Southern living garden problem solver


Grumpy Answers Your Top May Gardening Questions

Michael Witte

1. What is the correct way to spread mulch around a tree? —Jorita

Grumpy Says: Don’t build a “mulch volcano.” This consists of a conical mound of bark mulch 6 to 8 inches tall that wraps around the trunk. It’s a common mistake. Mulch should never touch the trunk and never get that deep, or a multitude of problems could result. Instead, spread a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of whatever kind of mulch you prefer around the base of your tree, starting 1 inch from the trunk and extending out 18 to 24 inches. Don’t apply new mulch over last year’s mulch if the resulting layer will be more than 3 inches deep. Let the old mulch decompose first.

2. How can I get rid of fire ant mounds in a vegetable garden? —Judith

Grumpy Says: I wish I could come up with a natural solution that’s long-lasting and effective, but I don’t know any that will do the trick. My advice is to sprinkle fire ant bait on the mounds according to label directions. This will kill the ants but won’t be absorbed by your vegetable plants.

3. When daffodils are done blooming, can you cut off their tops? —Jerry

Grumpy Says: If by “tops” you mean the bloom stalks, absolutely. But don’t cut off the leaves of daffodils or any other spring bulbs until they turn yellow. They need these leaves to make food for the bulbs below. A premature haircut means no flowers next year.

4. We have a euonymus hedge that gets heavily infested with scale every year. How can we get rid of the scale without getting rid of the hedge? —Carole

Grumpy Says: Grumpy hates euonymus for this very reason, so he wouldn’t shed any tears if you tore it all out and replaced it with less troublesome evergreens, such as loropetalum, holly, glossy abelia, or yew. But if you want to give the euonymus one last chance, you can either spray it with horticultural oil (making sure to wet all stem and leaf surfaces) or treat it with a systemic insecticide like Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Insect Control.

5. The stems of my blueberry bushes look like leafless sticks loaded with berries. What happened? —Susan

Grumpy Says: Young blueberry bushes tend to overbear, setting so many berries that the fruit is inferior. Use pruners to shorten the flowering stems in spring. This means fewer flowers and bigger, tastier berries in the future.

6. My “Forest Pansy” redbud doesn’t produce maroon leaves anymore and has only a few flowers. The leaves are plentiful but green. The tree gets mostly indirect sun. Any ideas? —Melissa

Grumpy Says: The reason for the green leaf color and lack of flowers is the same—not enough sun. For deep purple leaves and lots of blooms, you’ll need to move your tree to a sunny spot this fall.

7. Three years ago, I planted “German Queen” tomatoes, and they produced a ton. The last two years, they’ve started off strong but then wilted and died. Why? —Debra

Grumpy Says: Unfortunately, many heirlooms, like “German Queen,” lack the disease resistance of newer hybrids. Don’t plant heirlooms in the same spot twice, because wilt disease persists in the soil. You can also plant wilt-resistant tomatoes.

Image zoom Michael Witte

8. Squirrels keep gobbling up all my birdseed. Will adding chili powder to the seed deter them without harming the birds? —Sharon

Grumpy Says: Being (incredibly annoying) mammals, squirrels react to eating hot peppers like people do: Their tongues ignite! Once this happens, they’ll beg for milk and never touch your seed again. Pepper is harmless to birds, though—they don’t even sense it. You can add cayenne pepper to birdseed yourself (1 tablespoon per 10 pounds of seed) or buy something like Cole’s Hot Meats, which are sunflower meats infused with habañero oil. Let the flames begin!

9. My roses have lots of flowerbuds, but they’re dry and not opening up. What do I need to do? —Ginger

Grumpy Says: This is a snap, Ginger. It sounds like your roses are infested with tiny insects called thrips that suck the juice from the buds. Stick a white sheet of paper under a bud, and gently tap the bud. If you see brownish yellow specks on the paper, these are thrips. To control them, apply some Monterey Garden Insect Spray according to label directions. It contains spinosad, which is a natural insecticide.

