How to nurture your garden in the spring

Jun 14, 2012

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

Adrian, I appreciated your tomato staking column. I found out I'm a perfectionist (I've been using the same self-made cages for 15 years). One thing that you didn't address in much detail is pruning tomatoes for disease control and yield. Would you expand on this? Thanks.

Hope everyone caught my fun piece on tomato staking today: the point being that there is no one correct way and it's a wonderful way to express your own style adn invention without relying on products or the Internet.  The more you prune, the lower the fruit yield, though the tomatoes will be larger. You want to have enough leaf coverage so that the plant is feeding itself and fruiting well and also it helps that the leaves shade the tomatoes in August. I try to keep on top of the leaf suckers, at least for the first few weeks. This will help against utter sprawl, even if you have a cage to support your vines. Certainly diseased foliage should be removed to reduce the spead of things like early blight and anthracnose.

What can I do to prevent? Tried for many seasons to grow tomatos, peppers, squash. Blossums dry up and fall off.

Tomatoes and peppers actually don't like it too hot. The pollen becomes sterile in excessive temperatures and the flowers just drop. So in Richmond, I might well let the vines sprawl a bit for that self shading aspect. Cucurbits need bees to set fruit and again, many insects don't fly when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, or when it's raining.

Deer in my neighborhood are beheading my beautiful daylillies and now they are starting to eat up my almost bloomed Rhodedendron. What should I do? I do not want to harm the deer. Thank you!

I would try (and certainly next year) laying a feed of bloodmeal as they bud. This has a repellent effect while feeding the plants.

Adrian, two part question if you will: 1) Are there any proven organic ways to get rid of bindweed? Several years ago we purchased a previously vacant property where it was allowed to grow unchecked (and actually had lovely flowers while choking our stand of photinia). I have been pulling up new vines on an almost daily basis since then! I know that bindweed is notoriously difficult to completely get rid of but I'm contemplating painting the leaves with Roundup at this point (all of our other gardening has been organic up to now). This would only be in the yard areas where we have ornamentals, not where we have edibles planted. I'll keep pulling up the shoots there. It's amazing how fast a foot long vine can appear out of nowhere! 2) Rust spots on the photinia: last summer's wet weather allowed some sort of rust spot fungus to spread on the photinia and almost defoliated a few of the plants (we think tainted mulch was to blame). Copper soap doesn't seem to be preventing it from spreading to new growth, and I'm now worried we may need to do a radical prune back to the stumps to get rid of it and allow the hedge to re-grow. Earlier this year I trimmed most growth from about 1 foot off of the ground and thinned all of the plants to a more vertical orientation; I'd read that having dense growth doesn't allow the leaves to dry out fast enough and promotes the fungus. We lost a lot of privacy facing a busy road for that effort, but the regrowth has been slow due to the rust. Any tricks we can use? Copper soap has been applied approx. every 10 days pending wet weather. Thank you. NW DC

I know it sounds like a terrible endless task but if you do keep pulling the bindweed as it grows and begins to leaf out, you will knock it back. You could also use Roundup, but it is most effective in September when the plant is transporting sugars to its roots. Photinia is notorious for its leaf spot disease, which is why I don't recommend it. Obviously the organic approach isn't working. And whatever you spray, you have to do so preventatively. I would consider replacing your photinias with another evergreen, such as a holly.

I rent a place that includes a very large area close to a road that I would like to have some flowers on. Part of the area is flat and part is on a sharp incline. I think the soil is mostly clay. Are there any flowers I could plant, such as wild flowers, that would not require continuous care (particularly water)? Are there any flowers or pretty plants/bushes that I can plant that will propagate themselves each year? Can you suggest some books or other resources that could help me?

I would stick in purple cone flowers, rudbeckia and sow lots of Shirley poppy seed in the fall for spring flowering. It will reseed happily in years to come. Make sure you have good seed to soil contact when you do this.

I live in a high rise near White Flint Metro. Are there any public/neighborhood gardens where I could try my hand at growing veggies?

