January 11th, 2013
After-Bloom Care of Amaryllis

I received an amaryllis as a gift and it was spectacular. Now what? If I keep the bulb, will it bloom again?

blog-dougAn amaryllis is a rewarding winter houseplant because, like paperwhite narcissus, it can go from dormant bulb to full bloom in a matter of weeks. But unlike paperwhites, which aren’t worth saving once they are done blooming, an amaryllis bulb is a long-term investment that will bloom every winter—if you know how to keep it happy.

It’s a common mistake to trim off the long, strappy leaves that emerge with the flower stalk. Those leaves are absolutely necessary; through photosynthesis, they capture the solar energy that goes toward next year’s flowers. After it’s done blooming, put the potted amaryllis in a sunny, warm window and water it regularly to encourage more leafy growth. Give it a bit of fish emulsion or other water-soluble fertilizer every other week. When the weather warms and nights remain consistently above 50°F, move the pot outdoors, letting the leaves acclimate to direct sunlight gradually. Continue feeding and watering to encourage lush growth; the leafier the better.

Around Labor Day, stop watering and feeding your amaryllis and let the bulb go dormant. Some gardeners turn the pot on its side to make sure the soil dries thoroughly. Once the leaves have shriveled, move the pot indoors and keep it dry for at least 10 weeks, or whenever you’re ready to awaken the bulb and begin the flowering cycle again. Top the soil with a half-inch or so of compost or fresh potting mix, water well, and stand back!  —Doug Hall

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December 3rd, 2012
Feeding Birds in Winter

Does feeding birds in winter make them dependent on humans?

blog-dougSome nature lovers worry that birds will become accustomed to free handouts from backyard bird-feeding stations and lose their natural ability to forage. Research at the University of Wisconsin contradicts this theory. Researchers discovered that when birds add a human-provided source of food to their diet, they do so without eliminating sources in nature, such as insects, seeds, and fruits. Your bird feeder simply becomes one more stop in their regular feeding pattern.

The same study showed that feeders improve the winter survival rates of birds, especially in late winter or after a heavy snowfall, when natural food sources diminish. When the researchers removed the feeders, the birds showed no loss of foraging skills.

In addition to setting out a well-stocked feeding station, there are other ways of assisting birds in winter. For example, you can landscape your yard with native plants that offer food and shelter. And birds welcome a source of water in all seasons. This article details a few other wintertime strategies for creating a bird-friendly yard.  —Doug Hall

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November 21st, 2012
Last Mowing of the Year

blog-dougDoes it make sense to get out my mower again to shred the fall leaves that remain on the lawn? My grass has stopped growing and I haven’t mowed for about a month.

I like to give my lawn a final trim with a mulching lawnmower after all the leaves are down. I move the blade down a notch from where it’s been set and remove the bagging attachment. And I sharpen the blade, if I haven’t done that recently. It usually takes two passes (the second time, I mow at right angles to the first pass) until the leaves are shredded fine enough to filter down among the grass blades. Over the winter months, the leaf bits and grass clippings will start to break down, adding humus to the soil.

This won’t work if your lawn is ankle-deep in leaves. Earlier in fall, when leaves are abundant, I rake them onto a tarp and transfer them to a compost bin to make leaf mold. Even two passes with a mulching mower won’t shred deep drifts of leaves enough that they will disappear into the turf, and they’ll end up smothering the lawn. If you can’t see the grass for the leaves, it’s better to clean them up with a rake, not a mower. But toward the end of autumn, when there are just a few leaves remaining, it makes perfect sense to return their nutrients to the soil.

The worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is to rake your leaves to the curb to be hauled away. Whether I compost leaves or shred them for mulch, I prefer that their organic goodness remains in my yard.   —Doug Hall

November 2nd, 2012
Rescuing a Storm-Toppled Shrub

After the hurricane passed, some of the lilacs in my yard were lying on their sides with half their roots out of the ground. Can I do something to save them?

blog-dougIt’s best to leave the righting of large, heavy plants like trees to the professionals (as well as the decision of whether or not a tree can be saved). But straightening a toppled shrub is not difficult. Do it now, while the soil is still soft from all the rain.

