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Odds and Ends of Advice from an Seasoned Gardener

Greg Coppa has been tending his Rhode Island yard and garden for about 40 years. He jots down observations and successes throughout the year, and once he has a good collection of pointers he shares them in his Horticulture column. Here's a batch of Greg's advice.

Each year I like to write a couple of articles in which I share what I have recently observed or learned about gardening techniques or various plants. Sometimes this also brings to mind useful things that I once knew but I forgot. 

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There is an apparent randomness to the items discussed here, but it is for good reason. When something that I think will be interesting to readers pops into my head, I immediately record it. If that happens during the day, I make a notation in a file on my cell phone. If it occurs when I am supposed to be sleeping, I roll over and jot the idea down on an always-present bedside pad. I have always lived by the old adage that the faintest scribbled note is better than the best memory. Eventually I end up with a list of things to write or talk about, each acquired at different times and under diverse influences. So here we go:

WHEN APHIDS ATTACK

I never have a problem with aphids on any plants growing in outside beds or on the deck. But aphids are the scourge of several plants I bring into the house to winter over, most particularly hibiscus bushes and trees to which I have become attached. I don’t know where the annoying bugs come from, and I have asked myself if the rejected theory of spontaneous generation must be revisited. In any case, aphids can be beaten, but you must not let them get a good head start on you. Fortunately, my little pests have always congregated on the immature flower buds. At the first sign of them I mix up about eight ounces of a dishwater-soap solution in a salvaged butter tub. The concentration should be a bit more than you would use to wash your greasy dishes. Then I immerse the infected buds in the solution for a minute or so, vigorously stirring the solution with the branched buds. A good number of the insects will wash off into the tub and die. (At least they die a clean death.)

Tropical hibiscus is one plant of Greg's that seems to attract aphids. He fights them with dish soap.

Tropical hibiscus is one plant of Greg's that seems to attract aphids. He fights them with dish soap.

I may have to repeat this procedure a couple of times over a period of days, but that usually ends the problem. If the aphids make it from buds to the branches and leaves, that is a greater challenge. I have used the same soap solution as a spray in these cases with less satisfactory results, but I have never lost a hibiscus plant to aphids in 40 years.

IT'S ALIVE!

Do not discard apparently dead potted trees, shrubs or houseplants until the slightly overweight person sings. I have brought back scores of supposedly deceased plants for friends, and I’ve recovered a few of my own, too. During the normal growing season, I tuck these plants in a corner of the garden that offers just a little dappled sun and I keep them moist. I don’t even look at them much for a while. The Lazarus thing actually occurs more often than not, but it can take six or eight weeks. Sometimes new growth appears from the once shriveled-looking trunk; sometimes growth proceeds from the roots. I gradually increase light exposure for the newly awakened specimens so that sensitive leaves don’t get damaged. When those leaves look almost mature, I hit the plant up with a good general liquid fertilizer, sometimes repotting it in real soil first, instead of the lightweight fluffy stuff that many commercial nurseries use for mass growing. After the recovery is well on its way, I repatriate the plants, receiving adulation that I really don’t deserve. I do use this reunion as a teaching opportunity. After gently revealing that I only raise an individual up from the dead once, I add some useful advice for keeping the plant healthy in the future.

PRINGLES POTS

The tubes that serve as packaging for those stackable potato chips make great pots for nursing along young plants with long taproots, such as windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) or Ginkgo biloba. Stash a couple in your pot collection so you can gift extra plants of this type.

BACK UP YOUR ANNUALS

Few plants look great for an entire six-month growing season. Marigolds, salvia, zinnias and petunias come to mind. Pruning and deadheading these will certainly extend the bloom season, but for many gardeners there comes a point when the spring-planted summer plants just don’t appear as perky and floriferous as wished. Have backups waiting in the wings, be they younger versions of the same cultivars, or completely different plants that will thrive in the coming cooler weather and shorter days. Professional gardeners send in relievers several times in a growing season. I have a picture of my kids at Disney World with a backdrop of pansies, and a picture from the very next day with colorful begonias in the same beds. The Disney elves worked late into the night!

Be ready to replace annuals like marigolds if they begin to flag over the long summer.

Be ready to replace annuals like marigolds if they begin to flag over the long summer.

ROSE REFLECTOR

I have a friend who is a committed rosarian. She volunteers much time to helping care for the hundreds of varied rose bushes at Roger Williams Park in Providence, R.I. I’ve always admired the cheerful-looking rose specimens that she has around her home; I especially covet a peachy one by a front corner of her house. Once in early July it looked even better than I remembered it, with profuse flowers. Nancy explained that the five-foot-tall bush had not been getting enough sun in the past because of the siting of the house and an overhanging roof. Her simple solution was to put a piece of aluminum foil in front of the plant to act as a light reflector. This resulted in more blooms and a more vigorous-looking plant. If the foil is on top of mulch close to the plant, it may provide extra protection to the soil, too, helping to keep it from baking and losing moisture.

