other plants, and a wide selection of handcrafted items: pressed-flower cards, calendars, gift and jewelry items; natural handmade soaps with essential oils and fragrant herbs; Sewn and hand-knit items, sweet breads, herb breads, spice mixes and rubs, herbal vinegars, jams, jellies, chutney and more.

    April 26:MontgomeryCounty Master Gardener Plant Sale, Clarksville Library, 350 Pageant Lane in Clarksville. Hours are 8 – 11:30 a.m. or until sold out.

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Bring bay indoors

I bought a bay laurel seedling this past spring that was about six inches tall and set it out in a pot in the herb garden because I heard you may have to bring it indoors in the winter. It’s now about a foot tall. Could it survive outdoors? How do you harvest and use the leaves?

Bay laurel, or sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is generally considered hardy to Zone 8 (well to the south of us here in Middle Tennessee), so it will need to come indoors before it gets too cold.

Place the plant where it gets as much sun as you can give it, in a south or west-facing window, if possible, and don’t let it get too dry (keep the soil evenly moist but not overly wet, the experts at the Herb Society of America suggest). It may also appreciate occasional misting if the air in your house is very dry. Take it back outdoors when the weather is consistently above freezing in the spring.

Bay leaves can be used dried or fresh; they’re usually added to long-cooking soups and stews. Snip them from the plant and use them as needed, or dry them to save for later. Use them whole (crumbled leaves have very sharp edges, which could be an unpleasant surprise to diners), and be sure to remove them before you serve. A bay leaf is a key ingredient in a bouquet garni (tied in a bundle along with thyme, parsley and other herbs), which would be added to a dish while it’s cooking and removed before serving.

By the way, there have been reports of bay laurel surviving the winter in colder climates, provided it is in a protected area. But to be on the safe side, find a sunny spot for it indoors.

 

Too hot to bloom!

QUESTION: I have a pot of impatiens that was doing well, but now the flower buds have been dropping off or turning brown before opening. The pot is always in the shade and I keep it well watered and fed. It has nice green leaves, just no flowers. Any idea what could cause this?

If there are no other symptoms – no spotting of the leaves, no rotting of the stems, no powdery coating or other unusual growth – a good guess at the source of the problem would be the long period of extreme heat. Even in the shade it has been extremely hot (remember that day it hit 109 degrees?) and plants in containers may suffer more because the pot can dry out quickly. A plant under stress will shed its flowers first.

By now, with several days of rain and more reasonable temperatures, the impatiens (and many other things) should begin to recover.

This is a good time to mention again, though, an email I received from UT Extension plant disease expert Alan Windham, in which he warned about the development of downy mildew in beds of impatiens. Watch for plants that are losing leaves, that don’t flower, and that have white growth on the undersides of the leaves, he advises. This disease can be extremely damaging, so pull up, bag and dispose of infected plants to keep it from spreading. There’s more about it at UT Extension’s Soil, Pest and Plant Center Facebook page.

…And too hot to plant, too

QUESTION: My daughter has thinned out her iris bed and given some to me.  She has given me the whole plant (bulbs and stems). I know I can not plant them at this time but how do I store them until they can be planted in November or December?  Do I need to cut the stems off now or leave them as is?  Thanks for any information you can provide. 

You’re right, with too much heat and still too little rain, it’s a bad time to plant anything. Irises are pretty hardy so you can wait to plant the rhizomes.

For now, cut the leaves off to about 3 to 6 inches, and remove as much of the soil from the rhizome as you can. Don’t wash them, just brush off the dried soil. Check to make sure there are no rotting places, insects or diseased-looking spots (discard those if there are) and store them in a cool, dry place.

You don’t need to wait until November to plant them. While they’re pretty hardy, they’d still rather be in the ground, so consider planting in September, or after the worst of the summer heat passes.

When you do get ready to plant, here’s a helpful link from the American Iris Society that provides information.

