Adrian Higgins on honey bees and summer gardening

Courtesy of Rutgers University
Jul 19, 2018

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins took questions on gardening.

Hi Adrian, I enjoyed your article in today's paper. I don't have a green thumb and am not to be trusted with trying to keep alive any flowers or plants but would love to support our pollinators. I've seen where you can buy these beehives and the way you access the honey is super easy and safe (at least compared to regular beehives) b/c you don't need a smoker or suit. After reading your article it seems that even by having a beehive, the bees may still have to travel a long distance so if I were to have a beehive I should also have the right plants/flowers on my property so they don't have to travel far. Is that accurate? And would having a beehive mean I'll have a lot of bees circling around? Thanks for any help you can provide this newbie.

Hello everyone. It's heartening to see everyone at a time when many fair-weathered gardeners have chucked it in for the summer. But to your question: You can't be a casual beekeeper. It's a hobby and one that requires a lot of learning and equipment and, sometimes, disappointment, not to mention a few bee stings. I can't imagine any method or hive that permits little maintenance and easy access -- don't waste your money. The way to do it is to join a bee society and enroll in classes that teach you how to become a beekeeper and, moreover, how to continue to be a beekeeper once you have started. Bee societies in Northern Virginia, DC and suburban Maryland are the places to go. Years ago, it was far easier to keep bees but the arrival of the varroa mite and other problems makes it more challenging, though no less rewarding. 

Producer here, with a link to Adrian's most recent column, on how to create a haven for honeybees.

Hello there! I have a lemon cucumber plant that is growing very well--a little too well. I have it growing up several stakes and it just won't quit. :) What is the best way to prune or trim this plant? There are many flowers on it, but no cucumbers yet.

Everyone should grow a lemon cucumber at least once: The vine produces spherical fruits about the size of a baseball and the cucumber does indeed have a citrusy flavor. You could trim back or re-tie your vine but I wouldn't do much cutting back -- those leaves are the fuel cells for the whole plant. Be patient, the male flowers presage the female ones, and eventually you will have fruit, especially if you encourage bees to your garden. 

Hello Adrian, I had beautiful deep pink hydrangeas growing in full shade. Then my neighbor cut down the row of trees that had been shading them. They are now in afternoon sun (ouch!) and looking pretty bad. My neighbor intends to replant something along the fence line, but in the meantime, is there anything I can do to try to save them? Water in the morning? In full sun when they are looking terrorized? Thank you!

The change in light conditions will cause leaf scorching and wilting. The only short term step is to keep them well watered. There's no guarantee the replacement trees will cast sufficient shade, so I might consider moving them this fall to a shadier place and planting more sun loving shrubs there.  

Have you had success ordering plants online? I would really like to plant a Nellie Stevens Holly on the side of my Zone 6A house. Unfortunately, no local nurseries carry it. On top of that, most of them look at me and say “a what?” So I’ve resigned myself to looking online. I’ve seen many options but don’t want to get a twig in a box when it arrives. Do you have any advice for ordering plants online?

I have received young shrubs in no more than gallon containers, but nothing of the size or weight associated with Nellie Stevens holly. I would not get a holly like that through the mail. This variety is fairly common and should be available at independent garden centers. They might even order one for you if you ask. The one specialty holly nursery I know in this region is McLean Nurseries in Parkville, Md., (north of Baltimore). See if you can reach them. Try this number (410) 882-6714.

arlington's dirty little secret is our rat problem & they're in my back yard eating my vegetables. i watched one climb up my staked tomato plant to pull one down & carry it off. short of pulling up everything so they don't have a food source, what do i do?

The issue is whether you have one or two of the varmints or a whole warren of them. In the case of the latter, you have to get rid of them and start again with the garden. I would call in a pro but be cautious about using poisons that might linger. Maybe you could email me, this is a topic I'm interested in writing about-- adrian.higgins@washpost.com. 

What is the best way to get rid of a lot of grass but still keep the soil healthy? I am switching 150-200 square feet of yard from mediocre grass to a garden bed. I’ll be planting perennials/shrubs and mulching it. Do I have to literally dig all the grass up or is there an easier way to transition this part of my yard?

If you're not averse to using a herbicide, you can spray it, wait for the effects of the herbicide to dissipate, and then plant through the dead grass and mulch the bed to hide the old lawn. It will decay in a few months. But, some herbicides linger longer than others and you must follow label instructions. Do not allow spray to drift. 

