questions, anyone? (or, careful what you ask.)

questions, anyoneP EOPLE LIKE TO ASK ME QUESTIONS, GARDENING QUESTIONS. It’s been happening for a couple of decades, and lately, well, lately it’s getting worse (better?). More urgent, you might say, as in more urgent garden questions than ever. Take the recent case of April from Kansas, who found out about me from Marilyn from Kansas, who found out about me from…well, hmmm, where did she come from?

APRIL OF COAL CREEK FARM had this rooster, you see, and this 8-foot square of dirt beside her porch steps (left), and just needed a suggestion for one good shrub, the very right shrub, please Margaret, tell me what to plant there. Poor thing, I got her to dig up her whole front yard (and Walkin’ Charlie the rooster would have kept doing that for much less time and money). So be careful what you ask me for: Look how she ended up.

I AM A VETERAN answerer; my own sister, Marion, left (shown doing what she likes more than gardening), trained me well, in the bad old days when we didn’t talk much. Her “urgent garden questions,” left on my voicemail, were the bridge that she built to reunite us.

AND OF COURSE WHEN YOU LECTURE about gardening, which I have for years (and will next do this Sunday, July 26, at The Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts), you answer questions. When I was co-host of “Homegrown” on Sirius Satellite Radio for two years, I answered live questions twice a week for an hour or two at a time. And working for Martha, people figured I’d know everything, like Martha (after all, our names start with the same three letters, don’t they?).

YES, SO MANY QUESTIONS: There was a notable inquiry by email not long ago from Alicia in Portland (aka Posie Gets Cozy), who had (shall we say) a little “issue” with her potatoes. Things in her new garden had started off beautifully (left). Let Alicia tell you how it went (“how not to grow potatoes 101”), and meanwhile read a craft-and-beyond blog I never skip—hers—even though I don’t craft, exactly.

THERE WAS THAT QUESTION from Marilyn (left), or maybe Marilyn (the most amazing baker, as in: you need to cruise her blog for recipes, or for slightly unusual stories like one about her fear of pears) didn’t ask anything, but just gave me lots of recipes and tips and sent April over to do the questioning. I get dizzy sometimes.

shauna and bean
THEN SHAUNA FROM SEATTLE (yes, the wildly popular famous Gluten-Free Girl, mother to gardener-in-the-making Little Bean; that’s them in the photo by Clare Barboza) wrote to tell me she’s growing lovage, with its celery-like flavor, and sorrel, which got me thinking where in the world my own lovage and sorrel had got to. I don’t even recall Shauna’s question, exactly…was it maybe about the pickles she was making?, hmmm…but the answer on this end was that I bought a new lovage and some sorrel seeds.

AND THEN CAME ONE who didn’t ask an urgent garden question, exactly, but in whom I saw a kinship of a different kind altogether, and wrote about her. When I happened on the blog of Jennifer Rae Atkins, called The Daily Mammal, I found another woman who, like me, wants to be studied up and ready to answer as many of the natural world’s questions as she can. The proboscis monkey to the left, by Jennifer, is one that doesn’t live here in the garden and make trouble. I may live in a Cabinet of Curiosities, but Jennifer lives with a mission: To draw every one of the earth’s 5,000 or so mammals, one day at a time. And it’s not her job; she just does it. Wow.

WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN? It means I love the internet, where there is connective tissue among all of us (whether we know it, or one another, yet). I’m even hosting a contest aimed at expressing that…but that’s another story.

Urgent garden questions are always welcome in comments (we’re closing in on 7,000 there so far!), or on the Urgent Garden Question Forums (where I hope you will help one another to answer questions, based on your own insights from experiments in your own yards).

You can email me, of course, but between Marilyn and April (oh, and Paige; I almost forgot that Paige asked stuff, too) and Alicia and Shauna and yes, my sister, Marion…the inbox spilleth over.

