Adrian Higgins gave advice on tending your garden in the spring

May 02, 2013

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins took questions on how to improve your garden in the early spring.

I'm working with a landscaper who recommended pachysandra for one of my raised beds in front (I'm pulling up the lawn) but it gets an awful lot of hot afternoon sun. Because I'd like something fairly evergreen, I'm also thinking of creeping raspberry, germander, variegated stonecrop or beach wormwood. Do you have any experience with any of these? (I really don't like liriope or mondo grass.) Thanks!

Welcome to our online chat. I love this prolonged cool spring, though it has been dry and we shouldn't rely on the odd shower to keep things watered. Pachysandra: Pretty pedestrial groundcover, I agree, but I'm not sure I would go with your alternatives. If you want to be adventurous, why not chose a low growing, tufted grass, such as the prairie dropseed? Some sedums are fabulous if you can give them good drainage at the crown.  

Here is a link to Adrian's story about potted herb gardens.

European wild ginger looks like a beautiful shade creeper; I saw it last weekend in a local gardening shop. Your thoughts on this or other preferred shade ground covers?

I love gingers as a groundcover in a shade garden. I am about to plant a grouping of Chinese ginger, Asarum splendens, which is valued for its variegated pattern. 

I have two bay plants (now more like trees), one about 10 years old and over 3' tall, and the second started from a cutting about 6 years ago and about 2' tall. As in past years, I brought them in during the coldest part of the winter, but put them outside in March. The leaves at the top of the plants soon turned brown. I thought that maybe they'd been nipped by the cold but would recover. But in the space of about 3 weeks, almost all of the smaller plant turned brown, and the larger one seems to be about 2/3 gone. Was March colder than I thought (my garden is sunny, with a 6' board fence that creates a warm microclimate), or is there some disease going around? What could have happened?

I don't know where you live, but in Washington DC sweet bay is pretty reliably hardy. (Global warming?) The key is to plant young plants in the spring and let them harden off naturally in the fall. By simply taking them from a greenhouse environment outside in a March that was unusually cold here, I think you did them in.  Start again with a new plant (or cutting). 

It's interesting that several of the "herb connoisseurs" have included cilantro in their "fab five." I have never been able to grow cilantro past May. I had always thought of it as a cool-weather plant, like lettuce. My cilantro (which sprung up as volunteers from last year's seeds) has been thriving since early March and is already showing signs of bolting. I would love to have fresh cilantro to enjoy when the tomatoes finally ripen. Are there varieties that will withstand our summer heat?

I wrote about herb combinations in pots today, we'll give you the link again. Cilantro or coriander is a cool season herb. Grow it for another month and let other herbs fill in the gap after you have pulled it. You can sow seeds in late July for a new crop in the fall, which does better as the weather cools. 

I'm looking for a flowering bush or perennial, preferably white, that I can plant in a sunny spot. Something fairly compact, not over 4 feet. I am considering dwarf limelight hydrangeas, peonies, or white out roses. I had azaleas in my yard and I think they sun made them susceptible to lace bugs. The new plants are going into a bed along the sidewalk, so winter appearance is a consideration. I've heard white out roses need some morning sun? Thanks for your advice!

I think the hydrangeas might be in a constant state of wilt in full sun. You could try a dwarf white flowering crape myrtle, a white flowering rose of sharon (old fashioned, I know) or a white landscape rose. I wouldn't go with a peony. Too fleeting. 

I just got a rain barrel to collect the water off of my shed. The roof is painted metal, so I'm thinking that it could leach some chemicals from the paint, so I'm leaning towards using it for the grass rather than the vegetables. Does that make sense?

Unless the roof is at least 35 years old and has lead paint, I wouldn't worry about the paint, which by now is pretty well cured. Do keep the barrel closed against the mosquitoes. 

Hi there - Wondering about planting boxwood in full afternoon sun. I have heard that it can lose its color in winter and just generally not do so well. If I can't go that route, is there a small holly you would recommend?

