Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Growing Orchids: No Hothouse Required

The perception among novice gardeners is that orchids are hard to grow. The truth is: some orchids are hard to grow. If you start with the right type, it can be easy.

A born window shopper, I have a penchant for orchids that began when I first saw one in the window of a flower shop. I stared in awe at the cascading arch of white flowers. Thinking of my stuffy city apartment -- more like a closet with a window -- I didn't have the nerve to buy such a delicate plant. But around the city, I began seeing these flowers thriving in low streetside windows, even in midwinter. I couldn't imagine that these apartments had much more light than my own. I began to have orchids on my mind.

Then I was lured by an advertisement in the newspaper, a question in bold type that read, "What do you do if you want to begin growing orchids?" The answer, in smaller type, was "Go to an orchid show." It was followed by a list of dates and venues, which I took as a promise that all would be revealed if I attended.

Five steps into the show I had smelled vanilla, then coconut, then a sharp floral perfume. The sheer variety of species and hybrids amazed me. I didn't know the flower I had been seeing in windows (I learned it is called Phalaenopsis) came in colors ranging from the brightest fuchsia to the purest white, and in spotted and striped hybrids. I became transfixed on a bloom the color of red wine with something sinister about its shape. This genus -- known as Paphiopedilum -- includes flowers different from any I had ever grown: one a swollen shape floating in the air like a perfect piece of bubble gum, pink and unpopped; another a yellow and brown flower with leathery petals.

I did not leave my first show knowing all there is to know about orchids, but the urge to grow one was irresistible. I did leave the show with pot in hand, plotting where it would sit on my kitchen windowsill and what the color fuchsia would add to the room for three to six months of the year. Perhaps these photographs from the 1996 Greater New York Orchid Show will encourage you to do the same by starting with some of these beautiful, easy-to-grow orchids.

Easy-to-Grow Windowsill Orchids

Some of the most stunning orchid species can be grown in the home without elaborate lights or intensive care.

Orchid growers are known to say: "If you can grow African violets, then you can grow orchids. . . . As far as temperature and humidity, if you feel comfortable in the room, then your orchids are comfortable. . . . If you don't know how to grow it, then don't buy it!"

I first heard these snippets from Marilyn Rutel, an orchid hobbyist from Westchester County, New York, who presently grows more than 4,000 orchids, and they sounded like genius. Later, in talking to florists and other orchid growers, I heard these phrases repeated again and again, and it occurred to me that they contained good advice but were not much more than logic. You really don't have to be a genius to grow these orchids. Just use common sense.

Bringing my first orchid home reminded me of how I felt when I brought home my hard-won goldfish from the county fair. I was very aware that I was responsible for something living, and I wanted it to remain that way. This recognition goes a long way in orchid culture, since an orchid must be given the basic necessities for just about all living things: light, water, air, and nutrients. Temperature and humidity come into play, but in fact your home conditions are quite similar to those of the natural habitats of these three easy-to-grow orchids: phalaenopsis, paphiopedilum, and cattleya.

Exotic Orchids

After mastering the culture of any of these three windowsill orchids, you may be ready for more challenging and more exotic flowers. Once you reach this level, it's time to attend another show, for nowhere else will you be given so many options in one place.

I asked Morty Kostetsky, a trustee of the Manhattan Orchid Society, what flower shouldn't be missed when viewing the 1996 show. He shook his head and said I had asked a bad question. "Whether it's the size of a flea or ten inches across, each has its own individuality and beauty," said Kostetsky. "Some bloom one week per year, some ten months per year, and then there are all those in between."

Orchids do have an appeal that easily crosses over to obsession. You may want to invest in grow lights or even build a hothouse, provided you have the time and space, to simulate the climate of more exotic orchids, though there are other species from the mountains that need cool conditions to thrive.

An aspect of the hobby that appeals to many is self-education, whether it involves conducting personal research on your new hybrid or joining an orchid society to hear what works for others. It's constant learning, and for many, that's what makes it fun. As you can see in the variety of this photo selection, orchids come in shapes and colors you've never dreamed of. With 125,000 orchid species, there's a lot to grow and learn.

Japanese Silver Grass: Ornamental Grass With Four-season Appeal

An ornamental grass with four-season appeal

Japanese silver grass is as beautiful as its common name sounds. Most members of the genus, whose botanical name is Miscanthus sinensis, are elegant plants with a sheaflike habit. Narrow at the base, the clumps rise to five feet or more and fan out at the top. In summer, the different varieties provide an exquisite background for the large, colorful flowers of daylilies and other perennials. The fine, complex pattern of their blades fills the negative spaces among the perennials and knits the garden together. But these grasses really come into their own in the fall, when other perennials are flagging.

Japanese silver grass is a true four-season plant. Flower heads appear in September and October, rising above the top of the clump. At first the wispy clusters look like drummers' brushes, but as the seeds mature and the head dries it fluffs out, becoming a silvery, silken plume that is decorative in the garden or in the house.

In winter, the dry stalks and leaves turn subtle shades of old gold, beige, and parchment and hold their graceful carriage. Bowed down by heavy rain or snow, they usually resume their upright position as soon as the foliage dries. Lightly dusted with snow, they are at their beautiful winter best.

Outstanding Varieties

The different varieties and cultivars rejoice in nicknames of their own. M. sinensis 'Gracillimus' is commonly called maiden grass, though 'Gracillimus' seems much more appropriate, considering the extreme refinement of its thin, green blades with white midribs.

M. sinensis strictus is aptly known as porcupine grass for its rigid green foliage attractively marked with creamy yellow horizontal bands. A similar species with horizontal yellow markings, M. sinensis zebrinus, received the name zebra grass. Porcupine grass is more desirable because of its neat, upright habit. Fast-growing clumps of zebra grass tend to fall open in the center.

While M. sinensis variegatus has no common name, it is well known and deservedly popular for its gorgeous, vertically striped cream and green blades that rise up in a lovely fountain shape. Cream seems to predominate, and a mature clump is as bright and eye-catching as a flowering shrub. 'Silver Arrow' is a choice cultivar with six-foot green blades neatly lined with white. More vertical in thrust than the variegated form, the overall color is a pale, silvery green.

Growing Conditions

Native to both China and Japan, these handsome grasses flourish in American gardens from Zones 5 through 9. They are easy to grow and long-lived. They resist deer, diseases, and insects, and they are drought tolerant. You can't ask much more than that, but in addition, miscanthus grasses require a minimum of maintenance. Give them full sun, and cut them down to the ground in the early spring so that the new foliage will not have to struggle up through last year's growth.

In selecting a site for your grasses, try to get them in the right place the first time because they are difficult to move. They have very long, deep, wiry roots. Division should be done in the early spring. Cruel as it sounds, an ax is the tool of choice. Don't try to dig up the whole clump. Instead, leave it in the ground and hack it into quarters. Keep one quarter in place and remove the other pieces. The remaining quarter will soon be large and lovely once more.

Can English Roses Thrive In American Soil?

Can English roses thrive in American soil? An expert says they can, with just a bit of translation.

Admit it. Like most Americans, you're just a little bit intimidated by things English. The accent, the pageantry, even the warm beer — they all make us feel just a tiny bit cruder than our English cousins. Lately even their gardens have seemed out of our league, as the buzz spread about glorious, superior "English roses."

Never fear. Clair Martin, the curator of rose collections at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, has taken some of the mystique out of the British blooms. His new book, 100 English Roses for the American Garden (from Smith & Hawken and Workman Publishing; $16.95), describes plants that will get on famously in American soil.

Just what makes a rose "English," anyway? As it turns out, the term refers to a group developed by British hybridizer David Austin in the 1950's. They were bred to combine the best traits of old roses — beauty, charm, and fragrance — with the continuous blooming quality and color range of modern hybrids.

Clair Martin first discovered the David Austin hybrids on a trip to Australia and New Zealand ten years ago and knew he had to have some in his collection. "I had no information on how these particular roses did in my climate specifically, so I just took the catalog information I had from Austin and planted them accordingly," he says. "Working in a public garden, I had to figure out which are the big ones and plant them to the back of the border and the smaller ones in the front." Martin's trial-and-error method yielded imperfect results at first, but his experience has taken a lot of guesswork out of growing these roses in America.

Trial and Error

Martin discovered the hard way that English roses can indeed flourish on this side of the Atlantic. For example, 'Gertrude Jekyll', a rose that's supposed to grow to three or four feet, passed the ten-foot mark in California. "It was a problem," says Martin. "The guy who rides the lawn mower around the garden was mad because the roses kept hitting him in the face. When he'd see me in the garden, he tried to run me over with the lawn mower!"

Martin took extensive notes on how tall each plant grew, the essence of each rose's fragrance, and which plants had the fewest diseases. These notes are the backbone of his book, which is meant as a consumer's guide; take it to the garden center to select the hybrid that grows best in your area and that best suits your personal taste.