And besides, questions received in emails stay private—meaning the answers aren’t shared and that seems a shame, since we gardeners all tend to have the same issues over and over and over again, don’t we? So ask away: Anybody else have an urgent garden question?

  1. april says:

    Every answer you give your sweet unsuspecting readers should be accompanied by a warning that one simple plant is not sufficient and there are the side effects; back ache, loss of fingernails, heat exhaustion, plant envy, garden tours and Latin lessons.

  2. Alicia P. says:

    Many years ago, my friend Jeanne-marie was in the stall of a bathroom after a movie. Two girls came in and started going to the bathroom in stalls on either side of her, continuing their conversation from outside the bathroom over JM’s head:

    “I like that guy, the guy from Say Anything? What’s his name, John Hughes?”
    “Yeah, John Hughes, I think that’s him.”
    “With the radio. I love him.” Etc., etc.

    And poor Jeanne-marie just had to sit there silently between them, sadly shaking her head and saying to herself, “John Cusack. It’s John CUSACK.”

    And see, this is sort of how I picture it must be for you, dear Margaret, as one of the People Who Know, except that you’re more, like, raising your hand above the stall wall, “Um, excuse me? I can help you, people!” And that is why we love you. Because you do. :-)

  3. Julie says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I garden in Monterey MA, and when I’m not there I’m pining in NYC–my query for the day:
    do you listen to music while gardening? I am finding I like to garden and sing (loudly), usually to wkze; and then later I want different (or no) music to contemplate my efforts/finally sit in the shade garden with a cool lemon-mint tea–
    how about you??

  4. Marilyn says:

    Margaret, we are all lucky to know you (and have you available for questioning.) What a wonderful web you weave! I’m not sure if you knew, but the plot thickens: I interviewed that charming girl above, Alicia, on my site back in August ’08. The blog world certainly works in mysterious ways. Thanks for this lovely post, and for inviting everyone into the garden.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Awww, I love it! And I was SO tempted to ask you gardening questions…and I don’t even garden! Not even a little. There’s just something about you, I guess!

  6. bluearrow says:

    Will Jack be at the Berk. Museum on Sunday?
    I would like to ask if he’d be interested in a Red Squirrel and Mole Cassoulet at Noon?
    The Goose

  7. Margaret says:

    Welcome, Julie. This garden was made to the sound of Al Green; 20-plus years ago I had cassettes (remember those?) and a boombox (ditto), and Al really helped get things moving.

    Sometimes when there are tours I put on chanting music (like Anonymous 4’s ‘Birth of Fire’) or solo cello from days gone by (Casals playing Bach suites) or maybe ‘The Prayer Cycle’ (various artists including Alanis Morissette) and point the various speakers out the windows. Otherwise, no, just me and the birds and the waterfalls.

    @Bluearrow: Jack the Demon Cat will stay home Sunday, and as you should know, he has no taste for mole these days.

    @Marilyn: Fantastic…the web reweaves itself. Love this.

    @Alicia: Bathroom humor, huh? :)

    @April: And you haven’t even gotten to our intermediate series of lessons, yet. Watch out.

    @Jennifer: See, you are the only one who’s not into monkey-business. Well, except drawing that proboscis monkey and the chimp and…

  8. LindaSonia says:

    I’m new here – saw you on Martha Stewart once and then forgot. Alicia P talked about you lately so here I am. I probably have a trillion questions but will have to narrow it down to the most urgent. It’s certainly always something.

    I’m vegetable gardening for the first time this season (whoopee, 3 tomato & 3 pickling cucumbers and 2 volunteers that appeared out of nowhere). I have already discovered some mistakes made. Does it matter that your veg plants don’t get sun all the way around. Would they mature faster if they did?? I’m in Michigan. Mine are planted next to my garage. Cucumbers are trained up a trellis. I think they get at least 6 hrs of sunlight (morning sun).

