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The Tale of the Black Swallowtail

By Paul James

I love parsley, especially the flat-leaf, Italian variety. I use it more often than any herb I grow. But lately, my parsley crop has suffered, not because of something I did or didn’t do, but because it’s being consumed by the larvae of numerous black swallowtail butterflies. And I couldn’t be happier about it. After all, I can replace the parsley, but I can’t replace the swallowtails.

The black swallowtail butterfly is Oklahoma’s state insect. Has been since 1996. It’s not the only swallowtail that calls Oklahoma home (eight different species have been recorded), but it is one of the largest and most beautiful, with a wingspan of three to four inches. Of course, it doesn’t get the attention that the monarch butterfly does, but then unlike the monarch, it isn’t threatened or endangered.

Papilio polyxenes (that’s its scientific name) has two generations a year. After overwintering in their chrysalises, the first group emerges between late April and June, at which point mating begins. The females then lay eggs on the leaves of various plants (my parsley included). The eggs hatch in three to five days, develop into a caterpillar with an enormous appetite, then pupate for nine or ten days. The second group then emerges in late summer, and their eggs become the first generation the following spring.

The caterpillar undergoes dramatic changes between hatching and pupating. It starts out mostly black with a white saddle. As it grows, it develops reddish orange spikes on its body. The white band soon disappears, and the caterpillar develops its familiar green and black bands with yellow spots. It also develops an osmeterium, which is a bright orange, two-pronged fork behind its head. When disturbed, the caterpillar pops out the osmeterium, through which it releases an unpleasant smell (think rotten cheese) to ward off predators.

The black swallowtail caterpillar feeds on many different plants, including Queen Anne’s lace (a pretty but rampant weed), carrots, celery, dill, fennel, parsley, and rue. The butterfly eats nectar from bee balms, coneflowers, clover, milkweed, thistles (also weedy), Pentas, Phlox, and Salvias, just to name a few.

Sadly, adult black swallowtails typically live only 10 to 14 days. That’s reason enough to enjoy them all the more.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Annual Checkup

By Paul James

Brutal heat. Pounding rains. Insect invasions. The last few weeks have been tough on plants of all kinds, and annuals in particular, from Ageratum to Zinnias. But you can rejuvenate them without too much effort so that they’ll continue to thrive and flower through fall by giving your annuals an annual checkup. Here’s how.

Deadhead. Okay, so deadheading — removing spent flowers — can be a drag, but it’s the surest way to encourage more blooms because once flowers fade, much of a plant’s energy goes into producing seed. Interrupting that process leads to more flower production. Plants that produce flowers on a single stem are fairly simple to deadhead, but if flowers are born on multiple stems and branches, there’s an easier way.

Shear. Rather than painstakingly removing individual flowers, shear the plant back a few inches, just above a set of leaves. By shearing the plant, you not only encourage more blooms, but potentially more side branching as well, which leads to even more blooms.

Fertilize. To give plants a boost after deadheading or shearing, apply a slow-release fertilizer such as Espoma Flower-Tone or Osmocote. One application should last the rest of the season.

Spray. Caterpillars and spider mites are two of the more common critters that attack annuals, and caterpillars are especially destructive to Petunias and Million Bells. Trouble is, they’re tiny, and you may not notice them until they’ve done a fair amount of damage. So inspect your plants often, looking for holes chewed in the leaves and developing flower buds. If you see any, spray right away with Bt, an organic control that destroys only caterpillars. Spider mites are tiny as well, and they reproduce like crazy. So if you see one, assume you have hundreds more, and spray right away with a product containing Spinosad, another organic control (I recommend Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew). And if you have both caterpillars and spider mites, use Spinosad because it’s effective against both invaders, as well as a host of other pests.

Water properly. When it comes to watering annuals, the Goldilocks rule applies — not too wet, not too dry, but just right. Most — not all, but most — gardeners tend to overwater annuals, which quickly leads to root rot.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Let it Rain!

By Paul James

I love rain. The sound of it. The smell of it. The way it cools the air on an otherwise hot summer day. The memories it evokes of playing in it as a kid. And the mesmerizing effect it has on me as I sit on my back porch watching it fall. But I especially love the way it rejuvenates lawns and gardens in a way that city water simply cannot. And there are reasons why that’s true.

Unlike municipal water, rainwater is free of salts, treatment chemicals such as chlorine and fluoride (both of which can be toxic to plants), sodium (which is used to soften water and is also toxic to plants), and pharmaceuticals of all kinds. Rain is free of all such chemicals and is, in essence, pure hydration.

Rainwater is acidic, with a pH of between 5.5 and 6.5, which is also the ideal pH range for the vast majority of plants. City water is treated to be alkaline to protect pipes from corrosion, and can have a pH close to 8.0 or even higher, which can prevent plants from absorbing essential nutrients.

Rain contains nitrogen in the form of nitrates, which is readily and rapidly absorbed by plant roots. In other words, rain is basically free fertilizer.

Unlike watering by hand or with an irrigation system, where it’s practically impossible to cover every square inch of ground, rain falls uniformly, covering every nook and cranny in the landscape. And in the process, it washes dust, mineral deposits, and pollutants off of plant leaves.

After the driest June in Tulsa’s history, the rain we’ve had this week has been especially welcome, and I’ve certainly enjoyed sitting on the porch listening to it and smelling it. And tomorrow, because it looks as though it’s going to rain even more, I intend to go out and play in it.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

What Not to Do

By Paul James


I usually write about what you should do in the garden, but today I’m doing just the opposite. After all, it’s the middle of summer, a time of the year when what you don’t do is arguably more important than what you do do. (I admit that’s an odd way to end a sentence, but it is grammatically correct!)

Don’t just “sprinkle” when you water. Shallow watering is basically a waste of water, because if water doesn’t percolate into the root zone of plants it doesn’t do any good. You’ve heard it before, and you’re about to hear it again: Deep soak each time you water.


Don’t spray with oil-based products in the middle of the day. This includes horticultural oil and Neem oil. Although they’re great, all-natural pesticides/fungicides, they can be phytotoxic, meaning they can burn leaves, especially when temps are in the 90s. Instead, apply oil-based products after sundown.


Don’t cut your grass too short. The height of your turf is roughly equivalent to the depth of its roots, and this time of year you want the deepest roots possible. So raise the height of your mower at least one notch (preferably two) regardless of the type of turf you grow.


Don’t allow water to stand in pot saucers, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s mosquito season, after all, and those little buzzers need only a thimble full of water to lay their eggs.


Don’t transplant anything. Now is the absolute worst time to transplant pretty much anything and everything. (Irises can be transplanted next month.)


Don’t apply fertilizer too aggressively. Feeding plants when it’s really hot forces them to grow at a time when they’d rather take a break. If you feel you must fertilize, use half the amount recommended on the package. Otherwise, wait another month or so.


Don’t plant large trees or shrubs this time of year. The odds of them surviving aren’t good, so better to wait until things cool off a bit.


Don’t overdo it. Take frequent breaks, drink lots of water, and try to get your gardening chores done early in the morning.


Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Mycorrhizae — The Good Fungi

By Paul James

When gardeners hear the word fungus, they usually think of the ones that attack and often destroy plants, such as powdery mildew, black spot, rust, blight, and dozens of others. They can be bad news, for sure, and are often difficult to control. But there are a number of beneficial fungi out there as well, the most important of which are the mycorrhizae.

Mycorrhizae are specialized fungi that colonize plant roots. They are in effect extensions of a plant’s root system, whose threadlike filaments grow into the surrounding soil. And their relationship with plants is symbiotic: the mycorrhizae feed on sugars produced by plants, and the plant roots absorb water and nutrients through the filaments of the fungus much more effectively and efficiently than they would otherwise.

Most soils naturally contain some mycorrhizae (there are two main types and at least 150 different strains/species), which begs the question: Should you inoculate your soil with mycorrhizae?

I say yes, and for a variety of reasons. First, just because mycorrhizae occur naturally doesn’t necessarily mean they exist in sufficient quantities to benefit plants. Second, when soils are disturbed, especially through the use of rototillers, the mycorrhizae filaments are destroyed. Third, the use of synthetic fertilizers destroy the fungi. And fourth, prolonged dry spells can reduce their populations.

So just how do you inoculate your soil with mycorrhizae? It’s simple. There are a number of liquid and powder formulations that contain numerous strains of the fungi, and they’re great. But I think the best approach is to use potting mixes and soil conditioners to which the fungi have been added. That way you get not only the benefit of the mycorrhizae, but essential organic matter as well.

Use the potting mixes for container plants, and use the soil conditioners to topdress everything that grows, from lawns and landscape plants to vegetables and herbs. In garden beds, pull back the mulch and spread the soil conditioner around the base of plants. In veggie gardens, spread a layer at least an inch (or two or three) thick every month or so throughout the growing season.

Interestingly, there are some plants that don’t benefit from mycorrhizae, the most familiar of which include azaleas, beets, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and spinach. But that’s a short list, especially when you consider that up to 95% of all plants do.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

For the Birds

By Paul James

The number of birds in the United States has declined by nearly 30% in the last 50 years. That’s a startling statistic, for sure, and contributing factors include habitat loss and pesticide use. But consider this: outdoor cats kill roughly 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. every year! So anyway you slice it, it’s tough being a bird. It’s also hard to imagine life without them.  

Despite those disturbing statistics, I’m fortunate to have a yard full of birds — from at least 24 different genera and 31 species at last count. The newest arrivals include a nesting pair of brown thrashers in a dense Burford Holly next to my patio. Thrashers mimic other bird songs much like mockingbirds, but they have a more extensive repertoire, with over 2,000 tunes in their catalog. And they sing their beautiful arias morning and evening.

A pair — soon to be a family — of cardinals are nesting in a large, dense yew about 20 feet away. The male has lost his distinctive red crown (cat attack?) so he looks really weird but he doesn’t seem to mind. After all, he’s in love, witnessed by the way he takes seeds and nuts from my hanging feeder, then flies to the ground and feeds them to his sweetie. 

There are also plenty of the usual — sparrows, robins, finches, bluejays, wrens, and the like — but also hawks and owls, the latter of which have scared me half to death more than once by swooping within a few feet of me late at night. 

So why the abundance of birds? Well, I live in an older neighborhood with lots of large trees, which provide food, cover, and nesting sites. That helps. I feed birds year ‘round, not just in the winter when natural food supplies dwindle. I fill two bird baths each time I water. I rarely (as in almost never) use pesticides, which means birds have a steady diet of caterpillars, bugs and beetles. And I don’t have a cat.

I do, however, have plants that provide food for birds. The hollies are especially prized by a number of species. There’s a robin that eats exactly seven berries at a time. Seriously, exactly seven. And the cedar waxwings gobble them up like candy. Several species feast on my blueberries, to the point where I settle on store bought. Hummingbirds love my Tecomas (Esperanza), two of which I grow in large pots just off the patio so I get a bird’s-eye view of them while they suck sweet nectar from the tubular flowers.

I could go on and on with bird stories. But I won’t. I will, however, urge you to do everything you can to make your landscape more bird friendly so you can enjoy many of the same experiences. And here are a few tips on how to do just that.

  • Set out feeders, houses, and nesting boxes.
  • Provide a source of water.
  • Choose plants that produce fruits and seeds, and avoid deadheading.
  • Plant conifers to provide year ‘round cover and nesting sites.
  • Create cascading layers in the landscape with large trees followed by understory trees, then shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers.
  • Reduce pesticide use.
  • And keep cats indoors!

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

                                            Shop Birding Supplies                    Shop Hollies                    Shop Esperanza

Summer-Blooming Shrubs

By Paul James

Shrubs rarely get the attention they deserve, and yet they tend to be among the most carefree plants in the landscape. Those that bloom in spring – azaleas in particular – do briefly bask in the glory while in bloom, but it’s the summer bloomers that I find more rewarding, largely because their bloom period lasts so long. Aside from the obvious – crape myrtles and roses – here are some of my favorite summer-blooming shrubs.

Abelia CategoryAbelia

There was a time when there was only one Abelia on the market. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. There are now over a dozen cultivars of this beautiful evergreen summer bloomer, all of which feature dense foliage (including variegated selections), produce a profusion of flowers, and grow to about three-feet tall and wide in a sunny spot. Choose from ‘Rose Creek,’ Canyon Creek,’ ‘Kaleidoscope,’ and ‘Twist of Lime.’

 

Rose of Sharon Category

Althea

Better known as Rose of Sharon, this deciduous shrub is as tough as it is beautiful, and its okra-like flowers (it’s actually related to okra) appear non-stop from summer to fall. Flowers are available in a variety of colors, including white, pink, red, violet, and blue. Most will grow to at least eight-feet tall, although dwarf versions are available. Check out ‘Aphrodite,’ ‘Bali,’ ‘Blue Chiffon,’ ‘Lavender Chiffon,’ ‘Pink Chiffon,’ ‘Whie Chiffon,’ ‘Diana,’ ‘Sugar Tip,’ ‘French Cabaret,’ ‘Minerva,’ ‘Polly Petite,’ ‘Peppermint Smoothie,’ ‘Purple Pillar,’ and ‘Little Kim.’

Butterfly Bush Category

Butterfly Bush

These are the most popular butterfly attractors on the market. But even if that weren’t the case, they’d be worth growing for their gorgeous colorful flowers that linger into fall. Plant in full sun, and prune back hard in early spring. Popular varieties include ‘Miss Molly,’ ‘Miss Violet,’ Tutti Frutti,’ ‘Royal Red,’ ‘Pugster Blue,’ and ‘Pugster Pink.’



Chaste Tree

I know, I’ve mentioned this shrub in the genus Vitex quite a few times, but that’s only because I adore it. It blooms throughout the summer, and it’s pretty much always covered with bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and moths. ‘Delta Blues’ grows to about 10-feet tall, while ‘Shoal Creek’ can hit 15 feet. Both can be pruned to six feet or so, and both can be trained as multi-stem shrubs or single-trunk trees. ‘Blue Puffball’ is a dwarf that tops out at around three feet.


Desert Willow

Blooming from spring through summer with large, orchid-like flowers, this drought-tolerant beauty makes a great specimen. Yes, it can get rather large for a shrub, as in 20-feet tall, but something so beautiful deserves to get big, don’t you think? And by the way, the Desert Willow isn’t a willow at all. The most popular variety available is called ‘Bubba.’


Oakleaf Hydrangea

Okay, so here’s another shrub I brag about often, but so does just about everyone I know who grows it. Seriously, this is a hydrangea that tolerates sun, produces jaw-dropping white flowers, and is about as easy to grow as crabgrass. Oh yeah, and its fall color is pretty nice, too. ‘Alice’ is hugely popular, and grows to between six- and eight-feet tall. ‘Ruby Slippers’ is half that size, and its flowers start out white, then gradually turn ruby red.


Spiraea Category

Spiraea

As easy to grow as they are beautiful, Spiraea have been around for years. Most grow to about three-feet tall and wide, and they produce foliage and flowers in a variety of colors so long as they get plenty of sun. Popular choices are ‘Renaissance,’ ‘Candy Corn,’ ‘Magic Carpet,’ Goldmound,’ and the old standby ‘Anthony Waterer.’



One more thing — you can plant any and all of these summer-flowering shrubs now. Just remember to soak them well after planting, apply a thick layer of mulch, and water deeply at least once a week.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

My Life as a Houseplant

By Anonymous

I’m a houseplant. Which is to say I’m a plant living in a house. It’s a nice house, but it’s the most foreign and at times hostile environment imaginable. After all, I’m originally from the tropics! But here I struggle to get the light I need. I either get too much or too little water. I rarely get the nutrients I need. I never get a bath. And the humidity I crave is hard to come by. In other words, most of the time my life sucks. But you can make it better.

Some of my roomies are able to adapt to life indoors better than me. Cacti and succulents, for example, can go days on end without water. They like the air bone dry. And they don’t eat much at all. Lucky them. I, on the other hand, need special care, as do most of my friends. It’s not that we’re high maintenance, mind you. It’s just that we’re no more accustomed to living indoors as you are outdoors, so we need a little help now and then.

Temperature and Humidity

We’re okay with the same temperatures you humans prefer, and like you, we tend to enjoy it a little cooler at night and a tad warmer during the day. But your heating and air conditioning systems are brutal because they make the air crazy dry, and we love humidity. So please, get in the habit of misting us often, as in every day, or put us in the kitchen or bathroom where there’s plenty of moisture in the air. That way our foliage won’t turn brown and brittle.

Watering

Speaking of moisture, why is it that you only water us when it’s convenient for you? Most of us don’t like to dry out completely, and some of us like the soil to be evenly moist but never soggy, myself included. At the very least, we need a drink when the top inch or two of soil is dry. Just stab your finger into the soil every few days to check the moisture content. We don’t mind. And it doesn’t hurt a bit. During our active growth phase in spring and through the summer, we need water far more frequently than we do in fall and winter. In fact, too much water in the winter months kills more of us than anything else.

Light

Light is tricky, but without it we’re goners. You probably learned about something called photosynthesis in school. That’s the process by which we make our own food by “eating” photons. However, here’s where things get tricky. Too much light can burn our leaves (or worse) and too little light means we basically starve to death.

Of course, some of us need more light than others, but most of us are okay with medium light levels, which are usually found a few feet away from a south-facing window or near an east- or west-facing window. Whatever you do, don’t put us up against a south-facing window or we’ll fry, much like you humans do when you travel to the tropics in winter.

Fertilizer

In addition to the food we make without your help, we sometimes need additional nutrients from what you call fertilizers. Basically, fertilizers are like the vitamins and other supplements many of you take. But do us a favor when fertilizing: only use half of what the label recommends. Those instructions weren’t written by plants (after all, we can’t write), but rather by humans who make and sell fertilizer. Too much of the stuff can burn our roots and cause an accumulation of salts, so take it easy. When we’re actively growing, fertilize us every two to three weeks, then taper off as fall approaches. And in winter, don’t fertilize us at all.

Bathing

Yeah, we like a bath now and then too, because as dust accumulates on our leaves, it plugs our stomata, little holes or pores through which we take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, as well as release moisture as we “breathe.” Just moisten a small towel with tepid water and clean our leaves every couple of weeks or so. Or give us a good rinse with a gentle mist from the hose or under the kitchen faucet.

And Finally

Give us a break from life indoors by moving us outside when the weather is nice, but not in bright sunshine and never when temperatures drop below 50 or so. And yes, we absolutely love to get rained on (it happens nearly every afternoon where I come from).

Repot us every spring with fresh potting soil. And as we grow, slowly increase the size of our pot or trim our roots a bit so we don’t become pot bound.

We rarely get diseases, but pests can be a problem. The best way to control most of them is to pour some isopropyl alcohol on a towel and wipe our leaves, just as you would when giving us a bath.

Oh and one more thing. The next time you vacation in the tropics, say hi to all my friends and relatives. And don’t forget your sunscreen!

Summertime Herb Care

By Paul James

Beyond their incredible flavors and versatility, I love the fact that culinary herbs are so darn easy to grow, even for folks who don’t fancy themselves gardeners. And now that they’re actively growing in our gardens, whether in the ground or in containers, here are a few pointers on how to care for them…and how to use them.

Basil

Basil is an annual, and it’s not very cold hardy. So sadly, we don’t get to enjoy it as long as we do many other herbs. But you can always make and freeze a big batch of pesto! Basil (regardless of the variety) needs to be pinched often to keep the plant bushy; otherwise it’ll get leggy and may require staking. Most people insist that the developing flowers reduce the flavor of the leaves, so they remove them as they develop. I don’t buy that. Besides, the flowers attract pollinators.

Chives

Chives are super hardy perennials that are also super easy to grow. And in addition to their delicious, mild-onion-tasting leaves (hello, baked potato!), their piquant flowers are also edible and bring in the bees. I probably use chives more than any other herb, which is why I have eight plants. If their growth gets a little gangly, feel free to shear them back to about three inches and they’ll bounce back in no time.

Cilantro

Cilantro, an annual, is a bit of a challenge around here because it bolts quickly when temperatures start to warm up. But it’s oh-so good while it lasts, unless you’re one of the 10% or so of the population that thinks it tastes like soap. If you let it go to flower (queue the pollinators!) and set seeds, it produces the spice known as coriander, which is great both in savory and in sweet dishes.

Dill

Dill is also an annual, although it readily reseeds and comes back year after year. I love it, but so do the larvae of the black swallowtail butterfly, so I plant enough to share. And the flowers it produces are beautiful and — you guessed it — prized by pollinators. Dill goes great with a number of dishes, especially grilled or cured salmon (gravlax), potato salad, and of course cucumbers.

Lovage

This lesser-known perennial herb is one of my favorites. Said another way, I love lovage. Its leaves taste just like celery, and they’re great in salads. Give lovage lots of room because in the garden it can grow to six feet or more, although in pots it’s more tame. Harvest the seeds after it flowers and the bees have done their thing — they taste like mild fennel.

Spearmint

This is one perennial herb you’ll definitely want to grow in pots because it’s extremely invasive in the garden. Pinch the terminal growth to keep the plant bushy, and use it in all sorts of cuisines, from Greek to Middle Eastern to Vietnamese. And of course, it’s great in beverages too, from iced tea to mint juleps and Moscow mules.

Oregano

Oh, oregano. So earthy. And so delicious. Most commonly sold as Italian or Greek oregano, there’s also a Mexican version that’s a different plant altogether. There’s also oregano’s cousin, marjoram, which I like best of all because of its subtle citrusy notes. Oregano is a hardy perennial, and when used fresh its flavor can be assertive, but in a good way. It can get pretty gangly, so feel free to cut back the plant by one-third every few weeks or let it go to flower. Your call.

Parsley

I use a ton of parsley, especially the flat-leafed Italian variety. It too is prized by swallowtail larvae, so I plant a lot of it. Parsley is a biennial, meaning it flowers in its second year of growth. In fact, it will sometimes flower in its first year if you plant too early and it’s subjected to below-freezing temperatures. And once it flowers, it’s time to plant anew, at least after the butterflies have had their fill of nectar.

Rosemary

Woodsy and resinous, rosemary is as fragrant as it is versatile. It’s a dependably hardy perennial around here, although it can die back in severe winters. Don’t overwater (maybe once a week at the most), and don’t bother with fertilizer. Dip stalks in olive oil and brush on grilled meats, or use the woody stems as skewers for grilled scallops.

Sage

It’s a hardy perennial, comes in a variety of leaf colors, is easy to grow, and tastes great. So why is it that so many home cooks only use sage at Thanksgiving? I use it when I’m braising fatty meats such as short ribs, chuck roast, and pork shoulder, and I love to quickly fry it and use it to top potato and pasta dishes.

Tarragon

Excellent flavor from an underused perennial herb. That’s a good way to describe tarragon. It tastes like licorice with a hint of vanilla. But then it also tastes like peppery, minty hay with a splash of eucalyptus. And it makes a number of dishes come alive, especially chicken salad. It’s also great in sauces, including the classic French bearnaise. Keep it on the dry side to avoid root rot.

Thyme

There are lots of different thymes out there, but my absolute favorite is lemon thyme, which I use on fish, chicken, and just about any recipe that calls for lemon, except maybe pie. Good old English thyme is awesome too, and like all culinary thymes (as opposed to strictly ornamental varieties) is easy to grow. Cut it back hard when it gets shaggy and goes dormant in winter, and it’ll return good as new in spring.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Is it Okay to Plant?

By Paul James

I’ve been asked a lot lately whether it’s okay to plant everything from trees and shrubs to annuals, perennials, and groundcovers. And the answer is a resounding yes. Spring and fall are certainly more popular times for planting, but there’s no reason not to plant now, provided you keep a few things in mind.

Plant Late in the Day or on a Cloudy Day

Sticking a new plant in the ground in the middle of a hot summer day is stressful — to the plant for sure and perhaps to the gardener as well. Planting late in the day or on a cloudy day gives plants a chance to settle in gradually and minimizes the risk of transplant shock.

Soak the Root Ball Before Planting

This trick will also reduce transplant shock by hydrating the roots before planting in dry soil.

Tease the Roots

Gently tease tangled roots from the root ball, and lightly prune dark brown roots. Doing so will encourage roots to grow faster into the surrounding soil, and produce new feeder roots.

Water Deeply

Deep soak after planting not just the root ball, but the surrounding soil as well. If you only water the root ball, the dry soil around it will wick moisture away from the roots.

Mulch

Apply a three-inch layer of chipped or shredded bark mulch to conserve and maintain soil moisture and stabilize soil temperatures.

Stay hydrated!

When working outdoors in summer, make sure you stay well hydrated! Heat exhaustion is a drag (believe me!) and heat stroke can be downright deadly.

So what shouldn’t you plant in the heat of summer? Well, I don’t recommend planting large trees during July and August unless we have a mild summer (wouldn’t that be nice!). Better to wait until late September. But I wouldn’t hesitate to plant pretty much everything else that grows provided you follow my suggestions.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Do Plants Have Sex?

By Paul James

Yes, plants have sex. Sort of, anyway. We refer to it as pollination, the goal of which is reproduction. It’s a process that’s more than just fascinating. It’s also essential to the survival of not just humanity, but all life forms. So yeah, it’s that important. And here — greatly simplified — is how it works.

Among flowering plants, the male part of the flower is known as the stamen, which produces pollen. The female part, called the pistil, is crowned by the stigma. Pollination takes place when the pollen is transferred from the stamen to the stigma. And the product of that union is a seed (sometimes one, sometimes thousands), which with any luck will germinate to produce more plants as well as most of the fruits and vegetables we eat.

The vast majority of flowering plants rely on pollinators to get the job done — bees, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, even wasps, flies, beetles, and bats. These pollinators have no idea how vital a role they play. They’re just looking for food in the form of sticky pollen or sweet nectar. And while feeding, they rub up against the stamens and get pollen all over themselves. When they move to another flower on the same plant or a different plant of the same species the pollen comes in contact with that flower’s stigma. The grains of pollen then travel down the pistil to the ovule. And bingo — pollination is complete!

