How to nurture your garden in the spring

Apr 05, 2012

Adrian Higgins gave advice on how to remove weeding in gravel, amend clay soil and other gardening advice from Adrian Higgins

I rent a house that has a gravel walkway and driveway. Around this time of year weeds start exploding out of the ground underneath the gravel. I could spend hours each day pulling them up and still not make it look halfway decent. Some areas, like the path to the back door, we've just given up on and you can hardly tell anymore that there's gravel underneath. Our landlord has offered to come over and spray round-up, but I'd like to avoid going that route for environmental reasons. Do you have any other ideas for keeping our walkways looking neat that are a little kinder on the earth and my knees? Thanks!

One environmentally friendly way is to burn them with a torch. This usually fries the roots as well, and would work well on a gravel path where there is nothing combustible (other than the weeds). Here's a link to a tool  though it is rather expensive. Another effective and efficient method is to take a sharp hoe and slice the seeds at their roots. A lot of annual weeds this year went to flower and seed early due to the precocious spring, and this mild winter offered a great opportunity to tackle things like bittercress, henbit and chickweed early. Not to lecture.

Thank you for taking my question. I have two beds in the front of my house. One side has young blueberry bushes; the other has peonies but are otherwise empty. What can I add as companion plants? It looks a little barren.

Assuming you have enough light, I would plant something that will extend the season after the peonies have finished, maybe some rudbeckia followed by asters.

Will potted plumerias grow and thrive in our area? I'd like to grow one on my deck and keep it in A sunroom or basement for the winter. Thanks!

I haven't grown plumeria, but I think they need bright light indoors (some shade outside) and hate drying out. So I would pay careful attention to watering on the deck.

It's so nice that you're back today. I've long wondered how to amend my clay soil. The usual answer is compost. But what commercial products are considered to be compost? Leaf Gro? I'm planning on starting my own compost pile but until then I need to buy amendments.

Thank you! LeafGro is an excellent amendment, I use it in my veggie garden beds to add organic matter and retain moisture. I also take my own leaves from the fall, shred them with the lawn mower and let them sit over the winter, and then use them as leafmold to lighten my clay soil. The worms break down the material, so you have to keep adding the stuff annually. In two or three years, your heavy clay becomes a beautiful loam.

I have a set of dwarf boxwoods that have grown well for a number of years. However, the leaves of one of them started to turn a bright orange this winter. Now it has not started to get the spring leaf growth that the others have recently gotten. Are these orange leaves a symptom of pests, infection or just some sort of shock? And how contagious could it be?

This is often a symptom of winter scalding by sun and wind, which is why boxwood do much better planted in partial shade. Another killer is wet soil, it's conceivable that your ailing boxwood is planted in a wet spot.

I neglected to prune my canes when they were primocanes and now they are quite long. Now that they are floricanes, can I prune them back or am I stuck with the long length? Thank You!

You can still cut back the long canes to a point where the new growth has erupted. It is those new shoots that will flower and produce this season's fruit.

My fully screened porch exterior is under its yearly attack by carpenter bees. They don't seem to do anything serious to the unpainted wood porch, except drilling little holes in the wood. How can I thwart them with the least enviromental impact?

The best way to thwart them is to paint the wood, they don't like to nibble through a layer of paint. If you don't want to paint the wood, it's possible that a coat of varnish may have the same effect.

Hi, Adrian! Really I just want to say thank you for all your great advice. Laugh if you will (and you probably should), but just learning from you to use a fork instead of a shovel for digging changed my gardening life. Question: Is it too early to start moving things around in the garden? I actually did transplant three roses and a scotch broom last weekend and they seem okay, but wondered if I'm likely to be sorry later. Along the same lines, how wise is it to move a hydrangea? I have some doozies in my backyard, and I'd like to move one or two to the front. They are, however, rather large. Grateful for any advice!

Oh good. A fork is the way to go. When I see people digging with shovels, I cringe. (I cringe at a lot of things, I'm a born cringer).  It is better to move established shrubs in early fall than now, but if you are careful and use that fork to remove as much of the roots as possible, you may be all right. Do this on a cloudy day, if possible, and mulch them afterward. The broom has the deepest roots and will be the toughest to transplant, I'd say. If you can wait, I would move the roses in September.

Many of my tulip and daffodils greened out, but didn't bloom. I understand that the D.C. climate isn't cold enough in the winter for reliable blooming year after year for these flowers. What blooming perennials do better here? Bulbs, vines, bushes etc. are all fine. I just want to know how to maximize blooms while minimizing replanting (and use of fertilizer).

Daffodils reliably return but tulips do not. Curiously, I left some orange, lily flowered tulips from last year, and I've had a pretty good rebloom. Worth knowing. If your daffodil display is off, it is almost always because they are in too much shade. They can be moved in leaf if you are careful.

I live in D.C. and I was planning to buy some old English David Austin roses for my yard, but you say they do not do well in D.C. I undertand that Heritage may do well (it is one of those I wanted to get), but what about the others? I do not spray roses, and I was interested in the David Austin because I thought they are very disease resistant and do not need a lot of care. Also, I would like to get New Down rose. Does this do well in D.C.? I am a newby with roses, so I apprecite the advice. Thanks.