Boxwood do much, much better in light shade. Hollies are big, except perhaps the Japanese holly, which is blah.  Small evergreen shrub in full sun? I'm drawing a blank, maybe dwarf chinese holly, or one of the meserve hollies. (Two if you want fruit). 

Wild garlic is growing in both my garden and my lawn. Should I try to dig it out or use a weed killer such as RoundUp?

Just pull it, it comes out quite easily, but you must do this before it goes to seed. 

Hello any tips on what I should be doing for my apple/pear trees. I have an issue with fruit with insect holes when the fruit ripens. Thanks.

The biggest pest of these fruits is the plum cucurlio, which should be active very soon. You have to spray the fruit against it. The insect make a cut in the skin and lays an egg. The injury seriously disfigures the fruit. 

I saw some stunning Euphorbias at American Plant this week. But when I looked them up online, I learned that the are a tropical plant. Do they do well in our area?

The most famous euphorbia is the poinsettia, which is definitely tropical. But there are a number of hardy species, E. amygdaloides, palustris, wolfenii? (May have some of the spelling orf).

Professor Higgins, ages ago on another chat I had inquired about a fall planting of Fava beans. At the time you were doubtful about overwintering in this area. I'm happy to report that an early October planting of Winsor fava beans survived this winter under row covers, I only lost a few plants where Sandy's damage caused a tear in the row cover. Currently the plants are in bloom and I'm awaiting a harvest soon. I live just outside the beltway in Fairfax.

Useful to know, thank you. Some years, it has worked for me, others it has not. Check your fava beans now for black aphids (mine are covered with them). Hose them off with a gentle stream of water. Oh, all right, a water canon. 

I'd like to plant a few Otto Luykens cherry laurels in our redesigned front yard. Nice leaf, pretty flower, evergreen, and seem pretty easy to grow. My landscaper says they are ubiquitous and wants to avoid them. I say they are ubiquitous for a reason.

I think both of you are right. (What a cop out). It has its place (along with the taller skip laurel), but what about a camellia or Nellie Stevens holly? Avoid photinia. 

I have a fairly large ornamental garden surrounding my house in the country (2 acres or so) and an equally large vegetable/berry garden. I'm dealing with Honey Suckle from Hades. Any suggestions how how to deal with run-away Honey Suckle? I've been trimming and pulling it for 15 years and it seems to be like the sorcerer's broom. Also, is there any good way to de-weed my asparagus patch? I've tried fall mulching but the patch is a magnet for invasive stuff.

I'm basically a masochistic gardener who likes to pull weeds or use a sharp hoe. You could apply Roundup to the honeysuckle, but the best time for that is in September. I would pull them now as you can before they flower and seed. You don't say which weeds are afflicting the asparagus. I think I would do some fine hand weeding now, and then tackle it in October or November after you have cut back the top growth. You may want to use planks to avoid soil compaction in the bed, if you need to for access. 

Good morning Adrian - so nice to see you. The middle third of our 7-year old contorted filbert is dead - we think from being too dry last summer. The outer branches on both sides are leafing up, but not the center. What should I do? Cut the whole thing way back (ugh) or cut out the dead stuff in the middle and hope it grows in full from the sides?

Remove the dead growth in the center and encourage the outer branches to fill in toward the light. 

Adrian, When we moved into our current house several years ago we inherited a row of photinia that serves as a decent barrier to the busy road that fronts our property. At the time it had been completely ignored and had grown out of control with apparently only the occasional shearing with hedge clippers to cut back the horizontal growth. It had lost a few individual plants to aggressive leaf spot that we are now just getting under control (lost another one last winter). I do not want to tear the whole thing out and replant with a different species since it does provide a good border for now (and would take $$$). Late last winter I went on an aggressive pruning campaign to remove much of the suckers and undergrowth and did limited work on the canopies (again just shearing them back). This spring saw some explosive growth in basically all directions, and I don't know a next DIY step. There are other rows of photinia in the neighborhood that have been trained to grow in a nice, orderly, compact fashion; I just have no idea how to start! I'm fine with a severe cut back later this fall as a reset. Any tips on how to proceed?

