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Apr. 4, 2020
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Curb Appeal

Taking the pain out of gardening

Do you want to have a productive vegetable patch without constantly weeding? Is your gardening space limited by too much shade? Then straw-bale gardening is for you. It’s simple and has great benefits. It’s like starting with brand-new growing medium, so you won’t have weeds, diseases or insects. 
Here’s how: Start with large compact bales of wheat straw and place them on landscape fabric in a location that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Place them in rows with at least 6 feet between each row.
Have a water source nearby; you’ll be watering frequently. Evenly apply about a half-cup of inexpensive fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 or one that has a high first number, to each bale and water it thoroughly until water runs out of the bottom. 
Over the next 10 to 14 days soak the bales every day. Every couple of days add more fertilizer before watering to create a nutrient-rich planting medium. Much like making compost, bacteria and microbes decompose the straw, breaking it down and creating warmth. By the time you’ve conditioned the bales, the straw biologically becomes excellent soil that will support plant growth.
Get growing
Start with seedlings, purchased at a local nursery or box retailer. Before planting check the internal temperature of the bales to make sure it’s no higher than 105 degrees by inserting a kitchen meat thermometer about 6 inches deep. If the temperature is too high, the seedlings’ tender roots may be damaged. Adding more water will bring down the temperature.
Dig holes with a trowel slightly larger than the size of the pot and insert the root ball. Place plants at the recommended distance apart. When the bale is fully planted, water well. If you need to add soil, use sterilized potting mix, not soil from the garden. Bagged potting soil should be weed- and disease-free. 
The most popular crops are tomatoes, squash and peppers, but if you install a trellis on each bale, you can grow vine vegetables such as green beans, peas and cucumbers. Stake or secure the tomatoes as you do in an in-ground garden.
Getting a good crop 
The key is keeping the bales hydrated, so check them every day to ensure the interior isn’t too dry. Stick your hand into the bale about 6 inches to make sure it’s moist.  Regular watering also keeps the bales’ internal temperature from getting too high, which is possible as the bales continue to break down. Continue to fertilize regularly and stake or trellis plants that tend to wander.
Consider planting some zinnias and marigolds at the ends of each bale to help attract pollinators, such as butterflies and bees. This will also help with your crop production. 
No more bending 
Straw-bale gardening, by its very nature, puts your plants farther off the ground, making it easy to inspect them for errant insects or disease. It also makes it simpler to harvest your crops because you won’t need to bend down to pick.
Take a large basket with you to the garden as you start to harvest. You’ll need it to carry your fresh-grown vegetables into the kitchen.
For more information about straw-bale gardening, check out books by the technique’s “inventor,” Joel Karsten. His “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” and “Straw Bale Solutions” provide step-by-step guidance as well as problem-solving recommendations for healthy crops. Visit his website at

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

March 2020 column

Getting ready for spring: Prune and feed

Gardening in March can be tricky. The weather isn’t quite spring, but the risk of a quick cold front or a few days of running rain showers can put a damper on getting out into your yard. 
On a sunny day, it’s time to prune your shrubs, except for spring-bloomers, such as yellow bells/Forsythia, azaleas, flowering quince and some varieties of viburnum and hydrangeas. Those set their buds on last year’s growth, so if you prune now, your taking away your flowery show. 
Pruning is not hedging. Pruning involves removing limbs and branches at varying lengths to open the plant to more sunlight and air circulation. You’ve probably seen the results of hedging: shearing off all the branches to create a boxed- or ball-shaped plant. This is generally harmful to shrubs, because this type of trimming blocks light from the center of the plant, discourages growth close to the main trunks or stems, and encourages disease.
As you drive around this month, pay attention to the Forsythia. How many bright-yellow boxy forms do you see in people’s yards? Then see if you can spot the graceful drooping form of an un-trimmed Forsythia spreading its delicate branches. 
You can prune evergreens like wax myrtles, yaupon and some hollies, juniper and yew. A rehab pruning – removing less than one-third of the growth – can be done on camellias to stimulate new growth and more prolific flowering next winter. 
If you’ve not done so already, give roses a strong pruning. From knock-outs to shrub roses – yes, and even long-stemmed hybrid teas – pruning them back to leave them 12 to 18 inches above the ground is perfectly fine.
For any pruning, first remove any dead or non-productive branches. if they are diseased, discard of them properly. Selectively cut out overgrown branches to open up the centers of the trees or shrubs and allow more light to reach this part of the plants. 
Once the weather warms toward the end of the month, feed your landscape. Yes, those trees and shrubs need fertilizer to thrive. The best time is when the plants are actively growing, and once they’ve been pruned fertilizer will stimulate good leaf and branch production. 
The best choice is 10-10-10, available in bags from box retailers and area nurseries. It’s not expensive and provides a broad spectrum of nutrients. As a general-purpose fertilizer, it will benefit 90 percent of the plants, trees and shrubs in your landscape. You’ll find the numbers on the front of the bag; follow the instructions for proper application rates. 
Upcoming events 
• Check out Raptor Fest on Saturday, March 21, at Elachee Nature Center. It’s a chance to get close to some of the most magnificent birds in the country, from eagles to owls and everything in between. Area experts bring birds of prey from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for live bird shows and demonstrations. More info:
• Hall County Garden Expo, presented by the Hall County Master Gardeners and the Hall County UGA Extension, brings together dozens on plant and garden vendors on Friday, April 3, and Saturday, April 4, at Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center on Calvary Church Road. Free gardening seminars on Friday are Creating a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary at 11 a.m.; How to Keep Rainwater Where It Falls at 1 p.m.. Saturday’s seminars are Japanese Maples and Pruning Techniques at 11 a.m., and Growing Wild Things in a Polite Neighborhood at 1 p.m.. Admission is $2 per adult. More information:

