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Curb Appeal


I'd rather be blue - blueberries, that is

Things are pretty blue around our house these days, with the prolific output of our dozen or so blueberry bushes. From just 10 days of harvesting beginning in mid-June, Rick and I have picked nearly 55 pounds, our biggest yield ever.
 
And that only puts us about one-third of the way into the picking season. Our friends are loving the bounty of our harvest and our freezer is bursting at the seems with quarts of luscious berries. We are willingly sharing and some friends even suggest that I set up a stand at a local farmer’s market.
 
Here’s the secret: feed them at least twice a season and water them deeply once a week. Use a slow-release acidic plant fertilizer, such as Milorganite or Holly-Tone for azaleas, camellias and other acid-loving plants. Read the package instructions for amount and method of application; usually with my mature plants approaching six feet tall, I’ll use about one-half to three-quarters of a cup spread at the drip line. 
 
Caution: With any granular fertilizer application, do NOT apply to the root/trunk/branch union. Keep fertilizers at least one foot away from the trunks or you will most likely kill your plant. 
 
Fertilizer burn is not pretty. I had an inexperienced garden helper last spring who literally dumped handfuls of 10-10-10 onto the centers of a prized azalea, my specimen Edgeworthia/Chinese Paper Plant, and a very special Rising Sun Redbud, killing them all within a week. I learned a lesson; if you want to fertilize properly, hire a certified landscape professional, or educate yourself before you begin.
 
Back to the blues 
Blueberries are the ideal fruit crop for Georgia. in fact, blueberries, now planted on former tobacco fields in South Georgia, have surpassed peaches as the state’s most productive commercial fruit crop. 
 
They’re easy to grow. The key is having at least two different cultivars of plants to allow for cross pollination. Rabbiteye is the most common variety and it is available in several different cultivars, including Climax, Powderblue, Premier or Brightwell. 
 
Blueberries are disease-resistant and don’t attract many insects. The plants thrive in full sun but can produce in some shade, through the yield is not as high. 
 
For pruning and growing advice, check out the free publications online at https://extension.uga.edu/publications.html. You’ll find expert guidance for all your garden needs and questions. 
 
Another blue shout-out. Our mophead hydrangeas are blooming non-stop right now, mostly blue with a couple of shrubs bearing deep violet clusters. Planted on the north side of our home in morning sunlight, the bushes are loaded. Over the past four years, we’ve dumped granulated lime and spent fireplace ashes on them to try and turn them all purple or even pink. Finally, they are on their way to a meaningful shift, but it will be a few more seasons before my color change is complete. 
Last month’s column response
 
Thanks to two readers who wrote about their own squirrel adventures and solutions. Lori Perdue of Cumming wrote with several tips, including relocating the feeders to a spot that’s protected by her climbing rose bushes. “Seems they don’t like thorny feet on the way up or falling after attempting to jump into said sharp vines. So far so good.”
 
George Daves sent me ideas for building sheet-metal baffles to mount on the poles. Cone-shaped, mounted below the feeders with the widest part facing the ground, the baffles are fairly easy to make and can be effective. George says he gets the sheet metal from a box retailer and attaches the hand-cut cones to the poles with hose clamps. “I fabricated this cone on my bird feeder pole over four years ago and a squirrel has not been able to get around it since.”
 
Let’s talk gardening
I love hearing from readers with ideas, questions and feedback. What would you like to see us write about in Curb Appeal? I’m open to suggestions. Email me at pam@pamelakeene.com.
 
 

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








June 2020 column

 

Squirrels at the feeder: Yikes!

Rats with furry tails that steal food from the mouths of babes – baby birds, that is. Pesky rodents that find their way to bird feeders no matter where you put them, how much money you pay for them or what the manufacturers guarantee. You know who I mean: squirrels.
 
Aside from deer in the garden, squirrels at the feeder are the bane of my existence – and from what I can tell, many of my gardening and bird-watching friends agree. 
 
Just last month, national news outlets like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune reported that sheltering at home has caused explosive growth in birding. Whether people are hanging more feeders and bird houses or they’re safely socially distancing by taking hikes to some of Georgia’s best birding trails, the number of folks letting their lives go to the birds is soaring. 
 
Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology are the go-to expert resources for birders. From sponsoring the Great Backyard Bird Count each February on Presidents’ Day weekend to creating websites and apps, like ebird.org, the two organizations have cornered the market on birding knowledge. 
 
You can use these resources to identify birds, track your sightings, plan birding trips close to home and around the globe – once we can all travel again – and find the best locations for seeing rare species, all from the comfort of your living room.
 
But back to those squirrels. In watching my half-dozen feeders outside my office windows, the nearly 18 regular bird species who come to visit peacefully share the space with squirrels and chipmunks. Truth be told, it’s not the birds I worry about; it’s the piggish rodents that gobble up every last morsel of the black-oil sunflower seeds we diligently replenish each week. 
 
Here’s the thing: many companies make what they call ‘squirrel-proof’ feeders. Not so. From feeders with perches that slam shut if triggered by anything heavier than an ounce to fancy mechanical ones that spin intruders off the bottom, I’ve tried them all. You know the names: Droll Yankee, Squirrel Buster, Brome, etc.
 
Baffles, hung from above or mounted on poles from below, don’t work either. A beautiful plexiglass squirrel guard dome installed over a cylindrical feeder didn’t even slow down the squirrels who made their way to the feeders below. They’d tight-rope across the shepherd’s hook hangers and jump across the closest feeder and voila – supper. 
 
