Frequently Asked Questions
Soils and Nutrients
What is soil made up of?
Soil is made up of inorganic material derived from parent rock; organic matter from decaying plants and animals; bacteria and fungi; water; and gases, such as carbon dioxide and oxygen. Soil provides anchorage to plants and serves as a reservoir of nutrients and water. It also moderates the effect of temperature upon the roots.
What is organic matter and how does it contribute to the health of the soil?
When organic matter that is in the soil breaks down it can act as a type of glue and improve soil texture by bonding clay particles together. Bacteria, fungi, and other living organisms form a very important part of the organic matter in soil. The bacteria and fungi break down non-living organic matter into humic acids and release nutrients for use by plants. Some bacteria fix nitrogen for plant use while earthworms and other large soil organisms increase porosity by burrowing through the soil.
What does the term “organic” mean, in terms of fertilizers?
To be an organic product, the ingredients must come from natural sources; ie: composts, manures, guanos, animal bloods, poultry by-products or seaweed extracts. Products containing some natural ingredients and some synthetic ingredients, such as mined minerals, are described as naturally based.
How do I calculate the amount of fertilizer I need based on the actual Nitrogen?
Some fertilizer recommendations pertain to nitrogen only, such as “1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet” instead of so many pounds of fertilizer. To determine the amount to use, divide 100 by the first number in a fertilizer analysis – this is the percent of nitrogen in that particular fertilizer. For example, if you were using a 5-10-5 fertilizer and wanted to apply 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, you would divide 100 by 5 (the percent of nitrogen) = 20. This means that you would need to apply 20 pounds of 5-10-5 to an area of 1,000 square feet to achieve the rate of 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1, 000 square feet (20 pounds of fertilizer x 5 percent [.05] nitrogen = 1 pound of nitrogen). If you want to apply this same 5-10-5 fertilizer at the rate of 1 1/4 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, you would multiply the number of pounds needed at the 1 pound rate by 1.25. If you wanted the rate to be 1 1/2 or 2 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, you would multiply the number of pounds needed for the 1 pound rate by 1.5 or 2, respectively.
What is the difference between an annual and a perennial plant?
An annual is a plant with a lifecycle of one year. It, therefore, must be replanted or reseeded every year. A perennial is a plant that grows from the same root system for at least three years, usually flowering and bearing seeds annually. A biennial is a plant with a life cycle of two years. Many biennials self-sow, giving the appearance of a perennial.
Are there any shade trees that don't produce a lot of litter?
There are several options for shade trees that don’t produce a lot of litter. These trees include Linden, Beech, Seedless Red Maples, American Elm (Dutch Elm resistant), Hackberry, and Gingko.
What plants could I use for a hedge along a sidewalk? The planting area is in full sun and the plants would need to be resilient to some salt application in the winter.
Some shrubs that could work in that situation would be Privet, Barberry, or Yews.
Are there any low maintenance rose bushes?
Due to the low maintenance needs of shrub roses, which are also called landscape roses, they can function in the landscape as a flowering shrub, mixed with conifers, perennials and annuals. These shrub roses have many of the same benefits as traditional roses without the level of care that has typically been required.
Why doesn’t anything grow under my evergreen trees?
The key to growing plant material under mature trees is to make sure the plants receive enough moisture. The roots of the trees in addition to the dense overhead cover of the evergreen trees do not allow enough moisture for most plants and especially plants trying to get established. Installing a drip irrigation system under the trees would be recommended. To find a Certified Green Industry Professional with expertise in irrigation installation, please click here.
I have a beautiful wisteria vine that is growing up my 35-year-old evergreen.
The wisteria is about 10 years old and has taken off to the top of the tree over the last 2 years. I don't want to damage/lose the tree, but the wisteria is beautiful. What do you recommend doing?
The wisteria will eventually choke the evergreen out. The wisteria is beautiful it is considered a weed in this case, as it is the right plant in the wrong place. Removing the wisteria will save the evergreen. Planting a new wisteria on a trellis or arbor where it can be appreciated better would be the best compromise.
Is Japanese white wisteria a plant that can be trimmed? What time of year would be best to do this?
You will want to prune wisteria in midwinter, and again in the summertime. In the summer, pruning your wisteria should be done about two months after it flowers.
Three years ago I bought a lilac bush. It bloomed the first year. But, the last 2 years the leaves have growth, but the buds have not developed. What can I do to have blossoms in the future?
The problem could be one of several things. First, be sure not to prune the lilac bush after June. Shrubs that flower early in the spring set buds during the previous summer. Pruning too late in the season will cut off potential buds for flowers. Second, consider the amount of sun the shrub is getting. Lilacs need full sun in order to thrive and put on a beautiful show of flowers. Third, do not fertilize the shrub with nitrogen. Nitrogen promotes leaf growth. Rather use a fertilizer with phosphorus, which promotes flowering. Finally, it usually takes a lilac bush a few years to become established. Sometimes patience is the best recipe for success.
