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Jan. 23, 2018
8:52 pm


Curb Appeal

Start your gardening year off right

There’s no better time than January to make your gardening resolutions for the new year. The keys to keeping them are: 
• Write them down
• Put them in a timeline by month
• Review them at least quarterly
• Be flexible to adapt to opportunities, such as plant sales or special internet offers. 
With January’s cold temperatures, spend a couple of quality hours surfing the internet for gardening ideas. Pinterest ( is jam-packed with many good ideas that you can adapt for your home and landscape. If you’re the least bit handy, check out some DIY sites, including Instructables ( that offers step-by-step instructions for everything from creating outdoor furniture from used pallets to dozens of ways to creatively make raised and container gardens.
We have a nationally known gardening expert right here in North Georgia. Joe Lamp’l, AKA, lives here and produces his PBS program “Growing a Greener World,” plus podcasts and newsletters over off Ga. 400. While his advice can be applied nationally, with caveats for various climate/planting zones, his site offers trouble-shooting, inspiration and the latest ideas.

This year, he’s compiled “Best of the Must-Haves Resource Guide” that showcases affordable garden tools, shoes and socks, gloves, pruners and other items that make gardening easy and fun. Visit his website to find it. Joe offers a free weekly newsletter through the site, too.
And remember that The Georgia Gardener,, specializes in all things gardening in Georgia. His website offers month-by-month gardening suggestions, as well as answers to tough plant questions and recommendations for getting the most out of your landscape. You can subscribe to his free newsletter at his site.
If you’re itching to get outside in now, here are some suggestions to get you started; I’ll be doing my complete list this month, too, but here are some of the items I’ll list:
• January – prep vegetable beds, plant or transplant trees and shrubs, keep bird feeders filled
• February – clean and service your lawn mower, clean out bird feeders and bird houses, build raised beds for vegetables, prune butterfly bushes
• March – research your lawn and properly apply pre-emergents to prevent spring and summer weeds, prune non-blooming plants, such as hollies or boxwood, plant garden greens including beets and turnips. 
Your list doesn’t need to be detailed, but write down some triggers to prompt you to stay on schedule. My biggest challenge is doing my gardening chores at the proper times. typically, I have more than a dozen plants or shrubs in my driveway, purchased on a whim, waiting to be planted. Scheduling keeps them top of mind for the first warmer day.
Be mindful of not making your list too ambitious. It’s better to start small and check off items than to create a year-long list that you’ll never tackle. Happy New Year and Happy Gardening!

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

December 2017 column

Backyard privacy? Plan and plant now

As fall turns to winter and the deciduous trees lose their leaves, your home and landscape look more exposed than ever. The benefit is that you’re left with the “bones” of your yard and can more easily imagine and plan for increasing your privacy options for the spring, summer and fall.
For one, December, January and February are ideal times to remove or thin pines, hardwoods and sweet-gum trees. Professional arborists and tree specialists, such as Arbor One in Buford, can come in and remove dead branches, raise canopies to allow more light for your lawn and garden, plus take out sweetgums or pines that may be a hazard to your home in high winds. 
Tree removal can also open up areas for entertaining or for installing special plantings, like a half-dozen camellia bushes that bloom in the winter or a bed for native azaleas.  Or consider removing nuisance trees and replacing them with evergreens or shrubs with interesting textures and foliage. And if you have troublesome trees on the borders of your property, go ahead and get them removed before they fall onto your neighbors’ yards, fence or home.
Change privacy ‘settings?’
Leyland cypress were all the rage 15 or 20 years ago for creating residential privacy screens. They replaced the 1980s look created by the Red Tip Photinia that homeowners and builders frequently planted around HVAC units or between houses to give a natural look to a visual barrier. But when disease wiped out many of them in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people turned to Leylands. 
Here’s the problem with this fast-growing evergreen. It grows quickly and often produces multiple trunks on trees that reach heights of 25 to 30 feet in less than a dozen years. If they’re planted too close together – the best distance is about 12 to 14 feet off centers (between the trunks) – the lower branches will turn brown from lack of sunlight and may develop various diseases because of poor air circulation.
And when they get that big, you run the risk of the trees breaking from heavy winds or ice storms and falling into your home. And they will likely block natural light coming in your windows.
Natural privacy 
Don’t despair. Here are some alternatives, found on Walter Reeves’ website,
  • Various species of holly – consider Emily Brunner, Nellie Stevens, Foster or Savannah varieties. These are hard reliable evergreens that require little maintenance or pruning.
  • Hybrid magnolias – Little Gem Dwarf Magnolia or D.D. Blanchard Magnolia are excellent. With their glossy dark-green leaves and fragrant white blossoms in the summer, you really can’t go wrong. Check the specifications and give them enough room to gracefully spread, plus room to grow up to 20 or 25 feet, even the dwarfs.
  • Arborvitae – similar to Leylands, these evergreens are sturdier and come in several varieties, including Green Giant and Emerald Green. One of the newest is American Pillar, developed in Woodstock in Northwest Georgia. They have a very upright growth habit, achieving heights of 20 to 25 feet with widths of only four or five feet. They should be planted about three feet off centers and are resistant to high wind damage.  Check them out at
  • Miscellaneous – Check out the fragrant tea olive with its aromatic tiny white blooms in the fall, Virginia or white pines, or certain varieties of viburnum.

