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Plants

Dear Victory Garden

I was wondering if mulch can be placed around plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. If so, is there a special kind? Thank you. — Matt, Rossford, Ohio

Dear Matt,

Plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds can certainly be mulched, and almost any mulch will do. The primary goals of mulch are to stabilize ground temperature, reduce ground water loss to evaporation, and retard weed growth, all of which any plant would appreciate. Organic mulches also break down over time and add to the soil fertility, another good thing.

When applying mulch, lay a layer a couple of inches deep around the plants. Keep the mulch two to four inches away from where the stem of the plant comes out of the ground since you don't want to smother the plant or encourage its crown to rot.

You might consider putting in a water source for the creatures you are trying to attract. Butterflies would really appreciate a muddy spot where they can get the water and also the minerals they need.

Also, please bear in mind the life cycle of these creatures, particularly the butterflies and moths. They lay eggs, which turn into caterpillars, which eat plants until they are ready to transform into butterflies. That means that an immaculately clean garden with all refuse removed will probably not have the eggs for the next generation. Focus on what plants the caterpillars like to eat and not just what flowers the adults like to sip from—they are usually the same, but not always.

Dear Victory Garden

Is November a good time to prune back a rose bush, or should I wait until March? — Bennett, Bristol, Rhode Island

Dear Bennett,

The fall pruning of roses consists of a light cutting-back just to keep the branches from flopping under the weight of snow and to maintain a tidy appearance—there's nothing scientific about it. In the spring, more care should be taken: As soon as new growth is visible the plants should be cut back one-third to one-half. The cuts should be made about 1/4-inch above an outward-facing leaf bud. At this time any dead or weak, twiggy growth should be removed as well. An attempt should be made to give the plant an open structure, without any branches rubbing against one another. Since roses flower on new wood, it's almost impossible to prune them too hard as long as you leave plenty of leaf buds. Good pruning takes practice, and roses are an easy plant with which to begin learning the art.

Dear Victory Garden

Can you keep potted mums through the winter? When should you cut back your summer flowers, in the fall or the spring? — Suellen, Wellsville, Ohio

Dear Suellen,

Many so-called hardy mums will make it through the winter—perennialize, as we like to put it. At the very least, however, the pots should be plunged into the ground. Better yet, the mums should be taken out of the pots and planted as you would any other perennial. There's no way a potted mum will do well the following year if it is left in the small nursery container it was sold in. Flowering perennials can be cut back in the fall or in the spring—it doesn't really matter. I prefer the fall because there is already too much to do in the spring, and because the task is much easier when the stalks have not been beaten flat by winter snow. Exceptions are plants, such as certain types of astilbes, whose dried seed heads are fairly interesting in the winter; also plants, such as coneflowers, whose seeds may provide nourishment for winter birds.

Dear Victory Garden

I have four perennial plants in containers: euonymus, digitalis, lacecap hydrangea and a small chrysanthemum. How do I care for them over the winter? When do I stop watering? Should I cover them? They are on the terrace of my apartment. — Marie, Brooklyn, New York

Dear Marie,

Some plants will survive the winter in unprotected pots, but to be safe you should keep your containers well-insulated. Unless you have open soil in which to plunge the pots, you will have to come up with something else. You probably don't want several bales' worth of loose hay on your terrace, and I doubt you'll want to buy a large number of new quilts. You might try this: Wrap the containers with several layers of thick foam rubber, and then wrap that with an impervious material such as black plastic. Or cluster the containers inside a pen and fill the empty spaces with whatever loose insulating material is convenient. You can stop watering after the leaves have dropped from your plants, but be sure to mulch them heavily so that the cold, dry winter wind does not desiccate the potting soil.