So why isn't everyone growing English roses? "Just mention the word rose and a lot of people are turned off immediately," says Martin. "They think roses are difficult plants."

Not so, he says. The key to simplifying rose care, though, is the research before the purchase. The plants most appropriate for your area will require the least amount of work, and the best place to start your research is in your own neighborhood. "See what grows well in your neighbor's yard and ask them what they are growing," says Martin. "Botanical or public gardens, where plants are often labeled, are an excellent resource for finding roses that stay healthy in your climate. And your garden center professional can also be very helpful. While their goal is to sell, they realize that if you're unhappy with their advice, you'll choose another nursery in the future."

Clair Martin offers the following advice for growing beautiful roses:

Where to Buy

You can buy a good rose just about anyplace today. I don't often buy roses from the grocery store, but you can. If it doesn't look fresh, don't buy it. Even if it's a dollar ninety-eight, it's not worth it. You'll be sorry in the long run, because it will probably die.

When to Buy

Buy in early spring. Most of the roses sold in the United States have been grown in California and were dug from October to December. The sooner you can plant a rose in the ground, the better it will fare.

What to Buy

Buy the best grade of rose you can. The garden centers make a big deal about selling only number one roses (the top grade). I would never plant a two, but most people can get by with a one and a half if they give a little bit of extra care. If the roses are not top grade, they will be labeled.

The 'Lillian Austin' is named after David Austin's mother.

What to Look For

The rose you buy should have three strong canes and a large root system. The canes need to be firm and crisp. If they look wrinkled or dried, or they're turning brown, then I would be worried about that.

Most Common Mistake

Most people don't realize that roses are very much full-sun plants. We start out with every good intention and plant them out in full sun. But as gardens grow, trees get larger, the plant matures, and the space for sunlight reduces. It's really important that you give roses eight hours of sun a day or more. Once you get down below four to six hours, you're going to have probably fifty percent less flower production. I probably wouldn't try a rose if there is less than four hours of sun.

Container Gardening: Make The Most Of What You've Got

Does your garden space consist of a small concrete terrace rather than rolling acres on the lower forty? Don't despair. Designer Rebecca Cole explains how to make the most of what you've got with container gardening.

Maiden grass sways in the breeze as white birch trees shimmer in the light. A thick clump of white daisies cools down a blazing red cotoneaster shrub. A tiny yellow bird lands on a branch nearby, searching for berries. Off in the distance rises...the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center? Yes, we're in the middle of New York, in the heart of hip Chelsea, in a rooftop garden produced for a client by designer Rebecca Cole.

Cole (not to be confused with Rebecca Kolls, the woman behind Rebecca's Garden) has a new book called Potted Gardens about container gardening, or gardening in pots and other objects rather than in the actual earth. Cole has lived in New York for 12 years, and as a passionate gardener and a passionate antique collector, she's been gardening in containers the whole time.

"I love antiques and can't pass up anything great," says Cole, who has spiky blond hair and green eyes. She ran out of space in her small apartment for the boxes, pails, trunks, and washtubs she acquired, so she began to garden in them and put them to practical use.

Potted Gardens

Friends, and then friends of friends, asked her to re-create the look for them. A business was born for the former stage actress, and Cole now maintains 35 gardens in New York and designs flower arrangements for parties. Three years ago, she opened a shop in Greenwich Village to display her gardening style. "I don't like symmetry and lined-up pots with an even number of plants in each," says Cole, who's wearing blue coveralls and carrying as a handbag a round leather hatbox from Florence. "I try to create a rustic beauty, not a little pretty floral beauty. I garden like an artist paints. It's an incredible way to express yourself."

One customer was a literary agent who asked her to write a book. "There weren't very many good books on container gardening," says the designer, opening her bag to retrieve her sunglasses. "I wanted to get my ideas out there."

"I think gardening is really personal," says Cole. She is particularly averse to typical terraces lined with plastic pots filled with symmetrically arranged annuals. "There are three or four local nurseries in New York that do gardens, and I think half of the work I do for my clients is about ripping out the nurseries' gardens and doing them over," she laughs.

Cole likes to garden in found objects. "I can't see going out and buying a new plastic or terra-cotta pot, because there is always something interesting right around the house that you can use," she says. She prefers primitive, simple country antiques — wooden boxes, tin cans, iron tubs. "I like rusty old textured pieces that look more like nature than new plastic pots," she says. Which doesn't mean she'll stick a plant in just anything. "People are always leaving things outside my shop, but I'm not going to put plants in a toilet just because it has a hole in the bottom," she says. "The object must be beautiful."

This potted garden looks like it grew naturally. Cole prefers a mix of two-thirds perennials and one-third annuals. She likes meadow or prairie plants and prefers a natural, wild effect. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan ( Rudbeckia fulgida), and blue salvia (Salvia farinacea) often are found in her gardens. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), and lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) are also preferred. Although carefully planned, Cole's gardens look as if they were planted by nature itself. "Nature is my teacher," she says. "I try to re-create it in some way."

Cole likes gardening with containers because it's easy to play around with the positioning and heights of plants. Another advantage over in-ground gardening is that different kinds of soils can be brought in for different plants. "And you need fewer plants than when you garden in the ground," she says. "When you put a plant in a container, you're creating a visual focus. You get more bang for your buck."

Cole thinks of a garden as a room. Where are the walls of the room? What is the furniture? Where are the paths? "The reason I have a store is that I'm as much in love with the furniture and the architectural elements as I am the plants," she says. "A garden is like a 3-D painting, and the plants and the containers and the furniture are all pieces of it."

She stays away from typical garden furniture, favoring pieces you can use in the living room and drag out to the garden. "Instead of buying a potting table from Smith and Hawken, I'd rather put out a hundred-year-old table with a couple of benches stacked on top for the shelves," she says.

The designer takes her inspiration from her surroundings. In the city, she describes her gardening style as "urbanish." "I like that there are buildings around," she says. "I don't want to see a cute little country trellis on a terrace in the city. If you're in the city, you need to love that there are smokestacks and pipes. Instead of hiding them, grow plants that highlight them as interesting architectural elements."

In the country, Cole planted Russian sage in a carriage.

Besides living in an apartment in New York, Cole owns a house in New Hampshire. ("Six and a half hours away," she groans, "but the cutest town you've ever seen.") As a child, the Pittsburgh-born Cole spent summers in New Hampshire with her grandparents, and her new house is not far from where they lived. "My grandfather was an incredible gardener," says Cole, "and the beauty of what he did definitely inspired me." In New Hampshire, Cole gardens with "more country things," growing plants in wheelbarrows, for instance, and using old garden gates as trellises.

"My approach is a combination of European gardening style and not ever having enough money to buy anything else," says Cole.

Indoor Plants

But what do you do when the snow falls, or if you don't have access to outdoor space? Try your hand at potted plants indoors. Again, Cole recommends plants that would naturally be found in your area. "The most commonly used indoor plants in the United States are tropical plants because they do not like to get cold, but I say if a plant grows naturally in Ecuador, it should stay in Ecuador," says Cole. Plants, even indoor plants, should look natural to your region.

Plants thrive in this window box made from an old shutter. "People come into my store all the time wanting a houseplant that blooms all year round," says Cole. "We ask a lot from our houseplants." Instead, says the designer, go for a plant that has lush, healthy foliage all the time. Indoors, she often uses ivies, creeping fig, and ferns. She also likes baby's tears, a plant with "little tiny clover leaves in limey green that's really, really sweet." When working with indoor plants, think about the plants outside — "I think it's better if you look out the window and see a similar leaf. It looks more natural."

Container Gardening Do's and Don'ts

  • Don't get a round pot and put a dracaena in the middle, surround it with geraniums, and put ivy on the outside. This is what everyone does in pots, and I defy you to look at nature and see if nature ever does anything like that.

  • Always water container gardens. There is never enough rain for containers.

  • Feed container gardens regularly with plant food such as Miracle Gro, because there are no worms and other things giving natural nutrients.

  • On a rooftop, don't forget weight issues. Put Styrofoam peanuts in the bottom of pots to keep them light.

  • Don't listen to anyone about the limitations of what can grow in a container. Almost anything can grow in a container as long as you give it the right elements.

  • The container needs to match the plant somehow. If the container has a color, use that color in the planting.

  • Don't create an abrupt change in height, like a really tall plant with a vinca vine hanging down. Nature goes down gradually.

  • A container always needs drainage, or holes in the bottom.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Answers To Questions About Gardening Roses

What's the best way to plant a rose?
At a well-chosen site (one with lots of sun and good drainage), dig a hole three feet deep and two-and-a-half feet wide.

Mix one cup of triple superphosphate with the soil at the bottom of the hole (to encourage root development). If your soil is iron-deficient, throw in a couple of nails. After placing the plant, fill the hole with a mixture of 50 percent loam and 50 percent aged cow manure. Moisten the soil to remove air pockets both before and after planting your rose. In warm zones (7 and south), position the bud union just above the soil, where the sun can reach it, to encourage new growth. In colder regions, protect the bud union by placing it an inch or two below the surface.