When you’re installing plants for natural screens, avoid planting them in a single straight line. They are much more attractive when planted in a zig-zag pattern leaving enough room between plants to provide good air circulation.

Remember that you’ll have more success with planting trees and shrubs during the winter than in the spring. While they’re dormant, they will still need to be watered regularly, but they won’t be fighting for moisture during the hottest time of the year if you have planted them in the late spring or summer.

November 2017 column

Warm up for fall and winter with a backyard fired pit

Things are heating up for winter back-yard entertaining. More and more people find that adding a fire pit opens a world of possibilities for friends, family or just a romantic evening. 
“People are using them as a focal point for entertaining, creating great ambience, or even for cooking,” said Jason Brosche, owner of Art of Stone Gardening. “Today’s designs are so versatile – from traditional round fire pits to fire-proof vessels, gas starters to those that are manually lighted.”
They can be constructed in various sizes and shapes to complement the setting, such as quarter-rounds, squares, circles and rectangles. And they can be made of boulders, natural or manufactured flagstone or other fireproof materials. 
“We are being asked more and more to install metal swing arms to hold Dutch ovens or grates that can be used with iron skillets,” he said. “And a search of the internet turns up many recipes that are excellent cooked over the open fire.” 
Firepits can either be installed on top of the ground, fully or partially buried. Built-in seating, such as half-walls of the same or complementary materials makes them more usable. And placing them on an extended patio provides even more flexibly for seating.
The best way to start a firepit is to stack seasoned firewood into a teepee in the center with some newspapers or kindling below. If you have a gas starter, first light the newspaper or kindling, then turn on the gas a bit. Once the wood has caught fire, turn off the gas. If you don’t have a gas starter, you’ll need a little more patience.
“The primary consideration is safety,” he said. “We use firebrick for safety and heat retention. The location of your firepit is very important, and remember that firepits are not intended to be used as burn piles.”
The latest trends create the ambience of flames and a bit of warmth, although some models don’t produce a great deal of heat. Typically, gas-powered, they use fire glass or lava rocks rather than wood or hot embers. The flames are usually blue. 
Art of Stone Gardening recently received two landscape awards from the Georgia Urban Ag Council for its landscaping and hardscape residential designs and installation. For more information, visit or call 770 519-6372. 
PS – A bit about pansies: If you can find 4-inch pansies, you still have a little time to plant them before November 10 or so. Our warmer fall pushed the planting season by a week or so, but get them in early, fertilize them and keep them watered.