Hello Adrian: first time chatter. My mother usually plants the roses in our garden, but she had a fall in May and then the task fell to me. I followed her instructions to the letter: make sure the crown of the roses is mainly above ground. Mix our compost with the soil excavated from the ground. 50/50 mixture, with a little more compost thrown in. Give it rose food mixed with a gallon of water three times a week. One of the seven roses had been sitting in a bucket with water (per her instructions) until she came home from the nursing home and gave me further instructions. One had no buds on it, so I'm not surprised it died. But the Souvenir de Baden Baden was doing great until this past Sunday, when the leaves started to shrivel up. Now it looks like it's almost dead. What did I do wrong? I'll be planting more roses for her in the future, so any advice is greatly appreciated. Thanks. My mom loves your column, btw.

It's hard to diagnose why your rose shriveled up, but it may have something to do with the foot of rain we had in May and June. Roses like rich, evenly moist soil, especially when getting established, but they can't abide wet conditions (most roses that is). Also, I much prefer to plant roses in March than May so that they have a chance to settle down before the heat of summer arrives. September is another good time to plant roses. Make sure the site isn't prone to waterlogging and try again. 

Specifically the plum/roma tomatoes? It feels like they're slow to arrive this year. And would the heavy rains impact their flavor, by watering them down for example? Anyways looking forwards to salsa season.

Not to brag, but I've been harvesting tomatoes for two or three weeks. The rain in May and June really did give them a boost. But, August is usually peak season around here, so be patient. Another thing, I have now been harvesting tomatoes while they are still green but just on the verge of ripening (just as they begin to show color). They ripen fully indoors away from animals and taste just as good. Don't put them in the fridge, though.   

Are other people brought to the brink of tears by weeds in their yard? I have a giant yard that will become overrun with weeds if I neglect my diligent pulling for even a few days. It's so frustrating! :(

We are in a moment of weed explosion. The key is to get to a level where you can maintain control. I pull the yellow nutsedge knowing full well that I haven't got the little nuts from which it will regrow, but at least I've stopped it from spreading and seeding. I find it therapeutic, but only if it's not overwhelming. 

I am a bad gardener. Most of the things I've bought and planted (annuals, perennials, bushes) fail to thrive, or just die. But I enjoyed your article on attracting bees. One summer, I had Queen Anne's lace in my yard, and it attracted many bees, but it didn't come back the next year. Which of your recommended plants are hardy enough to survive my neglect and incompetence?

Actually, I'd go with lantana. As long as it's in a decent sized pot, with good potting soil and drainage and your commitment to keep it watered, it will keep blooming until frost and draw the pollinators. 

Good morning - at the beginning of summer, I bought a collection of succulents (hen & chicks, but can't remember the other names), and planted them in succulent soil with drainage balls below them in a copper pail. They get 4-5 hrs direct sunlight in a humid climate and I water them once a week or so. They were doing really well, but now two months in they're starting to brown at the bottom and many are dead and dried out. I'm not sure what's causing them to go 'limp'. I don't have much experience with succulents, so I'm not really sure what else I could be doing to bring them back. Thank you!

I'm not quite sure what the container set up is, but if it doesn't drain well and you water them too much, the roots will quickly rot. Though I think once a week while they are getting established would be ok. All the rain may have done them in. 

I've been buying and planting Carex Pennsylvanica and a couple of other Carexes (Carices?) to cover the too-shady too-weedy parts of my 2/3 acre yard, and my husband is worried about wildlife in those grasses -- specifically ticks. Have you ever heard of this being a problem?

I don't know if these sedges are long enough to harbor ticks, but I would not not plant these lovely ground covers for fear of ticks or other pests. Are you walking through them? I would just make a point of checking yourself for ticks after spending time in the garden. 

I got lots of herb plants into the ground before the foot of rain, and they're looking very spindly now. The rosemaries and lavendars seem to be OK but everything else is yellowing and sad-looking (the only herb plant that survived the winter, a sage, died during the deluge!). Should I replace the sad-looknig ones, cut them back, or what?

Most herbs need well drained soil and hate organic mulches, and there's no question that the rain followed by the mini-drought and evil levels of humidity are really stressful for Mediterranean plants in general. I view most perennial herbs as short lived plants that are replanted as needed. I would wait until the end of summer to plant afresh. Cutting back herbs usually spurs a response. 

What is an effective, humane way to keep chipmunks out of my raised vegetable bed? We seem to have one who persistently digs holes, usually right at the base of my tomato and pepper plants. I'm not on board with lethal measures, so have resorted to sprinkling cayenne pepper on the soil. It doesn't seem to be helping too much. Is there anything else I can do?

