“I am starting a container garden for onions, potatoes, and carrots. I will be using the Black Gold potting mix plus fertilizer. Will I have to add any other product to the potting mix? Thank you.” Dennis of Thaxton, Virginia
Potted vegetables grow best in large containers filled with excellent potting soil, like our Black Gold mixes, and quality fertilizer formulated for vegetables. Be sure that the containers drain well, and keep them evenly moist. Full sun exposure is a requirement. This is about all that you need. Thin your carrot as they grow, and space your onions and potatoes well. I also recommend that you read these articles about growing edibles in containers. We have many, many more on the site.
There are few plants that come in as many different forms as the juniper. The Genus Juniperus includes plants that are grown as ground covers with some that hug the ground at just several inches and others that may reach 2-3 feet in height. Another category is the shrub types, and these can range in growth from 4-12 feet. Junipers can also be columnar in their growth habit with heights ranging from about a few feet up to 20-30 feet. Then, there are the tree junipers that can reach 50 feet or more.
Junipers are conifers, but instead of cones, the female shrubs have berry-like, waxy, blue-green fruits. The berries of some types are highly scented and are often used during the Christmas and New Year holiday season in wreaths and often as part of an evergreen indoor table decoration. Often, juniper scent is incorporated into holiday candles. Most juniper plants produce berries that are attractive to many birds. Hummingbirds often build nests in the larger shrub and tree types.
Juniper foliage color can be various shades of green to blue, gray, and yellow. The leaves of some have smooth or prickly needles, so consider this when choosing a variety. Prickly forms should be planted in areas where people won’t have contact with the foliage.
Good drainage is a requirement for most juniper varieties, and once established many require little or no additional water, depending on your plant zone. Be sure and read the plant label for detailed planting guidelines. Most varieties will take a full sun location, but there are some that like some protection from the hot afternoon sun. Well-drained average soil will usually suffice. Amending the soil at planting time with a little Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss will encourage good growth from the start.
There is a vast selection of juniper choices, so it would be impossible to list all of the many varieties here. Instead, I have included several popular varieties that should be readily available at garden centers.
Tam juniper (Juniperus sabina ‘Tamariscifolia’, Zones 4-7), is often referred to as simply Tam. With blue-green foliage, expect this juniper to reach 2-3 feet in height and a width of 10 ft. It is one of the most widely used junipers in gardens.
Blue rug juniper (J. horizontalis ‘Wiltoni’, Zones 3-9) has silver-blue foliage that hugs the ground with long trailing branches. It is flatter and grows closer to the ground than the Tam Juniper. Expect it to spread beautifully. Specimens will tolerate some salt-spray and sandy soil, so it is a great oceanside shrub.
Weeping needle juniper (J. rigida ‘’Pendula’, Zones 5-8) has an upright main stem and is often trained and staked to show off the secondary branches with weeping tips. Its green foliage and blue-black fruits are appealing. It will reach 15-20 ft in height when mature.
Pencil point common juniper (J. communis ‘Compressa’, Zones 3-7) is a very tight shrub with blue-green foliage. It is a slow grower that only grows about 2-4 inches per year. This is an ideal conifer for a rock garden and rarely needs pruning. Sometimes it is planted in rows as a dividing line in the garden.
Gold Coin common juniper (J. communis ‘Gold Coin’, Zones 3-7) is a conical, upright form with finely cut foliage. It is most admired for its brilliant new golden growth which turns bright green in the summer. It will reach about 10 feet.
Moonglow Rocky Mountain juniper (J. scopulorum ‘Moonglow’, Zones 3-7) is a dense conical grower with steel-blue color. At maturity, it will reach 8-10 feet. It makes a good screen and can be sheared as needed.
Western juniper (J. occidentalis, Zones 4-8) has fragrant green foliage and is native to intermountain regions from Central Washington to Southern California. It is very large growing and will reach 50-60 ft. The fruits are essential food for many native birds.
Weeping blue juniper (J. scopulorum ‘Tolleson’s Blue Weeping’, Zones 3-7) will usually reach about 20 feet and has very distinctive weeping branches that are silvery blue. It makes a graceful weeping tree.