October 2017 column

After Irma, guidance for your yards and trees

With winds topping 50 miles per hour with Atlanta’s first-ever tropical storm, Irma, even if you didn’t lose branches or trees, your landscape took a pretty serious beating. Things weren’t so bad at our Flowery Branch home. My 6-foot hybrid tea roses suffered a few broken canes and others were almost uprooted with the strong winds and the softer-than-usual rain-soaked ground. Two-thirds of my three-foot Miss Huff lantana by the driveway was blown off its roots and ended up down the street.
At my old neighborhood just a mile away, several neighbors had downed trees, yards full of broken-off branches and twisted trees. A 25-foot Leyland Cypress that had three trunks split and tumbled both into my own yard and into the neighbor’s yard. Fortunately, other than damaging two sections of fence, the falling evergreen’s trunks and branches missed both houses. 
Even if you’ve already cleaned up the debris, it’s a good idea to examine your trees, shrubs, garden structures and yard for additional damage. Georgia’s garden guru Walter Reeves shared some excellent tips for putting things right in your yard.
Trees that are leaning or partially blown over may be able to be pulled upright, Reeves said in his recent newsletter. It’s free, by the way, at, and comes every other week. “Only attempt this with trees that are less than 15 feet tall,” he cautions. “First shovel out the dirt under the root ball so that the tree can fall back in place when it’s pulled upright,” he said. “Clip or prune any broken roots. Then use very thick padding under the rope or chain that use wrap around the tree to pull it up.”
Padding, such as old blankets, towels or a thick layer of old rags, will help protect the tree’s bark and the growing layer underneath, called the cambium. That’s the green layer that transports nutrients to the trunk, limbs and branches. You can connect the rope to an automobile winch or create a “come-along” to a nearby tree for leverage.
Once it’s upright, tamp down the soil with your feet all around it and water thoroughly. Then, to reestablish its roots, it must be staked in the opposite direction than it was leaning. For a tree less than 10 feet tall, use two 6-foot stakes sunk at least three feet in the ground several feet from the trunk, approximately 180 degrees apart. For larger trees, place three stakes 120 degrees apart. Loop 1- to 2-inch wide nylon belting loosely around the trunk and secure it to the stakes. “Nylon belting is much better for the tree and causes less damage,” he said. “It should be loose enough to allow the tree to sway but keep the tree stable.” The old way of putting a section of garden hose around the trunk can cause severe damage.
Apply a good layer of mulch at least six feet from the trunk and keep the tree watered, especially when the weather is hot and dry. Reeves said that it may take up to three years for the tree to recover.

If you have broken branches or shrubs that have been damages, promptly remove them using good pruning practices. The University of Georgia Extension has a complete list of publications and bulletins that give detailed instructions. Visit to explore the wealth of information that’s available free.

September 2017 column

Fall pruning for a healthy and safe winter, plus September chores

While most people think of pruning and shaping trees in the spring, the fall is just as good a time. Allen Graham, arborist with Arbor One tree service, said that limbing up trees and removing dead wood can be done as fall and winter approach. An early-fall fertilizing with an all-purpose product like 10-10-10 is also wise; just don’t wait too late in September.
“Raising the canopy of your trees allows extra light into your yard and can really help promote grass growth in otherwise-shady areas,” Graham said. “Also be sure to remove any low-hanging limbs and any dead wood that might become a place where ice or snow can accumulate. If we have ice storms or damp snowfall, it’s easy for the excess weight to cause limb or trunk breakage.” 
Pruning lower limbs will also encourage stronger growth and more nutrients farther up the trunk. “It’s natural for nutrients to first reach the lower limbs and make it more difficult to get energy to the higher branches,” he said. “And by selectively removing limbs and thinning branches, you can open up the tree for more sunlight and healthier growth and development. We call this type of pruning ‘crown balance.’ It also allows wind to pass more easily through the tree, kind of like making it a window instead of a door.” 
Graham also suggests keeping branches at least 10 feet from your home’s roofline to prevent easy access by wildlife and rodents. Especially if it’s cold or rainy, making their home in your attic is very tempting for squirrels, chipmunks and even roof rats.
Proper pruning techniques are important. The best way to prune is a branch collar cut that leaves enough of the branch for self-healing. And there’s no need to use pruning paint, if the cut has been made properly. “Tree care is very specialized, so it’s a good idea to work with an arborist to determine what trees to remove, what to prune and how to prune them,” he said.
What not to prune: Spring-blooming shrubs, such as forsythia, azaleas, viburnum, flowering quince and fothergilla have already produced their buds for next year. Do not prune these shrubs other than to cut out dead wood. If you prune now, you’ll lose all blossoms for next spring.
Fall gardening chores
Put down per-emergent now (in the first three weeks of September to prevent winter weeds. Read the package instructions and follow them specifically. However, if you plan on overseeding your fescue lawn, do not use pre-emergent this fall, because it will prevent the fescue seeds from sprouting. 
Deadhead perennials such as rudbeckia, daisies, black-eyed Susans and coneflowers. It’s also a good time to deadhead your annuals that may give you extended blooms if we have a warmer-than-normal fall. 
Go ahead and purchase spring-blooming bulbs, but don’t plant them until the soil temperatures are 60 degrees or below, most likely late October or during November. Daffodils are a good investment because they come back year after year and don’t require an extended period of cold top produce blooms. They also multiply naturally, so about every five years, dig up the bigger clumps in the fall and separate them before replanting.

