Adrian Higgins gives advice on nurturing your garden in the spring

Apr 21, 2011

Get tips on digging, weeding and seeding your garden, and cleaning up yard disasters from a previous home owner.

On a whim I grabbed a packet of Fava beans when buying tomato and pepper seeds. Googling seemed to indicate that in "warmer climates" one should plant the beans in August to get a fall harvest or even over winter for an early harvest. Will these guys overwinter around here?

Hi everyone. Thanks for joining the discussion on a luvverly spring day. Fresh and brisk. Fava beans work as an overwinter crop but only if temperatures don't get lower than 20 degrees or so.  If you have a really protected site, you can sow them in October and let them germinate before the cold sets in. They will grow in the spring for an early harvest. They would not have made it through last winter without some serious protection, like a poly tunnel. Otherwise, they should be sown directly in late winter for a late spring crop. They really don't like the heat.

Is it okay to put citrus peels in my compost ? They don't break down very fast. But will they do any good, or are they harmful ?

I think they would not break down easily. Dried, they make terrific fire starters.

Hi, Adrian. I planted cauliflower and cabbage seedlings last fall and let them overwinter. The plants are vigorous and leafy, but show little to no signs of forming heads, at least in the sense one would expect having bought those vegetables at the market. Should I yank them or let them continue to grow, hoping they will come around?

I've not had a lot of luck overwintering cabbage. At the first hot spell, they will bolt. So take the leaves now and grow them at this point as a fall crop (start in July). Cauliflower is even trickier at our latitude. They need even moisture and temperatures. Could I ask folks to include their locations in their questions?

We put in a small gravel patio in a garden area last year. It looked very pretty, but is now covered with leaves and small debris. How can we remove the gunk without taking out all the gravel, too?

I would experiment with a leaf blower, see what you can remove without dislodging the gravel. Then I would replenish it with fresh gravel, just a couple of inches on top.

Hi, Adrian! I'm considering planting a series of thuja (green giant) around the perimeter of my yard for privacy from the neighbors on each side. The catalog that carries this tree praises it in glowing terms for its rapid growth, hardiness and ease of care. Should I believe the hype? Is there another plant you'd recommend to provide a privacy screen?

My 92-year-old mother was an avid vegetable gardener before she moved to a senior citizen apartment. She has a sunny balcony, and last summer she grew cucumbers in containers, but they didn't do well. I'm guessing the containers were too small or she didn't water them enough. Can you recommend any books or Web pages about container gardening?

We've had some techinical problems but we're back. Fine Gardening has a book out called Tips for Container Gardening that would be good for you. Generally, the larger the container, the happier the plants, though you have to wrestle with weight and soil issues.

Adrian, I've really enjoyed reading the Chanticleer book and getting some insight into the process and philosophy that brought it into its current enchanting form. We're lucky to live five minutes away, and our 3-year-old and 1-year-old love going there-- and also keep us from doing much gardening. Really just garden triage for the next couple of years. The previous owner of our house planted lots of small azaleas . Some are dying, others are flourishing, and my best guess is that some weren't planted very well, or perhaps they just get too much shade. I know you think azaleas are overused. What hardy, shade-tolerant plants would you recommend to fill the gaps? In the general area, Mahonia, Astilbe and various hostas are flourishing. Any guidance would be much appreciated!

Thank you. Chanticleer is a great garden and full of inspiration. I love hydrangeas, those spring to mind, as well as pieris, camellias,  and don't forget perennials like kirengeshoma and solomon's seal.

You mentioned in a previous chat that you don't have luck with growing spinach. I started my seeds inside in late February, planted them outside in late March and covered them with garden fleece on frosty nights. Well, they're doing great! I should be able to start eating leaves really soon. I'm wondering what specific problem you have, and if starting seeds indoors may have helped my experience. Thanks!

I've tried to overwinter them and I think the heat of spring just stresses them so much. Thanks for the tip, I'll try that next year.

Hello! Thank you for the chat on such a timely topic! I container garden in the midwest (Kansas City, Mo.) and just bought some brussels sprout and watermelon seedlings. How big a container does each need? Any special soil or plant food I should add? Farmer that sold me brussels said if I pick them often I should get harvest through November. Is that realistic? If so, I'm excited! Thanks Again!

I get nervous about growing vegetables in containers. They are much happier in the ground where temperatures and soil levels are more even. I would direct sow the melons in May for a late summer crop. If they are small fruit, I would try and grow them on a trellis, up off the ground. Brussels should be sown in pots in early June or so and then set out at six weeks. Wait until November to start harvesting them.

