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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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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.

Low-maintenance houseplants for a novice gardener

QUESTION: I’m looking for a low-maintenance houseplant to give to a friend who says she kills everything she tries to grow. What’s the best choice for a person like that?

All houseplants need some care, but there are a few that can survive a fair amount of neglect. Here are three:

Snake plant (Sanseveria trifasciata): If you have ever had one of these, it can seem like it lives for years with no care whatsoever. With only a little care, it grows tall, sturdy, sword-shaped dark green leaves with yellow or white edges. It will survive in dim light, but in my experience a little filtered light keeps it growing happily. Water it enough to keep the soil slightly moist, but take comfort in knowing that if you forget to water it for a time, it’ll be okay. I’ve read that plants that grow to old age sometimes produce clusters of white flowers in winter, but I’ve never seen that happen.

Peace lily (Spathiphyllum): There’s a reason you see these things in offices and shopping malls everywhere. They are easy to grow, they don’t need a lot of sun to thrive, and they are not fussy about humidity. Plus, when they’re treated with a modicum of attention, they sometimes surprise you with their elegant, spoon-shaped white flowers. The soil should be kept slightly moist, but if they do dry out too much, they’ll let you know by wilting so dramatically that you run to the faucet to get them a quick drink. They spring back in a few hours.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum): This one looks more delicate than many other houseplants, but it’s tougher than you think, and “an excellent houseplant for beginners,” says houseplant specialist Barbara Pleasant. The mass of strappy leaves grows from a central crown, and the plan soon begins producing small, white flowers on the tips of stems that produce more plantlets. It’s happy in a room with moderate to bright light, appreciates lightly moist soil in spring and summer but can tolerate dry-soil conditions for a time, especially in winter.

Bottle trees as art in the landscape: Meet Stephanie Dwyer

bottle-treeMy story in The Tennessean about using art in landscape design (Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016) put me in touch with Stephanie Dwyer, a Paris, Tenn. metal artist who has taken an idea from centuries-old folklore and given it new life: Stephanie makes bottle trees. But hers are not the kitschy metal-pole-with-spikes contraptions that sometimes show up in catalogs and garden centers. Stephanie’s trees are thoughtful renditions of the form, and pay homage to the tradition that is said to have originated in West Africa, crossing the Atlantic with West Africans brought to the Americas as slaves.

landscape-stephanie-dwyer-copyBefore Stephanie moved to Tennessee from the Pacific Northwest, she had worked as a welder and had not considered this Southern custom. “When I moved to the South, I was asked to do a bottle tree because I weld,” she told me. Over time, her “signature” design has become the gracefully rendered Katrina tree, “bent but not broken from the hurricane’s winds,” as she describes it.

According to archivists at The Smithsonian, the original meaning of the tradition has several interpretations, but a common one is that they protect the home by trapping evil spirits; once inside, the spirits are destroyed by the sunlight. Stephanie considers it a high honor that she was chosen to design and build the 14 ½-foot tall, 12-foot wide bottle tree for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. Visitors see the tree as they enter the culture galleries on the top floor of the museum.

While she’s known for her bottle trees, Stephanie also designs and builds gates, arches and other design elements for the garden and home. You can see more of her work at http://stephaniedwyer.com.

And for more on how to use art and garden ornaments in the landscape, see my story Garden ornaments set tone for outdoor spaces, which is online now at Tennessean.com.

Moving calla lilies

Question: We live near Crossville, Tenn. and will be moving soon. What is the earliest I can dig up my callas? They have survived well the past three winters without being dug up but they probably need to be separated anyway.

calla-lilyAssuming that your callas are the type that die to the ground each winter and reappear the following spring, the rhizomes can be dug up anytime in the fall and stored for winter.

Callas are native to South Africa, so there is always the chance that the tubers may not survive extremely cold winter in the ground. But most gardeners I talk to in Middle Tennessee (Zone 7a, home of The Garden Bench) say they never dig up the rhizomes, and they come back each year. In Zone 6b (The USDA Hardiness Zone for Crossville), their survival seems a little less certain, but if yours have continued to grow and spread, then they must be in a friendly environment.

Here’s the recommendation for winter storage from the Gardening Know How website: To dig the rhizomes for storage, lift the clump out of the soil and allow them dry for two or three days, brush off the remaining soil and store them in peat moss in a paper bag in a cool, dry location.

Replant them in their new home next spring, after the danger of frost. Callas appreciate slightly acid soil that drains well, and should be watered regularly while they are growing and in bloom. They grow in full sun or partial shade.

The graceful flower bracts of calla lilies, which open about mid-spring or early summer, are lovely and delicate, but don’t be fooled by this. Callas are sturdy plants, and I have seen them escape their bed and push up through the packed gravel of nearby garden paths.