August 2017 column

Backyard color: Bird baths and summer feeding

Remember the birds in the summer heat. While they forage for food on their own, they will also appreciate – and flock to – well-stocked bird feeders and clean-water bird baths.
Different birds eat different foods and have different feeding habits. For instance, the varieties of woodpeckers in Northeast Georgia are typically tree-feeders that cling to the bark and eat bugs. Cardinals, eastern bluebirds and many others are perching birds and enjoy a stop at a feeder. 
The most popular bird food for feeders is black oil sunflower seed. You can purchase it in 20-pound bags from hardware stores or box retails. It also comes in a wide range of mixes and cost is typically relative to the amount of “good seed” versus “filler” (usually millet) that’s included. Some birds like cracked corn, shucked sunflower meats and other seeds.    
The best brand by far has been developed in North Georgia – Cole’s. Nearly 30 years ago, avid bird-watchers Richard and Nancy Cole of Kennesaw, began creating quality seed mixes to lure more birds to their back yard. Then they opened their first Birdwatcher Supply retail store and more followed across metro Atlanta. They have more than a dozen blended mixes to attract ground feeders, songbirds and even food for squirrels, plus feeders (including squirrel-proof), birding supplies, garden items and gifts.      
You can purchase Cole’s at their stores, hardwares and box retailers as well as online. Several years ago, Richard and Nancy retired from the bird-food business but they’ve left knowledgeable staff at each store who can guide you to make your backyard a bird paradise.
It’s worth the extra cost because there’s no waste from filler seeds. And the payoff is the widest variety of birds in the neighborhood. 
For the Health of the Birds               
According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, it’s beneficial to keep bird feeders and bird baths clean.
Here are some guidelines:
  • Clean birdfeeders at least once a month with a nonabrasive glass cleaner or bleach. Be sure to rinse the feeders thoroughly after each cleaning to get rid of any cleanser residue, which can be harmful to birds. Also dry feeders before refilling them.
  • Rotate birdfeeders to different sites to ensure minimal build-up of droppings below. Ground-feeding birds like cardinals and towhees, which feed from seeds around feeders, can contract diseases from fecal matter. Remove damp or moldy seeds.
  • During the warm summer months, hummingbird feeder solution should be changed two to three times a week because the heat causes sugar solutions to become riddled with bacteria and mold, which can be transferred to hummingbirds. 

Give a bird a bath
Birds love to splash around in a shallow bath and keeping it filled with a couple of inches of clean water will encourage them to play.
Put the bird bath in a spot that you can view from the room in your home you use the most, then sit back and wait for the show. If the bird bath is kept clean and filled, you’ll soon have a flurry of feathery birds cooling off from the hot summer days.
For more information about birds in Georgia, visit Wildlife Resources’ website at and click “Conservation.” It only takes a couple of minutes a week to make your yard bird friendly, and you’ll get hours of enjoyment from watching them flit to and fro and sing up a storm.
July 2017 column

Home and garden tidbits keep you cool during he summer heat

When it seems like the only ways to stay cool are heading to the lake and the pool or staying indoors, look inside your home for some timely upgrades and decorating tips. WSB-FM Radio’s Home Fix-It Guy Dave Baker, admittedly not into décor, recently sent out some simple tips to help with decorating challenges and opportunities.
 Here’s his list of the five most frequent things that go wrong with home decorating with my bit of elaboration (and in some cases advice that I need to take!): 
  • Diversify your room lighting – don’t rely on one source of light, especially if it’s an overhead fixture. Add lamps of varying heights, mixing both table-top lamps and floor lamps for a softer look.
  • Lower your artwork – Artwork is meant to be seen; it’s not just intended to fill wall space. Hang the top of the art no higher than six feet and place the center of interest at or slightly above eye level for average-height people. A side note: If you’re hanging multiple artwork on the same wall, choose items with a similar theme, hang the largest piece in the proposed center of the grouping, then work outward. Go for equal spacing between each piece. 
  • Avoid “matchy-matchy” – Add pops of color, but not too much, and build your design around a focal point, whether it’s a piece of interesting furniture, a significant work of art or a conversation area grouping within the overall room layout. 
  • Be selective – Avoid filling every space with furniture, accessories and knick-knacks, choosing one or two special items. Your room will feel more open and welcoming if it’s not overcrowded. The room will also have more vibrancy. You don’t need to display all your treasures at one time; rotate them between rooms or bring some out seasonally to create interest. 
  • Take your time – Avoid rushing into a color scheme or furniture layout. For choosing colors, purchase small cans of the tones you’re considering and paint swatches, at least 2 by 4 feet, on several walls to see how they will appear in the light of various times of day. Colors appear different in artificial light, so be careful when you choose. Live with the color in small doses before making a major commitment. 

