How to nurture your garden in the spring

May 10, 2012

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

After the first bloom, is it time for trimming.? I have heard two ideas: cutting back to the next group of leaves or just deadheading the old bloom. Which is best?

We have had technical difficulties, but seem to be up and running now. Shrub roses are pruned in winter dormancy, once flowering climbers and ramblers are best pruned after flowering. Wear thick thick gloves.

However do I get rid of gophers or protect my plants without putting everything in wire cages?

Gophers and groundhogs are like having an unwanted house guest that can't take a hint.  I would call in an animal control person to trap them. Alternatively, dress up in top hats and pronounce the end or not of winter. That would make me head for the hills.

I have a fig in clay soil. It has fruit. How can i feed it?

Figs don't need a lot of feed, in fact a high nitrogen fertilizer would encourage vegetative growth over fruiting.

Any hints on transplanting hydrangeas this time of year ?

If you had to, dig as much of the rootball as you can manage, mulch the new site, and keep it watered. Do this on a rainy day, if possible.  I would rather do this in late summer, early fall.

I just created a large garden area in my backyard. Before planting, I would like to minimize weed growth. I heard that putting newpaper down would keep weeds from sprouting. I also heard about landscaping fabric which serves the same purpose. Which of these would you recommend? Thanks.

I would go with newspapers. Landscape fabric doesn't break down and always finds its way to the surface.

Good afternoon, Mr. Higgins. I recently received the frame for a raised garden bed. The man at Lowe's said to lay newspaper, then mulch and then bags of Garden Soil for flowers and vegetables. It is very dark and has fertilizer already in it. Is this too rich for my vegetable plants?

Some of the brand topsoils do have peat moss in them, perhaps more than you want. I would try and mix it with some existing clay soil on your site, to make it loamy.

Good morning, Adrian, and thanks for your help. Is it too late to prune plum, pear and apple trees? I bought a house two years ago that has a copse of fruit trees in the back yard, but have been too busy to properly care for them, and they're getting branchy.

You could trim back some of the new spring growth, but they are best pruned in winter dormancy. Good for the plant, good for the gardener because you can see the architecture of the branches.

Hi Adrian. Love your column. My expansive lawn is looking particularly good this year and has started to sprout seeds. Since there are a few bare spots here and there, I was hoping those seeds would fall off, germinate and help fill in those spots. My question is: Must I wait for the seeds to fall off on their own to be viable, or can I mow the grass and leave the cuttings? I would rather not let the lawn grow and look like a jungle. Thanks!

If you're asking, should you let the turf seed itself, I'd say no because your neighbors would think they were next to a neglected lot. For any seed to be viable, it has to ripen on the plant, so green seed pods are no good. Gosh, grass seed is so cheap, get a bag in September and go to town.

I'm thinking of replacing my aged azaleas with some knockout roses. (Is this what I am seeing in shopping center divides/ medians/ etc. ?) I don't want to wait five years for a look of fullness. How close can I plant them together ? I have about 12 feet overall.

Knock Out roses should be planted three to four feet apart.

My beds are full of little seedlings. I am not sure if the seeds came from the county leaf mulch I used or dropped from the trees in my yard. What is the best way to get rid of those seedlings without hurting the plants in the beds?

Yes, you have to be careful about "free" mulch and compost, it often contains loads of weed seeds. The best way to deal with this is with a sharp hoe. Keep on top of it, and don't let any weeds flower or seed. In time, you will defeat them.

Adrian, do you have any tips on how to get rid of the bamboo in the backyard besides digging it out? Thank you.

The new culms are growing at this time of year. As long as you cut them back before the leaves unfurl, you are setting the plant back and will eventually run it out of town.

How do I get rid of poison ivy? I found huge amounts of it in the yard.

Carefully. Wear long sleeved clothing and take care not to rub the sweat from your brow with your gloves. Also take your time, and allow yourself the space to see them. You can brush against them without knowing they are there. Roundup will work, but is more effective later in the season and you may need a couple of applications.

I have a portion of lawn without grass, due to shade. another patch has little grass. I have been trying to take stones out and last year filled with about six inches top soil. Last month, I put grass seeds to make my lawn lush green. still grass seedings are not up. I have a clay soil in my area. How can i get rid of weeds? Please advise .

Now is the wrong time to fix lawns. Do this in September, but have everything ready in advance, perhaps if you need to till soil and amend it, that is something you can do in August. Now, you can make the first of two applications of herbicides, if necessary.  You want to do this well in advance of seeding, because some herbicides linger and prevent seedling growth.

how do you remove weeds from gravel walks?

Some will actually yield to pulling. Another method is again to use a hoe, and then reset the gravel with the hoe or a rake. Another option is to use a weed flamer.

