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


I too had a big planting day Sunday and with all the rain predicted this week, I am a bit concerned about my new plants and vegetables. Will all this rain affect them? Is there anything I can do to protect the new plants? I just do not want to have everything I just planted drown. 14. April 2015

I, too, had a big planting day Saturday. I think you are okay if they are not standing in water. If they are in standing water for over a couple of hours at a time, I would be concerned. If this is the case and they were shrubs, and if the root balls have not been destroyed by the water, you might try to pot them in containers. But I think that would be extreme. I wish both of us good luck, and let’s hope all our work Saturday was not a waste of time.


so how do you decide which tomato plant gets to survive when you get three in one starter pot? they all look the same strength size & what not. can i successfully replant them if i dig out the weaker plants? also might be important i am only growing cherokee purple tomatoes & trying to grow as organically as possible. thanks!!! 13. April 2015

There are a number of ways I handle this situation. If the seedlings all look like they are grown together, I transplant the group, and once they start growing you can cut the least vigorous out.  It really is okay to leave them alone and allow them both to grow if you are not a purist. If the plants are detached, even just a little bit, I usually separate them being careful not to destroy all the roots. Since I label my plants with popsicle sticks (written on with pencil), I dig them out with these sticks. Since tomatoes will grow roots on their stems, I try to get as much root as possible, and also bury a bit of the stem in the soil. I rarely lose plants when dividing, using any of these methods.


I hear many comments about adding Epson salt when planting. What are your thoughts? When is it needed and what type of plants-tomato, veggies, flowers? How do you apply it? 9. April 2015

I have always used Espon’s Salts on my gardenias (see Tending the Garden – April 3, 2015), but I would not be honest if I said I use it on other things. But that is not to say that a tablespoon sprinkled around peppers and tomatoes, once they are established, is not a good idea. What I do know is if you are growing things in heavy clay soils that have not been amended, then it would probably be helpful on a variety of plants. I would suggest a soil test. You can get the boxes at the local extension offices or at the Hanna Center at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Some folks say, “What can it hurt?” but I am not from that school of thought.


I have a variety of fruits – pear trees, apple trees, peaches trees, grapes and figs that I want to fertilize. What do you suggest I use and when shoudl I apply it? 7. April 2015

I want to quickly admit to you that I do not have enough space to grow fruit trees or grapes in my garden. But I think it is generally accepted that once flowering has finished and fruit set has occurred, fertilization helps as a generalization because there might be specifics for production growers. I think any fertilizer with a middle number lower than the others is okay. If you can get 15-0-15, it is a good all-purpose product for this area. Products like 8-8-8 and 10-10-10 are okay, but if you have a high phosphorus like many of the soils do in our area, you may be tying up nutrients the plants need for good fruit production.


I bring my Meyer lemon in for the winter. It did not drop leaves this year, as it sometimes does, but the leaves appear very mottled. The plant is back outside and has been fed with citrus fertilizer. Should I do anything else re: thenleav 4. April 2015

I think it will be just fine to do nothing. Now don’t worry if those leaves shed as the new leaves start coming out. Mine dropped some leaves but started blooming a few weeks ago. Now that the new leaves are coming out, I am losing those old mottled leaves.


This winter took a bite out of the gardenia in the front (South) of the house. The top branches bend but appear burned. The bottom quarter has some green leaves. Is it time to pronounce the bush and replant or prune back 1/3. Thank you. 3. April 2015

I would wait just a bit before doing anything. Most shrubs are just coming out, and we really are a couple of weeks away from knowing how much winter damage has occurred on most of our plants. Now I always shape my gardenias by removing stray branches. So cutting it back by a third certainly will not hurt, but I would not assume branches with no leaves are dead just yet. Mine also look bad, and I annually apply a heaping spoon of Epsoms salt dissolved in a gallon of water around the roots to promote good growth and dark green leaves.


As my hydrangeas are beginning to turn green, I’ve noticed many branches with no new growth. Do I need to trim these at the base? How do get them looking healthy again? 3. April 2015

hydrangea leafing out

What one of my bigleaf hydrangeas looks like in my garden. Not ready to be pruned, yet.