I suggest visiting a local arboretum or garden center with a conifer display garden. Most conifer display gardens will include junipers. It is always wise to check out plants that will be permanent in your garden before making a final selection. Seeing plants growing out in the open may give a very different ‘look’ as compared to seeing them in a nursery container.
Depending on where you live in the country, September, October, and November are the main months for putting garden beds to rest. You may still have some warm days in these months, but once the nights and then days become chilly, it’s time to get to work. And, if you do it right, it is quite a bit of work, but more work now means less work later. Spring will be a breeze!
I have just started on the first step, which is getting all the weeds out, and it is going to take me quite a while. Some seasons, I stay on top of weeding, and other times other priorities get in the way. This past summer was busy, so the weeds had a “field day.” It is especially important to clear weeds from right around the base of each garden plant. When weeding, it is wise to choose good tools for the job. Luckily, we have an excellent article written by my daughter, Jessie, that details the best weeding techniques, times, and tools for the job. Read it and weed! (Click here to learn how to week like a pro.)
This brings us to step two, putting down fresh triple-shredded bark mulch, my preferred garden mulch, which I purchase in bulk by the yard or occasionally by the bag when only a small amount is needed. (Click here to learn about different mulch options.) Not only will mulch stop weeds, but it will also keep the soil moist, and protect your plants from big temperature swings. In addition, mulch breaks down over time, adding organic matter to the soil. Areas I have mulched for years have slowly turned into rich garden soil. Put down around 3 inches of mulch, being careful not to cover the plant. (Not sure how much mulch to get? Click here for guidelines to calculate how much your garden will need.)
There are four rules to mulch application, particularly when it comes to mulching around plants: 1) leaf space around plants, 2) don’t mulch too thickly, 3) don’t apply mulch against the trunks of trees or shrubs, and 4) apply mulch when the soil is moist to make post-application irrigation easier. Leave a 3- to 4-inch gap between the base of the plant and the mulch, to avoid smothering the plant and causing crown rot. This is especially true of evergreen perennials and perennials with surface rhizomes, like bearded iris (Iris germanica hybrids). Peonies are also sensitive to excess mulch. One year, I mulched my peonies thoroughly in the fall and was so pleased with myself for getting it done early, but the following spring two of my prize peonies did not show up. I had mulched too thickly and killed them. Also, do not mulch low, spreading, evergreen to semi-evergreen perennials, including Heuchera, Dianthus, ground cover sedums, such as ‘Angelina’. Mulching them commonly causes crown rot and death.
3. Cut Back Perennials
Wait until the frost has killed the leaves of herbaceous perennials before cutting them back and removing the old stalks and leaves. This is especially important with hostas, one of my favorite perennials (I have hundreds!). Unlike other perennials, if the leaves are removed while green, the plant will put up next year’s growth prematurely, and the following spring will have just a few scrawny leaves, so cut back hostas to 2-3 inches after the frost has taken them.
Evergreen perennials, such as Lenten rose (Helleborus spp.), myrtle euphorbia (Euphorbia myrsinites), and candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), can be left alone until spring, and semi-evergreen perennials, like coral bells (Heuchera spp.), dead nettle (Lamium maculatum), and certain daylilies, can also be left to trim back until the spring.
Some plants that add winter beauty to the garden should also be left alone. Ornamental grasses, with pretty seed heads, gently wave in the wind, coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), and perennial sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) set seeds that songbirds like to eat in winter, so I leave them alone until the spring. Fall bloomers, such as chrysanthemums and asters, can also be trimmed in the spring. The protective stems of chrysanthemums sometimes help the tender perennials overwinter, which is nice if you like to keep them from year to year.
Another tip is to meticulously cut back perennials that are highly susceptible to leaf fungal diseases, particularly bee balm (Monarda spp.) and tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). Cut them back low, thoroughly, and be sure to completely remove the old leaves from the surrounding area. They should not enter the compost pile. Certain diseases can persist in the soil, even composted soil.
4. Divide and Plant
Mid-fall is the best time to divide and move hardy perennials, such as hostas, daylilies, monarda, rudbeckia, and coneflowers. If you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-5, or colder, divide and replant perennials earlier in the season, and only move those that are reliably hardy in your zone. If you live in warmer zones, then you have a little more flexibility time-wise.