    Love your blog and will be taking time to wander through it.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, LindaSonia. Most vegetables want “full” sun, yes, particularly heat-loving “summer” crops like your cukes, tomatoes, etc., and morning sun is weaker than afternoon, typically. Are we talking 6 am to noon, or are they getting any duration of really strong sunlight? The trellis is a good idea, because often there’s more light up above than at ground level. We all run out of full-sun spots and try to cheat, but better to cheat your salad greens, for instance, that actually appreciate midday shade in the heat of summer, than your tomatoes or cukes.

  9. Janine says:

    Oh, Margaret, I was so hoping you’d offer to answer questions, although I see you do it every day. Mine is about my woodchuck Jeff, his common law wife Jennifer, and their offspring Jagger, and Jagger’s siblings that I haven’t met yet. How do I get them to move? It started with Jeff enjoying the occasional sunbath on my back porch, and now the family has run roughshod over the back garden and the little one has figured out how to scout the basement for future parties. The main burrow is under the porch/pergola so you can imagine I’m feeling a little stumped. Here’s my most recent post, and since I was initially so enchanted with them you might understand my disillusionment.
    Any thoughts on how to encourage them to find other digs (so to speak)?

  10. BJ says:

    Is there any reason to snap off the seed pods of Stella d’oro day lilies, or the seed heads on the rhododendron branches? Someone told me it helps the plants save energy so they’ll be even better next year. So I give a snap as I walk past, removing many but never all. Is it a waste of time? Barbara in CT

  11. Margaret says:

    @Janine: My own initial adventure with a woodchuck didn’t go so smoothly, either (like 23 years ago). In subsequent years, I am not nice about them, and they are sent away, dead or alive (in rural areas, nobody seems hesitant to lend a hand to eradicate “nuisance wildlife,” whether neighbors with a steady aim or the experts for $$$ from the Yellow Pages under pest control/wildlife (they are licensed to relocate them if you prefer the Witness Protection Program to the other tactic).

    There is no “asking” them to leave, there is removing them forcefully, period, and as soon each year as they are spotted. Really. This is a forever thing, at least a compulsory task each spring most years, so deciding on your method and employing your support crew (which could also be just buying a Havahart; for years I trapped with one myself and took them in my truck to wild areas, for instance).

    @BJ: Any plant prevented from setting seed will theoretically have more energy to put into other activities, but only to a point, and some recent studies (as with lilacs, I believe) show that it doesn’t make a ton of difference whether you do or don’t deadhead, except aesthetically.

    I think with the daylilies, yes to deadheading, because it looks unsightly to say the least otherwise, and because Stella blooms over a long season, so why not help her prolong and beautify?

    With the rhodies, if they are large, it would take all summer, and particularly with large-leaved evergreen types, they pretty quickly disguise all the ugliness themselves as new foliage opens. I’d do it if it is in a prominent spot and you hate what it looks like for a long spell, but there are probably more useful tasks to busy oneself with otherwise. And no matter what you do to deadhead, you aren’t getting another bloom the same spring (unlike with, say, some roses, where it’s worth the effort if there will be another show).

  12. georgie says:

    Two problems; Felicia the feral fennel is planted on my neighbor’s side of our common fence. Neighbor won’t move Felicia from the area, despite my request. Felicia’s children keep popping up all over my yard, walkway etc. The smell of fennel now repulses me. How can I get rid of the upstarts? Vinegar didn’t seem to work.
    Eugene the eucalyptus(really he and Felicia are the only plants named in the yard) is about 10 ft. tall and suffered poorly while I learned to use the pole pruner. I know a lot more about proper pruning now. He puts out new shoots about every two months which I try to keep manageable. Would it be better to chop Eugene down to 3 ft. tall and start over-he has a bundle of shoots coming in at that level. Or, should I just try and keep using the pole pruners and retrain the limbs? His trunk is approximately 18 in. in diameter. Thank you Margaret for any advice!

