Ask John

BearTools_Fotor If you have a question about gardening in the Birmingham area, ask John. John Floyd has been gardening–and learning about gardening–for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience in the garden, John has degrees in horticulture, plant taxonomy, and plant physiology from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was Editor-in-Chief of Southern Living.

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I see numerous posts/questions about the correct way to trim crepe myrtles, and I’ve done a bit of internet research to know how NOT to “commit crepe murder,” but have yet to come across a great website that has really good pictures of what TO DO vs what NOT to do. Like you mentioned, I see a lot of the trees around town that are hacked clean at a fixed height across 4-6″ diameter trunks… if you need a picture of what that grows into, I have a tree in my back yard that someone cut that way in the past. Very ugly knuckle with thin spindles coming out of it. I think the general public is hung up on the notion that the plant “flowers on new growth” so they feel the need to cut them annually. 24. March 2015

You make a good point. More is written about what NOT to do than the right way to handle Crepe myrtles. First, remember, they are trees, and if yours has been badly pruned in the past, I would recommend one of the following:
First remove all crossed or branches that rub against each other.
After that, stand back and look at the tree, and see how many original trunks or shoots the plant had. If is was a multi-stem plant, the goal is to keep that quality of the plant. If at the point where each branch has been pruned, you have multiple branches, I would remove at the break point all but one, three or so branches, and remove all others. This will encourage them to grow and create a nice multi-stem form over a period of years. If you can reach to old seed pod, snip it off, but it is not necessary. Now relax, and enjoy them recovering. They will make nice trees again in a few years. If your trees are in very bad shape and have been cut back to just big trunks, I would cut them to within a foot of the ground and start creating a new multi-stem tree. Once the plant breaks, and starts putting up new shoots, select three to five per trunk, and cut off all others. Allow these shoots to grow, and hopefully in a few years, they will produce a handsome specimen.

I’m building an 18″ raised vegetable garden. My existing topsoil is good but a little heavy in clay. Lots of organics. I’ve got access to coarse golf course green sand for free. My thought was to mix 40% sand with the topsoil. With this limited info John, what do you recommend? 22. March 2015

If you think your soil is really heavy, 40% probably would be fine. But remember, if it is too sandy, watering in the summer is going to be almost daily during dry periods. When I read your note, my first thought was 20% thoroughly mixed, especially if you can add lots of organic matter. One thing is important: Many times with new raised beds, while their first year of production may be okay or good, the second year and forward should improve. This is because the decomposition of the added organic matter and the turning of the soil will help the soils texture and porosity.

Would you please throw in a couple of tips for gardening at the beach? I would imagine some of your readers have second homes along the Gulf. 20. March 2015

First, it really depends where you are located, but for the sake of this discussion I am going to assume the Gulf Coast. The only gardening area in that part of the world that I am familiar with is around the Destin/Seaside area. First and foremost, for the last two years this area has had tough freezes. When I was in the area last month, most evergreens had suffered some cold damage, but I expect most of these plants will recover. Be patient, and realize all the damaged leaves will drop off, and new ones will appear. As the new foliage breaks start growing, fertilize lightly with a product like 6-12-12. Or use something that is low in nitrogen (the first number), compared to the other numbers. Remember, with sandy soils, you will need to keep things that are not native watered during dry periods.  Also, adding organic is always a good idea when planting anything.

I have gardenia bushes 6 feet tall. How aggressively can I cut them? 17. March 2015

In fact, we pruned one about this time last year at the Botanical Gardens, reduced its size about 50%, and it did fine. Remember, when you prune, go deep into the plant and remove the limbs with good pruning tools (see post on pruning tools), and make clean cuts. Once the new growth starts, I would do two things: Mix one heaping tablespoon of epsom salt in a gallon of water (make sure it dissolves), and pour it around the base of the plant, and fertilize it lightly with a low-nitrogen fertilizer (first number on the bag needs to be low).

is it too late to trim crepe myrtles? 17. March 2015

Not really, but the way you see them pruned around town is not correct. Remember, they are trees and should be treated like you would a dogwood or flowering cherry. Only remove crossed branches and those branches that destroy their shape. Hacking them off at some height is a very bad way to prune them, and does not produce a beautiful plant (or should I say tree). There are excellent selections on the market that will grow to almost any size you desire, from about 3 feet tall and up.

I have a Granny Smith Apple tree that I planted a few years back. Every year I battle black spot with it, as my neighbor’s roses are covered in it. I’m tired of fighting this losing battle. Should I just transplant the tree to another location where roses aren’t around? If so, when can I move it? Could it survive it a giant pot? 17. March 2015

First, moving is advisable if your neighbors are not going to take care of their roses. And yes, apples will grow and produce fruit in pots, assuming they are large enough (would say a minimum of 35 gallons). The best time to transplant it is in winter, so if you move it now, the risk of it not making it goes up dramatically. Do not even try to transplant it if the buds are already swollen.

John, I’m building a raised vegetable garden. The topsoil will be 18″deep. I’ve got some pretty good existing topsoi, too heavy in fine silt and clay. My thought is to mix 40% coarse sand used in golf course green. 17. March 2015

My first thought was if it is a fine silt and clay mix, how friable (crumbly when squeezed) is it? If the soil is not heavy, I probably would add organic matter, like spaghnum peat moss. Be sure and mix well whatever you add to your soil. If the soil holds water, and you think it needs better drainage, I think the sand would be fine. Just remember that once you get the soil mixed to the texture you desire, make sure that it has plenty of organic matter (avoid bark mixes and bark mulch). Compost is great for this, as well as processed cow manure (Black Cow brand is excellent). Send us some photos of the bed when things start growing.