When dividing perennials, I typically use a sharp spade to neatly cut away a section of the plant. It is essential that each chunk has a nice portion of the crown with lots of buds on the top and roots beneath. Then I move and plant them in locations that have the right site conditions and need the color. Some falls are dry where I live in Indiana, so I am sure to irrigate my new divisions well when the weather does not bring rain. Adding Black Gold Garden Soil to the bottom of each hole adds needed fertility and a boost of fertilizer, which all plants appreciate.
So, I must get going to finish my fall garden cleanup, while the going is good (and so should you)! Then, I can spend the winter focusing on next year’s garden, worry-free.
“Even though moss dries out in summers, will it make a good ground cover for dirt that is largely dark clay?” Question from Susan of Junction City, Oregon
Answer: If you live in an area with consistent moisture and lots of shade, then it can make a good ground cover, though we recommend amending any clay soils first. There are lots of different moss species that are sold by specialty moss nurseries, or mosseries. (Moss Acres is one and Mountain Moss is another.) Most mosses grow best in moist, fertile soil that holds water well and is more acidic (pH 5.0 to 6.0), though some mosses will tolerate some sunshine. (Click here for a list of shade-loving mosses and click here for sun-tolerant moss options.)
Steps for Growing Garden Moss
Here are five steps to getting moss to grow in your yard or garden.
Work up shaded lawn or garden areas that are bare.
“How would a parking lot with 16 stalls [and the car exhaust] next to my garden interfere with plant photosynthesis?” Sylvia of Belle Plaine, Minnesota
Answer: It is a very interesting question. Car exhaust contains gasses that are helpful to plants and photosynthesis and some that are harmful. Car exhaust is also everywhere, especially if you live in an urban area, though the increase in hybrid and electric cars is reducing car fumes. Still, nearby fumes may have some impact. Here is a breakdown of exhaust components from a standard car that runs on gasoline followed by the potential impacts of those gasses on plants and photosynthesis.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates of average passenger car emissions in the United States for April 2000
Here is the equation for photosynthesis as defined in Brittanica: 6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2. Carbon dioxide is essential for photosynthesis, which is why it’s good to plant as many trees and garden plants as you can to help reduce this most abundant greenhouse gas. Plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere! Trees and large plants are highly effective photosynthesizers due to their sheer size, and grasses are super photosynthesizers, so consider planting a row of ornamental grasses (click here for some great ornamental grass options) or some trees and shrubs nearby to combat local CO2.
Carbon Monoxide and Plants
I found a technical overview of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, which stated: “Carbon monoxide does not poison plants since it rapidly oxidizes to form carbon dioxide which is used for photosynthesis.” So, it is not harmful to plants either.
Nitrogen Oxides and Plants
Nitrogen oxides (NOx) contribute to smog, which blocks the sun’s rays, and acid rain, which is harmful to plants, so in excess, NOx is harmful to plants. Still, there is so much NOx in urban areas, the amount produced by the cars in the parking lot next to you would be negligible. On the plus side, you can plant nitrogen-fixing plants, such as plants in the pea and bean family as well as bayberry shrubs, to help with local NOx. These plants actively remove atmospheric NOx and convert it into a soil-borne form of nitrogen that benefits plants.
Hydrocarbons and Plants
In general, petroleum hydrocarbons are toxic to plants in high quantities, especially if they make their way into the soil (oil- or gasoline-contaminated soils). The cars nearby do emit hydrocarbons but in much lower quantities, so they should not be a problem for your garden.
As stated earlier, I recommend planting a tree, shrub, or ornamental grass buffer between your garden and the parking lot. Tough nitrogen-fixing options would be ideal! In addition to bayberry, try the following options suggested by my colleague Russell Stafford: “Outstanding legumes for perennial borders include false indigo (Baptisia spp.), wild senna (Senna spp.), yellow lupine (Thermopsis spp.), lupine (Lupinus spp.), and leadplant (Amorpha spp.). The roster of leguminous shrubs is also lengthy, boasting such standouts as bush clover (Lespedeza spp.)…” (Click here to read the full article.)
For general greenhouse gas information, I also recommend that you read this informative piece from the EPA about greenhouse gasses and their management (click here to read it).