Image zoom Michael Witte

10. I’ve been told a leak in my basement is caused by the landscaping in front of the house. Do you have any idea what that means? —Tom

Grumpy Says: My guess is that your yard slopes toward the house, so rainwater runs toward the foundation. Your downspouts also may be emptying against the house. What you need to do is pile some additional soil against the foundation and regrade so water runs away. If your downspouts don’t direct water away from your home, add lengths of flexible corrugated plastic pipe to the ends so they will. Or put your basement on the Bassmasters tour.

11. We have a mess of wild blackberries growing in our yard. I’ve decided against cutting them down, so I can use the fruit to make some yummy jam. When should I cut them back and tame them? —Laura

Grumpy Says: Blackberry canes live two years. They just grow the first year. The second year, they flower, set fruit, and die. So after a cane fruits, cut it to the ground. New canes will sprout around it. Control them by tying them to a wire that runs 3 to 4 feet above the ground between two posts.

12. What causes the leaves of my peace lily to turn brown? —Martha

Grumpy Says: The most common reason is letting the plant dry out and wilt badly. Number two is placing the plant in hot sun or near a cold window. Number three is giving it water straight from the tap. (Allow the water to sit out overnight before using it so it reaches room temperature and the chlorine evaporates out.) Number four is a buildup of fertilizer salts in the soil from not watering thoroughly. You can wash out these salts by watering so the excess runs out the drainage hole.

13. Do you know of any way to stop our sweet gum trees from producing gum balls? —Kelly

Grumpy Says: A Kelly, this is a question that plagues everyone who has ever had a sweet gum in the yard. Sorry, but once a sweet gum starts dropping those nasty things, your only options are to learn to love ’em or cut that sucker down. One selection, called “Rotundiloba,” doesn’t drop gum balls and has leaves with rounded lobes rather than pointed ones.

Image zoom Michael Witte

Grumpy Says: As with other rodents, the birth rate for chipmunks is directly tied to the food supply. (More food means more babies.) Unless you can curtail the never-ending banquet next door, you’re stuck. Try convincing your neighbor to use Cole’s Blazing Hot Blend birdseed, which is coated with habañero chile oil. The birds won’t mind at all, but those chipmunks will be smoking!

15. My gardenia hedge isn’t doing well. The leaves turned yellow and I can see through the foliage to the trunks. —Mary

Grumpy Says: Like azaleas and camellias, gardenias need acid soil with a pH lower than 6.0. When they don’t get it, their roots can’t absorb enough iron and their leaves turn yellow between the veins. To fix this, feed your shrubs according to label directions with an acid-forming fertilizer, such as Espoma Holly-tone 4-3-4 or Miracle-Gro Water Soluble azalea, Camellia, Rhododendron Plant Food 30-10-10.

16. Last year, I was successful in getting cucumbers to climb large cages in my raised beds. This year, the ones I planted won’t climb. Do only certain types do that? —Loraine

Grumpy Says: Cucumbers, squash, and beans come in two forms: bush and climbing. Only the latter will climb, so look at the seed packet before you buy. If it says “bush” anywhere on the label, it’s not the type for you. There are many more climbers than bush types. Bush types are usually better for small gardens, but climbers produce more over a longer growing season.

17. My impatiens have burnt orange spots on the leaves. What is it, and what can I do about it? —Rena

Grumpy Says: Your plants have either necrotic spot virus or botrytis blight. If you find stunted leaves near the top of the plant, it’s the virus, which is spread by tiny thrips. There is no cure. Just pull up the infected plants, and throw them out with the trash. If botrytis is the culprit, spray your plants according to label directions with a fungicide called Immunox.

18. The roots of our river birch are breaking the patio, so I’m going to remove it. What should I plant in the bed left behind to go with my birdhouses and feeder? —Dot

Grumpy Says: Plant a butterfly garden. Good flowers for this include lantana, zinnia, dwarf butterfly bush, pentas, catmint, salvia, marigold, cosmos, phlox, and sedum. Don’t worry about birds picking off all the butterflies. Most birds that come to a feeder eat seeds, not insects.

