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  • January garden tips & tasks

    Begin a garden journal. Use it to jot down ideas and lists of plants you want to grow this year.

    Keep bird feeders filled to attract a wide variety of winged visitors to your garden in winter.

    If you bring home new houseplants, protect them from the cold air on the trip home. Once you bring them in, keep them separate from other plants for a few days to watch for pests.

    When the ground freezes and thaws, plants can be pushed out of the ground – a process known as “heaving.” If this happens, tuck the roots back into the soil and cover the area with a layer of mulch.

    You can grow herbs on a sunny windowsill indoors, but pinch them back regularly to keep them from getting tall and “leggy.”

    Birds also need water in winter, so provide water in a birdbath or shallow pan and change it frequently.

    Winter is a good time to have the soil in your lawn or garden beds tested. The Extension Service in your county can provide materials and instructions for testing.

    Watch for pests on houseplants and tender outdoor plants that spend the winter indoors. If you see evidence of aphids or scale infestations, take action immediately to keep them from spreading to other plants.Save the date

    Save the date

    Planners of the ever-popular Nashville Lawn & Garden Show announce that next spring's show will be March 2 - 5, 2017 at The Fairgrounds Nashville. The theme will celebrate Gardens of the Future with garden displays, lectures, vendors, floral designs, and special features for children. The centerpiece of the all-indoors event is, as always, the walk-through, interactive garden displays from some of Middle Tennessee's top landscape and gardening companies. Free lectures are planned each day on a range of garden-related topics, and visitors can shop the Marketplace with more than 150 vendors. Complete details will be available soon at http://nashvillelawnandgardenshow.com, where you can also sign up for the email newsletter and receive updates.

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Water worries for houseplants

Question: I use tap water to water all my houseplants, but I’ve heard that’s not always a good idea. What difference does it make?

peace-lily-2Most people don’t think about the water they use to water houseplants —  just turn on the tap and fill the watering can. But what’s in your tap water may make a difference in how your plants grow.

Garden author Barbara Pleasant talks about water problems in her book, The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual. She says most plants prefer “soft” water, which contains low amounts of calcium and magnesium salts, over “hard” water, which contains high amounts of these elements. Water softeners remove the mineral salts through filtration or magnetization, but the water still contains high levels of salt, she says. This could lead to problems when it is used to water plants. Continue reading

Japanese maples stand out in winter

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‘Japanese Sunrise’ is a favorite cultivar for many home gardens because of its multi-colored winter bark. Photo by S. Hamilton, courtesy UTIA.

On a snowy, gray day, what plant can add a bit of cheer in the landscape? Japanese maples, says Sue Hamilton, director of UT Gardens. Each month, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture highlights a “Plant of the Month,” and Japanese maples get the honor for January 2017. Several selections exhibit brilliant bark color when the temperature falls – bright red or orange or yellow or coral pink, “They make quite a show in the winter landscape,” she says.

Sue says they’re also easy trees to maintain. Depending on the cultivar, the size can range from 6 feet to 25 feet tall, but many are in the 10 – 15-foot range, which makes them a good addition to almost any landscape.

“Foliage is a lime green in spring, darkening in color as summer approaches,” she says. “Fall foliage is either a bright, showy shade of yellow or a fusion of red, orange and yellow.” They do best in moist, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. The grow in partial shade but bark coloration will be best when the tree grows in full sun, and young twigs and branches will be more color intensive that the tree trunk itself, she explains. Continue reading

Longer life for poinsettias

Question: How long do poinsettias last? The plant I brought home early in December still looks nice, and I hate to throw it out. Will it keep growing?

poinsettiaThe length of a poinsettia’s life generally depends on how much care you’re willing to give it. Some people bring it home to display for a few days, and without any attention at all it dries out and begins to drop its leaves within a couple of weeks.

If yours is still doing well, you’ve given it at least the minimum amount of TLC: indirect light in a room that’s not too warm, enough water to keep the soil moist but not soggy. If you continue to care for it, the plant should last well beyond the holidays. Continue reading

Frost-killed plants are ready for the compost

Question: I have a new compost bin for composting vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc. I also have a lot of dead plants in pots that were killed by the frost. Can I use these in the compost bin?

compost

Dead plants, leaves and other garden debris can be tossed into the compost.