I would wait until the spring growth has finished, and then cut back to the point you desire (within reason). If they are totally overgrown, you could probably cut them back hard to bare wood next winter, though they would take two or three seasons to look good again. 

I have a couple of large bare patches in my front lawn that I'd like to resod this weekend but I am not sure if it is too late now with more warm days ahead. I've had really good results laying sod late-Fall and the pieces we laid a month ago are looking great, but I'm worried any new sod won't have time to take before the summer's heat is upon us. Sod is really the only answer for us with active large dogs - they scatter seed and seedlings like nobody's business.

New turf is going to be stressed in a month or so. You can reduce this by prepping the ground first with a mixture of compost and sand, and make sure the sod is rolled after laying to create a good root to soil contact. Get the sprinkler ready. Long term, I would seed in the fall if you can put up a snow fence or something to let it establish before the dogs are allowed on it.  

Hi and welcome back - I want to do something different with tomatoes and am curious what you are planting this year? Wonder if the soil will ever get warm enough for us to plant them, though...

Great. I am writing about this for next week. Everyone plants tomatoes too early, especially in this cool spring. This year I am growing Lemon Boy, Juliet, Moreton, Ramapo, Sungold (of course), and some obscure New York heirlooms, including one called New Yorker and Upstate Oxheart tomato. 

we are trading in our euonymous evergreen, which the deer browse up to five feet high all winter, for a holly hedge. Do we assume that the pricklier the leaves, the less the deer will bother it? Our nursery carries Robin Red and Festive Red; is either of these suitable?

Dragon Lady looks pretty fierce to me. Any suggestions from folks for deer proof hollies? 

I belong to a community garden and the rules say we need to be weed free now. Most of my fellow gardeners are tilling the soil. I worry that working in soil that is wet is bad for the garden. (The soil seems to have a high clay component). Should I be worried? I want to keep my garden but don't want to destroy it.

If the garden is waterlogged, you don't want to work the soil because you will squeeze the life out of it. One of the reasons I grow my veggies in raised beds is to keep the soil free draining and warmer, and this also allows me to add the kind of amendments that would ideally avoid waterlogging. 

I have a great balcony which receives sunlight all day long--because of this I've always been told that my balcony is ideal for growing tomatoes. Thing is that in the 8 years I've lived in my condo, I've planted tomatoes in large planters yearly and never had any luck. Shoudl I just give up? Are there tricks I"m missing? Also, what flowers are good for my window boxes given the amoutn of sunlight I have. I have two hibiscus trees that flourish on the balcony! THANKS

The bonus is that you have enough light for veggies, the downside is that that will lead to containers that dry out very quickly. The bigger the container, the better. Add leafmold to your potting mix and then mulch your plant with a thick layer of leafmold. I would also try growing determinate varieties of tomato, and maybe some dwarf varieties of cucumber.  I would grow zinnias, quick, cheap, cheerful and sun loving. 

Good afternoon, Adrian! I have made a native planting area in my back yard, and am enjoying finding plants that are either native to the region or are native hybrids (my husband thinks I'm a purist in my selections but I'm really not). What do you recommend to help fill in some patches to the front, for both foliar and floral interest. I could add more of what I have, but don't want to miss out on other ideas. I have a Valley Forge elm - DED variety, red buckeye, persimmon (2), paw paws (2), deciduous azaleas (2), mountain laurel (3), a couple of varieties of native viburnum (3 shrubs), ninebark, fothergilla, witch hazel, chokeberry, goldenrod, butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed, tiarella, mayapple, cimifuga, sessile bellwort, ferns, mountain mint, crested iris, native strawberry, blueberries, penstemon, false indigo, a grass (can't remember which). (I am always fretting that I've allowed something in that needs to to elsewhere in the yard... one of the penstemons may need to go). I recently purchased an elderberry, bowman's root, and golden alexander for the area. Even allowing for plants to mature & allowing for walking space, I believe there is still room, particularly for something low growing along the front edge. Thanks!