What's the ideal soil pH for raising roses?
A reading between 6.5 and 6.8 is best.

How much water do roses need?
In warm weather, five gallons a day is about right, unless soil is heavy. A top dressing of aged cow manure will help retain moisture, as will a handful of hydrogel crystals added to the soil at planting time (pre-expand the crystals first). A drip-irrigation system has the advantage of directing the water straight to the roots, leaving disease-prone leaves dry.

When, and what, should I feed my roses?
Do not overfeed your bushes — once every three months is usually sufficient. Nitrogen-rich homemade blends tailored to your own soil are excellent; slow-release Osmocote (available at garden centers and nurseries) is good, too.

Which is the better manure: horse or cow?
Mike prefers aged cow manure, as it contains fewer weed seeds than horse.

What can I do about Japanese beetles?
Grow once-blooming old garden roses, such as the Gallicas. The beetles make their appearance after these roses have finished. Or, consider planting a decoy, such as concord grapes, in a distant corner of your yard. Remember, though, you might attract your neighbor's beetles, too.

Prune it right

Do use clean, sharp pruners, which won't spread disease or tear stems.

Don't overprune climbers, which bloom on the previous year's growth. Early spring removal of diseased and damaged canes should suffice.

Do deadhead remontant varieties to encourage rebloom.

Do prune the healthy canes of hybrid teas and shrub roses when the forsythia blooms. Cut back to just above an outward-facing, dormant bud; in the North, to about 13 inches from the crown, in the South, to 22 inches or so.

Don't allow borers and other pests to wreak havoc on exposed stem tissue. Paint the raw ends of freshly pruned canes with clear nail polish or white glue.

Plants for Stone Walls

Working With Stone

Few materials offer a better backdrop for beds and borders, or create a more attractive garden hardscape, than stone. Building a stone wall can be immensely satisfying, provided certain precautions are taken:

1. When altering old stone walls or foundations, proceed with care. Removing a single rock can cause the entire structure to shift radically or even to tumble completely.

2. Protect toes and feet by wearing heavy shoes; steel-toed work boots are best. Wearing sneakers is never a good idea.

3. Wear a hardhat when adjusting or placing rocks above shoulder height.

4. Remember that old stone walls and foundations are favorite housing sites for all sorts of insects, including spiders and wasps. In addition, poisonous as well as nonpoisonous snakes often take up residence among the warm rocks of old walls. Be alert to these and other varmints.

5. Thick gloves will protect hands against blisters, cuts, and chafed skin. When combined with long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, they will also ward off poison ivy encountered during the excavation of old stone ruins.

Plants for Stone Walls

Create a "pocket garden" by planting alpine flowers, succulents, and small bulbs in the gaps and crevices of stone walls. These and other plants will visually soften the rocks while lending color and texture to a hard surface. Candidates include:

*Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata, Zones 3 to 8), also called creeping phlox, forms a thick, spreading mat of bright green. This hardy perennial blooms in late spring. Choose from white, lilac, or pink forms.

*Wild Strawberries (Fragaria vesca, Zones 5 to 8) bear tasty, tiny fruit and dainty flowers in pink, white, or red. F.v. 'Semperflorens', sometimes calls alpine strawberry or fraise des bois, flowers twice, in spring and autumn. The new hybrid 'Red Ruby' features scarlet flowers and glossy foliage. Because strawberries spread by runners and can thus be invasive, they make ideal candidates for walls in situations where they might not be welcome in garden beds.

*Stonecrop (Sedum acre, Zones 5 to 9) flourishes in stone walls, where drainage is excellent and soil is warmed by rocks that retain the sun's heat. S.a. 'Elegans' boasts tiny, star-shaped yellow flowers all summer long and leaf tips dipped in silver.

*Evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa 'Rosea', Zones 5 to 8) flaunts cup-shaped blossoms in pink to red-violet. In warmer regions (Zones 9 and 10), desert evening primrose (O deltoides) flaunts white blossoms that age to pink.

*Grecian windflowers (Anemone blanda, Zones 4 to 8), spring- flowering tubers, offer an extended period of bloom (up to three weeks) and a wide color range (white, and many shades of blue and pink). A.b. 'Atrocaerula' is perhaps the most intensely blue of the group.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Soil for Seed Starting

It is one of the many paradoxes in gardening that the best soils for starting seedlings indoors contain no real soil at all. Ordinarily, weed seedlings sprout and grow in profusion in any speck of open ground. So what's the big deal with using some topsoil for starting seedlings? Why can't we just dig up a little good earth and set it aside for our winter work.

As simple and as natural as that answer might seem, the truth is that using real topsoil brings several problems to container culture and especially to seed starting. Outdoor soil is too heavy and too compact for good air circulation. It also holds too little air and carries too many disease organisms.

True soils—which are mostly minerals with perhaps 5% to 10% organic matter if the soil is very rich—are heavy, prone to compaction and hold relatively little water. But even more important, natural soils are very likely to harbor the disease organisms that cause damping-off and root-rot diseases in seedlings.

If you use real soil, you risk losing your seedlings, unless you pasteurize the ground with heat—not an easy task and not something you want to do in the house because of the horrible odor invariably produced. So instead the world has turned to soilless mixes. On this point the largest commercial growers and most of the best gardeners agree.

Today's soilless mixes are mostly sphagnum peat moss, plus vermiculite and often a little perlite. The sphagnum peat used in good seed-starting and growing mixes is a very stable organic material that holds a great deal of water and air and does not decompose quickly. Both vermiculite and perlite are natural minerals that at very high temperatures pop like popcorn. Once expanded or popped, they are very lightweight and porous. In a soil mix, they improve both air circulation and water drainage. Perlite retains no water itself, vermiculite a little. All three of these basic ingredients are naturally disease-free.

The movement away from real soil in potting ms began about 60 years ago, in an attempt to eliminate soil diseases that were plaguing the nursery industry. The first alternatives were mixtures of sand (or very sandy soils) with ground-up (or milled) sphagnum peat. But these still needed to be heat-treated to kill disease organisms that came in on the sand. The effort culminated in the early 1960s in research at Cornell University that produced the "peat-lite" formula.

Classic peat-lite is half milled sphagnum peat and half vermiculite, though sometimes a small portion of the vermiculite is replaced by perlite. Although you can buy true peat-lite mixes from many suppliers, most of their formulations will contain a higher proportion of peat, around 75 percent, simply because most growing-mix producers are peat bog owners, and they have more of it than anything else.

Firms that serve the nursery industry, such as Pro-Mix, Fafard or Baccto, may offer as many as 10 slightly different formulations, all essentially slight variations on the peat-lite formula. Most variations have arisen to suit local preferences of commercial growers or to allow the producers to make use of the resources at hand. These high-peat mixes work just fine, both for starting most kinds of seed and for growing the transplants on in larger containers.

All good growing mixes also contain a very small amount of ground limestone (usually dolomite) to correct the acidity of the peat and to help buffer against the varying acidity and alkalinity of local water supplies. Dolomite supplies some calcium and magnesium to plants. The mixes also include a wetting agent (tested to be safe for plant growth) to help wet naturally water-resistant dry peat. Most mixes contain a very small amount of fertilizer, often referred to as a nutrient charge, as well. Most of this will leach out within two weeks after irrigation starts. In fact, many suppliers recommend that liquid fertilization begin as soon the first true leaves appear on seedlings.

What to Buy
You could easily get confused with all the choices on the shelf in garden centers and nurseries. The root of the confusion lies in a fine old gardening term "potting soil." Many mixes good for seed starting are labeled potting soil. But other things called potting soil are not very good at all for seed starting and are sometimes inappropriate even for container growing.

You can be most sure of what you are getting in mixes labeled "seed starting" or "germinating." The ingredients of germinating mixes are the same as in peat-lite: high-quality sphagnum peat, fine vermiculite and often perlite, a very small quantity of limestone, a wetting agent and enough fertilizer to last through two or three waterings. What defines a germinating mix, beyond these ingredients, is that the mix has been screened to be very fine. Germinating mixes are designed for very small seeds like petunias or impatiens and for filling small-sized containers and plug cells quickly.

But a germinating mix is not the only product offered that will serve well to start your vegetable and flower seeds. You might want a growing mix with larger particle sizes. For one thing, germinating mixes are more expensive. For another, they are not suitable for filling larger containers for growing through the season. Because they are so fine, they hold more water and eventually compact more than coarser mixes do. They stay too wet and hold too little air for good long-term root growth. (When starting seed in a germinating mix, the container should be deep enough to allow for at least one and a half inches of soil, deep enough to keep the topmost layer dry and aerated and lower layers moist.)

