Questions to the Grumpy Gardener
You asked a half-century of questions. Guess what? What bugged readers then still bugs them now
Hydrangea Won’t Bloom
Q: My three-year-old French hydrangea has never bloomed. What can I do? (October 1971)
A: The three most common reasons for this are: winter cold killed the flower buds; not enough sun; and pruning at the wrong time. You can address these by planting reblooming types like ‘Endless Summer,’ ‘Big Daddy,’ and ‘Dear Delores;' giving your plant at least a half-day of sun; and pruning immediately after the blossoms fade.
Q: I have often heard that berries of the common pyracantha shrub make good jelly. Is this true? (November 1972)
A: Do you see jars of pyracantha jelly in grocery stores? No, you do not. There must be a reason. When Grumpy was 10 years old, he ate some pyracantha berries. They tasted awful and gave him a headache. He’ll try pyracantha jelly just as soon as Southern Living publishes a pyracantha recipe – in other words, never.
Q: Several years ago kudzu vine was planted on a hillside near our property to control erosion. It has now spread and is killing a few of our trees. How can it be controlled? (March 1974)
A: First, cut the vines at the base of the trunks to keep the vines from smothering your trees (which probably happened by 1975). Then treat the cut surfaces with Brush Killer according to label directions. Or if you’re an organic gardener with a ready supply of goats and cows, turn them loose on the kudzu. They love it like crème brûlée and will eat it to the ground. If they do this two years in a row, the kudzu will die.
Q: My fig crop was most disappointing last year. Every fig I picked was sour. Why did this happen? (March 1974)
A: It wasn’t from watering with pickle juice, though that’s still a terrible idea. Sour figs are caused by a small beetle that enters the fruit through the “eye” at the tip end of the fig. You need to plant selections with “closed eyes” that deny entry, such as ‘Celeste,’ ‘Kadota,’ ‘LSU Purple,’ ‘Peter’s Honey,’ and ‘White Adriatic.’
Q: For several years I have had a total crop failure on my peach trees due to brown rot. What can I do to prevent failure this year? (March 1974)
A: Quit growing peaches. Of all the tree fruits grown in the South, peaches are the most susceptible to diseases and insects. If you don’t spray peaches with fungicides nearly every week in our humid climate, the fruit will rot before your eyes. Grow Japanese persimmons instead. They need no spraying and taste great.
Q: Why do the flower buds fall off my gardenias before they can open? The plants look healthy. (July 1974)
A: Dropping flower buds means a gardenia isn’t happy about its growing conditions. It’s too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry. Your local TV weather person can help you change the uncooperative weather. They are paid to do this—really. Call them.
Clematis Won’t Bloom
Q: I have a clematis vine that grows profusely, but never blooms. Why? (October 1971)
A: Obviously, you’re doing something wrong. Maybe it’s the light. Clematis likes its face in the sun and its feet in the shade. Translation: the foliage needs full sun, but the roots need cool, moist soil provided by mulch around the base. Also try fertilizing with a slow-release, organic fertilizer, such as Espoma Plant-tone 5-3-3.
You Bought A Mimosa? Really?
Q: I purchased a mimosa tree five years ago for my yard in Kentucky. Each winter, it has died to the ground. Why is this? (February 1985)
A: Let me get this straight. You bought and planted a mimosa? Why in heaven’s name would you buy such a weedy tree? It comes up everywhere. You could have just dug one up. Trust me, no one would care. Yes, I know it has pretty flowers, but the rest of the year it looks awful. Yours dies to the ground because it isn’t fully cold-hardy where you live. This is a blessing. Promise me the next mimosa you buy will be served in a glass.
Q: If I transplant my Easter lily from its pot to a bed outdoors, will it live through the winter and bloom again next spring? (April 1978)
A: Easter lily doesn’t naturally bloom at Easter. Greenhouse growers make it do that, but it only happens once. After your last spring frost, cut off any faded flowers or seedpods and transplant it to a sunny garden. If it’s happy there, it’ll bloom in summer forever after.