19. We had lovely lilacs when we lived in Illinois. We live in Virginia now, and the lilac flowers are wispy and not as showy as the ones before. Can you give me the names of some better lilacs with nice fragrances? —Kathy

20. My spiraea was full of blooms, and then my husband sheared it into an ugly box. It was the focal point of my yard, and he took off nearly 2 feet! Can anything be done? —Liz

Grumpy Says: I suggest the two of you make an appearance on Dr. Phil to address serious gardening issues that threaten your relationship. As for the spiraea, it’s a tough plant that will soon return to its former lovely shape. But just to make sure, enroll your hubby in Pruners Anonymous.

Q & A with Steve Bender author of The Grumpy Gardener

After 33 years with Southern Living, Steve Bender retired as Senior Editor in September 2016 in order to fulfill his lifelong dream of beginning every day with a breakfast beer. Upon graduating from Washington College with a B.A. in History and from the University of Maryland with a Certificate in Ornamental Horticulture, he shocked his parents by stating his intentions to pursue a career that would allow him to write about gardening. His mother cried every day for weeks, until Steve announced he had been hired as a garden editor by Southern Living magazine in Birmingham, Alabama, at which point she baked him a peach cobbler.

During his tenure at Southern Living, Steve edited a number of gardening books for Southerners, including The Southern Living Garden Book, The Southern Living Landscape Book, The Southern Living Garden Problem Solver, and To Kill A Mockingbird. Passalong Plants, co-authored with Felder Rushing, was named the best written garden book of 1994 by The Garden Writers of America and still provides him an annual royalty of $89, a princely sum by any measure. Steve is best-known for his irreverent, taciturn alter-ego, “The Grumpy Gardener,” whose 212% Guaranteed Correct Pontifications are still religiously followed by millions of readers in both the magazine and his blog of the same name. Steve makes his home in Hoover, Alabama with his wife, Judy, a woman of boundless patience deserving of your prayers.

His new book, “The Grumpy Gardener,” is an amusing and informative guide to plants culling from a compilation of “Grumpy Gardener” blog posts, selected articles from Southern Living, mixed in with a lot of new stuff. Read on to learn more and enter below to win one of three copies from Book This! Inc.

1. Why are you a grumpy gardener? Isn’t gardening supposed to be a fun and joyful experience?

People ask me that a lot. I guess they imagine I sit at home burning bugs with a magnifying glass. Gardening is supposed to be a joyful exercise that makes you feel good. Nothing raises my spirits more than being outside surrounded by nature and beautiful plants. But when readers experience failure and ask me what went wrong, I tell them the unvarnished truth so they can learn from a mistake and not repeat it. We all fail in the garden sometimes. I’ve killed more plants than Agent Orange. I get mad when that happens, but it teaches me a lesson I can pass along to readers.

2. What can readers expect from your book? What are some really useful features?

Readers can expect to laugh and learn. I’ve always tried to make gardening entertaining and fun, because feeling good makes it easier to soak up information. Life is too short for gardening to be “serious.” I mean, if you can’t smile at the sight of a fried, brown Norfolk Island pine Christmas tree planted outside on New Year’s Day in West Virginia, you need an intervention. This “A to Z Guide” really does cover plants and gardening practices from A to Z (note: it’s quite hard finding plants that start with the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z), as well as answer common gardening questions, like “How can I can get rid of armadillos and voles?” “When is the best time to transplant an azalea?” “Why are my tomatoes turning black on the ends?” “Will grits kill fire ants?” “Why didn’t my hydrangea bloom?”

3. For this book you had 35 years of material to cull from. How did you decide what made the cut?

The book is actually a compilation of my “Grumpy Gardener” blog posts, selected articles from Southern Living, and a lot of new stuff that appears for the first time. I chose topics I could cover in bite-size pieces for people who don’t binge-read, so folks can read at their own pace. I also picked stories to cover a wide range of gardening topics — trees, shrubs, flowers, veggies, herbs, lawn care, soil prep, pest control, and the like. And each subject had to accomplish my two main goals — provide practical information that makes you smile.

4. What are some of the craziest gardening questions you were ever asked?

When someone’s tree didn’t leaf out in spring: “Do trees sometimes skip a year of growing?” Answer: “About as often as you skip a year of breathing.” From a person who has trouble getting his lilac to bloom because of mild, Southern winters: “Could I grow it in my refrigerator?” From a customer looking for poinsettias when I was working at a garden center at Christmas: “Can you tell me where they keep the red placentas?”

