lawn fertilizer, overgrown vegetable gardens, late transplanting, urban balconies: q&a with ken druse

THOUGH MANY OF YOU may share my disbelief at the fact that it’s already well into November, that hasn’t slowed the pace of your Urgent Garden Questions on Facebook and in the comments on this website. No matter the month, we gardeners apparently still have plants on our minds, and readers asked about topics from which lawn fertilizer to use, to how to tackle an overgrown vegetable garden at cleanup time, or how late is too late to transplant, or the basics of getting started with an urban balcony or rooftop garden.

Helping me answer, as he does each month, is my friend and longtime garden writer and photographer, Ken Druse of Ken Druse dot com, author of “The New Shade Garden” and “Making More Plants” and many other favorite garden books.

Read along as you listen to the Nov. 13, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). If you have a question for a future show, post it in comments on this website, or on Ken’s website, or use our contact forms to email us, or ask us at Facebook.com/awaytogarden.

the november q&a with ken druse


Q. We’re at mid-November. How much frost have you had, and what zone are you again? Are you a 7 or a 6B or, what are you?

Ken. I’m 6A—and today was the first frost.

Q. 6A? Really? So today, we should tell people we’re taping on, is it the ninth of November?

Ken. Yes, it is. [Above, Ken’s garden the day before his first frost of 2017.]

Q. I had one 10 days ago, and now I’ve had three since, and tomorrow night, the 10th of November, is forecast for 14°F. Oh, O.K. [Laughter.]

Anyway, yes, so sort of the extra-warm fall, I don’t know about you, but it sort of had me—it was summery, and it had me complacent, so I guess …

Ken. It’s so confusing.

Q. Yes, so I’ll kind of be out there now this next weekend in my long-johns and woollies and mittens, right, doing the cleanup.

what fertilizer for the lawn?

Q. Shall we dive right into the thick of it and resolve what’s both a garden issue and a marital dispute? How do you feel about that? [Laughter.] [Garden doodles above below by Andre Jordan.]

Ken. Again?

Q. Again, we have another marital dispute. [Laughter.]

Ken. You know what I say: you can’t have a democracy with two people.

Q. There you go. And you know what? One of the ha-ha horticulture jokes is about gardening with your spouse. They say that you need separate beds.

Ken. Absolutely. [Laughter.]

Q. Absolutely.

doodle by andre jordanKen. [Laughter.] The problem with that is that you can’t compromise with two people, either.

Q. So Anne on Facebook wrote in to say, “My husband and I keep arguing. I say I want to use an organic lawn fertilizer, he says any Nitrogen source is fine.” She’s a bit about making “a safe place for birds and bees and bugs and whatnot.” She doesn’t want to use petroleum-based fertilizers, she says those are a no go. She wants to know what we think. This is an easy one. No trick question here for us, right Ken?

Ken. So that’s for fall?

Q. Well, I think she wants to know at any time, but I think they’re a little farther south and they’re doing a fall lawn feed.

Ken. I’ve never fertilized my lawn. [Laughter.] Ever.

Q. And I think I do it like once every five years at the most.

Ken. I do topdress with compost, especially you know because we both have garden tours from time to time, and if there’s a place that is worn away or gotten trodden, I’ll sprinkle like a half pinch of compost and that’s all I do.

Do you think that I hear fall feeding is the best thing, and I hear fall feeding isn’t necessary. What’s your take on that?

Q. For me, I am like “Why fertilize the lawn?” unless what you just said: Is it looking weak, is there a problem? If it’s growing good and strong and I’m having to mow as I did every week this year when I had to mow twice week, like every three or four days. I don’t think it needs any Nitrogen to help it grow more. Whoa.

Ken. No. You’d have to mow even more!

Q. Exactly, so why make for more mowing? If the lawn is looking weak and thin, I think you’re right, the compost, and maybe you use some supplemental fertilizer. I would use an all-natural organic fertilizer, however. And overseed—scratch around and overseed.

I’m more of a “let my clippings lie on the lawn” person. When I mow, I don’t cut off too much, and I let my clippings lie, which kind of feeds the lawn. I even use the mulching mower, on a light covering of leaves, and crumble those up into the lawn.

Ken. Absolutely.

Q. So I’m feeding the lawn the way nature does, do you think? Sounds like we both do that.

Ken. Yes, except that nature doesn’t trim itself to 2 inches.

Q. [Laugther.] No, no, no. But decomposing stuff is the only fertilizer that nature provides, right?

Ken. And I also as you’re saying this, I’m thinking about runoff. If there’s too much Nitrogen or if there’s a heavy rain after you put something down, especially a chemical, there’s so many problems with run off and waterways and everything, that I’m with you. Let’s leave it be.