Unfortunately, some products traditionally labeled potting mix can include a multitude of ingredients, not all of which are particularly good for seed germination and root growth. You must read the label to know what's really in the bag. If the label doesn't say, stay away. The primary ingredients in the kind of mix you want should be milled sphagnum peat (typically from 50 percent to 80 percent), vermiculite and perhaps perlite. Avoid mixes containing sand, manure, topsoil or muck peat. These materials are too heavy and do not have the water- and air-holding properties of a good germinating or growing mix.

Fortunately, the trend toward clear and useful labeling recently has come to the growing-mix industry. Though neither mandatory nor completely uniform, the labels of most reliable suppliers describe the content of their various mixes clearly. The most common ingredient is listed first (often with the percentage), followed by the lesser ingredients in descending order. Labels do not always indicate whether the mix contains a starter fertilizer, because doing so would subject the mixes to regulations for fertilizers, which clearly the mixes are not.

Soilless growing or germinating mixes are sold in plastic bags. The material will be either loose (in a broad range of sizes from one quart up to a 40-pound bag) or in compressed bales (about 70 pounds). Compressed bales yield almost twice the volume on the label when you dig out the amount you need and fluff it up.

Where to Buy
You can buy mixes in three very different places. Superstores with gardening sections -- Home Depot, Lowes, Kmart, Wal-Mart and countless others -- will have a wide choice of brand names and will offer smaller packages. At local nurseries and garden centers, the choice in brand names will narrow, but there will be a full line of soils, some of them in larger sizes.

At a retail nursery that produces at least some of its own plants from seed or cuttings, you have the narrowest but perhaps best choice of all: the mixes that professional growers use themselves. Very often the owner will sell a bale or large bag. These materials cost from $8 (for a 40-pound bag) to $14 (for a 70-pound bale) wholesale. So even if you pay twice that, you are getting a tremendous bargain if you can find a grower willing to sell some, and increasingly many growers will do that.

If you keep the bag tightly closed and protected from the rain, the material will keep well for more than one season. The plastic covering on commercial-sized bags and bales is usually treated with ultraviolet light inhibitors, giving the material about a one-year life when stored in the open. But all materials should be kept closed tight to keep out disease organisms and maintain the moisture level of the material in the bag, which should be just very slightly moist.

Where to find a good seed mix: The following companies manufacture high-quality seed germination soil mixes. If you can't find one of them at your local garden center, call or write the manufacturers and ask them to help you find the nearest supplier.

Baccto: (800) 324-7328
Fafard: (800) PEAT-MOSS
Good Earth Organics: (716) 684-8111
Hoffman: (800) 877-0848
Jiffy Products: (800) 323-1047
Lambert: (800) 463-4083
Premier Pro-Mix: (800) 667-5366
Scotts (same as Peters): (800) 543-8873
Sungro Sunshine: (800) 665-4525

Making Your Own Seed-Germination Mix
The quality of professional seed-starting and growing mixes is so high that there is little reason for anyone to bother with the dusty job of mixing their own. Still, if you somehow can't find a good one to buy, the recipe for a peat-lite mix is very simple: Make the blend between half and three-quarters milled sphagnum peat moss and the rest horticultural-grade vermiculite. For maximum air circulation and water drainage, substitute perlite for half the vermiculite.

If the peat is coarse or lumpy, break up clods and take out large pieces with your hands, or use a 1/4-inch screen. Mix in some dolomitic limestone, at the rate of five pounds per cubic yard of mix. It's important to incorporate the lime thoroughly through the mix. At least one day before you plan to plant, sprinkle the mix with water to allow it time to permeate the peat. Rather than trying to mix in fertilizer, it's better to wait until seedlings are up and then begin feeding with a nutrient solution right away.

Editor-at-Large Shep Ogden grows many hundreds of seedlings each year in his capacity as president and chief evaluator for the Cook's Garden seed company. "A few years ago," he told me recently, "I did an absolutely minute analysis of the costs involved in making my own seed-starting mix. I did time studies and I did it down to fractions of a cent. And as much as we would all like to make everything from scratch from a purist's standpoint, there's no way I could justify mixing my own potting soil." Ogden now uses Pro-Mix for most flowers and all vegetables.

Care for Crispy Gardens: How to diagnose and treat a too-hot garden or lawn

This time of year, gardens and yards are just this side of crispy if you aren't ardent with the watering or blessed with slow, steady rain. But there is hope in warding off fried, dried effects that the heat and sun can cause. First, learn the warning signs, next, brush up on the basics and last, know how your watering gear works.

Warning Signs of Too-hot Plants
Some of the telltale signs to look for are leaves that curl or crinkle up or old leaves that are dry and turn brown and begin to drop off. Another indication that the plant is stressed and needs water is when new growth begins to wilt.

As for grass, it's too dry when you can see footprints on it. Another way to check is to use your small hand trowel to dig down below the sod and see if the root area is moist. If it's crusty or hard the grass needs water. But remember not all areas of lawn require the same amount of water. Sun-drenched expanses of lawn or those affected by drying winds will need more water than those areas tucked away in the shade.

Watering Know-how
How well your soil holds water determines how often watering is required. In general, sandy soils require more frequent watering than clay soils because sand is porous and lets water flow through it while soils with clay retains moisture.

The frequency of your rainfall is the next big factor. A nice long gentle soaking rainfall is a gardener's delight because there's a steady supply of rainwater and time for it to seep deep down into the roots. The same is true for watering techniques. A sporadic short burst from the garden hose encourages shallow root growth. Proper watering encourages deep root growth that helps anchor a plant into the soil and keep it healthy and strong. As a rule of thumb, you can figure that your lawn or garden needs at least one inch of water a week.

If you can't count on rainfall, know that the best time to water is early or late in the day when the temperatures and wind tend to be the lowest. Cooler temperatures and calm winds reduce the amount of water that will evaporate into the air during watering. And remember, if you live in an area where water is restricted follow local regulations, which you can learn by contacting your water department.

Watering Systems
Getting water to your plants and lawn on a regular basis can be accomplished in several ways. You can use a garden hose and oscillating sprinkler, a soaker hose or install a drip irrigation system. Of course, you can drag your hose around to individual plant beds and areas of the lawn and use a spray attachment to sprinkle spot areas. But that's not necessarily the most effective method. Instead, know how much water your garden or lawns requires, and then follow a schedule that provides just the right amount.

How Much Water Is Your Lawn Getting?
In general, lawns and gardens need 1 inch of water at each application. To find out how much time that requires using a sprinkler, take three plastic gallon milk bottles and cut off the top necks. Draw a line on each bottle one inch up from the bottom with a waterproof marker. Place the jugs in the path of the sprinkler and turn the sprinkler on, noting the time. When the water level reaches the 1-inch mark, look at your watch to see how long it took to get there. Use that time to set your watering schedule.

Get to the essence of flowers: Favorite garden plants are also tops for perfume

A delicate wisp of freesia, appearing just in time for holiday cheer, can perfume an entire room for days. For Mother's Day, a heavy bouquet of fuchsia-tinged Stargazer lilies has the same voluptuous effect. And a heady Valentine's Day vase of roses might seem an extravagantly perfumed gift. But none of these perishable bouquets can come close to the number of flowers it takes to scent one long-lasting vial of cologne.

Mankind has a long and odiferous history of creating scented products, particularly in ancient Egypt, Rome and China, where incense was widely used. But it wasn't until Avicenna invented steam distillation in 1100 that extracting plants' essential oils was possible, leading directly to the creation of liquid scents.

Today, most perfumes are scented with synthetic oils. But there are still some perfume makers that stick to plant materials, among them the ultra-luxury company House of Creed and the ultra-traditional Yardley of London, which debuted its Yardley's Lavender fragrance in 1780. Among the flowers that remain most popular for fragrances are several you might have growing in your own garden:

Roses. Clearly the romantic favorite, the highest quality rose oil comes from Bulgaria, the south of France and Morocco, whose hot, dry summers produce roses with a stronger fragrance than those grown in other climes. Red roses also contain more oil; the most commonly used types of roses are Damascus rose and Rosa gallica, used mostly in Bulgaria; and in the South of France and Morocco, Rosa centifolia.

Lavender. This familiar spicy-floral oil is used in soaps, candles, bath salts, bath oils and sachets as well as perfumes, is commercially grown in the Mediterranean region, Bulgaria and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Some is also grown in the British Isles, mostly Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender.

Violets. While many floral scents are extracted from flowers, the fresh, woodsy scent of violet essential oil is often drawn out of its fleshy green leaves. Alternatively, oil extracted from orris root (Iris x germanica var. florentina) is often used as a substitute for true violet oil.
Lavender has been used for centuries as a fragrance and a medicine.

Can't I do it myself?
It is actually possible to build a homemade still and extract scented flower waters in your own kitchen. Whether it's worth the time and expense is an entirely separate matter.

You can get started with nothing more than a length of rubber tubing, an enameled teapot with a tight-fitting lid, and two bowls -- one with ice water in it, the other empty to catch your odiferous extract.

