• Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • 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.

     

  • Categories

  • Archives

March garden tips & tasks

March can be fickle: some days feel like spring, others bring blasts of winter. It will probably rain, but then again, maybe not. In Middle Tennessee, home of The Garden Bench, tornado warnings are commonplace this time of year and sometimes they strike – as they did yesterday, across three counties with significant damage and loss in each. Thoughts and prayers to all those families and individuals affected by the devastating storm.

Whatever is in store weather-wise, winter is on its way out, spring is about to arrive. If you are yearning to be in the garden, there are plenty of ways to enjoy it.

Remove winter-killed plants, prune dead branches, clear out broken twigs and limbs, replenish mulch.

Most trees and shrubs are still dormant, so it’s a good time to do any necessary pruning, especially for shrubs that flower on new stems. Do not prune shrubs that flower on last year’s growth – azaleas, hydrangeas and other ornamentals the bloom early in the spring.

Sow seeds of lettuce, kale, sugar snap peas, radishes, carrots, beets and spinach as soon as the soil can be worked.

Run the mower over beds of liriope (monkey grass) or mondo, and cut back other ornamental grasses before new shoots emerge.

Prepare new garden beds, and replenish old vegetable beds by adding compost or other soil amendments. If you are planning to build raised beds, gather materials now and begin building to have them ready when planting time arrives.

Set out transplants of cool-season vegetables (lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage).

Add an inch or two of mulch around shrubs. Don’t pile the mulch against the trunk of shrubs or trees.

Enjoy the daffodils in the garden, but cut some to bring inside, too. As soon as the flowers open, use sharp scissors to cut the stems close to the ground and place them in water. Before you arrange them in a vase, snip off a half-inch of the stem and place them in the water-filled vase right away. The freshest daffodils should last indoors four or five days, especially if they are kept in a cool room.

Shape up some of those hardy herbs. Now is a good time to prune rosemary and sage.

Winter annual wildflowers (or “weeds,” as some call them), such as chickweed and henbit, continue to sprout; dig them up – roots and all, if you can — before they bloom and scatter their seeds.

Dig and divide perennials as needed. Share extras with friends. Fluff up the mulch around azaleas and other shrubs in the landscape, and add an inch or two if necessary.

Do any necessary pre-season mower maintenance; clean and sharpen your garden tools.

Early spring is a good time to prune and shape boxwoods.

Apply a light dose of fertilizer to perennials that are beginning to emerge.

After daffodil flowers fade, allow the foliage to remain until it turns brown. This will take several weeks, but it’s necessary for the bulb to renew itself to bloom again next year.

 

Too early for tender hostas

Because it has been so warm already, my hostas have been coming up much too early, and I’m afraid they’ll be damaged or killed if we have another freeze. Some are in pots and some are in the ground. What’s the best way to protect them?

hosta shoots

Hosta shoots are difficult to see when they emerge, but they should be protected from a freeze.

You are correct that hostas making an appearance too soon would be damaged by frost or a freeze, so it pays to watch the forecast and take action when the temperature drops. Cornelia Holland, a hosta collector in Franklin, Tenn., grows hundreds of hostas and other shade-loving perennials in a half-acre garden she calls “Tranquility.” She passed along these tips for keeping hostas healthy when they emerge too soon. Continue reading

Force blooms for an early touch of spring

Forcing branches of early-flowering shrubs into bloom indoors is a quick way to bring a little spring into your home.

Flowering quince

Flowering quince

Stems from many late-winter flowering shrubs and trees flower readily indoors under the right conditions, says Judy Lowe, author of Month by Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky: Some of the favorites (and easiest) are forsythia, flowering quince, spicebush and kerria.

Here are Judy’s tips for coaxing branches into bloom:

Continue reading

Japanese maples stand out in winter

acer-palmatum-from-utia-for-web

‘Japanese Sunrise’ is a favorite cultivar for many home gardens because of its multi-colored winter bark. Photo by S. Hamilton, courtesy UTIA.

