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  • May garden tips & tasks

    GARDEN EVENTS IN MIDDLE TENNESSEE

    May 20: Master Gardeners of Davidson County Urban Gardening Festival, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., Ellington Agricultural Center Demonstration Garden. Free admission. www.mgofdc.org; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/mgofdc.

    June 10: Middle Tennessee Daylily Society show and sale, Ellington Agricultural Center’s Ed Jones Auditorium, 440 Hogan Rd. in Nashville. Sale open at 10 a.m.; show opens to the public at 1 p.m. To learn more about the Middle Tennessee Daylily Society, visit www.middletndaylilysociety.org.

    It’s time to plant those tender herbs and vegetable transplants, such as basil, dill, tomatoes, green peppers, hot peppers, eggplant.

    If tomato transplants are already too tall and leggy, you can plant them on their sides and cover the long stems with soil. The stem tips will turn upward, and the buried stems will sprout roots.

    Sow seeds of bush beans and pole beans, cucumbers, sweet corn, melons, okra, field peas, pumpkin, squash and zucchini. Follow the directions on the seed package for planting depth and spacing. Vegetables grow best in full sun.

    Cut the faded blossoms of peonies. Fertilize the plants lightly in late spring or early summer.

    Remember the basics of watering: morning is best, so plants’ leaves have time to dry before evening. Lawns, perennial borders and annuals like to have 1 – 1½ inches of water per week.

    Many indoor plants enjoy a summer vacation outdoors. Give them a cool, shady spot in the yard, and don’t forget to water them.

    Prune thyme frequently so it will stay full and green in the center.

    Weeding is easiest after a rain. If the ground is too dry and you need to weed, soak the bed first with a hose or sprinkler.

    Whether they’re growing in the ground or in pots on the porch, pinch the tips of geraniums from time to time to encourage them to branch out and to produce more flowers. Geraniums in pots benefit from regular feeding with a water-soluble fertilizer.

    Remember that mulch can be a gardener’s best friend. Pine straw or composted leaves are good alternatives to hardwood mulch.

    Harvest herbs as they reach their peak. Dry small leaves on a screen, hang small bunches of long-stemmed herbs in a warm, dry room out of the sunlight.

    Plants growing outdoors in containers dry out quickly when it’s hot. Check them daily, and water as needed.

    Don’t go near hydrangeas with the pruning shears unless all you’re cutting is dead branches. If the bigleaf hydrangeas look like they’re not going to bloom, it could be that the buds were nipped in a late cold snap, or the plant was pruned too late last year.

    As the flowers of Shasta daisies begin to open and then to fade, keep them clipped off. This prolongs the blooming season of daisies (and most other annuals and perennials), and keeps the plants looking better, as well.

    Watch for aphids on shrubs and perennials. A strong blast of water from a hose will remove many of them, or spray with insecticidal soap.

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Prune boxwood in winter

Our boxwoods are quite large – too large for the space they’re in. I meant to cut them back last summer but never got around to it. Is it too late to prune them now?

boxwoodMost boxwoods don’t require regular pruning unless you’re keeping them sheared in a formal garden space, but if you need to control the size of the shrub, now – or late winter to early spring – is actually the best time to do the job. Continue reading

Water worries for houseplants

Question: I use tap water to water all my houseplants, but I’ve heard that’s not always a good idea. What difference does it make?

peace-lily-2Most people don’t think about the water they use to water houseplants —  just turn on the tap and fill the watering can. But what’s in your tap water may make a difference in how your plants grow.

Garden author Barbara Pleasant talks about water problems in her book, The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual. She says most plants prefer “soft” water, which contains low amounts of calcium and magnesium salts, over “hard” water, which contains high amounts of these elements. Water softeners remove the mineral salts through filtration or magnetization, but the water still contains high levels of salt, she says. This could lead to problems when it is used to water plants. Continue reading

Japanese maples stand out in winter

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‘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

Longer life for poinsettias

Question: How long do poinsettias last? The plant I brought home early in December still looks nice, and I hate to throw it out. Will it keep growing?

poinsettiaThe length of a poinsettia’s life generally depends on how much care you’re willing to give it. Some people bring it home to display for a few days, and without any attention at all it dries out and begins to drop its leaves within a couple of weeks.