I would check with the Montgomery County parks folk. It will take two or three years on a waiting list, but the patience will be rewarded.

In various travels, I have seen the sides fo interstate highways planted with flowers, flowering trees, etc. Are there any non-profits (like garden clubs, I guess) that do that in this area? I am particularly interested in helping make the Springfield Interchange look better.

I would check with the Virginia Department of Transportation and also with your local soil conservation district. I suspect highway agencies have cut back on roadside plantings as part of their belt tightening.

My 12 tomatoes are staked and tied. They have been well fertilized and watered and are growing very well with new branches very dense. The plants are 3 to 5 feet high now. I hadn't thought of pruning until I read your column in the Post today. Is it advisable to begin some pruning at this point? What are leaf suckers?

The suckers are the little shoots that emerge from the joint of the branches with the stem. (Technically the leaf axil). If you don't remove them, they become the predominant leader of the plant and defeat any efforts to control the vine's growth.  Most gardeners pinch them out with their fingers when they reach two or three inches, and you need to do this at least once a week.

My garden is thriving - tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans, squash, etc are all doing well. However, I can't manage to grow radishes to save my life (and have been trying unsuccessfully for years). All I end up with are giagantic bushy greens (2+ feet tall) and little tiny radishes, maybe 1/4"-3/8" in diameter. I want those bright red, 1"+ sized globes I see in the grocery. I thought radishes were supposed to be one of the easier crops to grow. Any suggestions?

Here's the biggest secret in vegetable gardening: RADISHES ARE HARD TO GROW. They grow quite easily in northern climes, but here, timing and cultivation is key.  You have to sow them in March for a May crop or in late September for the fall. (Not the summer). Then you have to keep them evenly moist. Even then, the viccisitudes of our climate make it tough. I've stopped growing them.

Are you familiar with that one? I purchased a beautiful Autumn Brilliance service berry that did well for over a year but then acquired this fungus. Since it comes from junipers, which are everywhere, I wish I had known this plant was susceptible. Dousing my yard with fungicide is not in my plans, since it will not kill the tree but mars the fruit. Why does the garden center repeatedly talk me out of native dogwood but make no mention of this? On a more positive note, do you have irrigation suggestions for someone whose vegetable garden has grown too large for a hose? Is assembling a drip system at a big box store my best bet? Finally, do you know of a good planting schedule for fall for our area (I have the coop extension service one, but looking for a quick and dirty guide)? thanks!

I think service berries are members of the rose family, making them an alternate host of the cedar apple rust. I understand your frustration. Perhaps it's time to return to the flowering dogwood.

I replanted my herb bed this spring since everything in it drowned in last fall's heavy rains. I've been mulching around the plants for several years, and am wondering, since herbs like lean soil, am I going too far in trying to keep the weeds down? How do I "un-enrich" the spots where the parsley doesn't look too healthy, for instance?

I do not use organic mulches on herbs, it traps moisture in their crowns and promotes rot. I mulch my herbs with pea gravel. It works a treat.

Mr. Higgins, We've been growing tomatoes in Arlington for 10+ years, but had a weird experience with them last summer. The tomatoes came in fine and gained pretty good size. However, as they began to ripen and turn red, they suddenly were attacked by mysterious forces that punched large holes in them, making them inedible. We eventually saw that the damage was being inflicted by birds nesting in our neighbors' hedge near our garden. We assumed that the birds (suffering through last year's heat and dry weather) were looking for water. What was particularly odd, though, was that they only damaged the red or partially-red tomatoes -- they would leave the unripened green tomatoes entirely alone. Any thoughts/comments on this? Are birds color blind? BTW, FWIW, we're deterring the birds this year using a large frame over the entire garden -- it's made of PVC and draped with a lightweight mesh netting. So far, so good.

Yes, birds are programmed to eat red fruit not other colors. The plant wants them to eat the fruit, to disperse the seed, and the fruit turning red is a signal to the birds that it's chow time. You could grow yellow, orange or even green tomatoes (e.g. Striped Zebra). This will fool them.