Some flowering plants don’t actually need pollinators to produce seed. Instead, they rely on wind for pollination. They include grasses such corn, rice, and wheat, as well as oak and hickory trees. Conifers also rely on wind for pollination. And some plants — ferns, for instance — reproduce asexually (that is, without sex). Sad, but true.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

“Cure” These Veggies

By Paul James

From asparagus to zucchini, we eat most veggies fresh from the garden. But there are three veggies — garlic, onions, and potatoes — that will last for weeks, even months, if you cure them first. And now’s the time to do just that. The curing technique is different for all three, but in every case it’s pretty darn simple. Here’s what you need to know.

Garlic

If you planted garlic in early November (which is the best time to do so), harvest time is just around the corner. And if you planted a hardneck rather than a softneck variety, you’re likely seeing scapes beginning to form now. Scapes are elongated stems to which a cluster of flowers is attached, and it’s best to remove them to force energy back into bulb formation. (Don’t toss the scapes! They’re great for making pesto or quickly grilled.)

Within two or three weeks, when five or so lower leaves begin to brown, it’s time to harvest. Don’t try to pull the bulb out of the ground, because chances are you’ll snap the main stalk. Instead, use a shovel or garden fork to loosen the soil beneath the bulbs, then pull gently on the stalk.

Place the bulbs, stalks and all, in a shady spot that gets good air circulation and let them cure for about 10 days. Then cut the bulbs from the stalks and store them indoors out of direct sunlight in a cool spot. Hardneck garlic will keep for 3 to 5 months whereas softneck varieties will keep up to 9 months.

Onions

Although they’re in the same family as garlic, onions are best cured in the ground. When the tops (leaves) begin to brown, bend them over just above the top of the onion so you basically stop the growth process. Stop watering, and within a week to 10 days, the leaves will turn completely brown, at which point you can harvest. Stored in a cool, dry place, onions will last several weeks, even months.

Potatoes

Actually, you can (and should!) eat potatoes fresh, but if you cure them they’ll last a few weeks in storage. Fresh or “new” potatoes can be harvested shortly after the plants produce flowers, or once the foliage begins to brown slightly since not all potatoes produce flowers. But to cure potatoes, let the foliage turn completely brown before you start digging. And, as you might guess, they too should be stored in a cool, dry place.

Hmmmm. Potatoes, onions, and garlic. Time to grab a cast-iron skillet and get to frying!

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Beating Back Bagworms

By Paul James

Bagworms can be a bummer. Left undetected and uncontrolled, they can quickly defoliate and destroy their host plant, particularly conifers — junipers, pines, spruces, bald cypresses, and the like — and to a lesser degree maples, sycamores, willows, oaks, even roses. And now’s the time to be on the lookout for them.

So what exactly are you looking for? Last year’s “bags” or cocoons, for starters. Bagworms overwinter in their carefully constructed homes, so now’s a good time to inspect plants and remove any leftover bags, because the eggs within them (which can number in the thousands) will soon be hatching and developing into larvae (tiny caterpillars). The larvae then release a thin silk thread and float down out of the bag or are carried by the wind to other plants to begin feeding and creating new bags made of leaves and twigs, all bound together with silk.

The larvae themselves are tiny and hard to see, so look instead for the tiny bags as they begin to form and begin treatment right away.

Two of the best controls — other than handpicking — also happen to be all natural and approved for use by organic gardeners — Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) and Spinosad. Bt is available as a dust or liquid and should be applied in the early evening or on a cloudy day because it breaks down quickly when exposed to sunlight. Spinosad (such as Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew) is also available as a dust or spray.


It may take two or three repeated treatments spaced a week apart to achieve complete control, and both Bt and Spinosad should be reapplied after heavy rains.


So what happens if you don’t get rid of bagworms in spring? Well, their life cycle begins anew in September. Male bagworms — fuzzy black moths with transparent wings that live only one or two days as adults — emerge from their bags in search of a mate, and with no time to spare. Female bagworms — who have no functional eyes, legs, mouthparts, or antennae — spend their entire lives in their bags and ultimately decay into a mass of eggs. Come spring, the eggs hatch into larvae in search of your plants.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Azalea Lace Bug Alert

By Paul James

Azalea lace bugs suck. Literally. They have specialized mouthparts that enable them to suck the juices out of plant leaves as if downing a smoothie through a straw. And while they don’t necessarily kill azaleas outright, they definitely make their foliage especially unsightly. But fear not, because I’m here to tell you how to identify and control them.

The telltale sign that your azaleas are being attacked by lace bugs (or Stephanitis pyrioides) is a change in the color of the leaves, going from green to silvery with white or yellow spots. You probably won’t see the lace bugs because they’re feeding on the underside of the leaves. But they’re not just feeding. They’re also reproducing at an alarming rate, capable of producing up to four generations in just a few months, which is why you want to nip them in the bud quickly.

To confirm lace bugs are indeed present, place a sheet of paper under a branch and tap the branch lightly. If you see tiny black specks, that’s lace bug poop (mixed with exoskeletons). 

Thankfully, controlling lace bugs is fairly easy. Spray with insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, neem oil, or a product containing Spinosad such as Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew. But make sure you spray the undersides of the leaves, because that’s where the little suckers are hiding. 

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

The Future of Gardening

By Paul James

Since the middle of March, I’ve driven a whopping 27 miles — two trips to my 96-year-old dad’s assisted living center (he likes his wine), two trips to the liquor store pick-up window (like father, like son), and one trip to Southwood for some gardening essentials. Other than that, I’ve been working from home, answering questions on our website’s chat line, among other things. And the chats have given me hope for the future of gardening.

Why? Because of the incredible number of newbies I’ve chatted with who are eager to get into gardening. Most are willing to admit that they know next to nothing about plants, but clearly want to learn all they can. And their primary interest is in vegetables and herbs, which is precisely how I got interested in gardening over 40 years ago.

I’ve always thought of growing vegetables and herbs as the gateway to gardening, a sort of evolutionary starting point. It’s relatively inexpensive to get started, you don’t need an established garden if you grow in containers, and the rewards are both immediate and tasty. But most of all, it’s not that hard to be successful at it.

And with success comes confidence. And with confidence comes a desire to learn more.

That desire can send a young gardener in different directions. For me, it was shade gardening first, where I discovered the wonderful world of Japanese maples, yews, ferns, hostas, and toad lilies. Next it was ornamental grasses, which I fell in love with because of their ease of care and versatility in the landscape. Then it was shrubs, especially Viburnums, oakleaf Hydrangeas, Fothergilla, and Virginia sweetspire. And in the last 20 years or so, conifers and bonsai have been my jam.

So what about now? Well, now I spend most of my time growing vegetables and herbs. I’ve come full circle, and the journey has been a joy. I hope today’s young gardeners have the same experience. I’m pretty sure they will.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

War of the Roses

By Paul James

The War of the Roses was fought for 32 years in fifteenth-century England between rival York and Lancaster factions. York chose as its symbol the white rose, while Lancaster opted for the red. So why the brief history lesson? Well, because if you choose to grow roses — and I hope you do — it’s only fair to say that you may have to do battle with a few pests and diseases. But no worries. Here’s how to win the war.

Make sure you plant your roses in the right spot, which in a perfect world means a good six hours of sun a day and fairly rich, well-drained soil. If your soil is less than ideal, add compost or a bag of Back to Earth Rose Bed Amendment at planting time.

Don’t crowd your roses. Good air circulation between plants will go a long way toward minimizing fungal diseases (more on those nasty pathogens in a moment). Ideally, you should allow roughly three feet of space between the tips of the leaves of each plant.

Try to water only the base of the plant and not the leaves. Again, that’s to avoid fungal issues.

And finally, mulch. Roses prefer even moisture rather than erratic moisture swings. So do I, actually, but I tend toward the erratic.

Okay, now it’s time to address — or rather attack — pests and diseases.

Around here, the most common pests are spider mites, rose bud borers, rose chafers, and last but not least, the dreaded Japanese beetle. Your arsenal of organic weapons range from Neem to Spinosad to Pyrethrum, and among synthetics there are contact poisons such as Bonide Eight or systemics such as Rose Shield or Bayer All in One Rose Granules. 

For control of common fungal disease — black spot, rust, powdery mildew, and more — Rose Shield works well, as do old standby formulations containing copper or sulfur, as well as the newer bacterial controls such as Serenade and Revitalize. 

I feel as though I should discuss Rose Rosette Disease while I’m on the subject of roses, but I suggest you go to this excellent article on the OSU website for details on the subject. (Spoiler alert — there is no cure.) https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/rose-rosette-disease.html 

And by the way, in case you’re wondering who won the War of the Roses, it was the Red Rose Team. Henry Tudor, (Henry VII), earl of Richmond and a Lancastrian, defeated King Richard III, a Yorkist, at the battle of Bosworth Field on August 22nd, 1485. Richard III was the last English monarch to have been killed in battle. Ironically, some five centuries later the white rose would become a symbol of peace.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Time to Veg Out

By Paul James

For those of you who, like me, have been vegging out a lot indoors, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to veg out elsewhere, namely in the veggie garden. Because finally it looks as though the overnight low temperatures are at the point where it’s safe (fingers crossed) to plant pretty much everything. And tomatoes are just the beginning.

Fact is, it’s prime planting time for all warm-season crops, and here’s a list to get you started.

Beans — Whether you prefer to grow bush beans or pole beans (which need a trellis or some other support), it’s best to start from seeds. They germinate quickly in warm soil.

Corn — You need a lot of space to grow corn. In a small garden it’s best to plant in blocks rather than straight rows. Corn is wind pollinated and you’ll get much better pollination by planting in blocks. Either way, shake the stalks once the tassels appear at the top of the plant (the male part) so pollen drops down to the silks (the female part). Plant corn from seed; it doesn’t transplant well.

Cucumbers — Plant cukes from seed as or transplants. You can let the vines sprawl on the ground or let them grow on a trellis. Standard varieties are available as transplants, but seeds of more exotic varieties such as Japanese and Armenian cukes are worth seeking out. My favorite is actually a Persian cuke that you harvest when only four- to six-inches long.

Eggplant — Transplants are the way to go with eggplant. Choose from familiar standards such ‘Black Beauty’ or try Japanese varieties (which are elongated). ‘Little Fingers’ is a small but tasty variety. Be on the lookout for flea beetles (tiny black bugs that chew little holes in the leaves) and spray with Spinosad.

Melons — Melon vines can grow 20 feet or more, so make sure you give them lots of room to roam. Knowing when to harvest can be tricky, but Samuel Clemens, referring to watermelons in particular, once wrote that they’re ripe when you thump them and the sound they make is “not plink, not plank…but plunk.”

Okra — Okra loves the heat, so give it a sunny spot. If you start from seed, remember to thin plants to about a foot apart once they’re two- or three-inches tall. Space transplants a foot apart at planting time. Harvest often, ideally when the pods are about three-inches long.

Peppers — So many peppers! Best grown from transplants, the number of choices is staggering, from sweet to fiery hot. Give them lots of sun and harvest often to keep the plants more productive.

Squash — Getting a successful crop of squash around here is tricky because of two pests, namely squash bugs and squash vine borers, both of which are difficult to control, even with synthetic chemicals. The best way to deal with squash bugs is to look under the leaves for their brick-colored eggs and “squash” them. The adult squash vine borer looks like a red and black wasp. She lays her eggs in the vines and the emerging caterpillars eat from within, so by the time you know they are there it’s often too late. I suggest hitting the moths with a tennis racket.

Tomatoes — For decades, tomatoes have been gardeners #1 crop, which is a testament to their deliciousness. They are subject to a number of pathogens, many of which are difficult to control, and squirrels can be a real pain. But c’mon, even if you only get one vine-ripened tomato, it’s worth the effort, right? Give them a rich, compost-amended soil, apply mulch to maintain even soil moisture and prevent blossom-end rot, and hope for the best.

And remember, you don’t need a dedicated vegetable or herb garden to grow tasty food. Nearly all edibles can be grown in containers, or just plant directly in your flower beds. Many herbs in particular are ornamental — parsley, sage, rosemary (okay, thyme too). Even beans, eggplant, and peppers have nice flowers and foliage.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Stock Your Plant Pantry

By Paul James

My food pantry was full before life as we know it abruptly changed, but my plant pantry wasn’t. I realized that when I discovered thrips on my parsley and went to my shed for some Spinosad, only to discover that I was out. If you’re looking to restock your plant pantry with pest and disease controls — like I obviously need to — here are what I consider the essentials.

And by the way, all the products listed below are all-natural and approved for use by organic gardeners, because that’s the way I roll.

Horticultural Oil: This is a must have for every gardener. It controls soft-bodied insects such as aphids and red-spider mites, as well as a number of fungal diseases.

Neem Oil: Neem does everything horticultural oil does, and then some. It controls dozens more insect pests, especially if you spray when the insects are young.

Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacteria that controls one pest and only one pest — caterpillars. Use it to kill cabbage loopers, imported cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, cutworms, and the like. Just keep in mind that it will also kill good caterpillars, such as those of Monarch and swallowtail butterflies.

Spinosad: This is my go-to control for really troublesome pests. It’s a naturally occuring bacteria that was discovered in an abandoned rum distillery (which is reason enough to use it, right?) and it kills a considerable number of garden pests. It’s also available as a number of brands, but my favorite — if only for the name — is Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew.

Serenade: This a bacterial fungicide, and it controls over 100 different fungal pathogens. In my own garden, I’ve yet to find a fungal disease it doesn’t control. Use as a preventive spray or at the first sign of disease.

Fertilizer: The number of fertilizer choices is staggering, so let me make this simple. Espoma makes an extensive line of excellent fertilizers, and they’re formulated for the needs of specific plants: Rose-Tone, Holly-Tone, Tomato-Tone, etc. They also make an excellent all-purpose fertilizer called Plant-Tone that’s great for anything that grows.

I’m also big on Milorganite, which is made from processed sewage. It’s primarily thought of as a lawn fertilizer, but it’s okay to use on all plants. Though not technically considered organic, it is all natural. It’s poop, after all.

Things to Do in the Garden

Wondering what to do in the garden right now, especially those of you who are stuck at home? Well wonder no more, because we’ve prepared a long but by no means complete list of all the tasks you can tackle now. And we’ve provided links to our Shop Site so you can just click and shop for what you need. Here goes.

What to Plant

Fescue and ryegrass seed at least through the end of the month.

Deciduous trees and shrubs of all kinds.

Conifers — Arborvitae, cedar, cypress, false cypress, pine, juniper, spruce, and yew.

Broadleaf evergreens — Abelia, azalea, boxwood, Distyllium, Gardenia, holly, Nandina, and Photinia.

Perennials — All of them.

Annuals — All of them, but realize they need protection if temps drop below 45 degrees.

Herbs — All of them, but be prepared to protect basil, cilantro, dill, and lemongrass if temps drop below 45 degrees.

Vegetables — Think twice before planting warm-season crops such as beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Forecasts are calling for temps in the 30s next week, and that would destroy or severely damage those crops. Transplants will be fine on a sunny windowsill for another week, but if you’ve already planted, cover your plants with blankets and hope for the best.

Containers — You can grow practically anything and everything in containers, from trees and shrubs to annuals and perennials to vegetables and herbs. And if cold temperatures threaten, you can move them into the house or garage.

What to Fertilize

Pretty much everything, since all plants — including houseplants — are entering their active growth phase. Turf grasses too. But wait until azaleas finish blooming to fertilize.

What to Prune

Conifers and broadleaf evergreens (see list above) — Generally, these plants don’t need much pruning, and if you get carried away you can do more harm than good. Just give them a light haircut if necessary.  Arborvitae, hollies, and junipers can be sheared to control their shape. In the case of pines, pinch or snap the candles (the new growth at the tips of branches) in half to create a bushier plant or leave them alone if you want the branches to grow longer.

Spring-flowering trees and shrubs — Once the flowers have faded, you can go ahead and prune. This includes azaleas, crabapple, dogwood, forsythia, quince, redbud, and saucer magnolia.

But Wait…There’s More!

Mulch — Get those beds mulched. A two- to four-inch layer is ideal, but don’t tuck the mulch all the up to the base of plants. That can lead to rot.

Make more plants — This is a fine time to dig and divide a number of perennials, especially hostas and ornamental grasses.

Monitor for pests and diseases — Keep an eye out for insect invasion (especially aphids, thrips, and red spider mites) and fungal diseases. Spray before things get out of control.

Containers — If you haven’t replaced the potting mx in your containers for a couple of years, consider doing so now. At the very least, you should remove one-third of the mix and add fresh stuff.

Safer at Home — In the Garden

By Paul James

If there’s an upside to working from home, it’s that I can take periodic breaks from my computer to work in the garden. Yesterday morning, for instance, it took only 15 minutes to sow a second crop of arugula, two types of leaf lettuce, and some Lacinato kale in a 4’ x 8’ raised bed. Later in the day I pruned the old, scraggly growth on my Heucheras and Autumn Ferns — another quick, 15-minute task. Then back to work.

Another upside to being home, like countless others, is that I’ve met more neighbors and dogs — from a safe distance, mind you — in the last two weeks than in the previous eight years! Many of them stop to chat and invariably the subject turns to gardening. And interestingly, the conversations ultimately center around how people see their gardens as refuges, retreats, places to escape, if only temporarily, from these troubling times.

I’ve always thought of the garden as a refuge. But I do so now more than ever. I have a daughter in Queens, New York, the epicenter of the crisis. I talk to her every day and while she remains strong, I know she’s scared. When she was younger and living at home, we would spend time in the garden together planting, harvesting potatoes and garlic, and, believe it or not, memorizing botanical names like Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ (which she remembers to this day, some 18 years later).

So now when I’m in the garden, I imagine she’s there by my side, asking me questions and making me chuckle under my breath at how she thinks bugs and worms are gross and wasps are hell bent on stinging her. I suppose it’s my way of coping with all that’s going on, and making sure that I preserve the precious memories of the two of us in the garden.

Because in all honesty, I’m a little scared too. Not for myself, but for all my family and friends and coworkers and even the millions of people I’ll never know. After all, these are scary times. I’m just glad I have a garden. I’m sure you are too.

Fighting Fungal Diseases

By Paul James

Anthracnose. Black spot. Rust. Downy and powdery mildew. Those are just a few of the fungal diseases that can ravage plants. But there are thousands more. Dealing with them can be a drag. Not dealing with them can be disastrous. Here’s what you need to know.

Fortunately, not all plants are prone to fungal invasion. But many popular plants – Coreopsis, crabapples, lilacs, Photinia, roses, and tomatoes, just to name a few — are highly susceptible, especially when spring weather is cool and wet, or humidity is high in summer. However, there are things you can do to minimize the likelihood of attack regardless of weather conditions.

Maintain good soil fertility — Plants grown in healthy soil enriched with compost are less likely to be attacked by fungal pathogens.

Choose plants with proven disease resistancePlant breeders are constantly working to develop new varieties that are resistant to common fungal diseases. The information is typically found on the plant tag. Most new varieties of crabapples, for example, are far more resistant to mildew.

Water wiselyOverhead watering encourages fungal diseases, especially if leaf surfaces remain moist overnight. So try to water early in the morning, and water the base of plants rather than the leaves.

Improve air circulationAvoid overcrowding plants so that air can flow around and through them. Stagnant air creates a breeding ground for fungi. Consider pruning the interior of plants to increase air flow within them.

Prune infected areasAt the first sign of disease, prune infected areas and dispose of the debris. Cut back to healthy tissue, sterilizing your pruners between each cut with a common household disinfectant. I use wipes containing bleach, but they’re in short supply at the moment. So consider mixing a solution of 10% bleach with water and dipping your pruners in it between cuts.

But even if you do all those things, your plants may still succumb to fungal diseases. Enter fungicides.

Two of my favorite broad-spectrum fungicides also happen to be organic products. One is called Serenade, and the other Revitalize. The active ingredient in both is a bacterium. And neither will harm honey bees or beneficial insects.

Two other all-natural options are Horticultural oil and Neem oil. And in addition to being very effective fungicides, both also control various insects that prey on plants and are often responsible for the spread of fungal diseases. Spray early in the morning or late in the day when bees are less active.

Copper and sulfur are also great fungicides, and they’ve been used for decades to control some of the worst pathogens. Keep in mind, however, that copper can be toxic to plants, so follow the label instructions to the letter.

Apply fungicides weekly once foliage begins to emerge as a preventive, or begin spraying at the first sign of infection.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Be Bold – Break the Mold

By Paul James

I get people’s attachment to the familiar in their gardens. It’s comforting to know that the bed of begonias you’ve planted for years and years will once again result in the look you like and have grown accustomed to. But what if you were to break out of that mold and try something altogether different?

Doing so means you’ll discover new plants, new color schemes, new textures, and so on. Instead of begonias, consider pentas or petunias, for example. Or shift gears even more abruptly and go with perennials rather than annuals. Try shade-loving flowering shrubs such as azaleas or hydrangeas, or sun-lovers such as abelias or spireas. Or go out on a limb even more and opt for a few conifers or Japanese maples and change the look of the area even more drastically, foregoing flowers for foliage.

Drastic changes can be difficult to make, but they can also be very exciting and rewarding. And they can open the doors (and your eyes) to a whole new approach to gardening. 

And besides, you can always go back to begonias.

Bring on the Veggies

By Paul James

I overdid it prepping the vegetable garden last weekend, to the point where I could barely get out of bed Monday morning. It’s not that I’m too old to garden, mind you. It’s just that I don’t seem to know when to quit. But after looking at the garden this morning, I can proudly say the aches and pains were worth it. And this weekend I’m going to plant.

This will be my 41st consecutive vegetable garden, although when you consider that I plant spring, summer, and fall, I suppose you could call it my 123rd garden! Sure, I love ornamental gardening as well, but the joy of eating what I grow – rather than just staring at it — is especially gratifying.

And just what will I be planting? Why potatoes, of course, because they’re easy to grow and are, to me anyway, a food group unto themselves (as is butter, by the way). Nearby I’ll stick forty or fifty leek sets in the ground, because potatoes and leeks (plus butter, cream, and chicken stock) combine to form my favorite cold soup from France — vichyssoise! I’ll also plant onions – both from bulbs and from sets – although I usually harvest them as scallions rather than waiting on the bulbs to form. Sugar snaps and snow peas are a must, as are carrots and radishes. I’ll likely sow seeds of arugula and other greens – spinach, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, mustard, etc. – all of which I’ll plant successively for the next three weeks or more. That way I can stagger the harvest over a period of weeks rather than be inundated all at once with more than my wife and I can eat.

Depending on the forecast for next week, I plan on getting transplants of broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower in the ground, knowing that I might need to cover them with blankets if temps drop into the mid-20s. Or I’ll just wait another week or so.

Other goodies you can plant this time of year include asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries, all of which are perennial, so make sure you prepare your planting beds well, perhaps adding a few bags of soil amendment or compost to the beds.

And let’s not forget culinary herbs such as oregano, sage, and thyme, all of which are hardy enough to go in the ground or in containers now. Hold off on the more tender herbs such as cilantro and dill until it warms up a bit more. And realize that parsley, if exposed to temps below freezing, may bolt and flower prematurely. That’s why I always plant parsley in containers, because I can put the pots in the garage if temps nosedive.

I just glanced at the forecast and it looks like there’s a good chance of rain on Sunday, which means I’ll be planting Friday and Saturday. And yes, I’ll try not to overdo it. But even if I do, I’ll have a chance to rest on Sunday, sitting on my back porch with a fire going, sipping a beverage, and witnessing one of the finest moments a gardener can experience, namely watching the rain soak all my newly planted seeds and plants.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

Get Ready for Roses

By Paul James

Fossil evidence indicates that roses have been on the planet for 35 million years, and in cultivation since 3,000 BC. Today they remain hugely popular all over the world, including here in Green Country, not only because of their beauty, but also because they’re easy to grow if you give them what they need to thrive.

First and foremost, that means full sun, or at least six hours of sun a day. Without that, roses won’t flower well and the plants will lack vigor.

Well-drained soil is also a must, because roses simply don’t do well in heavy clay soils. There are soil amendments made specifically for roses, and it’s a good idea to use them no matter your soil type. 

Roses are prone to fungal disease — especially rust, black spot, and mildew — but there are ways to keep them at bay. Avoid overcrowding, leaving several feet between plants, and prune the interior canes to improve circulation. Water the base of plants, not the leaves. Apply a thick layer of mulch. And when leaves drop in fall, rake them and toss them in the trash to prevent fungal spores from reinfecting the plants.

If, despite your best efforts, your roses succumb to fungal attack, you can control them in a variety of ways. I’m especially impressed with an all-natural bacterial fungicide called Serenade, but even good old horticultural oil works well, and it, along with neem oil, will also control aphids which often spread fungal diseases. Copper-based fungicides work well too. And numerous synthetic and systemic controls are also available.

Rose rosette, an especially nasty viral disease that’s spread by a tiny mite, is tough to control. Pruning the infected canes — which develop mutant growth and lots of thorns — may help, but the disease spreads rapidly and there’s no known control. In most cases, it’s best to remove the infected plant.

Picking the Perfect Tree

By Paul James

Not all shade and ornamental trees grow well in all parts of the metropolitan area because soil types vary enormously, from sand to clay to practically everything in between.  But no matter where you live and no matter your soil type, there are trees suited to your conditions. You just have to know which ones to pick. 

Trees for Sandy Soil

In general, all trees grow well in sandy soils, but you’ll need to pay close attention to their watering needs, especially during their first year in the ground and during hot, dry summers. (That’s true of all trees, actually, no matter the soil type, but it’s doubly true of those planted in sandy soils because they drain quickly.)They may also need to be fertilized more frequently because nutrients leach faster through sandy soil.

Sandy soils are generally found close to the Arkansas River and its tributaries, especially in Tulsa, Jenks, and Bixby.

