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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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Rose of Sharon is an easy summer favorite

I remember a large Rose of Sharon shrub that grew in my grandmother’s yard that had big, pretty flowers every summer. I’d like to have one for my own garden. Can this shrub be started from cuttings?

Lil Kim Proven Winners

Lil’ Kim Rose of Sharon (H. syriacus) from Proven Winners Plants.

The old-fashioned rose of Sharon, or shrub althaea (Hibiscus syriacus), is easy to grow, and often pops up in unexpected places from dropped seeds. It can also be propagated from stem cuttings. Here are general guidelines for taking cuttings of rose of Sharon and other woody ornamentals:

Cut lengths of softwood (soft, succulent new growth) or semi-hardwood (partially mature wood of the current season’s growth) about six inches long from a healthy host plant. Remove the bottom leaves, and dip the cut ends in rooting hormone powder. Stick the cut ends about one-third their length into a rooting medium that drains well, such as perlite or vermiculite. Cover the cuttings with some sort of plastic covering to maintain a humid environment, and place them in indirect light.

Keep the rooting medium moist until roots develop. It will likely take several weeks, but you’ll know the cuttings have grown roots when you tug gently on the cuttings and feel resistance. Transplant them into containers to allow them to grow to a larger size before you plant them in the garden.

Rose of Sharon grows and blooms best in full sun, and thrives in almost any well-drained soil. Once established, it tolerates heat and drought. Flowers bloom on new growth, so if it needs pruning, you can do that task in winter.

Plant perennials now, enjoy them later

I’m still seeing perennials for sale at garden centers. Some of them are being sold at reduced prices. Can they really be planted this time of year?

Daylilies are among the perennials that can be planted now.

Daylilies are among the perennials that can be planted now.

Spring is the typical planting time, but for gardeners who are willing to be patient or take a chance on a plant that may look like it’s past its prime, early fall is a good time to plant. Many of the plants on sale still have plenty of life, even though they don’t look their best right now.

But if you make careful choices and plant now, they will begin to establish good root systems and should spring back beautifully in the garden next year.

While perennials you find now may not be at the peak of perfection, you should still look for healthy plants with no sign of disease. Here are guidelines from the website of Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension and other sources:

  • Look for plants with good color and vigorous appearance. Avoid plants that show any sign of disease.
  • Ease the plant out of the pot and look at the roots look healthy, and not mushy or limp. Avoid anything with roots that have a bad odor.
  • Buy labeled plants (unless you want to be surprised!) and label it in the garden so that you can remember where and what you planted next spring.
  • In the garden, prepare the soil and amend it as needed with compost. Dig a hole a few inches wider that the plant’s pot, remove the plant from the pot and gently loosen the roots, then set the plant in the ground with the base of the plant level with the surrounding soil. Fill the hole with soil, water thoroughly, and add mulch.
  • Don’t set them out and forget them. October can be a dry month, so remember to provide water on a regular basis.

Divide Solomon’s seal

I have a patch of variegated Solomon’s seal in a shady garden bed that needs to be divided. When is the best time to do that?

Solomons sealFall is the best time to divide Solomon’s seal. Dig up a clump and divide the rhizomes with a knife, then replant in moist, fertile soil amended with plenty of organic matter – that’s what it enjoys in a woodland setting, where it thrives.

This is a plant that stands out in a shady setting. In spring, it produces graceful stems and large leaves that last until frost; the variegated variety (Polygonatum odoratum var. thunbergii) has white margins on the leaves. In spring, small white flowers dangle from the stems, and if you stand close, you may catch a whiff of the delicate fragrance. Dark berries form after the flowers fade. Make note, though, that all parts of the plant are poisonous

To grow well, Solomon’s seal needs a little sun but grows best in partial shade. It also needs consistent moisture. It is said to be resistant to deer.

Book giveaway winner!

Outwitting scanThe Garden Bench held a book giveaway a couple of weeks ago for the new edition of a book by Bill Adler, Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels. The book is a laugh-out-loud funny look at what many bird-lovers consider a serious problem. There’s good information for gardeners whose efforts are frustrated by squirrels, too. Check out the details of the book here.

