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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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New Month-By-Month Gardening

Month by Month open 2One of the resources I’ve relied on for several years to help answer garden questions is a book titled Month-By-Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky, by award-winning garden writer Judy Lowe. The book was first published more than a decade ago by Cool Springs Press, and it holds a wealth of easy-to-understand information that is useful for gardeners in the southeast U.S., both novices and those with more experience.

There’s a new version of the book out now, also published by Cool Springs Press. I’m looking at the two books side by side, and loving the fact that I can find much of the same useful information in a glossy new format. (Read on for details of a chance to win a copy of the book!)

Judy Lowe crop“The information has stayed pretty much the same, the activities are the same. But for those people who want to know everything in a month in a few pages, they will like this,” Judy told me when we talked by phone earlier this week.

What’s different? In the old format, the book is divided into categories – Annuals, Bulbs, Herbs & Vegetables, Houseplants, and so on – and each category is divided into months, generally with two pages for each month. Each month has information about planning, planting, care, watering, fertilizing and problems, with a timely tip or two.

The new, more compact, full-color glossy Month-By-Month Gardening is divided into months, using subheads, making it easier to see at a glance what needs to be done in each category that month. Each month has several “Here’s How” sidebars, and there are color pictures of plants, planting techniques, a few common garden pests and more. The pictures are especially useful.

“It does help, if you are new to gardening or don’t know a lot about it, to see those pictures — the close-ups, the illustrations,” Judy said. Some garden books are written in “garden language” that a new gardener has not yet learned. “Novice gardeners feel more comforted by seeing pictures and illustrations.”

Here in the middle of winter, there is very little real gardening to be done, but Judy passed along several ideas of how to begin to get ready for spring. Here’s what she suggests:

  • “Start a garden notebook, if you don’t have one.” The notebook can be a simple looseleaf binder, one with pockets to hold labels, seed packets or other small items. “It makes such a difference in knowing what happened in the past and what you have thought of doing before, or want to do. It helps you keep a record of what didn’t work, and can help you not make mistakes in the future.”
  • If you’re going to start plants from seed – and it’s really kind of fun, gives you a sense of satisfaction – start thinking about that in February.” Most common plants take only about eight weeks from sowing to setting out in the garden. “You want to be ready and get all your equipment together.” (And here are a couple of tips for growing your own transplants from seeds: You don’t need special grow lights, Judy said. For growing seeds, a couple of fluorescent lights will be fine. If you don’t have a grow light or a shop light, and you’re not getting enough light on your plants, use aluminum foil to reflect the light onto the plants. “It really helps, and it’s nice and cheap,” Judy said.)
  • She also recommends February as the time to have the soil tested if you haven’t had that done in the past five years. You can do that through your county’s extension service now and avoid the rush of the busier time in early spring. It will make a huge difference in how successfully things will grow in your garden, she said. “In the lawn, it can tell you everything, and mean the difference between success and failure.”
  • It’s also a good time to have your lawnmower serviced. “Particularly, have the blade sharpened. If it doesn’t cut correctly it can lave spots where disease can enter,” Judy said. “Lawnmower maintenance services get plenty busy in April, so get it done before the season starts.”

 

Cut winter-brown monkey grass before spring

QUESTION: The monkey grass that borders some of our beds has turned brown. If we cut it down, will it come back next spring?

monkey grass 2One reason monkey grass is so popular in landscapes is because it’s tough. It begins to turn brown around the tips and edges this time of year and can look pretty bad by the end of winter, but it sprouts new growth in the spring.

You can mow the plants down, or clip them close to the ground. Best to do it in winter before new growth begins. If you wait too late to mow, you may clip off the tips of the new leaves. In a warm climate, you may begin seeing new growth as early as late February or early March.

Monkey grass (Liriope muscari is the botanical name; it’s also known as lily turf) can be divided in early spring. Dig it up and pull the roots apart, or cut through the clumps of roots with a sharp spade.

Something new for the library

One of the books I’ve consistently used as a reference for more than ten years is the Tennessee & Kentucky Gardener’s Guide by garden writer Judy Lowe. This fall, Cool tn ky garden guideSprings Press published a new version of the book with updated photos and more features. The subtitle is “The Best Plants for a Tennessee or KentuckyGarden,” and recommendations are based on the 2012 version of the USDA Hardiness Zone map (she says she could not have imagined recommending gardenias outdoors in our zones a few years ago, for example, but now, here they are!)

The plant-by-plant format covers annuals, bulbs, groundcovers and vines, lawngrass perennials, shrubs, trees and water gardens and still gives the when-where-how to plant information, growing tips and care, and how to use plants in the landscape. There’s also information on pruning, planting, pests and diseases, weeds, making compost, starting seeds and other gardening basics.

Keep it in mind if you’re still shopping for the gardeners on your list.

The cure for overgrown pothos

QUESTION: My pothos in a hanging basket spent the summer outdoors in the shade this summer. When I brought it in, I discovered the stems had grown very long but most of the leaves are near the ends, and the stems are bare in the middle. Will it hurt to cut the stems back?

pothos 2Pothos is a popular, easy-to-grow houseplant. It won’t hurt to cut the stems back; in fact, houseplant experts recommend giving them a trim every now and then to keep the plants bushy and full.

Pothos may be the perfect houseplant for anyone who says they can’t keep a houseplant alive. It does best in moderate to bright light and a moderate amount of water, but is tolerant if you forget to water it. In fact, it prefers soil that is on the dry side over soggy soil. If it stays too wet, the leaves may turn yellow and drop off. Houseplant expert and author Barbara Pleasant notes that if pothos grows in very low light, the stems grow longer with more space between the leaves.

