Your 17 Burning Gardening Questions for Spring
Our garden expert alleviates your monthly growing pains.
1. Question: How can I attract more fireflies to my yard? Can they harm my garden? —Ginny
Grumpy Says: You probably remember that scene from the movie Attack of the Killer Fireflies in which mutant bugs turn into bird-size biters. No worries—this was just a science fiction film that I made up. In reality, fireflies (aka “lightning bugs”) pose no danger. To attract them to your garden, avoid applying pesticides to your plants and lawn. Turn off porch lights at night; it confuses males that flash to locate females. Plant perennials, ornamental grasses, and shrubs to hide fireflies from predators. They can also rest among the blades of longer lawns.
2. Question: I have a lilac bush that does not bloom. It’s around 5 years old. It gets full sun and good drainage. Any suggestions? —Regina
Grumpy Says: No plant is more cherished in the North for flamboyant, fragrant spring flowers than lilac. Unfortunately, its flowering in the South is often spotty or nonexistent. And that’s because lilac likes long, cold winters to set flowerbuds, and winters in the South are growing increasingly mild and short. For any shot at having flowers, you must choose lilacs that tolerate our climate. These include ‘Lavender Lady’ (lavender purple), ‘Blue Skies’ (blue), ‘White Angel’ (white), ‘Miss Kim’ (ice blue), ‘Superba’ (bright pink), ‘Betsy Ross’ (white), and ‘Bloomerang’ (reddish purple).
3. Question: I forgot to plant my tulip bulbs last fall. If I plant them now, will they bloom next year? Or will they rot in the ground? —Ron
Grumpy Says: How could you forget, Ron? Planting bulbs tops every autumn to-do list. Don’t worry about them rotting in the ground. They’re probably rotten already. Toss them in the compost, and buy new spring bulbs this fall—but this time, plant them.
4. Question: We recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and want your opinion on adding creeping fig to our new home. The exterior is fiber-cement siding with a 3-foot concrete foundation. I love the look. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. —Alma
Grumpy Says: As do all readers, Alma! While it’s okay to let a creeping fig (Ficus pumila) grow on concrete, stone, or brick, I’m not sure about the fiber-cement siding. The problem is that the vine climbs using aerial rootlets that strongly adhere. So maybe you should restrict the vine to your foundation. Never let creeping ivy climb wood or stucco, because the rootlets can damage them and cause the wood to rot.
5. Question: I built a home next to a creek and went nuts with flowerbeds. Now I have lots of snakes! I even plowed over one on my riding mower. (Oh my, I had to come in and take a nerve pill for that one!) How can I get rid of them so I won't have to tremble on my porch in absolute fear? —Debra
Grumpy Says: You mean you don't think snakes are cute and cuddly, like all my other female readers do? The reason you have so many is that you've created a serpent haven. They have everything they need: water, shelter, and a ready food supply—most likely, rodents. So declutter the garden as much as possible. Eliminate undergrowth and piles of brush and rubble. Mow the grass short. Tightly seal all trash receptacles. Give rodents nothing to eat, including birdseed. No rats, no mice, no snakes!
6. Question: Garden wisdom says building good soil requires tilling in cover crops like clover and ryegrass in spring. Yet others claim that tilling wrecks the soil's structure. Which is correct? —Marla
Grumpy Says: Adding green organic matter is an excellent way to improve the soil. But repeatedly using a power tiller on moist clay soil can create an impenetrable hard soil layer about a foot down. Instead, you should just use a garden fork to turn under the green stuff.
7. Question: I would like to plant an herb garden. Any advice would be appreciated. I have no idea what I'm doing. —Meredith
Grumpy Says: And that is why you, like millions of other gardeners, come to me with your questions. Herbs are easy. All they basically need are full sunlight and good drainage. Feed no more than once a year. The best herbs for beginners include rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, oregano, dill, and chives.
8. Question: My white camellia has plenty of flowerbuds, but they hardly ever open. And when they do, all the petals have brown edges. —Jeffrey
Grumpy Says: This sounds like a disease called petal blight. To keep it from returning, pick up and throw away (do not compost) all fallen flowers and buds. Replace the mulch under the camellia with fresh mulch every fall. Also spray your camellias as soon as the buds begin to show color with a fungicide such as Daconil, Funginex, Immunox, or Natria Disease Control.