Dear Victory Garden

How can I continue my annuals indoors? I paid a lot for these plants and I want to save them for next year. Some examples are impatiens, annual daisies, annual lavender, geraniums, and mini petunias. — Tina, Springfield, Ohio

Dear Tina,

Fortunately, some of the plants you bought are good candidates for wintering-over indoors. The impatiens and geraniums can be potted up easily enough, though you might want to trim them back a bit when you do so. Impatiens grow in low light, so you should be able to keep them on display in a bright room. I would recommend that you keep the geraniums in a cool place (40° F to 50° F), for otherwise they are likely to put out a lot of gangling growth to no good purpose. Both of these plants can be propagated fairly easily from stem cuttings. The lavender as well should survive if cut back hard and given the cold treatment mentioned above. I am less optimistic about the daisies and mini petunias. I'm guessing that the petunias are actually callibrachoa, but "daisies" is such a generic term I wouldn't dare hazard a guess. You could try treating a few individual plants the same way you treat the lavender, just to see how they work out for you next spring.

Dear Victory Garden

I want to know what kinds of plants will attract butterflies and hummingbirds. — Susan, Concord, North Carolina

Dear Susan,

For starters, try growing a butterfly bush (Buddleia) or two. Filling your yard with a wide variety of flowering plants is probably the best way to attract butterflies, because different species have different preferences, both in regard to sources of nectar and to host plants for their offspring. This past August, the anise hyssop (Agastache) in our garden was the number-one butterfly magnet. The ideal flower for attracting hummingbirds is one that's red and tubular (which is why hummingbird feeders look the way they do), but many other colors and forms also work well. Hollyhock, delphinium, bee balm, trumpet vine, rose of Sharon, and salvia are good choices. The next time you put together a container planting, be sure to include fuchsia and lantana.

Dear Victory Garden

My parents have both passed away and I would like to get starts of their Tiger Lilies and Lily-of-the-Valley. They have been passed down from my grandparents. What is the best time of year to dig the bulbs and plant them in my garden? — Omer, Fort Jennings, Ohio

Dear Omer,

Tiger Lilies can be dug up in the fall after the foliage has begun to die back, and the bulbs should be planted immediately to a depth of six inches. If there is a cluster of bulbs (rather than a single bulb) they may be separated and planted about a foot apart. Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majus) can be moved virtually anytime after flowering or very early in the spring before growth starts. Convallaria can be difficult to establish, so for best results dig up a large clump and plant it in one piece instead of dividing it up into individual rhizomes.

Dear Victory Garden

I would like to move my Estella Rijnhold tulips because they are too large-headed for the spot they are in. The flower has bloomed recently and the petals have fallen off. Can I move it now, and if I do will it come back next season? Noticeably, the color came back weaker this spring. Why is that? — Beth< Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Dear Beth,

I wouldn't bother moving your tulips; instead I would remove them, and order new ones in the fall. These days, most tall-stemmed tulips are pretty much bred as annuals, and that's how we treat them in my garden. (The short, early-blooming species of tulips are completely different and reliably perennial.) Although many tall tulips will indeed come back in subsequent years, the flower quality will never be what it was the first year. I find it far easier (and tidier, not having to endure all that dying foliage!) to remove tulips immediately after blooming, and replace them with summer annuals.

Dear Victory Garden

Can I grow lilacs in containers and have them bloom? I am moving and I know I will be moving again in two years. Lilacs are my favorites but I have to keep planting with every move. Can I just plant them in containers so I can take them with me?— Penny Christiansburg, Virginia

Dear Penny,

Lilacs are my favorite, too. Here at The Victory Garden, we have 10 or so varieties, and I add one or two more each year. As to keeping them in pots, yes, you can. Lilacs make excellent container plants in the short term, provided you keep them in full sun; well watered (if they fry, they're gone!); amply fertilized (add a handful of 10-10-10 or equivalent to each pot in the early spring and again in the late spring after bloom); and well limed (a handful of ground lime once a year should suffice.) I would guess that if you start with small enough shrubs, your potted lilacs won't mind waiting a year or two to get to their final home. Good luck!