Something is eating my Crocus bulbs! What can I do to protect the bulbs without harming the critters or the environment?
There are many animal repellents on the market. Many of these will not harm the environment. Visit your local garden center as they can suggest a product to help deter these critters.
Starting and Maintaining your Landscape
I am planning to renovate my landscape, what things should I keep in mind to have a successful end product?
- Mulch: The benefits of mulch in the landscape include moisture conservation, weed management, temperature moderation, and nutrient release through decomposition. Mulch rings around trees planted in turf also provide the added benefits of reducing competition from surrounding grass for water and nutrients and protecting trunks from weed trimmers and lawn mowers. Recommendations call for 3 inches of mulch evenly applied across the planting area without allowing it to be in contact with the trunk.
- Watering: The best start to ensuring adequate moisture at planting is to start with adequate soil or media moisture going into the hole. Newly installed plants rely on soil ball and container moisture to supply their needs. Concentrate watering on the root mass whether it is soil or media and provide some moisture to the backfill/root mass interface. Target future watering to the base of the plant and regulate the timing based on stock type, available irrigation systems, and weather conditions. Remember, an automatic irrigation system does not necessarily ensure that water is penetrating into root masses during establishment.
- Pruning: Pruning at planting is recommended to minimize the demand for water by the emerging shoots and expanding leaves. Pruning on newly planted plants should be limited to shoots that do not contribute to overall crown shape or appearance. This will lighten the density of the crown without having a substantial impact on overall shoot development and leaf expansion.
- Fertilization: Nutrient uptake is important for plant growth and development. Fertilization at planting can promote root growth, enhance establishment and minimize the transplant shock period resulting in achieving both aesthetic and environmental benefits sooner. Fertilizer at planting should be based on soil tests of the backfill or existing site soils.
When do I prune my flowering trees and shrubs?
Plants will benefit from periodic thinning and opening the interior canopies to light penetration and air circulation. Thinning of the canopy will reduce humidity, speed evaporation, and decrease the incidence of disease during susceptible periods. Thinning of plant crowns also reduces wind resistance and the potential for damage during storms. Pruning aids flowering by maintaining conditions, which promote flower bud formation such as adequate light, stimulation of new wood, and a control of vegetative growth. Excessive pruning can promote vegetative growth at the expense of flowering.
When do I prune my flowering trees and shrubs?
There are a few guidelines to follow when planning to prune. The appropriate time to prune will depend on the plant type, its condition, and the desired outcome. When pruning flowering plants it is important to consider flowering time. Spring flowering plants should be pruned soon after flowering. These plants form flower buds on previous season’s wood. Any pruning after bud development in late summer will remove flower buds and potentially limit the flower display during the following spring. Summer flowering plants flower on current season’s wood, and are best pruned after flowering or until growth starts in the spring. Many fruit plants produce flower buds on short, lateral shoots referred to as spurs. Timing remains the same, but pruning practice will be modified to retain the spur growth.
How do I maintain a formal hedge?
It is important to begin shaping a hedge at an early age. Hedges require regular and often repeated pruning in a season to control growth and maintain the desired shape. In general, hedges are pruned so that the base is wider than the top, like an inverted “V”. The resultant angle of exterior foliage allows better light interception. Hedges that are wider at the top eventually lose lower foliage and branches due to shading.
What tools should I use for pruning?
Choosing the right pruning tool can be as important as understanding the basic principles. It is important to select the appropriate tool for the branch or stem size. Inappropriate use of pruning tools can result in unnecessary damage to the plant and tools, along with wasted effort and frustration by the operator. Common pruning tools are hand shears, lopping shears, hedge shears, knives, saws, pole saws, and pole pruners.
There are two basic types of hand and lopping shears, hook and blade (bypass) and anvil. The hook and blade cuts by the curved blade passing close to the curved/hooked anvil. The anvil type cuts by the flat blade pressing against a flat anvil. The anvil type is best used with small stems and branches. Hand shears are usually recommended for use on stems up to 3/4” in diameter. Lopping shears can cut branches up to 1 1/2” in diameter. Ratchet models of both hand and lopping shears are available, making cutting easier and/or extending the range of stem diameter efficiently cut.
Pruning tools should be clean, in good working order, and by all means sharp. Keep tools out of the soil, remove sap or other materials from the blade, lubricate the blade and moving parts with the appropriate lubricant, and sharpen blades according to manufacturer’s recommendations. When pruning plants with diseases known to spread, disinfect tools with an alcohol or bleach solution between cuts.