Unless they succumbed to some kind of disease, frost-killed potted plants, along with other end-of-the-season garden debris, are a good addition to compost, so toss them in and don’t worry about it. In fact, they add a much-needed source of “brown” to the nitrogen-rich “green” kitchen scraps, a mixture that’s necessary to produce good compost. Here’s a quick lesson to get your started, adapted from “The Dirt on Composting,” a booklet produced by the Metro Nashville, Tenn. Public Works Department: Continue reading

‘Cactus’ blooms for the holidays

My Christmas cactus always blooms early, sometimes before Thanksgiving. Is this normal? How can I keep it blooming longer?

holiday-cactus-thanksgivingIt’s possible the plant you call Christmas cactus is actually a Thanksgiving cactus – yes, there are two slightly different varieties. Look at the stem segments: if the margins have two to four sharp serrations along each edge, the plant is Schlumbergera truncata, the botanical name for Thanksgiving cactus, which blooms slightly earlier. If the segments are more rounded, the plant is S. bridgesii, Christmas cactus. That’s the one more likely to bloom in December or later.

Both are photoperiodic plants – they respond to the change in proportions of light and dark, and begin to form buds as days shorten and nights begin to get longer. They also thrive in the same conditions: bright light and a moderate amount of water, and a dose of balanced fertilizer every now and then. (In her book The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant suggests once-a-month feeding in winter.)

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are generally easy-care plants. They benefit from being outdoors during the summer, but bring them inside when nighttime temperatures drop to 40 to 50 degrees. Place them out of bright sunlight, then when buds begin to form, bring the plant into the bright light.

One other thing to know: when the plant is full of buds, it sometimes seems to resent being moved, so once it’s placed in a good spot for winter, try to avoid moving it. “Once plants begin blooming, they may drop their blossoms if exposed to any kind of stress,” Barbara Pleasant writes. A stable environment should keep those blooms going longer.

They are easy to share. Schlumbergera propagates easily from stem cuttings, and a plant can live for several years, even a decade or two.

Norfolk Island pine for Christmas

QUESTION: I live in a small apartment and don’t have room for a big Christmas tree, so I’m thinking of hanging ornaments and small lights on a Norfolk Island pine in a pot that is sold as a houseplant. How should I care for the plant when Christmas is over?

norfolk-island-pineIf you treat it carefully, a Norfolk Island pine is a fine small alternative to a big tree – you may even see them sold in some garden centers already bedecked with a few baubles. If you’re decorating your own, use lightweight ornaments – heavier ornaments could break the limbs – and use lights sparingly. A small string of LED bulbs should lend a festive glow. Remove everything shortly after Christmas is over.

As a houseplant, place the tree it in a cool room in a spot 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 Norfolk Island pine 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, because spider mites and mealybugs are drawn to this plant. A cautionary note about placing it outdoors when the weather warms up: 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 are native to the South Pacific (Norfolk Island is a small speck of land between Australia and New Zealand), and in their home environment they grow very large. Indoors as a houseplant, the tree usually grows, over time, to about 6 feet.

Fall leaves = free mulch

Question: We have several maple trees that blanket the lawn with leaves in the fall. Can we rake these off the lawn into the garden beds to use as mulch?

 

fall-leavesFall leaves are a good source of mulch for garden beds. As they decompose, they improve the soil structure and return nutrients to the soil, and as mulch, they help retain moisture in the garden beds and slow the growth of winter annual weeds that may pop up.

You could just rake them or blow them off the lawn directly into the beds, but it’s better to shred them before you pile them on top of the perennials and around trees and shrubs. Leaves that have been chopped up will decompose faster. A thick layer of unshredded leaves may also become matted and smother plants underneath, and may prevent water from reaching the soil. You can chop the leaves by mowing over them and collecting them in a bagging attachment, or by using a leaf shredder.

Here are guidelines for using leaves as mulch are from the UT/TSU Extension office:

*Use a 3- to 4-inch layer of shredded leaves around trees and shrubs in annual and perennial flower beds.

*Mix leaves into kitchen garden beds and in beds where you plant annual flowers. Most of the leaves will decompose before planting time next spring. A bonus: if you have heavy clay soil, a thick layer of leaves tilled into the soil will improve the soil structure.

*Be aware that oak leaves may change the pH of the soil over time, making it more acidic, so you may have to apply lime to maintain a favorable number. If your beds are mulched primarily with oak leaves, you should have the soil tested about every three years. Oak leaves are also tougher and decompose more slowly, so it’s especially important to chop them before you use them to cover your perennial beds.

Leaves can also be added to compost as one of the carbon-rich “brown” ingredients. If, after you’ve chopped and used as much of your bounty of leaves as possible on the garden beds, save the rest to use later in the compost, or for mulch again next spring. Bag the leaves and keep them dry so they don’t decompose by the time you need them again in a few months.