Q. So I think we can tell Anne that both of us are organic gardeners. Even if there was some kind of belief that it was equally safe, which I don’t think it is, I don’t want to give my money to the cause of upstream pollution. I don’t want to give my dollars to that kind of company and that kind of industry necessarily.

So I’d rather use as you said, compost. If I really needed fertilizer, I want it to be from an all-natural organic source—the byproduct, the waste material of some other industry, that type of thing. O.K., so Anne, we’re voting with you. [Laughter.] Marital dispute resolved.

how late is too late for transplanting?

Q. Lauren wrote in an email to me saying that she’s in Zone 5B, similar to where I am in New York State. It’s sort of a “when is too late?” question. At the beginning of November she asked is it too late to move perennials around in her beds? She still needs to rearrange a few things and as you and I spoke about it, it been kind of warm and a little deceptive.  I suspect you, as I have, have been caught with a bag of bulbs that hasn’t been planted and you’ve been using a pickaxe to get through the ice.

Ken. No.

Q. [Laughter.] Frozen soil. No?

Ken. Oh my gosh, this is what I did all weekend last week.

Q. But when the soil’s already frozen, like December-something.

Ken. Oh, in January.

Q. You know, you forget that you have this bag of bulbs [but you plant them anyhow, extra-late].

Ken. They come up.

Q. Yes, I know they do. But for moving perennials around, what would your normal cutoff date be—how would you figure that out relative to final frost?

Ken. When it’s too cold, for you, as human, I would say. I think a lot of things can be moved and they’re fine, but the issue with moving plants too late, might be for me frost heaves.

Q. Exactly.

Ken. So, if I move something I want to be sure to mulch it with a light mulch like pine branches, something to shade the ground just so it doesn’t freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw if we don’t a nice snow cover, because that can push a newly planted perennial right out of the ground. But if it’s a hardy perennial and it’s dormant, I think you can move it. I wouldn’t divide a whole lot of stuff right now.

Q. Into tiny pieces, right?

Ken. And certainly if you have a deciduous tree, now is a perfect time to plant.

Q. Right, I think that practically as long as the ground can be worked, we move woody things, most woody things. And I’m with you, and certain perennials—for instance, with heucheras, for instance, they don’t have much of a big root system and I’ll be a little hesitant [to transplant them late]. They’re going to come flying out of the ground. They do some years, anyway, even an older plant. Whereas something with a big, dense root system won’t as easily, or a big piece of something that’s going to keep itself in the ground a little better.

Normally I have frost in early October, but this year was Halloween night, so the first night between the end of October and beginning of November, and that was kind of late. But normally I finish moving herbaceous things around October 15th, when I will have had some light frost typically but not freezes in the ground.

I told Lauren when she asked, that she was right at the edge of it. [Laughter.]  Sounds like you and I agree on that too.

Asian earthworm in genus Amynthasmore to come on ‘crazy worms’

Q. I wanted to say to everybody that two questions have come up multiple times this month, like three, four, five, six times. A lot people have been asking about crazy worms, those Asian jumping worms …

Ken. Ow!

Q. Oh no, there you go. …After our discussion a couple of months ago on the show. And we’re not going to talk about it again today but I want everyone to know that you and I are both very, very alarmed/concerned about this subject. And it’s my most Urgent Garden Question, and probably yours, too. I don’t know what to do as I see the advance of these soil-destroying worms.

I’m trying to get the right experts on the show in subsequent months to come talk about it with some authority, some people who are researching it. So I just wanted to tell all the people who shared their Urgent Garden Questions about that, that it’s something we’ll get to again.

Ken. I lectured in New Haven this week and that was one of the questions. People are surprised and horrified.

Q. Yes.

Ken. What do think about going into the mole business? Like breeding moles to share. Maybe another get-rich-slow scheme.

Q. [Laughter.] There you go, you’re just full of those you know?

Ken. A million of them, I’ve got a million.

late-start vegetable garden cleanup

(and smothering weeds with cardboard)

Q. The other most popular question over and over and over again, this early November, and from people in all different zones: apparently a lot of people’s vegetable gardens got away from them this year. Here’s a sampling; see if you detect a common thread here [laughter]:

Anne-Marie on Facebook says, “What’s the best way to re-start an overgrown vegetable garden? I let mine grow this summer, and now have 6-foot weeds to deal with. And it’s a very large garden.”

And like two seconds later on Facebook, Julie chimed in, “Me too. It’s overwhelming.”

