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  • March garden tips & tasks

    If your fescue lawn looks a little skimpy, overseed early this month. Fescue grows best when the weather is still cool.

    Clip dead stems from perennial herbs – thyme, sage, lavender, rosemary. Pruning encourages vigorous new growth.

    Prune nandinas, flowering quince and other airy shrubs by reaching in and removing about a third of the branches at ground level.

    Remove mulch or leaves that may be covering perennials in garden beds.

    Prepare a new garden bed: Have the soil tested (check with your county’s Extension service). Remove grass and dig or till soil 8 to 10 inches deep and mix with soil amendments and organic matter to improve drainage.

    Add fertilizer lightly to perennials as soon as you see new growth. Too much fertilizer may result in lanky growth.

    Herb transplants that don’t mind cool weather -- parsley, cilantro, sage, oregano – can go in the ground now.

    When you cut daffodils to bring inside, cut the stems at an angle and place them in water right away. Change the water in the vase daily to keep them fresh longer.

    Save the date - Middle Tennessee garden events

    The Perennial Plant Society's annual Plant Sale will be April 8, opening at 9 a.m. at The Fairgrounds Nashville. The sale offers newly released and hard-to-find perennials from top local nurseries -- more than 450 varieties of perennials, vines, grasses, shrubs and annuals. The event supports local scholarships for Tennessee horticulture students and monthly gardening programs, open to the public, at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. For information visit www.ppsmtn.org.

    The Herb Society of Nashville's annual Herb Sale will be April 29, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. at The Fairgrounds Nashville. The sale will offer heirloom vegetables, rare varieties of perennial and annual herbs, handmade pottery herb markers and more. To learn more, visit herbsocietynashville.org.

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Yarrow: too much of a good thing?

QUESTION: I’ve heard that yarrow is a great drought-resistant perennial, but don’t know anything about growing it. Is this a good time of year to plant it? Is it planted from seeds, or is it better to buy transplants?

It’s true. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a tough and persistent perennial plant that tolerates drought. In fact, it needs well-drained soil to grow well, and if it stays too wet (if it’s planted in heavy clay, for instance) it can rot. Yarrow has fragrant, fern-like leaves and large clusters of tiny flowers. In full sun it grows 2 to 3 feet tall; it will bloom if it’s planted in light shade, but it won’t be as showy. Pests usually leave it alone, and it’s not affected by diseases.

Back to it being a tough and persistent plant: More than one source I checked calls yarrow “invasive.” “Most yarrows spread aggressively into every nook and cranny possible, to the point where one begins to wonder if a mistake has been made in choosing the plant to begin with,” says Felder Rushing in his book, Tough Plants for Southern Gardens.

For that reason, those in the know don’t recommend it for direct-sowing into the garden. Plant transplants, and let the seed-sowing take care of itself later. Better still, cut back the flowers before they go to seed. It will still spread, because yarrow produces lots of creeping rootstock while it’s growing. When you have a big patch of yarrow and decide it’s time to share, divide it by digging up a clump and passing it along or replanting it in another location.

Other names, by the way, include millefoil, woundwort, carpenter’s weed, devil’s nettle and nosebleed, after the old wives’ tale that if a young girl tickles her nose with yarrow and it starts to bleed, it proves her lover has been faithful.

Picture perfect

Photographer and author Matthew Benson is passionate about gardens, and equally passionate about photographing them. His new book, The PhotoGraphic Garden (Mastering the Art of Digital Garden Photography) focuses on the two fundamentals, photo (light) and graph (form). It’s a how-to book, with suggested “assignments” to put lessons into practice, but also a book full of beautiful garden photography that makes you want to sharpen your own photographic skills.

I talked with Matthew by phone a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what he had to say:

From the Garden Bench: What’s the most important thing to think about when you’re photographing a garden?

Matthew Benson: It all begins with light. My advice to anyone thinking about photographing is to really be disciplined about shooting in the right light. Early in the morning is best. Later in the day the light is also nice, but the plants are not as nice. The interesting thing about that early time of day is to witness a quality of light that most people don’t usually see, and certainly not in the garden. Colors are most radiant. That beautiful morning light streaking through a garden and waking things up is just beautiful.

GB: What are the best ways to “use” that light in the garden?

MB: Backlight everything – shoot into the sun, not with the sun on your shoulder behind you. And think about using it in different ways. Follow the light through the garden. Allow the light to direct you through the garden as you photograph. Use a scrim to filter light. Bounce light into things using reflectors, to get a certain quality.

Try to resist shooting in bad light. There is no Photoshop tool to mimic the quality of light.

GB: What about the “graphic” part of taking photographs?

MB: The graphic part is the marvel of some of the plant forms, not only their colors but their shape. Learn how to really “see” botanical form. A big part of it is learning how to see like a camera. Don’t come into the garden and stand there and point your camera and shoot away. Seeing like a camera means understanding that the camera sees the world more interesting. It allows you to edit out things, adjust exposure, to drop focus. You are using the tool to create something original and intriguing for the mind. And it makes us look at the garden differently. When we see something we don’t see all the time, we look at it more.

GB: What recommendations do you have when it comes to choosing a camera?

MB: That’s the technical side of the book. Learn your camera, understand how to use it. Having a good macro lens is important. The camera sensor is more important than megapixels. The bigger the senor, the better the quality of the image. Newer cameras are really focusing on image quality. Also consider the speed of the lens. A camera with 1.4 lens speed, when you’re shooting in the garden, means you can shoot in very low light without a tripod. A fast lens is important. 2.8 is as high as I would go. Lenses that are 2 and under are great. But really, the best camera to have is the one you have with you.

Matthew is a contributing editor to Organic Gardening magazine. The PhotoGraphic Garden is published by Rodale, $24.99.

 

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