The squirrels must have been going to the gym during shelter-at-home, because they have also found ways to loop their back feet into the holes where the seeds come out, do some ab crunches to retrieve seeds, then hang upside down to eat. Their 8-packs make Zac Efron’s 6-pack look like a feather pillow. 
 
I tried using bacon grease to make the 3-inch aluminum poles that support our feeders slick. What a mess! The squirrels would use a nearby shrub to get a running start, wrap their arms and legs around the pole and slide down a couple of times. By then the pole wasn’t greased anymore, so they’d message all their friends to come to the feast. All I got was the entertainment of seeing these little critters get their bellies greased.
 
So, I took pruners into my own hands and cut back the evergreen shrubs under the feeders. Big mistake. Now we’re pulling out all the remnants and replacing them with shorter shrubs. 
 
An internet search turned up a solution. Squirrels don’t like spicy hot food, but it doesn’t seem to bother the birds. A trip to the Flowery Branch Wild Bird Supply store behind Chick-fil-A and a consultation with the clerk and 10 minutes later I emerged with two large bags of something called “hot chips,” cayenne pepper-coated shelled sunflower seeds. She also suggested that I start with a couple of inches of just the hot chips, then mix some with the black-oil sunflower seeds to fill the balance of the feeder. 
 
That was last week. Today, it seems like the hot chips have done their job maybe a little too well.

Aside from a couple of cardinals, a chickadee or two and some nuthatches, no one, and I mean no one, has been by to eat. Surely, once the birds discover that the heat won’t hurt them, they’ll be back, but for now, I’m sticking with my plan.
 
 At least I’ve out-squirrelled the squirrels.
 

May 2020 column

Gardening: Good for the soul in tough times

If the lines over the past two months at box retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s are any indication, everyone’s a gardener these days. During the shelter-in-place and social distancing orders, people still found safe ways to be outdoors and stay active. 
 
As people long to get outside but still stay home, they’re turning to home-improvement projects. Gardening has topped the list, whether they’re growing vegetables or putting in trees, shrubs and flower gardens. 
 
This global crisis has come as the weather turns milder and spring already means that more people are outdoors. But instead of gathering with friends or traveling, they’re looking to their own landscapes for a safe and productive way to have some sort of activity.

Hands-on activities for the family
Here are some ideas for easy ways to garden while we all manage this challenging time.
Build some raised beds in full sun – The box retailers have pre-cut kits or you can use your building skills to cut and assemble lumber. Most beds should be at least 12 inches deep, filled with a mix of garden soil, composted organic matter, and soil amendments. 
 
Typically, they’re built a couple of feet wide. Plan the location, dig out a couple of inches of the existing soil if you like, then install the wooden sides. Once you fill them, sprinkle in a general-purpose fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, and till or turn it in. Rake smooth. 
 
Then you’re ready to plant tomatoes, herbs, eggplant, pepper seedlings and other spring crops. The soil’s not quite warm enough to start seeds directly in the garden until mid-May, when you can sow cucumbers, pole beans and squash directly into the garden. Read the package for spacing when planting seeds and remember that you’ll need to thin them in a couple of weeks, removing the weakest seedlings. 
 
Try container gardening – Big flower pots and window boxes, especially those made of plastic or light-weight fiberglass, can be fun to plant. Make sure containers have drainage holes. Younger children are thrilled to help with picking out the flowers and digging the holes.
 
Right now, nurseries and box retailers are filled with many annuals that provide a stunning show all summer. Choose a thriller, a taller plant that’s very showy, a filler that’s a low-grower, and a spiller that will cascade over the sides of the pot. 
 
Coleus or flowering annual salvias are great thrillers. Just remember to regularly deadhead the spent blossoms and to pinch back the tops of the coleus to encourage branching. Fillers, such as dwarf marigolds, million bells/calibrachoa, and petunias, are good choices. The new wave petunias that trail, sweet potato plants and licorice plants provide the softness of spillers. 
 
The key to success with raised beds and with container gardening is regular watering. Especially with containers, the soil will dry out more quickly. In the hottest months, they may need a good soaking. If the plants look like they’re wilting, douse them thoroughly.
 
Stress relief and better health 
“From improving your physical health to taking a break from the stresses of life, getting back to Mother Earth brims with benefits,” says Joe Lamp’l, national television host and creator of joegardener.com. He’s a resident of Milton. “People who garden are generally more physically active, plus many gardeners I know seem to just be happier and more centered. Maybe it’s because they are so connected to nature.”
 
Lamp’l cites an article from Colorado State University’s Cooperative Extension Master Garden Program’s “Benefits of Gardening.” It says families who grow their own vegetables naturally eat more fruits and vegetables. Plus gardening provides exercise, stress reduction and relaxation.
 
“There’s just something in the soil that has a physiological effect on mental well-being,” Lamp’l says. “For me, it’s about just smelling the earth and the scents of the plants, plus seeing the results of my labors as the plants grow and mature.” 
 
To learn more about gardening and its benefits, visit www.joegardener.com. There, you can find podcasts, garden tips and free guides. For 11 seasons, Lamp’l has hosted a national television show, “Growing A Greener World,” broadcast on public television stations in all 50 states. Archives and episodes are available at growingagreenerworld.com.


April 2020 column

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 strawbalegardens.com.

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: www.elachee.org.
• 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: www.hallmastergardeners.com.

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.

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