  13. joyce says:

    Have you ever heard of phlox that changes color? In the morning it is light indigo blue, but by evening it is hot pink. It is driving me crazy. I can’t get past it. I have plucked blossoms from it in the am and in the pm. When pressed, they are all the same color after an hour or so, so I can’t preserve what I am seeing. Oh, help.

  14. john james lichioveri says:

    hey margaret! had a question for you about what kind of shrubs, perennials and ground cover i could plant around our house in poconos. there is limited sun and lots of deer and the ground seems pretty rocky. we are taking the first week of august for vacation and i thought it would be a good time to do some gardening. hope to hear from or see you soon. John James

  15. Susan says:

    I have had urgent garden questions, as well as many others. Margaret you always seem to take the time to answer, THANK YOU.
    Your article on Jennifer Rae Atkins artwork is inspiring.

  16. Margaret says:

    Welcome, Georgie. Self-sowns such as the unwanted neighboring fennel don’t observe boundaries, so unless they deadhead each plant before it goes to seed (sounds unlikely) you will always be left with a weeding job, I think. I just hand-weed or lightly cultivate (with a hoe or claw) in beds where such seedlings occur here, as soon as the your volunteers appear and again a few times as more sprout. Dill, perilla, many poppies, nicotiana, etc. are among the self-sowns I have to weed out a few times per season.

    As for the eucalyptus, it can be managed as a shrubby thing and “coppiced” (cut down every few years to vafor young stems) or pollarded (cut as a certain height year after year to force sprouting above that height…which you may have seen with old fruit trees, for instance) or grown as a tall tree. Since the main trunk is already 18 inches, it would have been preferable to start one or the other tactic at a younger age, so I’d be inclined to start from the base now…not try to deal with combo of young shoots and an 18-inch trunk.

    I wanted to find you a good resource with some photos to look at, but all that’s really out there is from the Royal Hort in the UK, which may or may not help (but at least explains the two tactics more thoroughly). If you are in an area where temps get to freezing, don’t do this shortly before such times or new growth will be vulnerable to damage.

    Welcome, John. The combination of deer and rough conditions makes me think of my toughest go-to groundcovers, and especially the big-root geranium (it is spicy, sort of, and I haven’t really had deer very interested). You can read about it and some other toughies in this post. The hellebores are also deerproof; the epimediums probably, too (not sure about the Trachystemon, but wouldn’t be surprised if the left it alone). As for planting in August, remember that plants will need extra watering attention in hot times unless these constant rains continue (ugh!) so sometimes good to prep now and plant in fall. Nice to see you here.

    @Joyce: This is a common phenomenon on some Phlox flowers, yes, and actually other plants, too. Weather and the quality of light, especially, affect how flowers of certain colors look, and then of course as flowers age they do shift in color, too. Not just you, promise!

  17. sidney tynan says:

    Here in Little Compton RI the soil is heavy and acid. However a clump of Japanese Iris is lush and huge (and why wouldn’t it be – I think we are going to break the record tonight and when we accumulate 8 inches of rain for July) but I only had 1 blossom for the bunch. Would they like some lime? I had the pleasure of hearing you lecture in Barrington for Blithewold and was able to get your favorite geranium from Avant gardens. I do hope you will be in these parts again. I have signed up to hear the wonder tree man, Mr. Dirr who will be speaking at Blithewold. I certainly enjoy your letters. Sidney Tynan

  18. Margaret says:

    Welcome, Sidney. Nice to see you; loved the event at Blithewold, what a spot! Do not use lime on your Japanese iris; it would be harmful as they want acid conditions. They are hungry creatures, so a top-dressing of composted manure or other rich compost, and then regular feeding with a balanced organic fertilizer in early spring is called for, it sounds like. See you soon again.