I have an area 15' X 15' that I'm clearing of mulch and weeding fabric. The soil is hard and uneven. What steps should I take to make it ready for new plantings?

The immediate fix is to heavily amend each planting hole. The longer term remedy is to lay a light mulch of compost or leaf mold twice a year and allow the soil microbes and worms to turn that into organic matter within the soil.

Can I cut back my daffodil leaves now or do I need to wait until they totally turn brown?

Great question. Don't braid or tie daffodil foliage, that impedes energy production. You can tie it up after flowering. You don't have to wait for it to turn brown before cutting it, but I would not cut the foliage until the end of May. We will be continuing the chat beyond the allotted time because of the late start.

Welcome back, Professor! First, I enjoyed your piece about Mount Sharon - what an amazing garden! I can't imagine the time and work that goes into maintaining a garden like this (although i have a long-time dream that someday i'll find out house with an old formal garden that I can restore). Anyway, my question is about caring for the lawn in the summer. My yard (in Maryland, near Annapolis) is mostly tall fescue and looks great in the spring, but every year I struggle with weeds and dead spots in the summer. I use pre-emergents, slow-release fertilizers, aerate every other fall and overseed every fall to fix the summer damage. The one thing I probably don't do enough of is water the lawn. I've also created many flower beds, so my lawn is not as big, but I still end up with the sunny areas needing restoration every fall. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with this?

Thank you. I think if you have to renovate each year, there's an underlying problem with either shade or drainage. If that's the case, I would try and turn the area into a perennial bed of some sort, perhaps with ferns or hostas.

I will be moving back to my house in northern Viriginia later this summer. I have a garden there that I've been itching to get back to. Any suggestions for planting vegtables and flowers around August 15th that will get me something later in the fall?

Fantastic time to start the third garden of the year. In fact, I have become brutal about pulling out tomatoes and other summer bullies in late August, so that I can sow lettuce, arugula, mesclun, spinach, kohlrabi, kale and broccoli. These will be edible to the end of the year.

What do I need to do to break down the clay soil where I want to plant flowers?

You can use clay busting products such as gypsum and something called Stalite, (I think). Continued organic matter amendments are also the ticket. I would discourage the use of sand.

Is it too late in the season to trim back overgrown bushes? I have one next to my driveway that is so overgrown I actually can't put my car in its parking space. It appears not to have been shaped or trimmed for several years (I bought the house in December). If it's OK to do it now, do you recommend using manual shears or an electric trimmer?

You don't say what it is but generally hedges should be trimmed in June or July after their spring flush has darkened. You can then cut back to last year's growth and keep the bush in a constant mass.

I've heard that you can place used coffee grounds in mulch beds? is this good for trees and other plants?

Coffee grounds are an excellent ingredient to add to the compost pile, but I wouldn't use them alone in any application.

Hi, new house (well, new to us) and there is minimal landscaping, so the options are wide open. Slope to front and back yards with a couple of possible flower beds along the side of the house and a walkway. Where to begin? Should we bit the bullet and do it all at once or break it into sections? Do we need a professional landscaper or can we do it ourselves (we're fine with getting dirty). Any suggestions are appreciated. Thanks!

I would come up with a grand plan, even conceptual, so that the work you do next year will build on the work you do this year. The sweetest gardens have discernible spaces and are most satisfying when they link to the next in a thoughtful and perhaps surprising way. The way to stay sane in tackling any garden, is to split the work up into separate and whole projects. That way, you get the satisfaction of completing one facet at a time.

Thanks for taking my question. We have several large (maybe 3' by 3'), ball shaped evergreens in our backyard. I think that they are false cypress (not sure- they predate our ownership). They got beaten down several years ago with the blizzards. We tried to train them back into place (using information in a Post article at that time) but they still don't look very good. Would it be possible to severely prune them in hopes that they would grow back again? If so, what time of year would someone do this?

Conifers do not respond to hard pruning in the way that flowering plants do, so if they are really mishapen and beaten up, I would consider replacing them.

We have two huge bushes that barely bloomed at all - was it the crazy early warm weather to blame? We would also like to trim them way back - when is the best time to do that? (I understand if I cut them back I'll have less blooms next year).

You must prune before early summer to avoid removing next year's flower buds. Pruning out the faded flowers before they spend a lot of energy making seeds is always a good idea. You could also top dress the roots with a high phosphate fertilizer.

What is the carpet or moss like plant that blooms out in bright, thick, lavender flowers in early spring? I've seen it in a few yards and it seems like it might be a good ground cover. It is maybe four to six inches tall, and will drape over edges when planted near them. I want to rip out an agressive ivy patch, but I want to replace it with something that doesn't need too much babysitting .

This may be Mazus reptans, which is lovely but does need a little shade and rich, moist soil. For a sunnier site, with good drainage, you may want to try caraway thyme (if you can find any). 