The following are a few safety tips when pruning:
- Always wear appropriate safety gear including gloves, eye protection, and safety shoes.
- Avoid baggy clothing.
- Keep both feet on the ground; if you must climb or use a ladder, use approved equipment, take the necessary safety precautions, and use a ground assistant.
- Work close to your body, at bent arm’s length. Do not force a cut or use power equipment with your arms fully extended.
- Do not cut over your head.
- Avoid work near power lines.
- Be familiar with the safe handling, storage, and transport of all equipment.
When using electric powered equipment:
- Secure the cord away from the operation to avoid cutting it with the blades.
- Disconnect the power before cleaning and making adjustments.
- Never use during or immediately after rain.
- Follow necessary safety precautions when using gas operated equipment.
- Know your limitations. Do not overestimate your stamina.
How do you control weeds in the landscape?
Landscape weed control can take many forms. There are more options in soil than in containers or patio plantings. In landscape beds, possible control methods include cultural, mechanical, biological, chemical and combinations of the previous four.
- Cultural Control: Keeping the area weed free is very important for maintaining weed control. Keeping the area around the landscape weed free keeps weed seed levels to a minimum.
- Mechanical Control: Cultivation is a common method of mechanical control in landscape. Although it is time consuming, cultivation does work well for annual weeds.
- Biological Control: Biological control involves the use of naturally occurring pests to control weeds.
- Chemical Control: The backbone of a landscape herbicide weed control program is based on pre-emergent herbicides because, in general, post-emergence herbicides are phytotoxic (harmful to crop) to ornamental species. They can also be granular in form, rather than liquid, which reduce the phytotoxicity of the herbicide.
Containers, Vegetables and Houseplants
What is the correct timing for planting seeds in a seed starter indoors?
The timing for starting seeds indoors depends on what you are starting for your garden. Most plants, whether a vegetable, annual, or perennial, have different germination rates. The best information is on the back of the seed pack. Most seeds emerge 7-14 days after they are planted. You also need to find out what the average last frost date is in your area. Use the information from the seed packet to determine the germination time required and count backward from the last frost date to determine when you start your seeds inside. You will need to harden off your plants for one week before planting them in the garden. The seed packet gives you a lot of good information.
How do I start a container garden?
First, you must choose a container. Containers can be ceramic, clay, concrete, wood, or plastic. However, it is not necessary to be limited to these choices – anything can become a gardening container if it a) holds soil, and b) has drainage. If using new terra cotta or unglazed ceramic containers, be sure to soak them in water first. This will ‘hydrate’ the container so that water will not be pulled from the soil and away from the plants during the first few waterings. Saucers underneath pots and containers will catch any excess water that drains; if saucers are used, be sure to empty them regularly to avoid stagnant water where insects, such as mosquitoes, may breed.
Do not use straight topsoil or compost as a potting medium as these are heavy and dense and provide very little air space. Quality potting soils will be light weight (mostly, if not entirely, peat moss), loose, and have a neutral pH range.
For full appreciation, choose plants with interesting foliage, textures, colors, fruits, etc. for up close viewing in sitting areas, building entrances, or on patios. Always remember the first rule of design – keep it simple.
When and how much to water a container is dependent on many factors, including the size of the container, the size and variety of plants, the exposure to the sun and/or wind, and the type of material the container is made from. The best indicator of whether or not a container needs water is to stick a finger into the soil. If it is still moist an inch down, the container still has plenty of moisture. If it is dry, then gently add water to the pot.
Where should I plant a vegetable garden?
It is important to select a good site when growing vegetables. The location should have at least 6 hours of sun a day with a southern exposure. The soil should be well drained, but not located on a steep slope. The best soil type is a sandy loam. The garden will not be successful if there isn’t sufficient water; choose a site within reach of a hose. It must also be accessible for people and equipment. Locate the garden away from trees, especially black walnut, as its roots are toxic to certain vegetables. Soils that are going to grow good food crops should not have shrub, tree or other kinds of roots in it. When laying out the garden, orient the rows north to south. Most importantly, rotate crop locations each year.
How do I water my houseplants?
Most plants prefer moderately dry soil between waterings. The best way to check the soil is to touch it with your fingertips. When watering, soak the soil thoroughly using room temperature water. Watering is best performed in the mornings because the plants can use the excess water immediately (plants use water better in the light than in the dark). Water sparingly at night only when the plant is too wilted to survive overnight. Refrain from getting water on plants with fuzzy leaves like African Violets or Gloxinia. The leaf hairs hold water, which can spot or even rot the leaf. Also avoid excess water in the crown of plants such as Cyclamen and some Peperomia. To avoid wetting the foliage, plants may be watered from the bottom by placing them in a saucer of water.