Dear Victory Garden

How do I keep my elephant ear during the winter months in Kentucky? How do I keep slugs from ruining my hostas? — Janie, Frankfort, Kentucky

Dear Janie,

I assume the elephant ear you refer to is some variety of Colocasia. If it is potted, you can bring it into the house before frost hits and keep it growing in a bright room. If you prefer, you can let the frost take it down and then store the pot in a cool place, such as a cellar, until warm weather returns the following spring. If your elephant ear is planted in the ground, the two possibilities mentioned above still apply — you will just have to pot it up or find something to store it in. Colocasia loves wet feet, by the way. We sometimes grow them in a pot or a nursery container which we submerge (partly or fully) in a shallow part of the pond. As for slugs on hostas, there are several things you can try. Grow slug-resistant varieties, such as 'Francee'; use conventional poisoned slug bait (or the bio-friendly type with iron phosphate as its active ingredient); set out beer traps; surround your plants with copper strips; or apply diatomaceous earth.

Dear Victory Garden

I have a hosta garden that was planted several years ago. The garden is located in the shade under maple and ironwood trees. I originally put in rich black soil, peat, and a light covering of mulch. Every year the hostas come back, but they are always the same size. I fertilize, weed, and control slugs. Why don't my hostas get any bigger than they were when I planted them? — Janice, Elmira, Michigan

Dear Janice,

It sounds like you are doing everything you should be doing to help your hostas grow. Your problem may be the maple trees. Many kinds of maples have extremely aggressive root systems, making it nearly impossible for other plants to thrive in their vicinity. What you might try is this: Every spring, when your hostas begin to poke through the mulch, take a sharp spade and cut a circle around each plant about a foot from the cluster of new shoots, as deep as you can drive the blade. Cutting the maple roots may give the hostas time to bulk up before the tree roots re-invade the territory you have liberated.

Dear Victory Garden

My son has raised a number of varieties of sunflowers from seed in a cold frame. We are wondering how tall the plants should be, or how many leaf sets they should have, before transplanting them to the garden. Thank you. — Carol, Stellacoom, Washington

Dear Carol,

In general, your plants should have several sets of mature leaves before setting them out in the garden. More important than leaves, however, is the transition from cold frame to garden. On warm afternoons you should raise the covers of the frames a little higher each day, so that your plants become accustomed to direct sunlight. Moving them directly from frame to garden could result in sun scald to the leaves. Also, be sure not to plant your sunflowers in the beds until all danger of frost has past.

Dear Victory Garden

I have three large peonies that were planted about three years ago. I would like to divide them. Any information regarding the correct time of year as well as any tips on procedure would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. — Lisa, East Patchogue, New York

Dear Lisa,

First, at three years your plants are still young, so consider waiting a few more years before dividing. In any case, divide your peonies in the fall, not the spring. An important tip: make sure when planting the new divisions that the crown (top of the roots) is at the same soil level as the original plant — in other words, don't plant too deeply.

Dear Victory Garden

I planted an area approximately 25' x 5' in front of my house with 'Stella D'Oro' daylilies about seven years ago. I've divided them twice and overall they are in great condition. Problem: Although they're pretty and bloom profusely in May and June, I don't like the foliage during the rest of summer and autumn and want to dig them up. Should I dig them up in autumn? Is there a certain way I should divide the huge clumps, and do I let them dry out? — Janet, Beavercreek

Dear Janet,

Old daylily foliage is not the prettiest of sights, most people will agree. Instead of removing the plants entirely, you might try leaving some in the back of the bed and planting the front with complementary sprawling plants such as catmint (Nepeta), Russian sage (Perovskia) or Geranium 'Rozanne'. This way, the daylily foliage will be partially masked; also, you can cut back the most unattractive of the leaves. Daylilies are unusual in that they may be divided and transplanted at almost any time during the growing season. Divide them by making clean slices through established clumps or by teasing individual crowns apart from one another. Do not let them dry out.