Q: Is there any humane way to get rid of the squirrel population in our yard? We have three pecan trees, and the squirrels made off with most of the nuts. (July 1974)
A: Is unleashing a Jack Russell terrier or Tasmanian devil on them considered humane? If not, a squirrel trap is the best solution. You can get one from home centers or gemplers.com.
Feeding the Lawn
Q: Should warm-season lawns be fertilized in February? (February 1978)
A: Not in most areas. Don’t fertilize until after your warm-season grass (Bermuda, centipede, St. Augustine, Zoysia) greens up. Feeding dormant, brown grass just wastes fertilizer, and the run-off after a heavy rain pollutes streams, ponds, and lakes.
Childless Spider Plant
Q: Please tell me why my spider plant is not sending out “babies.” (March 1978)
A: Perhaps it has joined a nunnery. A more likely cause is that it’s just not ready for parenthood. Spider plant likes to be pot-bound (roots filling the pot) before procreating. Give it time, and little bundles of joy will appear.
Euonymus for None of Us
Q: I can’t seem to keep powdery mildew off of my variegated golden euonymus. Any suggestions? (July 1978)
A: Dig up your golden euonymus (aka “yellow tip”) and transplant it to a nearby gas station. That is where this garish, pest-ridden shrub looks its best. In addition to powdery mildew (a fungus that looks as attractive as it sounds), it’s also susceptible to sucking insects called scales that slowly—but thankfully—kill this tacky, yellow-leafed eyesore. So glad you asked!
This End Up
Q: When instructions say to plant tulip and daffodil bulbs 4 inches deep, does that mean 4 inches of soil should cover the tops of the bulbs or the bottoms of the bulbs? (October 1978)
A: Dig holes 4 inches deep, place bulbs inside them, and cover with soil. Here's a tip: Bulb bottoms are rounded and tops are pointed. Don’t plant bulbs upside-down, lest you embarrass your family.
Black Spot on Roses
Q: Last summer, our roses were infected with black spot. When should we begin preventive spraying this year, and what should we use? (April 1981)
A: The fungus called black spot is the bane of most roses, causing spotted leaves to turn yellow and drop en masse. The best defense is to plant resistant roses, such as ‘Knock Out,’ ‘Home Run,’ ‘Drift,’ and ‘Lady Banks.’ Protect susceptible roses by spraying the new foliage in spring with Funginex, Immunox, or Natria Disease Control. Repeat every few weeks as necessary.
Q: Many of the leaves on my 10-year-old Southern magnolia turn brown and drop. What should I do? (June 1981)
A: Rue the day you ever planted that tree. Yes, Southern magnolia is an icon due to its fragrant flowers and handsome, evergreen foliage. But it is also extremely messy, dropping leaves relentlessly. Shedding doesn’t mean the tree is sick. Just think of it as a big, leafy cat.
Azaleas Won’t Bloom
Q: Our ‘Formosa’ azaleas failed to bloom. They have been carefully fed, watered, and pruned. What could be wrong with them? (April 1981)
A: Perhaps you pruned at the wrong time. Prune them immediately after they finish blooming in spring. Maybe they don’t get enough light. They’ll bloom in light shade, but not deep shade. Or it could be that the cold winter killed the flower buds. There’s nothing you can do about that, except cry softly to yourself.
Q: What should I do with several dozen daffodil bulbs I was unable to set out this fall? (January 1981)
A: Feel very guilty about your shameful neglect, and vow never to do it again. Then plant the bulbs immediately. They won’t bloom as well the first year as if you’d planted them in fall, but should do better in subsequent years. If you can’t plant until February, though, you might as well toss them out.
Ashes to Ashes
Q: We have a wood-burning stove and save the ashes. Would they be good to put around azaleas? (February 1981)
A: Absolutely not. Wood ashes are alkaline and will cause acid-loving plants like azaleas, camellias, gardenias, and blueberries to turn yellow and decline. FYI, don’t use your relative’s ashes either.
Black Gunk on Crepe Myrtle
Q: A black mold is covering the leaves of my crepe myrtle. What should I do? (July 1981)
A: This unsightly, black mold grows on the sticky honeydew secreted by aphids sucking sap from the leaves. Kill the aphids and the mold will go. To do this, spray with horticultural oil or insecticidal soap according to label directions.