Another reminder about watering: In spite of all the rain lately, we’re still experiencing severe drought conditions in Middle Tennessee. Young trees suffer most. If you planted trees this spring, give them a little extra attention to help them make it through this hot, dry summer. Click here to see the Nashville Tree Foundation’s guidelines and tips to help keep your trees healthy.

Spider mites like it hot. Watch your roses

QUESTION: What could be stripping the leaves off the branches of my roses? I spray with a product that is supposed to protect roses from insects and diseases, but it hasn’t helped.

Keep an eye on roses when it’s hot and dry. Spider mites can turn a lovely rosebush into an ugly mess.

This time of year, with this kind of weather, suspect spider mites, which thrive when the weather is hot and dry, say rosarians at the Nashville Rose Society. The tiny creatures get on the undersides of leaves and feed on the plant’s juices. The damaged leaves look speckled, turn yellow and fall off.

Spider mites are not insects; they are more closely related to spiders, so insecticides won’t have any effect. You can use a miticide, but it can be expensive. The best and cheapest way to control them is with a blast of water directed at the undersides of the leaves, rosarians say. If you do this every three days for a week or so, you break the mites’ gestation cycle.

Here’s a little more information about the tiny arachnids: Adult mites are less than 1/50 inch long. They use their mouthparts to pierce individual plant cells and remove the liquid. They produce webs that can coat the foliage with a fine silk that collects dust, making the leaves look dirty.

You can’t see them, but you can certainly see the damage. Heavily infested plants will be discolored, and if they are not controlled, the rose can be stunted, or even killed.

Record heat is trouble for trees

Meteorologist Bobby Boyd sends me email from time to time about extreme weather conditions. The latest concerns the large dome of high pressure building eastward out of the plains and across the Tennessee Valley that has put Middle Tennessee, as he says, “in the pressure cooker.” We’re breaking records this weekend. No rain in sight, and gardens are suffering.

Young trees and shrubs are especially vulnerable. The Nashville Tree Foundation has sent an alert with watering guidelines and new tips that you can read here to help trees survive.

Keep these tips handy. It’s still only June, and we’ve got a long way to go.

 

Boxwood pruning, and May fairs, sales & tours

If boxwoods need trimming, try to get the job done in late winter or early spring, before new growth begins.

QUESTION: Our boxwoods have a few limbs at the bottom that have lost their leaves and appear dead. Is it safe to trim boxwoods at this time of year?

If the limbs are dead, cut them off. No matter what time of year it is, dead limbs serve no useful purpose. If the rest of the shrub seems healthy, those lower limbs may have died because they haven’t received enough sun, or from mower damage. “But boxwoods are pretty good about repairing themselves,” says Randall Lantz, a horticulturist who has a lot of experience with these popular landscape shrubs.

The ideal time to trim boxwood is late winter or early spring, before new growth begins. It’s not a good idea to trim late in the summer. New growth that may follow the trim will not have a chance to harden before winter, and tender new leaves could be killed. Pruning out dead limbs now shouldn’t be a problem, thought. “They’re very forgiving shrubs,” Lantz says.

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Definitely not stars in your lawn

QUESTION: Every year, the small white flowers called star-of-Bethlehem pop up in our lawn. The flowers are cute, but they’re everywhere! It makes an ugly lawn. How can I get rid of it?

Star-of-Bethlehem: Get rid of it if you can.

This time of year, star-of-Bethlehem shoots up in lawns, on creek banks, in wild meadows. They are indeed everywhere – even in gardens, where unsuspecting gardeners may plant them because they are a pretty little wildflower. The bad news is that once they get a foothold in your lawn, they are tough to eradicate.

Star-of-Bethlehem is a cool-season perennial that grows from small bulbs. The foliage resembles wild garlic, and the small white flowers each have six petals. The bulbs multiply rapidly, and are spread easily. After it blooms, the plant dies down and remains dormant until next spring.