Attach your tubing to the spout of the teapot, drape it into the ice-water bowl and hang the other end into the empty bowl. Next, fill your teapot with flowers, then fill with water to cover and bring it to a low boil. As the flowers cook, oil-laden steam will come through the tubing, be condensed in the ice-water bath and come out the other end. Let this liquid sit until the essential oil separates from the water; you can collect the oil, and use the leftover flower water as a nice-smelling skin tonic.

You'll be slaving over the stove for a while before you get any appreciable amount of oil, though -- about 250 pounds of rose petals go into producing an ounce of attar of rose. If you try this, be sure not to use flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides or other toxic treatments, which will show up again in your finished product.

Easy Roses: Want beautiful roses with less work?

In the beginning, roses grew wild. From China through central Europe, they flowered with abandon for hundreds of years, needing neither fungicide nor fertilizer. Then hybridizers started fooling around with them, creating new plants that had beautiful flowers but were more prone to diseases. When these new varieties were marketed in climates where they had no business growing, roses gained the reputation of being finicky, fussy and easier to kill than to keep.

It's an unfair label, and fortunately one you don't have to accept, says Henry Everett, the president of the Greater Atlanta Rose Society.

In Everett's Southern backyard, steamy, humid summers provide prime conditions for the most devastating of the rose diseases: black spot, downy mildew and powdery mildew. And while there are very effective fungicides on the market, he says, not everyone wants to go out and spray their roses once a week. "So the question becomes, 'What will look nice without that care?' There are a lot of roses that meet the criteria." The solutions apply for most every growing zone.

Hardy Heirloom Roses
The obvious place to start when shopping for a disease-resistant rose is with heirloom, or old roses. "There's been a resurgence in the idea of the romance in growing 'roses of yesteryear' so now they're very available," Everett says. "Those roses lived in people's gardens before rose sprays were ever invented, so they survived for a long time without the benefit of any spraying." Look for these hardy, resilient roses at your local garden center. Check the label to ensure it's a true heirloom plant.

Healthy New Varieties
Everett's next recommendation is to look at the very latest varieties available on the market. Hybridizers have recognized that low-care roses have a wider market than the disease-prone kind, and have introduced roses to appeal to that trend. "Some of the newer varieties are really very deliberately bred to be disease-resistant and yet pretty," Everett says.

Shopping Advice
When purchasing your rose bush from a garden center, Everett recommends looking for a bushy little plant with lots of leaves. Check to make sure the foliage doesn't look dried out, wilted or droopy. No broken branches should be falling off, and the branches should all be green as opposed to dried-out and gray. And if you're still not sure what kinds to plant, go to a rose show in your area to scope out the options.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gardening Made Easy

There is a simple way to make your plants and flowers flourish

So many people are intimidated by gardening. Rather than believing it can be fun and easy, they assume it's instinctive -- you've either got a green thumb or you don't. Well just like many other things in life, you can garden the hard way, or the easy way. But why make it more difficult than it really has to be?

Believe it or not, there is a way to make your yard the talk of the neighborhood -- and it's much easier than you think. With some simple planning, and a bit of dedication, you can turn your brown thumb green.

Gardening the Easy Way:
Before you buy the first seed packet or seedling, make a plan. Do you want a vegetable garden, flowers, drought-tolerant natives or a lush lawn? Will you plant a huge vegetable garden or settle on a few tomato plants and petunias in pots?

Once you've decided on the size and type of garden you want, put it all down on paper, including a rough sketch of your design. Make adjustments as necessary. Take your plan with you to the garden shop to head off wild, impulsive buying.

If you have weeds in the yard, then you have fairly healthy soil, after all the weeds are thriving. Still, you'll need to make sure to pull or hoe all the weeds, and tidy up the growing area.

Spread a four-inch layer of organic matter over the planting area you've cleared. There are several types of organic matter -- some are homemade, others are sold commercially by the bag or cubic foot. Well-rotted, homemade compost is ideal, but you can buy mushroom compost, manure, redwood soil conditioner, sand or leaf mold from most landscape supply outlets.

For large spaces, use a rototiller to turn the soil and organic matter to a depth of eight to 12 inches. The tilling is rigorous work -- no kidding -- and hiring someone to do the job might be a smart idea. If you're planting in a small area, you can simply turn the soil with a spade to the depth of the shovel head.

Use planting mix for large containers or raised beds. Potting soil is the best bet for small containers.

If you are lucky enough to live in an area where summer rains do the watering, all well and good. But remember the lesson of last year's drought: You can't count on rain alone. In areas where watering is needed, put in drip irrigation for flowers and vegetables, and use soaker hoses on established trees and shrubs. If you plant in a new lawn, make sure it gets plenty of water from the sprinkler.

For smarter watering, group plants with similar watering needs. Annuals need more water than perennials, and perennials need more water than bulbs. Herbs are nearly drought-tolerant; roses are not. Once established, trees, shrubs and native plants need watering only a few times in summer.

Spreading a two-inch layer of fine mulch over all exposed ground also helps conserve water. And keep an eye out for new weeds. They rob plants of water and nutrients.

Like a growing kid who is always hungry, plants need a steady food source. The choices range from home-brewed manure tea to general all-purpose fertilizers. Many flowers, herbs and vegetables do well with slow-release fertilizer (brand names such as Once, Osmocote), which last for three months. However, a general all-purpose fertilizer with even numbers (such as 10-10-10) works well when applied every four to six weeks. Roses, azaleas, citrus and fruit trees all have their own special needs.

Avoid confusion by reading the fertilizer's label to be sure it's ideal for the plants you are growing. And, don't overdo it. There is no advantage to giving a plant double the recommended feeding; you'll simply be throwing away your money.

After all your work effort comes the fun part: planting. The soil is warming up, and the key planting time is May and June in most regions. Put in transplants of annual and perennial flowers, but use seed for sunflowers, cosmos, nasturtiums, wildflowers and hollyhocks.

Sow beets, onions, lettuce, chard and other leafy vegetables. Wait two more weeks to set out transplants that need very warm weather to mature, including tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and melons. Put in the herb garden.

Trees and shrubs in containers can be planted next, and you can also plant a new lawn. Plant citrus, avocado and other tender trees in regions suited to their survival, and also plant vines, ground covers and summer bulbs.

Once everything is planted, you can't stop there. You have to make sure everything continues to get enough water, sunlight and nutrients. You've devoted your time and hard work to get your garden growing -- don't neglect it once it is finally established.

The rest is the easiest part of all -- enjoying the fruits of your labor. And when your family and friends ask how you managed such a fine garden, just tell them, "It was easy."

Gardening with aromatic foliage just makes scents

A rose is a rose is a roseuntil it withers and dies, losing its beguiling scent forever. But savvy landscape designers know they can count on year-round fragrance if they pack their gardens with aromatic foliage. Long after the blooming season ends, the scented leaves fill the air with a distinctive perfume of their own.

"A garden without fragrance is hardly a garden at all. You might as well just get silk or plastic plants," says landscape architect Shirley Kerins, manager of plant production and sales at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

Unlike scented flowers, though, most scented leaves must be rubbed or bruised to unlock their fragrance. For this reason, Kerins says, aromatic foliage is best placed where it will be touched. The most common locations are beside paths, where you brush against leaves as you walk past, and between pavers, where you crush leaves lightly underfoot.

Because chemical concentrations responsible for fragrance vary from plant to plant and because everyone's sense of smell is different, Kerins recommends getting a whiff of each plant before adding it to your garden. "Something that smells wonderful to one person might smell medicinal, like Vicks VapoRub, to someone else," she warns.

The list of aromatic foliage is long and tempting, so you will want to let your climate, your soil and your nose be your guides. Here are a few tried-and-true possibilities worth considering:

  • Lavender: The evergreen shrub's potent purple flowers conjure up the sun-splashed South of France, but its gray to gray-green leaves also exude a pleasing scent. Lavandula augustifolia 'Hidcote' and L. intermedia 'Provence' are good choices.
  • Rosemary: This Mediterranean native's dark-green needle-like leaves have been a pungent culinary ingredient for centuries. Try Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus' or a similar low-growing variety called 'Lockwood de Forest.'
  • Crimson-spot rock rose: The deciduous rock rose Cistus ladanifer is known as a natural air freshener on very hot days, when you needn't handle it to release its heady scent. A good thing, too, since its dark-green leaves are sticky.
  • Lemon verbena: The aroma of leggy Aloysia triphylla's narrow bright-green leaves, often used in beverages and jellies, calls to mind tangy lemons.
  • Sage: Hundreds of exotic annual and perennial sages, cousins to common sage, grow throughout the world. Most bear floral spikes and gray-green foliage with a decidedly astringent fragrance. Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage) and S. greggii (autumn sage) have a wild look.
  • Thyme: Between stepping stones, thyme becomes a magic carpet of a ground cover. Not only do its tiny dark-green to gray-green leaves give off a sweet scent but they also cushion the feet. Look for creeping thyme and woolly thyme.
    You can brew the leaves of mint into tea, or use it to garnish cold drinks.
  • Mint: Nothing rivals the toothed green leaves of Mentha piperita (peppermint) and M. spicata (spearmint) when it comes to clean, bracing fragrances.
  • Scented geraniums: The aroma of mouth-watering apples, pineapples, lemons and limes emanate from the velvety, sometimes variegated, lobed leaves of these shrubby perennials. Pelargonium tomentosum (peppermint geranium) and P. 'Fragrans' (nutmeg geranium) are spicier alternatives.
  • Breath of heaven: No plant has a more enchanting common name than coleonema. An evergreen shrub from South Africa, it sports wispy leaves with the fresh smell of myrtle.