The sight and sound of water in a garden can lift it to a new level. When I am in a garden and hear or see water, it can, almost instantly, create a calming, serene atmosphere. Whether it is a simple birdbath, a splashing fountain, a flowing stream, or a pool, water gives a garden something more.
Garden Water Features for Birds
Of course, fountains and birdbaths in gardens provide many wildlife benefits in addition to the pleasure that they give us. Especially this summer in the Pacific Northwest, and many other western areas as well, these water features may provide the only fresh sources of water for birds and other wildlife.
In my own garden, I have several birdbaths, and they are in constant use throughout the day. I am often amazed at not only the number of birds we get daily but the different kinds of birds. (Note: I am always diligent in emptying the birdbaths out every morning and refilling them with fresh water so as not to spread any disease. It also prevents a breeding area for any mosquito larvae.) If birds have become accustomed to a birdbath in your garden and are dependent on it for water, please be aware of the need to keep it filled, especially during hot, dry times. In many urban settings, sources for water may be very limited, so all gardeners in cities should have water for birds and other wildlife.
In addition to birdbaths, many gardeners add water features with running water. The water movement can be brisk or slow, depending on the wishes of the gardener. I recommend some water movement as a preventative to stop mosquitos from laying eggs because mosquitoes do not lay eggs in running water.
In my garden, I have a very large glazed pot that originally was meant to be a planter, but it has been converted to a fountain. It has become a focal point in the garden, and birds love it. Hummingbirds often land on the rim, and let the gentle flow of water run over their feet. It is also not unusual to see our black lab, Cody, use it as a source for drinking, so this fountain has become multi-use when the original purpose was as a piece of garden art.
Garden Streams and Waterfalls
We have neighbors that have built a short, shallow running stream in their garden. It is delightful to sit by, watch the water as it flows, and hear its sound. It creates a very peaceful and tranquil setting. Many water features are considered garden art and an integral part of the garden. This is one of them. Then, there are others that can function as art and for utility.
Waterfalls in gardens can create a different effect, often with sound and sight taking one mentally to a different place. Adding koi, or other colorful fish, can enhance the experience. Even small fountains now offer choices as to the desired flow. With many pumps, the flow of water can be regulated to a gentle flow or one that is more rushing.
When visiting other gardens, it is always a treat if they have birdbaths, fountains, or other water features. Gardeners can be innovative with their plants as well as their water features. It is a good idea to visit other gardens with water features for ideas and options for your own garden. Talk with the garden owners, because they can give advice and perhaps prevent any pitfalls that you may not have considered. Once you know what water feature you want, check with a professional to review other important factors other than just plugging in the pump.
“What are some good fall-blooming bulbs? I can never seem to find any that bloom in the fall. Thanks.” Question from Brenda of Peterson, Iowa
Answer: There are quite a few fall bulbs that will grow well in your USDA Hardiness Zone 5a garden. Here are some of the best. Follow the links on each plant name for good bulb sources!
Fall Bulbs for Midwestern Gardens (Zone 5)
Red Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata) and Yellow Spider Lily (Lycoris aurea) are two South African surprise lilies that bloom from late summer to fall and are hardy to zone 5. They look really lovely together and bloom on tall naked stems that give them a striking look in the garden.
Fall Crocus (Crocus spp.) come in all different colors and forms and look very much like their spring counterparts. Most are very hardy and some, such as Crocus kotschyanus, naturalize or spread in beds and lawns. One that I highly recommend is the saffron crocus(Crocus sativus) from which you can collect your own saffron! (Click here to learn more about growing saffron.)
Colchicum(Colchicum spp.) comes in lovely shades of pink, white, and lavender, and most are quite hardy. They look very much like giant crocuses, but they are surprisingly unrelated. The double-flowered ‘Waterlily‘ is especially pretty. The only downside is that these plants are toxic, so refrain from planting them if you have small children or pets that might handle or consume them. (Click here to learn more about Colchicum toxicity.)
Fall Snowflakes (Leucojum autumnale (Acis autumalis)) is a rare but wonderful fall-blooming bulb from the Iberian peninsula that is hardy to your zone. Its white, bell-shaped flowers look very springy and mingle well with other perennials.
