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When it's too hot to garden, plan your plot

The summer doldrums have struck. Your flowers are showing effects of the heat, and unless you’ve been able to water regularly, they may also look a bit piqued. It’s just too hot to spend much time in the garden. And besides, it’s summer, so if you’re going to be outdoors, at least head to the lake, the pool or the mountains. 
 
Keep cool inside and take some time to read the latest gardening books, especially those that may challenge your knowledge and provide great ideas for later this year or even for next year’s garden.

Some of the newest titles from Quarto Publishing Group can easily entice you to try new gardening techniques. Most are full-color, soft-cover books filled with projects, tips and new ways of approaching gardening. Here are some of the latest offerings from Quarto, available on the company’s website, www.quartoknow.com, Amazon, or at major book retailers.
 
DIY Hydroponic Gardens, Tyler Baras. Learn how to grow plants in water with tips, plans for systems and recipes for the nutrient solutions to support the plants. The book includes plant-by-plant details for growing vegetables in soilless systems. 
 
Practical Organic Gardening, Mark Highland. Especially if you live and garden near Lake Lanier, organic gardening can help reduce contamination of the water sources while growing high-quality food. Avoid fertilizers, insecticides and man-made pollutants by learning about true organic and natural gardening. 
 
Gardener’s Guide to Compact Plants, Jessica Walliser. Do you have limited space for gardening? Check out this guide to the latest in compact plants and how to use them in your landscape. From column-shaped trees and dwarf shrubs to mini vegetables and shorter perennials, you can create a big impact in your landscape. 
 
Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening, Matt Mattus. Explore this hard-cover book that offers insight into multiple varieties of popular edibles, from artichokes and parsley to asparagus and potatoes. Think about trying some cool-season crops with tips in this book, such as lettuces, brussels sprouts and cabbages. 
 
No-Waste Kitchen Gardening, Katie Elzer-Peters. Did you know that you can regrow celery, green onions and lettuce from the base of the plants you’d ordinarily throw away? You can also harvest seeds from vegetables for the next season. Learn how with this easy to read book and stretch your food budget while becoming an innovative gardener. 
 
Vertical Vegetables, Amy Andrychowicz. Grow more vegetables in less space with information in this book that teaches you how to build functioning trellises, construct wall-hanging gardens or other upcycled everyday objects. In addition to the how-to, the book provides lists of the best plants to grow vertically. 
 
Vegetables Love Flowers, Lisa Mason Ziegler. Companion plantings of flowers and vegetables can create healthier growing conditions by encouraging pollinators and deterring common garden insects. But this book also tells you how to grow the best garden in your climate and which plants to pair for optimal results. 
 
Any of these books can help you beat the heat while cultivating your green thumb in the air-conditioned comfort of home. And they’ll inspire you to stretch your gardening skills and have garden-fresh produce all year long.
 
 
 

Pamela A. Keene is our senior staff writer and a Hall County Master Gardener.








July 2019 column

Hinder weeds, conserve water with mulch in your landscape

Several days of dry weather and high temperatures followed by several days of steady rain can wreak havoc on your landscape. Have you tried mulch? Mulch can work wonders to help hold in moisture and reduce the need to water frequently. A thick layer of mulch can also smother weeds and retard their growth. 

When the weather stays dry for more than four or five days, the ground gets hard and loses its ability to absorb water, either from human watering or rain. You’ll notice that you’ll get runoff pretty quickly when you water. 
 
Installing about three inches of mulch around plants, shrubs and trees will help hold the water where you put it. Experts recommend that you mulch any bare spots around your yard, covering exposed clay or dirt. Mulch will help control erosion and water runoff. 
 
Mulching your vegetable garden is helpful as well. We plant our tomato, okra and pepper seedlings in compost-rich soil, then fertilize and water. Next we spread one to two layers of newspaper across the exposed areas of the beds and use about one inch of mulch to hold the paper down. 
 
This year, our tomatoes are already more than six feet high and have outgrown our large circular wire cages. This newspaper and mulch technique has also helped hold tomato diseases at bay including the dreaded fusiliam. Using mulch to hold water in the soil helps reduce the chance of blossom end rot, because the plants stay evenly moist. Plus, we don’t need to pull weeds. 
 
Mulch materials vary from pine needles to shredded rubber tires. My preference is natural materials, particularly chipped wood or shredded cypress. Pine straw typically doesn’t last very long. Pine bark, while it looks pretty, doesn’t stay in place very well. 
 
As for colored mulches and those made from rubber, I suggest staying away from these. Colored mulches fade and they don’t look natural. Mulch made of old tires, while it encourages recycling and repurposing in the truest sense, can hold excess heat and may not be safe for plants. Approach mulching your landscape as an ongoing gardening project. Do a bit at a time and it won’t be overwhelming. 
 