And the winner is: Heather S. of Port Townsend, WA. Congrats!

Watch for another book giveaway at The Garden Bench in a few weeks.

May Garden Calendar: The May Garden Calendar and Garden tips and tasks suggest many ways to get out and enjoy spring in the garden. Check it out at Tennessean.com.

Shrubs for a good foundation

Question: I plan to replant the bed at the front foundation of the house with new shrubs. I will need about 5 shrubs, evergreen and low maintenance. The front of our house gets morning sun and afternoon shade. What type of shrubs can you suggest?

boxwood shrubs

Boxwoods are a favorite choice of shrubs for foundation plantings.

I talked with Mark Kerske at Gardens of Babylon garden center in Nashville, and he has several good recommendations:

Boxwood is a tried-and-true choice. “It’s one of my favorite plants,” Kerske says. Boxwoods can grow quite large over time, but there are smaller varieties available that grow to more suitable size for foundation plantings. They take full sun but also do well with some shade.

Cryptomeria is a fast-growing conifer with dark green needles that can grow very tall and wide, but there are dwarf varieties (‘Lobii Nana’ and ‘Pygmaea’ are two that are mentioned in the Southern Living Garden Book) that grow only to about 3 – 4 feet tall.

The cherry laurel ‘Otto Luyken’ is also a favorite. It’s a compact shrub with deep green, glossy leaves that grows to about 4 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide.

Whichever shrubs you choose, good soil preparation will ensure that they get off to a good start. Work good compost into the soil to improve the drainage, and use mulch in the planting bed after you plant the shrubs to keep the soil moisture consistent. “You don’t want to keep the soil wet, but just moist,” Kerske says. “That’s the key, maintaining constant moisture.”

Rosemary: Time to start over

After this winter, my rosemary looks as dead as dead can be. Is there a way to tell now whether I should go ahead and pull it up and replant, or should I wait?

RosemaryRosemary is considered a marginally hardy shrub in this part of Middle Tennessee (Zone 7a). The last few winters here have been kind to us, and most gardeners’ rosemary has survived, especially the more cold-hardy varieties such as ‘Arp’ and ‘Hill’s Hardy.’

But this winter delivered a knockout punch to everyone’s rosemary. To test for life, scratch the bark on a stem and if you see green underneath, there is still life in there. But I’m guessing it’s as dead as it looks. Might as well pull it up and start over.

For better luck keeping rosemary alive during winter, choose one of the more cold-hardy selections. The U.S National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. makes several recommendations at its web site for Rosmarinus officinalis varieties that have made it through winter in the National Herb Garden with little or no dieback — ‘Albus,’ ‘Logee’s Light Blue’ and ‘Salem’ among them (no word at the web site on whether they made it through this winter, though). As a rule, they say, cultivars with thinner leaves and lighter flowers are hardier. Prostrate types of rosemary are least hardy.

To give new rosemary a head start on surviving next and future winters, here’s what the National Arboretum experts suggest: Plant new rosemary in a location that gets full sun throughout the year, in a site sheltered from winter wind, if possible. Plant in the spring so the roots have a good, long time to become established. If your soil is a heavier clay type, mulch with gravel to reflect light and heat back into the plant and help prevent soil-borne diseases from splashing onto the leaves.

New book: Troy Marden says ‘Plant This Instead!’

Plant This InsteadMiddle Tennessee garden guru Troy Marden believes there are better choices than some of the same old plants we reach for at the nursery time after time. His new book, Plant This Instead! is out now (published by Cool Springs Press), and Troy is giving a free lecture and book signing next Saturday (April 12) at Moore & Moore Garden Center, 1826 Highway 100 in Nashville. He’ll be there 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

More on the book later. Meanwhile, I’m flipping through the copy I have here and looking for alternatives to replace some of those shrubs and perennials that bit the dust this winter.

Cheekwood’s a winner!

A few weeks ago I noted that Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art was one of the finalists for BestPublicGarden in USA Today Travel’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards list.