As you might expect, it’s considered an invasive exotic here. The plant is native to North Africa, parts of Eastern Europe and western Asia. UT’s Institute of Agriculture notes that it has become a weed problem on athletic fields and golf courses. Even more bad news: the flowers and bulbs of star-of-Bethlehem are poisonous.

You could try digging it up, but that would be a monstrous task because you need to get every little bulb. UT Extension has a list of control products (most of which are to be used only by professionals). There may be very little you can do except wait it out, and don’t spread them around. The USDA Forest Service is very clear about this: “Do not plant this species.”

 

Banish the Bradford pear

QUESTION: When should Bradford pear trees be pruned? Is now a good time? How far back should you prune them?

Bradford pear trees are the first to flower in spring, but they are not a good choice for landscape trees.

I’ll answer the last question first, and echo the thoughts of many landscape and forestry experts who believe that these trees should get just one pruning cut – about an inch above the ground.

Seriously, Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana Bradford’) are not good landscape trees, no matter how lovely they are this time of year. They live fast and die young – a 25-year-old Bradford pear is probably near the end of its life. Because their heavy limbs grow at narrow angles, they tend to split apart. And because they shoot up so quickly and easily, this import from China has been placed on alert as a possible threat by the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council. So, is it time to reconsider?

But back to the question: It’s good to prune trees in late winter, while they’re still dormant. As you are no doubt aware if you’re in Middle Tennessee, “late winter” now seems to mean the same as “spring,” and most things are no longer dormant. So if you need to prune, do it now, before the tree leafs out fully and you can still see the branch structure easily.

Really, though, wouldn’t you rather have something else? Landscape professionals suggest a couple of good native alternatives to the Bradford pear: downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arboria), which has white flowers in spring, dark green foliage in summer and red berries in the fall; and Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), white flowers, green leaves, small blue-black fruit enjoyed by birds in the fall.

Either would be better than a Bradford pear, guaranteed.

 

Cover the ground, not the daffodils

QUESTION: What groundcovers can be used that will allow daffodils to come up in the spring?

Spring bulbs will grow through English ivy, but there are better groundcover choices to use.

Several plants used as groundcover permit spring-flower bulbs to grow through. Nashville-area garden specialists offer a few recommendations:

Ajuga, or bugleweed (Ajuga reptans). To some people this is a nice groundcover, to others it’s a weedy nuisance. It can be aggressive, but in the right spot it might be just what you need.

Periwinkle (Vinca minor), grows in shade, is green all year, and has pretty blue or white flowers in spring. Please note: Vinca minor is listed among the invasive exotic plants in Tennessee. Please use responsibly.

Daffodils will also push up through English ivy (Hedera helix), but because it, too, is an invasive exotic that can climb trees and displace more desired species, I would never suggest planting it in the landscape.

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Don’t worry about the daffodils

It’s only January, and the daffodils in my yard are already coming up! How do I keep them from freezing?

Early risers: daffodils can survive winter.

It may seem too early for this unmistakable sign of spring, but it’s not unusual for the shoots of early daffodils to begin pushing up through the ground. In some places, they started coming up before Christmas. The best thing to do is: Nothing. In fact, there is nothing you can do. Spread some pine straw over the daffodil bed if it makes you feel better, but really, even that is an unnecessary step, says Anne Owen of the Middle Tennessee Daffodil Society.

We’re at the mercy of the weather fluctuations, but generally, a blast of cold weather won’t hurt the daffodils, Owen says. The worst that could happen is that the weather turns warm and stays warm enough for long enough that the daffodils bloom; then the flowers might succumb to a snap of extreme cold. If we get a freeze while only the leaves are up, they should survive without a problem.

Good reading

It’s a good time to sit down with a stack of seed catalogs (or a list of seed company URLs) and plan this year’s kitchen garden. Here are some of my favorites (where I indulge in a little wishful thinking):

Seed Savers’ Exchange (Unusual varieties not found at the big box store seed kiosks)

Seeds of Change (Seeds, supplies, and live plants, too)

Territorial Seed Company (Try out the online garden planner)

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (“Particularly suited to the Mid-Atlantic and similar regions”)

Renee’s Garden (Pretty as a cottage garden)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Recipes included!)