If you keep covering the entrance holes, it might get the message. The odd chipmunk or two, I can live with, but a whole tribe is a problem. The in-ground noise making contraptions don't seem to work, but may make you feel you're doing something about it. The answer is a hungry snake or a hawk, but that's hit or miss. 

I suddenly have incredible numbers of a brand-new weed coming up all over in my garden beds, cracks in the sidewalks, under hedges, etc. U Md extension service identified it as "one of the bidens," which I'd never heard of. Where did it ocme from and why is it so rampant?

Bidens is the genus, and produces some lovely annuals, but the rascal here is a summer annual named Bidens frondosa. Pull it. 

I train mine up a section of 5' tall fence fabric that has 2"x2" grid. When they get near the top, I point them sideways and diagonally, to fill in any gaps from plants that either died or seeds that failed to germinate.

Perfect. The more foliage, the better (as long as it's not a response from excessive nitrogen feed).

Thanks for the compelling article on rain gardens (July 5). Our home in Tallahassee, Florida, has a 250-square-foot rain garden in the front yard that took us years to figure out that it was more than just an overgrown landscaped area where the driveway meets the front walk (and where all the stormwater that runs down the driveway pools). The former homeowners must have had it professionally done, but the plant selection and placement were, um, interesting. There was a small birch, for instance, that dropped catkins all over the front walk; I wasn’t sorry when it finally fell over. It grew out of a mass of Crocosmia that seemed to produce one flower spike for every half a million leaves. The garden also contained a straggly tangle of forsythia that yielded only half a dozen sickly flowers every spring. When I started restoring this garden, it was also overrun with Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum). My latest fight is keeping the Gloriosa lilies (Gloriosa rothschildiana) beaten back. Almost everything I’ve dealt with in this rain garden has been either invasive or inappropriate for this climate. The one plant that was done right: a pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) that is the size of a small tree. This is a delight in the spring when it is covered with lovely pink flowers. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy this if it weren’t for the rain garden!

Thank you, I can't imagine planting birches or forsythia -- boreal plants -- in the Florida Panhandle. As  much as people want to transport their world with them to a different clime, it doesn't work that way, you have to pick the plants that do well where you are.  

Our yard has lots of wild onion. I used to try to dig out the bulbs in April as the shoots appeared (pulling them often led to the shoots breaking off at soil level), but I have found it much easier to wait until the flower heads form in June. The bulbs seem to shrink as they feed the flowering, and the plants do not need to be dug, as they can be hand-pulled rather simply.

That works as long as you don't let them go to seed.  

Easiest is to just scalp the grass with a mower at the lowest height (leave the clippings); then cover over with a thin layer of newspaper and put mulch on top of that. I've done this very successfully a few times. You may have to pluck occasional grass or weeds during the next season.

This is a good, organic way to prep your lawn bed. Thank you. 

Just wondered if this is a regular chat. Will you be back next week. Enjoying this so far

I appear in this space about once a month, like the full moon, it's all very mysterious. 

The 30-year old hedge that lends some privacy to my townhouse porch has been dying over the past three years and is now pretty far gone. I had always thought it was a privet hedge, but it doesn't get the white flowers that are characteristic (from what I've read online), so I'm not sure what it is, but I liked it. I don't see any obvious signs of pest infestation or fungal disease. A neighbor's tree has thrown the entire front of my house into deep shade. At this stage I think I need to replace the hedge, both because of its state and also the change in site conditions from when it was first planted. The expanse is 10' max, so I'm very willing to trim. Can you recommend a privet-like hedge that would work in deep shade? When is the best time to do the job? What do I need to do to make sure there are no problems that would infect new plants?

If it's privet, 30 years is a good run. There are other evergreen candidates, I have seen very handsome (if labor needy) clipped hedges of osmanthus and certain hollies. I'd pick something fine leafed such as Foster's No. 2 or Yaupon.

Hi, Adrian. We want to plant something in our yard that will attract butterflies, ideally 3-4 feet high. Any suggestions? We've read that some butterfly bushes are invasive species and would like to avoid that if possible.

Buddleias or butterfly bush are seedy. If you can cut off the faded blooms before they go to seed, that would prevent the problem and would encourage reblooming. They are prodigous sources of nectar, though with a problem of  re-seeding. But, other plants to consider would be clethra, buttonbush or perovskia. Alas, we have run out of time. Thank you for all your questions, and let's look forward to late summer and its hint of cooling and mellowness in the garden. 

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his latest columns and stories here and follow him on Twitter.
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