Oh great guru, so glad you're on today... I know I'll learn something! On my own turf, I neglected to trim back my way-too-healthy arborviate this winter (nothing did go truly dormant, did it?)... Now there's a nice (but wide) layer of new fan-shaped growth. is it too late to give it a light shearing? Thanks, and please come have discussions more often! Silver Spring

Now is a perfect time to prune evergreens. With conifers such as arborvitae, it is important not to cut below the area of growth. Stems pruned back to bare wood won't regrow.

I enjoyed your article on tomato corralling today. I seem to be a Perfectionist with faddish hippie tendencies (large, heavy-duty tomato cages; the current favorites are red extra large ones from Burpee -- they fold for storage).

Thanks, I didn't get into this but a real logistical problem for the Cagers is that you have to store these things in the winter and they can be quite bulky. Still, there's always the living room.

Good afternoon, Mr. Higgins. Please, help me! I live in a condo in DC with no outdoor space, and I've planted many herbs in planters in my interior window sill (plastic planter, gravel at the bottom for drainage plus draining hole/tray, then organic potting soil). I've become completely inundated with bugs that look like gnats or fruit flies. I've tried vacuuming them to no avail, and they're taking over my condo. How can I get rid of them without rendering the herbs inedible? Many thanks.

These are probably fungus gnats, usually associated with too much soil moisture. I like the vacuum cleaner approach. You can also get yellow sticky cards, where they land forever. Cut back on the watering.

I would suggest that OP may want to invest the $100 or so to buy the Dragon FlameWeeder. Zapping the weeds with your propane tank and a mini-flamethrower does sound like an awful lot of fun! As a side topic -- is it me or is wild strawberry the next mega-invasive? I seem to have this all over the place in my garden and it is driving me nuts.

Flame weeders are great if the weeds are in patios and pavers, but not so good if they are growing amidst desirable plants, as bindweed tends to do. Wild strawberry really seems to have gone wild and it's a real pain to dig out. It's like all aggressive weeds, the sooner you can weed it, the better. 

I loved your article on tomatoes today. I have a pot garden in my yard because I don't want to deal with fighting the slugs that ate all my plants last year. This is only my second year of attempting to grow vegetables. Last year's yield (thank you slugs) was seven zucchini, four cucumbers, 47 jalepenos (apparently immune to slug love) and a handful of cherry tomatoes (that upside down thing does NOT work). I am looking for a single resource that you would recommend for the novice planter of vegetables - a single site or book. I get overwhelmed with details when I go hunting on my own and have no idea if what I am reading is reliable or not. Many thanks.

Generally with containers, the bigger the better. Less stress on the plants and the gardener, though they must drain. Iron phosphate pellets are a good way to reduce the slug population, as is hand picking in the evening with your paramour. (A way to tell if a suitor is worth it?) I do like Roz Creasy's Edibible Landscaping and know she's is giving sound information on container growing. l

I believe there is still plots available at the Briggs Chaney Garden. It is a little bit of a drive but I first started to garden there when I lived in Rockville.

Thank you for that.

I'm container gardening on my roof: tomatoes, small peppers, mini eggplant, and some herbs and flowers. It's a bit windy but gets full sun all day. I think I'm overwatering - some leaves are starting to yellow and drop, other leaves have curled dead edges. Best way to take care of these so that I'll get some fruit out of them?

The soil medium should be light (did you add vermiculite?) and the containers should drain freely. It helps to add a balanced fertilizer when you plant, and then a phosphate feed after flower set. (But conservatively).

And I think I've tried all the various tomato growing methods highlighted today. Not sure what's working best (though the 2 foot metal stakes stink). I'm also pretty sure that I planted my tomatoes too close together. What (if anything) can I do about that at this point? 2 of my plans already have little tomatoes (both black plum tomato plants).

Everyone, including me, plants tomatoes too close to each other. You need 24 inches. I would thin them, even now, and perhaps put the transplants in a pot.