Weeding made easy
Weeds thrive in the heat of summer, especially if it’s too hot to go out and constantly pull them. Here are some tips for your vegetable and flower gardens: 
  • While the vegetable garden is weed-free, cover the ground around the plants with a couple of sheets of newspaper, then top with a layer of mulch. Water thoroughly to ensure that the roots reap the benefits. The newspaper/mulch system stifles weed growth and it helps hold in moisture, reducing the need to water as often. 
  • For your annual and perennial flower beds, invest in Preen weed preventer. Once you’ve weeded, sprinkle Preen over the planting. It will inhibit weed seeds from sprouting without harming your established plants. Be sure to read the package instructions.

June 2017 column

Make your landscape inviting and welcoming with pergolas

A garden gate, a graceful pergola or a simple pathway of stepping stones can make your landscape welcoming and inviting. Adding a hardscape element provides a focal point, a designated entry point or a place for enhancing the colors and textures of your yard, especially when you bring in vines and trailing plants.
If you have a second-floor deck with a patio below, consider using the space between the vertical supports as the framework for your pergola or archway. This can create an inviting entrance to your outdoor living pace.
Perhaps a free-standing pergola with a bench or swing is more appealing? If so, select a spot that would work for a rock pathway or stepping stones to encourage people to walk up to it and sit for a bit.
Building the foundation 
Whether you choose a pre-fabricated pergola or design and build your own, consider the style and construction in relation to your home’s exterior. Redwood is an excellent construction material that can last for years with little or no maintenance. Pressure-treated lumber painted to match the trim of your home, complimented by cross-cross lattice work, can offer a strong support for roses or cross vines. 

Many retailers – both in-store and online – sell vinyl pergolas, archways and gates that can be easily and quickly installed. Select a color that blends with your home’s colors and style.
Selecting the materials is an important first step in adding any hardscape. Remember that once the plants or vines have established themselves on the pergola, you’ll be limited in doing routine maintenance. Choose the material based on the types of plants you hope to use. 
Perfect plants 
From climbing roses to vines like Carolina Jasmine or Confederate Jasmine, nurseries and box retailers offer a wide range of colors, scents and growing habits. Choose plants for their bloom cycles or their scents. Will they be green all year or do they lose their leaves in the winter?
Lady Banks Rose is a beautiful bloomer with clusters of yellow blossoms in the spring. But once it has flowered for the season, all you’ve got left is cascading branches of green. Carolina Jasmine, with its delicate baby-powder scent, also blossoms in the spring, then provides an evergreen backdrop for the rest of the year.
Confederate Jasmine has strongly scented white star-shaped flowers that repeat all summer. Make sure you like the fragrance before committing to this plant close to your home. It may be more suited for another place in your landscape as a conversation starter to admire from afar. 
Crossvine, similar to trumpet vine, has deep orange trumpet-shaped blooms in late spring. It’s another evergreen that may need a bit of pruning from time to time to keep it from taking over the space. Coral honeysuckle is another fast-grower with a sweet scent and pretty yellow, orange and red blooms. You can train it to fill in empty spaces by regular pruning. Clematis, with its beautiful and varied flowers that range from doubles and triples to larger saucer-sized single blossoms, can come back year after year.
Google pergolas to view the different types, designs and uses. You’ll be surprised at the number of choices that can add beauty and value to your home’s landscape.