And Hanni said, on Facebook also, “I have two little kids and have not had time to clean out my vegetable garden.” And: “Yes, Margaret, there are rotting tomatoes still out there,” she confessed. She says she knows that she’s “already committed a big no-no by not cleaning up,” but wants to know how to minimize potential disease due to her “neglect.” And so on. Really, there were many of them.

So what do you think about vegetable-garden cleanup? And I guess we should say, best practices and what to do with these overgrown disasters. I don’t know where you want to start.

Ken. Well, you are the expert, of course.

Q. Oh, sure. [Laughter.]

Ken. But I would generally say to rake up the juicy parts, like tomatoes and things. Cart them off to the compost. I think if it’s like vines or remnants of vines, you can just leave them, I don’t think that’s a big deal and it’s kind of a mulch in a way. And maybe it’ll provide cover for some animals or something. I don’t think it’s a big deal, if you don’t have disease, for example, if you were in good shape.

But you started off by saying “the weeds got away from me.” So that’s kind of a different thing in a way.

Q. I agree. It’s not just some faded green bean, some bush bean plant or something. It’s weeds, which means what, probably, seeds are setting or been set and are going to distribute and I’m going to have 50 more weeds. So what do we do? Let’s talk about the worst-case scenario where it’s overgrown—what are the ways that that can be tackled, 6-foot weeds or however many feet tall? You can cut them all down.

Ken. Yes, cut them all down. And when we start a garden, we start a bed, or want to kill the lawn or things like that, it’s a version of solarizing, I guess. That’s not really what it is.

Q. Right: smothering.

Ken. But I used to put down layers of cardboard. Now, with Amazon and everything, you get cardboard boxes, so many you can’t get rid of them. Take off the tape and take out the staples and lay it flat—lay the cardboard flat on the ground in one layer and cover that. First, moisten it completely, and then cover it with either a mulch or even better, a couple of inches of your beautiful, wonderful, seed-free compost.

And if you need to, you can punch a hole in that and plant right away. Or better, let it go through the winter and then turn it over, turn it under in the spring if that’s what you do.

Q. So one thing that Anne-Marie or Hanni could do would be cut the stuff down but smother the remaining roots of the plant, the stems and roots of the plants, with a cardboard, that we then moistened and then a mulch on top, some of kind of material or mulch.

Ken. Or four layers of newspaper, I do that too. But you have to then cover it completely, even the corners because if you don’t, it sucks the moisture out of the cardboard and it won’t decompose. Because over the winter, that cardboard, it’ll be gone in the spring pretty much.

Q. So there’s that. And I have to say, even if it’s a big garden, like I went out a couple of weeks ago and I cleaned out all my vegetable beds. And I had been looking at it, and looking at it and looking at it and thinking, “Oh god, oh god.” Because it looks like a big deal because vegetable plants, by their nature, a lot of the things that grow like squash vines and …

Ken. Gourds. [Laughter.]

Q. … gourds and pole beans. It’s like 10 feet tall and 10 feet long and whatever. And it looks like a lot. But when you go to pull up a squash vine, it literally—you get the whole thing at once.  Have your wheelbarrow, or your tarp—better you have a tarp—and I just kind of went through like 20 miles, 50 miles an hour, whatever, bing bing bing bing, throwing it all into a tarp and just dragged the tarp over the heap.

It literally becomes quicker than you think. I think because you’re not trying to edit around all your precious perennials in a bed where some weed has infested and you’re picking one weed at a time. It’s like a wholesale eradication of either spent plants or weeds.

If one can stomach it, if can muster the strength, I’d pull them out by the roots and then put that weed-suppressing stuff, that layer down, because I bet there’s a lot of seeds that are going to come up next year.

Ken. I don’t know how much they’ve been really kill in the soil as far as weeds seeds, but you certainly going to suppress quite a few.

Q. Right, give them dark.

The plants that I would be careful about—Hanni asks about minimizing potential disease due to her neglect. The ones that I’m careful with, depending on where you live, in the Northeast, one of the problems we have there are certain kinds of pests that frequent in vegetable gardens that due over winter. And they love to be sort of near the source of their favorite food, so some of our squash pests and also some of the Brassica pests, the broccoli and cauliflower and all that kind of stuff. Some of those, I like to be scrupulous with those two kinds of crops and remove all that debris to a distance. As far away as I can so that it’s not just sitting there waiting for those critters to have a field day and wake up early in the spring and say “Oh, look, there’s delicious food here for us!” [Laughter.]

I target certain things that I make sure I do carefully. And like you said, all the squishy wet stuff and whatever.

