Adrian Higgins gave advice on tending your garden in the spring

May 08, 2014

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

I need to find a nice ornamental tree for a small space in my garden. Any suggestions?

Greetings everyone. We've had a measured cool and lovely spring after a miserable winter. Enjoy it before the heat sets in.

Your reference to small worries me. Baby trees and shrubs grow quickly, and beyond the imaginings of many people. There are shrub forms (not tree forms) of Japanese maples, and I might seriously consider finding a specialty Acer nursery to obtain one. I think  Eastwood Nurseries is still happy to help. I also like Hydrangea Tardiva as a large shrub. 

Here is a link to Adrian's cover story in today's Local Living, about revitalizing a Georgetown garden.

My beautiful hydrangeas were really hit by the cold winter. The only green growth are at the bases of the plants. There are basically no leaves on older branches. Should these branches be cut down or should I wait a bit more? The ones that I have cut off are white inside. Are they dead? These were just beautiful big shrubs that flowered all summer long.

Lots of winter damage to the bigleaf hydrangeas, i.e. Hydrangea macrophylla, mophead and lacecap types. The only thing you can do at this point is to wait to see what grows, and then groom the plant without removing the fresh growth. Flowering will be diminished or non existent this year, but it will bounce back for next year. 

I planted some tomato plants (Cherokee Purple and Sunsugar cherry) in containers a couple of weeks ago (it was the Sunday before we got all that rain for 3 days). The branches of the cherry tomato plant that are closest to the soil are starting to yellow. Is this from overwatering? In addition, I've read that I should prune the lower branches of both plants--how far up should I go?

Yellowing might be from overwatering or early blight or just sulking at the wet and cold. It's still chilly (ok it's going to warm up this weekend). But I'm not putting out my tomato plants for another week or two. I'd check your soil for moisture, put down some sort of organic mulch (not hardwood or pinebark), and see if they spring back. They may not, you might want to try again in a couple of weeks if they don't suddenly get vigorous. Remove the yellow leaves. 

Loved your article on the Georgetown garden and this weekend's upcoming tour. I assume there are gardens on this tour that show how to do a garden in a small space.I have a townhouse and don't know where to start with my tiny back yard. What would you say are the most important things to do first when planning my backyard garden? It's relatively flat but kind of a mess.

Georgetown gardens are bothered by a lack of space, a rectilinear tyranny and shade. If you can make a great garden in such a place, you 've done well. Hence, the tour offers a great chance to see how others have coped with these limitations. When creating a garden, you must first deal with the practical issues of drainage, poor soil and circulation (paths. etc.). Once you have fixed those, the aesthetics and horticulture will fall into place. Changes of grade invariably make a garden more interesting.   

A hive of (I believe) honey bees has taken up residence under my front porch. I've reached out to various beekeeper associations about removal but haven't had any response. Is there any way to encourage them to move on? I don't want to kill them but with the start of warmer weather my front steps are becoming practically unusable.

If you go to the website of the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia, you will see a section on swarm removal and an email address to get a beekeeper to take your bees, if he/she can. First and foremost, you need to make sure that they are honeybees. 

I'm thinking of planting an Apalachee crape myrtle. Love the Natchez, but it will get too big for my space and I don't want to murder my myrtle. Any experience with the Apalachee?

Here's a link to National Arboretum introductions beyond Natchez. I am appalled at the practice by "landscapers" of topping crape myrtles because they have outgrown their space. If you don't have room for a 30 foot tree, don't plant Natchez, there are many other smaller varieties. Thanks for raising this issue.  

local squirrels love to run up and down and perch on my small Japanese Maple tree. Their claws are doing damage to the bark. I have given up on driving them off. Is there anything I can do to protect the bark short of squirrelicide?

Not really, they do the same to my crape myrtle. If you put any substance on the bark to repel them, it might repel you too. Their scarring does heal, and it's too shallow to hurt the plant. 

We have a fairly small yard surrounded by a 6-ft privacy fence. Currently there are some holly bushes that go slightly about the fence. I'd like to have more growth above the fence to cut sight lines from the neighbor's deck and windows. I'm trying to find something that is fairly fast growing and keep coming back to Emerald Green Arborvitae. Any thoughts or other suggestions? thanks

The issue isn't the height so much as the available width. The Chindo viburnum might work or even a (male) ginkgo, if you don't mind deciduous.  

We have, or rather had, a lovely azelea bush in front of our home. The various blizzards a few years back damaged it and the polar vortex killed it off (or at least half of it; the other half is limping on). I'd like to replace it with another azelea. From the size of it, it looks like two azaleas were planted several feet from each other and they grew into our bush. Any advice about how to go about with the replacement?

I have a reputation for hating azalaes, which isn't true, I hate their misuse but that nuance has been lost. To me the azalea is a wonderful shrub for dappled shade gardens but should be used cautiously if at all as a foundation plant. I would fight the crowds and go to the National Arboretum's formal azalea garden (where they are labeled) and see them in action, so to speak, recording varieties that you like. Bear in mind that they will be of mature size and you may have to wait four or five years for yours to attain the same size. 

I had one enormous lavender plant that was seriously damaged by the winter weather/snow. I cut off some obviously dead and broken branches. there is some new growth on the plant, but a lot of what is left looks dead. should I just wait and see what happens? Or try to prune?