  19. Barbara says:

    Re: un-inviting groundhogs and “music” to garden by… Early each summer, a groundhog tries to establish a foothold under our tool shed. I spend some time playing distressed groundhog recordings on my computer, speakers aimed out the windows. I found the recordings at http://www.hoghaven.com . Proof, no doubt, about the wackiness of gardeners. However, this method has worked every summer. The unwelcome ‘hog is gone by evening.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Barbara. So you click on “hear them” on that site and use those recordings? Wild. I wonder what my cat is going to think of this tactic. Oh, my. Thanks for a truly unusual strategy (but I will keep the traps handy, I think, just in case). See you soon again.

  20. chris says:

    question, please…my broc rabe and arugula are going to seed, pretty yellow flowers. what should i do? cut off the flowers? eat them? in the case of the rabe, should i have picked them earlier?

    1. Margaret says:

      These are both more cool-season crops (and I growth both under shade netting to keep them slightly cooler and lasting longer). Once they flower, pull them…I find that alongside the stem of the arugula there are still usable leaves, usually, that I pick off for salad, but then I sow a fresh supply. With the raab (or rabe) You can chops up and eat the whole thing, but yes, all of the above should have been harvested gradually when more tender and younger, before flowering. Good to plant small amounts of each crop spaced two weeks apart for a continuous supply (weather permitting, since as I say high summer heat isn’t too friendly to these).

  21. Barbara says:

    I am in the market for a new edging tool. I currently use one with a fixed blade in a half moon shape attached to a long wooded handle. What do you and your readers recommend?
    A new, sharper half moon?
    A rolling model with a circular blade?
    Or a gasoline or electric powered edger ?
    Does anyone have a particular brand/ model that they like?
    I should add that I am in my late 50’s, not particularly buff, and garden on about a half-acre lot. I also, however, have an aversion to noisy, scary power tools…

  22. Marilyn says:

    Margaret: I have a question. Why are Shauna (Gluten-Free Girl, above) and her baby so adorable? Technically, is it possible to be that cute?

  23. chris says:

    @M, thanks for advice…the arugula leaves are still good for the salad bowl…now an aside, just inspected the results of using horticultural vinegar (20%) as a herbicide…dynamite!…don’t waste time with table vinegar (5%)

  24. Margaret says:

    @Barbara: Here’s my take on edging, and the tool I use. I worry every week that it will finally give out, as I cannot locate anything nearly as wonderful out there (as you will see in the string of comments).

    @Marilyn: I am not sure how; the post Shauna published this week for Little Bean’s first birthday almost did me in (much crying that morning at my breakfast table when I saw/read it). That’s some family.

  25. SusanCC says:

    Oh yes please, I have a question. I grew potatoes for the first time this year, I have raised beds with a mix of dirt and compost, really lovely dark and rich. I grew all-blue and swedish fingerlings. The plants grew wonderful and I hilled them but the leaves started to turn yellow and spotty, then they grew new healthy leaves later. When I dig up the potatoes they are a great size but the skin is crackled and thick and has warty bumps. I read that the thickened skin might be from the pH of the soil, is this true? And what is causing the bumps? Is there anything I can do?
    Thank you, thank you!

    1. Margaret says:

      @Susan CC: Oh, my, with the Solanaceous crops (including your potatoes, tomatoes, etc.), there are so many possible issues, and particularly in damp years. Some are hard to tell apart without a pathologist’s eye.

      I don’t know where you live (and some issues can be regionally or weather or soil based), but do they look like this photo (from nematodes)? If it’s scab, it would look more like this. Or there is silver scurf, which looks like this.

      What I like to do is use the diagnostic tool from my state’s cooperative extension service (which is Cornell here) and look through for visual clues. Here’s the Cornell one on potatoes as a start. Scroll down the page halfway and after that you will find several sets of comparative images, which may help.

      Sorry not to know for certain, but this will start you along the track (and your local extension may know if there is a particular issue locally this year, as we are having here in the Northeast because of heavy rains bringing more fungal diseases).

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