The votes are in, and among the 10 winners (determined by a public vote), Cheekwood placed 6th on the list.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be included in the list of 10Best Readers’ Choice Travel Award winners,” said Cheekwood president Jane O. MacLeod in a press release announcing the results. “Being chosen by the public to win this award is a big honor— and it proves that Cheekwood ranks among some of the most celebrated and well-known gardens in the world.”

The results were determined by supporters who voted at the 10Best Readers’ Choice Award web site. “We are so grateful to everyone who voted for Cheekwood, both for their support and for helping us earn even more wonderful exposure,” McCleod said. Congratulations, Cheekwood!

 

Plant peonies in spring or fall

Question: I have a flower bed in a spot that gets morning sun, and I want peonies in my garden. Can I plant them now?
peonies gbYes, early spring is a good time to plant peony rhizomes. They can also be planted in the fall. Once they’re established, peonies are finicky about being moved, so it’s a good idea to make sure the new flower bed is in good shape before you put them in the ground.
Peonies prefer a spot in full sun or with light afternoon shade, with good drainage, and away from the roots of trees and shrubs that would compete for water and nutrients. They can be susceptible to powdery mildew, so make sure they are not crowded and there is good air circulation in the bed.
Work plenty of organic matter and a high-phosphate fertilizer into the soil, and set the roots 1 inch deep.
Peonies may not bloom the first year they are planted, but they should bloom every year after that.

In the garden this week

It’s spring in Middle Tennessee (Zone 7a on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map, where The Garden Bench calls home). Here are a few late-March tasks on our gardening to-do list:

  • Replenish mulch around roses, azaleas and other shrubs.
  • Dig and divide, hardy mums, daylilies that have gotten too crowded.
  • Set out transplants of herbs that can stand up to a few more chilly days: parsley, cilantro, sage, chives, oregano are among the garden and kitchen favorites.
  • Trim buddleia or cut it back before new leaves emerge.
  • Last chance to mow over winter-browned liriope; new shoots are beginning to come up from the roots.

Spring lawn repair: mow and sow

Question: There are several bare spots in our lawn. Is it too early to sow fescue grass seed?

Lawn repair wheat straw

Sprinkle wheat straw over areas of newly patched lawn.

If the bare spots are just that – bare, ragged patches in an established lawn of cool-season grass such as fescue, and not an entire lawn — then March is a good time to fill in and overseed by sowing new grass seed. Here are the steps to take, provided by Judy Lowe, author of Month by Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky:To overseed, mow the grass at the lowest mower setting and rake the clippings, then mow and rake again to expose as much of the soil as possible. Use a hard metal rake to rough up the soil. Even with much of the soil exposed, the seed won’t all come into contact with the soil, so sow one-and-a- half or two times the amount of seed recommended for a new lawn. Rake lightly over the area, and if possible, sprinkle a ¼-inch layer of topsoil or compost on top. Water the overseeded lawn every day to keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate.

To patch a bare or ragged patch of lawn, first remove grass and weeds from the area and square off the edges. Dig the soil six inches deep and remove any rocks, roots and debris. Mix organic matter into the soil, rake the area, and then water. Sow grass seed at the rate recommended on the bag, then smooth the soil with the back of a rake to make sure the seed comes into contact with the soil. Cover the area with a light layer of wheat straw and water it often to keep the soil moist while the seeds germinate.

These steps can get your lawn through the summer in fairly good shape if it receives adequate moisture throughout the season. For complete renovation of a fescue lawn, which is easier to establish in cool weather, wait until fall.

If your lawn is a warm-season grass such as zoysia or Bermuda, wait until the soil warms up to do any planting.

Sowing seeds indoors: get a jump on the season

Question: When is the time to start vegetables and annual flowers indoors to plant outside in spring?

Start seeds indoors soon to plant in the garden this spring.

Start seeds indoors soon to plant in the garden this spring.

