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.

If you need to include a photo, you can email your question to BirminghamGardeningToday@gmail.com


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.


I’m seeing lots of fruit trees at Lowe’s and Home Depot. What are the best apple varieties for the Birmingham? Ditto for pears. 14. March 2015

I do not grow fruit trees in my yard, because I don’t have enough room. But I know exactly who to ask to give you a correct answer: Arlie Powell at Petals from the Past in Jemison, Alabama. I called down this afternoon and asked if the apples and pears listed on the web site were his recommendation. The answer was absolutely. So, go to the Petals from the Past website.  Then look at their online catalogue for the selections of fruit he recommends, if you want to successfully grow fruit at home that works for the Birmingham climate. Let me emphasize that growing perfect fruit at home is not easy, and you need space. I recommend that if you want to grow fruit at home that is easy and carefree, grow blueberries. If you can grow azaleas, then you can grow blueberries, because they are in the same family. Two tips: grow several plants in close proximity for maximum production, and grow the ones Arlie recommends, even if you buy them somewhere else.


How do you feel about decomposed granite for a garden path? 11. March 2015

I am not sure that decomposed granite is the right term. My guess it is ground or crushed granite. If that is the case it would be fine. Remember, garden paths with clean edges are more attractive.


What can I be doing now to ensure my yard looks great this Summer? 5. March 2015

Lots of things. First and foremost, most of us do not walk around and simply look at what we have and what needs to be done. If we do, that will tell us some automatic things that need to be done. In fact, I do this often. For example, if the shrubs are covering the windows, now is a good time to get them back in scale with the house. If you have areas that simply look bad, now is the time to rework them. Almost anything can be done now in the way of planting, pruning, and grooming the landscape. Just remember that plants grow, and they have times that they look good and times when they are not so great looking, so take that into account. A good gardening friend of mine said the other day, “I am not ready for Spring, because I still have so many gardening chores to do before Spring comes.”


With the snow falling around Birmingham, do I need to cover my seeds like green onions, spinach, or lettuce? 5. March 2015

Basically nothing. As wet is the ground is, and the snow acting as sort of an insulator, they should be just fine. But, as cold as it is, do not expect the seeds to germinate.


Hi John, I have rosebushes that are bushy and overgrown. When’s the best time to cut them back and how aggressive can I be with pruning? 5. March 2015

Now is the perfect time to prune roses, especially overgrown ones. It depends on what type of rose you are talking about.  If it is one of the popular knock-outs or vigorous shrub roses, I would suggest you cut them to about half the size you want them to be, as they are vigorous growers. Roses, like the hybrid teas and floribundas, need to be cut back to about 6-8 inches tall, maintaining just the major branches. Go by the Dunn Rose Garden at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and see a good example of how the different types are pruned.


Hi John! I’ve seen “Purple Pixie” Weeping Loropetalum at the garden center and really like it. They seem to be pushing it as a container plant, but how will it perform in the heavy clay soil of my yard? from Jason 28. February 2015

Well, they are really not the easiest plant to grow when it comes to the group of loropetalums in the marketplace, but they are definitely the smallest. When you purchase one and remove from the container, make sure the roots are cut several times vertically with a knife, where the water will be able to go into the root ball. As for containers, yes they do well if you give them proper watering and plant them in a good potting mix (not a potting soil). Place them in a filtered, sunny spot, and they will make a great looking pot mixed with summer annuals. — John


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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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