Your November Gardening Dilemmas, Solved
1. We have a problem with artillery fungus spraying the siding of our house. My wife says it has to do with the type of mulch we use. Should we change? I'd hate to put down stones. —Eugene
Grumpy Says: There have been many battles waged over the use of mulch, Eugene. Artillery fungus is primarily found in shredded-wood mulch. It gets its name from the fact that, when wet, it fires out little black fruiting bodies that stick to almost anything and are hard to remove even with a brush. If you can, try replacing your current mulch with pine straw, which this fungus doesn't seem to like.
2. I have a small backyard with a neighbor's windows peering over my 8-foot fence. Are there any trees or shrubs that grow tall and narrow that I could plant to give me some privacy? —Linda
Grumpy Says: Just what exactly is going on in that backyard of yours, Linda, hmm? To keep your next-door neighbors from ever finding out, you could plant an evergreen screen using one of the following plants: "Maki" podocarpus, "Alta" Southern magnolia, "Oakland" holly, "Sky Pencil" Japanese holly, "Scarlet's Peak" holly, "Foster #2" holly, or "Skyrocket" juniper. Your privacy will be granted.
3. I'm worried about how to keep my houseplants watered while I'm away on vacation. Do you have any solutions? —Carolyn
Grumpy Says: Leaving plants is a lot like leaving children, isn't it? It makes it hard to enjoy that second martini by the pool. When I'm going to be gone only a week or two, I always do two things: I place plants that need a lot of water in a plastic or galvanized tub that's filled with an inch of water and put those that need less water in a cool room that gets no direct sun. Lowering the light and temperature reduces their water needs.
4. I really loved the Grumpy Gardener article you wrote a few years ago about planting crepe myrtles that don't grow very tall. Could you give me similar recommendations for good dwarf and semidwarf lilacs? —Linda
Grumpy Says: Of course. Try "Palibin" (pink flowers, 5 to 6 feet tall), "Miss Kim" (ice blue, 8 to 9 feet tall), "Tinkerbelle" (pink, 5 to 6 feet tall), "Bloomerang" (purple, 3 to 4 feet tall), "Superba" (pink, 7 feet tall), "Declaration" (reddish purple, 8 feet tall), and "Josée" (lavender-pink, 5 to 6 feet tall).
5. I planted a pyracantha in a narrow bed between the side of my house and a concrete pathway. It's doing great, but I have heard awful stories about the plant's invasive root system. Should I get rid of it? —Susan
Grumpy Says: Roots aren't the first things I would worry about when growing pyracantha. This fast-growing shrub is armed with very sharp thorns (hence its common name, firethorn), and it needs attentive pruning lest it eat your sidewalk and impale unwary visitors. You may want to invest in some body armor.
6. After bringing several tender potted plants inside for the winter, I heard my cat, Musky, making an eerie, howling noise. I walked around the corner and saw her playing with a green anole lizard. I almost had a heart attack! Thankfully, I was able to catch it and release it safely outdoors, but then three more surfaced to entertain Musky. Do you have any suggestions about preparing outdoor plants for interior overwintering? I do not want any more pets. —Ellen
Grumpy Says: I'm glad you and Musky spared the lizards. They eat a lot of harmful bugs. Obviously, before bringing any plant inside, you and Musky need to do a thorough lizard search. Then spray all leaf surfaces and stems with horticultural oil to kill any insect or mite hitchhikers and their eggs. Finally, place the plants in shade for a week or two before they go indoors so they can adjust to lower light.
7. My neighbor should be arrested for attempted murder. He just "pruned" a beautiful crepe myrtle between our houses with hedge trimmers. All that is left now are six main branches about 6 to 7 feet tall, each topped with a large, trimmed knuckle. Are we stuck with this ugliness? —Richard
Grumpy Says: Ugliness reigns today, yet there is hope! Ask your clueless neighbor to prune off the knuckles in late winter. Lots of shoots will sprout from the cut ends. Select two well-spaced shoots on each, and let them grow. Cut off the others. Prune off any additional new shoots that sprout from the cut ends for two more years. The original saved shoots will become new trunks, and the crime will disappear.
8. My garden mums are 3 years old and have become quite leggy. If I cut them back after they finish blooming, will they fill out? —Teri
Grumpy Says: Some mums get very leggy over time. Cut them back to the ground in late fall, and then cut them back by half around July 4 of the following summer. They'll still bloom, but they'll be shorter and fuller.
9. I grew a huge bronze fennel plant, but when I dug it up, there weren't any bulbs to harvest. Can I eat any part of this plant? —Kathy
Grumpy Says: Bronze fennel is a biennial grown for its bronze-purple, wispy foliage and its edible, licorice-tasting seeds. However, for edible bulbs, you need to plant a closely related annual called Florence fennel.