Take a look at “Tending the Garden – March 26,” and you will see my thoughts on your hydrangeas. I usually do not prune any stems off mine until late April when I am sure they are dead, because the flowers bloom off the shoot that develop from the old stems.



I am enjoying the blue pansies and blue Siberian Iris. What is the best time of the year to plant for April enjoyment? 3. April 2015

I always plant pansies in late fall, generally right after the first frost. As for siberian iris, they are tough and can be planted now, as they are just beginning to put up their new foliage. But I think most folks think with iris, the earlier in spring the better. IF you did not put your pansies in last fall, it is too late now, as we are thinking about summer annuals. If you are enjoying blue iris now, it is probably Dutch iris. These are bulbs that need to be planted anytime in this area from November through early January.


With things like my snowball hydrangeas already trying to bloom, is there anything I need to be sure and cover this weekend given the chance of frost? 28. March 2015

I want to answer this in two ways. If the temperature does not fall below freezing a prolonged length of time, the shrubs and trees will probably be all right or only suffer a slight bit of damage. On the other hand, tender annuals and vegetable plants will be severely injured or killed if we hit freezing. About the only protection is covering these plants up and hope. But remember, covering plants protects them from frost, not temperature. I do advise watering plants late in the afternoon before a freeze is predicted for this time of the year. Water is a great insulator. Remember, the last frost date in the metro Birmingham area is April 15. Even if garden centers and big box stores have vegetable plants, like tomatoes and annuals like marigolds, please wait until around April 15 to plant them.


When can I plant seeds in ground? 28. March 2015

It depends on what you are planting. For vegetables, spinach, lettuce (mine is up), onions, and any of the greens like kale and turnips, plant now. I would recommend that you purchase plants of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, as they need to produce vegetables in the next couple of months. Plant these now. Everything in the vegetable category is fine to plant after the last average frost date in this area–April 15. For trees and shrubs, plant as soon as possible. For hardy perennials and annuals, plant now. For tender annuals and others, plant after April 15.


Where do you recommend buying herbs and vegtables you aren’t seeding yourself? Who has the best plants and variety, in your opinion? 28. March 2015

There are basically three growers I know of in this area, and the most widely distributed in this locale are Bonnie plants. Smaller growers who distribute in this area are Alabama Grown and Young’s. There may be others I do not know about. I buy from them all, but if you want some very unique things I suggest you go to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens plant sale which is April 10-12. Check their website for times and location.


Where can I find a white milk weed? 28. March 2015

I really do not have a good answer for you, but here are a couple of suggestions. Try the ‘Native Seed Network.’ I am sure they will have a number of milkweed types, and also check with the North Carolina Botanical Gardens. They have an excellent seed exchange program, and most years they have various types of milkweed seeds available, even if they are not listed (might have to call). Let us all know if you find them from another source.


I am considering planting milkweed to attract butterflies. Will it be hard to keep in check? 27. March 2015

That is a tough question, because there are many types of milkweeds. They scatter their seeds by the wind, so the common type–which is tall–can broadcast seeds far and wide. If you have a big native plant space, I think it would be okay. Most folks who have small spaces grow butterfly weed, and they do not have a problem scattering seeds. I so appreciate your efforts to plant things that attract monarchs.


I get excited every spring when the snowball viburnum forms it’s beautiful pom Pom flowers, starting with little green buds turning to white fluffy snowballs. from Darryl Moland 26. March 2015

You are so right. Mine is not as far along as yours, so I expect it to be showing itself around Easter. All of the Viburnums, which is the genus for Snowball, are under used in gardens around Birmingham. And thanks for tagging your viburnum picture with #BHMBlooms so everyone can see it on Instagram!


Hi John! If I have a bag of Miracle Grow Garden Soil from last year, are its nutrients still viable this year? 25. March 2015

Yes, use it as if it were a new bag. Most bagged soils can be open, kept, and used for many years.


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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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