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  • Upcoming events in Middle Tennessee

     

    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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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.

 

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.

 

The bamboo dilemma

QUESTION: We have a big patch of bamboo growing in our yard that is taking over the lawn. How can we get rid of it?

Bamboo can shoot up several inches overnight in spring. Mowing can keep it under control

Some gardeners may plant bamboo because they’re intrigued by the exotic touch this giant grass can lend to a landscape. When it’s settled in, it grows quickly and provides a good screen for privacy. But a few years later, they may begin to wish it would go away. Bamboo has thick, tough roots and stout underground runners, and is so aggressive it can quickly get out of hand.

University of Tennessee  Extension agents note that controlling bamboo can be a years-long process. If you want to get rid of it, cutting down the canes is only the first step – and if your bamboo stand is thick and unruly, that can be a daunting task. Make the cut as close to the ground as possible, then digging up as many of the roots as you can. Some Extension agents suggest treating any new-growth with non-selective herbicide (such as Roundup).

You may never get rid of all the roots – especially if it has migrated to the neighboring yard and the neighbor does not follow the same control methods. So if you replace the bamboo with lawn, be prepared to mow frequently as the bamboo begins to grow again in spring. The shoots seem to shoot up several inches overnight, but mowing them down before they get too tall (or breaking them off with a swift kick) will keep them under control.

 

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.