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    Save the Date: Perennial Plant Society’s 30th Plant Sale is April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the new Expo 3 Building at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Here’s where you can find the newest varieties of perennials, shrubs, vines and annuals from local growers, along with long-time, never-fail favorites, ready for spring planting. Learn more at the PPS website.

     

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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?

Rubber tree can bounce back

QUESTION: I have a huge rubber plant that is very old. I’ve had to tie it to stakes in the pot to keep it from growing in all directions and out of control. Can I prune it?

A rubber plant, or rubber tree (Ficus elastica) can be transformed from an unmanageable mess into a more dignified plant. It takes a little planning and observation, but the results can be worthwhile, and can provide more plants in the process.

Before you make the first cut, look at the plant to determine how it might look after it’s pruned. New leaves will grow where you cut it, so keep that in mind as you remove the branches. The cuttings you remove can be placed in water, where they will often form new roots. After they grow a good system of roots, they can be potted in soil.

Houseplant experts also suggest a process called air-layering to prune old plants and grow new ones. This is accomplished by cutting into the plant’s stem where you want to prune it. The cut is then wrapped in moss and plastic wrap, and new roots grow from the cut area. After new roots form, cut off the new plant and pot it separately. Early spring, when the plant is entering a period of active growth, is a good time to try to trim it into shape.

Here are general guidelines for keeping a rubber plant alive and well: bright to moderate light (no direct sun) and average room temperature. Keep the soil evenly moist. A rubber plant probably does not need as much water during the winter. It can spend summer outdoors in a protected location, but be sure to bring it in before temperatures begin to drop in the fall.

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.

 

No-fly zone

QUESTION: Some of the plants I brought in from outdoors seem to have tiny white flying bugs all around them, and are a nuisance. What are they? And what can I do about them?

 

Schefflera can play host to whiteflies.

These are likely whiteflies, and they often ride in on plants that spent summer outdoors. They’re more than a nuisance; they feed on the plant’s juices and can cause the leaves to turn yellow and die. The insects that are flying are the adults, and if you look at the undersides of the leaves you may be able to see the tiny yellow eggs and larvae.

Whiteflies feed on dozens of plant species and they reproduce quickly, so the problem could get out of hand quickly. To get rid of them, remove the badly infested leaves, then rinse the plant thoroughly and spray with an insecticidal soap. Be sure to treat the undersides of the leaves. Repeat the spraying every week or so.

Next fall, examine them closely to be sure there are no pests hitching a ride. Wash the leaves and treat the plants before you move them indoors. There are several other insect pests that you should watch for:

Aphids: they usually gather in clusters on tender young leaves. They also feed on a plant’s juices. Insecticidal soap, or washing with water or rubbing alcohol, is usually effective.

Mealybugs: You may see white, cottony clusters on stems or leaves, or where the leaf joins the stem. They also feed on the plants, so get rid of them by rubbing them off with water or alcohol.

Spider mites: They are barely visible, but you’ll certainly notice the damage – light-colored, speckled areas on top surfaces of leaves. You may see webbing stretching between leaves if there is a heavy infestation. Wash the plant with soapy water, and treat with insecticidal soap a day or two later. It may require diligence and several applications to control these insects.

UT Extension provides a booklet at its Web site that addresses these problems and more: Insects and Related Pests of House Plants (PB1157).

Poinsettias in the spotlight

QUESTION: I like to decorate with poinsettias for Christmas. What’s the best way to keep them looking good from now until New Year’s?

Poinsettias are a tropical plant, native to Mexico, so the first thing to remember is to keep them out of the extreme weather. If it’s a cold day when you bring them home (less than 50 degrees), don’t leave them in the car too long, and make sure they are protected on the trip from the car to the house.

Once inside, place them in a spot that gets indirect light. They’ll do well and last longer in a room that is not overly warm – 68 to 70 degrees is just about right. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Most likely the plastic pot will be wrapped in foil; it’s best to take the foil off when you water, to avoid trapping water that will cause the roots to rot. If the leaves become dry and curled, that’s a sign that it needs water. If a poinsettia wilts, that’s an indication that it may be getting too much.

Those are the basics for keeping a poinsettia looking cheerful through the holidays. If it starts to look a little sorry after that, don’t feel bad about tossing it into the compost. However, as often happens, a poinsettia can surprise you by pushing on healthy and strong into the New Year, and it’s a shame to discard something that’s growing so vigorously.

So, let it grow. Keep the soil moist and it should continue to thrive. As spring approaches, cut it back to about 8 inches tall and fertilize with an all-purpose plant food, and after there is no longer any danger of frost, re-pot it and set it outdoors, or plant it in the ground where it can survive as a nice, interesting green plant all summer (and succumb to its inevitable fate at the first sign of frost).

Here’s an interesting tidbit that comes from California poinsettia grower Paul Ecke Ranch: National Poinsettia Day is coming up! Dec. 12 marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, who gets credit for introducing the plant to the U.S.