May 2017 column

Landscape and garden tips, plus the HCMG Garden Walk

Check out some simple do-it-yourself money-saving projects for your landscape and home. Then take a day off on Saturday, June 3, to visit private gardens at the biennial Hall County Master Gardeners Garden Walk to learn inside secrets from the county’s best gardeners.
Window boxes
Add some curb appeal to your home this summer with window boxes. You can use any kind of containers, from wooden boxes to baskets lined with coconut palm to prepare the boxes. Plant colorful annuals in potting soil, fertilize with a slow-release product and water regularly. You can mount them on your outside window sills, along the railings of your deck, on the walls of your home or on the sides of a fence.
Ensure that the container has ample drainage; if they’re lined with plastic punch holes in the bottom to keep the plants from becoming waterlogged. 
Choose a combination of upright, mounding and trailing plants. Begonias, salvia or marigolds can provide the thriller; candytuft, alyssum or mounding petunias are good fillers; and spillers like sweet potato vine or million bells for spiller complete the look.
Water regularly to keep the soil evenly moist. Check the planter by sticking your index finger about an inch into the soil. If it’s dry, it’s time to water. Depending on what you’ve planted, you may need to pinch off the spent blossoms periodically. 
Solar lights 
Have your solar lights gone dark? If they’re dirty or the panels have become cloudy, you can give them new life. Wipe them down with a damp soft cloth to remove dirt and grime. Then paint the solar panels with clear nail polish. This will protect them and extend their life. 
Solar lanterns are an excellent addition to your landscape. Hang them from fences using plant hangers, or use them around your fire pit. Many box retailers and nurseries also sell interesting solar slights enhanced with glass shaped like flowers or spheres.
Broken tools
Broken tools can still be useful. Take that old metal garden rake with the broken or cracked handle. Remove the handle, then mount the rake head on your garden shed or inside your garage as the perfect place to store pruners, spades and other hand tools. You can suspend them from the tines or use a loop of leather, twine or a cable tie to hang them.
Master Gardeners Garden Walk
On June 3, get a look at some of the best and most interesting private gardens in Hall County. That’s when the biennial Hall County Master Gardeners Garden Walk takes place. It’s named “In Our Own Back Yards” for a reason. These residential gardeners open their yards to share their ideas and tips for creating peaceful retreats, wildlife habitats and working gardens to grow specimen plants, fruits and vegetables.
Five homes – three in Gainesville and two in Flowery Branch – will be open for tours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Additionally, the organization’s showcase project – Gardens on Green, adjacent to the Hall County Board of Education building – will offer tours.
Tickets can be purchased in advance online at or at the Hall County Extension Office, 734 E. Crescent Dr., Gainesville, for $10. On June 3, tickets at $15 each can be purchased at the gardens. The ticket price includes tours to all five residential gardens and Gardens on Green. This is a program of Hall County Master Gardeners, a volunteer group that promotes garden education.

April 2017 column

Eat what you grow in your back yard

April 15. It’s more than tax day. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, it’s the last day we need to be worried about frost in north Georgia. And that’s good news for your refrigerator and your stomach. If you play your cards right, you can forsake store-bought tomatoes for some real ones this summer. So, are you putting in a vegetable garden this season? Do a little research while you’re waiting for April 15 to roll around. It will set you on the way to fabulous tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers and all kinds of peppers and a bountiful harvest.
Check out “Build a Better Vegetable Garden,” filled with DYI projects to make your gardening more successful. Written by Joyce Russell, with photos by her husband Ben, the soft-cover full-color book has loads of photos, detailed instructions and tips for growing all kinds of crops. The first part of the book describes tools and materials needed and gives practical carpentry information that will help even novices get it right. 
Start with raised beds, and you can put them in even before the date of the last frost. Use 1-by-8s, 10s or 12s, landscape timbers or rough-hewn lumber to build the sides, bracing from the inside to provide stability of the structure. Raised beds can be as tall as you like. Typically, people build them between 10 and 12 inches high. They’re great for minimizing back aches as you plant and cultivate your plants.  Fill the beds with good quality garden soil, not potting soil. Mix in a soil conditioner and mushroom compost to add nutrients. Go ahead and put in some slow-release fertilizer, even before planting.
Purchase seedlings and starter plants at a local nursery or box retailer, especially for tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. Start squash, melons, beans and cucumbers from seeds, planted directly into the soil after April 15. Follow the instructions on the seed packets. Be sure to check the “freshness date” on the seed packets you purchase to ensure they’re intended for the 2017 growing season. When planting tomatoes, gently pinch off the lower leaves and then bury the now-bare stemmed plants deeper into the ground. This will promote more root growth. Also, if there are blooms, pinch these off to allow the plant to use its energy to become established.
Peppers are fun to grow and offer many varieties including mild and colorful bells, sweet to hot banana peppers, and prolific jalapenos or “pants-on-fire” cayenne. They’ll reward you with a long harvest season, often producing peppers until the first hard frost of the fall.
Plant a few herbs, such as basil, rosemary or dill. However, avoid any kind of mint in your garden. It is very invasive and can take over an area in just one season. If you want mint, plant it in a large container.
If you’ve not food-gardened before, give it a go. It’s a fun family activity with great yields. And home-grown tomatoes with a little mayonnaise on soft white (or wheat) bread ... Yummy! There’s nothing like it on a hot summer day.