We have a neighbor whose dog thinks our sky pencil evergreens are firehydrants. Is there something we can spread around the plants that would motivate the dog otherwise?

A product would need to be replenished. You could plant some ground cover unwelcoming to paws, maybe a spreading rose or something. What about a little fence where your sky pencils are growing? Why do people think  their pets have the run of the neighborhood? This is a real problem with cats stalking birds, but many people think cats have a right to roam where ever they please. Strange but true.

Dear Mr. Higgins. I have a deciduous tree shaded, lawn with moss. How do I get rid of the moss? I realize it would be temporary, but what can I do? My long term, slow solution is to rake the moss, put in seed and cover the spot with compost. Is there something I could mix w/ the seed and compost?

Some folks love moss, others hate the stuff. You should physically remove it, add soil amendments to the area to relieve the compaction, and also add some sweetening agent such as bone meal or limestone. Did you see this piece from Seattle?

I have been plagued with these for the last three years and am loosing the battle. I have tried Neem oil and have not been impressed. Any ideas for me before I dig out about 100 lilies?

Gosh, I didn't know this bug was so bad. I suppose you could try a systemic containing imidacloprid. I would talk to folks in the American Lily Society.

Good afternoon, Mr. Higgins. We moved into our current home late last August, and the former owners had let weeds of all kinds run rampant in the backyard. We removed these by the end of the fall and are now in the process of planting. I am trying to repair a part of the lawn that was torn up while I was removing enormous weed roots last fall. I have seeded it with turf grass and covered this with ComPro and fertilizer. There has been some growth, but heavy rain and the fact that this section of the lawn sits on an incline have not helped. It looks spotty. Do I give these seeds more time to bloom, or is it time to buy sod grass and call it a day? FWIW, the rest of the lawn is nice and thick. No problems there. Good, rich soil and lots of sun during the day.

I would use turf at this point. The optimum period for lawn repair is late summer, and I would wait until September to do any major work with seed. Sod will fix patches, but make sure you have good soil contact and water it religiously, especially on a slope.

Thanks so much for doing a chat! When is the best time to replace shrubs or small trees? We have a large-ish Rose of Sharon in our yard, near our fence and sidewalk, which we would like to replace with a native species that will eventually grow to a similar size. Should we take it out now and plant the new one in the fall? Any suggestions for a replacement? The spot receives a mix of sun and shade through the day.

You could certainly rip it out and plant something fresh now, but keep it mulched and watered going in to the summer. I think clethra would be a good choice.

I planted some concord grapes last year, which didn't fruit. I thought they had died off in the winter, but now it looks like they are coming back. Is there anything I can do to help them along?

They will take three or four years to become productive. A winter pruning regime is valuable to encourage lateral growth and fruiting.

Not a question but a discovery. Stink bugs latch onto orchid flowers and suck the juices until they wilt and die. I thought stink bugs are nothing but a stinky nuisance. But no, they are pests!

They do serious damage to certain fruits and vegetables, including peaches. It's a real problem.

Hello Adrian! I have missed your very informative chats! I live in New Jersey, and I have a spot in my front yard where an oak tree once grew. I had to have it taken down about two years ago because it died. The tree removal people ground out the roots. and now I have a plot about 4 feet wide by 8 feet long that is mostly made up of wood chips. It gets full sun and is protected by a brick wall on the north side. I would very much like to plant some flowers in that spot, or maybe even a small flowering tree, and I'd like something that attracts birds or butterflies. Do you have any suggestions as to what I could plant? I'm assuming I'll have to add some soil and amendments to the spot, too.

Jersey is so rich in gardens and gardeners. For your  little bed, I think rudbeckias and asters would provide a lot of activity for the pollinators for many weeks.  Perhaps anchor the bed with joe pye weed.

I am downgrading my vegetable garden to an herb garden to fit my new apartment digs. My plants will all be indoors or on my tiny deck that is mostly shady. I need to figure out a good plan for containers to keep all of my herbs in. Suggestions? Tips for my shady situation?

Your choices will be much restricted by shade. Mint, parsley and maybe chives could work for you, along with scented geraniums.

Are the evergreens part of the property line between you and the neighbor? If not, remind your neighbor of the fact that there are leash laws and you'll report them to Animal Control if you see them running loose.

There you go.

Hi Adrian. We have two tamaracks in our yard located under a large pin oak. Both trees have grown so tall that they're now reaching the oaks lower branches, and we were contemplating removing both tamaracks. We have a shed in the near vacinity and we're wondering what would be an appropriate replacement for the tamarcks that would help to screen the shed. Or do you have another suggestion? The area is shady for most of the day. Thanks.