If yours is still doing well, you’ve given it at least the minimum amount of TLC: indirect light in a room that’s not too warm, enough water to keep the soil moist but not soggy. If you continue to care for it, the plant should last well beyond the holidays. Continue reading

Frost-killed plants are ready for the compost

Question: I have a new compost bin for composting vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc. I also have a lot of dead plants in pots that were killed by the frost. Can I use these in the compost bin?

compost

Dead plants, leaves and other garden debris can be tossed into the compost.

Unless they succumbed to some kind of disease, frost-killed potted plants, along with other end-of-the-season garden debris, are a good addition to compost, so toss them in and don’t worry about it. In fact, they add a much-needed source of “brown” to the nitrogen-rich “green” kitchen scraps, a mixture that’s necessary to produce good compost. Here’s a quick lesson to get your started, adapted from “The Dirt on Composting,” a booklet produced by the Metro Nashville, Tenn. Public Works Department: Continue reading

‘Cactus’ blooms for the holidays

My Christmas cactus always blooms early, sometimes before Thanksgiving. Is this normal? How can I keep it blooming longer?

holiday-cactus-thanksgivingIt’s possible the plant you call Christmas cactus is actually a Thanksgiving cactus – yes, there are two slightly different varieties. Look at the stem segments: if the margins have two to four sharp serrations along each edge, the plant is Schlumbergera truncata, the botanical name for Thanksgiving cactus, which blooms slightly earlier. If the segments are more rounded, the plant is S. bridgesii, Christmas cactus. That’s the one more likely to bloom in December or later.

Both are photoperiodic plants – they respond to the change in proportions of light and dark, and begin to form buds as days shorten and nights begin to get longer. They also thrive in the same conditions: bright light and a moderate amount of water, and a dose of balanced fertilizer every now and then. (In her book The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant suggests once-a-month feeding in winter.)

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are generally easy-care plants. They benefit from being outdoors during the summer, but bring them inside when nighttime temperatures drop to 40 to 50 degrees. Place them out of bright sunlight, then when buds begin to form, bring the plant into the bright light.

One other thing to know: when the plant is full of buds, it sometimes seems to resent being moved, so once it’s placed in a good spot for winter, try to avoid moving it. “Once plants begin blooming, they may drop their blossoms if exposed to any kind of stress,” Barbara Pleasant writes. A stable environment should keep those blooms going longer.

They are easy to share. Schlumbergera propagates easily from stem cuttings, and a plant can live for several years, even a decade or two.

Norfolk Island pine for Christmas

QUESTION: I live in a small apartment and don’t have room for a big Christmas tree, so I’m thinking of hanging ornaments and small lights on a Norfolk Island pine in a pot that is sold as a houseplant. How should I care for the plant when Christmas is over?

norfolk-island-pineIf you treat it carefully, a Norfolk Island pine is a fine small alternative to a big tree – you may even see them sold in some garden centers already bedecked with a few baubles. If you’re decorating your own, use lightweight ornaments – heavier ornaments could break the limbs – and use lights sparingly. A small string of LED bulbs should lend a festive glow. Remove everything shortly after Christmas is over.

As a houseplant, place the tree it in a cool room in a spot that gets bright, indirect light – a south- or west-facing window is good – and give it a quarter-turn once a week to encourage it to grow straight up.

The biggest threats to Norfolk Island pine are dry soil and dry air. Keep the soil consistently moist, but don’t let the pot sit in water. Increase humidity in its environment as much as possible. A daily misting could go a long way toward keeping the plant healthy. If the air remains too dry, the Norfolk Island pine responds by dropping its needles, and once they’re gone, they don’t grow back.

Houseplant specialists suggest using a balanced fertilizer once a month in summer. And be on the lookout for pests, because spider mites and mealybugs are drawn to this plant. A cautionary note about placing it outdoors when the weather warms up: it’s a very tender plant, and will be damaged if the temperature falls below 40 degrees.

With care, a Norfolk Island pine can last for many years. They are native to the South Pacific (Norfolk Island is a small speck of land between Australia and New Zealand), and in their home environment they grow very large. Indoors as a houseplant, the tree usually grows, over time, to about 6 feet.