Here are some tips for proper mulching: 
 
Know the source: Be sure to use “clean” mulch that doesn’t include insects, weed seeds, chemicals or dirt. Mulch from unknown sources can do damage to your lawn and plants. Purchase larger quantities of bagged mulch when it goes on special at local box retailers. Mulch will not deteriorate in the bags if it’s stored in a covered area away from rain, so you can save unused bags until you need them. 
 
Check with local tree services to see if they are willing to dump their chipped trees and branches in an accessible place in your yard. It may save them the expense of dumping excess chipped wood in the landfill, and you’ll get good quality mulch for free. 
 
Annuals and perennials can be mulched right up to their stems; however when mulching shrubs and trees leave several inches of bare ground, based on the size of the plants, between the trunks and the start of the mulch.
 
Keep mulch at least six to eight inches away from the foundation of your home to protect from inadvertent encroachment of insects and termites. Your termite company should check to ensure that you’ve provided this space with their annual inspection.
 

June 2019 column

Painted Lady: Rose Lane gets a facelift

The biggest question about having our house painted turned out to be really simple. My husband Rick said he’d do it, but I convinced him that hiring a professional would save time and an immense amount of wear and tear on Rick and his ladders. 
 
After chatting with friends and putting the word out on Next Door, a crowd-sourced localized website, I called three contractors based on recommendations. That’s about right for a home improvement project. 
 
Rick and I agreed that price was a secondary consideration to having a good fit with the contractor. Turns out that the “survival of the fittest” approach helped make our decision for us. The first contractor we called took two days to even return my phone call. Then his subcontractor showed up late and seemed rather disinterested in spending time to assess the job. I had to call three times afterward to get a written estimate.
 
The second contractor, recommended by a friend in my former subdivision, called back promptly, set up a time for the free estimate a few days later and even showed up a little early. Already a great sign as far as I was concerned.
 
The third contractor took three days to return my call, set up a time several days later, then called at the last minute to ask for a postponement until two days later. He said he had worked all day and the traffic was too bad for him to show up that day. 
 
Mickey Mitchell of Red Letter Painting, www.redletterpainting.com, who sent his estimate when he said he would, got the job, not just because he was the only contractor who responded. From the minute he stepped on our property I knew, even without reviewing his estimate, that I wanted to hire his company. 
 
His promptness was just part of the reason. He explained his process, from pressure washing not only the siding but also the patio and decks to removing the downspouts of our gutters to explaining that his crew would be draping landscape plants next to the house to avoid any damage from ladders.

Mickey’s estimate arrived by email when he said it would and it included details of services to be provided. After we agreed with the cost, he kept in touch with us by text and phone about when he scheduled the job. 
 
He told us he’d arrive on a Monday around 8 a.m. and actually got here around 7:30 to start prepping, clearing our decks and patio of furniture and thoroughly pressure washing over the next couple of days. 
 
As the job progressed, they caulked, cleaned the gutters, removed the downspouts to be painted, then either removed or taped over exterior light fixtures and doorknobs. Windows were covered with thin plastic to protect from overspray as they painted our Masonite siding with a brand-new color. 
 
We added haint blue, a southern tradition to protect a home from evil spirits, on the ceiling of our front porch and rear deck. It also helps give a cooler look in the summer. 
 
Trim was next so the covers came off the windows and doors. The brushes came out as several crew members set to work. Then they replaced the gutters and light fixtures, and I though the job was complete. 
 
Wrong. Mickey and his crew put back all the furniture and even washed the outside of our nearly 30 windows. I’ve never known of a contractor who really cared about his work as much as Mickey and Red Letter Painting. 
 
So, in a nutshell, here’s what I suggest if you’re thinking about hiring a home-improvement contractor. Get recommendations from friends, not just names and phone numbers, but actual comments about the contractors you’ll be contacting. 
 
Decide exactly what you want done and provide the details on the initial site visit. Ask plenty of questions about how they work, their typical number of hours a day and what days a week they work. Some contractors work longer days and take off Fridays, for instance.
 
Examine your written estimate to make sure that all the areas you’ve discussed are listed. You don’t need line-item estimates, but it is a good idea to cover any details that may be beyond a contractor’s typical scope of work. Set a timetable for the work, allowing for rainy days or other unavoidable delays. 
 
Sign the estimate to assure that both you and the contractor have a written agreement. If you have changes during the work, make sure that you and the contractor have an understanding of any additional costs. 
 