Trees for Clay Soil

In clay soils, which tend to hold moisture, your choices are limited, but the candidates include some truly great trees such as lacebark elm, Chinese pistache, Shumard oak, tupelo, and bald cypress. If your clay soil isn’t too heavy and drains reasonably well, you could add other oaks as well as most maples. Do not plant cherry trees in clay soil because they require excellent drainage.

Clay soils are typically found throughout most of Owasso, North Broken Arrow and portions of east Tulsa, especially north and east of 61st and Memorial.

Note: If you’re determined to plant a tree that’s not recommended for clay soil, plant it high, with at least a third of the rootball above grade, and cover the exposed rootball with mulch. 

Trees for Everything in Between

Thankfully, most soils in the area are made up of what’s called sandy loam, which is a mix of sand, clay, and silt. That includes most of Tulsa, especially midtown, areas west to Highway 97, and a good portion of Sand Springs north of Highway 412. In these areas, you should have good luck with pretty much any tree provided you give it proper care.

A Word of Caution

Keep in mind that soil types and conditions can vary enormously even in areas where the soil is generally considered to be ideal. That’s especially true of new construction sites, because heavy equipment can cause severe compaction. Contractors may also remove valuable topsoil or bring in nasty fill dirt while grading. I’ve even seen huge differences in soil types between the front and back yards of individual homes.

What Happened to Winter?

By Paul James

I realize that people all over the country read this post, so I apologize in advance to those who’ve experienced harsh winter weather (including my brother in Emily, Minnesota). But here in my neck of the woods, it’s been an incredibly mild winter overall, with only a dusting of snow, no ice (thank goodness!), and dozens of days of above-average temperatures. Of course all that is subject to change without notice.

That’s why I urge you to resist the temptation to plant too early, and instead stick with well established planting schedules. After all, it’s still winter. And it’s a fairly safe bet that we’re not out of the woods yet, so to speak. In other words, if you succumb to the temptation to plant, you’ll likely be tempting fate.

Sure, it’s okay to plant trees and shrubs, as well as cold hardy stuff such as hellebores and pansies. But for most other plants, both ornamentals and edibles, you should wait, regardless of whether you plan on planting seeds or transplants. And thankfully, most garden centers don’t stock plants until it’s at least close to the safe planting date.

Besides, there’s still plenty of gardening to be done, such as pruning deciduous trees and shrubs (except for those that bloom in early spring), amending the soil with plenty of organic matter (whether purchased in bags or from your compost pile), starting plants from seed indoors, sprucing up garden beds, cleaning garden tools, and maybe expanding an existing garden area or creating a new one.

I spent over 10 hours tackling many of those very tasks last weekend when temperatures were in the 60s. And I’ll be at it again this weekend when temps are forecasted to climb into the 70s. I’ll probably spend the bulk of my time in the veggie garden given that in just two or three weeks I’ll be planting potatoes and onions.

Sorry, brother. Enjoy shoveling the snow.

Our Need for Trees

By Paul James

I’ve always chuckled a bit when people my age – and often considerably older – ask me which shade tree they should plant, knowing it’ll probably be at least a decade or more before the tree will cast significant shade.  Then the other night, while watching television, I heard a line that gave me the clarity I lacked: A society grows stronger when old people plant trees, the shade of which they’ll never sit in.

There are lots of reasons to plant trees. They fill the air with life-sustaining oxygen, sequester carbon, cool our houses and surrounding environment, provide food and nesting sites for wildlife, increase the value of our homes, even improve our quality of life.

“A society grows stronger when old people plant trees, the shade of which they’ll never sit in.”

And those are all great reasons, singly and collectively. But they pale in comparison to the much nobler and selfless reason alluded to in the quote above, and in this one written well over 2,000 years ago by the Roman poet Statius: We plant trees not for ourselves, but for future generations. 

So while it’s true that trees have enormous aesthetic and environmental attributes, I believe the two most compelling reasons to plant them are for the shade we’ll never sit in, and for the benefit of those we’ll likely never know.

Pruning Hydrangeas

By Paul James

Socrates was famous for answering a question with a question. And I feel like him every time someone asks me when they should prune their hydrangea, because my response is always the same: “What type of hydrangea is it?” And if they can’t answer my question, I can’t answer their question. Here’s why.

Hydrangeas, depending on the type, bloom either on new wood or old wood. (Some actually bloom on both – more on them later.) Consequently, if you prune at the wrong time of the year you may wind up removing dormant or developing flowers buds.

Hydrangeas that bloom on new wood in late summer should be pruned in late winter to early spring, before active growth begins. Within this group are several popular varieties including ‘Limelight,’ ‘Quickfire,’ ‘Burgundy Lace,’ and the classic “snowball” types such as ‘Annabelle.’ Also included is the ever popular ‘PeeGee.’ (More specifically, for you garden geeks out there, these are in one of two genera: Hydrangea arborescens and Hydrangea paniculata.)

Hydrangeas that bloom on old wood earlier in summer should be pruned after they flower, but no later than the end of July. Doing so will give the plant time to set flower buds for next year. This group includes my favorite – the Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) – as well as all the Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars that produce blue or pink flowers depending on the pH of the soil.

The so-called ever-blooming hydrangeas such as ‘Endless Summer’ bloom on new and old wood. They can actually be pruned in spring, but the truth is they rarely need much pruning at all.

Of course there’s a simpler approach. Don’t prune at all, unless you need to remove dead, diseased, or crossing branches, or if you simply want to deadhead faded flowers. That’s what I do.

Do Garden Chemicals Go Bad?

Garden Chemicals Blog Post

By Paul James

Much like the flavors of spices and seasonings in your pantry diminish over time, the effectiveness of garden chemicals can do likewise. But just how long do garden chemicals, whether synthetic or organic, actually remain effective? Or said another way, do they have a finite shelf life? Well, it depends on who you ask and the product in question.

And unfortunately, three of the major manufacturers of garden chemicals have different takes on the subject.

Scotts (which also produces Ortho products) says its products should be used within three years, although granular fertilizers with no additives such as herbicides should keep indefinitely. Bayer (the chemical (and aspirin) giant that recently purchased Monsanto) claims its products will keep indefinitely. And Bonide, which makes a number of synthetic and organic chemicals, says its liquid products have a shelf life of between three and 10 years.

Well, that certainly clarifies things, now doesn’t it? (Adding to the confusion, by the way, is the fact that expiration dates aren’t even required on product labels.)

However, the one thing all three companies agree on is that the effectiveness of their products can be greatly affected by how they’re stored. Specifically, they acknowledge that the shelf life will likely be reduced if the chemicals are stored where they’re exposed to extreme temperatures, as in above 90 or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or in areas of high humidity. And my guess is that at least one of those conditions probably can be found where you store your chemicals, such as a garden shed or the garage. All three can be found in my shed depending on the time of year.

What’s more, the Big Three generally agree that once opened, the active ingredient in their products may change chemically and begin to break down, thereby decreasing its concentration and effectiveness. The product may also begin to form flakes, crystals, or sludge, making it impossible to mix or use in sprayers. Powders are especially prone to caking.

So what’s a gardener to do? Well, I do believe that granular fertilizers that don’t contain any herbicides should keep indefinitely, although organic fertilizers and soil amendments that contain beneficial fungi such as mycorrhizae should be used shortly after purchase. Most liquid formulations – whether fertilizers or pesticides – should be used within two or three years, especially once they’ve been opened.

And just how do you get rid of unwanted garden chemicals? Well don’t pour them down the drain or throw them in the trash! Instead, take them to the City of Tulsa’s Household Pollutant Disposal Facility. For details, go to https://www.cityoftulsa.org/resourcerecovery.

(Residents living in Bixby, Broken Arrow, Claremore, Collinsville, Coweta, Glenpool, Jenks, Owasso, Sand Springs and unincorporated Tulsa County can obtain a voucher from the Metropolitan Environmental Trust (918-584-0584) to drop off 45 lbs. of pollutants free of charge.)

One More Thing to Wrap

One More Thing to Wrap Blog Post

By Paul James

This weekend, I plan on wrapping all the presents I have hidden in my closet, the garage, and under the bed. I just hope I can remember where I stashed everything! And when I’m done, I’ll head outside to do some more wrapping, not of gifts, but of two young pear trees. Why, you ask? To prevent a nasty and potentially destructive condition known as sunscald or southwest injury, that’s why.

So what the heck is sunscald or southwest injury? It’s a physiological disorder that occurs on the trunks of trees when temperatures drop below freezing and the sun strikes the tree, warming the trunk well above freezing and activating dormant cells. When the sun sets, the trunk rapidly refreezes and the cells die. The resulting damage includes discoloration and cracking or splitting of the bark, which creates invasion sites for pests and diseases.

The damage occurs on the lower part of the trunk on the southwest side of trees, hence the name. That’s where the sun’s rays are most intense. Young trees, including oaks, are especially vulnerable because they haven’t yet developed a thick insulating bark. But smooth-barked trees are also at risk, in particular maples, ash, birch, crabapple, honey locust, and fruit trees.

The easiest way to prevent the problem is to wrap the trunk of the tree from the base to the first set of branches with tree wrap, a flexible and expandable paper material that’s available in rolls. It only takes a few minutes to apply, and it’s extremely effective. Some folks swear that the white-colored wrap is the most effective because it reflects the heat of the sun, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. I prefer the more natural-looking, tan-colored wrap. It works great, and from a distance, you can’t even tell it’s there. Just remember to remove the wrap in early spring.

I just had a thought. For the gardeners on your list, you might want to consider giving them a roll of tree wrap, which you could wrap and put under the tree. Or would that be redundant?

Note: Some tree experts insist that sunscald and southwest injury are actually two distinctly different conditions, with the former occurring in summer and the latter in winter. I use the terms interchangeably.

‘Tis the Season…to Water!

Tis the Season to Water Blog Post

By Paul James

I know, I know. You’re busy shopping and decorating and partying, which means the last thing on your mind is watering the garden. But that’s precisely what you need to do between now and Sunday. And the reason is simple: the soil is bone dry, there’s no significant precipitation in the forecast, and drying winds are common this time of year. Those factors combined can be deadly to plants.

That’s especially true of evergreens, because unlike their deciduous counterparts, evergreens continue to transpire – losing moisture in the process – throughout the winter, so it’s imperative that they go into winter fully hydrated. And many of them, including azaleas, arborvitaes, pines, spruces, junipers, Euonymus, and Oregon grape have shallow roots and are therefore even more susceptible to drying out. But even deciduous plants need water in the winter to prevent their roots from becoming desiccated.

The same is true of cool-season turf grasses such as fescue and rye, both of which continue to grow in winter. Dormant perennials should be watered as well to keep their roots hydrated. And spring-flowering bulbs, which store lots of water in advance of blooming, absolutely must be watered during dry winters.

So do your plants a favor this week, and make time to deep soak everything that grows, paying particular attention to evergreens. Then shop. And decorate. And party all you want.

What Not to Prune

What Not to Prune Blog Post

By Paul James

Pruning is confusing. I’ll grant you that. But generally speaking, if you remember to prune deciduous trees and shrubs during their winter dormancy and evergreens in early spring, then you should be good. Of course, there are exceptions, because in the world of plants — THERE ARE ALWAYS EXCEPTIONS! And here they are.

First and foremost, remember this: Trees and shrubs that bloom in spring should not be pruned until after they bloom. That’s because the flower buds on spring bloomers were actually formed on last year’s growth, or what gardening geeks refer to as “old wood,” which means that if you prune while the plant is dormant, you’ll remove those buds. So hold off pruning these plants.

Of course, you can and should go ahead and prune dead or diseased wood and crossing branches, but that’s about it.

And what about Hydrangeas? Yeah, I knew you were going to ask me that. Well, they’re tricky, because some bloom on old wood, some on new wood, and some on both, which is why I’m saving that whole discussion for a future post. In the meantime, don’t prune them.

Poinsettia Pointers

Poinsettia Pointers Blog Post

By Paul James

I write this post every year, because every year Americans spend $250 million on Poinsettias in the six weeks leading up to Christmas. That’s a lot of green spent on a plant most people toss in the trash after the holidays. But then again, can you imagine Christmas without Poinsettias? So the goal is to keep your Poinsettias healthy and happy for at least six weeks, right? Here’s how to do just that.

Try to buy your Poinsettias on a day when temperatures are well above freezing, and make sure they’re wrapped regardless of the temp. Exposure to low temperatures even for a few minutes can permanently damage the plants. And don’t leave your plants in the car while you do more shopping. Depending on the weather, it may be too cold – or perhaps even too hot – inside your car.

Once home, carefully unwrap your Poinsettias and place them in an area that gets roughly six hours of indirect light a day. Most often, that’s an eastern or southern exposure. Keep the plants away from warm or cold drafts from air registers or open doors or windows.

Thankfully, Poinsettias are happy with the same daytime temperatures people are – 60 to 70 degrees during the day, and a bit cooler at night. Temps above 70 degrees will shorten the plant’s lifespan.

Check the soil daily, and water as it begins to dry out. If your plants are wrapped in foil, punch holes in the foil so water can drain into a saucer. Discard excess water in the saucer shortly after watering. Keep in mind that soggy soil will lead to root rot.

Do all that, and your Poinsettias should last at least six to eight weeks indoors.

The Final Push to Plant

Final Push to Plant Blog Post

By Paul James

The first blast of genuine arctic air arrived today, a clear sign that sooner or later, like it or not, winter is just around the corner. But there’s still plenty of time to get lots of stuff done in the garden. Important stuff. Meaningful stuff. Stuff that’ll make you proud. And stuff that’ll make your neighbors envious. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Trees, Shrubs, and Perennials

I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again. Fall, as in now through at least the end of the month (maybe longer, depending on weather), is the best time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials. I could write ad naseum as to why that is, but I’ll save you the time. Just take my word for it. After all, you trust me, right?

Fescue and Rye

The window of opportunity for planting cool-season grasses stays open for months, so if you haven’t seeded or reseeded already, no worries. There’s still plenty of time to bust out the spreader and get ‘er done. Just make sure you water to keep the seed moist.

Spring-Flowering Bulbs

Who doesn’t love the sight of daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths blooming in spring? Well apparently you don’t if you haven’t found the time to plant them! The good news is there’s still plenty of time to get them in the ground, but try to finish planting by the end of the month.

Garlic

Talk about easy and fun to grow! The time to plant garlic is now, for a harvest in early July. Plant individual cloves two-inches deep and six-inches apart in decent soil. Green shoots will emerge sometime in December, but fear not, for they’re insanely hardy. If you can’t find bulbs at the garden center, grab some at a natural foods market such as Whole Foods. Don’t buy bulbs that don’t have roots – those are from China and may not grow.

Leaves

My love of leaves goes way back, and to this day I consider them to be the finest soil amendment money can’t buy. Nothing will improve lousy soil better or faster than a thick layer of (preferably shredded) leaves. And they’re the perfect material for starting a compost pile. So please, don’t trash them. Treasure them.

Gardens to Bed

Once you’ve tackled all those tasks, top off all your beds with a thick layer of mulch – shredded or chipped wood (or shredded leaves) — in ornamental gardens and straw (or shredded leaves) in vegetable gardens.

Although the shivering arctic air made it feel as though winter has already arrived, temperatures are going to rebound this weekend, and Saturday looks like the perfect day to get out and garden. Enjoy!

The (Unfounded) Fear of Fall Freezes

Fear of Fall Freezes Blog Post

By Paul James

When temperatures drop below freezing gardeners all across Green Country freak out, convinced that everything in their landscape is going to suddenly die overnight. I’ve already been asked a dozen times by friends and neighbors – and five complete strangers at the grocery store — whether they should cover their plants this week. And my response to all of them has been the same.

No. Freezes, even hard freezes this time of year are no big deal, at least so far as the vast majority of landscape plants are concerned. And remember that wind chills have no effect on plants.

Sure, annuals may take a hit, but sooner or later that happens every year around this time (it’s why they’re called annuals). And of course tomatoes, peppers, and other warm-season veggies, assuming you still have any growing, won’t survive. But cool-season veggies should be fine. Same goes for mums and pansies. If temps drop below 25 degrees in your area, the flowers of mums, pansies, and azaleas may take a hit, but the plants will survive.

Trees, shrubs, and perennials actually began preparing for winter several weeks ago as daylight hours started to decline by making physiological changes that enable them to survive freezes. Back in late August, they began to slow their growth and concentrate sugars to begin the process of dormancy, which they’ll continue to do in the weeks ahead. In other words, they’re ready for winter.

So there’s no need to worry about your landscape plants as we (and they) head in to winter. Of course, hard freezes in April or May are another story altogether, because they can be deadly to plants. Let’s just hope I don’t have to write that story come spring.

Barking Up the Right Tree

Barking Up the Right Tree Blog Post

By Paul James

Bark is basically dead tissue. It protects a tree’s vascular system, which lies just below the bark layer. And it comes in many textures – smooth or rough, shallow or deep fissured, and exfoliating, just to name a few. On a clear winter day, bark is basically all you see on deciduous trees, so why not plant a tree with interesting bark? And with that in mind, here are several whose bark I find especially attractive.

So do I have a favorite on the list? Actually, I do. It’s the ‘Natchez’ crape myrtle, which is why I chose its bark for the photo accompanying this post. To me, its bark is definitely worth barking about.

It’s Time to Plant Trees

Time to Plant Trees Blog Post

By Paul James

A new study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service says American cities are losing 36 million trees a year due to development of roads and buildings. Tree cover in urban areas is declining at a rate of 175,000 acres per year, and the state with the largest losses is – wait for it – Oklahoma. If that isn’t reason enough to plant a tree, I don’t know what is. But which tree should you plant?

To simplify your decision-making process, I’ve selected five of my favorite shade trees based on the following criteria.

Adaptability: Not all that picky about soil type.

Pest and Disease Resistance: Pretty much problem free.

Fall Color: Variable, from decent to spectacular.

And here are the winners.

Yes, there are plenty of other great tree choices, including Japanese maples, Ginkgo, and redbud, but you can’t go wrong with any one of these. And the bottom line is clear: We need to plant more trees!

Fall…It’s for Planting, Y’all

Fall Planting Blog Post

By Paul James

With the arrival – finally! – of fall temperatures this morning, I feel a sense of rejuvenation. And with that comes a strong desire to get out in the garden. The timing of the two emotions is perfect, because fall just happens to be the ideal time to plant just about everything that grows. And there’s a very good reason for that.

There’s also a very good reason I’ve been harping on the importance of fall planting for decades: I’ve witnessed firsthand the enormous difference fall planting makes. Allow me to explain by getting to the root (or rather, roots) of the matter.

Planting in the fall gives roots a chance to grow quickly, because the plant isn’t forced to devote nearly as much energy toward producing foliage or flowers (or seeds or fruit) as it is in spring. Instead, it devotes nearly all of its energy into producing roots, a process that continues for weeks, even months. The reverse is generally true in the spring – a plant’s energy is devoted to new top growth at the expense of root growth.

Consequently, what you plant in fall will be far more prepared for the surge of new growth in spring, and be far better equipped to handle the heat of summer, thanks to its larger root mass. And fall planting greatly reduces the chance of transplant shock, largely because air temperatures are cooler and rainfall is more dependable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you shouldn’t plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in spring. But I am saying that given a choice, I’d opt to plant the vast majority of plants from those categories in fall. And I’d encourage you to do likewise.

A Time to Sow…Fescue!

Dog in Fescue Grass

When and how to sow Fescue.

By Paul James

One of the most popular gardening activities this time of year is sowing the king of cool-season turf grasses, namely fescue, from seed. It’s practically a ritual for folks who’ve come to realize that if you want a thick stand of the stuff, or if you don’t want to stare at brown Bermuda grass all winter, you pretty much have to put down seed. And thankfully, it’s a pretty simple process.

Sow Now Through Octoberish

The optimum soil temperature range for sowing fescue is between 50 and 65 degrees, which is generally associated with air temps of between 60 and 70 degrees. However, it’s perfectly fine to get a jump start on planting as long as you water well both before and after the seed germinates. (Soil temps this week in Tulsa County have been in the 70s.)

Stick with Blends

It’s best to use a blend of seeds that contains only tall fescues, or one that contains tall fescues blended with fine fescues, Kentucky bluegrass, or even ryegrass in varying percentages, rather than rely on a single variety. I’ve tried dozens of blends over the years, and while I’ve seen subtle differences in them, I truly believe that the best way to choose one over another is a coin toss.

Prep the Area

Mow the existing lawn before applying seed, and get rid of sticks or leaf litter. Use a steel garden rake to rough up any bare spots. Once that’s done, you’re good to go. Some people think you should also aerate the lawn beforehand, but unless your soil is extremely compacted, you can skip that task. Besides, once the seed falls in the holes left by the aerator, the lawn often winds up looking like a bad hair transplant.

Application Rate

If you’re seeding bare soil, the application rate is 10 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. If you’re overseeding an existing lawn, cut that rate in half.

Keep it Moist

The most important consideration when getting seed to germinate is even moisture, because dry seed simply will not sprout. Typically, that means watering every day – even twice a day — to keep the top ¼-inch or so of soil moist. Do that and you should see germination within seven to 10 days, 14 at the outside.

Fertilize

Once the seed has germinated and the grass blades begin to grow, it’s time to fertilize. (Prior to germination, the embryo of the seed contains all the nutrients necessary for the seed to germinate.) I only use all-natural fertilizers because they tend to release their nutrients slowly over time, but that’s just me.

You Gotta Mow!

A big mistake people make is getting so excited about how well their grass is growing that they forget to mow it. Once the leaf blades are four- to five-inches tall, give the lawn a haircut, but don’t remove more than a third of the top growth to avoid stressing the young turf.

My Craze for Conifers

Conifer Crazy Blog Post

By Paul James

A conifer is simply a plant that produces cones. That’s it. They can be deciduous or evergreen, but the vast majority are evergreen. What I love about conifers is the way in which the incredible range of sizes, colors, and textures can be used to enhance the look and feel of any garden, not to mention provide color in the dead of winter plus nesting sites and food sources for birds.

Nearly all conifers prefer at least six hours of sun a day and soil that drains well and is fairly rich in organic matter, but they don’t necessarily require those conditions. There are conifers that grow well in shade (yews, for example) and there are those that do fine in heavy soil (loblolly pine). Bald cypress and certain Arborvitae will even grow in wet soil.

So the truth is conifers can be fairly forgiving, which means there’s a conifer for every spot in any garden. The only question is, Which one (or more) is right for you?

Cedrus: There are only three species in the true cedar family – the Atlantic cedar, the Deodar cedar, and the cedar of Lebanon. And you can’t go wrong with any of them. Sizes range from three feet to over 100 feet at maturity. Colors include green, blue, and yellow-gold. And there are upright and weeping varieties available.

Chamaecyparis: Also known as false cypress, this genus includes dozens of great choices, although my favorites are the Hinoki cypresses. They‘re available in upright and shrub forms, as well as true dwarfs. They do best when grown in a spot that gets afternoon shade.

Cryptomeria: Sometimes called Japanese cedar, this is the most revered tree in Japan, where you’ll find it planted near shrines and temples, as well as in huge swaths of forest. ‘Black Dragon’ is an outstanding upright form with soft green foliage and produces hundreds of small cones. It too does best when given some afternoon shade.

Juniperus: The list of junipers worth growing is a long one, ranging from groundcovers to shrubs to upright and often columnar forms. Most prefer full sun, and junipers are among the most drought tolerant of all conifers. They aren’t as picky about soil type either, but they can’t handle wet soil.

Picea: The spruce family is vast, and includes upright, globe, and weeping forms. While many gardeners are familiar with the blue forms, I’m actually partial to the green ones, especially the weepers. Spruces are tough, love the sun, and are extremely heat tolerant, making them an excellent choice for area gardens.

Pinus: It’s hard to beat pines, whether you’re in the market for a stately upright grower, a shrub form, or a dramatic weeper. Generally speaking, pines prefer full sun, but a bit of afternoon shade won’t hurt. Pines are easy to grow, and the Mugo pines in particular are tough as nails.

Taxus: Yews aren’t often thought of as conifers, but they are. And they’re the best choice for shade, even dense shade. They tend to prefer evenly moist soil, but there’s a beautiful six-footer in my backyard that I’ve never watered. And it’s also growing in full sun. Go figure!

Thuja: Better known as Arborvitae, this group of conifers features soft, scale-like foliage as opposed to needles. And like so many of their conifer cousins, they’re available in a broad range of sizes. The severe heat and drought of 2010 and 2011 wiped out a number of them, but that’s not a reason to avoid planting them. In fact, I think it’s a reason to plant more.

By the way, the three deciduous conifers grown in our neck of the woods are bald cypress, Gingko, and dawn redwood, and they’re all great choices.

Happy planting, ya’ll.

Bulbs: The Biggest and Best Bang for Your Buck

By Paul James

No other plant on the planet gives you more bang for your buck than a single, solitary, spring-flowering bulb, be it a daffodil or a hyacinth or a crocus or whatever. (Yes, I intentionally excluded tulips for the moment – more on them later.)Think about it: in most cases you shell out a buck or so for a gorgeous flower that will return year after year for decades. And in that time all the plant requires is an occasional drink and a light snack.

Spring-flowering bulbs are, in fact, among the most carefree plants you can grow, and they’re pretty much pest and disease free. They’re also a snap to plant with a trowel, mattock, auger bit, or specialty bulb planter. Once you get a rhythm going, you’ll be amazed at how fast you can get them in the ground. (I once planted 450 daffodils in a single day!)

Bulbs typically begin arriving in nurseries a month or so before the ideal planting time, and it pays to shop early to make sure you get what you want. Just store them in the garage in a paper bag and they’ll be fine for a month. As for planting times, I usually start around the first of October and finish by early November.

And just what do I plant? Well, I’ve always been partial to daffodils. They come in a dizzying array of sizes, colors, and bloom periods, and they’re one of the few bulbs gophers won’t eat. I also love Crocuses, Muscari or grape hyacinths, Iris reticulata, and Fritillarias. In recent years I’ve grown extremely fond of the Alliums for the big, bold statement they make, and pollinators love their flowers.

