Adrian Higgins on tomatoes

Courtesy Ball Horticultural Co.
Apr 23, 2015

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins took questions on gardening.

Good morning chatters, thanks for joining. You can read our cover story this week on the mad science behind vegetable grafting here.

My camellia Japonica has all brown leaves on the 2 major branches, but most of the wood is still alive. It is also coming out from about 2 inches above the ground. I am a fairly new gardener inheriting these plantings. Should I give it a chance to come back as it is (I see some leaf buds) or cut it above the new growth at the bottom? What kind of wind break can I use next year?

Greetings one and all, I hope you are capturing those joyful spring moments. Lots of winter burn on broadleaf evergreens after two harsh winters.  Wait to see what happens. The camellia should produce fresh growth in the next month. As long as the cambium level is green below the bark, the stem is alive. Cut out any dead wood in June. I'm not a big fan of wind breaks, I would make sure your camellia is well watered in the autumn, treated possibly with an anti desiccant spray, and see what happens. 

The tomatillos I started from seed have gotten very leggy. When it comes time to plant, can I plant them very deeply, like tomatoes?

You can plant the tomatillo more deeply than it is growing in the pot, but this is a plant that will get leggy and top heavy no matter what you do, and you should stake it. When you stake tomatoes, etc., it's good to drive in the stake before you plant it, so that you don't spear the plant accidentally. Also it is much better to train a tomato plant as it grows than trying to fix it later. 

I always miss the early spring dates to plant carrots, beets, onions, etc. Can you tell me what I should be planting now and what I have missed the window on (and will have to wait for fall)? Thanks!

You can still sow carrots and beets, no problem. It is too late to sow onion seeds but you can still put in sets for summer harvest. You can still plant as transplants broccoli and cabbage, you can still sow lettuce and mesclun. It's too soon for tomato and pepper planting, I would put those in the second week of May. Wait until mid May to sow beans, cucumbers and squash, as well as corn. 

The harsh winter 2013-14 killed off a sage plant I’d had for about 10 years. I planted a new one last spring, and it was growing phenomenally until mid-summer, when it suddenly died – wilted and died in the space of about two weeks. I didn’t notice spots or pests, but I thought the young plant was struggling with the heat and just needed watering, so I wasn’t looking closely; then it was dead. Any idea what happened and, more importantly what I could do differently this year to avoid a repeat death of a new plant? Even if the new plant doesn’t make it through another bad winter, I’d love to have sage for a full season.

I think you watered it to death. Sage hates heavy wet soil in summer. I plant mine in a bed that is raised and mixed with gravel, and I mulch the crown with more gravel. 

As luck would have it, I am planning to graft my tomato seedlings tonight. I have half a dozen scion varieties that I grew 3 of each and enough rootstock to graft 2 of the 3 of each scion variety. I am holding back one of each of the scions in case the grafts don't take. I planted a grafted tomato last year along with a nongrafted plant of the same variety and the results were dramatic. The grafted plants produced almost 4 times as many tomatoes, and the fruits were slightly larger, so I actually got more than 4 times more tomatoes by weight. Harvest on the grafted variety started about 2 weeks later than the nongrafted plant, but soon caught up.

Thanks for the report: My story in today's Local Living is all about grafted tomatoes. This will be the first season I have tried them, some gardeners report phenomenal success, others don't see much of a difference. I am keeping an open mind. Impressive to make the grafts yourself.  

When should I spray for scales?

You could try a light horticultural oil spray now, and then spray again when they are at crawler stage, which varies by species. Scale is often a product of a stressed plant, so evaluate your growing conditions. 

Young squirrels have eaten all the flower buds off of my viburnums carleseii and mohawk, and most of the swelling leaf buds on my small japanese maple. I have sprayed alternating with ropel and hot pepper wax, but they are not deterred. Any other suggestions?

I am getting a lot of questions about squirrel damage, not just on viburnums but hyacinth flowers and cherry tomatoes. They are a real problem in my garden, eating tulip bulbs even in leaf. I don't know an easy way to thwart them in the city short of trapping them and relocating them (but to where?). Repellents seem better than netting, which can trap birds. Does anyone have any good suggestions? Help. 

I bought a house and there is wild garlic growing in the garden and the yard. Should I attempt to use Roundup or just start digging?