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Guilt assuaged! I was so ashamed of my little red pencil-lead roots. Now, is the same true for beets? I can grow carrots... short stumpy things but they taste good, my lettuce went feral, and I get volunteer pumpins... but beets seem to not do much more than radishes...? Thanks again!

Beets are easier, but you have to be patient, and the key to good beet development is to thin them so you have three to four inches between them.

Thought your story and illustrations on tomato staking was brilliant! My hydrangeas are in uber bloom at the moment- overtaking my pool area- once they are faded- how far can I cut them back- and when is the best time. These are 5 foot tall - at least 10 year old bushes. Thanks for your answer.

Merci buckets. Yes, right after flowering is a great time to prune hydrangeas to preserve bud wood for next spring. I would take out the oldest canes entirely to reduce the thicket of stems, and then trim back some of the longer stalks. Don't remove more than one third of the plant in one go, however.

Hmm, I grew radishes for the first time this spring and they all turned out quite nicely. maybe OP's garden is a little over-enriched?

This spring was unusually cool and even. Grow them if you want, by all means, I just find them much more temperamental than advertised. I'd much rather use the space for arugula or spring onions. 

The leafy part of my potato plants seem to be growing several inches per day, and are threatening to leave the garden and head out over my rabbit fence (3' high) and into the yard. Will some modest pruning of these greens cause any serious damage to the potato crop, or should I just let them grow unchecked?

Spuds generally are not trimmed back. The leaves will help develop large tubers. You can and should hill up the lower stems to prevent any sunlight reaching the developing potatoes.

I irrigate my vegetable garden with soaker hoses which I then place under black plastic. I cut holes in the black plastic for the vegetable plants or rows that I will sow. cuts down on both weeding and the amount of water needed to irrigate as there is very little evaporative loss.

That is a good approach if you have, say, a garden at a weekend place that you cannot get to for days on end. It is an efficient way of making sure they get water, especially in a drought. I might mulch over the black plastic to reduce the soil temperatures.

Hi, I have a small tomato plant (Mountain Princess variety) in a large patio tub which is fertilized according to instructions and watered every 2-3 days, more often if it's hot or looks droopy. Mostly sunny location, with some shade in the afternoon. It's doing well, but the leaves at the bottom of the plant are turning yellow and dying. Is that normal, or do I need to do something different? Thanks!

It's sort of normal in our climate. In July, the vines become vigorous enough to outgrow that. But I would remove those leaves as you see them, and take care not to touch clean foliage without washing your hands first.

My husband put in some beautiful low stone terracing in our front garden, but now the liriope has filled in and overgrown it. Can you recommend a lower-growing and tidier border plant? The area gets morning sun, afternoon shade.

I would consider mazus or, if drier, mondo grass.

Hello and thanks for doing this chat. We have tomatoes in self-watering containers (where the water pools in the bottom & wicks up through the soil), and a number of the leaves on several plants have yellowed and curled. We used fresh potting soil when we filled the containers with soil, though I don't think we added any additional nutrients beyond some osmocote just under the roots. Do you have any ideas or suggestions for preventing further yellowing? Thanks!

I wonder if they are staying too wet. Stick your finger in the soil and check to see if it's waterlogged. If it is, make some adjustments.

Any suggestions for plants that would be happy underneath large spruce trees? So far, hydrangeas have worked well. Rhodies have perished pretty quickly (I think it was a soil fungus). Ferns seem to need more water than the large tree roots allow them. Hostas limp along (if the voles don't get them first!) Any other ideas?

I assume you have removed the lowest of the spruce branches to allow space and light. I would consider some epimediums, which will take dry shade once established.

Hi Adrian. Twice now I have planted three 6" arbor vitae in a row as a hedge, and twice all three have died despite diligent watering. They happen to be planted where pine trees used to be planted - they were cut down, although part of the stumps probably remain a few feet below surface. The dirt is heavy clay, with mulch on top. Any suggestions on what problems I might be encountering?