Yes, I've had luck with Heritage, though it's probably time for me to try some of their newer varieties. Many of their early varieties here suffered from black spot and didn't thrive. New Dawn is a vigorous climber and a beautiful rose, with blue green leaves and a lovely shell pink flower. It does get large and will need support and tying and it is very prickly, so think about where it will go.

Dear Dr. Higgins, first of all, it was a thrill to hear your voice on PBS. Loved the article in the magazine about plants from Japan. Very timely for me because we just bought a house on the Severn River and would like a Japanese-inspired garden. The backyard is beautiful without much effort because of the water view. But the front yard is 40 feet by 60 feet of blank slate. It's 80 percent weed and 20 percent grass at the moment. There are a couple of  'square' bushes next to the house, which I plan to uproot or with some elbow grease prune to a more natural look. I am also thinking of getting a small tree. Would you recommend a redbud, which is so gorgeous this time of year? What other plantings should I pick for a Japanese-like garden? Thanks so much for your response.

Thank you (I'm no doctor anything, btw, except cringing). You have a blank canvas, but I'm not sure if it is in shade or sun, which would dramatically affect the choices. Rather than zero in on a single tree, I would visit public gardens and a get a sense of an overall composition. I would pick your trees carefully, because one little red maple can become a monster in 15 years and change the light conditions for everything around it. I would visit the National Arboretum, Brookside Gardens, Green Spring, to name a few locally, as well as Winterthur and Chanticleer in the Delaware Valley. Take a camera and a notebook.

Hello there. My lawn does not get a lot of sun and is pretty patchy under the trees. I was hoping you might have suggestions for appropriate seeds or care to help it fill in. Thanks for any input!

If you have shade, you will be constantly working to keep a lawn going. I would consider a lovely shade garden with things such as hostas, phlox, foamflower, and hakone grass.

Everyone seems to have success with the beautiful Japanese groundcovegrass called Gold Hakone Grass or hakanachloa macro vaiegata. I have tried it (in zone 7a) three times in three places in my garden. Any hints?

And what a coincidence, a question about hakone grass. It does like humusy soil that retains moisture and loves to be shaded from the afternoon sun. If you give it those two conditions, it should flourish.

Any suggestions to get rid of mint that is taking over large portions of a side yard with other plants nearby that I definitely want to protect (peonies, azalea, etc.)? No person needs this much mint! Thanks in advance!

It is not that hard to dig out mint (unless it is under a patio). I would wet the soil a day or two before hand and attack it with my favored garden fork.

We bought a 60-year-old house with several mature trees and have noticed that the rest of the neighborhood's red maples are dying out. Our backyard is shaded, and divided from the flag-lot neighbors, by several red and Norway maples, and we would like to start planning to replace the shade and division when our maples go. Will the old root systems keep new trees from growing properly once the maples are removed? What (preferably native) shade trees would you recommend we plant?

Norway maples are the worst in terms of the density of their surface roots. Once the tree is felled, the roots will in time rot away, but it takes several years. If you can, I would employ a stump grinder when you take them down. Among native trees, I am a fan of blackgum, yellowwood, red, white, chestnut and willow oaks, and the buckeye, which isn't planted enough in these parts.

So glad to see you! I planted Scotch Broom in a front yard location that gets direct hot afternoon sun. It's one of the few things that thrived in the location, and the deer leave it alone also. Right now, it is blooming and looks beautiful, but for the rest of the year it's not a very attractive plant. Should I pull it out or keep it? Appreciate any insights into Scotch Broom. Thank you!

I think it's an escaped weed on the West Coast. It's one of those northern plants that look great in flower, and then becomes very unhappy with the heat and humidity of our climate. I like as a substitute the baptisia, there are yellow flowering forms. 

We have a southern magnolia tree that's about 45 feet tall and about 50+ years old. It hasn't bloomed for several years, and it used to be the pride of our yard with its fragrant blossoms. Any suggestions for restoring its health? Thanks so much.

I don't know why the blooming has fallen off. I wonder if you were to feed the roots with a high phosphate fertilizer, if that would help. Is it getting enough water? Can anyone else suggest a remedy?

Are there any plants that smell good but are deer proof?

I think lavender, thyme and rosemary have oils disliked by the deer. Also mountain mint, which, if planted in sufficient quanity, exudes this lovely scent in high summer.

I've got green onions popping up all over the yard of my newly purchased house. Obviously, the old owner didn't put much effort into removing them. I could dig them out but it would honestly take months and fill my lawn crater. Are there any other options (like sprays) that I can use to kill them off?

Bruise the leaves and then apply Roundup, but be careful not to spray desired plants or turf.

I have no idea what I'm doing, but I have hopes of having a vegetable garden one day in the future. How do you get started? A pot on the deck? A plant in the ground? Tomatoes? Cucumbers? I would like to start with something small that won't die so that I don't get overwhelmed and discouraged. Any advice? Thank you!