10. I have two live oaks in my front yard that are more than 30 years old. They have developed large surface roots approximately 4 inches in diameter. I checked with a tree service, and the guy said that they could be horizontally scalped. I would appreciate your comments. —Darel
Grumpy Says: The only thing that should be scalped is that numskull with the tree service! Scalping or cutting the roots of large oaks would most certainly kill them. If you want level ground under the trees, one thing you can do is spread a layer of bark or pine straw mulch between the roots. Do not spread soil—that, too, would smother the roots and kill the trees.
11. Right now, I have about a ton of pinecone "petals" in my yard from squirrels gnawing on the cones. Raking them up is murder on my back. What do you do with them after you rake? —Joan
Grumpy Says: Squirrels love to eat the seeds in the pinecones at this time of year. When this happens with my trees, I rake up the pinecone scales and use them to mulch my beds. It looks good and works well.
12. I want to bring my potted delphiniums in for the winter. Shall I continue to water them or let them go dormant? —Kathi
Grumpy Says: If you bring them indoors to a heated room, they won't receive the winter chill they need to go dormant and then bloom the following year. So, instead, bring the pots to a protected but unheated spot near the house, and trim off any old flower stems. Water occasionally to keep the soil moist.
13. Is ground-up rubber mulch okay to use in the garden? I understand it won't ever decompose. —Malinda
Grumpy Says: Rubber mulch is made from ground-up used tires. Yes, it lasts longer than organic mulches, but it will decompose, releasing chemicals like cadmium, chromium, selenium, and zinc that can be toxic to plants and animals. On summer days, rubber mulch gets as hot as an asphalt parking lot and releases a strong rubber smell reminiscent of NASCAR. Unlike bark or pine straw, rubber does nothing to enrich the soil. Grumpy's advice: Just stick with the natural mulch.
WATCH: How to Plant a Boxwood Container
14. I love the look of potted boxwoods but am not having luck growing dwarf English ones. Can you please suggest a kind that is more tolerant of Southern heat? —Lisa
Grumpy Says: For most homeowners, dwarf English boxwood is the most difficult one to grow. It's susceptible to diseases, such as root rot. I suggest you try "Baby Gem" boxwood from our Southern Living Plant Collection. It stays small like dwarf English boxwood, so it's good for pots but is much less finicky.
15. We had some azaleas in our front yard, but they were very thin and scraggly, so we took them out. What are some annuals I can plant there for winter color? —Barbara
Grumpy Says: Try pansies, snapdragons, violas, poppies, and flowering cabbage and kale.
16. In a previous column, you mentioned a special type of ryegrass to loosen clay soil and add nutrients to it. What was it? —Bob
Grumpy Says: This is a type of Southern cereal rye called "Elbon." You seed it in fall, let it grow through the winter, and till it under in spring. Its incredible roots really do break up clay. You can order it from justinseed.com.
17. I planted several ligustrums four years ago to make a hedge. They haven't died, but they haven't grown either. They are light green and stunted. What can I do for them? —Patrice
Grumpy Says: Assuming that they aren't planted in awful soil, my guess is they were pot-bound before you planted them. Instead of growing into the soil, the roots have just kept wrapping around each other. Dig them up this fall to see if this is the case. If so, simply use a pencil to gently unwrap and loosen the roots from the root-ball. Then replant the ligustrums, making sure each planting hole is twice as wide as the root-ball.
19. We have a shady section of our yard where ivy will not grow, so the local nurseryman suggested houttuynia (chameleon plant). We liked its multicolored leaves and white flowers, so we planted two. Now they've taken over the entire yard. Every year, we pull out trash cans filled with the plants, but that doesn't slow them down. What can we do? —Lynn
Grumpy Says: That nurseryman is a complete idiot. Chameleon plant is one of the most invasive plants on the planet, spreading by roots, runners, and seeds. Once it's in the ground here in the South, it's almost impossible to eradicate. Grumpy suggests you spot treat it with Roundup according to label directions wherever you see it. It will be a long battle. (Note to Roundup haters: If you can suggest an organic control that effectively kills chameleon plant—roots and all—please tell me. I'd definitely love to know about it.)
20. We're going to put our house on the market soon. Any suggestions on getting the landscape in shape to quicken the sale? —Peaches
Grumpy Says: Clean up and declutter—exactly like you'd do inside. Mow the grass. Rake the leaves. Have any dead or dying plants? Send them to the great beyond. Shrubs blocking the windows or front porch? Trim them. No one except Dracula wants to buy a dreary morgue. Pull all weeds. Cut back withered perennials. Put down fresh mulch on all your planting beds—but not the red, dyed stuff, as prospective buyers might not like it. Add a pretty container or two planted with flowers to gussy up the front entry to welcome potential buyers. And definitely shine your bottle tree.