I think it's the diligent watering. Lots of water, heavy clay equals unhappy arborvitae. If you can't get around that, I would suggest some bald cypress (which drop their needles in winter).

My toad lilies took awhile to become established, but now they are doing well and are even getting bushy. Can I separate them? If so, how and when? Thanks!

You can and should divide congested clumps, but this is normally done in early spring. Not sure I would try it now with the heat arriving.

We have a very small front yard and would like to get rid of our lawn entirely. Any suggestions for ground cover? The area gets some afternoon sun, and we will put in flagstone stepping stones, so would like something that could grow around (and not overtake) the stones. We are also considering just using gravel instead of the ground cover. We will have greenery in the form of bushes, garden, etc.

You're talking about a very hot situation, so you would need some heat loving plants. I would consider some grasses such as panicum or calamagrostis or the fine, clumping prairie dropseed.

I put in a bed for several kinds of pumpkin and butternut squash. I have nasturtium and sunflowers mixed in as I read they are good companion plants. Last year I had to hand pollinate. Hopefully the flowers will draw enough bees. If not, any tips on hand pollinating (or pumpkins in general)? Will I need to hand pollinate the butternut squash, as well?

You shouldn't have to hand pollinate, but know that they will set male flowers first and then fewer female blooms later. It's important to have more than one vine to promote growth, and then generally encourage pollinators by having nectar bearing flowers such as zinnias, even marigolds, and don't use pesticides.

I seem to have ants going to town on my strawberries meaning every time we go out to pick them we find nice ripe strawberries covered in holes (I'm assuming its the ants anyway, they're crawling all over them). Additionally there is another bug (haven't identified it yet) that seems to be causing gall like growths on the berries (these start to take shape before the berries ripen). Do you have any suggestions for eradicating these insects? I'd prefer to abstain from chemical warfare, but I'm not opposed to it since I'll start that up when I find the first stink bug on my tomatoes (any advice for them?).

The ants maybe taking advantage of the holes, but they're not causing it, it's slugs. You can use iron phosphate, or just go out there in the evening. Wear gloves if you are handpicking, the slime is unpleasant. (Nothing like stating the obvious).

I love your work, you really inspiring this budding gardner! We planted a southern magnolia last year. It was full of leaves but no flowers. THIS YEAR it has shed many leaves and is starting to look like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree -- I can see right thru it! However, there are a couple of flowers and the stems look green so it seems that its not dying (is it?) Any suggestions? Thank you!

Thank you. Southern magnolias experience serious leaf drop from May to July. That's normal. They also take years to flower abundantly. Be patient.

I have a virus in my garden (according to the ag people) which has been there since I bought the Bonnie-infected seed some years ago. The tomato plants will grow to about 3.5 feet, and then wilt and die. I am using magnesium currently, but it...and other remedies have had zero effect. Is there any chemical I can use to correct this problem? Small garden; about 1000 sq feet, but I have no where else to plant the garden.

You can't spray against virus. Virused plants should be removed and trashed. I would go with a non-nightshade plant there for a while, and in future get tomato varieties bred for virus resistance.

I have what I believe is a vigorous "crop" of broad-leaved plantain in my front yard. I have tried everything to get rid of it, including sprays (which I try to avoid). It persists in coming back, even when I think I have eradicated it. Any suggestions? (other than put it in my salad?)

I use a combination trowel and serrated blade tool to dig them out.

I put down my compost (I have a big bin) in the spring and, before I could plant, some tomato and pumpkin plants popped up. I've decided to keep them but what can I do next year to prevent this from happening again? I didn't realize seeds could be so hardy. Thanks.

Just pull them and trash them. They're probably cherry tomatoes, which seem to reseed with abandon. I like to select my own varieties, which is why I don't keep them. But you could if you are being thrifty.

My argula came up but it's flowering and very sparse in the leaves. What is going on?

Sorry, we've run out of time. Arugula doesn't like our hot summers. Pull it, and sow some fresh seed in late August for a fall crop. Thanks for all your questions. 

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his recent story on a D.C. garden thief and follow him on Twitter.
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