Q: How do I overwinter a gardenia that I have had on the patio all summer?

A: There seems to be general agreement in the references I could find, but the most complete reference that I found on gardenias was the Reader’s Digest Success with House Plants.

imageGardenia jasminoides comes from China and normally blooms in early summer. It prefers an acid soil and is accustomed to coolish but not cold winters. It doesn’t go fully dormant, but slows down and can survive occasional temperatures slightly below freezing. That adds up to treating it as a house plant in our area. Bring it inside and keep it in bright but not direct sunlight and let it dry out a bit between waterings.

Apparently the winter temperatures influence the setting of buds, so if you want flowers next summer keep the thermometer between 60 and 65 degrees. Or, if you want to delay blooming until next winter, which would be after you’ve brought the plant inside again, you can pinch off the buds as they develop next spring and early summer.

As I was working on this question we had a visitor in the Master Gardener office who has been raising gardenias for years. Her plants spend the summer on a covered porch and the winter in the living area. She leaves their pot standing above a shallow tray of water and feeds an African violet fertilizer. For pest control she uses insecticidal soap. Her gardenias bloom sporadically throughout the year.

You can see that her recipe is a little different than that of the book but it seems to work for her. And that’s the way gardening is: sometimes more an art than a science.

Written by Glenn Palmer, originally published in the Asheville Citizen Times, October 1998.


Q: We have a sweetgum tree in our yard, and have really enjoyed the fall color. But what can we do about those awful gumballs? They are dangerous!

A: You are right. The fruits of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styriflua) can indeed be like little land mines when flung by the mower. The seeds of the tree are enclosed in the capsule which splits open when the seeds are mature. The problem is that the capsule has porcupine-like spines all over and are difficult to pick up. And they seem to keep falling all winter.

Unfortunately there is no way to prevent the tree from forming gumballs. You just have to learn to deal with them. In my own yard I have an out-of-the-way place designated for composting woody or fibrous material that takes a long time to break down. I use a leaf rake to gather them into piles and a flat shovel to scoop them up. Dumped into a long-term compost pile they will decompose eventually.

Sweetgum can be a good landscape or street tree. It can grow to 75 feet, usually has a nice conical shape and has excellent fall color.

Anyone thinking about planting a sweetgum, might consider purchasing the cultivar ‘Rotundiloba’, which is the only known variety that does not form fruit. The leaves have rounded lobes instead of points, but otherwise ‘Rotundiloba’ has the same form and fall color as the fruited varieties.

Written by Glenn Palmer, originally published in the Asheville Citizen Times.

Fall Tool Maintenance

imageAs you’re finishing up the fall garden chores it’s a good idea to get your tools repaired or maintained before you put them away. Don’t wait until you need them next spring to discover a missing bolt or broken handle on the machine or tool that you need to use. As a reminder here are some of the common tool maintenance tasks:

Hoses: Don’t leave them connected to a faucet! Freezing temps can burst the pipes as well as the hose. Take off the nozzle and drain the hose. Coil them flat or on a reel; make sure there are no kinks that may lead to a leak next time pressure is applied.

Gasoline engines: Drain or run off all the fuel in the tank. Change the oil while it’s warm, right after you shut the engine off. Check the service manual to make sure it’s the correct type or weight of oil. If the engine has gotten hard to start change the plug or haul it in for a tune up.

Electrically driven tools: Check cords for wear or cuts, particularly on hedge shears! Look the manual to see if there are other maintenance points.

Lawn mower, tiller: Clean clippings from under the mower deck and tingled stems and roots from the tiller tines. Apply a rust preventative to surfaces where the paint has worn off, perhaps using the oil drained from the engine.

imageCutting tools– pruners, clippers saws: Clean off hardened sap with mineral spirits or paint thinner. Remove rust with steel wool, then sharpen the blade or have it done professionally.

Digging tools – hoes, rakes shovels, spades, forks: remove mud and rust with a wire brush, touch up the edges with a file and then oil the blade.

Wooden handles: run over the wood lightly with fine sandpaper of steel wool and then apply a conservative, like one part linseed oil to two part mineral spirits or paint thinner. Paint a brightly colored weather resistant, band around the handle so the tool is easier to find if it’s laid in the garden.

Finally, as you complete each job put that tool back in its regular storage place and make a resolution to do likewise every time you use it next year.

By Glenn Palmer

Fall Cleanup

imageThere are two reasons to do some garden clean up now: because the remnants are unattractive or to remove debris so that insects and diseases won’t have a place to hide over winter. But looking around our own garden I can think of more reasons to allow some of the foliage and stems to remain, at least for the time being.

Those that are still green should be left alone. As long as there is active chlorophyll the plant is still producing energy that is going to root growth or bud development or being stored for the next growing season.

Some plants add winter interest. The chocolate colored seed heads of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ or the golden haziness of Amsonia (Blue Star) can bring the garden alive even on cold winter days. Snow gathering on the taller plants adds a new dimension, too.