Ken. Do you rotate tomatoes and things like that for wilt?

Q. In a small, relatively small …I don’t know how many raised beds, 15 raised beds or something like that, it’s really hard to do that. It’s really, really hard to do that. I do a certain amount of rotation. I don’t literally plant the tomatoes every year in the same place, in the same bed or the onions or garlic every year in the same bed. But I can’t do like a three-year rotation, you know what I mean? I don’t have enough beds for that.

I think that’s what we would recommend to them, is to do the best they can this year, maybe do some smothering as well.

urban rooftop and balcony gardens

Q. One of the questions that came up surprised me because we haven’t had it before but it’s something that reminded of you, Ken, was about sort of urban gardening. It was from Marissa on Facebook, and she says she is making a balcony garden, in Manhattan—so like a terrace. And she’d love to grow some food and she’d love to attract some birds. So it’s not a whole roof; I think one of your first gardens or your first garden was a rooftop?

Ken. Yes.

Q. Where was it?

Ken. In Manhattan, in the SoHo in New York. It was one of my first gardens, wasn’t really a garden on an 8,000-square-foot, 80 by 100 roof. But I didn’t garden on the whole thing. I gardened in containers and it’s kind of hard, but you don’t have the problem with soil diseases because you don’t have any soil. Or you shouldn’t, anyway.

That’s a big topic but as far as growing food on a rooftop, providing this person has gotten approval from the landlord, and checked her insurance, and she knows where the roof drains are, but …

Q. And that’s super-important. And hers is a terrace or a balcony. But it’s super-important, Step 1, find out the rules from your building and make sure you’re following their guidelines.

Ken. Right, the weight and everything. And then you want to know about the sun, the shade and the wind. I started to say about the roof drain because you have to have drainage. You don’t want to put the containers directly on the surface of the balcony because you might damage it, or things will get all gross.

When I had my containers, I elevated them on bricks or you can even get 2-by-4’s, you just make a grid and put your containers on it. You want to have air circulation under them, you want the water to run under them—like pot feet. You have to have a moisture source, a source for water because you can’t be schlepping it out there every day in August; you do have to water sometimes every day.

I know I’m making this person think it’s not worth it.

Q. Speaking of that, I would really recommend that anyone that was going to do container gardening, especially in an exposed place like a terrace or a rooftop in an urban setting with lots of concrete and heat and whatever, use fewer, larger containers maybe? Not super-heavy so they’re a million tons, but do you know what I mean? Not like 8-inch pots that are going to have to be watered every 12 minutes in the sun.

Ken. Oh, absolutely. But a lot of things do really well. If you have the sun, and if have a little protection from wind, you can grow tomatoes. I certainly say grow some of those determinate dwarf-y tomatoes, and I always started peas in March on my rooftop in SoHo. And I had snap peas and if I didn’t harvest fast enough, I gave them to the dog, who loved them.

Q. [Laughter.]

Ken. I had some very good luck with raspberries.

Q. Oh, that’s funny.

Ken. About one of the best things was cane fruits. I had the everbearing kind, like ‘All Gold.’ I tried everything, but some hardy things will go away and come back and then you can do some temporary things, too, some annuals.

Q. Herbs would be good I would think on a balcony because it’s something that’s expensive to buy yet you can really spice up your cooking literally with it. As opposed to just paying $2.50 or $3 for a bunch of this and $3 for a bunch of that, you can have a big container with multiple herbs to cut from. That would be a good one. It’ll be beautiful.

Ken. I guess in a way it depends on the herb of course, because if you want to grow basil in a pot or in a container, for pesto, you’d be surprised how fast you run out of it and it all happens at once you know. You can snip rosemary but that’s not necessarily going to come back; you just need a little bit. With basil, you harvest it and it has to be harvested before it blooms and there you have all your basil is kind of gone and it took up a lot of space.

I don’t know. Maybe the herbs have to be planted in among some other things just so …

Q. Well, around the tomato for instance, if you have a tub with a tomato in it, you could have—what are they called, the small leaf, the little bush basil with the fine leaf that’s sort of a mini-basil? Anyway, it almost like a topiary; it stays small. You can put that around its feet, around the tomato’s feet, or you can have parsley hanging over the edge of that whole tub, and that would be great.

There are some classes. She [the reader] is in Manhattan, and this is at the New York Botanical Garden on the Bronx, but Annie Novak who wrote that great book about rooftop growing not long ago, she teaches I think there. I think she works there. So at NYBG dot org,Marissa could find out about some of her classes. And again, she’s more like rooftop and urban farming, but the principles that you’re talking about, about evaluating your site, the wind conditions, the light, the weight bearing, the drainage, not having stuff directly on the ground, on the surface, elevated. That’s the same principles, right?