Dear Victory Garden

I have access to as much horse manure as I care to use and I have made several compost piles using only this "product." I am currently expanding my raised bed, 25 x 50-foot garden. Is it okay to put manure directly into the garden if I plan to use the garden next spring? I plan to till it during our mild winters. What advice can you give? — Jim, College Station, Texas

Dear Jim,

We don't bother to compost our stable waste at all. The actual horse manure is so mixed in with the wood shavings from the stall that the resulting product is already quite mild and doesn't seem to burn the plants. We add the manure mix directly into the garden in the late fall and early winter (even over the snow) as a mulch/top dressing over existing shrub and flower beds, and also as a soil enhancement in areas that are scheduled to be tilled. While some people might mind the mild smell of the manure mulch, most horse owners don't and, in any case, it dissipates within a few days. If you have chickens, you will find that they will break up the clumps and till the manure for you!

Note however that the key here is the fall or winter application. By spring the un-composted material needs to be pretty much broken down. Un-composted manure should never be placed directly on food crop areas while they are in growth, as you don't want to take the chance of spreading any contaminants into the kitchen, and the composting process actually temporarily removes nitrogen from the soil — exactly what you want to avoid during growth cycles! Thus, in your warm winters, I probably wouldn't apply horse manure to the garden much after October. That way you'll be guaranteed that your "product" will be ready for use when you need it! Of course, fully composted manure can be applied any time.

Dear Victory Garden

I have some white peonies and the stems and leaves look healthy, but the blooms do not bloom. They get about the size of a fifty cent piece, get rusty streaks on them, then die. There is a metal fence around them to keep them off the ground and the pests away. We have red ones planted beside them and they are fine. They have plenty of sunshine and have Miracle Grow put on them. I don't understand what the problem is. Thank you very much. — Kenneth, Big Stone Gap, Virginia

Dear Kenneth,

The problem you describe is probably "bud blast" which is caused either by frost damage or a fungal attack. Generally, if fungus is the issue, the problem lasts no more than a year or two and self-corrects. (If not, try treating the buds with a fungicide application early in the season.) You might also want to investigate whether or not your peonies are planted too deeply: when divided in the fall, the red "eyes" should only be an inch or so beneath the surface of the soil. You might also want to give your plants a fertilizer rich in potassium; wood ash (from the fireplace) is one good source. Often plants lacking in potassium mimic symptoms of other issues, like frost or wind damage.

Dear Victory Garden

My 3-year-old wisteria had only 11 blooms this year. Last year was the first time it produced blooms. Is there anything I can do to encourage production of more blooms or does this come with age? And is there an optimum time to trim the plant as it is a really aggressive grower?

I enjoy watching Victory Garden every week on WITF/Hershey, Pennsylvania. Thank you for an informative show. (Would like to see the dog and horse more often!) — Bern, Spring Grove, Pennsylvania

Dear Bern,

Wisterias are one of the most unpredictable plants in the gardener's palette. We have one here at the Victory Garden that bloomed once a decade ago, and hasn't bloomed since! Another one here on the property, which was planted at the same time, blooms faithfully each spring. I have heard of several supposed methods to get the plants to flower, including heavy pruning. We've tried them all and none has proven 100% effective. The fact of the matter is that wisterias bloom when they want to, generally 5 to 7 years after first planting. The best time to prune wisteria is just after it blooms (or in our case, is supposed to bloom.) Anything later than that will diminish next year's (potential) flowering.

Dear Victory Garden

How do I get rid of ivy? It's coming from my neighbor's yard over and under the fence. Also, I have to transplant some of my azaleas. What is the best way to do this in order for them to have a fighting chance of survival? — Hillary, Chesapeake, Virginia

Dear Hillary,

Get rid of ivy with a pair of pruning shears. Ivy is shallow-rooted and thus the vines are easily separated from the ground. Tug them out and cut them where they emerge from your neighbor's side of the fence. Repeat the process periodically, as necessary. Azaleas, like any shrub, are best transplanted when they are dormant, in late fall or early spring. Be sure to dig up as substantial a root ball as possible, and don't allow the roots to dry out while the shrub is adapting to its new site.

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Updated February 5, 2009