February 2020 column

Ready, set, start growing your spring seedlings

The erratic winter we’ve been experiencing in Northeast Georgia doesn’t need to deter you from getting ready for spring. Whether you’re interested in growing vegetables or flowers, spending a little time with a couple of seed and gardening websites can set the tone for your next six months of productive digging in the dirt.
Although the weather has been a roller coaster, you can get a jumpstart on your spring plantings by investing in a good set of grow-lights and a seed-sprouting system. I recently purchased grow-light components – a light stand, the right kind of lights, seed-starting trays with domes, and planting medium – from Park Seed. Their brand is called BioDome; similar kits are available from Amazon or box retailers. 
And while I was online, I ordered several seed packets: purple krim heirloom tomatoes, midnight snack cherry tomatoes, arugula and buttercrunch lettuce. My plan is to start them in early to mid-February so they will be ready to plant in the garden around mid-April. That’s the time that the Farmer’s Almanac predicts as the last frost of the season. 
We’re setting up the grow lights in our sunroom so that we can watch the progress and keep an eye on misting the growing medium in the trays. Humidity is crucial to sprouting and winter heat can dry out the air indoors. Instructions with the kit say to plant one seed per planting plug. The plugs are made of a material called BioSponge, developed in Holland for its ability to encourage root growth.
Start the lights close to the tops of the dome. You can also use a specially designed heating mat to warm up the seed trays and their content. 
As the plants sprout and grow, they’ll need regular misting to maintain the right level of moisture in the domes. You can also move the light farther up the stand to accommodate the plants’ growth. This way, you can keep the sprouts more compact and avoid spindly stems. Using the grow light at the right height will also result in straighter, more upright seedlings.
You can plant lettuces and other cool-season crops in the garden as soon as they are large enough. For tender warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, squash and other summer vegetables, be sure to wait until after April 15. For those warm-season crops, once the weather warms, harden off the seedlings for a couple of days to get them accustomed to the weather. You’ll be weaning them from the protected environment of your home.
Plant them in the garden at the proper spacing recommended on the seed package. Starting them indoors in individual plugs will eliminate the need to thin the seedlings. Plus, they will have a good head start toward harvesting your spring and summer crops.
A few February chores
Late February is the time to prune your roses, including Knock-Outs and shrub roses. Cut them back to 12 to 18 inches, removing all but the strongest canes. You’ll be rewarded with a huge flush of blooms by May. 
If you have camelias, February is the time to prune them as well. However, do not prune azaleas, most types of hydrangeas or forsythia, also known as yellow bells.
And, please don’t commit crepe murder this month. You’ll see many commercial landscape installations with crepe myrtles that have been severely cut back. This year, allow them to grow naturally, just cutting off last year’s seed heads if you must. With a little fertilizer as the weather warms, you’ll get beautiful blooms.