This is not a question, but I hope it helps someone. 14 years ago I planted 4 asparagus beds, etach 4' wide and 10' long. Instead of using the tried and true method of digging ditches, filling them with rich compost and planting the roots, I did the "easy" method (which I hope I invented?). I laid out the roots like a Octopi. I covered all but the crowns with about three layers of newspaper (black and white only). I then put about 8 inches of "dump mulch" over each bed and topped each with about 3 inches of leaf grow. One bed was Norway, it didn't produce much more than a bunch of seeds and weed asparagas around all my berry "fences". The three beds that I planted with Jersey Giants have been nothing short of amazing. The only maintenance I do is every 4 years I've put anohter inch of leaf grow on the beds and each fall I mulch with straw or grass from mowing my fields. I get enormous amounts of asparagus. I've (been gardening for 50 years) planted asparagas using the traditional ditch method; I've also planted Mary Washington seeds in trays and replanted them in tilled beds. The best results have been with the roots on top of the soil. I have heavy clay soil. Also, any time you want to come visit my gardens have your IT guy give you my e-mail address and I will arrange it. You will not be dissappointed I hope. Fredericksburg area. TY.

Thanks for the information on asparagus beds. In addition to their yummy spring crop, they make an effective little hedge for the edible garden.

Hi, Adrain Is it too late in the year to cut back a Knock Out rose? I want to keep it somewhat compact; right now it's rather sprawling and unkempt. I love your chats! I've learned so much. Thanks!

No, it's not too late.The moral though is don't plant something that is too big for its allotted space. Roses are a bit different in that you can keep them pared back annually.

The front page of includes "amending clay soil" as one of your topics. This is a good opportunity to remind people not to add sand to clay soil. Was it you that said it (or did I read it someplace else) that when you add sand to clay, you get adobe, suitable for making bricks.

What perspicacity. It must have been me. : )

Good morning...I've read up on this so I may have an answer already but would like to know why my lilac bush stopped blooming. It has not bloomed for two seasons now. It's a full grown lilac, double blooming usually, that's been in my yard since 2004. After the bad winter I did cut it back when it didn't bloom and perhaps cut it back at the wrong time but last year I definitely waited until "after the bloom" to trim, even though there was no bloom. We do have a yard service though that applies fertilizer and I read today that perhaps too much nitrogen in the soil could cause the no bloom. The plant is healthy and green and growing otherwise. Should I wait out the bloom one more year (assuming I cut it back and shocked it) or add something to the soil, assuming its the nitrogen content?

In addition to my early advice on lilacs, I would make sure that your lawn service does not spread turf feed in garden beds. This is a big problem all around, as is irrigation systems for turf that overwater trees, shrubs and bulbs.

I've got a nice sunny slope that's clay, rocks and japanese stick grass. I don't even know where to start. Can I just bring in a dump truck of topsoil and start planting? MEL

No, because topsoil is not regulated and you may well end up with a product that has been fluffed up with mulch to look rich but at the first rainstorm will set up like concrete. I would go to a reputable mulch yard and have them mix a bulk load so that it contains organic matter.

if weeds are all around existing plants and flowers, should I spray with weed killer or try to pull them up so not to damage the other plants with the weed killer?

You definitely want to protect the desired plants from herbicide. You can pull the weeds (easier after a heavy rain) or actually apply the herbicide with a paint brush, being careful to avoid your nice plants.

We have many boxwoods. A few weeks ago I noticed they seemed to be infested with small flying insects, and now there are many webs within the plants. What are these insects and how can they be eradicated?

Boxwood are afflicted in spring by a midge that then lays eggs in the leaves and the grub feeds on the foliage. If you want to spray against this, you need to catch the adults on the wing, about this time of year. The pest is called the boxwood leaf miner. The other major pest is the boxwood psyllid.

I would never advise anybody to landscape with gravel. I've lived in my house for 26 yrs & somebody who lived in it before I did landscaped with pea gravel. It is almost impossible to get rid of, short of digging it up. it is very difficult to maintain. i got rid of what I could but i will still hit pockets of pea gravel when I dig in a flower bed. Horrid stuff!

Actually, you would be surprised how much gravel that soil can take and still be a great growing medium for garden plants, especially plants for full sun.

Loved the piece in today's Local Living about Mount Sharon. Is this something that an ordinary suburban gardener could do (well, much smaller scale) or is it best left to those with deep pockets?

I think this has to be the last question. Obviously a garden of this scale and level of design is a costly enterprise, but the design principles are universal, such things as finding a central theme and sticking to it. The hardest thing in garden making is to get distracted and add plants and features that  erode the strength and simplicity of the desired design. Thanks so much for joining us today, sorry about the early gremlins. See you soon.

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his latest story on Mount Sharon, a classical garden in Virginia.
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