As for tulips, well, they aren’t among my favorites, although there’s no denying their beauty. For me, the problem is that they don’t dependably behave as perennials, although some – namely the Darwin hybrids and species tulips – often do better than others.

Where space allows, I prefer to plant bulbs in large swaths or tucked in and around other landscape plants, especially evergreens, whose foliage provides a great backdrop for the emerging flowers, and in irregular patterns around trees. I’m not a fan of planting them in rows like soldiers on parade (sure hope my neighbor isn’t reading this). One of the best tricks for creating a naturalized look in a lawn or flower bed is to place a dozen or two bulbs in a bucket and sling them out all at once, planting each bulb where it falls.

They’re Back!

Web Worms Blog Post

By Paul James

It looks like it’s shaping up to be a good year for fall webworms…if you’re a webworm, that is. I noticed a nest of them yesterday morning in my black walnut tree, and on the drive to work I spotted at least a half-dozen more elsewhere in the neighborhood. So will this year’s infestation be especially nasty?

It’s hard to say, because the occurrence of fall webworms tends to be somewhat cyclical. A really nasty year – such as we had in 2016 — is often followed by several years of low to normal infestation, such that you barely even notice the webs.

The culprit is a lovely white moth that goes by the name Hyphantria cunea. The female moth lays her eggs near the tips of tree branches, and within a week or so the eggs hatch and begin feeding – and creating their webs along the way — as caterpillars. At least 90 species of deciduous trees are affected, but in our neck of the woods fruit and nut trees are especially vulnerable.

So there you have a little background information. Now on to the question on everyone’s mind: What in the world should I do to control these annoying little buggers? And the answer is: Nothing. Repeat: Nothing. The fact is webworms don’t really pose a threat to the trees they infest. Yes, they’re unsightly. And yes, they’re kind of gross. But in the end, they’re pretty much harmless.

You can prune to remove the webs that are within easy reach. You can open the webs with a pole and hope the birds will eat the caterpillars, or spray Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that only attacks caterpillars) into the opened web. You can, as my grandfather did, light the end of a long, gasoline-soaked pole and burn them out. But most homeowners don’t have pruners long enough or sprayers powerful enough to reach into the canopy of mature trees. And most understand the dangers associated with fire.

So why bother? Why not instead come to terms with the fact that a) the webworms are harmless; b) the leaves of deciduous trees will be falling soon; and c) you’ve got more important things to do with your time.

As for me, that means ignoring the webworms in my hickory tree and focusing instead on planting a fall vegetable garden, where webworms aren’t a problem at all. Of course, I do have an issue with cutworms, but that’s a completely different subject.

The Time to Plant is Now!

Lettuce Blog Post

By Paul James

I’m no meteorologist, nor have I ever played one on TV. But I am a weather nerd, and the nerd in me says that the intense heat of summer and those awful heat indices of 110 or more are gone, to which I say good riddance. Because now we can all get back to the joys of digging in the dirt without the risk of heat stroke. So here’s a look at all the things you might want to consider planting, beginning this weekend.

Ornamentals

Fall is a fabulous time (and in many cases, the absolute best time) for planting darn near everything that grows, and especially trees, shrubs, and perennials. That’s because plants then have several weeks to develop a solid root system before winter arrives. As a result, they’re better prepared to start rapid new growth in spring.

Fescue and Rye

They’re called cool-season grasses for a reason, and the time to plant from seed is just around the corner. In fact, you could do so as early as this weekend, or you can sign up for my September 14 seminar on the subject and get all the info you need to successfully sow a super lawn. See “Events” for details.

Fall Veggies

Darn near everything you planted in spring can be planted again from seed in fall, including greens of all kinds – lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard greens, collards, and bok choy — plus root crops such as carrots, radishes, beets, and turnips. And leave room for transplants of cole crops such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower. What makes fall veggie gardening so enjoyable is that temps are cooler, rainfall is more dependable, pests are fewer, and when kissed by a light frost, the veggies get sweeter and taste better.

Bulbs for Spring Color

We’re still several weeks away from planting time, but bulbs will be available for purchase soon, and it’s a good idea to buy them early since popular varieties sell out quickly. Just store them in a paper sack in your garage and they’ll be fine until it’s time to plant, which is typically anytime after October 1.

Annuals and Perennials for Fall Color

The list of annuals and perennials that offer great fall color is a long one, but mums (which you can grow as annuals or perennials) are arguably the most popular. Remember that most annuals can tolerate a light freeze whether planted in the ground or in containers, so chances are you’re looking at several weeks if not a couple of months or more of color. And speaking of color, pansies should be available by the middle of September.

Asian Jumping Worms!

Asian Worms Blog Post

By Paul James

I’ve been following stories about the bizarre – and extremely destructive – Asian Jumping worms for a few years, hoping that they would never make it to Oklahoma. Unfortunately, however, they have indeed been found in a few locations across the state, especially here in eastern Oklahoma. And that’s bad news. Potentially very bad news.

Because unlike the familiar European earthworm or “night crawler” (which is also imported, but beneficial to soil health) colonies of this extremely invasive worm have the potential to destroy entire ecosystems by only feeding on the top few inches of organic matter. In the process, they deplete the soil of nutrients, damage plant roots, and alter the soil’s capacity to hold water. The soil they leave behind is dry and grainy (think coffee grounds), and that causes various invertebrates in the soil to die, thereby depriving various wildlife species of the food they need to survive.

One bit of good news is that so far the Asian Jumping worms seem to be confined to area fishing lakes, so local scientists have speculated that they probably arrived here as bait imported from out of state. However, the cocoons they deposit in the soil can hitch a ride on shoes and be transported elsewhere.

When disturbed, these Asian natives thrash about violently, slither like snakes, and even jump into the air, which is why they’re also known as “crazy snake worms” and “Alabama Jumpers.” They typically don’t appear until late summer, which is one way to distinguish them from their European counterparts, which are abundant from spring through summer. They also have a smooth clitellum or collar that goes all the way around their body and is lightly colored. The European earthworm’s clitellum is raised more like a saddle, is much darker, and does not wrap around the entire body.

Currently, there are no known controls for this critter. Scientists suggest you no longer purchase worms as bait, or for vermiculture or composting (especially from online sources), to avoid the risk of introducing this nasty pest.

I’ll keep following the latest developments and keep you posted periodically. In the meantime, if you think you have Asian Jumping worms in your garden, please let me know. I’ll pass the information on to researchers at OSU.

Sluggishness

Sluggishness Blog Post

By Paul James

Slimy. Gross. Yucky. Those are just three words that quickly come to mind when I think about slugs, those slithering, nocturnal gastropods that can ravage everything from hostas to strawberries while we sleep. And yet, while there’s no getting around the fact that they’re both disgusting and destructive, they’re also fascinating creatures. Really they are.

The familiar garden slug descended from the shelled snail and has been around for about 150 million years. But its marine ancestors – which can weigh up to 30 pounds! — date back to almost 500 million years ago. So like it or not, it’s safe to say slugs aren’t going anywhere soon.

And that’s a good thing, because however repulsive they may be, they play a vital ecological role. Slugs are part of that great army of decomposers, critters who consume plant matter, fungi, lichen, and other organic matter (including dead animals and the dog food on your patio) and turn it into soil. They do so by grinding their food with the help of an astonishing set of 27,000 teeth. They’re also an important food source for snakes, lizards, frogs and toads, turtles, birds, and various insects.

Slugs are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female genitalia, meaning they don’t necessarily need a mate to reproduce. However, they generally do reproduce sexually, with both partners often winding up pregnant. (Seriously, folks, you can’t make this stuff up.)

On a slug’s head are four tentacles. Two are for seeing and smelling and they operate independently, so a slug can gaze at you (or smell you) and a friend simultaneously. The other two are for touching and tasting. Just behind the head you’ll find a blowhole, through which the slug breathes, and the anus, through which…never mind.

As for slug slime, well, it’s pretty amazing goo. It’s actually a liquid crystal, a substance that’s somewhere between a liquid and a solid, and it can be both adhesive and lubricating, thereby enabling a slug to climb vertical surfaces and move effortlessly across flat surfaces. It also enables slugs to learn about each other and find potential mates.

Here in Oklahoma, the spotted leopard slug, originally from Europe, is the most common species found in area gardens. It’s also known as the giant garden slug. But whatever you call it, chances are you’ll want to get rid of it before it destroys your garden plants. And the simplest way to do that is with a concoction called – wait for it – Sluggo!

Sluggo is an organic product made of iron phosphate, and it’s the iron that’s toxic to slugs. It works pretty quickly, and is leaps and bounds safer to use than synthetic products containing metaldehyde, the active ingredient in older slug bait formulations, and more effective than beer traps.

And incidentally, although I happen to love escargots, those plump and delicious land snails, (especially when prepared au beurre d’ail Persillé– with garlic and parsley butter), you should never even think of eating garden snails or slugs. They can harbor the rat lung worm, a nasty parasite that affects the brain and can be deadly.

Monarch Update

Monarch on Butterfly Bush

By Paul James

At a press conference in Mexico City last January, scientists cheered when the official eastern monarch butterfly population was announced. And with good reason: The numbers were an impressive 144% increase over the previous year, and the highest recorded since 2006. At the same time, however, it was announced that the California western monarch population had declined by a stunning 86%. So what gives?

Most scientists agree that the increase is likely due to favorable weather conditions during the spring and summer breeding seasons and the fall migration. But they warn that one good year, while worthy of celebration, doesn’t mean the population will continue to rise.

“This reprieve from bad news on monarchs is a thank-you from the butterflies to all the people who planted native milkweeds,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But one good weather year won’t save the monarch in the long run, and more protections are needed for this migratory wonder and its summer and winter habitats.”

The population figure of the eastern monarch – the one that travels through Oklahoma – is based on how many acres of trees the overwintering butterflies inhabit in the mountain forests of Mexico. In 2018 that number was 14.9 acres; in 2013 it was a mere 1.7 acres. The target for monarch recovery is a sustained 15 acres, but if the past 20 years is any indicator, that may be an elusive goal at best.

But still, there’s hope. Here in Oklahoma, interest in creating and expanding monarch habitat is at an all-time high. Sales of milkweed have skyrocketed, and more gardeners than ever are focusing on plants that attract adult monarchs as well, who need nectar and pollen to survive. (To learn more about how to help ensure thriving monarch migrations for generations to come, consider joining the Oklahoma Monarch and Pollinator Collaborative. For details, go to www.okiesformonarchs.org.)

And every other state in the monarchs’ migratory pathway is doing likewise. So to the extent that these efforts can offset the damage done by pesticides and habitat loss, I’m hopeful that the recovery seen in 2018 is indeed sustainable. After all, I can’t imagine a world without monarch butterflies, and I’m pretty sure you share my sentiment.

Note: Incidentally, the dramatic decline in California’s monarch population – down from 1.2 million two decades ago to a mere 30,000 now — is being attributed in large part to wildfires and the resulting loss of habitat, but pesticide use remains a problem as well. The current numbers mean that the western monarch butterfly, which overwinters in coastal California rather than central Mexico, is on the verge of extinction.

Leaves of Three, Let it Be!

Poison Ivy Blog Post

By Paul James

I was hiking with my five-year-old grandson not too long ago, and we came upon a large batch of poison ivy. “Leaves of three, let it be,” I said, to which he replied, “Huh?” I’m pretty sure I had the same puzzled look on my face when my grandfather said the same thing to me 60 years ago. But you’re never too young to learn how to recognize poison ivy, and you’re never too old to learn how to get rid of it.

Oddly enough, poison ivy is related to cashews (I know, that sounds nuts) as well as pistachios, mangos, sumac, and the ornamental smoke tree. It’s a native plant as well, one that grows in every state except California (where they have the dreaded poison oak instead). And although we tend to despise it, poison ivy is important ecologically as a source of food for wildlife. Birds love the fruit it produces, as do deer and mice. And many insects eat the foliage.

About 10 to 15 percent of the human population is immune to poison ivy, or more specifically urushiol, the chemical responsible for giving the rest of us a nasty rash. I know a guy who can sleep in a bed of poison ivy and wake up unfazed. But I’m not that lucky, and chances are neither are you. So when I see poison ivy, all I want to do is get rid of it.

One way to do that is to dig it up, roots and all, but not before donning long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and gloves, all of which must be washed or tossed immediately after. It’s also a good idea to apply a product called Tecnu (available at drug stores and online) to exposed skin both before and after exposure. And fair warning – if you leave behind one tiny piece of rhizome in the ground, you’ll soon have more poison ivy, which is why you’ll want to dig at least eight-inches deep to get all the roots. When you’re done, bag up the vines and trash them, and wash your tools too.

You can also smother the plants by covering them with cardboard, carpet remnants, or black plastic. It’ll likely take several months to kill the plants outright, but it does tend to minimize your risk of exposure.

Of course, the easiest approach is to rely on an herbicide, preferably one that’s labeled for vines or poison ivy specifically. Most of them contain either glyphosate or triclopyr, both of which are synthetic chemicals. However, there’s an organic alternative called Pulverize Weed, Brush, and Vine Killer that works great as well, although two applications may be necessary to eradicate the vines.

A few things to keep in mind when working around poison ivy: every part of the plant is poisonous; the urushiol is present in the stems even when the plant is dormant; and you can still get a rash long after the plant is dead. Whatever you do, don’t burn the plants because the urushiol can get into your eyes and lungs.

Finally, realize that poison ivy leaves can be dull or shiny, the leaf margins may be smooth or serrated, and the little stems (petioles) that connect the leaves to the main vine may not always be red. In other words, there’s no one poison ivy. In fact, not all species have three leaves. There’s one in Texas that has five leaves, which is no surprise of course, since everything’s bigger in Texas.

Joe Gardener & Me

Joe And Paul

By Paul James

Late last month, I flew to Atlanta to tape a television show with Joe Lamp’l, host of Growing a Greener World on PBS. In addition to the show, Joe has a huge presence on the web, and his website, joegardener.com, is a treasure trove of excellent information. He also offers online gardening courses, cranks out a regular podcast, and is all over social media. So why did he invite me to be on his show?

Well according to Joe, one of the most frequent questions people ask him when he’s on the road is, “Where in the world is Paul James?” So to let people know that I’m not yet pushing up tulips, I agreed to appear on his program, which was shot over a two-day period at his five-acre property north of Atlanta.

Up to that point, I’d never spent much time with Joe, but I’ve admired his work for years. And I quickly discovered that he’s not only a very kind, generous, and gracious guy – he’s also the real deal. By that I mean he’s a gardener’s gardener (and an organic-gardening purist as well) with an impressive depth of knowledge. For that reason, it made me more than a little proud to hear him say that I had actually inspired him over the years.

I hadn’t taped a 30-minute program since I stopped doing Gardening by the Yard back in 2008, but it didn’t take me long to get up to speed. For one thing, Joe’s small but extremely talented and dedicated crew put me at ease in no time, and his gorgeous garden offered instant inspiration.

We talked at length about all sorts of topics – from gardening to my history with HGTV to my current endeavors – and I have to say I had a blast. That was the first time I’d ever been a guest on someone else’s show, which meant I didn’t have to wear all the hats I once did (writer, producer, director, host). All I had to do was talk, and for me that’s pretty darn easy.

Joe tells me the show will likely air sometime in September or October. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, check out what all Joe is up to by clicking these links.

GrowingAGreenerWorld.com
joegardener.com
The joe gardener Show Podcast
Facebook.com/joegardener
facebook.com/GGWTV
twitter.com/joegardener
twitter.com/GGWTV
instagram.com/joegardener

Watering Myths

Watering Myths Blog Post

By Paul James

After a week in the mountains around Santa Fe, with lows in the 50s and highs in the 70s, I was less than excited to return home to sweltering heat and humidity. But then it is the middle of July, after all, so I had no reason to be surprised. After unpacking, I headed out to the garden to water, and that got me to thinking about a number of myths I frequently hear about watering. Seven myths to be exact.

MYTH #1: PLANTS REQUIRE ONE INCH OF WATER A WEEK

I’ve never been a fan of this popular recommendation for two reasons. First, how in the world do you know when you’ve delivered an inch of water to plants? And second, it’s just plain bad advice.

Fact is, the moisture needs of plants vary enormously. For example, newly seeded beds, young seedlings, and new transplants need water every day, maybe even twice a day in summer. The same is true of patio pots and hanging baskets (and in my case at least, bonsai).

Newly planted trees and shrubs are sure to die if they receive only an inch of water a week. It’s best to water them with a slow trickle from the hose, moving the hose around the perimeter of the root ball now and then, ideally for about as long as it takes you to casually consume one beer. Or even two. Depending on your soil type, you may need to repeat the process every three or four days.

Mature trees and shrubs, on the other hand, may not need much (if any) supplemental watering even during the summer months. I occasionally water my tree-filled lawn, but in 40 years I’ve never actually watered a mature tree.

And Bermuda grass can get by with as little as an inch of water every four to six weeks. Fescue, however, should be watered every week.

Now in defense of the myth, I suppose that if everything in your landscape is fully established, meaning every plant has been in the ground for at least three years, odds are most everything growing will survive with only an inch of water a week. But I can assure you few things will actually thrive.

MYTH #2: WHEN PLANTS WILT THEY NEED WATER

That certainly can be the case, but wilting may be due to something other than a lack of water. Wilting can also be a sign of overwatering, because water-logged soils can suffocate plants. And even plants that have plenty of moisture available to them can wilt on really hot days, because they tend to lose moisture through their leaves faster than their roots can take it up.

MYTH #3: WATERING ON A SUNNY DAY CAN SCORCH LEAVES

This commonly held notion is ridiculous. Water droplets don’t act as a magnifying glass on plant leaves.

MYTH #4: AUTOMATIC SPRINKLER SYSTEMS ARE THE BEST WAY TO WATER

I would argue the opposite, actually. Not because there are inherent flaws in sprinkler systems, but because at least 75% of the time the systems are set improperly.

The vast majority of sprinkler timers are set by the installer, whose expertise is in irrigation systems, not plants. So the installer sets the timers to run for 10 or 15 minutes in the morning and very often another 10 or 15 minutes in the evening as well. In most cases, and especially if your gardens are well mulched, that’s nowhere near enough time to deliver a sufficient amount of water to the root zones of plants. Instead, it results in water barely percolating into the soil, which means roots hover in that moist, shallow zone rather than reaching farther down into the soil.

I had an irrigation system for 15 years at a previous home, and I never set it to run automatically unless I was on vacation. Instead, I would turn it on manually to water select zones at different times during the week, and I would adjust the run time of each zone depending on what was growing. I suggest you do likewise.

Now I water by hand, which is in my opinion the only way to know with certainty just how much water every plant gets. And as a bonus, it puts me more in touch – and in tune – with my garden.

MYTH #5: OVERHEAD SPRINKLERS ARE BAD

While it’s true that it’s best to water the base of plants rather than the foliage to minimize fungal diseases, there are times when it’s perfectly okay to water plants overhead. As a matter of fact, after prolonged periods of dry, windy days, I prefer to water overhead to knock off all the accumulated dust on leaf surfaces. What’s more, overhead watering helps cool down heat-stressed plants.

MYTH #6: WATER ONLY IN THE MORNING

Sure, it’s best to water in the morning, but not everyone’s schedule allows for what’s best. Basically, you should water whenever you can. And deep soak each time you water.

MYTH #7: DROUGHT-TOLERANT PLANTS DON’T NEED TO BE WATERED

Even cacti and succulents, which are among the most drought-tolerant plants, need water, especially during their first season. Beyond that, they’ll need water less frequently, but they’ll still need to be watered now and then. In my experience, even drought-tolerant plants grow better with a regular supply of moisture.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Ultimately, the only way to know if your plants are getting enough water is to stab a shovel or trowel into the soil, pull it back to reveal the soil profile, and see for yourself just how deep the water is percolating into the soil. It’s not exactly a high tech method, but it is the best method.

Vegetable Origins

Vegetable Origins Blog Post

By Paul James

When you sit down to eat, do you ever wonder where the carrots or broccoli or tomatoes on your plate actually came from? Well of course they came from a farm, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about where they came from originally and the paths they took to ultimately wind up here. And along the way, who in the world figured out what was edible and what wasn’t?

Ancient hunter-gatherers were the first to experiment with eating plants – leaves, stalks, roots, whatever. It’s certain that not every taste test was successful, and that some were downright fatal. But thankfully, plants that are poisonous typically contain alkaloids that are quite bitter, and that’s one of the ways the hunter-gatherers learned to select what to eat and what not to eat. But still, you gotta wonder how many people croaked when they saw deadly nightshade or water hemlock and thought it might go well with roasted saber-tooth tiger or grilled mastodon.

As for food origins, it turns out we know a great deal about where vegetables came from thanks to ancient texts and archaeological digs. But there’s still a good deal we don’t know.

Take peas, for example. Modern botanists are convinced that peas have their roots in a region extending from the Mediterranean eastward to central Asia. But the only archeological evidence we have of peas is from a cave in Thailand dating back to 9750 B.C. Radishes probably originated just east of the Mediterranean in western Asia, but since so many wild varieties exist even today, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where they came from originally.

So I’ve chosen to focus on a few vegetables about which we know quite a bit in terms of where they came from and how they got to this country.

Onion – Allium cepa

Onions are arguably the oldest of the vegetables we eat. The earliest known reference is a Sumerian cuneiform tablet from around 2400 B.C., but they were likely cultivated a century or more before in central Asia.

Onions are immortalized in an inscription at the Great Pyramid at Giza, where laborers were fed onions, radishes, and garlic with every meal. They were also used in the mummification process.

Greeks and Romans also enjoyed onions. In Nero’s Rome, gladiators were massaged with onion juice before entering the arena to keep their bodies firm. And like tomatoes (more on them in a moment), onions were considered powerful aphrodisiacs. A basket of onions was recovered from the ruins of Pompeii in, of all places, the town’s biggest brothel.

By Elizabethan times, onions were being eaten pretty much the world over. They spread rapidly because they kept well in storage.

The domesticated, globe-shaped yellow onions, first cultivated extensively in Spain, came to America on the Mayflower, although wild onions had been growing here long before the settlers arrived. They were an instant hit, however, and were eaten in every way imaginable – roasted, boiled, pickled…even raw. George Washington grew onions, and described them as “the most favored food that grows.”

Carrot – Daucus carota

The first carrot wasn’t orange. It was purple. And it was hardly the plump, uniform shape we enjoy today. In fact, carrots were gnarly, misshapen, and scrawny. However, they were edible, and in ancient Afghanistan, home of the original carrot, they provided sustenance.

By the time carrots reached ancient Greece and Rome, and thanks to natural selection, they were larger and fleshier, but they were still highly branched.

The familiar conical root we know today showed up in the 10th or 11th century in Asia Minor, and arrived in Spain in the 12th century by way of the marauding Moors. By that time, thanks to a pigment known as anthocyanin, there were purple, violet, red, and even black carrots. A pale yellow carrot arrived on the scene 400 years later. But even in the 16th century, there were no orange carrots.

Finally, in the 17th century, a Dutch carrot breeder came across an orange carrot, and the orange carrots we eat today are direct descendants of that 400-year-old discovery.

The carrot arrived in North America with the first settlers of Jamestown. It was popular from day one, although so many people planted them in subsequent years that the domesticated carrot escaped into the wild and reverted to its original form – the weed known as Queen Anne’s lace.

Cabbage (Broccoli and Cauliflower)

Cabbage has been around for thousands of years. The Greeks ate lots of it, and the Romans absolutely loved it. To them, it was a vegetable of status. Its original wild ancestor was a seaside dweller, native to the Mediterranean, which over thousands of years would spawn kale, collards, heading cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

Heading cabbage didn’t arrive on the scene until around the time Julius Caesar invaded Britain. The Brits took a liking to it, and by the 16th century they were growing at least 16 different varieties, both red and green.

Cabbage arrived in the colonies by way of Canada, actually, and the response was enthusiastic. Thomas Jefferson wrote glowingly of his cabbages, especially the Savoy types.

Both broccoli and cauliflower are edible modifications of the cabbage flower, although botanists can’t agree on which came first. We know broccoli was also around in ancient Rome, but it’s hard to say precisely when. Regardless, it wasn’t as popular as cabbage.

Cauliflower, on the other hand, gained wider acceptance from the start, although it’s hard to say when that was either. There are references to it being eaten in 12th century Syria, however. Cauliflower is considered to be the most intellectual of the cabbage relatives, although Mark Twain dismissed it as “nothing more than cabbage with a college education.”

Spinach – Spinacia oleracea

Spinach hails from Asia, closer to Persia than to China. The Persians sent seeds to the emperor of Nepal as a gift in 647 A.D., where it was known as “Persian herb.” In no time at all it was growing all over China. The Chinese loved spinach and planted it along the edges of their rice paddies. But it was another four hundred years before it would arrive in Europe by way of the Moor’s conquest of Spain.

Spinach reached northern Europe in the 16th century, and quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe. Much like children today, people either loved it or hated it. Thankfully, among those who loved it was Catherine de Medici, so much so that the French phrase, a la Florentine, means spinach, in honor of Catherine’s home town of Florence.

Spinach arrived in North America in the early 17th century, but it didn’t catch on all that quickly with colonial gardeners. Then in 1784, David Landreth of the Landreth seed company of Philadelphia – whose customers included George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe – developed a slow-bolting spinach called Bloomsdale, which is to this day the go-to spinach of American gardeners.

Tomatoes – Solanum lycopersicum

Given their enormous popularity – not just here in the states but around the world – it’s hard to believe that at one time tomatoes were considered unfit to eat.

The tomato is native to western South America – Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, as well as much of Central America, including Mexico. They still grow in the wild as weedy, aggressive, ground-hugging vines. Invading Spaniards first saw them growing in Montezuma’s gardens in 1519. Cortez arrived back in Spain with seeds, and plants were soon growing all over that country. And interestingly, thanks to generations of natural selection and selective breeding, the fruits were similar to many of today’s heirloom varieties – not round, but ribbed or lobed. They called tomatoes Mala Peruviana, the apple of Peru.