Painting your house is a major expense and should be treated like a business transaction. Some contractors may ask for a deposit up front; others do not. Whatever you do, don’t pay in full before the job is begun. That’s your leverage to assure that the job is completed to your satisfaction.
 
Sometimes the hardest part of hiring a contractor is getting estimates. Just remember to trust your gut. 


May 2019 column

Garden Walk looks like a breeze, but there's work involved

Are you looking for a way to get advice and ideas about improving your gardens, yards and landscapes? Then plan to attend the Hall County Master Gardeners’ Biennial Garden Walk on Saturday, June 1
 
Four private gardens and two public gardens will be open for tours – three in Flowery Branch, two in Gainesville and one in Talmo. All are owned and/or maintained by Hall County Master Gardeners. Rick and I are honored to have our gardens at Rose Lane included again this year. It will be the third time that we have been on the Garden Walk, and it’s always a treat for us. 
 
It’s a chance to show off our yard, but it’s also a hard-stop deadline to get our spring gardening chores completed. When you have several hundred people coming to your house to see your gardens on a specific date, procrastination isn’t allowed.
 
People who have come here the two previous times tell us that they enjoy seeing how our landscape has matured, what we have added and how we have incorporated combinations of native plants and trees, hybrid tea roses, hydrangeas, azaleas and other landscape features. 
 
The first time we were on the walk, we had literally been living in our new home about eight months. The house took about 13 months to build, and almost as soon as we broke ground, I began moving mature azaleas, smaller flowering trees and other blooming shrubs from our former home a few miles away.
 
We augmented these with foundation plants and flowering shrubs purchased from area nurseries. Over the years, our landscape journey yielded plenty of failed plantings, more than 1,000 of black plastic growers’ pots, ranging in size from 4-inch to 15 gallon, many of which are still stored in our garage. 
 
Before that first walk, we built a raised-bed vegetable garden, planted about a dozen blueberry bushes and created two hybrid-tea rose gardens. Since then, we’ve removed about three dozen pines and invasive hardwood trees, planted pecans, pears and figs, and added more than 50 azaleas. Dedicated areas for camellias and native azaleas provide us with successive seasons of blossoms.

Over the years, we’ve experimented with perennials, plus beautiful but hard-to-grow Daphne, pink hawthorne and various varieties of spirea. Sometimes I learn my lesson on the first try; other times, I keep coming back to favorites that I just can’t grow here. I just end up throwing them away when they die. 
 
One of our most showy plants, a 22-year-old Chinese Snowball Viburnum, actually has been moved twice. It was originally planted at my home in Marietta in 1985 and moved to my subdivision home in Flowery Branch in 2001. In 2006, we pruned it back in the winter and moved it to Rose Lane. Even with intermittent shaping, it’s now well over nine feet tall and this year in April was covered with more than 150 blooms, each almost as big as a small football.
 
We also have a bank of about a dozen varieties of native azaleas, in full bloom now. They’ll be gone by the garden walk on June 1, but we plan to include photos of them in our identification tags. 
 
This year’s garden walk will also showcase how we’ve dealt with serious water runoff issues. Our backyard is downhill from adjacent properties and every time it rains, it floods. Video we took last winter proves that we had class III white water rapids several times. Friends joked they wanted to bring their kayaks.
 
Now all that’s fixed, thanks to my friends at Art of Stone Gardening. Jason Brosche is a master at masonry and water solutions. His wife Suzanne is a landscape designer who allows her clients’ styles to shine through. She’s been a steady Eddie when I get carried away and bring home plants I have fallen in love with but have no idea where I’ll plant them.
 
Make plans to visit all the gardens, including the Linwood Nature Preserve and the Old Piedmont Hotel in Gainesville. You’ll walk away with fresh ideas to try in your own landscape.
 
For more information about the Hall County Master Gardeners’ Garden Walk on June 1, or to purchase tickets at $10 each, visit www.hallmastergardeners.com/garden-walk or call (770) 535-8293. You can purchase and download tickets directly from the website.
 


April 2019 column

Green, green grass of home

The wetter than normal winter has created the perfect storm for your lawn, particularly if you didn’t put down a pre-emergent treatment last September. 
 
“Because we’ve had such a wet winter, you will certainly see more weeds in your lawn this spring than normal,” said Charlie King, owner of Gainesville-based King Green. “Right now, your lawn may be green, but it may be filled with weeds, especially if you didn’t put down a pre-emergent last September.” 
 
Although there may be little you can do about that good crop of weeds now, King recommends steps that you can take to minimize the weeds in warm-season grasses, such as bermuda, zoysia and centipede, begin to green up.
 
“Mow your lawn to about 1 inch tall, but don’t scalp it,” he said. “And the old wives’ tale about burning off your lawn is never a good idea. First and foremost, it is simply not safe and you run the risk of the burn quickly getting out of control. Second, it’s not really good for your lawn.”
 