All you have to do is firmly shove the shrub back into an upright position, then pound a few tall stakes vertically into the ground to keep it upright. Position the stakes where they will provide support for the shrub; you may need to tie branches to the stakes.

Try to protect the already compromised roots from further disturbance. If roots have been pulled out of the ground, you may need to carefully excavate a hole for them on the lilac’s upwind side. Then replace the soil, burying the roots at the same depth they were before the storm. Finish with a layer of organic mulch. Ideally, the shrub should be secure enough so that another strong wind won’t rock the plant and tug on the root system.

If the roots were damaged severely, consider pruning some of the top growth to compensate for the loss. Selectively remove a few of the oldest stems, cutting them all the way to the ground. This practice, called renewal pruning, rejuvenates older lilacs and promotes better flowering, even when the shrub hasn’t been pushed over by a hurricane.   —Doug Hall

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October 23rd, 2012
What Makes Fall Colorful

When I landscaped my yard a few years ago, I chose trees that I thought would give me fall color. But they’ve been a disappointment. Does good fall color happen only on mature trees?

blog-dougThe ability to produce brilliant fall color is based on a tree’s genetics, not its age. Some species and cultivars are better than others at producing the pigments that light up autumn.

In addition, climate and weather play a big role. Sunny fall days and cold (but not freezing) nights encourage sugar production and retention in the leaves, which in turn promote more of the red and purple pigments known as anthocyanins. Some regions, such as New England, have a color-promoting climate. The same species can display different amounts of color in different regions.

But sometimes weather spoils the show. Summer drought or excessive autumn heat decreases pigment formation. A hard freeze in early fall can turn leaves directly from green to brown. Because temperatures and rainfall vary from year to year, no two falls are identical.

The best way to select trees for fall color is to look around your community in a typical fall and see which trees are the most colorful. Or check regional sources of information, such as your state’s cooperative extension office.  —Doug Hall

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October 16th, 2012
Intimidated by Latin Names

The plant names written in Latin are so confusing. Why don’t you just call everything by its regular English name?

blog-dougThere are several good reasons for using botanical nomenclature when identifying plants. For one, scientific names are an international language, so each species of plant (or other living creature) is identified by the same name throughout the world. Scientific names also reveal relationships among plants by grouping those with similar characteristics and evolutionary paths into the same order, family, or genus. The two-word name given to a species, such as Vinca minor or Ginkgo biloba, is called a binomial or scientific name. It’s often written in italics with the first of the two words capitalized.

In contrast, common names of plants can be imprecise. “Snowball bush” can refer to several types of viburnum or hydrangea; “bluebell” can be the English bulb of meadows, the wildflower of North American woodlands, or any of several summer-blooming perennials. The plant I call beebalm (Monarda didyma) you may know as Oswego tea or wild bergamot.

There’s nothing wrong with using common names, but knowing the scientific name of a plant will help you to search for more information about it online or to find a retailer that sells it. If you are unsure of how to pronounce those Latinized names, do what a botany professor told me years ago: Whether you know the correct pronunciation or not, always say scientific names in a strong and authoritative voice, and everyone else will think they’ve been saying them wrong.  —Doug Hall

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October 9th, 2012
When to Dig Dahlias

There was a hard frost last night that killed the dahlia tops. I’m going out of town and won’t have a chance to dig up the roots for at least a week. Is that too late to save them?

blog-dougFor the tuberous roots of dahlias to be damaged, the soil would have to freeze several inches deep — something that usually doesn’t happen until a month or two after the first frost. (In USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8 and warmer, it may not happen at all.) So you can delay this task a few weeks without worry.