From Spain, the conquering Moors took tomatoes to Morocco, and Italian sailors hauled theirs home to Italy, where tomatoes were well received in some circles but regarded with suspicion by most. They were called pomo doro, or golden apple, which suggests that the most popular tomatoes were yellow. Arriving in France a few years later, they were called pomme d’amour or love apple, largely because they were regarded as sensationally effective aphrodisiacs, and for that reason their popularity began to rise throughout Europe. But tomatoes still got a lot of bad press in Europe, primarily because they were considered poisonous, and in fact the vines are. A clever Italian herbalist in 1544 linked them botanically to deadly nightshade, which is a relative of the tomato. He called them wolf peaches, the Latinized version of which is Lycopersicon, which is essentially the current species name of the tomato.

Ultimately, however, the Italians embraced the tomato, and by the late 1500s chefs and home cooks were perfecting red sauces across the country. The French soon followed the Italian lead, and within 50 years or so no less than Henry VIII was growing tomatoes in his royal garden.

When tomatoes finally arrived in America in the mid-1600s, they were quickly condemned by ministers and physicians. The pilgrims considered them an abomination akin to dancing and card-playing. Thankfully, however, reason triumphed on behalf of the tomato thanks to Thomas Jefferson, who grew tomatoes at his Monticello farm. His own records show that he was especially fond of yellow tomatoes, which he used to make a tasty preserve.

But it wasn’t until 1820 that tomatoes gained broad acceptance in this country. Now think about that for a moment. What is today the most popular vegetable in America has only been consumed on a regular basis for 200 years.

And notice that I’ve referred to the tomato as a vegetable. Well, botanically there’s really no such thing as a vegetable. Technically, the tomato is a fruit, but if you want to get really technical, it’s actually a berry.

Regardless, the tomato is the only vegetable with a legal definition. In the United States, back in 1883, there was a 10-percent tariff on imported vegetables. A guy named John Nix refused to pay the tariff on a boatload of tomatoes from the Caribbean, insisting that they were, botanically speaking, fruits. Ten years later the Supreme Court ruled that while Nix was correct botanically speaking, in the common language of the people the tomato was nevertheless a vegetable, and Nix was ordered to pay the tariff.

Today, there are over 500 tomato cultivars on the market, but sadly, none of them are named Nix.

One more thing: modern linguists insist that the correct pronunciation is indeed to-mah-to, from the Spanish tomate. But we of course say to-may-to, and any way you slice it, at this point it’s too darn late to call the whole thing off.

Potatoes – Solanum tuberosum

Native to the Andes of South America, and capable of growing at an elevation of 15,000 feet, the first potatoes were cultivated by Peruvians – Incans, to be exact – over 6,000 years ago. These were small potatoes, ranging in size from a peanut to a plum.

The Spanish explorer Pizzaro came across the potato while pillaging for gold and other treasure in Ecuador back in the 16th century. He took a boatload of the tasty tubers back to Spain, where the harvest was used not for human consumption but rather as cattle fodder. What a shame, huh?

From Spain, potatoes made their way to Italy and France, where they were rejected on the grounds that the knobby tubers resembled the hands and feet of lepers.

The English were introduced to potatoes by way of Sir Francis Drake, who scored a shipment of them in Cartagena, Colombia. Drake gave the potatoes to his buddy Sir Walter Raleigh, who planted them at his estate near Cork, Ireland. Raleigh then gave several potato plants to Queen Elizabeth I, who gave them to her cooks to prepare. Unfortunately, the cooks prepared the poisonous vines of the plant, not the tubers, which gave the queen’s dinner guests a royal stomachache. It would be another two centuries before potatoes caught on in England.

Here in the states – just colonies at the time, actually – potatoes were anything but an instant hit when they arrived in 1622. There are a few obscure references that suggest they were planted in New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island a hundred years later, but not in any significant quantities. Basically, the potato was thought of as something you ate when there was nothing else to eat. John Adams described them in a letter to Abigail as “the worst of all vegetables.”

Meanwhile, back in France, there was a turn of events.

In the late 1750s, a French military pharmacist named Antoine Parmentier was captured in Germany during the Seven Years’ War, and while in captivity he subsisted on a diet made up of mostly potatoes. When he finally gained his freedom, he returned to France to sing the praises of potatoes for the next 30 years.

In 1785, he finally achieved his greatest success. On August 23rd of that year, in celebration of King Louis XVI’s 31st birthday, Parmentier presented the King with a bouquet of potato flowers. The King stuck one in his lapel, Marie Antoinette stuck one in her hair, and from that day forward, the potato was formally accepted as a vegetable worthy of kings, queens, and commoners alike.

Meanwhile, back in this country, potatoes were beginning to take off, again thanks to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, among others. But it was the Irish who were responsible for its meteoric rise in popularity. The Irish Potato Famine of 1846 was responsible for the death of 1.5 million people. It also led to 1.5 million Irish men, women, and children immigrating to the United States. And those immigrants brought with them their love of potatoes. In fact, the Irish also brought with them the word spud, which comes from the Gaelic word spade.

So the next time you sit down to eat carrots or broccoli or tomatoes or whatever – I hope you’ll appreciate the circuitous and fascinating journey those and other vegetables have taken to arrive on your plate.

Shrooms in Bloom!

By Paul James

Mushrooms have been popping up in lawns all over town, and their presence causes many a homeowner to panic and wonder how best to destroy them – some sort of fungicidal spray or powder, or perhaps a pitching wedge? Well you might be surprised to learn that my approach to dealing with mushrooms in the lawn is much simpler.

That’s because I do absolutely nothing.

Truth is, I enjoy seeing the fruiting bodies of various fungi aboveground because it tells me that belowground their hyphae and mycelia (fungal roots, if you will) are busy feeding on and helping decompose little chunks of wood, old roots, and other organic matter and turning it into soil. And in the process, they’re releasing nutrients that feed the soil and plants. In other words, they’re part of a healthy soil ecosystem. Besides, fungicides absolutely will not control them, and a pitching wedge will likely do more harm to your grass than a million mushrooms ever could.

The presence of mushrooms in the lawn can tell you something about the condition of your soil, because most mushrooms prefer to grow in soils that don’t drain well. But even in soils that do drain well, excessive rainfall or overwatering can trigger their arrival.

There are a few destructive varieties of mushrooms, notably those that attack oak trees. The culprit is actually related to the shitake mushroom, but sadly once they show up at the base of a tree, there’s nothing that can be done to save it. Fairy ring mushrooms can cause damage to lawns, but if you’ll aerate and fertilize the affected area your turf should bounce back.

And of course there are poisonous mushrooms, though they’re rarely found in the lawn. Still, if you have young children or pets, you might want to remove mushrooms in the lawn just to be on the safe side. (Truth be told, I’ve never actually done what I just said.)

Finally, unless you’re a trained mycologist or experienced amateur, you should never, ever eat wild mushrooms. Again, chances are the mushrooms in your lawn aren’t poisonous, but according to a friend who is a trained mycologist, most of them either have no taste at all or taste awful.

And that’s reason enough not to even think about eating them.

Some Like it Hot!

Some Like it Hot Blog Post

By Paul James

It’s safe to assume that in the weeks ahead, it’s gonna get hotter. Probably a whole lot hotter. And that can take some of the fun out of gardening, which is why I tend to get things done early in the morning. But unlike me, a considerable number of plants truly love the heat of summer, and here are some of the best to consider planting now…or at least early in the morning.

Annuals

Fact is, nearly all popular annuals used for seasonal color do well in the heat — both in the ground and in containers – but the standouts include Angelonia, Crossandra, Dichondra, Lantana, Pentas, Petunias, Portulaca, Scaevola, Sweet Potato Vine, Vinca, and Zinnia. And as luck would have it, many of them combine together beautifully and attract pollinators.

Perennials

This list is even longer, and includes Agastache (Hyssop), Alliums, Armeria, Artemesia, Asclepias (Butterfly Weed), Baptisia, Bee Balm, Coreopsis, Delosperma (Ice Plant), Dianthus, Echinacea (Coneflowers), Gaillardia, Gaura, Iris, Kniphofia (Red Hot Poker), Liriope, Nepeta (Catmint), Ornamental Grasses, Penstemon, Phlox, Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan),Salvia, Sedums, Sempervivums, and Yarrow. And as luck would have it, many of them combine together beautifully, attract pollinators, and last for years.

Trees and Shrubs

In this category, darn near everything qualifies as heat tolerant, but some are exceptionally so, such as Abelia, Althea (Rose of Sharon), Barberry, Crape Myrtle, Desert Willow, Junipers, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Spirea, Viburnum, Vitex (Chaste Tree), Wax Myrtle, and Yucca. Pretty much every popular landscape tree qualifies as well. And as luck would have it, many of them combine together beautifully, attract pollinators, last for years, and are incredibly carefree.

And One More Thing

When I refer to plants as being heat-tolerant, I’m talking only about their ability to withstand the high ambient air temperatures we typically experience in July and August and much of September. I’m not necessarily talking about plants that thrive in full sun, because some of those I’ve included actually grow best with some afternoon shade or dappled light all day. Nor am I suggesting these plants are drought tolerant; in fact, many of them grow best in moist soil, and all of them require routine watering.

But you can plant with confidence anything and everything I’ve listed, knowing that when the intense heat of summer arrives and you’re chilling inside, what’s growing outside will be just fine.

Attack of the Aphids!

Attack of the Aphids Blog Post

By Paul James

Last Sunday morning I headed out to the garden to harvest potatoes, and as I walked past my tomato plants I noticed that they were covered with aphids. Rest assured, I didn’t waste time dealing with them, because aphids can do serious damage by sucking the sap (and the life) out of plants, and they can spread nasty diseases in the process. Worse still, they reproduce at a rate – and in a fashion – that’s truly mind blowing.

Consider this: Although aphids only live a month or so, a single female can potentially produce 600 billion descendents! That’s reason enough to declare war on them at first sight, because they survive – and thrive – by the sheer force of their numbers. It’s also why it’s often said that if aphids are good at one thing, it’s reproducing.

But it’s how they reproduce that’s so fascinating, because it almost always takes place without a male mate. In biology, this reproductive method is known as parthenogenesis (meaning virgin birth), and it’s a form of asexual reproduction that’s pretty bizarre, yet very beneficial if you’re an aphid.

Here’s how it works. Female aphids produce live offspring (again, without a mate) by basically cloning themselves. That’s kind of weird, I’ll admit. But it gets weirder, because each of the female’s offspring is born pregnant! And that’s precisely how they reproduce throughout most of the spring, summer, and early fall. So by skipping the time required for an egg to hatch and develop into a sexually (or asexually) mature female, their numbers increase at an astounding rate. They also don’t waste going out on potentially awkward dinner dates.

In fact, the only time female aphids take on a male partner is in the fall. And where do the males come from? Turns out a switch turns on late in the year that enables the females to produce a few male offspring. At that point, aphids reproduce sexually (way to go, guys!) so that the females can produce eggs that are capable of surviving the winter. And guess what? The eggs that hatch the following spring are 100% female, meaning a male aphid can’t produce sons. It’s crazy, right?

So much for the sex life (or non-sex life) of aphids. The big question now is, How in the world do you control them?

And thankfully, that’s fairly simple if you get a jump on things. Releasing ladybeetles will help, but one ladybeetle can only eat about 60 aphids a day, and I’m guessing there were at least a few thousand aphids on my tomatoes. That’s why I opted to use insecticidal soap, although I might just as well have used horticultural oil or Neem oil. I sprayed the plants thoroughly, especially the undersides of the leaves where most bugs tend to hide, and later that day the aphids were dead.

But one thing’s for certain – they’ll be back. If not on my tomatoes, then on something else in my garden. After all, there are at least 250 species of aphids that prey on plants.

Here Come the Skeeters!

Mosquito Blog Post

By Paul James

Last week I wrote about the need to fertilize plants because all the rain we’ve had lately has leached valuable nutrients out of the soil. This week I’ve got another rain-related issue to discuss, one that poses a serious risk to people, not plants. And that’s mosquitoes, the deadliest animal on the planet.

(I first posted this back in May of 2017, but the information is still solid…and timely.)

A small percentage of people on the planet don’t get mosquito bites. I’m one of them. My daughter in law and granddaughter, on the other hand, can be sitting right next to me on the patio and get two dozen bites in five minutes. So what gives? And what can they do to protect themselves?

First, the what gives. Turns out mosquitoes don’t like the way I smell, and according to microbiologists who study such things, that’s due to a particular scent emitted by the trillion or so bacteria that inhabit my skin. (And for the record, most people think I smell just fine, thank you.)

But the bacteria that live on my daughter’s and granddaughter’s skin emit an odor that’s apparently and unfortunately attractive to mosquitoes, which explains why they’re both basically mosquito magnets. And by the way, there’s nothing they can do to change that.

Now let’s talk protection. First and foremost, you have to eliminate the habitat mosquitoes love, and that’s standing water – in plant saucers, in wheelbarrows, in clogged or sagging gutters, in kiddy pools – anywhere and everywhere water remains for more than a few hours. And you’ve got to encourage your neighbors to do likewise, because mosquitoes can and most likely will travel from their yard to yours.

Bt dunks, donuts, or granules should be used in birdbaths, water features, holes in trees where water collects, and anywhere else standing water can’t be eliminated. The particular type of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) used to control mosquitoes is an all-natural biological control that targets only mosquito larvae. It’s extremely effective and safe to use around people and pets.

Beyond that, you need to rely on repellents, of which there are many. When trying to control mosquitoes on the patio, options include citronella candles (which may also contain rosemary, thyme, and other oils), incense sticks that also contain those and other oils, and various sprays. Deet is still the most effective spray, but a lot of folks think it’s harmful, despite considerable research to the contrary. Picaridin, an alternative to Deet that was developed in Australia, has for decades been used there and throughout Europe with no reported health risks. Plants such as citronella and lemon grass, despite what you may have heard or read, simply do not work unless you crush the leaves and rub them on your skin. However, a powerful fan will work because mosquitoes can’t fly in winds above 7mph.

For broader control, there are also repellents that contain various natural oils, are pleasantly scented, and can be applied as granules or sprays to the entire yard. Many of them last for up to three weeks depending on rainfall. And there are chemical foggers, including automated systems that spray chemicals in the air at preset intervals. I’m not too keen on having chemicals in the air while I’m hanging out in the yard, but then I’m the guy who doesn’t attract mosquitoes.

As for installing bat and purple martin houses, research makes it clear that while both critters do indeed eat mosquitoes, neither can eat enough in a day to make a noticeable dent in the population. After all, even though female mosquitoes generally don’t live longer than a week, they lay up to 300 eggs a day.

And finally, there’s one sure way to actually attract mosquitoes, and that’s to drink a beer. Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, and there’s plenty of that in the beer and the belches that invariably follow.

It’s Time to Fertilize!

Time to Fertilize Blog Post

By Paul James

The relentless storms have taken their toll on area gardens, and while much of the damage is visible – flooding, downed trees, and so on – it’s what you can’t see that concerns me, and that’s the leaching of nutrients through the soil as a result of torrential and incessant rains.

Leaching occurs when water moves down through the soil and carries with it many of the nutrients that plants need to survive. And given all the rain we’ve had lately, it’s a safe bet that whatever the nutrient levels were in your soil at the beginning of May, they’re a tiny fraction of that now. That’s especially true of nitrogen and sulfur, but my guess is several micro- and secondary-nutrient levels have dropped as well, perhaps even significantly in some cases.

And that’s why you need to fertilize. I strongly recommend the use of slow-release fertilizers because they’re not particularly water soluble. As a result, they release their nutrients slowly over time. Most slow-release fertilizers are also all-natural or organic – Milorganite is a good example, as are various products made by Espoma – but there’s also Osmocote, a synthetic fertilizer that’s coated with a material that dissolves slowly and releases nutrients over a period of months. And don’t forget good old compost, whether homemade or store bought.

And just when should you fertilize? Well, now would be a good time.

Enough Already!

Rain Gif

By Paul James

I love rain, especially when it follows a long day of planting or starts right after I’ve finished mowing the lawn. But too much of a good thing is rarely a good thing, and too much rain can wreak havoc in the garden, often in some rather unsuspected ways.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that too much rain can actually drown plants, because all that water in the soil fills spaces that would otherwise contain oxygen. When that happens, plants aren’t able to respire (or breathe, if you will) and therefore suffocate. Carbon dioxide and ethylene gases can also accumulate, both of which can be toxic to plants.

Symptoms of waterlogged soils include plant leaves turning yellow or brown or wilting suddenly. Die back of new shoots is also fairly common. And unfortunately, short of waiting for the soil to dry out, there’s not a lot you can do to reverse the situation. Pulling back the mulch from around plants (or the entire garden) will facilitate drying somewhat, as will stabbing a garden fork in the soil, which also allows oxygen to reach into the soil.

Too much rain can also leach essential nutrients out of the soil, especially nitrogen, so once the soil dries out a bit, consider applying a fertilizer such as Espoma Plant-Tone, Milorganite, or Osmocote, or simply topdress plants with compost.

Dirt and mud that splash onto leaves and stems may – and often do — harbor fungal spores, which is why it’s a good (if not counterintuitive) idea to wash the entire plant with a gentle mist. And on plants that are susceptible to fungal diseases – tomatoes in particular – you might want to apply a fungicide such as all-natural Serenade as a preventive measure.

But be careful where you walk! Your weight – regardless what it is – can cause severe compaction in wet soils, and compaction is the enemy of plants. If you have to work in the garden, place a board on the ground first and walk on it to minimize compaction. Walking in wet soil can also hasten the spread of fungal diseases, especially on beans.

Pollination can also be affected by heavy rains, in part because pollinators have a tough time flying in the rain, but also because heavy, wet pollen simply isn’t as effective at doing its thing. There’s not much you can do to remedy the problem short of waiting for the weather to change.

And finally, we’ve all been frustrated during those times when frequent rains make it impossible to get out and mow the lawn, and by the time it’s dry enough to mow the grass is overgrown. About the only way around the problem is to double cut: raise the deck to its highest notch, mow, then drop the deck height to your preferred level and mow again.

So there you have what you need to know about dealing with too much rain in the garden. Now I’m going to write a piece for the coming months on how to deal with drought.

Here Come the Hummers!

Hummingbird Blog Post

By Paul James

I saw my first hummingbird of the season last Monday, and it prompted me to think not only about cleaning and setting out my feeders, but also adding a few more Hummer-friendly plants in my landscape. And for those of you who are considering doing the same thing, here’s a list of plants preferred by 10 out of 10 hummingbirds.

One of the great things about this list is that not every plant blooms at the same time, which means Hummers will be hanging out in your yard for several months to come. And that’s important, because to sustain their supercharged metabolisms, they must eat once every 10 to 15 minutes and visit between 1,000 and 2,000 flowers a day!

And I thought I was a glutton.

What’s up with pH?

Colorful Hydrangeas

By Paul James

At some point, all gardeners hear the term pH, perhaps most frequently when they’re trying to change the color of their hydrangeas from pink to blue or vice versa, because the only way to do that is by changing the pH of the soil. But what the heck is pH, anyway?

Without getting too technical, pH refers to the relative acidity or alkalinity of a substance and is measured on a scale of 0 to 14. Anything with a pH less than 7.0 is considered acidic, whereas anything with a pH above 7.0 is considered alkaline, and a substance with a pH of 7.0 is considered neutral. To understand the scale in more familiar terms, here are the pH values of some common household items.

The ideal soil pH for the vast majority of plants is close to or just below neutral, with 6.5 to 6.8 being the sweet spot. Exceptions include so-called acid-loving plants such as pin oaks, azaleas, blueberries, and gardenias, all of which prefer a pH of slightly above or below 5.0. There are also plants that do well in alkaline soils, including burr oak, barberry, Spirea, junipers, Viburnums, yews, geraniums, yarrow, daylilies, and honeysuckle, just to name a few.

If a plant isn’t growing in a soil with the ideal pH, its roots may not be able to take up important nutrients, even if the soil is loaded with nutrients, and that can lead to everything from a lack of vigor to discoloring of leaves to the outright death of the plant. A pH that is either too low or too high can also cause a toxic buildup of certain elements, including manganese in low pH soils and aluminum in high pH soils.

Thankfully, raising or lowering pH is pretty simple. To make soils more acidic (to lower the pH) you add sulfur, and to make soils more alkaline (to raise the pH) you add limestone, preferably in the form of dolomitic limestone. Neither is soluble in water, so it’ll take at least a couple of weeks for them to have an effect on your soil’s pH.

And just how do you determine the pH of your soil? The most accurate test is one done by a lab, which technicians at OSU will perform for $10. You’ll also get measurements of the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium in your soil. Just take a soil sample to a county extension office and they’ll mail it to the lab. (Click here to learn how to properly prepare a sample.) You can also buy inexpensive kits, which are nowhere near as accurate, but will at least let you know if you soil is within an acceptable range.

I suppose I could have started this blog by explaining that pH is the negative of the base 10 logarithm of the hydrogen ion activity at 25-degrees Celsius and measured in moles per liter. But then, I actually wanted you to read beyond the first paragraph.

And by the way, to change the color of your hydrangea flowers from pink to blue, you need to acidify the soil. To change them from blue to pink, you need to make the soil more alkaline. If you prefer a mix of pink and blue, shoot for a neutral pH.

Caring for Azaleas

Coral Azaleas

By Paul James

The azalea show this spring has been nothing short of spectacular, thanks to near-perfect weather conditions. But as the flowers begin to fade, it’s time to take care of the plants’ nutrient needs, as well as things such as pruning, watering, and monitoring the plants for signs of insect invasion.

And by the way, the following suggestions apply both to traditional and to repeat-blooming azaleas. In other words, treat the latter as if they were the former.

Fertilizing and Pruning

Blooming zaps a lot of energy out of a plant, and azaleas are no exception. That’s why it’s best to fertilize them after they bloom. Products that combine essential nutrients with soil acidifiers to lower the pH are ideal, and one of the best is Espoma Holly-Tone. A dose of iron is a good idea too, especially if you notice the leaves turning yellow.

You should also prune right after flowering in spring, although the fact is azaleas rarely need pruning beyond removing deadwood and crossing branches.

Pest Problems

Shortly after the bloom period, be on the lookout for lace bugs, little critters that hide under the leaves. They can be a major pest, but thankfully they’re also fairly easy to control.

Lace bugs overwinter as eggs. Adult females insert their eggs into the leaf tissue and then cover them a dark splotch of a varnish-like material that seals the egg into the leaf. This, along with their shiny black droppings gives the underside of the leaves a “fly-specked” appearance. There can be more than one generation a year in Oklahoma.

To control lace bugs, thoroughly spray leaf surfaces (upper and especially lower) with insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, Neem, or a product that contains Spinosad, such as Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew. All are all-natural products, but they should be sprayed after sunset to avoid harming honeybees and other beneficial insects.

Mites

Spider mites are not insects, but are more closely related to spiders. They’re typically found on the underside of leaves as well. The most common type in this area is the red spider mite, and like the lace bugs, spider mites suck plant sap and cause the leaves to change color from bright to dull green, and with a heavy infestation, leaves may turn gray-green or bronze-green. Leaves may also be covered with webbing. Control them using the same products recommended for lace bugs.

Mulch

Because they are shallow rooted, azaleas benefit greatly from a thick layer of mulch, whether chipped or shredded wood products, or pine straw. Maintain a two- to four-inch layer. Replenish each spring and fall.

Water

One inch of water per week should be enough to keep azaleas healthy. Watch for signs of dryness with newly planted azaleas, especially if they were planted high or located in a windy area. Drooping leaves indicate the need for supplemental watering well before the plant dries out completely. Water slowly and deeply to ensure the rootball gets plenty of moisture and the plant should rebound quickly.

In Praise of Japanese Maples

Japanese Maple Virdis

By Paul James

For years, I’ve been asked repeatedly, “What’s your favorite plant”? It’s a difficult question to answer, because there are so many incredible candidates. But the other day, while pruning my Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’ bonsai, I came to the realization that my favorite plant – or more specifically plant group – would have to be Japanese maples.

I’ve always been captivated by their amazing diversity in terms of leaf color and shape, range of sizes, and by their many and varied forms, whether upright or weeping. And I’ve always been impressed by how incredibly tough they are, despite their seemingly delicate appearance.

Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that they’re easy to grow, provided you plant them in the right spot to begin with. That means an area where the soil contains a decent amount of organic matter and drains well, and ideally gets just a few hours of morning sun followed by shade the rest of the day, or dappled light throughout the day.

Beyond that, Japanese maples don’t require that much attention. The weeping varieties do need light pruning to remove deadwood in their interior, and the upright forms may need a touch up every other year or so, but it’s best to keep pruning to a minimum. The same is true of fertilizer: Japanese maples simply don’t need much of a nutrient boost beyond a topdressing of compost twice a year, or a light application of a slow-release, low-nitrogen organic fertilizer in spring and fall.

However, because they have shallow root systems, plan on applying a thick – as in 3-inch – layer of bark mulch around the base of each tree to maintain fairly even moisture, something all Japanese maples require.

I could provide you with a long list of species and varieties of Japanese maples I adore, but I won’t. Instead, I would encourage you to discover for yourself the ones you like best, knowing that at the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.

Mulch – Like Icing on the Cake

Mulching Blog Post

By Paul James

If you consider the money you spend on plants as an investment of sorts (and you really should), then you should also know that the smartest way to protect and insure a return on your investment is to apply mulch to your garden beds. Here’s why.

By using mulch in the garden, you’re mimicking what nature has been doing for eons – covering, and thereby protecting and enriching the soil with organic matter. Deciduous trees and shrubs blanket the forest floor with leaves that prevent erosion, maintain soil moisture, and prevent noxious weeds from germinating. As those leaves decompose, they provide nutrients to plants and food for soil-dwelling critters, especially earthworms, and they improve the soil’s structure and tilth. When you mulch at home, you’re doing essentially the same thing. And you get an aesthetic bonus too, because mulch is beautiful. To me, it’s like icing on the cake.

