Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Second Mistake: No Clue About The Garden!

This is the second in a series of articles on common gardening mistakes. The second mistake is beginning without enough information about your garden site. In this article I'll give you a list of basic things to learn.
Gardening should be pleasant and satisfying. To be sure, there is a lot of pleasure in gardening activity, but much of the satisfaction comes from success. Ask yourself, "Self. Would you continue gardening if you never tasted success?" My self would say, "No!", and I bet yours would, too.

Many would-be gardeners are clueless, lacking basic information about their craft. Sometimes you can stumble across success in gardening. But you're more likely to do well if you are equipped with some knowledge. Fortunately, gardening information is readily available and easy to obtain. Whats more, learning is fun and satisfying in itself.

You will improve your knowledge and gardening skills if you learn a few of the following things about your garden:

Soil type

Though there are many soil types, there are only four general types that you really need to know.
  • Rock
  • Sand
  • Clay
  • Humus
These four soil types in different combinations and of various origins determine the porosity and nutrients of your soil. As with most things, too much of any is a bad thing. You need to know your soil type. Most often, it is quite obvious. But if you are unsure or need to know more, your nearby Cooperative Extension Service is a great resource. With the help of soil samples and maps, they can assist you. Believe it or not, several different soil types may exist on the same property. Its helpful to know them all, especially if there is any chance that you might be planting in them. There is not much you can do to radically change your soil type, but you can usually improve it by adding appropriate materials. Your Cooperative Extension Agent can make recommendations.

Soil moisture

Water is essential to life. Even cacti need some of it. So it's availability is important to everything. Soil moisture can be influenced by soil type, the location of water sources ranging from rivers to downspouts, by low-lying areas as different as valleys and mere depressions, and rainfall.

Even the water table is important. The water table is the depth below the soil surface where more abundant water may be found. For some, this may be fairly near the surface. If the water table is too near the surface, some plants will not grow well because their roots won't grow into the water.

Several years ago I decided to plant an acre of dwarf espaliered apple trees. Fruit tree size is affected by the rootstock to which the upper portion is grafted. Espaliered plants are grown on a trellis or against a wall. Mine were to be trellised. I knew that the water table was an important factor, so I obtained a bit of help from the Natural Resourses Conservation Service to locate it. My planting site was on a very slight hill. We drilled at the bottom of the hill and discovered that the water table was about 3' below the surface. Safe enough, I thought. But I was wrong. The trees at the bottom of the slope never did do well. Eventually I ended the project.

You may be able to manage soil moisture. But at what cost? Rainfall can not be managed. So you must consider water availability very carefully and choose your plants wisely.

Soil pH

Soil pH refers to the level of acidity or alkalinity of the water in your soil. Plants function best within a pH range. For some plants the range may be wide; for others it may be comparatively narrow. Soil pH can also influence the growth of diseases and the availability of nutrients. Your Cooperative Extension Service can also help you determine this for a nominal fee.

Various tests can be made on your garden soil. They can even test your potting soil. A routine test usually includes pH, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and manganese levels. Other possible tests may include boron, soluble salts, organic matter and nitrate levels. The routine test is usually sufficient, but I often request a test for organic matter.

The procedure may vary from state to state, but in Georgia, one can obtain a small soil sample bag from the County Extension Service Office. The bag is printed with sampling instructions. One simply prints one's name and address on the bag, checks off the requested tests, indicates the type of plant one intends to grow, inserts the soil sample in the bag, and returns it to the office. The sample is sent to a state lab. Within a few weeks, the results are returned along with recommendations for improvement. A pH level of 7 is neutral. Anything below 7 is acid. The lower the number, the more acid it is. Anything above 7 is more alkaline.

Climate zone

After years of data collection, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has delineated various climate zones throughout the country based upon average low winter and high summer temperatures. Knowing which zone you live in can go a long way in determining which plants could survive in your area. You can learn about your climate zone by going to the USDA Web Site and looking at their map.
The mere fact that a plant is known to do well in a range of USDA climate zones that happens to include yours is no guarantee that it will perform well for you. There are too many other variable factors. Nevertheless, this is important information for you to know.

Sun exposure

Is it shady or not? You would think this to be fairly obvious, not requiring much research. But it does require a bit of observation and thought because conditions change. The sun is positioned higher in the sky during summer. It rises later and sets earlier in winter. Deciduous trees lose their leaves. Small trees grow. So, what was in shade earlier may be exposed to bright sunlight later. These things you must know.

Since high school, I've kept a few orchids as a hobby. For a few years a bathroom has provided an ideal environment because it has a large window and the humidity is high. Recently I was dissatisfied with their progress and thought a bit more light might help to induce bloom. So I moved a few to a table sheltered on a covered side porch. It was shady all day long; so I thought. But late afternoon summer sunlight reached all the way to the table and burned a few of my plants. Aggravated but determined, I spied a large birch tree that provided shade all day; so I thought. But spaces between the leaves allowed spots of sunlight to peep through just long enough to burn spots on some of my orchid leaves. Determined to avoid future damage, I moved them under a camellia shrub and strategically placed a few pots of banana plants to block early morning sun. But now I'm not so sure the orchids weren't better off in my bathroom. I could have avoided damage to my Phalaenopsis if I had been more observant earlier.

Plant descriptions will usually say something like, "Full sun to partial shade", or "Prefers light shade." What does that mean? Think of it like this: "full sun" means full exposure to sunlight from sunrise to sunset. "Partial shade" means some shade during the day, but that is so variable as to be practically meaningless UNLESS you observe a site and take notes. My orchids on the porch were in partial shade, i.e. shade until 6:00pm, but when the sun finally reached them it scorched them.

When considering "partial shade", you've got to observe how much shade, when during the day, and for how long. Don't forget to take into account the intensity of the sunlight when it does come around.
"Light shade" means just that all day long.

Reflected light is also an important consideration. For plants requiring shade, it can provide just enough exposure to be of benefit.

Other things you should know

Though they may seem minor, there are some other things you should learn. Among them are wind and chemical exposure.

Wind exposure can affect the stability of your plants, i.e. blow them down. It can affect soil moisture, i.e. dry it out faster. It can help prevent frost damage by not allowing it to settle on your plants. Take note of it.
Chemical exposure is usually in the form of pollution. It can be obvious to the extreme, or hidden and insidious.

When I was a little kid, my family occasionally traveled through a town named Copperhill, TN. Copperhill was the home of a copper mining industry which produced a lot of air, soil and water pollution. Consequently the nearby hills were barren and eroded. This was an example of the obvious and extreme.

Hidden chemical pollution can be from something that was dropped, spilled, washed, leached or misapplied. It may not be easy to determine. The best thing is to be handle with care.

Whether your garden is large or small, a bit of basic information will enable you to enjoy your gardening experience and taste sweet success, and I want you to have it. Begin today learning about your garden space by following the steps I've already mentioned. I'll continue to provide or help you find the information you need. Not only that, but there is a lot that I can learn from you. So please contact me with your questions and your comments. And of course, I invite you to add your comments to this blog. Enjoy!

Are you ready to shop? Be sure to visit goGardenNow.com and have fun!


Saturday, July 19, 2008

First Mistake: No Idea!

This is the first in a series of articles on common gardening mistakes. The first mistake is gardening without a plan. In this article, I'll give you some suggestions how to form one.

I've made this mistake myself: finding an interesting plant at the garden center and buying it with little or no idea of what I'm going to do with it, then returning home and walking around the yard looking for a place to plant it.

Being a plant enthusiast, I've done this type of thing very often with wild abandon. I've bought strange-looking plants, begged for cuttings, shaken seeds into my pocket and pinched off tiny branches in passing. I've tried growing things where anyone who knows anything said they couldn't be grown. I've bought plants, not for the plants themselves but for the epiphytes that were growing on them. I've espaliered apples and hybrid cherry trees to the walls of my home in south Georgia. To indulge myself further, I've enlisted with government programs to help with new plant trials. Several years ago, a visitor from a department of agriculture said it looked like I was running a one-man "experiment station."

On the other hand, there have been days when I've not wanted to see another plant, much less to care for it. So you can see I'm a hopeless case.

Why then am I presuming to advise you about developing a landscape plan? Because I'm learning from my mistakes and I want to share what I've learned with you.

There is something to be said for the thrill of finding an exciting new plant and adding it to your collection. It seems therapeutic. To be sure, the opportunity to buy that plant at that price may not present itself again. But if this pattern is followed consistently, your yard will look more like a confusing jumble than a thoughtful expression of yourself. In fact, it can become a source of frustration for you.

So I suggest that you begin with a basic plan for your landscape. It doesn't matter whether you live on a five-acre mini-estate, or have a patio garden; you need a plan. Obviously, the smaller garden is simpler and easier to deal with. You should be flexible about it, for the garden is almost like a living, ever-changing organism. Not only does your garden change, but so do you. Your desires and needs tomorrow may be a different from what they are today. But it you have a basic plan, you can flesh it out as you go. You can even change it fundamentally if you need to so so in the future.

Sometimes the idea of developing a plan seems intimidating. I understand that all too well. We may be stymied by the enormity of it all and end up doing nothing. But begin we must. Keep in mind that your plan does not need to be comprehensive. You don't need to include every single plant and color. A very, VERY "bare-bones" plan is all that you need at first.

Here are a few questions you should answer in order to get started with your plan.

1. Shall I develop the plan myself, or enlist the aid of another?

Sometimes we don't know where to begin, so a little assistance is needed. If that is true for you, consider seeking an adviser. Find one that meets your needs.

Perhaps you need a lot of help, especially if you have a larger property. If so, consider using a Landscape Architect. You can find some in your area by going to the website of the American Society of Landscape Architects and clicking on Firm Finder. Fill in the search fields, and in a few moments you will have plenty to choose from.

Many garden centers offer consultation and installation services. A quick search through your phone book should turn up a few. These are often quite flexible, ready to help when you need them without requiring big commitments.

Your Cooperative Extension Service can provide a wealth of information, and so may docents and staff at public gardens.

2. What is my lifestyle, and how can my landscape enhance it?

Consider your vocation, family and friends, hobbies and various interests. How does your garden fit with all that?

3. What is the size of my landscape?

This is something that you may not be able to change at the moment, if ever. But your plan should take it into consideration to your best advantage. If your landscape is large, perhaps you should consider dividing your plan into smaller segments. Work outward from your home. Those areas you use more often should be treated first. Those that you use less often should be given less priority.

4. How much time do I have to devote to it?

Don't confuse this with how much time you'd LIKE to devote. Come on now! Be realistic. Count the hours in your day and in your week and ask yourself, "Self! How much time can I devote to my garden?"

5. Is gardening among my favorite activities, or not?

I believe that the urge to do a little gardening and nurturing is part of our human nature. But if gardening isn't your top priority or favorite hobby, that is okay. What is a pleasure for some is a distraction for others. By being honest about it, you can develop a plan that fits your lifestyle.


You have many interests and desires. Your landscape, however large or small, should contribute to your personal fulfillment. With that in mind, posing and answering questions like those above should help you determine how your landscape can become a source of pleasure rather than of frustration. Then, whether you intend to develop your own plan or seek assistance, your ideas can begin to form around your personal needs.

It has been my business for over 25 years to help people with their gardens, so please ask me if you have questions. Visit goGardenNow.com soon!


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It Takes Small Villages

Last night we ate dinner with friends. These weren't "just friends" but good friends. When we agree, we do so wholeheartedly, and also when we disagree. Our conversation covered lots of stuff: shared faith, businesses, families, successes and failures, good memories and things we've learned.

One friend said it seems like our best, cherished, and most humorous memories are of our most trying experiences. So we shared those for awhile.

Then the subject of "The Economy" was raised. Among the six of us (equal gender representation), none thought that we were actually worse off now than one year ago.

All agreed that these are fearful times. But what's new about that? One person declared that if we stopped listening to the NEWS but kept on doing business as usual (working and earning, counting our dollars, saving, contributing, spending wisely), not much would change for us.

This quote from Pat Paulson came to mind: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself...and of course, the boogieman."

We all agreed that good and manageable relationships are built upon good economies, sound and verifiable agreements, and dinner.

I remember that a politician once opined, "It takes a village!" I'm pretty sure she was thinking of a global village, diverse in constituency yet very much unified. It seems appealing. But it appears to me that if the global village errs (i.e. the village idiot is elected as sheriff; the gold is robbed from the only bank in town), all suffer.

I much prefer the diversity found in small villages where everything is experienced and managed in good proportion: business, friendships, faith, agreements/disagreements, village idiots.

Return to goGardenNow.com.



Monday, July 7, 2008

Wild and Wonderful Ivy


Most of us think of ivy as a rampant but boring evergreen ground cover. But look closer and you’ll find a plant with a myriad of interesting variations that can not only provide mass ground cover, but also elegance and curiosity as a potted, trellised or even bonsai plant. Plants in the genus Hedera (Latin for ‘ivy’) are characterized by twining vines with aerial roots that assist them in their ascension.

Ivies are woody plants that spread out until they find something that lets them spread up. When they climb they attach themselves via root-like hold fasts. Ivy can cover slopes, chain link fences and is in fact a plant of choice used to cover massive sound barriers along interstate highways. As a vine for growing in shade, it is unsurpassed. If you want ivy to grow on a structure, fasten it as desired, then watch it go. As far as price per square foot is concerned, ivy is notably inexpensive.

All Hedera, regardless of species, have many things in common. Its foliage is alternate, 3-5 lobed or entire, often variegated. There are various cultivars and growth habits. The leaves range in color from creamy white to deep green with uncounted natural and hybridized variations. It produces umbels of tiny, 5-lobed greenish flowers followed by berry-like fruits in fall. The fruits are toxic to humans but not to animals.Hedera have two distinct growth phases. A young, juvenile plant often has lobed, minutely hairy leaves, adventurous rootlets, and climbs. The older, mature plant has larger, mainly broadly ovate leaves without lobes. Mature plants produce flowers and fruits. This latter phase is seldom seen when the plant is grown indoors. Mature unlobed ivies grown vertically often produce lobes, so pay attention if that is a concern of yours. Lobing is also affected by seasonal variation. This plant mutates readily and is generally hardy to USDA climate zone 5. Zones 6-10 are ideal. Climate zones 7-10 are best for variegated cultivars. Your nearby Cooperative Extension Service office can help you determine your soil pH by a very inexpensive soil sample.
They can live in bright to low light, but variegated forms require higher light, turning greener in low light. They tolerate average to dry conditions but must be well watered during extending dry spells. In addition, the soil must be well drained and completely dried out between irrigation cycles or ivy will get root rot. Hedera prefers humid climates but will tolerate average humidity.

While ivy grows in full sun, exposure to wind can cause leaf burn. It's ideal for shady gardens because it thrives in dark shade. Ivy makes an extensive root system that is tough and deep. Digging it out is a real chore. But, if you decide to remove an established plant it will not return from roots left in the ground once the major stems and leaves have been eliminated.

Be careful when deciding whether to plant ivy outdoors; the same qualities that make them a quick solution for covering up "problem areas" in your garden can make them quick weeds. The very characteristic that makes it a fine ground cover can render it unwelcome: it covers ground. Ivy can be troublesome if completely unchecked, but it’s nothing like kudzu. Ivy does not damage trees or sound structures. It isn't a parasite. It cannot harm a mature tree, but it could outlive it and therefore give the impression that it's killing it when actually the tree is just old. It cannot collapse a sound building. If it’s not pruned it can get into gutters or under shingles and dislodge them under its own weight. A mass of ivy can pull off stucco that's old or not firmly attached, but the plant itself will not do structural damage. In fact, it can protect a building from weather and provides extra insulation.

There are many Hedera species and I am going to describe 6 of them. The ones most common in the U.S. are the first three in the list, H. helix, H. canariensis, H. colchica.

Helix, which means "twining", refers to the way the ivy leaf attaches to the stem. H. helix has several subspecies (helix- English ivy, hibernica- Irish ivy, poetarum-Italian ivy, to name a few) but in general any ivy that starts with “H. helix” is often called English ivy. Brought to North America by colonial settlers, this plant grows easily in many types of soil and in sun or shade and is hardy from Zones 5-9. English ivy is fairly drought-tolerant once it is established. Its two to four inch leaves are alternate and simple or entire (unlobed). Juvenile plants’ leaves have 3-5 lobes and adult leaves are ovate to rhombic (diamond-shaped). Mature plants bear pale green flowers and produce berry-like fruit in fall clusters. English ivy can out-compete grasses, herbs and trees because it is a vigorous climber. In the south, H. helix can grow throughout the year. It mounds up to 1’ tall and climb up to 50’.

H. canariensis (African ivy, Algerian ivy, Canary Island ivy, Madeira ivy or Elephant Leaf ivy) is native to north Africa and the Iberian peninsula. It is distinguished by red leaf stems and 4-8” long heart-shaped or 3-lobed glossy emerald-green leaves. A variegated form is also available. A vigorous climber, this tropical or sub-tropical plant is damaged if temperatures fall below 20F (-6.6C). Growing only in Zones 8 - 10, it is adaptable to various soils and pH, but prefers rich, moist soil in partial sun to shade. It establishes and grows rapidly. If you live in Zone 7 or cooler, African ivy makes a good houseplant.

H. colchica (Persian ivy or Colchis ivy) is native to Asia, Georgia, Russia, northern Turkey and Iran. It's hardy to USDA climate zone 5 or 6 through 9 or 10. Foliage is 3-8” long, dark green, heart-shaped, leathery. When crushed the leaves are refreshingly aromatic.

H. rhombea (Japanese ivy) is native mainly to Japan and Korea. In the U.S. it thrives in Zones 6-9. Characterized by unlobed ovate or triangular leaves only 2" long, Japanese ivy is generally expensive and hard to find.