DAFFODILS + TOMATOES

Here in Rhode Island, the waning, long, stringy, slightly yellow daffodil leaves, which I leave to gather energy for the bulb for as long as possible, overlap with my early and rapidly growing tomato plants. I ultimately use these tough, fibrous strands to tie the tomato plants to stakes. They last the whole season, though they have to be supplemented by other ties as summer progresses. I like them because they will break before they girdle a stem and they decompose along with the spent tomato plants when the time comes. Synthetic ties and strips of cloth do neither.

COLEUS CUTTINGS

Hands down, the most valuable summer annual in my repertoire is coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides). There are hundreds of cultivars in a multitude of leaf colors and patterns. Originally from tropical areas of Asia, coleus can now be found worldwide. Breeding has produced many cultivars that are much more tolerant of direct sun than older versions. Use them as striking border plants or put two or three of different colors in a large pot with a petunia or annual vinca (Catharanthus). Add a corn plant (Dracaena fragrans) for height and a chartreuse potato vine (Ipomoea batatas Margarita) for droop, and you have an eye-catching accent.

Greg can't stop himself from acquiring coleus, be it from shops or through propagation.

Greg can't stop himself from acquiring coleus, be it from shops or through propagation.

Coleus is the plant that keeps on giving. Pinch back growth to produce a mounded form or let branches grow out to maybe four inches before pruning back. Then trim off three inches of leaves from these trimmings and place them in water. In about 10 days you’ll have lots of newly rooted plants to use or give away. I picked up two interesting-looking but trod-upon and wilted coleus stems from a St. Petersburg, Fla., sidewalk in February. (I cannot help myself.) Easily 25 good-looking offspring have been produced since.

PEACE ON TURF

Every half-dozen or so years, I employ a lawn service for seasonal fertilizer, grub elimination, crabgrass suppression and broadleaf-weed control. During the years that I do those same treatments myself, I have a decent-looking but not show-quality lawn. I’m okay with that, though. But there are periodic infestations of weeds new to my area that do not respond well to dry pellet treatments, even on a pre-moistened lawn. The commercial lawn-care companies have more tools in their turf-maintenance inventory than I do, their sprays being particularly effective.

Still, I’m philosophically a minimalist when it comes to all lawn chemicals, even straight NPK fertilizers. There are waterways close by that may suffer eutrophication from the latter. Additionally, it has not been proven to my satisfaction that some beneficial or harmless insects, like honeybees and lightning bugs, are not negatively affected by herbicides and assorted pesticides commonly used to treat lawns or control ticks and mosquitoes. That the damage to non-threatening insects is unintentional does not console me.

I think we all must carefully evaluate the degree to which we use any pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. If you live long enough you will know of many products once commonly used and considered totally safe for insects, mammals, fish or humans that were then recalled or quietly abandoned. Do your own environmental and health cost versus benefit evaluation as you plan your gardening strategies each year. Consider introducing new strains of turf grasses around your property, like the turf type tall fescues (TTTF) that require much less water. And turf blends with microclover are self-fertilizing to a degree, with the clover taking nitrogen out of the air and converting it to a form that the grass can use.

Remember that nobody takes care of your grounds quite as well as you do. When you have someone other than yourself apply lawn treatments, you must be prepared to accept occasionally losing some benevolent “weeds,” such as those bright yellow spring buttercups or that deep green clover you’ve enjoyed in a corner of your yard. You may find a few koi or comets floating belly-up in your little water garden, despite having discussed avoiding that area with your lawn technician. You didn’t count on the fellow with whom you spoke going on vacation and having a substitute.

WATCH THE DRIFT

Early this past summer I noticed changes in the shape of new grape and pumpkin leaves. I had never seen this deformation before, which caused the leaves to be shaped like little fans. A little research turned up that this condition may be due to overspray of the herbicides 2,4-D, dicamba or other plant growth regulators (PGR). The overspray from some of these compounds may affect grapevine leaves in concentrations as low as 1/100 of the concentration recommended for controlling the targeted weeds. Some vineyards report leaf damage from PGR “drift” traced to fields a half-mile away. That being said, damage done to your garden plants may be caused not by your lawn-service people, but perhaps by those employed by your neighbors.

BEAN (RE)SPROUTS?!

In early summer marauding deer made a foray into an area that they had not ever touched before, munching down potted bean plants and young Russian sunflowers to a height of about three inches.

“Well that’s that,” I thought, but following my own counsel I put the pots aside, not expecting anything, especially from the sunflowers that had lost their nice apical bud. However, in a few weeks the bush beans bore numerous flowers again, and new single stems that would give rise to sunflowers sprang from the truncated stems. This event made me wonder if in the future rather than planting a second crop of beans from seed, I may get faster results by topping off spent bean plants and letting them rejuvenate. I will have to look into this more.