There are lots of different organic mulches on the market, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. Chipped or shredded wood mulches are by far the most common. Pine needles are big in the south, and are gaining in popularity here as well. But mulch can also be nothing more than a layer of shredded leaves, compost, or any number of bagged products sold as soil conditioners.

Whatever you choose to use, a two- to four-inch layer is ideal, and ideally applied in spring and again in late fall. Spread the mulch evenly, tucking it up to the base of plants without covering their crowns to discourage rot. Don’t create pyramids of mulch at the base of trees – not only can that cause serious pest and disease problems, it also looks weird. (I sure hope my neighbor is reading this!)

And speaking of weird, don’t freak out if you see white strands of fungus growing in your wood-based mulch. That’s actually a beneficial fungi that’s helping break down the wood and converting it into plant nutrients.

The only possible downside to mulching heavily and regularly is that you may have to water a little more each time you water, because the water has to percolate through the mulch to get to the roots of plants. But you can also water less frequently. Which means it all comes out in the wash, so to speak.

Soil is Alive!

Soil is Alive Blog Post

By Paul James

That’s right. Soil is alive. It’s a living organism. And until you get your head around that concept, you’ll never really get gardening. Sorry, but it’s true. So make those three words your gardening mantra. Carve them into the handle of your favorite shovel. Paint them graffiti-style on your fence. Shout them out at the top of your lungs for all your neighbors to hear!

But just what do I mean when I say soil is alive? Well, consider the following.

More organisms occur in soil than in all other ecosystems combined. In fact, in just one tablespoon of soil there are more living things than there are people on the planet. (You might want to read that sentence again. It’s pretty mind blowing.) And in that one tablespoon lives a diverse and dynamic community composed of all sorts of critters, some of which you can see, most of which you can’t. But all play a vital role in keeping the soil healthy…and alive.

Soil Mates

I want you to meet these critters, and learn to appreciate all they do for us, which is a lot. After all, without them, life as we know it would cease to exist. Seriously. They’re that important.

Bacteria

In one teaspoon of soil, there are as many as 100 million bacteria, most of which reside in the top six inches. These single-celled microorganisms reproduce by cellular division at an astounding rate. In fact, a single bacterium can produce 47 million descendants in 12 hours! Their population tends to remain fairly stable simply because they die at a rapid rate as well, and because many of the other critters you’re about to meet like to eat them.

Bacteria are responsible for such things as nitrogen fixation and sulfur oxidation, processes that make essential nutrients available to plant roots. They also aid in the decomposition of organic matter. Without them, plants simply cannot grow.

However, there are harmful bacteria as well, namely those that cause annoying and difficult to control plant diseases such as blight, leaf spot, and certain cankers. But hey, you’ve got to take the good with the bad.

Fungi

Fungi are multicellular organisms that account for the greatest amount of living mass in soil. And within the world of fungi, there are the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

Most gardeners, when they hear the term fungi, think of those that are harmful to plants, from powdery mildew on cucumbers to rust on roses to fusarium wilt on tomatoes. But there are all kinds of beneficial fungi as well. Many of them are saprophytic scavengers (they feed on all those dead bacteria), but their varied diet also includes leaf litter and other organic matter. There are also fungi such as mycorrhizae that enter into a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with the roots of plants to facilitate nutrient uptake.

So not all fungi are bad. In fact, some are quite good, especially mushrooms, morels, and truffles. Yummy!

Actinomycetes

Ever wonder what makes soil smell sweet? Or why the air smells so good after a spring rain? Well, it’s all due to Actinomycetes, a sort of cross between bacteria and fungi. These single-celled organisms devour the tough, woody stuff in the soil – chitin, lignin, and cellulose – as well as phospholipids (a fancy word for fats). In the process, they produce geosmin, the compound that gives the soil its distinctive, earthy smell. That smell is so enticing that geosmin is sometimes added to perfumes to give them an alluring earthiness. Eau de Compost, anyone?

Chances are you’ve seen Actinomycetes colonies in your own soil or mulch or compost pile. They look like grayish-white spider webs, and they’re a sign that your soil is healthy. So don’t freak out.

Actinomycetes also have antibacterial properties, which explains why Streptomycin and related antibiotics come directly from Actinomycetes.

Algae

Algae are bit players, really. They primarily live on rather than in the soil, because they contain chlorophyll and therefore need light to grow. Other critters dine on them.

Protozoa

These “animals” include amoeba and paramecium, both of which you probably observed under a microscope in science class. They reside in the top six inches of soil, where they graze on bacteria while other critters graze on them.

Nematodes

Again, most gardeners think of nematodes as bad guys, and some are. But soil is full of beneficial nematodes, and they comprise as much as 90 percent of the multicellular invertebrates in the soil. Millions can be found in a single shovel-full of good garden soil. Think of them as microscopic roundworms, chomping on fungi and recycling nutrients into the soil.

Bigger Critters

This group includes the more familiar forms of life – ants, beetles, crickets, earthworms, grubs, millipedes, mites, slugs, and so on. Collectively, you can think of these guys and gals (or in some cases, both) as nature’s rototillers, because as they move through the soil in search of food, they aerate it. They also leave behind their nutrient-rich poop.

But just what do they – and all their fellow soil mates – actually eat, besides each other? Organic matter in its myriad forms, that’s what. And that’s why the only way to keep soil alive is by adding lots of organic matter – shredded leaves, grass clippings, homemade compost, barnyard manures, or bagged products from Fox Farm, Back to Nature, and other companies committed to keeping soil healthy…and alive.

Damage Assessment

Frozen Daffodils Blog Post

By Paul James

Morning lows earlier this week were colder than a polar bear’s paws. As a result I had at least a dozen friends ask me what effect, if any, the way-below-freezing temperatures might have had on landscape plants. My responses ranged from “We’ll have to wait and see” to “It’s a goner” depending on the plant in question. Here’s why.

Sometimes freeze damage on a plant is obvious – the plant wilts, and its leaf tissue turns from green to black to mushy. It’s not a pretty sight. That’s precisely what happened to tender vegetation, especially vegetables and herbs that were just emerging or recently transplanted. Those plants are goners, but there’s still plenty of time to replant. What’s growing below ground, such as potatoes or asparagus, will be just fine.

Sometimes a plant will wilt but show no obvious signs of tissue damage. For example, I saw wilt on the terminal growth of Photinias all over town. If it doesn’t bounce back by the weekend, you should consider pruning the tips back several inches. Aucubas look as though they’re dead already, but they’ll recover nicely.

In many cases the effects of freeze damage can be delayed for several weeks, and that’s definitely going to be the case with many early-spring bloomers, including forsythia, saucer magnolia, quince, fruit trees, and maybe even redbud and dogwood. Their flower buds may well have been zapped, but the plants themselves will recover. And by the way, azaleas and hydrangeas should be fine, both foliage and flowers.

I actually expected to see a fair amount of damage on daffodils, but mine – and those throughout my neighborhood – look great. The foliage shows no signs of tissue damage, and even the flowers appear to be just fine.

The bottom line is that 99.9% of all landscape plants were unscathed by the weather, largely because they’re plenty hardy but also because they’re still dormant. Let’s just hope we don’t see any hard freezes this spring.

Moles on the Move!

Mole Valentines Blog Post

By Paul James

A post about moles may seem decidedly unromantic on Valentine’s Day, but bear with me. You see moles are making their moves, so to speak, evidenced by their extensive tunneling. And while they’re certainly on the hunt for food, they’re also hunting for a mate. Yes, my friends, it’s mole mating season, the most romantic time of the year for moles.

The tunnels you see aboveground are known as runways, in which moles feed and also use as pathways to deeper tunnels and their lairs. They may use the runways for several days so long as food is present, or they might abandon them after only one day of digging if food isn’t present, only to immediately create another.

Fortunately, moles don’t eat plants (voles and gophers do, but that’s another story). Instead, they prefer a steady diet of primarily white grubs and earthworms, which they consume in huge quantities as they tunnel through lawns and gardens.

A vast array of runways may cause you to think that there are dozens of moles in your yard, but in fact moles are very territorial, and rarely are there more than three in an entire acre (except perhaps this time of year) so typically the average-size yard is harboring only one. Of course, even one can be a nuisance.

So just how do you go about controlling moles? Well you could do nothing, and embrace the mole’s presence, knowing that he or she is gobbling up the grubs that might ultimately become Japanese beetles and attack your roses, and aerating the soil in the process.

You could try repellents, nearly all of which contain castor oil and do a pretty good job of moving moles elsewhere assuming you follow the label instructions to the letter and reapply after heavy rains. I’ve actually had excellent results with repellents.

You could use harpoon-style traps, which if placed properly can be highly effective, if not a tad gruesome.

You could hire an exterminator. They don’t come cheap, and some don’t even guarantee that they’ll be successful, but folks in my neighborhood who’ve relied on their services have been pleased with the results.

You could try poisons, but realize that moles aren’t likely to eat anything that doesn’t resemble a grub or earthworm, so poisons that control mice and other critters won’t work. Even the poison “worms” are only marginally effective at best, because moles can tell the difference between real and fake worms.

And finally, you could consider any number of different home remedies, from stuffing tunnels with dog or cat hair to flooding the tunnels to using Juicy Fruit gum (which the moles are said to eat, but are unable to digest). Just keep in mind that the effectiveness of these approaches is purely anecdotal, with no basis whatsoever in science.

Regardless of the method you try, you don’t want to wait much longer. That’s because the gestation period for a female mole is about 45 days, which means a new generation of moles will be here around April 1. No fooling.

Beyond the Bouquet

Pink Orchids

By Paul James

I’ve never swooned my sweetie with cut flowers on Valentine’s Day, because I don’t want to express my love with something that’s here today, gone tomorrow. And a dozen, grossly overpriced (and often fragrance-free) roses always struck me as a predictable, last-minute decision. That’s why I prefer to go beyond the bouquet and give live plants instead.

And thankfully, there are dozens of great choices, especially among flowering houseplants. Here are a few of my favorites.

There are also dozens of great choices among foliage plants, including the oh-so-very-easy-to-grow ZZ plant, Chinese evergreen, Snake plant (Sansevieria), Spider plant, Aloe Vera, Pothos ivy, Dumbcane (Dieffenbachia), and Pony-Tail palm.

I haven’t decided which plant to get my wife, Carrie, this year. But one thing’s for sure – I won’t be giving her a bouquet.

A Perfect Weekend for Gardening!

Perfect Weekend for Gardening Blog Post

By Paul James

The forecast for this weekend looks absolutely fantastic for getting things done in the yard. And you can bet your begonias I’ll be taking advantage of the warmer-than-average temperatures by tackling more than a few tasks. In case you plan on doing likewise, here’s a list of things to consider.

Plant Trees, Shrubs, and Roses

It’s the perfect time to get deciduous trees and shrubs, including roses, in the ground. And now is also the best time to see their “bones” or bare branches. I actually prefer to select these plants on the basis of their branching alone, because it gives me a better idea of what they’re going to look like once they’re loaded with leaves.

Prune

I plan on pruning several small trees and shrubs with an eye toward removing dead or crossing branches, and opening up the interior of the plants. I’ll also be trimming ornamental grasses and cutting back a few perennials. I’ll wait until we get closer to spring to prune evergreens and conifers.

Plant from Seed

Sowing from seed indoors, whether flowers or vegetables or both, is a lot of fun, and you typically have more choices available. What’s more, it’s extremely economical. We’ve got pretty much everything you need to get started, including biodegradable and plastic pots, trays (even self-watering versions), heating mats to boost germination and seedling growth, lights, potting mixes…and seeds, of course!

Water!

I’m going to deep soak everything in my landscape on Sunday afternoon, including the lawn, and especially evergreens. It hasn’t been all that dry this winter, but I plan on seizing the opportunity to water anyway.

Weed Control

Want to control pesky weeds in the lawn? Now is the time to do just that by applying a non-selective herbicide (on dormant Bermuda grass only) or a pre-emergent herbicide. We’ve got several products to choose from, but keep in mind that different products control different weeds, and timing their application is fairly critical, so visit our Solution Center to find out which one is right for you.

Make the Most of Leaves

If you’ve still got leaves lying around, do a final cleanup. Use a mulching mower to shred leaves into fine particles, which will add organic matter and nutrients to your lawn. Rake leaves in your flower beds and toss them into your existing compost pile, or use them to start a new one. Composted leaves are the greatest soil amendment money can’t buy, and ultimately they can transform any soil type – from heavy clay to pure sand – into something plants will love to call home.

Get Equipment Repaired

Beat the spring rush by having your power equipment serviced now. If you wait another month, you’ll wind up waiting weeks rather than a few days to get your mower or blower back, and by then it’ll be time to mow and blow.

Clean Garden Tools

Use a steel brush to knock dirt and rust off metal surfaces, then apply a thin layer of oil (Canola works great) and rub it in with a cloth. Rub wooden handles of tools with boiled linseed oil and they’ll last for years to come. And finally, sharpen shovels, hoes, pruners and other cutting tools with a file, or check out the sharpening gizmos we carry.

Plant Veggies?

I’m tempted to plant potatoes and onions this weekend, but I can’t in good faith suggest you do the same. I might even stick a few cole crops –broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower – in the ground, knowing that there’s a good chance I’ll have to cover them once or twice in the weeks ahead. But because the long-range weather forecast looks pretty mild, and because my raised beds warm up quickly on sunny days, I’m probably going to take a chance on getting a few things in earlier than usual.

And if all goes well, I’ll be harvesting earlier than usual too. Yippee!

Soil Test, Anyone?

Soil Test Blog Post

By Paul James

When is the last time you had your soil tested? Or perhaps more to the point, have you ever had your soil tested? Chances are the answer to the first question is “Can’t remember,” and the answer to the second is “No.” And that’s too bad, because a soil test can reveal problems you never knew you had and make a huge difference in how well your plants grow.

Thankfully, getting a soil test is a pretty simple and inexpensive procedure, and you don’t have to study for it. What’s more, it’s not something you need to do every year. Actually, I’d suggest you consider testing only every three to five years or so, because changes in soil chemistry generally don’t occur very rapidly.

A basic soil test performed by folks at OSU’s Soil Science Lab will reveal four things about your soil: its nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (or NPK) levels, and its pH. That’ll cost you $10. You can pay more to get more, including such things as secondary and micronutrient levels, and well as organic matter content, but those tests aren’t all that necessary for homeowners.

To prepare a soil sample, you’ll need a clean trowel, a bucket, and a one-quart zip-lock plastic bag. Use the trowel to dig up the soil to a depth of roughly six inches, and collect at least a dozen or so two- or three-tablespoon samples from several locations in your lawn, flower bed, or veggie garden. (Consider each location as a separate test.) Drop the samples in the bucket as you go, then mix the soil well and remove any sticks or other debris.

Fill the plastic bag with the mixed soil, and take the sample to the OSU Extension office at 4116 East 15th Street. Within two or three weeks, you’ll receive the test results along with recommendations on the nutrients you need to add and how much. You might even learn that you should stop adding certain nutrients.

Fair warning: Interpreting the test results can be a bit confusing, but don’t let that discourage you. Just bring the information to our Solution Center, and let Jennifer or Taylor give you step by step instructions on how to make the necessary adjustments to your soil’s NPK and pH levels so that your plants will be healthy and happy all season long.

Do Bugs Survive Winter?

Beetles Blog Post

By Paul James

A lot of folks claim that freezing temperatures reduce insect populations. But does that claim have any basis in fact? Not really. Yes, a few bugs will bite the dust, but most have developed truly remarkable (and downright cool) ways of protecting themselves and furthering their progeny.

The simplest way insects beat the cold is by migrating to a warmer spot, just as Monarch butterflies do. Moving into your house is another common means of survival for numerous insects including crickets, ants, ladybugs, stink bugs, moths, and even wasps.

Insects that can’t survive cold temperatures – both those that prey on plants as well as their beneficial counterparts — at least know how to sustain their populations by laying eggs underground, in leaf litter or garden refuse, and in buildings.

And what about fleas and ticks and mosquitoes? Sorry. More not-so-great news.

Fleas are clever enough to find ways to stay warm, whether on wild or domesticated animals or in garages, under decks, and around foundations.

Ticks begin a process of acclimation long before winter arrives by moving water out of their cells before it freezes and crystallizes, thereby allowing them to survive freezing temperatures. They also escape the cold beneath leaf litter and other warm spots.

Mosquitoes actually hibernate both inside and out. They also lay eggs in the fall that can survive the cold – even in frozen water — and remain dormant until spring.

And there are some insects – the Emerald Ash Borer for example, as well as some mosquitoes – that produce a sort of antifreeze in their blood called glycerol, which enables them to survive freezing temperatures in a state of suspended animation. It’s insect cryogenics, basically.

Let’s face it. Insects have been around for millions of years, and rarely do we hear of them becoming extinct. They’ve survived predators, pesticides, an asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, and yes, even nuclear explosions. Among living things, they are the ultimate survivors.

And you think something like a little cold weather is going to affect them?

Winter Houseplant Care

Winter Houseplant Care Blog Post

By Paul James

Winter can be a tough time for tropical houseplants. Light levels indoors are less intense. Humidity levels typically drop way below the comfort level of most plants. But perhaps most critically, folks tend to water and fertilize their houseplants in winter the same way they do throughout the rest of the year. And that’s a big boo-boo.

Light

Because of the sun’s lower angle in winter, light levels indoors can drop a whopping 50%, so plan on moving plants closer to windows or to an area that gets more light (such as a southern or western exposure). Just make sure plant leaves don’t touch the glass. Also, consider cleaning you windows to maximize light transmission, dusting plant leaves so they can absorb all the light available, and rotating plants a quarter turn each week for even light distribution.

If your plants need more light than is naturally available, add artificial light in the form of standard fluorescent tubes or lights made specifically for growing plants, such as high output LEDs.

Humidity

The majority of houseplants prefer humidity levels of around 50%, yet in most homes in winter humidity typically hovers around 10%. The most common sign of plant stress resulting from low humidity is browning on leaf margins. Spider mites might also rear their ugly heads.

The surest way to increase humidity is to mist plants often – at least once, maybe even twice a day. Placing plants on a tray filled with moist pebbles also works well. But the simplest and most effective solution is a small humidifier – Duh! Just run it once or twice a day for half an hour or so and your plants will love it. As a bonus, the higher the humidity, the less you’ll have to water.

Water

Without a doubt, the most common cause of houseplant failure is overwatering, and the most common season for failure is winter. Here’s why.

During most of the year, houseplants are actively growing and therefore need regular watering. But growth slows down considerably in winter, so you need to adjust your watering schedule. In the case of most houseplants, it’s best to let the soil dry out almost completely before watering (exceptions would be ferns and citrus, which need steady moisture).

But exactly how do you know when to water? Just poke your finger two inches into the soil. If it’s dry, go ahead and water.

Fertilizer

Again, because plants grow very slowly in winter, they don’t need much if any fertilizer. And applying fertilizer at a time when plants don’t need it is more than just a waste of money – it can also lead to burning of the roots and a buildup of salts in the soil.

Repotting

Finally, and again because houseplants go partially dormant in winter, it’s best to hold off on repotting until spring, when active growth begins. That’s also when you should begin fertilizing again and watering more frequently.

Let it Snow?

Holly in Snow

By Paul James

It looks as though we could be in for a doozey of a winter storm this weekend that may include ice and snow. So what effect, if any, could freezing precipitation have on landscape plants, and is there anything you need to do in preparation for the storm? Glad you asked.

For the most part, snow is a good thing. Snow is mostly air trapped in ice crystals, and that trapped air acts as an insulator, preventing plant tissues from dropping below freezing. It insulates the soil in the same way, keeping it at or above freezing even when air temperatures plunge.

Wet, heavy snow may bend the branches of evergreens, but as bad as it looks, most of the time the branches will spring back once the snow melts.

Snow has even been called “Poor Man’s Fertilizer,” because as it falls through the atmosphere, nitrogen and sulfur attach to the flakes. That’s actually true, but rain and lightning contain even more nitrogen. And come spring you’ll still need to fertilize.

And yes, snow provides moisture, but not as much as you might think: ten inches of snow equals about an inch of water.

Ice is another story. It sucks. And it can do serious damage. It does insulate plant tissues in a manner similar to snow, but the weight of even a quarter inch of ice can be devastating, as anyone who was around here in 2007 can attest. Whatever you do, don’t try to knock ice off of branches with a stick because you may (and probably will) do far more harm than good.

In terms of preparing for the storm, I’d suggest a trip to your favorite grocer. The weekend looks ideal for cooking beef bourguignon, ragu Bolognese, or maybe a big old pot of chili, all of which freeze well. And don’t forget the vino.

You Gotta Water in Winter!

Pine Detail with Rain

By Paul James

Although it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, it’s crucial that you water landscape plants during the winter months. The combination of dry soil and cold air temperatures can be especially tough on even the hardiest plants, both deciduous and evergreen. So keep these basic watering tips in mind.

First, realize that I’m not suggesting you water all that often during the winter months. Typically once a month will do the trick, although if it’s bone dry in December and January you may need to water twice a month. Pick a day when the temperature is above freezing and the overnight low is forecasted to be above freezing as well. Those conditions happen more often than you might imagine, and on those days you should seize the opportunity to deep soak everything.

Evergreens and conifers need more water than their deciduous counterparts because they continue to grow, albeit ever so slowly, during the winter. And many of them, including azaleas, arborvitaes, pines, spruces, junipers, Euonymus, and Oregon grape have shallow roots and are therefore more susceptible to drying out. But even deciduous plants need water in the winter to prevent their roots from becoming desiccated.

The same is true of cool-season turf grasses such as fescue and rye, both of which continue to grow in winter. Dormant perennials should be watered as well to keep their roots hydrated. And spring-flowering bulbs, which store lots of water in advance of blooming, absolutely must be watered during dry winters.

Of course, if we get plenty of rain this winter you can skip watering altogether, but the extended forecast looks pretty dry. There is rain in the forecast for tomorrow night, but it’s anybody’s guess just how much we’ll get. And if it doesn’t amount to at least a half-inch total, I’m going to water this weekend. You should too.

Poinsettia Pointers

Red Poinsettia

By Paul James

Sales of Poinsettias in the U.S. will top $250 million in the six weeks leading up to Christmas. That’s a lot of green spent on a plant most people toss in the trash after the holidays. But then again, can you imagine Christmas without Poinsettias?

So the goal, then, is to keep your Poinsettias healthy and happy for at least six weeks. And here’s how to do just that.

Try to buy your Poinsettias on a day when temperatures are well above freezing, and make sure they’re wrapped regardless of the temp. Exposure to low temperatures even for a few minutes can permanently damage the plants. And don’t leave your plants in the car while you do more shopping. Depending on the weather, it may be too cold – or perhaps even too hot – inside your car.

Once home, carefully unwrap your Poinsettias and place them in an area that gets roughly six hours of indirect light a day. Most often, that’s an eastern or southern exposure. Keep the plants away from warm or cold drafts from air registers or open doors or windows.

Thankfully, Poinsettias are happy with the same daytime temperatures people are – 60 to 70 degrees during the day, and a bit cooler at night. Temps above 70 degrees will shorten the plant’s lifespan.

Check the soil daily, and water to maintain even soil moisture. If your plants are wrapped in foil, punch holes in the foil so water can drain into a saucer. Discard excess water in the saucer shortly after watering. Keep in mind that soggy soil will lead to root rot.

Do all that, and your Poinsettias should last at least six to eight weeks indoors.

Shrubs for Fall Color

Itea Virginica

By Paul James

When it comes to gorgeous fall color in the landscape, trees tend to get all the glory. And deservedly so. But there are a number of spectacular shrubs whose fall color rivals even the showiest of trees, and here are a few of my favorites.

Bulbs – Get ‘Em in the Ground!

Flowering Bulbs

By Paul James

Next spring, will you be one of thousands of people who, while driving or taking a walk, can’t help but notice all the daffodils, tulips, and other beautiful bulbs in bloom, and kick yourself in the butt for not planting them at your place the previous fall? Don’t suffer another spring of frustration due to your procrastination! It’s fall. Time to plant.

Spring-flowering bulbs are a bargain, and they reward you with years – even decades – of blooms. Okay, so tulips often don’t come back, but even they are worth the effort given how gorgeous (and inexpensive) they are. And planting bulbs is really simple – dig a hole, plant the bulb pointy side up, cover, and water. Boom! You’re done. A bulb auger attached to a drill makes the job even easier, enabling you to plant up to 100 bulbs in less than an hour.

But you have to get them in the ground now, or at least now through November. That’s because the bulbs have to be exposed to cold soil temperatures for several weeks to trigger the changes that cause them to bloom in spring. In other words, they have to chill or they won’t thrill.

So, sound the alarm. Tell your friends and neighbors. The time to plant bulbs is now. Or this weekend, anyway. After all, the forecast looks amazing.

Southwood Grown

Delaware Greenhouse

Local is a powerful buzzword these days. It resonates with people of all ages who are concerned about where the products and services they buy actually come from. And for that reason, all kinds of companies try to convince folks that what they have to offer is local. But just how “local” is local?

In the case of Southwood Grown products – annuals, mums, pansies, ornamental grasses, vegetables and herbs, and so much more – you can’t get any more local. After all, our Delaware Production Greenhouses are just over a mile down the road at 108th and Delaware.

So what does that mean to you? In a word, quality. In two words, unsurpassed quality. You think pansies grown in Michigan and trucked a thousand miles are going to be of the same quality as those grown right here in Tulsa? Not a chance. And what about mums? We dare you to compare the quality (and price) of our mums with those at box stores or your neighborhood grocer.

Southwood Grown plants are grown to our exacting standards, and we’re pretty darn picky. They’re acclimated to our local climate, which means they have a far better chance of surviving whatever nature has to throw at them. And because of the close proximity of our production facility, the carbon footprint associated with transporting them is practically nil.

Now that’s local. And that’s Southwood Grown.

It’s Fall – Time to Plant!