5. What’s on your gardener’s bucket list?

Discover and release an incurable virus that affects only squirrels.

6. What’s next for The Grumpy Gardener?

Well, I’ll have a beer with lunch, take a short nap, and then tour my garden to see what just died.

Win one of three copies of “The Grumpy Gardener”!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, December 24, 2017 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Is there anything about gardening that makes you grumpy? If so, what is it?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

Anyone who is willing to describe themselves as “The Grumpy Gardener” gets my vote of confidence. Why? Because I can get grumpy myself about some issues but — not having written for Southern Living Magazine for 34 years — I am not comfortable expressing myself as bluntly as Steve Bender does.

Bender recently added to his literary legacy by penning “The Grumpy Gardener: An A to Z Guide from the Galaxy’s Most Irritable Green Thumb.” Forget about being the orneriest gardener on the planet: Only the galaxy will do.

When I spoke with Bender by phone this week, he sounded perfectly convivial, so I asked him about his prickly title.

“I am grumpy for about 75 percent of the day, until dinnertime, when I roll out the cocktail cart,” he let on. “Maybe it’s that I am just more straightforward than others. I see a lot of people promoting really awful plants and using stupid gardening practices, and I don’t mind saying so.”

So we talked about “awful” plants and “stupid” gardening practices. Here’s what he had to say.

Crape Myrtles

“Crape murder is a term for cutting back your crape myrtle branches to the stump every year. In newer neighborhoods, you hear ‘When are you gonna cut that thing? We all cut ours.’ It seems like it happens once the Super Bowl is over. Men get a little bored and are filled with testosterone. So, what do they do? They get out the chainsaw and start whacking on their crape myrtles. That’s why I have a ‘crape murder’ contest every year. You can take pictures of your neighbors and shame them throughout the nation. A recent winner was from Metairie, by the way.”

On hate mail (and squirrels)

“There’ve been so many it’s hard to pick the most hateful letter I ever got. But I did a tongue-in-cheek story once about how much I hate squirrels because they dig up plants and eat bulbs. Daffodil bulbs are poisonous to them, so when I wrote my column, we staged the picture to go with it. We set up a headstone that read ‘Rest in Peace Rocky. One bulb too many.’ There was something that looked like a fresh grave and Walmart plastic flowers thrown around. Well, one reader seriously thought I had killed a squirrel by shoving daffodil bulbs down its throat and sent me a letter addressed to ‘Steve Bender, Squirrel Nazi.”

On killing a plant

“People always feel guilty when they kill something, but the death of a plant should not be considered a disaster. Instead, it’s an opportunity to try new things.”

On exotic garden tools

“Forget about them — they’re just gimmicks. There are a few tools I always go back to: a good shovel, a good trowel, a leaf rake, loppers, a good pair of pruning shears. Spend the money and buy the good stuff. I also think a good 2½-gallon galvanized watering can is indispensable so you don’t have to drag a heavy hose all around.”

On Ligustrum

“I hate Ligustrum. It should be called disgustum.”

On mulch

“Don’t use rubber mulch — that’s just the tire companies trying to make you feel good about recycling. Don’t use colored mulch, either. Why would you want mulch the color of Lucy Ricardo’s hair? If your mulch is the first thing I notice about your garden, there is something wrong with it.”

On KnockOut roses

“Too much of a good thing.”


The Grumpy Gardener (Steve Bender)

WHERE: Longue Vue, 7 Bamboo Road

TICKETS: $15 with preregistration only


We welcomed Steve Bender, aka “The Grumpy Gardener” at Southern Living magazine, on June 24, 2015, as a guest speaker in our Wonderful Wednesdays summer series. Steve gave us ideas on plants that tend to be overlooked in Southern gardens. “We’ve lost a lot of diversity in the garden,” he said.

Here is Steve’s “Disturbingly Dissed Dozen: Great Plants that Nobody’s Growing,” plus a few of his comments — and an impassioned outburst on his least-favorite plant, the Bradford Pear.

1. Red Buckeye. It puts out 6-8 inch flower spikes and prefers shade. Nice display of color; easy to grow; no insect problems; attracts hummingbirds.