Once you've narrowed your foliage choices, Kerins encourages planting them in creative combinations. She, for instance, cultivates pineapple sage next to coconut scented geraniums in a kind of horticultural piƱa colada. And who can blame her for having such fun? With so many scented leaves within easy reach, you won't mind either if you can't stop and smell the roses.

Protecting Trees During Construction

You have to begin planning even before the lot is cleared. If you buy a "spec" house from a builder, you may be disappointed a year or two later to find he was not careful, and your trees are dying. You are faced with the expense of removing dead trees. If you paid a higher price for the lot because of the trees, you've also lost your investment.

Saving trees around a house or building that you're constructing is a big plus for beauty and the pocketbook.

You probably enjoy the shade and beauty trees offer, but you may not know saving trees saves money. Shade trees cut cooling and heating costs, and can add from five to ten percent to the real estate value of a home.

Unfortunately, many who try to save trees around a new home or building are disappointed later when the trees die. But, with careful construction your trees can survive.

Construction damage kills

The number one killer of trees during construction is damage. Those clearing your lot sometimes damage the roots or trunks of trees. Or, they may smother the roots by packing the soil with heavy equipment or with fill dirt over the roots. To make way for concrete slabs and driveways, construction crews sometimes cut roots, and installing underground utilities or grading the lot can cut roots.

Most of the vital feeder roots of trees are in the top foot of soil and extend even beyond the drip line of tree branches.

Supervise closely

You must be firm with the builders. Even then, supervise them closely. Insist on proper care during lot clearing. Build barricades around trees to prevent damage. Crews may need to clear most of the lot by hand and use heavy equipment only on the house site itself.

Clear lots during dry weather. Heavy equipment damages roots more during wet weather.

Have equipment enter and leave the site from one location, preferably the driveway site.

Try to have underground utilities laid away from tree roots. But, if they have to pass close to a tree, insist that corridors be tunneled under major roots instead of trenched. You should ask to have all utilities laid in one corridor, if possible .

If you have to change the drainage pattern or grade of the lot, use retaining walls to protect your trees.

For driveways, walks, or patios that extend over root zones, use a pervious material such as turf-stone, gravel or shell.

If you're thinking about buying a house already under construction, look for symptoms of construction damage. Look for injuries to tree trunks, exposed or cut roots, a slab too close to trees or a patio surrounding them. Other clues are thinning and yellowing of leaves, or die-back at the top or on branch ends.

Sometimes trees can be doctored back to health after construction.

Corrective care

Fertilization, watering and aeration of compacted soils are all good medicine for trees suffering from construction stress. Other aids are wound repair, dead limb removal and pruning to compensate for root loss.

Live Oaks, Fertilization With proper care, live oaks will grow fast.

The first two growing seasons are the most critical for the live oak. Don't allow a tree to show stress before you start watering it.

You may believe that the next generation will be the only people who benefit from a live oak tree planted now, however, that's not really true. With proper care, a live oak will grow faster and will provide more benefits than you may think in only five years.

Fertilize and water

Fertilizer and water are the keys to whether a live oak grows as rapidly as it can. At least one major feeding in late winter or early spring is essential for this rapid growth. Apply a complete fertilizer at the rate of one and a half pounds for each year of the tree's age. A complete fertilizer is one such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. You should put the fertilizer in small holes under the canopy of the tree.

The second feeding should come in mid-summer and this will help young trees because under good conditions, a second spurt of growth is likely at this time. Nitrogen is especially important for this second growth stage.

Once established

Large, well-established trees should have only one application of fertilizer a year. In fact, trees which have become as large as they need to be, probably shouldn't be fertilized more than once every other year. When the tree gets large, you should be more concerned with keeping it healthy than helping it grow larger.

The first two growing seasons are the most critical for the live oak. Don't allow a tree to show stress before you start watering it. Maintain moist soil at all times.

Smoke Tree: Spring Beauty

Some nurseries and garden centers carry this tree as Purple Smoke Tree or the Velvet Cloak Smoke Tree. They will retain an unusual purplish cast to the leaves throughout the summer

One of the very spectacular late spring flowering trees is the Smoke Tree. This very attractive large shrub or small tree gets lost among the other spring flowering trees.

Its flowers, which are 6 - 8 inch misty panicles or clusters, give the tree the appearance of being enveloped in a cloud of greenish white or purplish smoke depending upon the variety or species. Some nurseries and garden centers carry this tree as Purple Smoke Tree or the Velvet Cloak Smoke Tree. They will retain an unusual purplish cast to the leaves throughout the summer.

Transplants easily

It is quite easy to transplant, vigorous growing, and responds well to pruning. It is more often used as a specimen tree for its unusual cloud-like appearance when flowering.

Adapts to soil and sun

Smoke trees are adapted to a wide range of soils and prefer full sun even though they will tolerate very light shade. Follow the usual practices when planting. Better growth will occur if soils are improved. Dig large holes two to three times the size of the root ball. Do not add fertilizer at planting. Wait until growth is well in progress.

When to fertilize

Fertilize young trees in March, May and July. Use fertilizer sparingly with one third to one fourth cup of a complete balanced fertilizer such as 8 8-8 or 10-10-10 or 12-48 for a tree 6 to 8 feet in height or 1- 2 inches in stem diameter. Spread the fertilizer uniformly over the soil extending 18 - 24 inches away from the tree trunk. Water in thoroughly and check for watering needs once per week throughout the growing season.

Small trees do not require staking, however to prevent blowing over, it would be wise to stake the tree for the first two years.

Pruning Crape Myrtle: You may Choose Between a Shrub or a Small Tree

The Crape Myrtle's small tree form will usually have one or two main stems or trunks. All side shoots on the main stems are kept pruned off up to the head or top of the plant. All growth activity is channeled into the development of a healthy full head.
Far too many gardeners neglect pruning Crape Myrtles. Those that do prune, seldom practice sound pruning practices.

In landscape design, Crape Myrtles are used as a specimen shrub or small tree form. Those plants grown as shrubs are pruned differently from those grown as a small tree. Those that are grown as shrubs are pruned yearly down to 3 inches or 4 inches above the ground and usually have several stems. The small tree form will usually have one or two main stems or trunks. All side shoots on the main stems are kept pruned off up to the head or top of the plant. All growth activity is channeled into the development of a healthy full head.

The trunks of the Crape Myrtle small tree form provide interesting color and texture during the winter months. The cinnamon or light chocolate color plus the smoothness of the bark are very attractive.


Regardless of whether your Crape Myrtle plants are to be handled as shrubs or small trees; they will have one pruning or grooming practice in common. As flower heads fade, they should be cut or pruned away. This will give repeat bloom during the summer. Because this practice is often ignored, most Crape Myrtle plants seemingly have one large peak bloom in early summer. If the old flower heads are kept removed there will be several blooming cycles.


Along with correct pruning and grooming a regular fertilization program can make your Crape Myrtles the picture-look plant often visualized by gardeners. A fertilization in March, May and July for young plants, or once per year in late March or early April for mature plants will do the job. Use a complete balanced lawn or garden fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10.


Follow each fertilization with a thorough watering, and water once per week during dry weather. Thoroughly soak the soil. You can accomplish this best by laying your garden hose underneath the plant. Do not leave nozzles on your hose. Turn on a slow or soft stream or drip so that all of the water soaks into the soil rather than flowing away. Allow the hose to run for 2 - 3 hours. You will use less water and get better utilization if you follow this practice.

Lawn Care: Lawn Renovation

Renovating a lawn may take one of several directions. It may involve reseeding or plugging areas where existing sod has been killed by insects or disease. Or it may mean destroying the existing sod and reseeding or resodding with new material.
Partial renovation

In cases of partial renovation, remove all grass in the dead areas by raking or some other method. Lightly re-till the affected area before reseeding or resodding. Water these reseeded or resodded areas until the new grass is established.

To renovate completely

If you want to change to a different variety of grass, you'll need to renovate the area completely. Follow these general procedures:

  • First kill the existing grass with a herbicide such as gIyphosphate.
  • About two weeks after applying the herbicide, till the area to a depth of two to three inches. During the tilling process, incorporate lime and fertilizer according to soil test directions. Your county agent can give you information on soil testing

After leveling the area, sprig, seed or plug the new grass. Maintain proper moisture until your new grass is established.