Grass for Shade
Q: Trees have shaded out most of the lawn around our house. What grass grows well in shade? (July 1981)
A: No grass grows well in shade, so don’t even try. Instead, plant a shade-tolerant ground cover, such as mondo grass, Japanese pachysandra, or ivy. Better yet, encourage native mosses to grow, as they need no watering, fertilizing, or mowing. Get rid of the grass and the green mosses will come.
Q: Our cabbage plants were off to a fine start until caterpillars invaded the row. What can we use to destroy these pests? (September 1981)
A: The caterpillars are the larvae of the white cabbage moth. They also attack broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. To control them, drape plants with floating row covers before the moths show up, or spray plants with either of two safe, biological insecticides—Bacillus thuriengiensis (DiPel, Thuricide) or Spinosad.
Q: Last week, the vines of our zucchini squash wilted abruptly. What could cause this? (August 1981)
A: This is the work of the squash vine borer, an ugly white grub that feeds inside the squash stem. Once it’s inside, sprays don’t work, so here’s what to do. Look for an entry hole on the wilted stem. When you find it, slit the bottom half of the stem until you find the grub. Remove and squash it (poetic justice). Then mound up soil over the slit part of the stem, and water. The plant should recover.
Q: What are the advantages of planting vegetables in raised beds? (May 1984)
A: Heavy, poorly draining clay soil that isn’t good for growing veggies covers much of the South. Rather than removing the clay, build a raised bed atop of it bordered by landscape timbers, blocks, or brick. Fill it with new topsoil that’s loose, well-drained, and amended with organic matter. Make the bed at least 10 to 12 inches deep, but not so wide that you can’t reach the middle from any side without stepping into it.
Q: Many of my young tomatoes have scars that look like zippers. What causes this? (June 1984)
A: Cool, wet weather when young tomatoes are growing quickly produces these scars. The zippers get bigger as the tomatoes do, but are only unsightly and don’t affect the fruit inside the skin.
Q: What is the secret to growing a jade plant? I seem to kill every one I buy. (September 1984)
A: Other than shooting it into space, the easiest way to kill a jade plant is by watering too much. You’ll know you’re watering too much when green leaves start falling off. Let the soil dry completely; then water thoroughly so excess water runs from the drain hole.
Q: When should I prune forsythia, and what is the proper way? I want my shrub to look natural, rather than like a round ball. (September 1984)
A: All balls are round, but let’s forget that for now. The best time to prune forsythia is immediately after it finishes blooming in spring. Cut back all stems to within 8 inches of the ground. The shrub will quickly grow back and form a natural, arching shape. Other spring shrubs, such as quince, spirea, weigela, and lilac, should also be pruned right after they finish blooming. If you wait until summer or fall, you’ll cut off the flower buds for next year.
Killing Bermuda Grass
Q: We find it impossible to keep Bermuda grass out of a large area of carpet bugleweed (ajuga). Is there a product that will kill the Bermuda grass and not the carpet bugleweed? (June 1985)
A: There wasn’t in 1985, but there is now. It’s called Ortho Grass B Gon and it kills only grasses, not broadleaf plants, such as ground covers and perennials. Follow label directions carefully.
Starting Lenten Roses
Q: What is the best way for us to grow Lenten roses from seed? (October 1984)
A: One of our favorite perennials for shade, Lenten roses are a snap to grow from seed. Just let the seedpods mature on the plant and drop their seeds on the soil. Seedlings will sprout the following spring. Wait until seedlings have at least two sets of leaves, and then transplant them to new homes.
Off with Its Head!
Q: My corn plant (Dracaena fragrans) has grown tall enough to reach a 9-foot ceiling. How should I prune it? (February 1985)
A: If you don’t care about its immediate appearance, just lop off its head at the height you want. Use hand pruners (or a guillotine, if you have one). The stalk will look headless for a while, but new growth will emerge shortly.