2: Winter Hazel. There are several different species, he said. It produces chains of soft, yellow flowers, grows fast and blooms early. “It’s one of first to bloom in spring, about the same time as Forsythia,” he said. ” … A lot of people should give this one a shot.”

3. Liverwort, a native plant that grows in the woods. He praised its pretty foliage. Liverwort grows to be 3 to 4 inches tall, with beautiful white flowers in early spring. It seeds itself, is easy to transplant and prefers light shade. Liverwort has no insect or disease problems, he added. “You don’t really have to worry about this one at all.”

4. Carolina Silverbell. This native plant is a wonderful substitute for a dogwood, Steve said. It gets to be 30 to 35 feet tall and grows white, bell-like flowers in the spring. “It’s a really pretty tree.” The leaves turn yellow in the fall.

5.Fringe Tree. Steve has written about this one on his blog, calling it “the best tree that nobody grows.” It has white flowers in the spring and yellow leaves in the fall. “I just never see this sold in garden centers any more,” Steve said. The Fringe Tree attracts butterflies and is a much better choice as an ornamental tree than a Bradford Pear, he noted. “Please don’t plant any of those ever again –when it blooms, it smells like fish. I call it ‘tuna on a trunk.’ It falls apart in a storm. It’s just awful. Plant this one instead.”

6. Hardy Orchid. It comes back year after year, doesn’t require fertilizers or sprays, and produces beautiful purple flowers in spring. “I don’t think too many people know how easy this is to grow,” Steve said. Hardy Orchid prefers light shade and is a good choice to pair with Hostas.

7. Indian Pink, one of Steve’s favorites. “It’s spectacular,” he said. Indian Pink grows throughout the Southeast and produces beautiful foliage with glossy, green leaves, and red, tubular flowers, with golden star-shaped petals on top. It prefers light shade and blooms in late spring, usually in May.

8. Lion’s Tail. This one may be ordered from Petals From The Past in Jemison, Al., Steve said. It comes from the Mediterranean region and prefers full sun and well-drained soil. “It’s great for hummingbirds and butterflies. … I kinda wonder why people just stopped planting it,” he said. “I guess they got too excited about Hostas.” Lion’s Tail blooms in late summer and fall, and is especially “a showcase plant” in September.

9. Confederate Rose. It’s actually a Hibiscus, Steve said, and comes from China. “Down here, it can get really big,” he said. Confederate Rose is very easy to grow in light shade or sun. It prefers well-drained soil but can tolerate wet soil. “This is a real passalong plant,” he said, adding that growers may easily root cuttings in water. The blooms change colors; it’s actually possilble to have three different on one plant at the same time. “It probably wouldn’t bloom up North, but it’s perfect for here,” he said. One traditional story about the plan says it grew after a Confederate soldier came home wounded and the roots absorbed his blood.

10. ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod. “It doesn’t make you sneeze, because the pollen is too heavy to float through the air,” Steve said. Gardeners may find it in garden centers. It won’t become invasive, he said, and needs very little care. It blooms in the fall. “Pair it with something purple,” he suggested. Goldenrod is often planted in gardens in England and France.

11. Kentucky Coffee Tree. “This is a great shade tree,” Steve said, but “no one grows this.” The Coffee Tree has a nice, orange-gold color in the fall; during the Civil War, Southerners started grinding beans from this tree as a coffee substitute. Steve has started several trees from seeds that have grown to about 15 feet. They are available at Milliken Arboretum in Spartanburg, S.C., as a special order item. “You can find Ginkoes anywhere, but I think this is better,” he said.

12. Japanese Persimmon. This one isn’t a lot of trouble to grow, requires no spraying and has no real pest problems, Steve said. It is self-pollinating and produces a fruit about 5 inches wide. The leaves turn scarlet and orange in the fall. “Persimmon are delicious.,” he said, adding that the plant is available at some garden centers “if you know to ask.” It will give you more pounds of fruit per square inch than any other plant, he said.

Steve’s full PowerPoint is available here: DissedDozenPPS

You can read more of Steve’s work at his blog, “The Grumpy Gardener,” here. Follow him on Facebook at Grumpy Gardener (aka Steve Bender) and on Twitter: @grumpy_gardener.

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