Generally, pots are harder than a garden bed. That said, I would start by getting a large, free draining pot, putting in lots of lovely potting soil mixed with something like LeafGro and a bit of bonemeal, and sow some lettuce seeds now, for harvest through early June. Then plant a pepper such as Sweet Banana. You will see how the plant responds to your care and feeding and gain confidence for bigger stuff.

I was so excited to see you mention Roseraie de l'Hay in your column today, as this is one of my all-time favorite roses. Alas, however, mine has been plagued by yellow leaves, and I have just about given up finding a fix. I've tried to enrich my alkaline, clay soil with periodic iron supplements -- which seemed to help for a short while -- but the problem gets worse every year. Such a shame, since this rose has such exquisite foliage. Help!

Sorry to hear this. Leafmold, our elixir today, will lower the pH if applied on a regular basis.

Hi, Adrian. I love your columns and miss your weekly chats, but I was disappointed to see you include several non-native invasive plants in your suggestions for fragrant garden options. Sweet autumn clematis, butterfly bush and chinese wisteria are among some of the non-native plants that frequently appear in forests and crowd out native plants. There are good options for homeowners to landscape with native plants. Wish you would include that message in your articles. Thanks for considering!

Ok thank you. I'm suitably chastened. Do remove the faded flowers of these things before they set seed.

Good afternoon, Adrian. It's wonderful that you're having this discussion. I just purchased a native witch hazel, and when I got it home I noticed that it has a bad case of leaf gall that I didn't notice at the nursery. (How fast can it pop up?) I've read that the aphids don't harm the plant, but it's unsightly. If I break off all the leaves with leaf gall (which would be most of them -- it's a small shrub and leaves are still emerging), would that do more harm than good? Is it early enough in the season that new leaves would replace those removed? Is horticultural oil as a preventative environmentally friendly? Thank you!

Leaf galls are caused by specific insects, often wasps. It's conceivable that by moving the plant to your garden, you will have prevented further attack. You really can't spray against it. I wouldn't remove all the fresh growth, if that's what you're asking.

Is it aggressive, like regular mint?

They clump more, and can roam a bit, but are kept in bounds rather easily. The botanic name is Pycnanthemum.

Hello. The prior owner of our house planted liriope EVERYWHERE! Although I like it in moderation, it's too much and too difficult to maintain. I've spent too much time trying to hand cut them when they grow and too much money paying a professional to use their powerful tools to cut them back. So, my question is, how can I remove them? I fear this will be a tough job. Thanks!

Again, we go back to the garden fork. The best tool you can have. Also, any tool that employs your legs is much more efficient than a hand tool. They come out quite easily. The roots have a weird and unpleasant odor.

Adrian, I'm so glad you're back, even if it is just for today! I remember you wrote an article in the Local Living section over the winter about keeping orchids. I have tried to find it on the Web site, but I am not having luck. Can you (or your chat producer) assist? I've got two moth orchids that are over 4 years old. They flowered when purchased and I have tried in vain to get them to re-flower. Thank you!!

Here we go. Thank you Delece, my producer.

we bought a 1920 Tudor and the front faces north. There are big, overgrown balls of evergreen bushes and rhododendrons and small azaleas that cover the windows. Very blah, and I hate them all. But if we remove them we do not know what to put in their place. The part closer to the house gets some limited sun only in the middle of summer. I was thinking of mixing boxus with shade loving plants, possibly ones that do not die down in the winter, and maybe adding a small three (dogwood, or acer palmatum, as long as they are small enough to be planted 4 or 5 feet from the house). Any suggestions for suitable plants (nice foliage/flowers, shade loving, not too big, not the same foundation you find everywhere)?

Your suggestions sound lovely. I would spend the spring and summer looking at shade gardens for inspiration (Fern Valley, Asian Valley) at the Arboretum. Asian Woods at Chanticleer, and do your major planting in September.

Is now a good time to spray my lawn for weeds? I usually use a weed killer that's good for several dozen types of weeds. Also, I have a large patch of clover in my my lawn. If I kill the clover now, I'm likely to have a large dirt patch in my lawn. I'd like to re plug it with Zoysia plugs. Should I do that now or wait until the fall? Thanks.

I see many folks renovating lawns now, this is not the time for that. Now is a good time for patching and stuff, but a major renovation of cool season grass should occur in September. I wouldn't plant zoysia, it spreads to areas where you don't want it. I would live with the clover until late summer, and then go to town with renovation using turf type tall fescue.

Is it okay to use Roundup to kill a vine that's wound itself around a tree and choking it off? I assume you aim it at the rooms?

Or even the roots. I would cut the vine close to the ground, and the top growth will die. You could paint the wound with Roundup. Repeated applications may be necessary. If this is poison ivy, take all necessary precautions. Thanks for joining me today. See you here again soon, I hope.

You look just like Tim Gunn!

OK, designers. Make it work.

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his latest story on fragrant plants.
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