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds (Straightforward, with tidy line drawings; more tips and entertaining reading at the website)

Brent & Becky’s Bulbs (One of the best sources for bulbs, say those in the know)

Burpee (for sheer volume, and all those luscious pictures!)

Making plans for a great year in the garden

QUESTION: What are YOUR garden goals for 2012? Here are mine:

-Grow more flowers. In my yard, that means finding more flowers that thrive in the semi-shade that’s provided by the graceful maples and the giant, beautiful elm tree in our back yard.

-Keep trying for better success with tomatoes. That means figuring out how to outsmart squirrels. (Maybe I should give up on tomatoes in the kitchen garden out back and move tomato production to my garden plot at Farm in the City, the community garden I belong to downtown.)

-Double the produce by doubling the space for growing. I’d like to take on another raised bed at Farm in the City if there’s one available.

-Grow better peppers. I know that the secret is lots of sun and consistent water. There’s a lot of sun at Farm in the City; I need to work on the water part.

-Okra: plant less, pick more often.

-Grow more pole beans. Grow more cucumbers. Try squash again.

-Plant more shade-tolerant herbs. This is a project I started last spring – finding herbs that can grow happily in the shadiest of the eight raised beds in the kitchen garden out back. Success so far with curly parsley and red-veined sorrel. Hope to plant sweet woodruff and more borage, maybe nasturtium. Still trying to find lovage.

-Make peace with the wildlife in the backyard, while at the same time finding a way to keep the rabbits from eating the hostas.

-Plant more big, blooming perennials and annuals in the three little garden beds at Mom’s house.

-Visit as many public gardens as I can manage (especially interested in visiting Eudora Welty’s home and garden in Jackson, Miss. this spring).

-Enjoy every minute I can spend gardening, and writing, talking and teaching about gardening.

What plans do you have for your garden this year?

O, Christmas pine

QUESTION: I’m using a Norfolk Island pine as a small Christmas tree. What do I need to do to keep it looking nice, and how do I care for it when the holidays are over?

Norfolk Island pine provides a nice alternative to the big tree at Christmas, especially if your space is small or your decorating is simple. It’s best not to load it down with large, heavy ornaments that could break the feathery limbs. Use lights sparingly, if at all, and remove them as soon as you can after Christmas is over.

When it’s time to change it from a Christmas tree to a houseplant, place it in a spot (preferably in a cool room) that gets bright, indirect light – a south- or west-facing window is good – and give it a quarter-turn once a week to encourage it to grow straight up.

The biggest threats to Araucaria heterophylla (that’s the tree’s botanical name) are dry soil and dry air. Keep the soil consistently moist, but don’t let the pot sit in water. Increase humidity in its environment as much as possible. A daily misting could go a long way toward keeping the plant healthy. If the air remains too dry, the Norfolk Island pine responds by dropping its needles, and once they’re gone, they don’t grow back.

Houseplant specialists suggest using a balanced fertilizer once a month in summer, and be on the lookout for pests. Spider mites and mealybugs are drawn to this plant. A cautionary note about placing it outdoors: it’s a very tender plant, and will be damaged if the temperature falls below 40 degrees.

With care, a Norfolk Island pine can last for many years. They grow very large in their native South Pacific environment, but in a home, the tree usually grows, over time, to about 6 feet.

Water in winter

Landscapers know this, but we casual gardeners may not remember that even though it’s winter, the garden still needs water. Pay special attention to newly planted trees and shrubs, broadleaf evergreens (which continue to “breathe” even during winter), pansy beds and perennials that you planted in the fall.

Mulch keeps soil from drying out too quickly, but if the weather is cold but very dry, the soil will eventually dry out.

 

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