9. Question: Grass won't grow in my yard because of shade, so moss has covered most of it. I'd like for it to spread over the few remaining bare spots. How can I encourage faster growth? —Rick
Grumpy Says: Blow or rake off any leaves and debris that fall on the moss. Water it for about a minute three times a week from spring to fall. About once a month in spring and summer, spray it lightly using an organic, liquid fertilizer.
10. Question: We live in an urban neighborhood that has had break-ins. We're planning to build a privacy fence around the yard. Could you suggest something to plant against the fence that's attractive but unpleasant to climb on? —Dana
Grumpy Says: I'm not called "Grumpy" for nothing! What you need are some shrubs and perennials that combine good looks with vicious thorns and spines. These include 'Knock Out' rose, pyracantha (aka firethorn), wintergreen barberry, Japanese barberry, Chinese holly, hardy orange, agave, yucca, and bougainvillea. Trust me—no dopey thief who tries climbing or jumping over these will ever attempt a second time.
11. Question: I'm worried about a hydrangea growing in a container. Other hydrangeas are showing little green buds, but not mine. I've scratched the bark and there's still green in there. Did the awful winter kill it? —Sarah
Grumpy Says: Hydrangeas in containers are more susceptible to cold damage than those that are in the ground. But as long as yours has green under the bark, there's hope. Give it a couple of weeks to leaf out. It might die to the ground but then come back from the roots.
12. Question: I planted a huge pot of vegetables to put out on our deck when it's warm enough. Without using pesticides, how can I prevent such critters as snails and bugs from eating the plants? —Valerie
Grumpy Says: First, I suggest raising the container off the deck using terra-cotta "pot feet." Second, lightly cover the pot with a floating row cover that lets in light, rain, and air but keeps out insects. Finally, wrap the pot with a strip of copper tape. The copper is thought to generate electricity when snails and slugs crawl over it. (Yum! Escargot!) You can find all three items at garden centers or online.
13. Question: I live in Florence, South Carolina, and was recently given a potted hydrangea. When should I set it outside? By the way, I love your sense of humor and don't find you grumpy! —Lisa
Grumpy Says: Lisa, your kind comments have cauterized the cockles of my cold and curmudgeonly corazón (heart). Because your hydrangea was grown in a greenhouse before you bought it, the plant isn't used to cold weather. So wait until after your last spring frost to take it outdoors.
14. Question: What the heck is wrong with my daffodils? For two years, they've put out healthy foliage without a single flower. —Andreas
Grumpy Says: Maybe the bulbs you planted are too small to flower yet. Maybe they're not getting enough sun. Maybe you're cutting back the foliage before it turns yellow. Or maybe they're starving for attention (and a meal). Try feeding them now with a slow-release bulb fertilizer such as Holland Bulb Booster (9-9-6) at the rate recommended on the package.
15. Question: I'm getting all sorts of advice about killing fire ants—from pouring boiling water on the mound to covering it with ashes from the grill to putting grits on the mound because the ants eat them and "blow up." What do you think of these home remedies? —Brenda
Grumpy Says: Aaarrghh! Home remedies like these don't work, because while they kill visible worker ants and make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, they don't kill the queen. And if her head doesn't roll, she'll just lay more eggs that turn into ants that build more mounds. Instead, use a lawn spreader to put down one of those granular fire ant killers according to label directions. The bag may claim that a single application per year is enough, but here in the South, our growing season is so long that Grumpy has to do it twice.
16. Question: I need a screen for my small backyard in Zone 8 (Lower South). I want some evergreen trees or shrubs that will grow 8 to 10 feet tall and not get too wide. I can't think of any, but I know you can! —Amy
Grumpy Says: You're so right, Amy! Evergreens that meet your requirements include 'Maki' podocarpus, bay tree, 'Yuletide' sasanqua camellia, 'Graham Blandy' boxwood, and 'Oakland' and 'Scarlet's Peak' hollies. The hollies, both from our Southern Living Plant Collection (southernlivingplants.com), grow taller than 10 feet but are easy to control by pruning.
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17. Question: I have a 'Limelight' hydrangea that is loaded with spent blooms. Is now a good time to prune it? —Jo-Ann
Grumpy Says: Yes. 'Limelight' blooms on new growth. Pruning in early spring gets rid of old blooms and spurs new growth. Others to prune now include 'Pee Gee,' 'Annabelle,' 'Tardiva,' 'Bella Anna,' 'Little Lime,' and 'Pink Diamond.'