On a snowy, gray day, what plant can add a bit of cheer in the landscape? Japanese maples, says Sue Hamilton, director of UT Gardens. Each month, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture highlights a “Plant of the Month,” and Japanese maples get the honor for January 2017. Several selections exhibit brilliant bark color when the temperature falls – bright red or orange or yellow or coral pink, “They make quite a show in the winter landscape,” she says.

Sue says they’re also easy trees to maintain. Depending on the cultivar, the size can range from 6 feet to 25 feet tall, but many are in the 10 – 15-foot range, which makes them a good addition to almost any landscape.

“Foliage is a lime green in spring, darkening in color as summer approaches,” she says. “Fall foliage is either a bright, showy shade of yellow or a fusion of red, orange and yellow.” They do best in moist, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. The grow in partial shade but bark coloration will be best when the tree grows in full sun, and young twigs and branches will be more color intensive that the tree trunk itself, she explains. Continue reading

Winterize your roses

I’ve heard gardeners talk about “winterizing” roses. What does that mean? And how do you do that?

Rose

Winterize rose shrubs to prevent damage from cold and wind.

If you live in an area that experiences intense cold or cycles of freezing and thawing, you may have heard about the importance of winterizing your roses. While rose shrubs are generally hardy, some varieties may be vulnerable to extended cold weather and strong winter winds. “Winterizing” helps protect roses from winter damage.

The process begins in late summer. You should discontinue fertilizer applications about mid-August, to slow down new growth. Stop cutting off the dead blooms in early October, which signals the plant to stop producing new growth.

Now comes the important “winterizing” part: Between now (late November) and mid-December, cut the canes back to 2 to 3 feet tall to keep them from blowing around in the winter winds, loosening the soil around the roots. Rose experts at the Nashville Rose Society suggests placing a 12-inch high mound of soil or mulch around each bush. To minimize winter damage at the end of each cane, you can also erect a small cage of chicken wire around each bush and pile about two feet of hay or other loose organic material inside.

Miniature roses and others grown in containers can be moved to an unheated garage or other space where the temperature remains above 20 degrees. Plants should be watered just enough to keep them moist.

For advice on roses in Middle Tennessee (where The Garden Bench calls home), I usually turn to the rosarians at the Nashville Rose Society, who provide excellent information on growing roses at their website. We are in USDA Hardiness Zone 7a, and the schedule reflects normal conditions in our climate. Gardeners in colder areas may adjust accordingly.

Rose enthusiasts can also get information (and see photos of beautiful blooms) from Birmingham, Alabama-based rose expert Chris VanCleave aka “The Redneck Rosarian.” He writes about roses, hosts podcasts, and keeps the conversation going with #RoseChat on Twitter.

Bring spring in early by forcing blooms

How do you force forsythia and other flowering shrubs to bloom indoors?

Branches of flowering quince can be coaxed to bloom indoors.

Branches of flowering quince can be coaxed to bloom indoors.

Can’t wait for spring? Branches cut from those early-flowering shrubs can be coaxed to bloom indoors weeks before they start to bloom outside. Here are tips for forcing branches into bloom from garden author Judy Lowe, in Month by Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky:

On a day when the temperature is above freezing, cut 12- to 18-inches stems with the biggest buds. Scrape the cut ends of the branches about three inches up, or crush the ends of the branches with a hammer, and place the branches in a bucket of warm water for 24 hours.

Pour out the water and fill the bucket with cool water mixed with floral preservative, (which you can find at a florist or craft supply store). Place the container in a cool, dark spot.

When the buds begin to show color, move the container into the light, but not in direct sun. Add water to the vase or replace it as needed, and add more floral preservative. Move the vase into full sun when the flowers begin to open.

Branches from many early-flowering shrubs and trees can be forced into bloom. Some of the favorites (and easiest) are forsythia, flowering quince, spicebush and kerria, Judy Lowe says.

Daffodils can be early risers

It’s mid-January, and the daffodils in our yard are already starting to come up. The shoots are about 3 – 5 inches above the ground. Won’t they freeze when the temperature drops?