March 2017 column

Be the sharpest tool in the box; save money and time

A little equipment maintenance can make your spring, summer and fall garden chores much easier. When was the last time you sharpened the blades of your lawn mower or your pruners and loppers? Is it time to change your oil? Here are some tips from the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, based in Virginia, for keeping your equipment in top working order and prolonging its life, saving you money and hard work.
  • Inspect your equipment. Check for loose belts and missing or damaged parts on your lawn mowers, tillers and other power gardening equipment. If you find anything concerning, replace the parts or take your equipment to a qualified service representative.
  • Clean your equipment. If you did not clean your equipment before storing it, there may be dirt, oil or grass stuck to it. A cleaner machine will run more efficiently and last longer. And clean the equipment after each use; a little dirt is easier to remove than a whole season’s worth.
  • Review your manual. Read the operator’s manual and re-familiarize yourself with the controls and what they do. Make sure you know how to stop the machine quickly if needed. 
  • Check the fuel tank. If fuel has been sitting all winter long in the fuel tank, drain it (responsibly) and put in fresh fuel. Dispose the old fuel properly. Don’t leave fuel sitting in the tank for more than 30 days. Untreated gasoline (without a fuel stabilizer) left in the system will deteriorate, which may cause starting or running problems and, in some cases, damage to the fuel system. Use only E10 or less fuel in outdoor power equipment. Do not use gas with more than 10 percent ethanol (E10) in outdoor power equipment. Some gas stations may offer 15 percent ethanol (E15) gas or other fuel blends, but this higher ethanol fuel can damage – and is illegal to use in – small engine equipment not designed for it, such as lawn mowers, chain saws, generators, and all other lawn and garden equipment. Consider purchasing “non-ethanol” fuel for your power equipment, just like you would for your boat.
  • Drain out the old oil and put in fresh oil. Refill the engine with oil recommended by the product manufacturer. Properly dispose of the oil you drained. 
  • Install clean air filters. Your engine and equipment will run much better with clean filters. Paper filters need to be replaced, while some foam filters can be cleaned and replaced.
  • Sharpen your cutting blade. Have the lawn mower’s cutting blade sharpened to get a clean cut on the lawn. Your lawn will be healthier and the lawn mower will operate more efficiently. 
  • Special note for hand tools: Pruners, loppers and other hand tools such as shovels and rakes should be cleaned, dried and properly stored after each use. Periodically wipe them down with a bit of light oil, such as a 3-in-1, to deter rusting and to keep them in good working order.

Februay 2017 column

Crape 'Murder' and a reader's question answered

February seems to bring an onslaught of “crape murder,” that merciless pruning of last year’s growth – or older – from the crepe myrtles in your yard. Walter Reeves, the Georgia Gardener, says: “Don’t do it!” It’s just that simple. 
There’s a time and a place for cutting back these blooming Southern landscape staples:
  • If the crapes’ branches are hanging over your home – they can provide a way into your attic for squirrels and even roof rats.
  • If you haven’t pruned in a while and your crepes seem to be in decline. See below for a reader’s inquiry. 
  • If, and only if, you remove the “spur branches,” those that are the diameter of a pencil or smaller.

