12 Winter Gardening Questions Answered
Our garden expert alleviates your monthly growing pains.
1. Question: About 80% of our front yard is garden beds that are covered in a thick layer of that horrible dyed black wood mulch. Around 10% of that has developed dreaded white fungus. I feel like we need to rake it all up and replace it with pine straw, but I want an expert opinion. Why do people do DUMB stuff to their yards? —Katie
Grumpy says: People do dumb stuff to their yards because they see other people doing dumb stuff and don’t want to be left behind. You can remove the dyed mulch with the white fungus, but that won’t guarantee that it’s good riddance. The easiest thing to do would be to cover the mulch with a thick layer of pine straw and let the hidden mulch slowly decompose.
2. Question: Have you tried Epsom salts in your garden to feed your plants? How do you feel about using them? —Roger
Grumpy says: Epsom salts are legendary for their supposedly magical ability to encourage plants to flower and fruit. Grumpy thinks their benefits are way overblown. They consist of the chemical magnesium sulfate, which supplies two important plant nutrients: magnesium and sulfur. However, plants need more than that. They need nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, iron, manganese, and other micronutrients too. So don’t use just Epsom salts on your plants. Also use a complete, balanced fertilizer, such as Miracle-Gro or Espoma Garden-tone.
3. Question: I have been trying unsuccessfully to root trailing philodendron cuttings. Advice? —Elaine
Grumpy says: Trailing philodendrons are easy to root in water. Take cuttings about 4 inches long with several sets of leaves. Pull off all the leaves except the top set, and immerse the remaining stems in water. Roots will form at the nodes (places on the stems where leaves are attached). Readers, give her a round of applause.
4. Question: We have a 4-foot ‘Meyer’ lemon tree in a pot we bring indoors for winter. It’s had plenty of flowerbuds, but most of them, as well as the leaves, drop like crazy. What to do? —Diane
Grumpy says: Sounds like a watering problem. If a lemon tree gets too dry while it’s blooming, flowers may drop. On the other hand, leaf and flower drop can also result from overwatering or poor drainage. A potted citrus tree shouldn’t sit in a saucer of water. Let the soil dry slightly between waterings when excess water runs from the bottom of the pot. And put the tree near a bright window.
5. Question: Ladybugs are invading my house! How do I get rid of them? —Peggy
Grumpy says: Fortunately, ladybugs are harmless, unless you happen to be an aphid. They come inside to visit because it’s so warm and cozy there and everyone says you’re the perfect hostess. But when you see dozens of them crawling on your windows, it (understandably) tends to creep you out. The best way to deal with them is to seal all windows and doors tightly to prevent their entry. Once they’re inside, don’t squash them or they’ll leave a foul odor. Instead, use a handheld, portable vacuum cleaner to suck them up.
6. Question: We would like to plant a garden across from our boathouse, but the soil there stays wet. What plants with colorful flowers or leaves tolerate “wet feet”? —Mary
Grumpy says: Try sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus), Joe-Pye weed (eupatorium purpureum), hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos), canna (Canna sp.), swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), and common ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium).
7. Question: I have a ‘limelight’ hydrangea that was loaded with blooms so big that they bent the branches. Should I cut off the spent blooms now? How much can I cut it back? —Jo-Ann
Grumpy says: ‘Limelight’ blooms on new growth, so now is actually a good time to remove the spent blooms and shorten or remove branches. Cutting it back aggressively means fewer but bigger blooms that are even more likely to bend the branches. Shortening branches by less than a quarter will give you an abundance of blooms and sturdier stems.
8. Question: I need a small tree to accent the entry to my condo. Any suggestions? —Sarah
Grumpy says: A selection of weeping laceleaf Japanese maple would be perfect. These mounding, architectural trees grow slowly to about 8 feet tall and wide and are beautiful year-round. Fall foliage is magnificent scarlet, burgundy, orange, purple, and gold. Grumpy’s favorite selections include ‘Garnet,’ ‘Waterfall,’ ‘Inaba-Shidare,’ ‘Tamukeyama,’ and ‘Crimson Queen.’
9. Question: I’m sorry to report the crime of crepe murder at the courthouse square in Forsyth County, Georgia. Authorities are investigating, but as of yet no arrests have been made. The victim was mature, which makes the crime more heinous. When will we get justice? —Lynn
Grumpy says: “Crepe murder” is the odious practice of cutting down crepe myrtles into big, ugly stumps every year. Some enlightened towns now forbid it. To shine an even brighter light on the perps, Grumpy urges you to enter his Crepe Murder Contest right now! Meanwhile, Lynn, stay vigilant.
10. Question: I’ve had good luck holding down weeds in the flowerbeds using thick layers of newspaper covered with pine straw. Would this work under blueberries or smother the roots? —Beth
Grumpy says: Your mulching method would work just fine for blueberries. What’s more, if everyone did this, we could really boost newspaper sales.
11. Question: Is mondo grass a good choice to edge a sunny patio in my backyard? —Barbara
Grumpy says: Mondo grass will fry like bacon (mmm…bacon!) in full sun. Instead, use its more sun-tolerant relative liriope (also called lily turf). Try ‘Samantha’ (green leaves, pink flowers), ‘Marc Anthony’ (white-and-green leaves, pink flowers), ‘Cleopatra’ (green leaves, purple flowers), and ‘Silvery Sunproof’ (white-and-green leaves, purple flowers).
Grumpy says: A good general rule is to prune flowering trees or shrubs after they’ve finished flowering. For summer bloomers, such as butterfly bush, that means fall or winter. For fall and winter bloomers, such as sasanquas, that’s spring. Prune your spring bloomers in early summer.