Photo by Diane PuckettWildlife can find food and shelter in the leftover garden. The purple coneflowers attract goldfinches early and later feed chickadees and nuthatches. Mourning doves make regular inspections of our garden year round.

Those seeds may give you new plants that you can use to fill in empty spots or trade with other gardeners. Next summer we’ll again be visited by hummingbirds that delight in the red Salvia coccinea, an annual that volunteers or reseeds itself every year on its own.

And finally, as a practical matter, if you plan to move or divide a plant in the spring, allow enough leaves and stems to remain to serve as a bookmark or reminder, locating and identifying the plant for you.

So don’t hurry. Leave some of the cleanup for latter. Your garden should be a fun place to visit or to view any season of the year.

By Glenn Palmer

A Chicken in Every Garden?


images-2 poultry-bkg-150x150

With their beautiful feathers, plucky personalities and tasty eggs, who wouldn’t love chickens? Before I got my ‘girls’, I envisioned them roaming over my garden, gently pulling weeds from amongst my flowers while gentle music played. Well, maybe not the music. The reality turned out to be much more earthy.

Chickens do eat weeds. They also eat vegetables, herbs, flowers, both perennials and annuals, and all living creatures smaller than themselves. They turn over the soil looking for insects and worms, which aerates the soil but can disturb plant roots. And chickens love to take baths. Not ones with soap and water, but dirt baths. The first time I observed this, I thought my chicken was dead. She was lying half on her side in a slight depression with dirt on and around her. They do this to rid themselves of mites and to find cooler soil, particularly under a shrub, on a hot day. Needless to say, they dig among the roots of the plant.

Fencing makes keeping chickens and gardening more compatible. Either letting the chickens roam in a limited area defined by temporary wire fencing or fencing off areas of the garden that must be kept chicken free. Some gardeners let their chickens roam in the vegetable garden area during the winter, letting them turn over the soil and deposit rich droppings that enrich the soil for the coming growing season.

My chickens are no longer free range. Living outside the city, we have a healthy population of predators. The chicken coop itself was built using ¼ inch screening instead of larger chicken wire. Placing it under, around, and above the coop has kept anything from digging, climbing or crawling through. The only intruder has been a bear that ripped the door off to reach the sweet-smelling chicken feed. That day the chickens roamed free.

images-3While roaming in the garden, Vesta and Lucille, two of my first three chickens, were eaten by hawks. The last, Walline, lonely on her own, went to live with a chicken-keeping friend. My next three, cumulatively called the girls, are not allowed outside the coop. Although it has been several years since the first batch met their fate, the hawks still patrol our property daily.

Our chicken coop floor is lined with a thick layer of pine bark mulch that is changed every few weeks. The smaller hen house, the elevated enclosed part of the coop where the chickens lay eggs and roost at night, is lined with wheat straw, which is changed daily. Rich with chicken droppings, this goes into our compost pile along with green yard and kitchen waste. The chickens’ greatest gift to our garden is their manure that helps produce rich compost that builds great soil.

FullSizeRender-2I love my chickens. If considering chicken-keeping, first check with your town or city to see if they are allowed, and then do your reading.

Click here for more information –  Backyard Chickens

Written by Lorraine Cipriano

Fruit Flies or Fungus Gnats?

Most likely you recently brought house plants inside for the winter. If you also seem to have a sudden rash of fruit flies, well, maybe not. They may be fungus gnats.

Fungus gnats are common in house plants and usually not much of a problem. They are tiny, about the size of fruit flies, so many people think they have fruit flies when they actually have fungus gnats. The gnats can be found flying near or on house plants and lay their eggs in the soil. Adult gnats do not harm plants, but, in a large infestation, larvae can cause significant damage to plant roots. This is more of a problem for commercial greenhouses than for the home gardener.

imageFungus gnat larvae need wet soil to survive. The best way to control fungus gnats in houseplants is to allow the top couple inches of soil to dry out between waterings. Keep water drained from saucers under pots. The problem should resolve in a few weeks.

Fruit flies eat decaying produce and are most often seen in the kitchen or other food storage areas. To control fruit flies, throw out any produce which has rotten spots. Cover kitchen scraps waiting to be composted, rinse food containers before recycling, and empty the kitchen trash can regularly. Don’t leave dirty dishes sitting, and keep the kitchen clean, especially the sink and drain. Even damp, unclean sponges and towels can support fruit flies, so change them often.

Turkey Time

Eastern Wild_TurkeyWill you be dining on turkey this Thanksgiving? These birds’ featured role in holiday feasts may be all that many mountain residents know about them. Wild turkey populations dwindled so precipitously, that by the 1950s, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission resorted to reintroducing them to increase their numbers. Now turkeys are so plentiful they are becoming nuisance wildlife. If you understand a bit more about these birds, you can ensure that they will be welcome visitors to your landscape.