Dogwoods Won’t Bloom
Q: Some wild dogwoods in our yard have never bloomed. Why? (March 1985)
A: They may not be getting enough sun. Although dogwoods grow fine in shade, they need at least a half-day of sun to bloom well. You’ll also get more blooms by planting named selections chosen for vigor and disease resistance, such as ‘Appalachian Spring’ (white), ‘Cherokee Brave’ (red-and-white), ‘Cherokee Chief’ (red), ‘Junior Miss’ (pink), and ‘Weaver’s White.’
Q: I’ve heard it’s a good idea to prune liriope each year. What is the best way and time to do this? (February 1985)
A: Liriope foliage looks a bit ragged by the end of winter. Use a string trimmer or lawn mower to cut it back to 2 inches. Do this before the new growth starts or the leaves will have cut ends all summer.
Peeling Crepe Myrtle
Q: I have a white crepe myrtle that is several years old. This year, the bark is peeling off. What should I do? (September 1985)
A: Think of your crepe myrtle as a snake (but don’t run screaming for a shovel to cut off its head). In order to grow, a snake needs to shed its skin. It’s the same with crepe myrtle. Peeling bark is perfectly natural.
Peonies Won’t Bloom
Q: My peonies are 3-years-old and still have not bloomed. What could be the problem? (October 1985)
A: To bloom well, a peony needs fertile, well-drained soil, and full sun. Make sure you don’t plant too deeply. The bulbous flower buds (“eyes”) on the roots shouldn’t be any more than an inch deep. Don’t plant where it gets a lot of root competition from trees and shrubs. Feed every couple of weeks in spring and summer with a bloom-booster fertilizer. And if you live in the Lower South, choose a heat-tolerant selection, such as ‘Festiva Maxima.’
Norfolk Island Pine Outdoors?
Q: Someone told me I could plant a Norfolk Island pine outdoors. Is this plant hardy? (October 1985)
A: It is if you live on Norfolk Island, near Australia, where this semitropical plant is native. It’s hardy in South Florida too. Elsewhere in the South, it will croak as soon as you get a freeze.
Growing Magnolia from Seed
Q: Could you please tell me how to grow a Southern magnolia from seed? (September 1985)
A: Of course—Grumpy knows all. First, remove the fleshy coat from the seed. Place it inside a zip-top plastic bag filled with moist potting soil. Keep the bag in the refrigerator for three months. Then plant the seed in a pot that’s in a warm, sunny spot. It should sprout in several weeks.
Daffodils Won’t Bloom
Q: My daffodils came up this spring with nice, healthy foliage, but no blooms. What am I doing wrong? (April 1990)
A: Cutting back the foliage in spring before it turns yellow could be the cause. So could planting small bulbs that aren’t ready to bloom. And if they’ve been planted a while, your bulbs could be overcrowded and need dividing. After the foliage yellows, use a garden fork to lift a clump from the ground. Separate the individual bulbs, and replant.
Roses Changed Color
Q: I planted seven rose bushes of various colors. The first year they bloomed fine, but then were damaged by a hard winter. This year, they all bloomed red and are climbers. What caused this? (June 1990)
A: Your hybrid roses were grafted onto rootstocks of a red climbing rose, probably ‘Dr. Huey,’ for extra vigor. This is a common practice. Winter cold killed the grafts, but not the hardier rootstocks. Those rootstocks then grew their own canes and bloomed. This means you’ll always have red climbing roses in the future, unless you plant new roses.
Purge That Privet!
Q: We would like to rid ourselves of some old privet hedges. Every time we cut them down, they grow back faster than ever. Is there something we can use that will kill them, roots and all? (September 1991)
A: High-five on your decision to kill privet! Grumpy hates all privets because they’re horribly weedy and their flowers cause allergies. Dispatch them by cutting them to a foot tall in spring and then painting the cut surfaces with Brush Killer according to label directions.
Poison Ivy Compost
Q: We recently purchased property with poison ivy growing on it. Can we safely compost the poison ivy and then use the compost later in the garden? (October 1991)
A: Before you try, ask yourself one question: “Do you feel lucky?” The oil that causes skin rashes is very persistent. For example, if you burn poison ivy, the oil travels in the smoke. Grumpy can’t say how long the oil will last in your compost, but he wouldn’t want to be the sucker who tests it.