There is a native ginger and a native pachysandra, but if you have sun, why not some echinacea? The New York Botanical Garden is just about to open its new huge native plant garden. You should go there with a notepad and camera and get inspired! Closer to home, the National Arboretum and the US Botanic Garden both have native plant collections.   

I so love your (unfortunately infrequent) sessions! I plan to repot a rather large (1-l/2 ft) jade plant that has been struggling in my office. It gets hot and dry here in summer (Utah). What should I do to help it survive outside and then transition inside for the fall?

Thank you. Give it a slightly bigger pot and replace the growing medium, which should be both enriched and free draining. Make sure you keep it in a shaded location this summer. 

I stumbled upon an evergreen kousa dogwood at a local garden store. Seems almost too good to be true. Is it? Any experience with them in the DC area?

I don't know of an evergreen version, there are hybrids between kousa and florida, but they are deciduous. 

Hello! I live in Pittsburgh and am planning to begin a little vegetable garden. Our back yard is rather shady with large trees. I have one patch that would be perfect for a garden; however, it only gets about 3 hours of sun a day. I know that I shouldn't put tomatoes and zucchini back there (I'm putting those in containers in a sunny part of the lawn), and am wondering what veggies I could plant in the shady garden. Any help is appreciated! Thank you!

You will be constantly fighting the shade. You might try some gooseberries or currants, maybe some lettuce or parsley. Try and find a sunnier site. 

Adrian, What is your method of keeping squirrels from digging in the veggie garden uprooting seedlings? Vince in Vienna, VA

Planting deep, and replanting (they get easily distracted and move on to other areas). I have a bigger problem with birds in the vegetable garden. 

I like the look -- more open and lacey than a Foster, but can they be trimmed to be more like a tree than a shrub?

Yaupons are native swamp hollies and love moisture, and can be trimmed into hedges, and kept at pretty much any height you want. 

Blooming right now is a bush (small tree?) with coral/peachy colored flowers that seem to top it off and that look a bit like lilacs. I think the leaves are saw-toothed and fairly sparse. Any idea what it is?

Might be a wiegela? It's the mystery tree. 

I see that you recommended roses other than knock-outs. Wondering if there is a reason not to go with this new variety? Lots of people sing their praises.

Knock Out is ok, and particularly resistant to black spot. But, Geez, can't we find another variety to plant? 

This is my very first time to grow vegetables. I started seeds in my basement about 5-6 weeks ago and used my husband's aquarium lighting as light source. Except for the nasturtiums, all of the seeds (eggplants, peppers, etc) are about half an inch high. I moved them to my sunny, east-facing dining room last weekend and that seemed to help a bit. But I'm still worried that all of that effort is for naught and that I should just go to the garden store and buy already thriving plants to grow in the raised beds my husband prepared for me. What do you think?

I commend your efforts, but you have your work cut out for you. The seedlings will have to be hardened off (acclimated) to the outdoors before planting. Also, I think an aquarium isn't up to the job. Both peppers and eggplants really benefit from a heat mat, which will encourage vigorous root growth and give you transplants that are twice the size. You might want to buy a few transplants to stick in, and build a proper seed starting apparatus next winter. 

There are the similar tasting but heat loving herbs culantro and papalo, which you may find at farmers' market-- but seed easily found online.

There you go! Thank you. 

I heard that this variety actually does okay in the sun, have you heard otherwise?

I think it would, if you have really rich soil and a thick mulch, and water them religiously, especially in their first year. Sorry we've run out of time. See you here again soon. 

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his recent story on the beautiful chaos of spring gardens and follow him on Twitter.
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