The new growth should be evident (just) by now. I would remove stems that are not sprouting, and trim stems above new growth. Don't cut back burgeoning stems hard, to below their new growth.  

I'm looking to plant perennials that will flower for a long period in the summer. Someone suggested to me Russian Sage and gaura (sp?), or Whirling Butterflies. Are those good selections, or should I consider some others?

Both of these are perfect, long flowering summer perennials. They need a sunny site and, critically for the Gaura, extremely well drained conditions. 

Good afternoon, Adrian, and thanks for taking our questions. In my back yard, there is a 15' x 20' area that was used repeatedly for large bonfires over the winter. If possible, I'd like to turn it into a vegetable garden this weekend. Other than adding large amounts of compost and tilling, is there anything else I should do to ensure a hospitable environment for planting? Thanks Adrian

The ashes should provide carbon and potash to the soil, be careful of having too much. My standard advice for creating a veggie garden is to separate the paths from the beds, I use edging. This allows you to raise the beds for drainage and soil amendment, and keep our big feet out of the lovely soil. You'll need a sunny location as well for best results. 

We just tore up an overgrown area in our backyard. It's along a fence and gets morning sun. I would like to anchor a collection of pollinator-friendly perennials with a couple nandinas and a small (20-ft tops) tree. Something like a crepe myrtle--but native and maybe a little more interesting. It's near-ish to the house so no willows. Any ideas? Thanks!

This sounds more shade than sun, perfect for certain broadleaf evergreens such as camellias, hollies and laurels as well as yews. It's a shame that Hemlocks are no longer that reliable given the adelgid problem. I might try amelanchiers, stewartias or Japanese maples (tree forms) for your height. 

I have a 3-ish year old rosemary bush in my front yard that has not yet shown any evidence of life this spring. I fear this winter killed it, but remember it tends to come on late. Should it be sprouting by now? Time to replace it?

'Tis dead, I fear. I'm addressing this next week, so stay tuned. Basically, time to find another (and quickly)! 

On your advice, I planted a row of white poet's daffodils last fall in a new front garden. They are beautiful and I love that they just start to bloom as other daffodils fade. Any suggestions for what to plant among them that will start to bloom as these fade in mid-late May? it is a hot, dry spot.

Perfect, I'd say, for bearded iris. I love the small bearded iris, mine are now going over, but you could find later season varieties. Other options might be larkspur or columbines.  

did not like the past winter. Some green is coming up from the ground, but the rest is history. Should I give up and replace with something hardier?

If it's not grafted and I don't think it would be, you should let it regrow. People forget that a winter can kill the top growth but the roots are fine and will send forth new growth. It may take a couple of year to have anything of note, but a shrub that grows from an established root system is going to beef up much more quickly than a new one out of a pot. 

I'm ready replace my overgrown foundation plants and wonder what you might recommend. Mine are 35 years old and overgrown not so much heightwise as we've trimmed them each year, but they have grown outward until they now extend out beyond the front stoop and two steps leading to the stoop. They have large green leaves with white flowers with a strong scent right now. Would like to replace them with something "updated" to what is being used today, since I figure plantings go out of fashion like everything else. We have a southern exposure. Any help is appreciated. Thanks!

Southern usually means hot and dry, so you should consider ornamental grasses, dwarf crape myrtles, perovskia, abelias, sages. 

I would like to plant some smallish trees in large containers to give a bit of shade to our patio table. I need height (this area of the yard is wide open and large) but I really don't want to plant in the ground. I read your columns religiously. Thanks!

Both pomegranates and sweetbays took a big hit this winter, but I think the winter was an anomaly. Both of these would look good in containers, and could take the heat. 

Thank you, passing it along. 

Do you recommend pine bark mulch or regular hardwood mulch? Thanks!

I think my favorite (other than leafmold) is pine fines, which are the fine chaff I suppose of pinebark mulching. Anything made of bark rather than wood is going to last a lot longer because the tannins resist rot more. I would run a mile from dyed mulch. 

I didn' t cut it back in the fall (should I have done so?) and now the regrowth iss on the ends -- dead part nearer the base of the plant. Not sure what to do with it.

Cut it back hard now and wait for it to regrow. Leave three or four inches of stem. 

Adrian, good to see you on the live chats again. I am trying to decide what to do for several large pots on my patio but having a hard time deciding what to put in them this year. I plan to go to the local garden center this weekend but am a little overwhelmed with choices. Do you have any favorites? I can never get mine to look as great as the ones on display--maybe I start too late?

Thank you. Your plant choices utterly depend on the sun/shade situation. Fundamentally, pots must drain and the larger the pot the less watering you have to do. I would check out container displays at places like large independent nurseries and public gardens such as Brookside, Green Spring and the US Botanic Garden. If you really want inspiration, go to Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa. a place dear to my heart. 

Speaking of azaleas from another questioner, I have a pet peeve about how some homeowners inappropriately prune their azaleas--into little boxes or hedges. I am sure this is not a good thing and that azaleas are meant to look more natural. However, maybe there are some varieties that are supposed to be pruned this way? Your thoughts?

If you are being charitable, you can say that this is an attempt to replicate cloud pruning seen in Zen gardens. Since Roman times (and before) some gardeners have needed to turn vegetation into architecture. It has its place, but geometric azaleas give me the vapors. We're out of time. See you back here in about a month. Thank you.

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his recent story on dealing with spring weeds and follow him on Twitter.
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