If you try Roundup you should first bash the leaf stalks to break down the waxy barrier on them. Roundup will kill anything it touches, so be careful. I might try digging with a fishtail weeder, the sort you use for dandelions. 

I have been doing some further research on the above subject and I would like to get your thoughts about what veggies may indeed do well in a part-shade environment. I am interested in putting down an asparagus bed and maybe potatoes also, but the prime out-of-the-way (read, (won't get trampled by 2 kids under 7) locations I would like to use, along the side and back of my propery/fence line, get some partial shade at different times of the day (needless to say I will trim back branches as needed). I can probably count on at least 4 hours of full sun in both areas.

I wish I could be more encouraging, but the shade will defeat your aspirations, not to mention your asparagus. The only edible plant that has worked in partial shade for me is redcurrant.  

I planted three rose bushes . How often should I water them?

Roses should be soaked well when transplanted, and then only watered when it gets dry. Water deeply occasionally, so the roots are encouraged to go down. You will drown them in constantly wet soil. 

I was given some genuine Dutch tulip bulbs late last fall. Alas, I did not plant them, and they are now in my storage room. Can I plant them now? Or do they just need to be tossed? Thanks for your advice!

Bulbs are living things that go through a life cycle based on season, and flower in response to a chilling period most of us refer to as winter. Unless you have highly sophisticated cold storage environments, they will dry and die out of the ground. Throw them at the squirrels. 

We trained our chiuahua-dacshund mix to bark at them furiously and run them off the garden. It worked very well last year and hopefully again this year. A fake owl with a rotating head also seems to deter them.

Feisty canine rules the roost! Good show. 

The wysteria i got last year has not done anything this spring. Should it be budding by now? It's in a big pot on a porch if that makes a difference.

My thoughts on wisteras: Wisterias take about six years to bloom. It won't be happy in a container. Correct pruning, summer and winter, is necessary to promote flowering. Maybe I should write a column about wisterias. These days, they are also considered invasive weeds, btw. 

We have a townhouse on Capitol Hill with two large trees: a crapemyrtle and a cherry variety. They are starting to get a little unkempt, and we would like to trim them. However, is it too late in the season for trimming (especially given our early spring)? If so, anything we can do in the interim to neaten them up? Thanks!

You can prune them now, but you must not butcher them. Remove a few branches that are rubbing or growing inward, and plan to groom them more next winter when they are dormant. Be conservative and cautious. Read up on correct pruning techniques that leave behind a healing branch collar. 

We have been in a community garden for over 10 years but will not there next year. Is there any good way/time to transplant raspberries, blueberries,blackberries, elderberry and kiwis that we have there?

Who's going away, you or the community garden? I think old elderberry and kiwis will not move easily. You can move the others now, but hurry. Raspberry canes are only good for about five years, so you may want to plant afresh. 

Hi there. I'm finally motivated to get flowers and plants for my balcony that gets some morning sun but mostly shade. I plan on talking with folks at the garden center but wondered if there were some good articles or online resources I could check out first that might give me some direction first. I'm not as much interested in growing tomatoes (lots of info out there on that!) as I am in getting suggestions for a mix of pretty flowers and plants that can thrive without much sun. Thanks!

You could check out the Proven Winners website, they have combos for shade situations. Generally, the larger the container, the less stress on the plants.

Several years ago I planted two cherry trees -- the same kind as the Tidal Basin trees -- in a place we had removed a large pine tree. The area does get plenty of sun. The cherry trees have never really gotten more than a couple of blossoms. Could this be a soil pH thing left over from the pine tree?

No. Cherry trees love to bloom. I can only think that they are in too much shade or you didn't get the Yoshinos you thought you did. 

I would like to plant a tree in an spot that is shaded by tall trees. Gets some sun in the late afternoon. A camelia, a dogwood, and a nelly stevens holly are doing ok there. But a serviceberry and forest pansy redbud did not survive. What would you suggest trying?

Those conditions seem OK for redbud and serviceberry. I wonder if the shade is too dense and there are issues of root competition and dry soil. You could try an American hornbeam, which naturally grows in such conditions. Pity hemlocks are so pest plagued these days. 

I am pulling out the front lawn and going grass-free. One of the shrubs that caught my eye is called "Daphne." Do you know how that fares in the DC area? Thanks!

