Thursday’s Tip: Oh fig

Sorry. Last Tuesday’s Tip became this Tuesday’s Tip, and then Thursday’s Tip due to technical difficulties. (After years of flawless uploads through a USB, my Canon Rebel suddenly decided that it no longer likes communicating to my Dell laptop. Or maybe it’s Windows 7 that has shut it down. I tried a lot of technical intervention over the last ten days, but the PC and camera are in a stony stare down, citing irreconcilable differences.) Anyway, back to figs.

I finally have some figs forming on my fig tree. See them?
IMG_4200No? Now do you see them?
IMG_4203Well, at least one, right? There’s more than one, but they are playing hard-to-get. I can’t really blame them…the first couple of years of our relationship involved benign neglect. Like the summer it stayed hidden under an overturned 5-gallon bucket. And then there was a sudden move in 2011, and then an incredibly hot and dry summer in 2012. So it’s exciting to see those little fruits forming. Here’s hoping for good warm temps the rest of the summer,and a late first frost.

A few things you should know about figs (and a few I wish I had known):

  1. Figs need a long warm season to bear fruit. (That one I knew already, but in case you didn’t, if you garden north of me – I’m in zone 6b/7a with a solid six-months of frost-free weather – you may need to grow your fig in a large-but-moveable container. And be prepared to move into a protected spot if frost threatens before the fruit ripens.
  2. Fig roots go deep and wide. Don’t plant near a house, or they can cause foundation problems. (That’s one I didn’t know.)
  3. Figs are self-fertile, so only one is needed (good to know, huh?).
  4. The ripe fruit will attract birds and stinging insects. Probably not a great idea to plant mine adjacent to our deck, but keeping the ripe fruit picked off should keep the peace between me and the natives.
  5. A lot of experts say that what are commonly sold as ‘Brown Turkey’ figs are not BTs. And apparently that’s a good thing, because they also say ‘Brown Turkey’ is not the tastiest fig. Of course, there aren’t many fig varieties that can be grown in my climate, so whether I have a ‘Brown Turkey’ or ‘Celeste’, I will be a happy fig eater in another month or two (they typically ripen in late August to late September, depending on how our year went.) Fingers crossed.Happy gardening!

Tuesday’s Tip: Don’t be a brick shy of a load

Like most brick homes, ours apparently had leftover bricks after construction was finished. And like many homeowners, the former owners apparently decided to use the bricks to edge the landscape beds instead of piling them up for a future fire pit or mailbox project. Dry-fitted landscape edging is a perfectly fine use for them, as long as you remember they may chip, break or spaul over time. (If you’re creating a permanent walkway I recommend you forgo the frugal leftover bricks and choose true pavers.) With that caveat, here are some things to keep in mind when using those bricks.

Begin with the end in mind Dry fit a few bricks to create different patterns, upright, lengthwise, etc. Stand back and look at them: do they look good from all viewing angles? What about from the curb? Bricks are relatively small, so they tend to be “busy” and it’s generally better to keep the pattern simple. Big beds can handle more exposed brick to create the appropriate scale but smaller beds can quickly be overwhelmed by too much “mass.” A little forethought will save you from doing something like this:

Once you’ve settled on a pattern, figure out how many it will take to finish the job. It’s far better to re-do your pattern now than half-way through. Trust me.

Work before play. It’s tempting to rush in and “dig and drop” them in place, but in the long run, it pays to spend the time to properly excavate the area where the bricks are going. Bricks that are placed directly in/on soil tend to move over time from two factors:

  1. Weather. Rain causes settling; drought causes cracking, winter frost causes heaving.
  2. Nature. Plant roots, whether grass or trees, shrubs or perennials, will grow and push their way around.

If you want your bricks to stay in place for more than a season or two, take the time to fully prepare the site. Need more evidence? Here’s the “before” shot:
IMG_4169Level the playing field. Once you’re ready to start laying the bricks, make sure you have a rubber mallet and a leveler or “jig” to measure the height of your bricks. (If you’re following a natural slope or incline, a level won’t help much, but having something to keep them all the same height is good.) I recommend creating a gritty base to level things. I’ve used sand in many projects like the one below but I’ve come to prefer a fine screened paver base over sand, as it has enough coarseness to “bite” and hold onto objects without running like sand through every crack and pore. Look before you buy, though – paver base with coarse rock chips is hard to work with on small projects like brickwork. Currently our Lowe’s carries the finer stuff, while The Home Depot carries the larger crushed rock:
IMG_4191-001Accept the imperfections. Embrace them as part of the charm. In all seriousness, dry-fitted bricks are not going to be as perfectly lined up as their mortared mates on your home’s exterior. And that’s okay. In my recent project, I allowed about a quarter-inch deviation in height, and a few less-than-perfect corner turns. As it turns out, all the bricks were not leftovers from our home’s exterior, so there’s a bit of mix-n-match going on and I think it fits the casualness of our farmhouse style country home. Here’s the “after” shot:IMG_4189Speaking of non-matches, at our former home, we didn’t have leftover bricks when we moved in, but we did have a very long and extremely narrow sidewalk that was in desperate need of widening (if you think that picture is sad, you should have seen it with the overgrown yews lurching out onto the pathway…)
landscaping old house beforeHowever, I had access to free salvaged brick (a house was being moved when the highway widened.) So I patiently knocked the mortar off hundreds of bricks and flanked the sidewalk with them. (Note: Turning them perpendicular to the path visually widens just like horizontal stripes on clothing, and has a tendency to encourage a slower pace than bricks running parallel to your path.)
landscaping old house afterA closeup shot:
landscaping old houseThis was a major project–it took considerable time and effort to clear and level the sides and install landscape edging to hold the bricks in place in a bed of sand. But it was well worth it to create a wider, welcoming path to our front door.

Happy Tuesday!

Me and the groundhogs

Last Saturday, I found this hiding in our garage:photoMr. Official managed to cajole him out while I screamed. Like. A. Girl. It was less like this Bill Murray movie: family-vacations-groundhog-dayAnd much more like this Bill Murray movie:caddyshack-560-gopherThe decidedly unpleasant critter loped away and crawled under the shed and then I lost sight of him. I hope he kept moving and has relocated far, far, away.

That was Saturday. On Monday, Mr. Official rented this machine: ground hog trencherIt’s hard to see the logo on the side, but it’s called a “Ground Hog.” Irony, right? And this is what he did with it:IMG_4088IMG_4090

When we’re (okay, when HE) is done with this project, I know I will love having an irrigation system to water my perennials and vegetable garden. But I could do without seeing any more ground hogs on my property for a long while.
Happy gardening,


Tuesday’s Tip: The Buffet Rule for Plant Acquisitions

This rule is pronounced like Jimmy, but philosophically it more closely resembles Warren. Are you with me so far? It will soon make perfect sense, I promise.

Like most plants-people, I have acquired and killed countless plants in my lifetime. Many plants come to me through trades and pass-alongs, some by growing from seed or divisions, and most from outright purchases. I’m an equal opportunity plant shopper, buying through mail order catalogs and online, from huge discount retail stores and tiny specialty nurseries.

A few years ago, I had to face the unhappy fact that too many of my new plants were bought or grown on a whim and then ignored until they withered away. Some were end-of-season bargains, but even a sale plant is not a frugal find if you let it die without enjoying it.

And so I forced myself to adopt this simple rule of acquisition: I buy what I will plant, and I plant what I buy. (Just like a food buffet…see, I told you it would make sense) If I don’t have a spot in mind for a plant when I pick it up off the shelf (or put it in my online shopping cart), I put it back before I check out. And when they arrive at my house, all new plants are immediately planted if at all possible…as in, I don’t even go inside until the new plants are in the ground.

Our Spring Break trip to South Carolina tested my mettle on my resolve: I bought several plants at Brookgreen Gardens’ sale and some pepper and tomato plugs from a local nursery the day before we left, confident that I could plant them all as soon as we got home. But nature decided to give us a deluge every weekend since then, plus a few unusual frosty nights in between. I managed to get the ‘Purple Prince’ snapdragons tucked into a safe spot early on, but it wasn’t until mid-May when I finally was able to set out the petticoat daffodils, variegated Solomon’s seal, a new hydrangea, and finally the tomatoes and peppers. A new Louisiana iris is still waiting for the pond to recede enough for me to plant it at the same level as the others. Fortunately, the plants were sturdy enough to take the lengthy delay, but everything would have been happier if I could have planted them a month earlier.

I’m glad to say I no longer have half-filled flats and pots of fast-fading plants tucked here and there. I still kill my fair share of plants, but at least now I give ’em a fighting chance.

Happy Tuesday,

Tuesday’s Tip: Mucho mulch advice

Many new gardeners assume that mulch is a magic bullet to conquer weeds and grass in landscape beds. I’ve watched landscape crews dump a thick layer of mulch on healthy, vigorous weeds, and shake my head, knowing that they have just set up a client for bitter, delayed disappointment. Mulch MIGHT smother a few small, puny weeds and grasses, but not Bermudagrass, the turfweed of choice for many homeowners in the South. And mulch won’t smother most weeds, especially if they’re already up and growing for the season.

So why bother to mulch? Is it mulch ado about nothing?

Far from it. When mulching is done properly, it does many good things for your garden beds:

  1. It covers the weeds and showcases your plants. Your garden’s admirers won’t have to wonder if they are oohing and ahhing over a real plant or a weed. (That assumes you continue to weed after the mulch is applied, of course.)
  2. It helps your soil maintain moisture and coolness. Which is a good thing when summer heat hits, AND a good reason to not put it down until the soil warms up and dries out a bit in the spring. Case in point: Clematis plants are botanically bipolar: they love sunny conditions for their leaves and blooms, but need cool shade for their roots. Some light/heat reflecting light-colored stone and/or a layer of mulch can help create the perfect condition for your clematis to do its very best.
  3. If you first pull and/or spray the weeds, then apply mulch, it will help retard the growth and spread of weeds. It reduces your weed-pulling time, but it won’t make your landscape maintenance-free.

So what kind of mulch is best? We use both hardwood and pine needles in our beds. They both have their pros and cons:

  • Both break down over time and add to the soil’s organic content.
  • Ergo, both will need to be reapplied frequently – typically once or twice a year around here.
  • Both can become a fire hazard. Pine needle mulch is strongly discouraged in the dry western states, but in the southeast we get enough moisture and humidity to negate that problem. Conversely, hardwood mulch can become a fire hazard when heat and humidity create conditions that lead to spontaneous combustion.
  • Any mulch can float away in heavy rain, so be sure your downspouts have a clear path to direct excess rainfall outside your landscape beds.
  • Pine needles are slippery so don’t use them on paths.
  • Hardwood mulch can invite termites, so care should be taken if using them around foundations.
  • Pine straw is lighter and easier for a one-person mulch “crew” to put down.
  • Hardwood tends to look a little neater and more compact.

Whichever one you choose should be based on your personal tastes and situation. Contrary to popular myth, pine needles will not create highly acidic soil conditions. They can gradually affect a soil’s pH levels, but it takes a lot of years and a lot of pine needles to make a notable change in your soil’s pH. You can use pine needles around acid-loving plants like Hydrangeas and blueberries, but don’t assume they are a substitute for regular applications of fertilizer and magnesium to keep your pH in the optimal range.

And finally, know that some plants don’t fare well with mulch, such as irises. Mulch tends to keep the soil too moist, leading to rotten tubers and providing an inviting place for root pests to breed. Ditto for grafted roses – you can pile up mulch in the winter to protect the graft union, but pull it away during the growing season. Peonies will tolerate some mulch, but a heavy mulching can lead to reduced blooms the following year while the plants adjust their root systems to the appropriate depth. In the veggie garden, mulch around tomatoes can prevent soil-borne diseases from splashing on the plant leaves, but their fiery cousins, the peppers, tend to do better with bare soil or a thin piece of slate to soak up more thermal energy and keep the roots on the warm and dry side.

Happy mulching,


One for the record books

In all my years of gardening in Oklahoma and Tennessee, I have never had to deal with the threat of frost in May. But Sunday night we sank to 36 or 37 degrees here in the ‘boro, which made us the brrrr-o. The folks in charge of keeping records say the latest spring freeze occurred on April 25, 1910, but these mid-May dips are definitely not normal. My containers spent the night indoors…something I’ve never had to do. Some of them camped out in the foyer:
IMG_3908While others had a sleepover in the sunroom, under the watchful eye of Luci, the guard-cat:
IMG_3905The fig and the blueberries stayed put in the ground, but we gave them blankets and a tarp to keep the frost away. The forecast appears to be all-clear to finally plant the vegetables, so they are going in the ground this week. Blankets and tarps will remain on standby for a few more days, just in case.

Happy Monday,

Some sage advice

Between downpours, I managed to plant some Caladium bulbs around the fountain. Here in middle Tennessee, we can buy pre-sprouted bulbs, which can be a little spendy, or go the cheaper route and buy bulbs – either way we’ll have colorful foliage in short order, and it will last until frost as long as we give them a tiny bit of water and TLC. (And either way, we should treat them as annuals, because overwintering them is not easy.)

I didn’t mail order any special varieties this year, so I picked through the discount bin and snagged three kinds: ‘Buck’, Carolyn Wharton and ‘Pink Cloud’.

I thought I’d try the old trick of mixing and matching the bulbs, then scattering them and planting them where they landed to give a more natural effect.

That trick works well…but if you do that, be sure you can easily recognize the bulbs from their surroundings. I scattered them, and then spent the next frustrating hour picking up clods of dirt and not-so-composted “horse apples,” trying to determine what was what by using the squeeze and sniff test. A bit of flour on the ground would have saved a lot of aggravation and assault on my senses.
IMG_3603So there you have it…your gardening tip of the week, straight from the horse’s (ahem) mouth. Well, straight from the horse, anyway!

Happy gardening,

I’d love to show you my garden…

But it’s been a little under the weather as of late.

may weather systemI think this view looks a lot like a landlocked hurricane, don’t you?

Whatever the meteorologists call it, all I know is it just kept circling back around and drenching us, over and over. And that means the vegetable plants are still sitting on my porch, waiting for the day the ground is dry enough for me to plant them. Soon, little ones, soon.

Happy gardening,

After a slow start, we’re off!

Last week’s bout of cold nights was very unusual for us – we got down in the upper 30s, an unhappy surprise for gardeners who counted on April 15 as the last frost.

Then Saturday’s day-and-night deluge left us very soggy and froggy (you should hear the nightly chorus.) I figured the coast was clear and we were past the worst of this weird spring weather. And so I proceeded to plant my containers. The front porch’s side doors are flanked by containers of streptocarpella and dark sweet potato vine, which can take the evening sun they will receive:

The front doors are shadier and these urns have upright fuchsias, purple oxalis and Boston ferns:

Around back, the deck has twin pots of angelonias in cerise hues, with sun-loving coleus:

And my trusty trio of pots has a variety of purple and orange flowers.

I would have finished the hanging baskets, but I discovered this weekend we are suffering from a lack of coir hanging basket liners in this size:Hopefully I will find liners today. Fingers crossed!

This week’s forecast is sunny and warm, then cool and rainy by the weekend…and possibly some really low overnight temperatures again late in the week. So if you, too have set out those tender annuals and perennials, keep an eye on the weather, and be prepared to cover them if the colder temps threaten to move back in.

Here’s hoping I can get my vegetable garden in next weekend. I’m excited to show you what I have in store for it this year!
Happy gardening,

Spring is here, let’s garden!


The calendar says spring is here. And honestly, the weather we are experiencing here in the midsouth really IS what spring weather is like. Typically we go from freezing to broiling, and I’ve almost forgotten what real spring weather is like: cool days, cooler nights. So let’s enjoy it while it lasts, but also get started on the tasks that must be accomplished before the summer months arrive.

1. Weed and feed.
I’m not a fan of bagged “weed-n-feed” chemicals, so when I say weed and feed, I really mean hand-weed and amend your soil. (Feed your soil, and your soil will feed your plants.) If the ground is soft from our recent rains, stay out of the beds but use the opportunity to pull weeds. If you must step into a deep bed, try placing a sturdy 2×6 or wider board as a temporary walkway. The board will help distribute your weight and prevent too much compacting from standing in one spot. It’s a great time to spread some love on your beds, too. And by love, of course I mean compost. SouthBranch Nursery has bulk compost at $40 for a cubic yard. We picked up 1.5 cubic yards this weekend and I hope it will cover all the beds I need to amend. Pictures next week – and thank goodness, no smell-o-vision!

2. Decide what and where you want to grow.
Before you go crazy with the tiller or shovel, spend a few minutes assessing your garden site and what you want to grow this year. For most vegetables, more sun is better. Leave a couple feet each direction for tomatoes to have some breathing and growing room.

It’s too late to start your own pepper and tomato seedlings, but many vegetables can be direct-seeded when the soil is warm enough, including melons, okra, beans, lettuce, squash and corn. Select tomatoes and peppers from a reputable nursery (or mooch off a friend who grew their own.) I picked up several tomato and peppers from a nursery in South Carolina last week, and I’m keeping them in a holding pattern until this week’s chance of frost passes.

3. Ready, set, … and wait.
Midweek looks like another chance of frost. That means the thermal blanket over my fig tree for one or two more nights. It also means don’t be in a rush to put seeds or seedlings out just yet. Wet, cold soil is inhospitable for man, beast, and warm-weather seeds and transplants. If you jumped the gun and put your plants in the ground, you can try some thermal tricks to prevent frostbite. “Wall of water” tubs have been around a long time and they can help prevent a late frost from damaging your transplants. If you don’t have those, but you can lay your hands on empty milk jugs, fill ’em up with water, set them out to soak up the sun all day and place them in a triangle or circular shape around the seedlings. No guarantees, but it’s better than leaving them to fend for themselves.

After you’ve weeded, now is a good time to put down mulch (and a pre-emergent like Preen or corn gluten) on your sunniest borders and beds. Plantings in shady areas may still be a little cool and wet, and I’m leaving my shade beds uncovered until the nighttime temps start staying in the upper 50s. That will give the compost some time to soak in with the rain and waterings, and give the soil a chance to warm up a bit. Nobody – not even your plants – is happy or healthy with cold, wet feet.

I’m in the process of transitioning my garden-specific posts from my other blog to this one, so I’ll cross-post until everything is neatly divvied up between gardening and all my other domestic pursuits. Here is today’s post with a quick peek at the heucheras and hostas – I swear they’re bigger and bushier every time I turn around.

Let’s get out there and grow something, shall we?
Happy Growing!