Lawn Care: Rye Grass Planting

For a glorious green lawn Georgians favor rye grass. A rye grass lawn provides a strong contrast color in the environment in the winter and is attractive as a background for spring flowering bulbs and early-flowing trees and shrubs.

If you would like a new, green lawn during the winter you should consider sowing rye grass during late October and November. Rye grass flourishes in Georgia's relatively mild winter.

This type of grass is nice in landscapes where there's not much green in winter and especially in sites where there are many trees and shrubs which lose their leaves.

A rye grass lawn provides a strong contrast color in the environment in the winter and is attractive as a background for spring flowering bulbs and early-flowing trees and shrubs.

Fertilizer hungry

However, rye grass will compete with permanent grasses for fertilizers. So, it's recommended that you apply a complete fertilizer when you plant the seed. Fertilizer applications should be repeated two months after planting and again four months after planting. If you don't fertilize the rye grass, it won't perform as it should and the permanent grass will be weakened.

Sowing the seeds

Before you sow the rye seed, cut the permanent grass to a height of about three-quarters

of an inch to an inch. Make sure the soil is moist before you sow the seed. Sow about three to five pounds of rye grass per 1,000 square feed of lawn surface. Use a mechanical spreader so the seeds are spread evenly, otherwise you could end up with a patchy appearance. For more uniform distribution, sow half the seed in one direction and the other half from the opposite direction.

Planting too much seed results in a heavy, matted turf that is hard to maintain. Since the cold weather in the state lasts such a short time, the rye grass can grow for about three months. If this growth becomes too heavy, the growth of permanent grass will be slowed at the start of spring. Even though high temperatures will destroy rye grass, this usually happens only after the permanent grasses have started growing.

Don't sow rye grass seeds in flower beds or in other areas where you can't use a lawn mower... you'll end up having to hand weed that area. Also, don't let leaves accumulate to any extent on the lawn after the seed geminate. This will damage the new grass.

For more information on planting rye grass, contact your local County Extension Office.

Lawn Care: Garden Trimmers

Be aware of the trimmer's impact.

It's not uncommon to see shrub borders damaged and dying because of the improper use of garden trimmers.

Garden trimmers which use a monofilament line to cut weeds and grass may damage trees, shrubs and vines if you don't use them correctly. These gardens trimmers can be very useful...but they should be used for the jobs they were meant to do.

A useful tool

Garden trimmers are excellent for trimming weeds and grasses along driveways, walks, fences, around garden beds and the foundation of your house. However, if you allow the cutting line to hit stems of small trees, shrubs or vines, you're likely to lose part of bark off that plant.

Watch for girdling

A ring of bark removed from around these plants results in what is called girdling. Girdling of the stem causes a situation in which food can't move from the leaves to the roots. Gradually, the roots die, next, the top of the tree turns brown and eventually, the entire plant dies because it can't get water from the roots and the roots can't get food from the leaves.

Trim carefully

It's not uncommon to see shrub borders damaged and dying because of the improper use of garden trimmers. Remember, when you use one of these tools, be sure you stay far enough away from the trunk of small trees, shrubs and vines so that the line doesn't strike the stem of the plants.

For more information on garden trimmers; contact your local County Extension Office.

Lawn Care: Brown Patches

Georgia lawns suffer most from brown patch. Generally, brown patch attacks only the leaves and stems of the grass, but it can cause severe damage if uncontrolled .

The most serious disease in Georgia lawns is brown patch. It's caused by a fungus which attacks almost all species of grasses during the warm, humid early spring or fall weather. Brown patch is especially serious on St. Augustine and centipede grasses.

Brown patch factors

Several factors can make grasses more susceptible to brown patch. Excessive application of nitrogen fertilizer promotes lush growth that is readily attacked. Another condition that leads to severe disease development is watering late in the afternoon . This allows the grass to stay wet for a long time, which makes it easier for the fungus to grow.


You'll recognize brown patch by the development of irregular circular areas from a few inches in diameter to several feet in diameter. These areas begin as brownish orange to yellow discolorations in the lawn. These scalded-looking areas spread rapidly and become large brown areas. Generally, brown patch attacks only the leaves and stems of the grass, but it can cause severe damage if uncontrolled .

Chemical remedies

To control brown patch, be sure to avoid overwatering and overfertilization. Use chemicals to control the fungus, if necessary. The recommended chemicals are: Benomyl, Terraclor, Daconil 2787 and Chipco 26019.

For more information on brown patches; contact your local County Extension Office.

Controlling Lawn Insects: Chinch Bugs

The adults are small, black bugs 3/16" long with white wings and reddish legs. The nymphs are smaller than adults, wingless, brick red in color with a white band on the back.
The damage is irregular shaped yellow patches, 2 to 3 feet in diameter, which turn brown and die out. Non-grass plants may survive in the affected area. The insects keep moving out from the infested area so are most likely to be found at the edges of the spots.

Chinch bugs are usually not serious on well watered lawns so watering properly will help control them. Severe infestations will require applications of Aspon, Carbaryl (Sevin), Chlorpyrifos (Dursban), or Diazinon. Apply the chemicals according to label directions. Apply pesticides in late April to control overwinter adults, early to mid- June to control first generation nymphs, or in mid-August to control second generation nymphs.

Bluegrass Billbug

Adult billbugs are dull gray to black or brown beetles with a snout or bill. The wings are scaly textured but the insects seldom fly. The larvae are white, humpbacked grubs with a yellow to brown head.

Symptoms are irregular patches of dead grass, especially near sidewalks or curbs. The dead grass pulls out easily and has hollow stems. The larvae are present under the grass and brown sawdust-like frass is present in the root zone. The adults can be found in the grass near the dead areas.

Apply controls for adults in late April or early May before egg laying begins. Larval controls should be applied in mid to late June or July when early injury may be apparent. Use properly labeled formulations of Carbaryl (Sevin) or Diazinon.

Sod Webworm

The larval stage causes the damage. The larvae are grayish brown to dirty white and have 4 parallel rows of dark brown spots on the abdomen. The adults are grayish tan moths that fly in a zig-zag pattern in the evening.

The symptoms are brown patches where the grass blades are missing and not simply dead. The larvae can be found in silk-lined tubes they have made in the thatch layer.

Apply controls between June 10 and 20 or August 10 to 20, depending on which generation is causing the damage. Use acephate (Orthene), Aspon, carbaryl (Sevin), chlorpyrifos (Dursban), or Diazinon according to label directions.

White Grubs

White grubs are the larval stage of one of several beetles. The most common white grub seen in the soil is the C shaped larvae of the May or June beetle. These larvae feed on the grass roots and when numerous can cause dead areas in the lawn.

Symptoms are dead areas in the lawn. The grass in the affected area can sometimes be easily pulled out. Roll back a section of sod to see how many grubs are under the lawn. If many grubs are found, controls may be necessary.

Use properly labeled formulations of chlorpyrifos (Dursban) or Diazinon according to label directions.

Controlling Moss in the Lawn

Moss grows in the lawn when shade, low fertility or poorly drained soil are present. The moss does not kill the grass, the growing conditions are so unfavorable to the grass it dies out. Moss will grow on acid soil but this is not the main reason it will grow in a particular area. Do not add lime to try to control a moss problem unless a soil test indicates a need for lime.
Shade and poor drainage can only be corrected with some difficulty. Low fertility can be corrected by using a lawn fertilizer.

Moss can be killed by spraying with copper sulfate or iron sulfate at the rate to 2 to 5 ounces in 4 gallons of water. The 4 gallons is sufficient to cover 1000 square feet. Killing the moss without correcting the conditions that favor its growth will not prevent a reoccurrence of the problem.

Where shade is quite heavy it may be easier to plant a shade adapted ground cover rather than try to grow grass.

Controlling Lawn Moles

Moles can be the most common and frustrating lawn pest problem. The animals eat soil insects such as grubs and earthworms. They do not feed on flower bulbs or plant roots.
There is currently no satisfactory chemical control. Trapping is at present the best technique for mole control.

Moles have two types of tunnels. One type is used only once, the other type is used regularly. The trap must be set on those tunnels the moles use regularly.

A less scientific method is available when the tunnels can be observed for a day. Step on those regularly used tunnels so they are completely pushed down. Look at the tunnels often through the day. When the tunnel is being pushed up, turn on the garden hose and push it into the tunnel near where the mole is working. The mole will be forced to the soil surface where it can be killed.

Fertilizing Lawns

Fertilizer is essential for good lawn growth. Depending on the grass grown, 3 to 6 fertilizer applications should be made during the growing season.
Lawn fertilizers vary in analysis and price. The ideal analysis for a lawn fertilizer has a 4-1-2 ratio, for example 20-5-10. Most available lawn fertilizers will not have this exact ratio but will still give good results.