Fall Tree Color

By Paul James

Every year I get on my soapbox to remind people that now is the perfect time to plant all kinds of things, and this year is no different. But to be clear, I’m not talking about things that most folks know to plant in fall – mums, pansies, asters, ornamental kale and cabbage, cool-season veggies, fescue and rye grasses, spring-flowering bulbs – the stuff that practically defines fall planting. I’m talking about practically everything else, in particular trees, shrubs, and perennials.

The reason I’ve harped on the subject for so long is that I’ve witnessed firsthand for decades the enormous difference fall planting makes. Allow me to explain by getting to the root (or rather, roots) of the matter.

Planting in the fall gives roots a chance to grow quickly, because the plant isn’t forced to devote near as much energy toward producing foliage or flowers or fruit as it is in spring. Instead, it devotes nearly all of its energy into producing roots, a process that continues for weeks, even months. The reverse is generally true in the spring – a plant’s energy is devoted to new top growth at the expense of root growth.

Consequently, what you plant in fall will be far more prepared for the surge of new growth in spring, and be far better equipped to handle the heat of summer, thanks to its larger root mass. And fall planting greatly reduces the chance of transplant shock, largely because air temperatures are cooler and rainfall is more dependable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you shouldn’t plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in spring. But I am saying that given a choice, I’d opt to plant the vast majority of plants from those categories in fall. And so should you.

Fall is for Fescue!

Fescue Grass

By Paul James

Fescue is originally from Europe. It didn’t arrive in this country until the mid-19th century, but it’s been happy here ever since, first as a pasture grass and later as a turf grass in lawns across America. Here in Green Country, fescue is the go-to turf for shady spots, where it thrives with a little fertilizer and regular watering.

Because it’s a cool-season grass, fescue must be planted in spring or fall. Lots of diehard lawn lovers plant it twice a year and that’s not a bad idea, but fall planting tends to yield better results. Planting from seed is a simple, straightforward, and relatively inexpensive process that requires little effort.

It’s best to use a blend of seeds that contains only tall fescues, or one that contains tall fescues blended with fine fescues, Kentucky bluegrass, or even ryegrass in varying percentages, rather than rely on a single variety. I’ve tried dozens of blends over the years, and while I’ve seen subtle differences in them, I truly believe that the best way to choose one over another is a coin toss.

To prepare your lawn for seeding, begin by cleaning up any sticks, leaves, or other debris, then mow the lawn one notch lower than usual. In areas where the existing grass is really thin or there’s bare soil, use a metal rake to gently loosen the soil. Sow the seed with a drop or broadcast spreader (or by hand if the area is small), being careful not to get seed in adjacent flower beds. Consider saving a pound of seed (which, by the way, is equal to 275,000 seeds!) to fill in any spots you might have missed – they’ll be obvious after the grass is up and growing.

The most important consideration when getting seed to germinate is even moisture, because dry seed simply will not sprout. Typically, that means watering every day (perhaps twice a day) just enough to keep the top ¼-inch or so of soil moist. You should see germination within seven to ten days.

Once the grass is up and growing, lightly fertilize and begin mowing when the leaf blades are about four-inches tall. Routinely rake or blow leaves as they fall so they don’t matt down and smother the grass.

Do all that, and you’ll be able to enjoy the green, green grass of home all winter long.

The Beauty of Bulbs

Yellow Tulips

By Paul James

No other plant on the planet gives you more bang for your buck than a single, solitary, spring-flowering bulb. Think about it: in most cases you shell out less than a buck per bulb and in a few months you wind up with a gorgeous flower that’ll return year after year for decades. And in that time all the plant requires is an occasional drink and a light snack.

Spring-flowering bulbs are, in fact, among the most carefree plants you can grow, and they’re pretty much pest and disease free. They’re also a snap to plant with a trowel, mattock, auger bit, or specialty bulb planter. Once you get a rhythm going, you’ll be amazed at how fast you can get them in the ground.

Bulbs typically begin arriving in nurseries a month or so before the ideal planting time, and it pays to shop early to make sure you get what you want. Just store them in the garage in a paper bag and they’ll be fine for up to a month. As for planting times, I usually start around the first week of October and finish by early November.

And just what do I plant? Well, I’ve always been partial to daffodils. They come in a dizzying array of sizes, colors, and bloom periods, and they’re one of the few bulbs gophers won’t eat. Best of all, they spread, but in a good way. I also love crocuses, both spring and fall bloomers, and fritillarias. In recent years I’ve grown fond of the alliums for the big, bold statements they make, and the pollinators they attract.

And then there are tulips. There was a time when tulips weren’t my thing, largely because with the exception of the Darwin hybrids, they tend to behave as annuals. But I’ve changed my tune in recent years. After all, even if they don’t come back, they’re so spectacularly beautiful that having the opportunity to enjoy them for a few weeks is better than not enjoying them at all.

There are also lots of so-called lesser or minor bulbs to consider as well, including Alliums, Fritillarias, Galanthus (Snowdrops), Leucojum (Summer Snowflake), Scilla (Siberian Squill), Puschkinia (Squill), and, my favorite, Camassia. If you’re planting bulbs anyway, you really should try a few of these not-so-well-known but beautiful bulbs.

Conifers & Evergreens

Pine Cones Blog Post

By Paul James

Is there a difference between conifers and evergreens? You bet there is. And at the risk of making your head spin, let me make one critical distinction right off the bat by saying not all conifers are evergreens and not all evergreens are conifers. How’s that for clarifying the matter? Hey, I don’t make the rules!

So here’s the deal — a conifer is any plant that produces cones. Simple enough, right? The most familiar in area gardens are arborvitaes, cedars, cypresses (and false cypresses), junipers, pines, spruces, and yews, but in other parts of the country you’ll also find firs, hemlocks, and redwoods. And because these particular conifers keep their leaves (or needles) throughout the winter, we commonly refer to them as evergreens (even though their foliage may be blue or golden-yellow or even bronze).

And that’s all well and good up to a point. Problem is, some conifers – ginkgoes and bald cypresses, for example — are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in winter. It’s no wonder folks get confused!

Now consider azaleas and hollies. They’re evergreens, but they don’t produce cones. The same is true of aucubas, laurels, magnolias, and photinias. Collectively, those plants are generally referred to as broad-leaf evergreens, whereas conifers are often called needle-leaf evergreens, even though not all conifer leaves are needles.

And now that you know the difference between conifers and evergreens, allow me to focus for a moment on the former, because it’s no secret that I’m a conifer geek.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to conifers is that they’ve been on the planet for so long, at least 250 million years in some cases. And they managed to survive a devastating asteroid that wiped out just about every other living thing on earth, including 75% of plant life and all the dinosaurs (but sadly, not cockroaches). I think that’s cool.

Beyond their history, however, I’m fascinated by their diversity. To my mind, no other plant group offers so many varied sizes, shapes, and textures. There are conifers that never grow taller than a few inches, and others that become giants. There are globe-shaped conifers, pencil-thin conifers, and conifers that are so distorted and contorted that only a geek like me would grow them. And there are conifers with stiff foliage (ouch!) and others with foliage so soft it was once used as bedding material.

Years ago I read that landscapes should include at least 30% evergreens so that they’re not so drab in winter. I’d bump that figure to at least 60%, with the majority of them conifers. Evergreen conifers, that is.

Countdown to Fall…Finally!

Ginkgo Tree

By Paul James

Despite this week’s heat wave, we all know that cooler temps are on the way and we’ll return soon to working in our gardens blissfully rather than gloomily. And I can’t wait for two reasons. One, I don’t enjoy gardening in the heat of summer. And two, fall is for planting!

That’s right. Fall is the absolute best time to plant a number of things, and in the weeks to come I’ll explain exactly why that is. But for now I want to get you thinking about what to plant this fall.

Trees and Shrubs

Starting now and continuing until the ground freezes (assuming it ever does), focus on planting most deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, including conifers. Seriously, folks, do yourselves a favor and get your trees and shrubs in the ground soon.

Perennials

You absolutely can and should get perennials in the ground as well, and that includes both herbaceous and woody types. Plant now and they’ll come on strong in spring; plant in spring and they’ll just sit there for weeks.

Turf Grass

Cool-season turf grasses such as fescue and rye can be planted from seed in the spring and fall, but fall is definitely the better of the two seasons, typically from mid-September to mid-October. Sowing from seed is simple and much cheaper than sod.

Fall Veggies

If you never had a fall vegetable garden, you’re missing out! As for what to plant (beginning now and continuing through at least September), go with everything you planted in spring, focusing especially on greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale, and so on, as well as root crops – beets, carrots, and turnips.

Mums, Pansies, and Assorted Annuals

Fall gardening is practically defined by mums and pansies, but keep in mind that lots of annuals are actually quite hardy, including Portulaca, Marigolds, and Petunias. And don’t forget ornamental Cabbage and Kale, both of which can handle temps in the mid-20s.

Bulbs

Planting time is still a month away, but planning time starts now. Have a close look at your existing flower beds and identify spots where a few bulbs would make a big difference in spring, or consider replacing large swaths of lawn with a sea of spring-flowering bulbs.

Organic Matter Matters

Composting

By Paul James

I love to watch folks at the nursery as they check out just to see what they’ve got in their carts. Sometimes I try to imagine where the conifers or ornamental grasses or whatever else they bought will wind up in their landscape. Mostly I just get excited knowing that every plant that goes out the door will soon be set free from the confines of its pot and given a permanent home.

But I’m more than occasionally disturbed by what I don’t see in customers’ carts, namely soil amendments, a catchall term that refers to any number of different products (usually sold in bags) that contain organic matter. Because without organic matter, you won’t have healthy soil. And without healthy soil, you won’t have healthy plants. That’s just the way it is.

So what is organic matter, and why does it matter so much? Organic matter includes leaves, grass clippings, plant refuse, composted animal manures, agricultural byproducts (such as cotton burrs and alfalfa meal) – pretty much any organic material that decomposes. It matters because it’s the source of food for all the critters that inhabit the soil. As they feed on the organic matter in the soil and leave their deposits behind, they improve the soil’s structure, tilth, water-holding capacity, nutrient content, biological activity, and so on. In other words, they keep the soil alive.

There are lots of ways to add organic matter to soil. Using a mulching mower is a great way to add a steady dose to the lawn, and mulching leaves directly into the lawn in fall works wonders. In flower and vegetable gardens, as well as the lawn, a two-inch topdressing of organic matter in the form of homemade compost, shredded leaves, or a bagged, composted product will in time transform so-so soil into super soil.

So whether you opt for a store-bought, bagged product or your own homemade compost, make the addition of organic matter to your soil a routine – as in once or twice a year — practice. Your plants will be far healthier as a result, which means they’ll be far less likely to be attacked by pests and diseases, which means you’ll have a better looking garden. And that matters, too.

Fall in Love with Fall Gardening!

Carrots Cuddling Blog Post

By Paul James

If I had only one season in which to plant a vegetable garden, it would be fall. No doubt about it. And the reason is simple: vegetables harvested in the fall taste better. No doubt about that either. And just what will I be planting, you ask?

Well pretty much everything I plant every spring, with the exception of asparagus, and that’s a long list, one that I now present in alphabetical order. The asterisk indicates those that I stick in the ground as transplants. All others I direct sow in the garden from seed.

Arugula                              Kohlrabi
Beets                                  Lettuce
*Broccoli                            Mustard Greens
*Brussels Sprouts              Onions
*Cabbage                           Potatoes
Carrots                               Spinach
*Cauliflower                       Swiss Chard
Collards                              Radishes
Kale                                    Turnips

Planting veggies in the fall is a tad tricky, because everything on my list is a cool-season crop, yet it’s anything but cool this time of year. And it’s not just the air temperature that presents a problem – it’s the soil temp as well. So here’s what you need to do to ensure a successful fall planting.

1. Start planting now, and make successive sowings into mid-September or beyond.

2. Plant seeds and transplants late in the day, so they aren’t subjected to the hot sun immediately after planting, or wait for an overcast day to plant.

3. Plant seeds roughly twice as deep as you would in spring (check the seed packet for planting depth). It may take them longer to germinate, but they’ll be fine.

4. Water every morning and again every evening. Water just enough to keep the top inch or so of soil moist and cool. If you’ve got a drip irrigation system, good for you. Follow the same schedule.

5. Spread a light layer of mulch over the planting area to conserve moisture. Grass clippings work great, as do hay, compost, or bagged products such as Happy Frog or Coco Loco soil conditioners.

6. As seeds begin to germinate, water a little longer, but continue to water twice a day until plants are established and temperatures begin to cool off a bit, then water only as needed.

Do all that, and you should have plenty of tasty veggies to enjoy for weeks on end. And don’t worry too much about frosts. Everything on my list is not only frost tolerant (down to about 27 degrees or so), but their flavor actually improves when they get nipped by frost (the plants produce more sugars in response to colder temperatures). In fact, I’ve harvested carrots and spinach and beets and kale on Christmas morning many a year, and that’s about as good a present as I could hope for.

Success with Succulents

Succulents

By Paul James

Twenty years ago, I spotted a sign on a variety of sedum called ‘Autumn Joy’ that claimed the plant would “thrive on neglect.” Convinced the phrase was nothing more than marketing blather, I took one home, stuck it in a one-gallon terra cotta pot, and vowed never to water it, fertilize it, or intervene in its life in any way. I figured it might last a year, maybe two. I was wrong.

Because today, that same sedum is still going strong, and if that isn’t testament to the toughness of the plant, I don’t know what is. After all, it’s been through every temperature extreme imaginable, including single-digit cold and triple-digit heat. It’s been covered in ice and snow again and again. It’s been rain soaked and sitting in soggy soil for days on end.

Guests have poured their drinks on it. Dogs have hiked their legs on it. And I’m pretty sure that one night, after partying a bit too hard, I also might have…well, never mind.

The point is succulents — and sedum (also called stonecrop) is a type of succulent — actually do thrive on neglect, and that includes all succulents, both indoor and outdoor varieties, as well as cacti. Of course, I’d never suggest you put them to the test the way I did, but I would suggest you not intervene too much in their lives, and follow these simple suggestions for succulent success.

DON’T OVERWATER. From late spring to late summer, water indoor succulents no more than once a week. From fall through early spring, water maybe once every three or four weeks. Except during extreme periods of drought, outdoor varieties rarely need to be watered. In fact, overwatering is the fastest way to kill them.

THINK TWICE BEFORE FERTILIZING. Truth is, succulents will be perfectly happy without any fertilizer, and if you feed them too much or too often, they’ll croak. At the most, fertilize once a month during spring and summer, and not at all during fall and winter.

GIVE THEM PLENTY OF LIGHT. Although most succulents are native to desert regions of the world, they actually do best outdoors in this area when protected from late afternoon sun. Too much light – combined with hot temps — can lead to sunscald. Indoors, they need at least a half day of bright, indirect light.

REPOT ROUTINELY. Succulents respond well to annual repotting with a mix specifically blended for them. Espoma makes one that’s ideal. Best time to repot is spring.

Enjoy your succulents. Just remember not to kill them with kindness.

Mosquito Alert!

Mosquito Blog Post

By Paul James

A small percentage of people on the planet don’t get mosquito bites. I’m one of them. My daughter in law and granddaughter, on the other hand, can be sitting right next to me on the patio and get two dozen bites in five minutes. So what gives? And what can they do to protect themselves?

First, the what gives. Turns out mosquitoes don’t like the way I smell, and according to microbiologists who study such things, that’s due to a particular scent emitted by the trillion or so bacteria that inhabit my skin. (And for the record, most people think I smell just fine, thank you.) 

But the bacteria that live on my daughter’s and granddaughter’s skin emit an odor that’s apparently and unfortunately attractive to mosquitoes, which explains why they’re both basically mosquito magnets. And by the way, there’s nothing they can do to change that. 

Now let’s talk protection. First and foremost, you have to eliminate the habitat mosquitoes love, and that’s standing water – in plant saucers, in wheelbarrows, in clogged or sagging gutters, in kiddy pools – anywhere and everywhere water remains for more than a few hours.  And you’ve got to encourage your neighbors to do likewise, because mosquitoes can travel from their yard to yours.

Bt dunks, donuts, or granules should be used in birdbaths, water features, holes in trees where water collects, and anywhere else standing water can’t be eliminated. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) is an all-natural biological control that targets only mosquito larvae, and it’s extremely effective.

Beyond that, you need to rely on repellents, of which there are many. When trying to control mosquitoes on the patio, options include citronella candles (which may also contain rosemary, thyme, and other oils), incense sticks that also contain those and other oils, and various sprays. Deet is still the most effective spray, but a lot of folks think it’s harmful, despite considerable research to the contrary. Picaridin, an alternative to Deet that was developed in Australia, has for decades been used there and throughout Europe with no reported health risks. Plants such as citronella and lemon grass, despite what you may have heard or read, simply do not work unless you crush the leaves and rub them on your skin. However, a powerful fan will work because mosquitoes can’t fly in winds above 7mph.

For broader control, there are also repellents that contain various natural oils, are pleasantly scented, and can be applied as granules or sprays to the entire yard. Many of them last for up to three weeks depending on rainfall. And there are chemical foggers, including automated systems that spray chemicals in the air at preset intervals. I’m not too keen on having chemicals in the air while I’m hanging out in the yard, but then I’m the guy who doesn’t attract mosquitoes.

As for bat and purple martin houses, research makes it clear that while they do indeed eat mosquitoes, neither can eat enough in a day to make a noticeable dent in the population. After all, even though female mosquitoes generally don’t live longer than a week, they lay up to 300 eggs a day.

And finally, there’s one sure way to attract mosquitoes, and that’s to drink a beer. Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, and there’s plenty of that in the beer and in the belches that invariably follow.

What’s in a Name?

Pub Sign Blog Post

By Paul James

Ever heard of a Gallant Soldier, Fat Hen, or Good King Henry? Although they could pass for the names of British pubs, they are in fact common names of plants. And like most common names, they typically require some explanation. Take, for example, the tomato known as ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.’

During the Great Depression, Marshall Cletis Byles of Logan, West Virginia, owned a radiator shop cleverly situated at the bottom of a steep hill where trucks regularly overheated. In his spare time, Byles – who went by the moniker Radiator Charlie — experimented with cross pollinating tomatoes, and after six years of breeding he wound up with his prize: a disease-resistant tomato capable of producing four-pound fruits that were downright delicious. Word quickly spread about ‘Radiator Charlie’s’ tomatoes, which he sold for a whopping $1 each, and over the next six years he was able to pay off his mortgage with the proceeds, at which point he changed the tomato’s name to ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.’ And by the way, the variety is easy to find to this day and is definitely worth growing.

Other oddly named veggies include ‘Howling Mob’ corn, a turn-of-the-century variety that was named by the breeder after he’d sold out of seed one day at the market, which caused customers to get quite unruly. Then there’s ‘Lazy Housewife,’ one of the first stringless pole beans that saved time and effort in preparation. The names ‘Mostoller Wild Goose’ and ‘Turkey Craw’ beans have similar origins, as both were found in the gullets of birds that had been shot for dinner. And another tomato, ‘Myona,’ was brought to America by an Italian immigrant who sold his prized crop from a pushcart on the streets of New York. When asked if the variety had a name, he replied, with a thick accent, “It’s a my own a.”

Among flowers, the aforementioned Gallant Soldier, a member of the daisy family is a corruption of its botanic name, Galinsoga. Fat Hen is another name for Lamb’s Quarter, a common weed that chickens and turkeys are known to gobble up. And Good King Henry is a species of goosefoot that’s also called Poor Man’s Asparagus, Lincolnshire Spinach, Markery, and English Mercury.

Then there’s Bastard Toadflax, Butter and Eggs (AKA Yellow Toadflax or Brideweed), Turkey Corn (a type of bleeding heart), Mother-in-Law’s Cushion (a cactus!), Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate (prized by Thomas Jefferson, it’s a pretty member of the genus Persicaria, and can be invasive), and Love-in-a-Puff (whose seed pods burst to reveal a heart-shaped internal structure).

And yes, there are numerous common names that have been around for centuries, but which might cause more than a few readers to blush, as they refer to various body parts, both male and female. I’ll leave you to do your own research into the naughty ones. There are also legitimate botanical names that have entered the lexicon and continue to cause a stir, notably (and my personal favorite) the Latin name of a flowering shrub that is a Heath, but which is known taxonomically as Erica canaliculata.

Honestly, I’m not making this up.

Ants: Friends or Foes?

Ant Blog Post

By Paul James

I get asked so many questions about ants that some days I just want to scream, “Uncle!” So let me just say right off the top that most ants aren’t bad. In fact, most ants are enormously important little critters. And rather than seeing them as pests in the garden, I suggest you think of them as partners. Here’s why.

Ants are recyclers. Red and black tunneling ants commonly found in lawns and gardens scavenge the soil in search of dead insects and a host of other organic nibbles and turn them into fertilizer. They also aerate the soil and redistribute nutrients along the way.

Ants are predators. Several species of ants feed on fleas, fly larvae, and termites, as well as the larval and adult forms of numerous garden pests.

Ants disperse seeds. A number of wildflowers depend exclusively on ants for dispersal of their seeds, including bleeding hearts, bloodroot, trillium, trout lily, wild ginger, and violets. In fact, these plants are thought to actually time their bloom period for when ants are most active.

Ants protect plants. Ants are attracted to the sweet nectar found on plant stems and the bases of flowers, and while feeding they also patrol the plants and keep insects from attacking them. A familiar example of this is seen on peonies in late spring. Ants crawl all over the sticky flower buds devouring the sweet nectar, and in return they protect the peony from potential pests. (There is disagreement over the popular notion that ants actually help the flowers open.)

Ants are custodians. Leave a few crumbs or other morsels on a picnic table, and overnight they’ll likely be gone thanks in part to ants, who are extraordinarily gifted at finding and hauling away scraps of just about any and every food type.

Ants are food for others. Let’s not forget the way the food chain works – sometimes you’re predator, sometimes you’re prey. And ants are an important food source for other insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, birds, fish, some mammals, and even people (don’t knock them ‘til you’ve tried them).

Of the nearly three dozen ant species in Oklahoma, only two are cause for concern. Carpenter ants (red or black) are one of the largest species common in our area, and over long periods of time they can cause damage to trees and wooden structures, including homes. They don’t actually eat wood, but they do chew it as they tunnel. They probably should be controlled, especially when populations get out of control.

And of course there is the red imported fire ant that lives outdoors and whose sting packs a mighty wallop. They’ve been sighted in Tulsa and a few surrounding counties, and they’ve become prevalent in southern Oklahoma. If you suspect these little monsters have inhabited your yard, you definitely want to take steps to get rid of them.

In the home, I can see how most people might view them as pests. But in all fairness, household ant invasions are largely the result of our own doing, meaning they aren’t likely to stick around if food sources aren’t available (juice spills on countertops, grease on stovetops, ripe fruit sitting out, for example.)

If you’re compelled to get rid of ants, there are several effective products on the market, most of which contain some form of boric acid (Borax) or synthetic pyrethroid. Diatomaceous earth is an excellent organic alternative.

The Wacky World of Gardening

Wacky Gardening Blog post

By Paul James

Bermuda grass isn’t from Bermuda. Jerusalem artichokes aren’t from Jerusalem (they aren’t even artichokes!) The eastern red cedar seen throughout Green Country isn’t a cedar at all. And cauliflower has been described as “cabbage with a college education.” Oh, how I love the wacky work of gardening. But wait…there’s more!

All in the Family

Poison ivy is in the cashew family. Keep that in mind the next time you get an itch for those tasty nuts (which by the way aren’t nuts in the botanical sense – read on). Also in the family are pistachios, mangos, sumacs, and yes, even smoke trees. Wacky, huh?

Hops, a key ingredient in making beer, are in the same family as marijuana. So is our native hackberry tree.

Nearly all the fruits we commonly grow (and eat) are in the rose family, including apples, apricots, blackberries, cherries, peaches, pears, and raspberries. Even almonds are in the rose family, because they’re basically itty bitty peaches before their outer flesh is removed to reveal the nut, which – you guessed it – isn’t a nut!

Fruits and Nuts

A true nut, botanically speaking, is a hard-shelled pod that contains both the fruit and seed of the plant. Examples include chestnuts, hazelnuts, and acorns. Walnuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and almonds are actually a type of fruit known as a drupe. But peaches, plums, and cherries are also drupes. In the case of the former, we eat the seed, and in case of the latter, we eat the flesh and discard the seed.

Peanuts aren’t nuts either. They’re legumes, like beans and peas. The “nut” we eat is a seed.

And to mess with you even more, in many cases what we call vegetables are in fact fruits. The word vegetable is a generic term rooted in culinary tradition, not a botanical one. It’s used to describe plants that produce edible leaves (lettuce), stems (rhubarb), stalks (asparagus), bulbs (onions), flowers (broccoli) and roots (carrots).

But while you may also think of squash or okra or beans as vegetables, they are technically fruits (beans, of course, being the most melodic of them all). And some common “vegetables” are technically berries, among them tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant. Even grapes and bananas are berries. But, strange as it may seem strawberries aren’t berries at all (they’re known as aggregate fruits).

Confused? Of course you are! You’d be nuts if you weren’t. But I’m not done yet.

Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts are all the same species of plant, but they’ve been so selectively bred over the years that they hardly resemble one another. Perhaps that’s why Samuel Clemens described cauliflower as “cabbage with a college education.”

And that takes us back to my first paragraph. Bermuda grass is from Africa, not Bermuda. It arrived in the U.S. as a result of the grass being used as a bedding material on slave ships. Jerusalem artichokes are actually native to this country, and are a type of sunflower. The Italian word for sunflower is girasole, and through several slips of the tongue over the years, girasole became Jerusalem. And finally, the eastern red cedar is, in fact, a juniper. No matter what you call it, however, farmers and ranchers tend to despise it as a weed tree.

Oh how I love the wacky world of gardening!

We’re Having a Heat Wave!