The time to start seedlings indoors depends on plants’ individual growth rates and the recommended dates in your area for putting plants in the ground. To figure the seed-starting date, start with the recommended planting time, calculate the plant’s germination and growing time (often noted on the seed package), and count back the required number of weeks to reach the date for starting the seeds.For example, to grow seedlings of a warm-season flower like zinnias in Middle Tennessee (where The Garden Bench calls home), we can plan on putting transplants in the ground after mid-April, the area’s last average frost date. The approximate growing time for zinnia seedlings is about 4-6 weeks, so you can sow zinnia seeds indoors early- to mid-March. Tomato seeds, another warm-weather favorite, can be sown in flats indoors 5 – 7 weeks before it’s time to transplant, so we can plan on starting them early in March.

To start cool-weather vegetables indoors, begin much earlier. For example, some leaf lettuces can be started indoors 4 weeks before the soil outdoors can be worked; bigger, tougher cool-season favorites like broccoli and cauliflower need 5 to 7 weeks to reach transplanting size. Sowing indoors now until the end of January can provide transplants ready to go in the ground at the end of February.

Give the seedlings plenty of light and the recommended moisture as they grow, and harden them off – expose them gradually to outdoor weather – before planting them in the ground.

 

The garden’s second season

QUESTION: When should we start planting a vegetable garden for fall?

seed packetsStart now! As summer vegetables begin to dwindle and fade, make space in garden beds for kitchen garden favorites that grow in cooler weather. Here are suggestions and tips from garden authors and extension agents:

Broccoli: If you can buy transplants, make sure they are short and compact and have good, green color. Be sure they’re not transporting pests or disease. Plant them in full sun about 18 inches apart, with about 36 inches between rows. Water as needed to keep the plants from wilting, and apply a complete fertilizer when they are about 10 inches tall.

Cabbages: Set out transplants in full sun and well-drained soil. Space the transplants 12 to 18 inches apart with 24 inches between rows. Fertilize the plants when they’re about half grown, and harvest when the heads reach full size. For the best flavor, use it fresh.

Collards: Sow seeds or set seedlings in full sun and well-drained soil, 12 to 18 inches apart, with 20 inches between rows. Provide regular water (about an inch of water a week) and harvest by cutting the outer leaves as they reach full size.

Leaf lettuce: Begin now to sow seeds in successive plantings every two or three weeks. Sow in rows 12 inches apart, and thin to 4 – 6 inches apart when seedlings appear. Seeds can also be sprinkled over the soil in large pots and planters. Harvest when the leaves are large enough to use.

Spinach: Sow seeds in full sun in rows that are 12 inches apart, and thin then seedlings to one plant every 6 inches after they begin to grow. Provide regular water, and harvest when the leaves are large enough to use.

Turnips (greens or roots) Sow seed in full sun and well-drained soil, ½ inch deep, eight to ten seeds per foot in rows 12 inches apart. When the seedlings are 4 inches tall, thin them to about three inches apart. You should have greens to harvest in about five weeks. If you grow turnips for the roots, harvest them when they are about 2 – 3 inches in diameter.

 

For mums, just a pinch

QUESTION: I bought pots of mums last fall and planted them in the ground after they finished blooming. They died back over the winter, but grew back this spring. I’ve heard that they should be trimmed after they start to grow, but how much should they be cut?

MumsThose ubiquitous pots of cheerful chrysanthemums that appear in garden centers in late summer are referred to as florists mums. Planted in full sun in good, well-drained garden soil, they should indeed return year after year.

The shoots can begin to appear early in spring. Garden experts advise pinching off the tips of florists mums after they reach 5 – 6 inches tall. As they continue to grow, keep pinching, nipping off the top pair of leaves, throughout the spring and early summer to encourage more lateral growth (making the plants fuller and bushier). This will also delay flowering until late summer and fall, when these bright spots of color will be welcome in the garden.

Keep pinching until about mid-July, then allow the plants to begin to form buds, which will start to flower as fall approaches, about the time many other things are beginning to shut down.

Mums seem pretty resilient. In my own garden, which is more dappled sun and shade than full sun, the mums quickly grow tall and rangy, and I cut them back more severely – sometimes as much as three or four inches off the tops of the plants (I’ll give them a final trim this week). Still, they continue to grow tall, and flop over to cover the garden in a patchwork quilt of colors each fall.