In cases where trees are too big, or outgrow their space, I encourage people to consider medium to large shrubs instead and be willing to wait three or four years for them to reach a decent size.  I would consider viburnums or some of the meserve holly varieties. Osmanthus offers a good choice as well. This holly lookalike has lovely scented flowers in the fall.

I made the mistake of planting Thuga Giant as a privacy screen. Absolutely fast-growing, fairly hardy, but at maturity they will be about 15 feet wide! So every February I have to whack them back and just hope they don't "eat" my garden. Just a warning...

You have been warned. Smaller conifers do the trick as well, you just have to be patient and let them grow, or you end up constantly hacking back a plant that is too big for it allotted area.

Adrian, I'm an avid container gardener in the Northeast, D.C, quadrant of the city and am convinced the only way my veggies survive the D.C. heat are because of my containers with water reservoirs (think Earth Boxes, but DIY versions). Whether or not you want your containers to be self-watering or traditional, there are two major books that stand out in this field. First, "The Vegetable Gardener's Container Bible: How to Grow a Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers" by Ed Smith and then also "McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers" by Rose McGee and Maggie Stuckey. While I know you may not agree with this method of gardening, for some of us on unsuitable land, renting, on apartment balcony's, etc., it is the only way we can still grow vegetables. Please pass along these book titles to those interested in this subject. You CAN grow veggies in containers!

Thank you for your helpful post. You can achieve great things with containers, it's just that it takes greater attention to grow plants well in them.

I'm interested in replacing my traditional yard with clover after reading about it's environmental and maintenance advantages. I've read it's far more resistant to pet urine, but would it also be more resisant to dog traffic? I have two beagles, and they've worn pretty big paths in the backyard. I'm trying to find something a little more dog friendly than the typical high-maintenance lawn.

Yes, it might sort of get drought stressed or leaf scorched in Richmond, but it will spring back. Those roots go deep.

Might the problem have been insufficient pollination a few stories up?

I don't think pollination would have been the issue so much as even watering. They like a lot of moisture and don't do well in dry conditions.

I live in an apartment in Boston but I'm interested in growing some herbs (basil, mint, parsley, cilantro) to use for cooking. I have zero gardening experience. Are some herbs easier to grow than others? Do I need starter plants or will seeds work? What size pots do these plants need? Thanks for your help!

All the herbs you mention are easy, but if you are using containers, I would use pots at least 18 inches across. They must drain, and you can aid drainage by putting rocks or bricks at the bottom. This also reduces the amount of potting soil you have to buy. Don't use garden earth.

I have lots of bluebells in my yard, and I would like to transplant some to a house in North Carolina. I read that the best time to transplant is right after they finish blooming, but we won't be going to NC then. Do you think they would survive if I transplant them in October?

I think they would but the top growth will have retreated by then. So I would mark them now with plant labels, so you know where to dig. Lift them with a garden or digging fork, which will do less damage than a shovel.

Adrian, could you please tell people not to fertilize during the rainy season? It poisons the groundwater and makes it harder to maintain a green lawn through the summer drought by encouraging shallow root growth.

Nitrogen is very fugitive. A good solution at this time of year is to lay corn gluten, which provides nitrogen but also prevents crab grass from germinating. Do please keep fertilizers off paved areas, it just washes into the Bay.

Hi Adrian, I just wanted to thank you for your advice last time around. My Camellia had not bloomed, just had bunches of buds that were browning and the season seemed to be over. You suggested just leaving it alone (probably the best advice 90 percent of the time with amateur gardeners, no?). Wonder upon wonder, it is now covered in fluffy white gorgeous blooms. It started about last week which I thought was very late for Camellias especially in the NoVA zone. But either way I am thrilled. Thank you for all your sage guidance.

Great news. First, do no harm.

I'm in Pennsylvania just north of Philadelphia. Is it my imagination or has spring sprung late this year ? My grand old magnolia tree used to bloom in first or second week of April but this year it seemed delayed until the third week. Is this a natural cycle of thins ? Also, regarding the citrus in compost, you didn't answer if it was harmful or not. Do citrus peels add any nutrient value to the pile ?

One reads about accelerated plant blooming (indeed azaleas are a good two or three weeks ahead of when they used to flower) but this year, the spring has been late and reasonable cool. This is good. The bulbs stay around much longer. The cherry blossoms were glorious. I think that's all we have time for this session. As Arnie says, I'll be back (in May). Thanks for all your interest.

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his latest story on the landscape of a 300-year-old home that gets a makeover.
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