Ask the Gardener

Field Notes

From instant curb appeal to those pesky little buggers eating your tomatoes, expert gardener Ellen C. Wells answers your toughest questions.

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April 6, 2008

What can I plant around a light post that will look distinctive and have great curb appeal?

Vining plants are perfect for light posts. The purple, late-summer-blooming Jackman clematis (Clematis x jackmanii) is one of the most popular. Stay away from woody perennial vines such as wisteria. Their eventual weight is enough to topple the post.

If you're looking for something distinctive, consider the annual purple hyacinth or lablab bean (Dolichos lablab). It grows quickly, producing light-purple flowers and large, bright-purple seedpods. Other annual vines such as morning glory, sweet pea, and black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) are more traditional, but just as lovely.

If you want super-quick curb appeal, here's a trick: Purchase a large, pre-planted mixed container that has both tall and mounding flowering plants. Transplant those plants around the light post just as they appear in the container. Instant color!

Is spring or fall the best time to put in a new lawn in this area?

J. Scott Ebdon, associate professor of turfgrass management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says the best time to plant a lawn is during late summer or early fall. Warm soil helps the grass establish itself rapidly and minimizes weed germination. With fewer weeds, seedlings have fewer competitors for space and resources.

I recently bought a house and inherited a 20-by-20-foot patch of sand at the bottom of the yard, a few inches higher than the wetlands beyond. Is there any way to turn this into a vegetable garden?

Any spot that receives eight or more hours of sunlight a day - a big backyard, a patio, or even a roof deck - can be used to grow vegetables. When the soil isn't adequate or ample enough, build your own growing space with raised planting beds. Use boards to build rectangular beds no more than 4 feet wide and 1 to 2 feet high. Fill the bed with a soil mixture rich with compost.

For smaller spaces, use half-barrels or large containers for growing vegetables. When planted this way, your vegetable garden will need watering more frequently than conventional gardens, so keep an eye on the soil's moisture.

We've always grown tomatoes in the backyard. Suddenly, squirrels are stealing anything they can eat. What can be done to discourage them?

Furry pests - or even winged ones - are a gardener's biggest headache. Deborah Swanson, a University of Massachusetts extension agent specializing in home landscape issues, says there is no magic bullet for ridding your garden of specific animals. Electric fences will make it harder for woodchucks to eat as they please and 8- to 9-foot-tall nylon fencing does a good job of barring all but the most athletic deer. Netting may work well in preventing birds from pecking blueberries at will, but wily squirrels seem to find their way through everything.

You might try one of several commercial and homespun deterrents made from garlic, predator urine, soap, or other products to deter specific pests. Swanson suggests alternating deterrents, so predators never become accustomed to one specific product.

We need help redesigning our small backyard. Would most pros pass on a small job?

Some landscape designers and architects specialize in small yards. Look in local design publications for ads from firms specializing in "urban" or "small-space" garden design. Be sure to mention if you're willing to do some of the work; the firm will be able to complete it faster, which may encourage it to take on the project. The Landscape Institute of the Arnold Arboretum (617-495-8632) is happy to give advice on possible designers. Some garden centers and nurseries like Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton offer landscape design services. Check around.

I am wondering what flowers to plant in the boxes on my roof deck. There is a lot of sun and wind and the flowers/plants do not have any shelter.

Grasses are best, since they are texturally interesting and provide graceful movement when they catch the wind. You don't even need to trim or remove them for winter; let the seed heads catch some snow. They'll be beautiful until spring. Bamboo is an excellent choice for the same reasons.

Mediterranean plants like lavender and rosemary can handle a roof's sun and wind, and their scent carries in the breeze. Coreopsis, cinquefoil, and artemisia are good perennial options.

When is the best time to transplant rhubarb? Our rhubarb has not been getting enough sun, and the stalks are very spindly.

Divide and transplant rhubarb when the weather is cool, in early spring or in the fall. Spring planting is best, as the roots will have plenty of time to establish themselves before cold weather sets in. Try not to harvest stems during that first year; they're necessary for the plant to grow big and strong for next season.

Despite my yearly pruning efforts, rhododendron and mountain laurel bushes in front of our home keep growing so tall that they obscure the view from the street to the windows. How much can I cut back the bush without killing it?

Prune them to a height at which future growth will begin lower on the bush. Some shrubs bounce back from a heavy pruning down to about a height of 6 to 12 inches. The chance of survival varies from variety to variety.

If this doesn't work, consider replacing them with holly bushes and other sharp-needled evergreens. They're the perfect burglar deterrent!

What is balanced fertilizer? What would the numbers or name be? I've never seen a box labeled "balanced fertilizer."

All fertilizers list their percentages of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K, sometimes called potash) in a series of three sets of hyphenated numbers. You may have seen sets of numbers such as 20-10-10 or 13-2-1 on packages of synthetic and organic fertilizers. A "balanced" fertilizer has even percentages of N, P, and K and is meant to be an all-purpose fertilizer that helps evenly replenish nutrients used by plants.

I manage to get hibiscus and bougainvillea through the winter indoors, but have no luck getting them to bloom again when I put them back outside. Any suggestions?

It's tempting to move overwintered plants outdoors on the first warm spring day. The sharp changes in light and temperature make it necessary to acclimate them slowly to their summer home. Put them outside in a shady area for just a few hours for several days. Gradually increase their time outside and how much sun they receive over seven to 10 days.

Ellen C. Wells is a Boston-based horticulturist who runs Flower Ink, a garden communications service. Read about her plant exploits at

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