January 202 column

Winter color? No brainer with Southern Camelias

When most of the rest of the plant world is hibernating, count on the delicate Southern Camellia to brighten dreary days. With glossy green leaves and flowers that range in color from bright reds and soft pinks to pure whites and variegated, camellias are reliable bloomers from November through February.
And the good news is that they are really easy to grow. All they ask is a shady spot, proper planting and a bit of water during the heat of summer. Once they’re established, they will provide years of winter color. 
The exact timing of the blooms depends on the species and the cultivar. Basically, garden camellias are available in two types – japonica, a more compact shrub that likes shade, and sasanqua, which can take a bit more sun and has a more open growth habit. Within these species there are more than 2,300 named cultivars recognized and registered with the American Camellia Society, which, by the way, is headquartered in Fort Valley, Georgia, at Massee Lane Gardens,
Most Southern gardeners have at least one camellia in their yards, and it can be hard to stop at just one. Confession: I have planted at lease two dozen in my yard and continue to be tempted to purchase more each winter. 
Keys to planting 
The best time to plant camellias is in the cooler months, to allow the roots to establish before spring and summer heat. Dig a hole about twice the diameter of the root ball or pot, and work the soil to removed clumps. Add an organic soil amendment and mix in well. Gently unwind any pot-bound roots and spread them out. Position the plant so that the top of root ball is level or slightly higher than the soil you’re putting back in the hole. Water thoroughly once or twice a week, being careful not to over water.
Once they’ve bloomed, you can prune sasanquas back as much as one-third. This will stimulate growth and even more blooms for next winter. Japonicas can also be pruned, but be more conservative about how much you cut back.
When they’re producing new leaves and branches in the spring, apply fertilizer for acid-loving plants according to the package instructions. Holly-Tone makes one specifically for camellias and azaleas. Milorganite is also an excellent slow-release fertilizer with the added benefit of helping deter deer, which may graze on smaller camellias.
Georgia’s Camellia Trail 
The AHS, responsible for registering new camellias, has begun a First Ladies Collection of camellias. The first three cultivars in the collection are Betty Foy Sanders, Sandra Deal, named in 2015, and Rosalynn Carter, named in 2017.
When the Rosalynn Carter camellia was formally introduced in February 2017 at Massee Gardens in Fort Valley, Mrs. Carter also officially opened the Georgia Camellia Trail. Mrs. Deal attended the ribbon cutting; she established a camellia garden at the Governor’s Mansion in Atlanta with room to add other Georgia First Lady camellias. 
The Georgia Camellia Trail,, consists of 30 public gardens planted with an array of camellias. Some of the more notable gardens are at Armstrong State University Arboretum Camellia Gardens in Savannah; Betty Sheffield Memorial Garden in Quitman, which is often referred to as the Camellia City; Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah; Massee Lane Gardens in Fort Valley; and Sam M. Wellborn Garden in Columbus. 
Consider a field trip in January or February to see these amazing plants. Even if you only visit one or two of the gardens featured on the Georgia Camellia Trail, you may be inspired to add some to your own garden. They can be purchased at area box retailers and nurseries or ordered online if you’re interested in specific named varieties.

December 2019 column

Gifts for the gardener in your life

It’s the giving time of year and if you have a gardener on your list, you’re in luck. A gardener can always find room for one more plant, shrub or tree. And the internet is filled with the latest and greatest tools, garden gadgets and time-savers. Whether it’s a new pair of gardening gloves or a selection of vegetable seeds, the gardener in your life will be delighted with a present to support his or her digging-in-the-dirt habit. 
Gardening books
Around the holidays, a plethora of gardening books are released, ranging from how-to tomes to colorful coffee-table volumes meant for inspiration. 
Look local for suggestions. Jim Gibbs, creator of Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground and founder of Gibbs Landscape Co. in Atlanta, has authored Gibbs Gardens: Reflections on a Gardening Life. It takes a look at Gibbs’ career and the decision to build Gibbs Gardens, a 20-year labor of love that resulted in a world-class destination visited by people around the globe. 
Other local authors include Joe Lamp’l, and his website, who has a national gardening television program, as well as blogs, podcasts and videos. His two books, “Over the Fence with Joe Gardener” and “The Green Gardener’s Guide,” are both chock-full of information for gardeners. Walter Reeves, known as The Georgia Gardener, has nearly a dozen Georgia- and Southern-specific titles. I recommend his “Month-by-Month Gardening,” co-authored with Erica Glasener. 
On the national front, consider some of these gardening books: “Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening” by Matt Mattus, “Compact Plants” by Jessica Walliser,” or one of these geared toward engaging young gardeners: “Gardening Lab for Kids” by Renata Fossen Brown or  “Herbal Adventures” by Rosemary Gladstar. 
All these books are available through Amazon or other online vendors.
Tools, gloves and more 
A new pair of hand pruners or a good lopper can excite any gardener. Check out popular brands including Fiskars, Felco or Tabor Tools all have high ratings. A 5-in-1 garden multi-tool does the work of several tools. Hoe and rake, scrape and cut, edge and chop, plus aerate and slice all with one tool. It has a two-headed design and is made of rust-resistant hardened steel. It’s sold by
And if you want to make a friend for life, give a pair of Bionic Gloves. Available from, they come in standard length and gauntlet/elbow length. Not only are they tough, the leather gloves were designed by a hand surgeon from goat leather, with silicone palms and fingertips. They feel great and fit like a dream; you can grab the smallest weeds without slippage. And if you grow roses, you’ll be protected from sharp thorns, especially with the gauntlet style.  
Plants, seeds and gift certificates 
December and January are good times to plant trees and shrubs in Georgia, so why not purchase a blooming camellia or a chaste tree for your landscape? Kinsey Family Farm in Gainesville,, or Lanier Nursery in Flowery Branch,, both have good selections of trees and shrubs. The staff at both is very knowledgeable about how and where to plant.
Peruse seed catalogs for unusual varieties of flowers and vegetables. Park Seed and Burpee both offer colorful options at their websites.
And if you can’t decide what to give the gardener on your list, a gift certificate in any dollar amount would always be welcome. Even better, why not make your own gift certificate pledge of four to five hours of your time to help your friend or family member with planting, weeding or other garden work?

