Your spring gardening questions answered

Digging deep into my mailbag this week, plus unveiling three great new plant introductions

Hello, friends!

It’s perfectly normal for me to receive many more emails each week than I can possibly publish or even reply to, but your questions have been coming even faster now that planting season is underway, and I know many of you need answers.

I’ll be taking next week off, so I’m dedicating most of this newsletter to your Qs and my As.

Wishing you all a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, ideally spent in your beautiful gardens.

But first, a quick note about three new plant introductions I got to trial last year before their release. Keep an eye out for these new-for-2021 plants at the garden center — they performed well for me last year and earned my Golden Spade Award!

Echinacea Artisan Collection Red Ombre

Nice, uniform upright habit; great for containers and borders. Grows 18-30 inches tall and 1-10 inches wide. Grow in full sun. (Photo above)

Shock Wave Purple Tie Dye Petunia

Eye-catching, small-blossomed plants with a mounded, trailing habit that makes them ideal for hanging containers grow 7-10 inches high and 20-30 inches wide. Grow these in full sun. The cool thing about these is their purple and white pattern changes with the temperature and sun exposure. The same plant often had boldly striped, slightly striped and solid purple or white flowers on it. Very cool!

Easy Wave Rose Fusion

This was a solid performer in my hanging baskets last year. Mounded plants with darkly veined rose-colored flowers bloomed effortlessly all summer long. Plants grow to 6-12 inches tall and 30-39 inches wide.

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📬 Ask Jessica

DEAR JESSICA: Last year I had a fairly good zucchini crop but I don’t have much room in my raised bed. I’d like to get a better yield. Do you have any advice for staking them to get better use of the limited area and will staking them to grow vertically provide a better yield? — Drew Palazzotto 

DEAR DREW: To save space in your raised bed, you might consider growing indeterminate (sometimes called dwarf or container) zucchini, which grows in a bushy rather than vining habit. Varieties include Astia, Silver Bush, Black Beauty, Cue Ball, Eight Ball, Emerald Delight and Gold Rush. Just be sure to harvest often to encourage more fruiting.

But if you’re set on growing the vining type, yes, they can be grown in a tomato cage or pruned and staked to save space. Garden Culture Magazine has a nice how-to article detailing the process.

DEAR JESSICA: Can we safely assume that raised garden beds should not be built with railroad ties, which might exude toxins? —Howard Mandell

DEAR HOWARD: You are correct in your assumption. Railroad ties are preserved with creosote, which includes hundreds of different chemicals that leech into the soil. Many of those chemicals are toxic, and creosote has been linked to a host of damaging health effects and is a known carcinogen.

DEAR JESSICA: Last year I planted milkweed and butterfly weed. In the fall, I cut them back and now I don't know when they will come back. I remember it was into August when I bought the plants. Do I have to wait until July before I see any life? —Iris Zimmerman

DEAR IRIS: Butterflyweed is notoriously late to wake up in spring. Milkweed is no early bird, either. But you won’t have to wait until July. They should sprout and leaf out by late spring. At the end of the season, you might consider marking where each grew so as to avoid inadvertently digging up or planting in the same spot.

DEAR JESSICA: I would like to learn more about the clover lawn.  What does it look like, what are its benefits and drawbacks, etc.?  How often need it be cut, can you walk on it, etc.?  — Henry Ford   

DEAR HENRY: The benefits of replacing or supplementing your lawn with clover are many: Clover adds nitrogen to the soil, eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers. This is preferable, of course, because synthetic fertilizers often end up at the water table, where they fortify the plants there, leading some to grow out of proportion, crowding out native vegetation that’s vital for our insects, birds, wildlife and the entire food chain. Excess nitrogen also creates algae blooms and a host of other ills so when there’s a natural source that also will save you money, I say ‘sign me up!’

Clover can handle some activity but isn’t suitable for heavy foot traffic or, say, a game of touch football. It also may need reseeding every two or three years, but it’s less expensive than other grasses, which often need overseeding as well. 

The benefits of clover include:

  • It requires little or no watering.

  • It doesn’t require regular mowing. (You can get away with mowing clover only once a year, but never later than midsummer. If you’re a stickler for uniformity, you might opt to mow it monthly during the growing season, but this isn’t necessary.)

  • It never needs fertilizer.

  • It stays green all summer.

  • It doesn’t turn brown and die from pet urine, as turf grasses do.

  • It chokes out most other weeds.

  • It grows in full sun to part shade.

  • It attracts bees and other beneficial insects that pollinate nearby plants and help keep pests in control. (If you are allergic to or otherwise concerned about bees, you can keep them away by mowing regularly when it's in bloom.

DEAR JESSICA: Can you identify this plant and advise on how to kill it? —
Paul, Great Neck, NY

DEAR PAUL: That’s Japanese wineberry, an invasive plant that if left unchecked will multiply and create a dense thicket.

The good news is it’s pretty easy to remove and you can achieve control without chemicals. Hand pull or dig up plants as they appear, taking care to remove the entire root system, and immediately plant something else, preferably a native plant, in its place (leaving an empty patch of soil where it was will increase the likelihood that it will return.)

You may have to remove sprouts over the next year or two, but you should be able to eradicate them fairly easily.

DEAR JESSICA: I love your calendar and Sunday email. Wondering if you can help me identify this tree.

I had thought when it popped up in my garden it was a dogwood. I have staked it and watched it grow over the years, and this year it bloomed. The leaves resemble dogwood, but it’s not, although it certainly grows in a dogwood habit. Wondering If these photos shed any light on what it could be. — Jack Maguire

DEAR JACK: Your garden volunteer is, in fact, a dogwood — just probably not the type you are familiar with.

You probably were expecting Cornus Florida, the small, native flowering tree that reaches only 15-30 feet tall and blooms in spring before it leafs out. But there are other dogwood varieties growing in our area, as well.

Yours is a Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), which, despite its exotic-sounding name, also is a North American native. It’s called “Pagoda” because its tiered branching resembles the architecture of the Asian temple towers for which they are named.

Pagoda dogwoods are shrublike trees with fluffy, white spring flowers, that grow to 15 feet or taller. They prefer part shade but can handle some sun, and require moist, acidic soil.


📧 Send me your feedback!

I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered, questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section and photos of you, your plants and gardens for the next Sunday Shoutout!

Until next week, stay safe. Be well. And always keep your mind in the dirt. —Jessica


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