DaffodilsIt’s not unusual for the shoots of early-blooming daffodils to begin pushing up through the ground, even as early as January – the same time as the crocuses. Cold weather may slow their growth, but it won’t kill them. This time of year, the worst that could happen is that the weather turns warm and stays warm enough long enough that the daffodils bloom. The flowers might then succumb to a snap of extreme cold, but if buds have not begun to show color, they should be fine.

There are several daffodil cultivars that bloom in late winter, and planting those types can extend the blooming season from late winter into mid-spring. Among the early-blooming favorites are cultivars called ‘Sweetness,’ ‘Jetfire,’ ‘Barrett Browning,’ ‘February Gold,’ and others.

When shoots do begin to pop up, daffodil experts say they benefit from a light dose of bulb fertilizer, scattered lightly around each clump or spread over the surface of naturalized areas. Fertilizer can burn new leaves, so if it gets on the foliage, wash it off right away.

What’s blooming indoors? Cyclamen

I received a cyclamen as a Valentine’s Day gift. It’s very pretty with its heart-shaped leaves and delicate flowers, but how long will the flowers last? How should I take care of it?

CyclamenFlorists cyclamen – the potted blooming plant that you likely will find in grocery stores or a home improvement store’s garden center – provides a nice stroke of blooming color indoors in midwinter. Flowers can be snowy white, or shades of pink, lilac or bright red. Under the best conditions, the plant will continue to send up those delicate blooms for several weeks.

Keep the plant in a place where it receives bright light (up to an hour or two of direct sun), but where the temperature is cool. Keep the soil slightly moist; if the roots dry out, the plant will wilt. Houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant (The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual) suggests watering it by placing the pot in a shallow container of tepid water for about 15 to 30 minutes. If you do water from the top, she cautions to avoid getting water in the plant’s crown.

Cyclamen (sometimes called Persian violet) is generally considered a sweet but temporary visitor, and after several weeks of blooming, the entire plant begins to deteriorate – at which point most people toss it out. Pleasant says they can be brought back into bloom.

She writes: “Allow the foliage to dry until it withers in late spring, and then clip off the old foliage. Place the dormant plant in a cool, dark place for up to 3 months, providing just enough water to keep the roots from drying out completely. In late summer, return the container to a bright location, and repot the plant in fresh soil as soon as new growth appears. Resume watering and feeding, and blooms should emerge 2 to 3 months later.”

Winter shrub damage: They may be down, but not out

Winter burn 1Question: Some of my shrubs look like they’ve been damaged by the extremely cold weather. Should I cut them back or cut off the dead parts?

It’s true, the landscape may be looking a little ragged right now. In Middle Tennessee (where The Garden Bench calls home) long days and nights of cold and wind seem to have smacked down a lot of shrubs that usually breeze through mild winters. It looks like this winter has been particulary cruel to marginally hardy and semi-evergreen plants.

You may be tempted to get out the loppers and pruners, ready to cut off the winter-burned branches and limbs, but don’t be in such a hurry. “Wait until the flush of growth in spring, so you can know where to cut back to, to know what’s really dead,” says Nashville horticulturist Carl Pitchford.

winter burn 2Leafy semi-evergreens, such as nandina, and some of the more finicky tender perennial herbs, such as rosemary, seem to have been especially hard hit. “A lot of those will show winter burn after those cold temperatures,” Carl says. “You just have to wait and see.” With nandinas, for example, you may have just lost the foliage. The cold would not have damaged the root systems, and new leaves should sprout in the spring.

Book giveway: Here’s our winner!

Last week I interviewed Judy Lowe, the author of Month-By-Month Gardening in Middle Tennessee & Kentucky, about gardening in winter. Then I asked readers to leave a comment about their must-do winter garden tasks for the chance to enter a drawing to win a copy of the book (determined by a number generated at random by Random.org)

And the winner is… Judy Lee: “I am ready for spring when winter loses its grip. Let’s go! Let’s garden!

 

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.”