What do you use to spray the Poa annua in your yard? 17. March 2015

This is not a good answer. There is not much you can do if the grass is greening up. If the grass is still dormant, spot spraying with roundup will get it, but you risk injuring your grass this late using this method. Hand pulling–which I don’t do–works, but the best thing is to apply a pre-emergence herbicide next fall at the proper time for the best control next spring. Until then, keep it cut and bagged, and suffer. See Controlling Poa annua for more details.

When should I start my seeds for my vegetable garden and can you share any tips or tricks you have for getting them to germinate and thrive? 17. March 2015

I have already started some of mine and will be doing more this week. See “Tending The Garden — February 23, 2015” for how I do it. Let me know if you have more questions after reviewing this post.

Hey John! Is it too early to put my orange and lemon trees back outside? They are blooming like crazy, and on a day like today I think they may be happier outside! 17. March 2015

I moved mine outside yesterday, but if the temperature falls below 45 degrees I will bring them back inside. If they have been in low light, put them in a semi-shady area until the leaves adjust to the brighter light. By the way, I have a few small fruits already.

Hello, John — I love zinnias, but don’t want to spend a fortune on bedding plants in the summer. Is it too late to start zinnias from seed? 17. March 2015

Really, I think it is too early. Wait until the end of the month, and then you can start them. By the way, I have a lot of success direct seeding them in my garden in early May. I work the soil, get it very well prepared, seed them according to label directions, and keep them moist until they germinate (come up). Once the true leaves appear, I thin them to about 3 to 4 inches apart and usually have flowers starting in June.

John I bought some hothouse hydrangeas for a party . Can I still plant them in my yard? What’s the best way? 17. March 2015

Yes, you can! Here is how I do it. Keep them moist, but not wet, while the flowers are blooming and you are enjoying them. Once the blooms fade, I cut the blooms off to encourage new leaves and shoots. At this point, if the temperature stays above 50 degrees, I put them outside in a shady area. Once the new leaves (shoots) appear, and the danger of frost is past, I plant them outdoors in partial shade or repot them into a larger container. In either case, if the roots are matted, loosen them from growing in a circle where they will establish a vigorous root system.

John, we don’t live in Birmingham, but I know you’ll know the answer to this: Can you direct us to a resource, or tell us, the proper way to cut back crepe myrtles…if you’re supposed to cut them back? My mother and I are having a debate. from Chris O'Connell 17. March 2015

I haven’t written about them yet, but the Southern Living’s website tells you how they recommend doing it. I intend to do a post on this, but I just haven’t done it yet. Remember, unless you have bought a dwarf selection, they are small trees. From that standpoint, I remove crossed branches and limbs that are leaning, or destroy the shape of the tree, and enjoy their beautiful trunks, flowers, and size.

I have a number of blueberry bushes that are beginning to come back to life. But the bushes also look like they have dead branches and generally need a haircut. Do you prune back blueberry bushes? 15. March 2015

I would not. Here is what I do with mine. Once the foliage appears, I cut out the dead branches. My buds are swelling now and are coming into bloom. Remember, each bloom has the potential to be a blueberry. Once they have finished blooming, fertilize them lightly. If you want to prune them to control the size, I recommend you do it when they finish fruiting.

John, my mother and my uncle are looking for the old-fashioned Mississippi Pinkeye Purple Hull Pea. Any idea where to find those seeds? They don’t like the newer ones and are looking for their old favorite. Thanks! 15. March 2015

Very few retail stores sell them, but I purchased them last year at the Ace Hardware in Clay (close to Trussville). It is right off Interstate 20 coming from Birmingham. At Exit 141, go left and over the hill, and you will see the sign on the left. They carry bulk seeds, but my guess is they have not gotten them in yet. Many small-town, local hardware stores who carry bulk seeds are the only places I have seen them. You generally buy these seeds by the scoop or cup.

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13 thoughts on “Ask John

  1. Greetings John, My beautiful Peace lillies have an infestation of a scaly type of insect…aphids…I attempted to eradicate them by cleansing the stems and leaves with a damp paper towel and then followed up with a banana peel. As a deterrent, I would break off pieces of the peel and place around the top of the dirt. This seemed to work for a little while, but then I notice some of the leaves begin to grow limp and then turn yellow and I just cut them off. I would appreciate any suggestion and I really prefer the “Natural” remedy, but am open to whatever help you can offer. Thank you.

  2. thank you for replying re: fertilizing my various hydrangea types. I’m going to purchase the 15-0-15 you suggested and I plan to put some, dry, around the base of each plant. Some are very mature–the latest additions were planted in October, 2014. OK to treat all one time either now or very early summer? Thanks again.

  3. I transplanted some daffodils several years ago from my family home in Grove Hill, AL. The blooms do not seem as bright and yellow as they did in their previous environment. Is there a food they need to be more colorful and not so pale yellow? The foliage looks great; only the flowers are not as bright.

    • It might be several things, but usually the depth of color is pretty constant. Once they finish blooming, I would give them a bit of fertilizer. There are products especially for bulbs, but an all-purpose fertilizer like 15-0-15 (which is what most of us need to use in this area) can be sprinkled throughout the foliage. Also, if the bulbs you dug were in a sunny spot, and yours are in shade, that might affect the color somewhat. Other than that, I really do not have any ideas. Let’s hope next year the color will be brighter and clearer.

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