21. I've been having a really big problem with snails in my North Texas landscape. What is the best way for me to get rid of them? What kinds of plants are resistant to snails? —Hanny
Grumpy Says: Slugs and snails like cool, moist, shady places such as loose bricks, rocks, and brush to hide during the heat of the day, so get rid of any of those. Use natural slug controls, such as copper barriers and iron phosphate, that are safe for people and wildlife. (You can order them online from planetnatural.com.) Plants with tough, thick leaves such as sedums, hellebores, hydrangeas, penstemons, yuccas, ferns, and hollies aren't usually on the gooey menu of slugs and snails.
22. I had to take down a river birch at the corner of my house because the roots were damaging the walk and foundation. I loved its showy bark but really need something that stays smaller. Any suggestions? —Faye
Grumpy Says: River birch shouldn't be planted near the house, because it gets big (60 feet or more), grows fast, lifts pavement, and drops leaves all summer. Two good replacements with showy bark and good fall color are paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and coral bark Japanese maple. They both grow 20 to 25 feet high and behave themselves.
23. Is now a good time to fertilize crepe myrtles? —Louise
Grumpy Says: No. The best season to fertilize trees and shrubs is spring. Plus, crepe myrtles rarely need fertilizer unless the soil is absolutely terrible.
24. Five years ago, I planted a fruitless, male 'Autumn Gold' ginkgo tree. I was thrilled with my choice until this weekend, when I discovered it had stinky, rotten ginkgo fruit on one branch. Was I deceived? Will my neighbors start to hate me? Should I give my tree a sex-change operation? Please, help me, Grumpy! —Penny
Grumpy Says: Surprise! Surprise! Do you remember the scene from Jurassic Park where they discover that their all-female group of dinosaurs is managing to reproduce? As Jeff Goldblum's character observes, "Life finds a way." In this case, it seems your male tree despairs of ever finding a female tree to pollinate in order to produce that malodorous, seed-bearing fruit. So it's grown a female branch to get the job done. Identify the offending branch, and cut it out. Your ginkgo will be celibate and sad once more.
25. We live in Central Florida and have a bougainvillea vine that won't bloom. We prune and fertilize it but still have no blooms. Is there any hope for this slacker? —Donna
Grumpy Says: A Nothing is impossible (except for the Delaware Blue Hens beating Alabama in football). To bloom well every year, bougainvillea needs full sun, gritty soil with excellent drainage, and distinct wet and dry seasons. Don't water at all in summer unless it's growing in a pot. Even then, let it go a bit dry between waterings. Blooms will come in fall and spring when days and nights are roughly equal in length. You can extend blooming in both seasons by promptly pinching off faded flowers.
26. My Thanksgiving cactus has lots of new growth. It bloomed profusely for my mother but won't for me. In mid-September, I put it in a room where it gets no light after dark, but it still has no buds. What's wrong? —Jill
Grumpy Says: Thanksgiving cactus usually flowers a few weeks earlier than Christmas cactus. Long, dark nights and cool temperatures bring it into bloom. Grumpy leaves his plant outside in the shade from spring until fall and then brings it inside before frost when it's showing buds. It always blooms profusely. Don't give up on yours yet. It could still flower after Thanksgiving.
27. I've already fertilized my fescue lawn with 6-24-24 lawn food but thought I'd supplement with a concoction I can apply with my hose-end sprayer of ammonia, detergent, corn syrup, and Epsom salts. What about adding beer for microbes? —Jon
Grumpy Says: In Grumpy's opinion, the miraculous liquid known as beer should never be consumed by a lawn, only by the lawn's owner. Jon, you sound like a mad scientist. I don't see any advantage in supplementing the commercial fertilizer with all that stuff. Epsom salts contain magnesium and sulfur, which quality lawn fertilizers already have. So don't feed again until next spring. Then switch to a fertilizer that is relatively high in nitrogen (the first number), has no phosphorus (the second number), and has moderate potassium (yep, the last number), such as Sta-Green 28-0-4 or Scotts 32-0-10. Apply at the rate and frequency specified on the bag for your type of grass.
28. I love your blog! Can you help me with my front yard? It's pitiful! It has lots of Georgia red mud, and I'd like to redesign it with evergreens. —Bethany
Grumpy Says: If you think mere flattery will compel Grumpy to answer your question, you're absolutely right! I could suggest all sorts of plants, but you should first concentrate on improving your soil. Even that nasty red clay can be saved by adding organic matter such as chopped tree leaves, pine straw, peat moss, composted manure, and ground bark. It will loosen and enrich your clay and help with the aeration and drainage. The better your soil is, the better your plants will grow.
29. Can I cut back my hydrangeas this time of year? —Gail
Grumpy Says: Don't bother. Most hydrangeas don't need much pruning. If you cut back your oakleaf hydrangeas or most types of French hydrangeas in fall, you'll cut off next year's flowerbuds. You can prune 'Annabelle,' peegee, and 'Limelight' hydrangeas now, because they bloom on new growth.