“Can watermelon vines be grown in containers?” Question from George of Hagerstown, MD
Answer: Watermelons can be grown in large containers if you choose a compact variety. Here are my recommendations regarding potted watermelon culture.
Growing Potted Watermelons
First, choose a more compact, short-vine watermelon variety suited for container growing. ‘Cal Sweet Bush‘, a 2019 AAS award winner, has excellent melons and vines that do not take over, and ‘Bush Sugar Baby‘ is another small-vined type with tasty melons. Next, choose a large container that’s between 18 to 24 inches. There must be holes at the bottom for drainage. Plastic or glazed containers hold water better in the heat of summer. Fill the pot with quality, porous potting soil that holds water well. I would choose Black Gold Natural & Organic Raised Bed & Potting Mix. Place the pot in a spot where it gets full sun, and the vining stems can hang down and spread a little. Patios or open garden areas work well for large potted vegetables like this.
Plant one or two watermelons in the pot in spring after the threat of frost has passed. Keep the soil moist. When the vines have reached a good size in summer, water daily in the absence of rain. Fertilizer well from the beginning. A good slow-release fertilizer formulated for vegetables is ideal. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s application instructions.
Melons should start to appear by late July or August.
“I am growing the same cucumbers this year as last year. Every cucumber this year looks beautiful but tastes very bitter and is inedible. I believe I am providing adequate water, though due to the heat the plants still wilt during the day. What can I do to improve the flavor? ” Lisa of Marietta, Pennsylvania
Answer: There are two things that can cause cucumbers to become bitter – the cultivated variety and environmental stress (heat stress, water stress, or disease). A great Oregon State University (OSU) article on the subject quotes the vegetable breeder, Jim Myers of OSU. He explains that the source of cucumber bitterness is caused by the natural plant chemical, cucurbitacin. It exists in high quantities in the leaves and stems of cultivated cucumbers. During stressful summers, concentrations can build up at different levels in the cucumber fruits as well; often at the blossom end. What’s odd is that sometimes a single plant may have some bitter fruits and some nice-tasting cucumbers, so taste each one to double-check before composting. The same plant may also produce sweeter fruits as growing conditions become better.
Non-Bitter Cucumber Varieties
Some varieties tend to reliably produce sweet cucumbers, even under stress. Here are five excellent cucumbers that resist bitterness.
‘Katrina‘- The crisp, seedless, Beit-Alpha-type cucumber is also very disease-resistant and stays sweet.
‘Green Light‘ – There is a reason that this cucumber was a 2020 All-America Selections winner. Its fruits are crisp, sweet, prolific, and resist bitterness.
‘Marketmore 97‘ – This classic, disease-resistant cucumber is known for its ability to stay sweet, even when stressed.
‘Unagi’ – After reading about this one, I plan to grow it next year. Its hybrid cucumbers are crisp, sweet, and very prolific.
I also recommend that you watch the video below to learn how to grow cucumbers to perfection. I know that it can be difficult in years where high heat, drought, and even excess rain are problems, but the video contains some good growing tips.
“I live in south Georgia and I would love to plant peonies, but I was told by a local nursery that they can’t survive here because we don’t have cold enough winters for them to reset, is this true?” Question from Ladonna of Naylor, Georgia
Answer: It is partially true. The most popular peonies in the US are common garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora). The large, bushy plants produce loads of big, late-spring flowers and are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7 (sometimes 3-8b), so you are on the edge of their hardiness. They do need winter cold for several months to produce blooms and survive in the long term, but Naylor, Georgia (USDA Hardiness Zones 8b) is cold enough to sustain some peonies. If you want to be on the safe side, there are other peonies that can survive with even less winter cold. This includes some tree peonies (Paeonia species and hybrids, varying zones, sometimes down to zone 9), and Intersectional (ITOH Hybrids (Zones 4-9), which are hybrids between common and tree peonies.
Peonies for Southern Gardeners
Here are seven good herbaceous peony varieties for southern gardens.
‘America’ (Zones 4-8b)- a single, red herbaceous peony that is award-winning and has HUGE blooms
‘Coral Charm‘ (Zones 3-8b) – a semi-double coral-pink award-winner (one of my favorites!)
‘Felix Crousse‘ (Zones 3-8b) – an herbaceous heirloom (1881) with fragrant double-red blooms