There are a number of daphne types. They can be fickle and short lived, especially the lovely and fragrant Daphe odora. I would try a variegated variety Carol Mackie, give it room to spread, about four or five feet. 

I grow vegetables in raised beds. Each year my tomatoes seem to produce less and look sick sooner. I have rotated the beds that they grow in each year. What would you recommend amending the soil with in early spring? (I dig in lots of compost along with some fertilizer). Can you offer your best tips for keeping tomato blight at bay?

You seem to be the perfect candidate for a grafted tomato. Early blight is best checked by giving the bed a thick mulch of straw. Remove the lower leaves as soon as they show discoloration and don't touch healthy leaves after handling diseased ones. 

Is it true that free mulch available through the county is likely to be contaminated with wood borers or other pests or diseases?

I don't think so, but it can be awfully trashy. Wood chips are good for paths and long term compost piles, but steal nitrogen from growing beds as they break down. Any mulch that smells foul has become anaerobic and maybe toxic to plants, and shouldn't be used. 

I have plucked literally hundreds of little weeds in my front yard this year that I haven't noticed any other spring. They almost look like little maple seedlings, but aren't. As fast as I pluck them, several more appear the next day. What the ????

They might be maple seedlings, or tulip tree seedlings or (I'm noticing) a lot of black cherry seedlings. They will yield fairly easily after a heavy rain. 

I would love a flowering quince bush but we have severe deer problems in our suburb. Do deer eat quince?

This is deciduous and spiny, so that's working in your favor. Deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough, and last winter was bad for deer browsing because of the cold and snow. Does anyone in deer territory have experience with quince? 

Can I plant caladium bulbs (actual unsprouted bulbs, not a plant version) now, or should I wait a bit longer?

In pots, they should be just about OK. If in the ground, I would wait a couple of weeks.  

I planted some Justin Brouwers boxwood in my front garden (pulled out the lawn). Any ideas for a ground cover to complement? The area gets a lot of afternoon sun.

Boxwood are shallow rooted and don't like a lot of competition, preferring a light mulch. I would plant some dainty bulbs, perhaps some crocus, snowdrops or winter aconite. 

This beautiful invasive is taking over my flower and herb beds and is very hard to dig out. The National Park Service recommends Round-up; what do you say? Will solarizing the soil help, assuming we get plenty of sun after this cold snap?

I think this is one weed where Roundup might be the way to go. But again, be careful only to hit the vegetation you want to destroy. Don't spray on a windy day. 

Perhaps this is basic, however-- it it OK to top or cut the topmost bloom on our tomato plants? Last year they kept growing and growing and produced only a little fruit. By the end of summer, they were 6.5 feet tall and we were staking them like mad.

I believe some gardeners remove the first flowers so that the plant is still putting all of its energy into growing for its first few weeks. You should also pluck out at least some of the leaf axil suckers as they appear. You may be giving your plant too much nitrogen feed, I would top dress with a tomato fertilizer and throw in a bit of lime or bonemeal for calcium needs. 

and want some recommendations for annuals. They are in deep shade morning and late afternoon but have a few hours of direct sun around noon.

Impatiens are not reliable with the mildew problem. I would go with begonias, cannas and caladiums, and perhaps some Diamond Frost euphorbias. 

I just bought my first house last December and have my first yard to go along with it. Only problem is that I have absolutely no idea where to start! The desire is there, I just have no idea what to do. How do I get started? There is already some landscaping and plants, I just don't know what to do with it all. Even pruning and weeding are mysteries to me at this point.

Accept that this is the start of a journey, not the destination. It all starts with good soil, I would invest much of your time and effort in improving the soil and getting to know your site. Put in small plants and experiment. Have patience, and have fun. It's a great ride. 

Great timing for the chat and I hope you can help. I would love to create a small potted vegetable garden on my brick patio. Most locations would be full sun and it does get hot. What are some veggies and herbs that would do well in pots and when should I plant them? Any tips for success?

I would try determinate tomato plants, bush beans (perhaps), dwarf cucumbers and watermelons, and pepper plants. Again, the larger the container, the happier everyone will be. Sorry folks, we've run out of time. See you here again soon. Get those fingernails dirty!

In This Chat
Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his latest columns and stories here and follow him on Twitter.
Recent Chats
  • Next: