Questions pop up like compost volunteers
The Post's gardening columnist Adrian Higgins answered questions recently in an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I love composting, but my problem is that seeds of yore (tomatoes, pumpkins, squash) come up in the beds. None of them grow that big, but they seem to take over. Anything to do except pull them? I keep hoping that we'd get a compost surprise and leave them be, but then the veggies themselves are mini.
A: I think some compost seeds are fine and others are not. Veggie seedlings are generally large and easily controlled (i.e. pulled), as opposed to horrors such as galinsoga. This is related to whether you have an active, hot pile that kills most seeds or, like the rest of us, favor a passive one that takes longer and doesn't do as good a job with killing seeds. As a rule, I resist the temptation to transplant compost bearing veggie seeds because you can't count on the quality of the seedling. If I am going to the considerable effort of raising a tomato or a squash over many weeks, I want to know that it will be a variety I will like at harvest time.
Q: I've emptied out my pots on the front steps and was wondering what to plant now that might look good through December. I like chrysanthemums, but they are so common. I was hoping to put something else in, but is there really anything else (and not pansies and not ornamental cabbage)?
A: I might try some winter-flowering heaths with some trailing ivy. Recognize that the heaths are not permanent plants in our (mid-Atalntic) climate, and nor should you regard the Alberta spruce as permanent, either. Again, that would make a nice piece of topiary for the season. Make sure your pots are freeze-proof.
Q: Is there any way to thaw/defrost compost?
A: Once it is properly hydrated for the winter, you could cover it with a tarp. If we get a week or two of 20-degree weather, it will probably freeze. The larger the pile, the less the prospects of it freezing, but freezing alone isn't going to ruin the compost.
Q: I know I missed the prime season to over-seed the lawn, but can I still throw down some seed in the early spring?
A: Yes. March is the second-best month for this. However, I would add some now. It may well germinate before January and be ready to go in the spring.
Q: I kept the instructions for a layered bulb planting in a pot from BBC's "Gardener's World" and bought the bulbs and potting soil. Now I realize that winters here are much colder than in the United Kingdom. Is it still possible to plant daffodils, tulips and crocus in a pot left outdoors? It's plastic and wide-mouthed. How do I water it?
A: Follow the instructions, but sink the pot in a bed of well-worked soil or compost. Just water it well at first and do make sure you have some sort of netting for the first month to keep the squirrels off.
Q: Do you need to cut the bottom of your Christmas tree on a slant?
A: No, that's not necessary. I make a straight cut; easier for securing in the container.
Q: Do I need to apply a winter mulch to my landscape plants?
A: Some marginal plants will benefit from a mulch. There's a school of thought that you should wait until the ground freezes to avoid the freeze-thaw cycle. But you need only mulch plants you think will perish in the winter, which is more of a concern in Northern states. Some people lost a lot of roses last winter, along with camellias and figs.
Q: I have a climbing rose that has beautiful blossoms, but not that many and lots of very spindly bits (with a small cluster of leaves at the top). Should I just prune it back?
A: Climbing roses produce more blooms from horizontal stems than upright ones, so the key is to get lateral branches growing and trained as part of its care. Once you have these laterals,
their canes that grew this year should be cut back to about four buds. Next year's flowering will follow from these buds. You can do this now, or wait until February before bud break.
Q: Any good vegetables to plant in the next couple weeks? I understand that most things planted now won't be harvestable until spring.
A: In a word, no. Any veggies you are nurturing now will have been sown be tween August and October. There may still be time to plant garlic and shallot bulbs, but it's getting late. Some people try sowing fava beans and peas in the fall; this might be worth a try, though in many years they don't germinate and rot. Next month you can start onions, leeks, artichokes and celer y indoors. You should start cabbages and other brassicas toward the end of January (indoors under lights). Now would be an excellent time to build or acquire seed-starting apparatus.
Q: We de-turfed and made a raised bed garden in a sunny spot on our yard, and for the first few years had great success with tomatoes. But for the past two years we have lost a few plants to wilt (probably fusarium, but maybe verticillium), despite tr ying to buy resistant plants. Is there anything we can do now that will help? Do we just have to lose a whole summer and solarize the bed?
A: You have a buildup of these diseases i n the soil, and it would be better to avoid any nightshade plants there for three years, if you can manage that. This includes eggplant, peppers, potatoes and ground cherries, as well as tomatoes. Perhaps you should consider converting that bed into a perennial edibles bed, such as asparagus or strawberry.
Q: Which tree does best inside? I've heard firs and pines do.
A : For Christmas trees, firs are less prone to drying out because of their heavy waxy cuticles and short needles. Pines are fine, if you keep that column of water going. Douglas fir is not native to these (mid-Atlantic) parts, so any tree of that species is going to be pretty old by the time you get it.
Q: Have you ever planted a live Christmas tree outside?
A: If I lived in t he country with 20 acres or more, I might consider that. The fitness of a given tree in the landscape should drive this, not the idea that you are saving a tree for Christmas. (Christmas trees are farmed and harvested after six to 10 years, or so, so you are not deforesting any areas by buying a cut tree.) Live trees also are heavy, because of the rootball, and will become stressed by being indoors for too long. Also, the hole that you will place it in must be dug now before the ground freezes and the excavated soil covered against frost. In short, it's not worth it in my book.
Q: Do you need to keep snow off your garden every time it falls ? I assume five, six inches won't hur t anything. What about heavy snow?
A: Snow is good; it provides a blanket against freezing. Heavy, wet snow can be a problem, and sometimes you just have to live with it. I have had the leader broken twice in one Southern magnolia, but it has come back. If I had a prized old boxwood, I might consider trussing it for the winter.
Q: How do you build a good wind break for shrubs (hydrangeas)? I've read using burlap is good.
A: This used to be done more around here when winters were fiercer. It's an awful lot of effort and requires maintaining. Burlap is good because it is somewhat porous and withstands strong winds better than something that is not, such as a tarp. The best windbreak is an existing feature, such as a wall, a fence, a hill or a line of other shrubs and trees . The prevailing winter winds are from the north and the west; you should site more tender things in the lee of their protectors.
Q: Are there any trees and shrubs suitable for forcing indoors in the winter?
A: Certain late-winter/ early-spring-flowering woodies can be forced, but it is too early; you have to wait for more bud development. Candidates include magnolias, apricots, cherries, forsythia, pussy willow, corylopsis and cornelian cherr y. You would want to cut branches no sooner than mid-February and then bring them in for forcing, making sure they are watered, of course.