Ken. Yes, that sounds like a really good idea. You do learn by doing, but this could be quite a process, so you might as well cut off the first five years by taking a course.

Q. And of course, there are places in New York city and elsewhere that specialize in this type of gardening. You could do a web search to find out some of those. But if you’re going to DIY, I think the first step is definitely you got to find out from your building what’s permitted, the size of the pots that are permitted, etc., etc. That’s really important.

Ken. And don’t grow things that nobody wants. [Laughter.] If your family won’t eat okra, don’t grow okra. And I know people grow corn in containers but corn’s wind-pollinated. Or don’t buy something that’s incredibly readily available right down on the ground at the grocers.

Q. Right, like zucchini. Well, we managed to squander an entire program again, of course.

Ken. As usual.

Q. And bore everyone to tears–no actually, I hope it helped. So Ken, are you going to go out and do more cleanup?

Ken. Before the next frost.

Q. Exactly. Go do some cleanup. And then get it in your car and drive up and help me. [Laughter.] I’ll make hot cocoa.

Ken. No, do you have oak leaves? I’ll do it for oak leaves.

Q. O.K., he will work for oak leaves. That’s Ken Druse.

Ken. I work for oak leaves, preferably shredded.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 13, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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  1. Alissa says:

    Thank you for continuing the discussion on the jumping worms! I’m all ears for your next installment on the topic. And best of luck with the mole training programme. ????

  2. Heather says:

    I’m so glad to hear you are working on the jumping worms! I’ve spotted them in several wooded areas in the Berkshires and I don’t know how to manage them in my garden or what to plant that will be more tolerant of the soil changes they cause. On a positive note, we found a northern red belly snake in the yard for the first time this fall. Apparently they feed on slugs and earthworms. Hurray! Hoping for more in the spring. I have plenty of moles and they aren’t keeping up.

    1. essell says:

      best of all for the compost! when a lad in the garden in socal, thalassa crusoe always waxed on about oak leaf mould as the holy grail of soil amendments. loved all her books… the julia child of gardeners…miss her

  3. Dolores says:

    I read somewhere that we should cut roses back to 6-8 “.
    Do you agree with that? If so, does that include climbing roses also?

  4. Tibs says:

    I think I posted on earlier talk on the jumping worms. A friend said her ducks love them. They are too big for her chickens. So get ducks!

  5. Tracy says:

    Ken! I have half a dozen 100 foot oaks. I’m up to my knees in leaves. And I have TONS of cleanup still to do. I’m an hour south of Margaret. All you can carry. I’ll even shred ‘em. Hurry!

  6. Wendy Butler Burt says:

    I’m extremely curious about Ken Druze’s comment about oak leaves. Each Fall I collect many, many, many bags of leaves for my garden and my only request to my “contributors” is that they not include any leaves from Black Walnut trees. But, until I listened to your latest podcast, I was not aware of differences in the desirability of different deciduous trees. What gives?

    1. margaret says:

      The texture of oak leaves means they are more dry than, say, maple leaves and then get nice and crumbly when they decompose into leaf mold mulch (as opposed to being all soggy and matted together). So a lot of gardeners (including Ken) like them for making mulch and also compost.

  7. Melissa says:

    When you were responding to questions on cleaning up vegetable gardens, you talked about the need to remove the vegetables from the garden to prevent pests settling in. What do you think about trench composting? Could you take the overgrown garden and dig it under to allow the vegetation to decompose?

  8. CIndy Donahey says:

    I was around people who value leaves from fruit trees. They liked leaves from sugar maples. They bought or sold cleaned chopped etc leaves and pine needles, sometimes by the ounce. I helped someone stain pine needles with homemade black walnut stain. And collect decayed wood and sieve it. These were going to be used at a houseplant exhibition at the local historical society. One had shallow moving outhouses with layers of different leaves underneath with a tar paper base. There were three seats. The one on the far end was used first. His family had it carted off. Some had been high end servants. Some still had clients, who were dying off. Some had been subsistence livers.

  9. Sally says:

    What’s special about oak leaves? I’ve got a ton of them(well, this year 1/2 a ton, the gypsy moth caterpillars got the other 1/2).

  10. Rose says:

    Basil when harvested regularly and properly can last until frost kills it in the fall. The more you cut, the more you get with each harvest. Cutting deeply, a third or sometimes up to a half-way into the plant, prevents blooming and produces lots more leaves. Every cut creates two new branches.

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