Put down a pre-emergent for summer weeds “yesterday,” he said. “It’s better late than never and you may be able to reduce germination of some of the summer weeds, including crabgrass.” Use a dedicated pre-emergent, not a combo fertilizer/weed killer. And read package instructions to learn the rate of application. Pre-emergents will need watering in.
 
“April is the time to aerate your warm-season lawns, especially if you haven’t done so in a few years,” King said. Aeration helps break up hard soil and allows both airs and water to get to the roots. It encourages root growth, which will help ensure a healthier lawn. And when you fertilize afterward, the nutrients can also penetrate more deeply.
 
A word about watering 
One of the biggest problems with residential lawns is that people overwater. Experts recommend about one to one-and-a-half inches of water per week, applied in one watering session. 
If we have regular rain, supplemental watering is generally not necessary, but for dry spells, augment with irrigation. 
 
“Watering one time per week deeply is much better for your lawn than several times a week for short periods,” King said. “Deep watering allows the water to better reach the roots and helps them to grow deeper. This can help them better in times of drought.” 
 
Lawn irrigation systems can be set up to water on a schedule of days and times of day. It’s better to water in the morning to allow the grass to dry thoroughly. Watering in the early evening may create problems with disease.
 
Lawn mower maintenance 
King preaches “sharp blades, sharp blades, sharp blades” as a key component of good healthy lawn care. Keep your mower in good repair and periodically clean it to discourage the spread of weed seeds and disease.  “Having sharp blades can make good clean cuts on your grass and discourage damage and disease,” he said. 
 
Proper lawn care can produce a beautiful green carpet with little weeds or disease. With a bit of regularly scheduled attention, your lawn can be the envy of the neighborhood.
 


March 2019 column

Crepe 'murder' and other landscape adventures

I admit it. I committed crepe murder this spring in my landscape. But I had a really good reason. It was just one of many garden and landscape adventures that have made my to-do list for 2019.
 
Our home, named Rose Lane in memory of my mom Rosa who died three years ago, will be part of the Hall County Master Gardens Biennial Garden Walk on June 1. So some drastic activities are in order. Plus with my new Rose Cottage studio ready in April, it’s time for a serious look at our yard.
 
It all started with my hybrid tea rose gardens. The 40 some-odd bushes get a severe pruning in late winter/early spring each year. It removes dead branches and stimulates new lush green growth and increased flowering for the spring, summer and fall. 
 
Some of the bushes were six feet tall. Rose gardening requires that each bush be cut back to three to six strong canes – the thick branches that come directly from the bud union. In the process all the smaller weaker branches are cut back and discarded as well.
 
Already, little red leaf buds that will grow into new branches are spouting with the recent warm weather. As soon as the plants have leafed out, it will be time to fill my backpack sprayer with fungicide and insecticide for the first round of treatment. I’ll include either Hinder or Liquid Fence to keep the deer away. Applications of spray every two to three weeks should help produce the bursts of fragrant, colorful blooms all season long.
 
Roses require babying, but the rewards are amazing. All summer and fall I shared large bouquets with friends, my doctors and various groups, and I still had plenty to keep in my kitchen and office.
 
We also have about 20 Knock-Out and shrub roses along the front of our property that need attention, but they are much easier to care for than hybrid teas. Once they’ve been pruned in the late winter, cutting back smaller branches to leave the larger primary canes, they get sprayed regularly with the appropriate fungicides and insecticides. Hinder, alternating with Liquid Fence, every couple of weeks keeps the hungry deer away.
 
Other early spring landscape chores include cutting back the remains of last year’s perennials, pulling away dead leaves from the daylilies and reshaping my crepe myrtles. 
 
Once I had the pruners, clippers and loppers in hand, I was on a roll. I saved the crepes for last and enlisted husband Rick’s help with a ladder. My little chain saw also saw some action as we took out three to four feet of scraggly bare branches from the crepe myrtles flanking the front of our house.
 
My mission was to remove all the limbs that were taller than the house. And because we hadn’t pruned them back for four of five years, we were overdue. Careful to cut below any previous pruning to avoid those awful knuckle-like bunches on the branches, the plants have fresh cuts that will stimulate growth of the branches that will produce luscious blossoms later this summer. We also left some branches below the cuts about the diameter of our thumbs to keep the profiles of the crepes softer.
 
Several hours and a couple of large piles of debris later, the job was done. 
 
However, as I looked around our yard, I saw that the preparation for the June 1 Garden Walk was just beginning. It’s going to be a busy spring. And I love every minute of my gardening adventures.


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