Here’s my technique for storing tender bulbs, including dahlias and cannas, through the winter. Caladiums, tuberous begonias, elephant ears, and gladiolus prefer a slightly warmer storage temperature of around 50°F.  —Doug Hall

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September 4th, 2012
Cilantro From Seed

Is it possible to grow cilantro inside in a pot? I love it, but it does not do well as I live in Louisiana and it gets very hot.

blog-dougBecause of cilantro’s small stature, it is a good candidate for growing in a pot. Choose a fairly deep container, such as a one- or two-gallon nursery pot, to accommodate its taproot, and sow seeds directly into the pot. How well cilantro will perform indoors depends on the light exposure you give it. Try growing it in a window where it gets several hours of direct sunlight daily. Keep the soil lightly moist.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum, also known as coriander or Chinese parsley) is an annual that is easily grown from seed. The best flavor is from young leaves, so fans of this herb often make successive sowings every few weeks to keep a steady supply of fresh foliage. Once plants flower and form seeds, the leaf quality deteriorates (although the fruits and seeds have culinary uses as well). Cilantro has a brief life span that can be further shortened by hot weather, dry soil, or transplanting (instead of direct seeding). As the weather heats up in summer, light shade and a cooling layer of mulch help to extend the harvest.

In your climate, you may find that cilantro performs best when planted outdoors in late summer or fall for winter harvest. You can also let it self-seed in the garden and establish its own seasonal routine.  —Doug Hall

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August 22nd, 2012
Nitrogen-Depleting Mulch

Right after I finished mulching my rose garden with free wood chips I got from a tree service, I read that wood chips suck all the nitrogen out of the soil. Should I fertilize now?

blog-dougAs soon as you spread mulch, there’s a population boom of bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes that work to decompose organic matter. These beneficial organisms consume some of the nitrogen present in the soil. The nitrogen loss is temporary, however, because the nitrogen is once again available to plants when the microbes die.

But in the meantime, the thin layer of soil that is in direct contact with the mulch will relinquish some of its fertility. The depletion of nutrients does not extend deep into the soil, so it won’t likely affect anything other than the shallowest-rooted annuals.

The benefits of organic mulch outweigh the possibility of a temporary nitrogen shortage. Mulch conserves moisture and contributes to a healthy root zone. It also helps to suppress weeds. As mulch decomposes, the nutrients held within it—including a small amount of nitrogen—are released.

For roses and other plants with high nutrient needs, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for nitrogen deficiency, whether you’ve mulched with wood chips or not. Plants lacking nitrogen grow slowly and exhibit pale or yellow-green leaves; in extreme cases, growth may be stunted.

To preclude the chance of nitrogen deficiency, many gardeners make a habit of distributing a small dose of slow-release nitrogen fertilizer every spring to roses, perennials, edible crops, and other heavy feeders. Good organic sources include alfalfa meal (about 5 percent nitrogen by weight), fish meal or fish emulsion (5 percent), blood meal (12 percent), and feather meal (15 percent). Compost and worm castings also contain small amounts of nitrogen.  —Doug Hall

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August 7th, 2012
Green + Brown = Compost

I have lots of kitchen scraps (eggshells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peelings) but cannot figure out how to develop compost out of it. Everything I’ve read says to add green and brown such as dried leaves and green grass to it. I need to figure out some sort of ratio. But how?

blog-dougBooks have been written on the topic of making compost; my current favorite is Compost Gardening by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin. It represents a wealth of wisdom and practical experience on a topic that, when it comes down to it, is really quite simple. The decomposition of organic matter into compost is going to happen whether you’re measuring and manipulating the materials in a pile or not. “Compost happens,” as the tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker says.

The ratio you’re referring to is the balance of carbon-rich materials (or “brown” ingredients, such as straw, shredded paper, sawdust, and dry leaves) to nitrogen-rich materials (the “greens,” including your kitchen scraps, manure, and fresh grass clippings or weeds). In theory, a proper balance of these ingredients makes for a fast and efficient compost pile. In practice, however, most gardeners add whatever organic debris we have on hand to our compost piles without giving much thought to the carbon-nitrogen ratio. We end up with compost, too, even if it takes longer than it would with a perfectly managed pile.

You can layer your kitchen scraps with dry leaves or other “browns” in a pile or bin. Or you can try pit composting, a technique that involves digging holes or trenches in the garden (often between rows of vegetables or in fallow areas of the garden), depositing your kitchen scraps in the ground, and immediately covering them with soil. The scraps break down quickly—and you don’t have to worry about getting the ratio right.

For more information about how to make and use compost, you’ll find a great collection of articles and videos on this website.  —Doug Hall

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