Turkeys are omnivores, so although they could help by eating some of your garden pests, they will eat beneficial insects, as well as small beneficial critters, such as lizards. In the spring, they may consume tender young plants, and turkeys scratching through garden areas may damage any plants in their path. During summer, fall and into winter, they will feast on berries, nuts and seeds. The most important thing to know about turkeys’ eating habits, though, is not to feed them! Gardeners who think that providing food for turkeys will protect their own crops or because they enjoy seeing them in their yards are creating nuisance wildlife.

Wild turkey with chicksTurkeys often form large flocks, beginning in the fall, and these groups have a pecking order. If turkeys become too familiar, you may find them roosting in your trees, on your home, or even on your car and threatening anyone who they perceive as lower in that pecking order. With sharp beaks and spurs they can do serious harm. During the mating season, male “Toms” may become territorial and can damage reflective surfaces, such as cars, thinking their reflections are potential rivals.

Peaceful coexistence is possible if you keep turkeys away from your gardens, home and vehicles by removing any supplemental food sources and discouraging them from being too friendly. Shooing turkeys away with noise or a garden hose are ways to keep yourself at the top of the pecking order and enjoy seeing them in your landscape.

Written by Debbie Green


For those with acreage who want to encourage turkey populations:

Leaf Season!

imageIt’s time to plan your leaf harvest. Here are some thoughts on how-to go about it, particularly if you’ll be using a blower:

Don’t wait until the last minute to check your equipment. Do a blower tune up. Use fresh fuel mix. Have safety items at hand – goggles, hearing protection, gloves. Get things ready. This fall’s leaf drop may be prolonged due to the vagaries of our 2015 weather.

Make a plan. Know which direction you’ll be working and where you’ll collect the leaves to be hauled off.

Will you shred the leaves first? A mulching mower blade could help. Or perhaps a bagging mower which can eliminate almost any raking.

Where will you be stockpiling your harvest? Is there space in the compost bin? Do you have soil or grass clippings to mix with the leaves? Or will you be spreading the chopped leaves on borders or empty vegetable beds to break down over winter?

Harvest before the leaves get rain-soaked and matted but pick a day with only gentle wind. Don’t try to fight nature!

If you’ll be using a blower consider the acoustical impact on your neighbors. Please don’t fire up at seven AM!

Lay out a tarp on your target area to collect the leaves. Fold it over to create a carrying sack.

Start with a rake, clearing the tight corners and creating enough space along the edges that you can blow toward your target, not into surrounding beds or walkways.

Work your plan so you don’t have to blow the same area twice.

And stop occasionally to enjoy nature around you, to watch the geese as they fly over on their way to warmer climes. Fall is one of the four best seasons of the gardener’s year!

Written by Glenn Palmer

The Wisdom of Diverse Planting

imageAre you seeing a catastrophic die-off of an important part of your landscape? Callers to our EMG helpline often report that an extensive hedge or a mass planting is looking poorly and some of the individual plants are already dead. Losing one plant is sad. Losing many can cause big problems.

A common example concerns Leyland cypress planted as a screen. Leylands are inexpensive, pretty, and grow quickly. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to many diseases and insects, especially when grown close together. Some problems cause unsightly damage that must be pruned out; others can only be controlled by removing diseased plants. Not surprisingly, Extension no longer recommends planting Leylands:

Other popular landscape choices are also at risk. With the spread of new diseases, such as Rose Rosette, Impatiens downy mildew and Boxwood blight, as well as the appearance of new pests such the Emerald Ash Borer, gardeners face an ever-changing list of potential threats to specific plants in their gardens.

This cautionary tale has a happier ending: Diverse plantings are a wiser gardening choice. Our mountain plant communities include an amazing number of species, so a variety of plants will always look more natural. Yes, each of those different plants will be vulnerable to different diseases and will attract different pests, but they will also attract more birds and beneficial insects that will help maintain a healthy balance, minimizing the need for pesticides.

JC Raulston Arboretum

JC Raulston Arboretum

If you lose your Leyland screen, plant a beautiful new hedge using shrubs of various shapes, colors and sizes. Put your roses in more than one spot in your garden; consider a mix of shade-loving annuals rather than a large bed of Impatiens. Reconsider adding boxwoods or ash trees. Your diverse landscape will limit pests and diseases to susceptible plants. You can replace those one or two plants, while still maintaining an attractive garden.

Free Soil Testing Ends Soon

Soil-image-300x206-100x100NC Department of Agriculture’s peak soil testing season period begins November 26th. Soil samples received by November 25 will be analyzed at no charge. For samples received November 26, 2015 through March 31st, 2016 a $4 fee per sample will be charged. Free soil analysis will not be available again until April.

Payments for soil samples submitted during the peak season can be made via credit card or with an escrow account. Consult the NCDA Agronomic Division website for information on how to set up an account. The phone contact number for NCDA is 919-733-2655.

Boxes for soil samples are available at the Buncombe County Extension Office, 49 Mount Carmel Road, Asheville 28806.

For more information about soil testing,
A Gardener’s Guide to Soil Testing
NCDA Soil Testing