The price of the fertilizer relates somewhat to the analysis and the nutrient carriers used on the fertilizer.

Cheap fertilizers are usually water soluble thus have a high potential to burn the grass. Water soluble fertilizers will give a response for 4 to 6 weeks. Many of these fertilizers have disclaimers on the bag stating they will not burn the grass if the directions are followed. The directions usually state that the fertilizer must be watered-in immediately after spreading. Because these fertilizers are water soluble they become available in the spring when temperatures are still cool.

More expensive fertilizers are not water soluble, have low burn potential and give a response for up to 8 weeks. These fertilizers rely on micro-organisms in the soil to release the nutrients. Since the micro-organisms are not active when the soil is cool, the fertilizers will not become available early in the spring.

Where lawns are watered regularly, especially on sandy soil, the more expensive types of fertilizers should be used. Heavy watering will dissolve water soluble fertilizer and flush it below the root zone of the grass plants.

Apply fertilizer with a fertilizer spreader. Spreading fertilizer by hand will always cause some spots to be over- fertilized and others to have none. When using a spreader be sure to get complete coverage of the lawn. Any missed spots will appear quite yellow.

Most lawn fertilizers are packaged so that the right amount of nutrients are applied per 1000 square feet. Generally about 1 pound of nitrogen is required at each fertilization. Do not fill the spreader when it is sitting on the lawn. Fertilizer spills are inevitable. Spilling water soluble fertilizer causes a large dead spot that persists for weeks.

Begin applying the fertilizer by making "header" strips around the border of the lawn. Then start at one edge and go back and forth across the lawn. Make sure each strip overlaps the previous strip. Turn off the spreader when the header strip is reached. Do not turn the spreader while fertilizer is dropping through onto the grass. Such corners are over-fertilized and the grass could be burned.

Use caution when applying fertilizer combined with herbicide, especially with broadcast spreaders. These spreaders can throw the material into flower beds where the herbicide can injure desirable ornamental plants.

Proper Lawn Mowing

Proper lawn mowing involves the interaction of the height and frequency of mowing.
Most lawns should be mowed no lower than 1 1/2 inches and up to 3 inches. Shaded lawns need the taller mowing height. The personal preferences of the homeowner usually determine the exact height selected.

The lawn should be mowed often enough so that no more than 1/3 of the leaf area is removed at one time. For example, a lawn mowed at 1 1/2 inches should be mowed when the clippings will be less than 1/2 inch long.

It is not necessary to remove the clippings at each mowing. Clippings do not contribute to thatch development. Collect the clippings from diseased lawns to help prevent the spread of the disease. Also collect excessively long clippings to prevent them from piling up and shading spots of grass.

Dull mower blades shred the grass blades rather than cut them. The shredded ends dry out giving the lawn a brownish cast.

Dead grass appearing in the tire tracks from riding lawn mowers can be a hot weather problem. These occur when the lawn was mowed during a time when it was dry. The injury is most evident where the mower turned corners or on slopes. The lawn will recover once it starts growing again.

Selecting Lawn Grasses

A beautiful lawn is not maintained year after year without some effort. Before planting a lawn consider whether or not its worth the time and expense required to keep it beautiful.

A lawn can be as low maintenance as mowing whatever grows and letting nature do the rest. At the other end of the spectrum is the lawn that needs monthly fertilization and regular watering. If the lawn is watered and fertilized regularly it will need more mowing and dethatching. The maintenance required for these two types of lawns is vastly different.

The maintenance level of the lawn is determined by the grass selected, the desired lawn quality and the site. Be aware that some landscape features are incompatible. For instance, you can have a very shady landscape or a high quality lawn but not both. Grass does not grow well in the shade.

A good lawn becomes possible when a proper mix of grasses is planted. Most lawns are combinations of Kentucky bluegrass, creeping red fescue, and perennial ryegrass. A mixture of three different grass species provides the maximum amount of pest resistance and environmental adaptability. Each of these three grasses has distinct traits.

Kentucky bluegrass is the most common lawn grass. Blends of Kentucky bluegrass cultivars can provide a very high quality lawn but such lawns usually require above average maintenance levels. The spreading growth habit helps fill in bare spots but the grass goes dormant during hot, dry, summer weather.

Creeping red fescue has thread-like leaves and is the most shade tolerant lawn grass. This does not mean the grass grows only in shade or that it will tolerate total shade. It grows well in full sun and in fact requires some sun during the day.

Only named cultivars of perennial ryegrass should be used in lawns. Common perennial ryegrass often dies during the winter and does not mow well.

A fairly adaptable mix is listed below. It is unlikely that it can be matched exactly but a number of mixes will come close. This mix will provide a good quality lawn with below average to average care. The mix will provide a lawn suitable for sun or partial shade.

50% creeping red fescue

30% Kentucky bluegrass

(can be 15% each of two cultivars)

20% named perennial ryegrass

Under some conditions the mix can be varied. If the lawn will be subjected to heavy traffic increase the bluegrass to 50% and reduce the fescue to 30%.

Less desirable grasses are available and should be avoided. Here are the most common problem grasses.

Annual ryegrass is often sold as the major component of some very low priced grass seed. It will die out during the winter so forms a lawn that lasts for a single season.

Rough bluegrass is often found in shady grass mixes. It has a light green color and does not blend well with other lawn type grasses. It does however do well in moist, shaded sites.

Tall fescue is one of the two worst lawn weeds. Yet seed is available in most stores. The grass blades of a clump of tall fescue always seem to stay taller than the rest of the lawn. There is no selective control for this grass as the chemicals that kill tall fescue also kill other lawn grasses. Pure stands of this wear tolerant grass are often used on playgrounds or roadsides.

Zoysia is a warm season grass that turns brown early in the fall and stays brown until late into the spring. It is not better than the cool season grasses more commonly used in Michigan.

Bentgrass becomes established in a lawn and is the other of the two worst lawn weeds. The grass can tolerate very low mowings as on golf greens. At normal lawn heights it is shaggy and often kills out during the winter or during hot dry weather. There is no selective control for the problem.

Vegetable Gardening: Faba Bean, Fava Bean, Broad Bean, Horse Bean

Fava beans are available only a few months of the year in areas that have a representation of people with Italian, Greek, and Middle Eastern heritages.
The fava bean looks somewhat like a huge, overgrown green pea. Inside, the pale green, velvety pod is tightly packed with about six to eight beans that resemble large round limas. As with limas, the pods are edible only when they are very young and immature. As a rule, the pods are discarded. Fava beans, if available, arrive in spring and are out of season by early summer. California and New Jersey produce most of our crop.

Some people are allergic to raw fava beans and ingestion of the uncooked favas can result in mild or acute discomfort and, in rare cases, can induce a coma. The cooked fava is not toxic.

The quality of the fava bean is not as good as the lima bean but it tolerates cold better than does the lima. The plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall and are planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Plant them 8 inches apart and 1 to 2 inches deep in rows 2 feet apart. When the lower flower clusters fade and set pods, pinch out the tip of the plant to encourage earlier and better quality pods.

Harvest fava beans when they are 6 to 8 inches long.

Annuals Gardening Tips: Saving Annual Seed

Seed saved from hybrid plants may produce plants of inferior quality. Such plants may have true flower color but the flowers may be smaller and the plants less vigorous.
Extra seed can be stored in a cool dry place in a tightly sealed jar. The extra storage time will reduce germination so saved seeds should be planted thicker. If the seeds are not left in the packets, copy the plant name and its cultural requirements and place it in the container with the seeds. Two tablespoons of dry powdered milk in 2 layers of tissue will help keep the seed dry.

Annuals Gardening Tips: Planting Annuals

Do not plant in the garden until the danger of frost is past, or the soil temperature is 60 degrees. Indoor planting times are 6 to 8 weeks earlier than anticipated outdoor planting dates.

Buy short, stocky, dark green plants not yet in full bloom. Large plants in full bloom do not transplant as well as the smaller plants

During hot weather plant in the evening when it is cooler.

Most purchased plants are grown in containers with individual compartments for each plant. Remove plants by gently pushing on the sides and bottom of the compartment. Try to plant as soon as possible after purchasing. Plants allowed to sit around may be damaged by sun or dryness and may not recover.

Tear off the top of peat pots or bury them completely at planting time. If any of the peat pot sticks out of the soil it acts like a wick and dries out the rest of the pot. Roots have a difficult time getting through the dry, brittle peat.

Set plants at the same level they were growing at in the flat or container. Some individual plants have deeper planting depths suggested.

Once the plants have been set they need water.

Bleached leaves on newly planted transplants indicates insufficient hardening off.

What Are Annuals and Perennials?

Annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season. Seed germinates in the spring, the plant grows, flowers, produces seed and then dies.
Perennials live for more than one growing season. There are two types of perennials. Herbaceous perennials generally die to the ground at the end of the growing season but send up new shoots the following spring. Woody perennials, such as trees and shrubs, do not die back to the ground but get larger each year.