Chop That Cherry!
Q: Is there a way to sterilize a wild cherry tree? We have one shading our deck, but the dropping fruit is very messy. (July 1991)
A: The only way to keep a wild cherry (aka black cherry) from fruiting is to follow George Washington’s example and chop it down. That’s not much of a loss. Although its wood makes fine furniture and paneling, wild cherry is very weedy and its fruit stains everything. Replace it with a better tree like Japanese zelkova, ‘Allee’ Chinese elm, Chinese pistache, red maple, or an oak.
Take a Chance
Q: Can you eat ornamental peppers? (August 1991)
A: Sure, you can eat them. But should you is another matter. Most are so hot it’s like taking a bite from the sun. So look, admire, but don’t eat. You have been warned.
Q: My houseplants never seem to live very long. I could use some advice. (November 1999)
A: Well, the first thing to remember is never set them atop gas logs. After that, keeping them alive is pretty easy. Choose plants that are easy to grow indoors, such as philodendron, snake plant, peace lily, pothos, ZZ plant, and dracaena. Place them near bright windows. Make sure the pot has a drainage hole, and never let a plant sit in water.
Brown Spots on Lawn
Q: I’m having problems with large brown spots forming on my lawn. Do you have any suggestions as to the cause and solution? (July 1991)
A: A number of diseases could be at work, but one called brown patch is very common in summer. You can control it by applying a granular lawn fungicide with a spreader or spraying with a natural fungicide called Natria Disease Control.
Q: I would like to plant wisteria around my house. Do you have any tasteful ideas? (September 1999)
A: How about letting it shade an abandoned school bus? That works in Grumpy’s neighborhood. Seriously, the trick to using wisteria is not letting this rampant vine climb trees and bushes where it can escape your control. Confine it to a sturdy arbor, wall, or fence where you can prune regularly. Don’t let the bean pods form after flowering or you’ll have wisterias popping up everywhere.
Amaryllis on Strike
Q: Amaryllises have bloomed in my yard for 12 years. Three years ago, they reached an agreement that they would no longer bloom. Can you suggest a reason? (October 1999)
A: It sounds like they formed a union and you failed to meet their demands. Their first demand is not cutting back the leaves until they turn yellow. Second, they need room to grow. If they’re crowded, dig, divide, and replant them this fall. Third, they need full sun. If you meet these demands and your bulbs still refuse to bloom, you may have to submit to binding arbitration.
Making More Mums
Q: How and when do you cut mums back? (March 2004)
A: Late winter and spring are good times. Prune to within a few inches of the ground. Now is a good time to divide them too. Use a garden fork or shovel to lift each plant gently from the ground and divide each root ball into four sections. Discard the center section, and replant the others.
Q: We’re building a house on a lot without any trees. Can you recommend some fast-growing shade trees? (June 2004)
A: Be careful when choosing fast-growing trees, because many are short-lived, weak-wooded, messy, and have invasive roots. Avoid weeping willow, ‘Bradford’ pear, silver maple, mulberry, hackberry, and cottonwood. Good choices include Chinese elm, Nuttall oak, red oak, willow oak, Chinese pistache, and red maple.
So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good-bye
Q: My evergreen shrubs suddenly dropped their leaves this fall. What happened? Can I save them? (January 2006)
A: Hope you’re not too attached to them, because there’s a 99% chance they’re dead. Any number of things could have caused this, from root rot to drought to spraying with weed killer. Try scratching the bark with your fingernail. If you find any green underneath, there’s a miniscule chance they might survive.
Q: How do you plant a camellia? Does it need sun or shade? (February 2006)
A: Dig a hole 2-3 times the width of the root ball, but no deeper. The soil should be acid, well-drained, and contain plenty of organic matter. Place the ball in the hole so the top half-inch rises above the soil surface. Fill in around it with soil, water thoroughly, and then cover the ball with 1-2 inches of mulch. Camellias like sun in the morning and light shade in the afternoon.