With all the new hybrids – from tree forms to dwarf shrub types – the best approach when choosing these summer bloomers is to pick the right plant for the spot. If you need a tall anchor for the corner of your house, a tree form is best; if you want to have mounds of blooms in a side flower bed, select any of the fairly new Razzle Dazzle varieties. Developed by horticultural expert Michael Dirr, retired professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia and renowned horticultural expert.
Lakeside reader Jim Callison of Cumming recently emailed to ask about his 30-foot-tall crape myrtles. “We’ve got crape myrtles that have grown very tall, 25 to 30 feet. We want to cut them down to 8 to 10 feet. What is the best time of year to do this and how should we go about it? 
After a few other questions, like why do you want to cut them back – not many blooms, leggy plants and they’re just too tall to enjoy the blooms; how much sun are they getting – not more than a couple of hours, because other trees have grown up around them; and how long have they been in your landscape – all plants and shrubs have a lifespan and as plants get older, many decline.
A little research led to my response:  Honestly, the practice of “crape murder” – severely pruning these lovely Southern shrubs – is not recommended, so good for you for letting them grow naturally. Severe pruning year after year reduces the health of the plant, makes it more susceptible to disease and reduces its bloom output. 
Certain varieties of crape myrtles left to their own devices without being pruned can get really tall. If you want to reel them in, anytime between January and early March is best to begin a pruning program. With trees this tall, you’re looking at a 3- or 4-year process, gradually reducing the height each growing season. The first year, take the height down by about one-fourth. You’ll still have some blooms this summer. Next year, take another one-fourth of the height in the late winter, targeting those trunks that you cut back last year. Repeat the following year and your crape will be closer to a manageable height. 
However, if the plant has overgrown its space and it’s a hindrance, maybe it’s time to take it out and replace it with a newer smaller variety or another type of shrub altogether. Winter is a great time not only to remove plants that are not in the ideal locations but to install new plants and trees. Fall and winter are the best times for planting; the plants require less water and the cooler temperatures are less stressful than the summer heat. Water new plantings regularly and well this spring and summer. Newer varieties provide more flexibility in planting the right tree or shrub in the right place. As Walter Reeves frequently says on his Saturday morning radio show on News 95.5 and AM750/WSB, “a plant hasn’t truly found its home until it’s been moved three or four times.”

January 2017 column

Winter chores make for a happy springtime

If your holiday were like most people’s you’ve finely tuned your “couch-potato” posture and settled in with all the creature comforts so that you can hibernate until the first sign of spring. 
But, no, don’t let a little chilly weather keep you from the outdoor chores at hand. January’s an excellent time to survey your landscape and decide what changes to make in 2017. Do you have trees and shrubs that have overgrown their space? Are there plants that really aren’t thriving in their current spots around your yard? Be critical about your sun gardening space, especially if you’ll be growing your own vegetables this spring and summer.
So? Still not quite motivated to bundle up a little and head outdoors? Maybe you can take it in stages Spread the work out over several weekends, naturally picking those without the prediction of rain. An hour or two outdoors is good for the soul and your health. Just think about our friends in the Midwest and the Northeast who are dealing with feet of snow. 
Start by evaluating your landscape clean-up and change needs from the inside out, surveying your yard from the warmth of your home. Make a list of priority areas, then pick one area each weekend for a short work session.
Check out your vegetable gardening area and clean up last year’s leftovers. Scraggly dead plants and the winter weeds that have taken over should be removed. Contact your local Extension office to get a soil test of your garden patch. It costs less than $10 and will guide you about the amendments you’ll need for the crops you intend to grow. 
Typically, most North Georgia soil is on the acidic side. Plants like azaleas, camellias and blueberries like a lower pH, which stands for potential for hydrogen. Plants absorb nutrients better when they’re growing in soil that’s the right pH. But don’t just blindly toss in lime; a soil test will accurately tell you what you need to add.
That view from your window can also identify ways to create more sun in your yard. This winter, mark overhanging limbs that block sun in the spring and summer. It’s a quick trip outdoors to tie some flagging tape that will remind you to trim them in march, just as they’re greening up.
Assess your hardscapes as well. Does your driveway, deck or patio need to be pressure washed? Call your “power guy” now to get on his schedule for March or April. If you firm up a date now, it’s one less thing to worry about in a couple of months, when other more pressing chores are piling up. And you’ll be able to pick your time before his schedule gets hectic. 
Remember how you sweated out the summer heat to garden? Take the time now to cross some of these chores off your list. Then you’ll have more time for boating when the temperatures get back to “normal.” After all, the warm weather is made for getting out on the lake!

December 2016 column

Energize your home this winter to save bucks

Although the word is out that we’re expecting a warmer, drier winter in the next four months, now is a great time to check out your home’s energy price tag. From some simple do-it-yourself fixes to a whole-house energy audit, you can save a bundle.
Are you still using – and buying – the old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs? They’re be
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