Annuals to plant for old-time nostalgia
Revisiting grandma's flowers; addressing rhododendron leaf drop
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Happy Easter! Chag Sameach! Ramadan Kareem! Wishing a wonderful holiday to all who celebrate. And happy spring to all!
Naturally, in spring, our thoughts turn to the garden and, in most cases, that means flowers.
After seeing my daughter’s high school’s production of “Our Town” several years ago, the one part of the Thornton Wilder play that stuck with me was the importance of the characters’ gardens. Mrs. Gibbs, for instance, grew corn, peas, beans, hollyhocks, heliotropes “and a lot of burdock.” And a recurring theme throughout the play was the heavenly, sweet scent of the heliotropes, which everyone was aware of.
Now, Frank, don't be grouchy. Just smell the heliotrope in the moonlight. Isn't that wonderful? — Mrs. Gibbs, “Our Town”
Heliotropes are, in fact, one of the most wonderfully fragrant flowers. Yet, somehow, they have fallen out of favor in American gardens. That got me thinking about how our garden choices have changed over the generations — and also made me want to plant heliotropes!
In my AP gardening column last week, I wrote about heliotropes (and hollyhocks and other once-popular flowers that aren’t planted nearly as often as they were decades ago.)
📬 Ask Jessica
DEAR JESSICA: We've had two rhododendron bushes in the yard since we moved in 28 years ago. The blooms on Memorial Day weekend are stunning. Last fall, the largest of our bushes lost 85% of its leaves, and there is only a small patch of green at the top. Any idea what happened? If we were to remove it, would it be safe to plant another tree in the same area? We loved the privacy & beauty every season. —Nancy Freire
DEAR NANCY: I’m so sorry your lovely mature rhododendron has declined.
The first thing you should do is test the soil around the plant. Rhododendrons require an acidic pH in the range of 4.5-6.0. Anything higher will decrease the amount of nutrients available to the plant. If severe enough, this can be deadly. Although you can buy a test kit, I recommend bringing a soil sample to your cooperative extension office for testing. If the pH requires adjusting, they will provide guidance.
If the pH is in the optimal range for the plant, here are some other possibilities.
Your photo seems to depict a too-deeply planted shrub. When the bottom-most portion of tree or shrub trunks—their root flare—is buried, the woody base of the plant rots, and the plant eventually dies. The decline can take years, so the cause of death may not be apparent. If this is the cause of the dieback, there is nothing you can do about it now.
If the shrub was exposed to severe drought last summer (has your irrigation changed?), watering deeply and applying much may save it. It's worth trying, although perhaps a long shot.
Phytophthora root rot (also called Rhododendron wilt) is caused by a fungus that thrives in wet conditions. As roots rot from excess soil moisture, the plant’s leaves fade to yellow, wilt and eventually drop. Symptoms sometimes come on gradually over the course of a few seasons until the plant succumbs to the disease. Sometimes, improving soil drainage can help, but I fear your plant may be too far gone.
Still, it’s worth a try: Taking care not to disturb the shrub’s roots, incorporate a generous amount of organic matter like compost or well-rotted manure into the bed, then apply 2 inches of mulch over the soil, taking care to keep it 3 inches away from the base of the shrub.
To determine is your shrub or a portion of it is truly dead, lightly scrape a branch with a sharp knife and look at the plant tissue beneath the bark. If it's fresh and green, the branch is alive; if the tissue is brown or black (or anything else) it's dead, and you can prune it away.
As you suspected, if Phytophthora is present in the soil, it will infect replacement plants. To help avoid this, select a resistant species, such as Clethra alnifolia (summersweet) or Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire).
💡 If you do one thing this week…
It’s Earth Week! Start a compost pile and introduce one new native plant to your garden.
MOTHER’S DAY GIFT ALERT
For more great gardening tips — 365 of them! — get a jump on the growing season with my Day-by-Day Gardening Calendar. It’s like a complete gardening course in a wall calendar! By the end of the year, I promise, you’ll have earned a green thumb! Plus, your wall will be adorned with award-winning photography provided by The Weekly Dirt readers. And I’ve extended my 20% Off Welcome to Spring Sale for moms! Take a look:
👏 Sunday shoutout
Christopher Brown of Wading River, NY, shared this beautiful shot of his happy-looking front-yard garden, which is making me impatient for summer!
Send in your photo, and you could be featured next!
📰This week in my Associated Press gardening column
I write a weekly gardening column for the AP, so you might have seen my byline in your local paper (or news website) — wherever in the world you happen to be. In case you miss it, though, I’ll post the most recent here every week.
Old-Fashioned Flowers: Eight vintage garden flowers worth revisiting
Filling raised beds? Save money—and grow better—with Hugelkultur: Hugelkultur is a different, more natural (and cheaper) approach to raised beds or mounds that doesn’t require so many bags of top soil or compost. Instead, you fill the space with organic matter that gradually decomposes, feeding the soil and plants. Here’s how.
Growing veggies in small spaces: Smaller new varieties can yield great results for vegetables grown in containers.
Plants to plant in spring for a beautiful garden next winter: When you’re planning and planting your spring garden, think ahead to next winter too, and include plants that will create interest in your landscape in the so-called “off season.”
Black innovators who reshaped American gardening and farming: The achievements of 19th-century scientist George Washington Carver have landed him in U.S. history textbooks, but many other agricultural practices and innovations that traveled with enslaved people from West Africa or were developed by their descendants remain unsung. Here’s a look at five.
Tips for indoor seed-starting: When to start planting seeds indoors? First, check your frost date.
Holey leaves and vines! A look at houseplant trends for 2022: A look at trends in houseplants for 2022. Popular varieties include fenestrated plants, that is, those with leaves that are split or contain holes. Vines are another hot category.
Let’s be friends! Follow me @JesDamiano on Instagram
📧 How’m I doing?
I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered and questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section.
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Until next week, stay safe. Be well. And always keep your mind in the dirt. —Jessica
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