H. azorica is native to the Azores and thus known only as Azores ivy. Fan-shaped light green leaves grow 3" long on this fast climber. New growth is white and hairy.

H. nepalensis, or Nepal Ivy, has elliptic lobes with 3-6 “teeth.” Native to Himalayas, Afghanistan and western China, it has weak vigor.

I love ivy because it can be elegant, whimsical or purely functional depending on the variety. Fortunately, my Hedera wish list is almost complete. Here are my favorites so far:

H. helix ‘Baltica’- Flat, green, palmate foliage is more heart-shaped and has white veins. Grows in Zones 5-9.

H. helix 'Gold Child'- Variegated flat, palmate green leaves are splashed with gray and broad green-gold margins. Hardy from Zone 5 to 9.

H. helix 'Needlepoint'- Its delicate willowy leaves are under 1" long and look like a bird’s foot, but is hardy from Zone 5 to 9.

H. helix 'Telecurl'- Grows in Zones 5-9 and has a green ruffled leaf is curled between 5 lobes.

H. helix 'Anne Marie'- Variegated flat, hand like leaves have creamy colored lobes.

H. helix 'Ivalace' aka ‘Wilson’- Rippled 5 lobed dark green leaves have crimped margins that curve upward. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

H. helix ‘Teardrop’- 2002 Ivy of the Year. Mostly unlobed foliage that elongate to a point. Slow growing and stiffly branched. Has survived - l5 degree F temperatures.

H. canariensis Gloire de Marengo'- Zones 6-9. Heart-shaped or triangular foliage with wide white margins and grayish centers.

H. colchica 'My Heart'- It's hardy in USDA climate zones 5 - 10.  Needs some shade in zones 7-10.  You'll love its particularly large, green heart shaped leaves.

H. colchica 'Dentata Variegata'- won three awards from the Royal Horticultural Society (1907, 1979, and 1984). Large triangular leaves with a green center and light green edge have sharper points than usual at the end of its lobes. Hardy from Zones 6-9 and can take greater cold than ‘Gloire de Marengo’.

Hedera can be rooted in water using a stem or the tip cuttings of juvenile growth. A hormone to encourage growth works well too. While cuttings can be easy to do, finding the variety you want can be difficult. If you purchase an established plant, plant it in well drained soil just deep enough so that the root ball is flush with the surrounding earth. Let the soil completely dry between watering. Plant them 18” apart or more and they’ll fill in the space quickly. The original plants are considered mature after 2 years and can be thinned. If you’ve working in a small area that might be the best thing to do, but if you’re in a large space, thin what you need to keep it manageable. But how do you keep this plant manageable?

Cutting is successful with persistence but does not kill the plant. However, the use of cutting and then applying an herbicide may provide better control. Digging or pulling a plant up provides immediate control with little re-growth, but don’t leave the pulled plants on the ground; they can root and continue to grow.

Control Hedera that is growing up trees by cutting the vine at waist height, loosening the vine around the limbs and removing the roots. If the root can not be removed by hand, strip the bark and notch the exposed section of the vine. Paint on an undiluted herbicide such as glyphosate.

Hedera can have various pests and problems. Avoid the most common (root and stem rots and leaf spot) by not over irrigating. If you’ve got a rampant leaf spot problem use a fungicide. Spider mites are the most serious pests, usually on plants grown indoors. Treatment requires pesticides that are specifically developed for spider mite control (miticides or acaricides). Because most miticides do not affect eggs, a repeat application at an approximately 10- to 14-day interval is usually needed for control. Aphids can be controlled chemically, but also tend to kill other good bugs in the area. Try spot treatment first. Mealybugs have never destroyed ivy, but if they bother you try using the thumb and forefinger. If they’re really doing damage try Malathion. Whiteflies; I hate them but they’re easy to control. If your ivy is grown inside, try a white fly trap. If the ivy is outside an insecticidal soap is the least toxic material that can also get rid of them.

To sum up:


  • Plant Hedera at the same level it grew previously; don’t bury it.
  • Plant 18” apart.
  • Let the ground dry between irrigations.
  • Hedera is typically hardy between Zones 5-9.
  • Monitor the borders of the desired growth area to prevent escape.
Whether inside or out, Hedera is a wonderful plant with many potential applications. With a little love and care, this is a plant that will grow where and how you want it. Take some time to examine ivy varieties; you’ll be surprised at all Hedera have to offer.

If you would like to receive more free gardening information and be notified of new items and specials, sign in today and subscribe to our newsletter. There is no obligation to you. Of course, you can cancel at any time. And don't forget to tell us about your experiences with Hedera by adding a comment to this blog. We look forward to hearing from you!