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


What is Irish Moss and where can it be found? Is it best in sun or shade? 25. March 2016

Funny you should ask this. I was in Lowe’s – Trussville yesterday, and they had several flats for sale. High filtered shade with well drained soil that can stay moist but not wet are excellent conditions to grow this plant. Mine never last a long time, so good luck and let me know how yours perform.


My wife has seen variegated pittosporum at a business that she is considering replacing our front boxwoods with. Is this a good plant for the Birmingham area? If so, how much space should we allow between plants? Daytime sun. Thank you 25. March 2016

Variegated pittosporum is an excellent plant and does best in sun. The plants can get large so spacing should be around four feet apart, so buying tiny plants will not make the landscape attractive initially. But before you buy, these pittosporum can be severely injured in a cold winter. If you want another plant that might give you a similar effect, you might want to try the variegated dwarf osmanthus.


We are looking for a good choice for a large container in full shade but lots of bright light next to the front entry. We prefer a broDleaf evergreen but would accept the perfect deciduouse choice if one is a ailable that tolerates full shade and still blooms. Currently we have a Magnolia brNdiflora that needs to get out after three years. (Thinking maybe a species if Pieris.) Thank-you! Melody 16. March 2016

My first thought was a camellia or a sasanqua camellia. Bloom color of your choice, and you could underplant it with hosta for summer color. A very sculptural red stemmed semi-weeping Japanese Maple would work, under planted with pansies in winter, too. Other evergreens to consider are Osmanthus (including the variegated one), Gardenia, Chinese Fringe (loropetalum), and Japanese Aucuba. Pieris would be fine, except they do not get tall.


I remember that once upon a time there was a section in the newspaper where people could offer up, among other things, free plants to people who were willing to come and get them. Do you know if anyone around here has continued this since the Bham News has been pared down? Thanks! 3. March 2016

I really do not. The closest is the Alabama Famers Market Bulletin but most of the plants advertised are for sale but generally at a very reasonable price.


I have two virbernum snowball plants in plastic from the Netherlands – when can I plant this in Moody, Al? 3. March 2016

They like full sun and well drained soil. So dig big whole and fill with good soil and mulch well in a sunny place and they should be fine.


A relative in plant hardiness zone 7a has questions about caring for a mature fig tree. Do they require pruning, if so to what extent & when? Should trunk/root area be covered with mulch? When to fertilize and with what? Any other care tips for fig trees? 31. January 2016

Of all the small fruit we can grow, fig may be the most care free. The key is to mulch them, remove only the dead wood, unless they are too tall and you want to reduce the height, and fertilize them annually with a pound of 5-10-10 per year of age up to 12 pounds. Prune if necessary now, and fertilize in spring after the foliage appears. While they may not bear at a young age, the older they get, the crop generally get bigger every year.


When do we prune our knock out roses? 31. January 2016

I think now is fine. Most roses need some pruning, but knock-outs can be pruned just about as much as you need to prune them. Generally, I start by taking out the dead wood. Then I prune it to the height and shape I want. Just make sure you do not cut them entirely to the ground.


We are going to plant strawberries in a raised bed. What do you suggest we use for soil? 21. January 2016

If you are mixing the soil yourself, I like 3 parts sandy loam, 1 part peat moss, and one part cow manure. If you are purchasing bagged soil, make sure you get one that is a soil mix, but does not contain a moisture holding material, like the big box home improvement centers have for sale.


Where can I purchase Mountain Laurel near Auburn, AL? 21. January 2016

I am not sure about the Auburn area, but here in Birmingham, Hanna Garden Center on HWY 280, usually has them in spring.


My yard is covered in ground cover type weeds… the centipede grass sod is disappearing… is there anything I could apply now (january) to help kill the weeds ? 18. January 2016

Not really. A fall pre-emergent herbicide would have probably done the trick, but it is too late to put it out. Now you have to use a product like IMAGE herbicide or 2,4,-D herbicide according to label direction. They will clean up many of the weeds, but not kill Poa annua (called annual bluegrass) which is a common winter lawn weed. See the post under weeds to learn how to control Poa annua.


I have a coral bark maple in my front yard that was pruned by the previous owners I have lived here a year and have let it grow I know they a can get to be 20 ft my question is will the trunk ever get taller right now it is about 10″ in diameter and starts to branch about 2 feet from the ground will it ever look normal I had one when I lived in Md and it was beautiful would like to know why people would prune the top of a Japanese maple 4. January 2016

Don’t ask me why folks do crazy things to trees, but it is not uncommon around here. I think the common reasons are fear (it will get too big or fall on the house) or a “tree guy,” who knows nothing, comes by and sells them a bill of goods. You opened with coral bark maple and closed with Japanese maple. In either case these trees generally recover, but slowly over a number of years. It is typical for pruned maples like this to put up long shoots, but eventually these shoots will form the shape of the non-pruned tree. So here is my advice. Do nothing for several years, except remove crossed branches, and then see how it looks. Good examples of small maples that have been groomed and are beautiful to see and study are the ones in the Japanese Garden at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.


Please tell me what conditions are best for geebera daisies. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to grow em. 4. January 2016

First, I do not consider Gerbera daisies as a perennial in our area, but I have seen some that will tolerate mild winters. There are some new types that have been introduced from Monrovia nurseries in California that look great, but in general they should all be handled the same way. First, they like sun and well drained soil. In fact, that is how you see them in our area most of the time. My son’s next door neighbor has them in full sun with rocks around each plant, and they bloom a lot but never have pretty foliage. So, when I have grown them and the foliage looks good and they flower, I give them at least 4 to 5 hours of sun, and keep them well watered in good fertile, well drained soil. Since they are also subject to spider mites, I like to plant them in areas that have good air movement to help control them naturally. Now that I have given you ideal conditions, they grow fine for me just as long as they have soil that drains well, and are cared for like the other blooming flowers in your garden or containers.


Hi John- I was walking in my neighborhood yesterday and noticed several early spring blooming plants that are already blooming now. Will plants like the carolina jessamine I saw with blooms on it rebloom in early spring, or will this be it for this year? Thanks, Ann 31. December 2015

Hopefully. Of course, those blooms now are gone, but for profuse flowering plants we should still have an okay Spring display. However, plants like my Empress Camellias are simply blooming out, but of course they are late winter to early spring flowering plants.


Thanks for your good suggestions about the evergreen trees/shrubs. I am researching them to see which might work best. Is there a nursery you would recommend that will plant and guarantee the trees for you? Seems like I recall that from many years ago, at least. I live in Hoover. (Susan Dobbs…hello, and thanks!) 10. December 2015

I use Landscape Services and Gary A. Webb Horticulturist. Both are fine companies and are locally owned.


Hi John, I have a relatively small yard, but need to plant two trees on middle and back side yard very close to fence to block some undesirable views. What are fast-growing, evergreen, tall tree options that might hopefully have a narrow bottom girth? Thank you!!! 7. December 2015

My first thought was the selection Green Giant Arborvitae, as it will get tall and does not get very wide. Additionally, they are not a super expensive plant even if you buy tall ones. If you want a hedge, many of the hollies clipped will do. I especially like tall hedges of Nellie R. Stevens holly and the native Yaupon holly, because they can take a lot of pruning to keep them narrow and will grow tall. As for a small evergreen tree, many folks like some of the dwarf Magnolias, but it sounds to me like a large shrub that will get 15 or so feet tall might do the trick. Upright sasanqua camellia, Burford holly, and Fortune’s osmanthus all fall into that catagory.


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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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