Sunshine Blog Post

By Paul James

Recent rains were a nice respite, but now it looks as though we’re heading into an extended period of hot weather, with heat indices climbing well into the 100s and few chances for additional rain. That’s hardly surprising, given that it’s officially summer. And with that in mind, here are the two most important words to keep in mind – mulch and water.

Mulch – A thick layer of mulch is great for maintaining even soil moisture and soil temperature, two things plants love. Mulch also prevents annoying summer weeds from popping up all over. And on top of all that, it looks great. Choose from among chipped or shredded wood products, or try pine needles. A two- to four-inch layer is ideal, but keep mulch a few inches away from the base of plants to avoid rot and damage by mice, who love to chew on bark in search of moisture.

Water – Of course you have to water, but how much and how often? That’s one of the toughest questions to answer, because there are so many variables to consider. But in general, annuals, perennials, and turf grasses need at least one inch of water every week, and the way to measure that amount is about as low tech as it gets. Place a straight-sided can (I use a tuna can) in the garden bed or lawn, turn on the sprinkler, and determine how much time it takes to fill the can with water up to an inch. That’s how long you need to water every week. As temperatures climb in to the mid 90s and beyond, you might want to water twice a week.

Trees and shrubs up to six-feet tall need roughly three gallons of water a week, whereas larger ones need up to 10 gallons. Time how long it takes to fill a one-gallon watering can at a slow trickle from the hose, and multiply by three or 10 to determine how long you’ll need to leave the water running. And while it’s running, move the hose in a circular pattern several feet away from the base of the plant for even distribution.

If you rely on an automatic sprinkler system, use the tuna can test to determine how long you’ll need to run the system, but be prepared to water trees and shrubs by hand regardless.

And finally, plan on watering patio pots and hanging baskets at least once a day, maybe twice a day if they’re in direct sun.

Beyond taking care of your plants, be sure to take care of yourself. Stay hydrated, take frequent breaks, wear sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and try to avoid working in the garden during the hottest part of the day.

Summer Vegetable Tips

Grow Tomatoes Blog Post

By Paul James

This is a time of transition in the vegetable garden, and I face it with mixed emotions. I’m forced to rip out lettuce, spinach, and other greens (no more fresh salads!) that have bolted due to the heat, but I look forward to harvesting tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and the like. And here’s what I’m doing now to make sure all goes according to plan.

Beans – Harvest often, perhaps even daily, but don’t worry about fertilizing. Beans are legumes, which means they fix nitrogen from the air and store it in root nodules. Bean beetles, which look sort of like ladybeetles but with yellowish green to light orange bodies, can be a nuisance; control them with a product containing Spinosad (I like Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew).

Corn – The real trick to getting a good crop of corn in a small veggie garden is to shake the stalks regularly so that the pollen at the top of the plants drops down to the silks on the cobs. Corn is pollinated by wind, not insects, and in a small plot it often needs our help. Once the silks have begun to brown, add a few drops of Bt, an all natural insecticide, to the tips of the cobs to control earworms, ugly caterpillars that always seem to find their way into corn and leave behind a gross mess.

Cucumbers – Cukes need lots of moisture and sunlight, and they should be fertilized as fruits begin to grow. Espoma Plant-Tone provides all the nutrients they need. Watch out for cucumber beetles, which also look like ladybeetles but have bright yellow bodies with black spots or stripes; treat plants with Spinosad.

Eggplant – To maximize production, fertilize when flowers appear and harvest often. Smaller fruits tend to have far fewer seeds and are less bitter. Be on the lookout for shotgun-like holes in the leaves caused by flea beetles. Treat with Spinosad.

Garlic – Assuming you planted garlic last fall, it should be close to harvest time. If scapes have formed (curly stems with a flower bud at the end), remove them to force more energy into bulb development (and either grill them or use them to make pesto!). Once a half dozen or so of the lower leaves have turned brown, carefully lift the plants out of the ground and store them in a shady spot that gets good air circulation. In about ten days, cut the top growth and store the now cured bulbs in a cool, dry place.

Okra – Just keep it watered. That’s about all there is to it. Harvest when the pods are roughly three-inches long, and plan on harvesting darn near every day.

Peppers – Provided they get lots and lots of sun, peppers generally aren’t bothered by pests and diseases. Try not to overwater them, however, especially if growing hot varieties. Periods of drought tend to make them hotter.

Potatoes – Although a cool-season crop, potatoes are usually harvested in early summer. Once flowers appear, you can begin harvesting new potatoes. If you let the vines turn brown before harvesting, the tubers will last longer in storage.

Squash – Squash is so often ravaged by squash beetles and squash vine borers that for me anyway it’s the toughest veggie to grow. Still, I plant a few hills every year and hope for the best. Squash bugs can be controlled with pesticides if you catch them in their nymph stage, but adults are a different story. Look for reddish-brown egg masses on the underside of leaves and “squash” them to reduce the population. Female squash vine borers look like red and black wasps. They lay their eggs in the vine or stem of the plant, and the emerging caterpillars feed from the inside, making them hard to detect, often until it’s too late. If you see “frass” (caterpillar poop) on the main stems, that’s a sure sign that your squash is in trouble. Make a small slit in the stem and pour some Bt into it, then cover with soil and cross your fingers.

Melons – Melons can be tricky to grow as well, because they’re susceptible to various insects and fungal diseases. But they’re still easier than squash! Make sure you’ve got Spinosad on hand for the bugs and a great, all natural fungicide called Serenade for the diseases. Harvest watermelon and cantaloupe when the underside turns from white to pale yellow and the melon feels heavier than you would expect.

Tomatoes – Despite their enormous popularity, tomatoes can be challenging to grow thanks to bugs, viral and bacterial diseases, birds and squirrels, and excessive heat, which can shut down fruit production. Still, I doubt there’s anything I could say to discourage you from trying, right? Perhaps the most important thing to do is water frequently. Erratic swings in the moisture level can cause blossom-end rot and cracking.

And don’t forget the next transition – from summer to fall – when planting starts all over again!

Creating a Pollinator Garden

Swallowtail Butterfly on Lantana

By Paul James

Pollinator gardens are all the rage these days, thanks largely to the concern over the future of honeybees and Monarch butterflies, whose populations have been in decline in recent years. That’s made them the poster children for the pollinator movement, and that’s a good thing. But there are lots of other critters that pollinate our gardens, and they deserve attention too.

Among them are several other species of native bees, including bumblebees, mason bees, solitary bees, and sweat bees (honeybees aren’t native – they’re from Europe). And while there are about 750 species of butterflies in North America, there are over 11,000 moth species! Due to their numbers, a lot of winged insects we think are butterflies are actually moths, and they pollinate a considerable number of plants, both during the day and at night.

Other effective pollinators includes various flies, wasps, beetles, dragonflies, ants, male mosquitoes (they don’t need blood like the females do – they need nectar), and of course hummingbirds.

So how do you attract pollinators to your garden? Well the short answer is to include lots of flowers of various colors and shapes, but there’s more to it than that. You also need to eliminate the use of broad-spectrum insecticides, opting instead to use products that target only the pest you’re trying to control. And you need to provide a source of water such as a bowl or birdbath filled with stones to provide perches, especially for butterflies and moths.

As for plants, choose a wide variety, especially natives, and plant them in clumps rather than as single plants to provide large landing zones for pollinators. Try to overlap flowering times between seasons, from early spring into fall. And mix up the colors and flower forms. Butterflies are attracted to red, orange, and yellow and usually prefer flat, open flowers. Hummingbirds also love the color red as well as fuchsia and purple, and they prefer tubular flowers.

Here are a couple of partial lists of great perennial pollinator plants to help you get started. Keep in mind the fact that there are many more, including numerous annuals, trees, shrubs, and fruits.

To Attract Bees & Butterflies

  • Achillea (Yarrow)
  • Agastache (Hyssop)
  • Asclepias (Milkweed)
  • Aster
  • Caryopteris
  • Coreopsis (Tickseed)
  • Echinacea (Coneflower)
  • Gaillardia (Blanket Flower)
  • Gaura
  • Soldago (Goldenrod)
  • Lavender
  • Monarda (Bee Balm)
  • Penstemon (Beardtongue)
  • Perovskia (Russian Sage)
  • Phlox
  • Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan)
  • Salvia (Sage)

And don’t forget to consider a Vitex (Chaste Tree). It’s a shrub, but it’s quite possibly the greatest pollinator magnet of all.

To Attract Hummingbirds

  • Agastache (Hyssop)
  • Ajuga
  • Gaillardia (Blanket Flower)
  • Heuchera (Coral Bells)
  • Lantana
  • Monarda (Bee Balm)
  • Penstemon (Beardtongue)
  • Phlox
  • Salvia (Sage)
  • Verbena

Living with Latin

Japanese Maple

By Paul James

When my daughter was 12 or 13, she commented on how pretty a particular tree was as we strolled through the garden. “What’s it called?” she asked. “It’s Acer japonicum aconitifolium,” I said. She then repeated those three words three times, and now nearly 15 years later she can still pronounce the Latin name of the Full Moon Japanese maple perfectly. But why didn’t I just call it that in the first place?

Gardening geeks like me are sometimes accused of being pretentious when we use the Latin names of plants. But the truth is, all gardeners use Latin names routinely whether they realize it or not. For example, Begonia, Clematis, Crocus, Forsythia, Gardenia, Ginkgo, Hibiscus, Hosta, Hydrangea, and Iris, and Viburnum are all Latin names.

So here’s the deal: using the Latin name of a plant is the only way to positively identify the plant. Common names can be confusing because they may refer to more than one plant and often vary from one part of the country to another. As a result, if you were to ask for a ‘Snowball Bush’ at a nursery, the salesperson can’t be sure whether you’re asking for a particular type of Viburnum or a Hydrangea.

The method we use to name plants – known as binomial nomenclature — was developed in 1753 by Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist who described and named thousands of plants and animals. In its simplest form, it consists of a genus name and a species name, although it may also include other descriptors.

Thus, in the case of the Full Moon Japanese maple, Acer is the genus for all maples, japonicum means it comes from Japan, and aconitifolium refers to the shape of its leaves (resembling those of another plant called monkshood, which is in the genus Aconitum).

Actually, learning a little Latin can be helpful, because the species names in particular can tell you something about a plant – its color, where it comes from, how it grows, etc. Here are a few are the more common species names used to describe plants.

alba — white

aurea – golden or yellow

canadensis – from Canada

chinensis – from China

densiflora – dense flowered

grandiflora – large flowered

macrophylla – large leaves

pendula – hanging

rotundifolia – round leaves

viridis – green

vulgaris — common

My favorite plant name has always been Ilex vomitoria, the Latin name for Yaupon Holly. Ilex is the genus for hollies, and vomitoria refers to the fact that a tea brewed from its leaves can make you quite sick. Who says botanists don’t have a sense of humor?

Is Laurel Hardy?

Laurel And Hardy Blog Post

By Paul James

I sometimes chuckle when someone asks me if a plant is hardy, because often what they’re actually asking me is if a plant is tough enough to survive Oklahoma summers. And that’s not what hardiness is all about. Hardiness has to do with a plant’s ability to survive the winter in a given area, and Hardiness Zones are established by the USDA based on historical weather data. So, do you know which Zone you’re in?

Before answering that question, I should explain that Plant Hardiness Zones are first numerically divided into 10-degree increments, and there are 13 of them (Zone 1 is bone-chilling cold, whereas Zone 13 is tropical). They’re then further divided into 5-degree “a” and “b” increments. The numbers and letters represent the average annual extreme minimum temperature for a given area. The key word here is average, because the zone designations do not reflect the coldest temperature ever recorded at a specific location.

(FYI – the coldest temperature ever recorded in Tulsa was 16-below zero, set in 1930. In 2011, we hit minus 12.)

Most of Oklahoma consists of three Zones that run somewhat parallel from east to west. Zone 6b (-5 to 0 degrees) is in the northernmost area of the state, roughly from just south of Bartlesville to the Kansas border. Zone 7a (0 to 5 degrees) includes Tulsa and extends south just beyond Okmulgee. And Zone 7b (5 to 10 degrees) covers an area from just north of McAlester to the Texas border.

Other than annuals – which by definition aren’t hardy – and tropicals, which I wish were hardy, it’s safe to assume that fully 99% of the plants sold by nurseries in your area, including here at Southwood, are hardy. Otherwise, they (and we) would have to deal with a lot of angry customers returning plants that didn’t make it through the winter.

But circling back to my first sentence, just because a plant is hardy in the winter here doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll survive the summer. Take hemlock, for example, one of my favorite conifers. It’s perfectly hardy (down to minus 30!), but it can’t take the heat in our neck of the woods. Ditto firs, many rhododendrons, and a host of other plants.

The American Horticultural Society years ago developed a Heat Zone Map that shows whether a plant is likely to survive the summer, but it never really caught on, perhaps because people just zoned out due to the confusion created by having to understand not one but two zone maps. Still, it’s a useful tool that you can find online at http://ahsgardening.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map. (And by the way, we’re in Zone 8 in terms of heat).

Fortunately for us, we live in an area where we can grow a staggering number of plants that are dependably hardy. And yes, that includes laurels.

Kids and Gardening

Kids Gardening Blog Post

By Paul James

Getting kids interested in gardening is really quite simple — just think like a kid! That means forgetting about everything being neat and tidy and orderly and exact. In fact, it often means doing quite the opposite. My first suggestion? Let them get filthy dirty like my grandson pictured here. Does he look happy or what?!

Years ago I did an episode of “Gardening by the Yard” that was all about kids and gardening. I recruited 20 or so of my own kids’ friends – most were between 4 and 8 years of age – and we spent the better part of a day playing in the yard and completing a variety of projects.

The first was making mud pies. I gave each kid an aluminum pie pan and had them fill it with mud that I’d prepared in advance. Then I told them to wander about the yard and decorate their pies with seeds, berries, flowers, leaves, and stones – pretty much anything that caught their eyes while also reminding them not to put anything in their mouths. The results, for the most part anyway, were beautiful.

Over the course of several hours, we planted beans from seed by throwing the seeds into a prepared bed in the most haphazard way imaginable, and planting them where they fell. We turned the compost pile in search of earthworms and other critters, and discovered a nest of garter snakes. We made transfers of tree bark on paper, released lady beetles and tied praying mantis egg cases to the branches of various shrubs, harvested strawberries and doused them (and each other) with canned whipped cream, and picked lettuce and spinach straight from the garden for lunch (I had PB&Js standing by).

But one of my favorite projects was planting broccoli. I gave each of the kids a transplant (for instant gratification) and showed them the bed where I wanted them planted. Then I showed them how to carefully remove the transplants from the pot and tease the roots before planting. When they were finished, I asked them if they liked broccoli, and most said only if it was covered with cheese sauce. So I went inside, grabbed a package of shredded cheddar cheese, and had the kids sprinkle each transplant with cheese.

All the kids, quite unknowingly, connected to the natural world around them. And to this day many of them – now in their 20s and 30s and avid gardeners – tell me how much fun they had that day. I had fun too, especially when I sent all the kids home to their parents filthy dirty and soaking wet.

The Sun/Shade Dilemma

Sun Shade Garden Blog Post

By Paul James

When shopping for plants, one of the first and most important questions you’ll likely be asked is, Will they be growing in sun or shade? And often it’s one or the other. But that’s not always the case. Truth is, the whole sun and shade discussion can get rather confusing, but it’s a critical consideration when it comes to picking the right plants.

First, realize that telling the salesperson that your house faces east or west (or any other direction) isn’t specific enough. For example, most people would assume that a south- or west-facing property gets lots of afternoon sun. But if the property is loaded with mature trees, it may actually get very little sun, so make sure you convey that information.

Figuring out how best to describe your particular situation means you’ll carefully have to observe when and where the sun is shining throughout the day. And why is it so important to make such a determination? Simple. Plants that require full sun won’t grow well in the shade. They may survive, but they won’t thrive, and they’ll forever lack the vigor that they would otherwise have. However, they may do just fine in dappled light, or a spot that gets some sun throughout the day. Plants that require full shade will croak in the sun. Period.

Here are the most common sun/shade situations and suggestions on how to select the right plants for each.

Morning Sun/Afternoon Shade

Lucky you, because this situation gives you lots of choices, depending on exactly how much morning sun the area gets. If it’s just two or three hours worth, then you should consider Azaleas, Hydrangeas, Yews, Japanese Maples, and Dogwoods, plus all annuals and perennials that are considered shade tolerant. If it gets sun until midday or later, you should opt for plants that prefer full sun.

Morning Shade/Afternoon Sun

In this situation, your best bet is to go with plants that require full sun, because the shade-tolerant plants mentioned above cannot handle afternoon sun. Still, the list of plants that will adapt to such a situation is a long one, and includes nearly all flowering annuals and perennials as well as trees and shrubs.

Partial Sun/Partial Shade

This situation is also called “dappled light,” and here things get a little tricky. But generally speaking, if there’s more sun than shade, go with plants that require full sun, and if there’s more shade than sun, choose plants that prefer shade. If there are roughly equal amounts of sun and shade throughout the day, you can plant pretty much anything you want.

Following these guidelines, you may not be successful 100% of the time, but then no gardener has that kind of success, including me.

Debunking Garden Myths

Paul James Seminars

By Paul James

When I speak at gardening events across the country, the format I prefer is a simple Q&A. It engages the audience, it helps me understand exactly what gardeners are interested in, and it allows me to perform my shtick. It also gives me the opportunity to debunk common and persistent garden myths, including many that never seem to go away.

Newly Planted Trees Must be Staked

There are only two times to stake a tree. One is if it’s been planted as a bare-root tree and therefore lacks sufficient root mass to keep it upright. And the other is if you live on a hilltop where strong winds blow. Otherwise, there’s no real benefit to staking a tree. Ideally, trees should be left to sway in the wind because that helps them develop stronger trunks. If you do stake a tree, remember to remove the stake after the first year.

Stressed Plants Should be Fertilized

When a plant looks sickly, your first instinct may be to fertilize it. But that’s often the last thing you should do. A plant in poor health absorbs fewer nutrients than a healthy plant, so adding fertilizer can actually backfire by leading to an accumulation of excess nutrients and salts in the soil that can burn tender roots and cause leaf discoloration.

Instead, you should first try to zero on what the real problem is, including pH imbalance, pest or disease problems, drainage issues, poor watering practices, and so on, all of which can inhibit the absorption of nutrients, making the addition of fertilizer a complete waste of money.

Add Gravel to Bottom of Pots

This one’s been around for years, unfortunately. The idea behind it is that gravel at the bottom of the pot improves drainage and reduces the likelihood of root rot. But in fact, it actually increases the chance of root rot, because water doesn’t move easily through the potting mix to the gravel. As a result, water builds up in the potting mix and is only released into the gravel when it’s saturated, like a sponge that can’t hold any more water. So when planting things in a pot, use only potting mix.

(The technique, by the way, is known as crocking, and soil scientists have known for over a hundred years that it doesn’t work. Said another way, crocking is a crock.)

Pruning Paints

The idea behind the use of pruning paints is simple enough: the cut surface of a stem or branch is like an open wound, and by sealing the wound the threat of rot or disease is eliminated. But in fact, pruning paints actually increase the threat by interfering with the natural healing processes.

When a stem or branch is cut, trees form scar tissue to keep pathogens out. Not only do pruning paints prevent the formation of scar tissue, they can also seal in water along with various pathogens that can lead to decay.

Amend Clay Soil with Sand

If you mix clay with sand and add water, you get something akin to a brick, and that’s not a good thing, unless of course you’re building a home. In the garden, the only way to improve clay soil is by adding organic matter – compost, shredded leaves, grass clippings, barnyard manures, and so on. It may take several seasons and repeated applications to truly transform a clay soil into something akin to loam, but you’ll get there.

Organic Pesticides aren’t Chemicals

It’s common these days for people to refer to natural pesticides as “organic” and synthetic pesticides as “chemicals.” But that’s ridiculous, because all pesticides are chemicals. Period. Organic products are derived from natural sources (such as plants, animal byproducts, and bacteria), whereas synthetic products are manmade. But they’re all chemicals, and there’s no getting around that fact.

Best. Trees. Ever.

Japanese Maple Blog Post

By Paul James

I don’t just love Japanese maples. I adore them. Have for decades. To me, they’re the most beautiful of all trees. Interestingly, although they appear delicate, they’re actually tough as nails, and rarely suffer from pest or disease problems. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say every landscape should have at least one of them.

Japanese maples grow extremely well in this area, assuming they’re planted in the right location. That generally means a spot that gets just a few hours of morning sun followed by shade the rest of the day, or dappled light throughout the day. That can be a challenge for many homeowners, so your decision as to which one to buy may come down to this: red-leaf varieties will color up best when they get morning sun, whereas green-leaf varieties will do fine in all-day shade. If all you’ve got is all-day sun, plant something else. Sorry.

Ideally, the soil should hold moisture but drain well, but I’ve grown Japanese maples successfully in fairly heavy soils as well by planting them such that at least a third of the rootball is above grade. They thrive in acidic soils, witnessed by the fact that they’re often combined with azaleas, but they’re happy in soils with a near neutral pH.

Try to plant them in an area that’s protected from hot summer winds to avoid leaf scorch. And during the first two years after planting, keep them well watered. Once established, Japanese maples are fairly drought tolerant, but it’s best to give them a deep soaking once a week, especially during the summer months.

Japanese maples make stunning specimens in the landscape, and the choices available – in terms of size, shape, and leaf color — are staggering. There are upright and weeping forms. There are varieties that can reach 25-feet tall or more and others that top out at only three or four feet. In addition to red and green leaves, there are those with yellow to orange leaves (which may turn green in summer). And the fall color of nearly all Japanese maples borders on the spectacular.

One more thing to keep in mind: You can also grow Japanese maples in containers. And because they actually prefer to be somewhat pot bound, you don’t need an especially large pot. I’ve been growing three different varieties in 18-inch pots for over eight years now, and they look great.

And finally, just in case I haven’t convinced you in words to plant a Japanese maple at your place, perhaps these pictures will change your mind.

Let’s Plant!

Lets Plant Blog Post

By Paul James

I think I speak for most gardeners– okay, maybe all – when I say, “What the heck. Let’s plant!” After all, it finally looks as though the cold temps are behind us, soil temps are steadily climbing, and I know we’re all dying to dig in the dirt. Plus, the forecast for next week looks downright perfect. In fact, the only thing I’d wait another week to plant would be caladium bulbs. So what the heck. Let’s plant! And that concludes my shortest post ever.

Controlling Pests & Diseases

Pink Azaleas

By Paul James

There’s no getting around it, folks…sooner or later some of our favorite plants get attacked by pests or diseases or both. Sometimes the invaders are relatively easy to control, although that’s not always the case, which is why there are dozens of products on the market aimed at targeting and destroying them. But what if I told you there are several things you can do to discourage pests and diseases from showing up in the first place?

The most important thing you can do is maintain healthy soil, because plants grown in healthy soil will be healthy too, which means they’ll be better equipped to resist invasions by pests and diseases. It’s much the same with humans; when our immune system is compromised we’re more likely to get sick. And creating healthy soil is simple – get in the habit of routinely adding compost (whether store-bought or homemade) to your soil. Just top off your beds with a two-inch layer of the stuff or place it around the perimeter of individual plants at least once or twice a year and your plants will thank you.

Now repeat the mantra – Right Place, Right Plant – over and over again, because it’s vitally important. When you plant something in the proper place you greatly increase its chances of remaining healthy. But if a plant requires well drained soil and you plant it in clay, or if it requires shade and you plant it in sun, you have only yourself to blame if it doesn’t do well and succumbs to pests and diseases.

Providing good air circulation can go a long way toward preventing problems, especially fungal diseases, so don’t crowd plants too close together or plant them directly against the house or fence. That’s especially important in the case of roses and Photinia.

Mulch can actually help keep fungal diseases at bay as well, because it smothers fungal spores in the ground and prevents them from splashing onto leaf surfaces when it rains or when you water.

And speaking of water, avoid watering late in the day so leaf surfaces have a chance to dry out completely. If they remain wet overnight, they’re prone to attack by fungal diseases. And regardless of when you water, soak the base of the plant rather than the leaves for the same reason.

Finally, try to keep your garden relatively tidy. Pests love to hide in garden debris, especially in piles of leaves and under boards or stones.

By doing all these things you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by how much healthier your plants are. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll be immune to attack by pests and diseases, but it does mean they’ll be better equipped to withstand them.

Plant for Spring Color Now

Pink Dogwood

By Paul James

Funny thing about people’s plant buying habits – they tend to buy things when they’re in full bloom. That’s perfectly understandable. But if you want to enjoy the blooms over a longer period of time, you really should consider planting much earlier. And for some of the most colorful harbingers of spring, that means now.

For example, let’s say you’ve been thinking of buying a dogwood. Well then chances are you know what a dogwood in flower looks like, right? But have you ever seen how those flowers develop, first as tight buds on branch tips that open slowly, often changing colors slightly along the way, until they finally open fully to reveal the familiar flower that made you want a dogwood in the first place? The process is, to my mind, every bit as interesting as the final result. And you miss that when you buy a dogwood that’s already in full bloom. What’s more, you cut short the time you get to appreciate the tree in bloom.

The same goes for other stars of spring such as azaleas, cherries, crabapples, redbuds, and serviceberries, just to name a few, all of which will be blooming soon, perhaps even as early as next week in the case of crabapples.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t plant something that’s already in bloom. But if you’re buying something primarily for the beauty of its flowers, why not enjoy them from beginning to end? Said another way, why not plant now? After all, the weekend forecast looks awesome.

The Other Beautiful Bulbs

Other Bulbs Blog Post

By Paul James

When you hear the word bulb, you more than likely think of those that bloom in late winter to early spring – daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths, for example. But there’s another group of bulbs that you actually plant in spring for a summer show, and they’re among the most beautiful bulbs of all.

In fact, in many cases, you must plant them from bulbs (or corms or tubers or rhizomes), because they aren’t available as transplants. So, consider the following choices, knowing that you can’t go wrong with any of them, whether planted in the ground or in containers.