To help the plants fill out again, cut the bare stems to within 2 inches of the soil, or cut stems above a leaf node (where the leaf emerges from the stem). These cut-off stem tips can be rooted in water, and the rooted cuttings can be potted in regular potting soil.

 

Mulching trees; and a stack of new books

QUESTION: How should mulch be put around trees — piled high or spread even with the ground and good edging to keep water within?

Unfortunately, this is not the best way to mulch trees.

There are many good reasons to use mulch around trees in a landscape. It keeps the soil warmer in winter and cooler in summer; it helps the soil retain moisture; it helps control weeds, and improves soil fertility by adding organic matter. It keeps mowers and string trimmers at a safe distance from the tree trunk, plus, it looks nice.

There are a few “rules” for proper mulching, but none of them include piling mulch up high around the trunks of trees. In fact, it’s a bad idea. Here’s why:

Plants need oxygen in the soil, and mulch that is too thick – more than 4 inches – restricts the soil oxygen exchange, according to the UT Extension’s publication on mulching trees and shrubs. Roots will grow up to find more oxygen, instead of down and outward through the soil. Too much mulch also causes too much moisture in the root zone, making roots susceptible to rot, insects and diseases. Cracking in the bark creates an entry point for insects and fungal growth, and invites rodents to chew the bark and damage the trunk or even girdle the tree – destroying the bark all the way around, which is a quick cause of a tree’s demise.

Unfortunately, this so-called “volcano” mulching, with the mulch placed in a cone around and next to the trunk, is a common practice. Here’s the proper way to place mulch, according to UT Extension (and other good sources):

Apply mulch in a ring no more than 2 to 4 inches deep, at least 4 to 6 feet in diameter around the base of the tree. Place it so that it tapers out to the ground level at the edge of the ring. Do not pile the mulch around the trunk; pull it several inches away so that the base of the trunk is exposed and air moves freely.

Spring reading

There are several new gardening books out this spring. Here’s a roundup:

* I’m slowly making my way through Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today, by Catherine Horwood (published by Ball Publishing, an imprint of Chicago Review Press). Focusing on the fact of history that women have often been excluded from the serious study of plants, Horwood brings these women into their rightful place in the horticultural spotlight. At more than 400 pages, there is much to be discovered about these pioneering women. I have just learned, for instance, that in 1897, Beatrix Potter was snubbed in her attempt to present research on spore germination of a rare form of fungi. She went back to private research and to her other specialty, detailed watercolor illustrations. A hundred years later, the artist famous for her beautiful childrens’ book illustrations was honored by the Linnean Society with a distinguished lecture entitled “Beatrix Potter as Mycologist.” So there.

* You may remember Graham Kerr as a cookbook author, TV personality and chef who called himself The Galloping Gourmet. His new book is Growing At the Speed of Life: A Year in the Life of My First Kitchen Garden (published by Perigee Trade Paperbacks). He acknowledges from the first page – from the cover, really – “As the Galloping Gourmet, I cooked just about everything that grows – but I’d never grown a thing I’d cooked.” He set out to change that, and the book outlines much of what he learned in that year, and what he expects to learn about growing food in the years ahead. It’s a charmingly personal account, and with a shout-out to “First Lady Michelle Obama putting spade to turf on the White House lawn.” His focus is on the basics, the favorite vegetables and most-used herbs, and with recipes, of course.

* Local gardener and garden blogger Barbara Wise, author of Container Gardening For All Seasons (published by Cool Springs Press) makes assembling gorgeous containers easy by providing, cookbook-style, “recipes” and shopping lists and assembly instructions for about 100 container combinations. (My thanks to Barbara, because I heard about the book just as I was compiling information on container planting for the “Grow a Green Thumb” class I’m leading right now for Lipscomb University’s Lifelong Learning series. What a great resource!)

* For the more ambitious gardeners who include fruit-growing in their garden and landscape plans, there is Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit, by Lee Reich. In my semi-sunny garden, strawberries (apparently, to feed the rabbits) and blueberries (for the birds) are about as far as I’m willing to venture into fruit-growing territory, but if you’re serious about getting fruit from tree to table, this book is for you. It helps you plan, choose and maintain plants in the garden or in containers, and learn ways to control (or avoid) common pests and diseases without toxic sprays. I did just buy a ‘Meyer’ lemon shrub to add to our container collection of things that need to be pampered, so maybe this will help us keep it alive. The eye-candy photos make leafing through the book a pleasant distraction. It’s published by Taunton Press.

* Speaking of nice photos, Rodale Books has published The Photographic Garden: Mastering the Art of Digital Garden Photography, by Matthew Benson, a professional photographer and contributing editor to Organic Gardening magazine. Since part of the joy of gardening is taking pictures of what you grow and sharing them with other gardeners, it would be lovely to know how to do it beautifully. Read the book before the next time you take your camera out, and maybe your garden photos will jump to the next level right away.

* Finally, in the stack of new books: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners by Wesley Green (also published by Rodale). Do you grow salsify? Have you ever heard of skirret? These may not be at the top of everyone’s list of favorite vegetables, but in the 18th Century they were likely growing alongside the onions, garlic, melons, chives, sweet potatoes, beets, parsley and many other things that are familiar in our gardens, and they grow now at Colonial Williamsburg, one of the nation’s best historical preservation sites. The focus in this book is the traditional cultivation methods that are still good for today’s organic gardens. Green, the author, founded the Colonial Garden and Plant Nursery in the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg and he and another gardener, Don McKelvey, study and interpret 18th-Century plants, tools and techniques. This book is the beautiful record of that impressive work.