November 2019 column

Add appeal with trees, shrubs; think Christmas trees

Now that the leaves have fallen off the trees and landscape plants have begun to go dormant, consider sprucing up your yard. November is a great time to add trees and shrubs. And get two-for-one by considering a live evergreen as this year’s Christmas tree, one that you can plant in your yard after the holidays. 
“It may seem early to think about Christmas trees in November, but if you’re in the market to add structure to your landscape, it’s really not too soon,” said Suzanne Brosche, co-owner of Art of Stone Gardening, “As you’re making your plans for additions to your landscape, consider adding a native evergreen that can also serve as this year’s Christmas tree.” 
November and December are the best times to plant trees and shrubs because the plants are approaching dormancy and have less water and nutrient requirements. “And if you have shrubs that haven’t been performing as well as you expect, now is the time to relocate them,” she said. “When the soil has begun to cool and trees and shrubs are going dormant, moving them is much less stressful to them. Yes, once they’re moved you will still need to water them, but demands for water are not as great in the cooler weather.” 
Shrubs that have outgrown their space and have become crowded can be moved now. Select about one-third to one-fourth of the plants and relocate them. Look for similar characteristics in the new site, such as the same amount of sun/shade, soil conditions, moisture and protection from wind.
“Make sure you dig up a large-enough root ball to bring with the plant,” she said. “This will also help with the transition to its new location. Dig the hole at least two times the width of the root ball and loosen the soil in the bottom of the hole, then backfill a bit. Be careful to keep the surface of the root ball several inches above the ground. Tamp the soil down gently after planting; it will settle farther as the plant grows into its new space.” 
This same planting technique works for new landscape installations as well. For trees and shrubs in pots, avoid planting them too deep. “If planted too deeply, trees and plants will not do well, often losing leaves or damaging the roots,” she said. “We’ve found that planting too deeply is a main cause of failure in landscape installations.” 
Add color or texture to your landscape by planting flowering trees, such as chaste trees that have lavender/purple blossoms or native service berries with white flowers. Seek out trees with interesting foliage as well, with different shaped leaves or unusual hues. Plum tree foliage ranges in color from green to deep burgundy. Many new varieties of maples provide intense fall color. Japanese maples have various shaped leaves, depending on the type, that can be lacy, feathery or palmate.
Brosche suggests purchasing trees and shrubs from local growers, such as Kinsey Family Farm,, off Jot-em-down Road in Gainesville. “They have an excellent selection and are very knowledgeable about native plans and their ideal growing conditions,” she said. “Spend a little time on their website to narrow your choices, then visit the farm to make your selection.”
Kinsey Family farm also sells Christmas trees, both live and cut. Ask them about caring for a live Christmas tree and how to plant it in your yard after the holidays. 
“Selecting an evergreen Christmas tree to add to your landscape each year can become a family tradition,” Brosche said. “And when you choose a native evergreen you’ll also be adding interest to your landscape for years to come.”

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