Capitol Hill Garden Club In Washington, D.C., Since 1952

Dear Problem Lady,

For so many years, our Club had a mysterious but helpful member known only as the ‘Dear Problem Lady.’ Not knowing who she was, we would send her all of our most serious gardening problems and concerns, by way of our newsletter. Then quicker than you could say Holy Euonymus Viridi-Variegata we'd have the perfect answer -- short, sweet, to-the-point, never wrong, always helpful. No more problem. Period.

But with her acclaim and fame, our Dear Problem Lady moved beyond just our Club and became a monthly feature in the Hill Rag! And, she is now identified as our very own long-time member and former newsletter publisher Wendy Blair (perhaps you already knew?).

Her monthly features will appear in our newsletter, on our website and in the Hill Rag. 

Click here to send your problem now to the Dear Problem Lady.

March, 2019

My camellia buds froze and dropped in early February. By Feb. 11 my daffodils started to bloom. Such wild swings – freezing – rain – and 50F and 60F degree-days too. Was the groundhog right about an early spring this year?

Your question is most apt. Historians will try to tell us reasons why. About the future, no one can know.

Are there any spring bulbs that squirrels DON’T like? All my tulips have been dug up and eaten.

Daffodil, Chionodoxa Glory of the Snow, Tommasiana Crocus, Fritillaria, Hyacinth, and Allium bulbs are a few.

Walking up East Capitol on Feb. 16 I saw a Witch Hazel in full bloom. So enchanting – I had to stop and worship. Are they hard to grow?

They are easy to grow with good sun. In brilliant yellows, oranges, pinks and reds -- they bloom in winter and early spring when little else does – and they smell divine. They like acid soil and grow to 15 or 20 feet. They might prefer some filtered shade in our scorching summers.

My Escargot begonia is three years old. Its leaves are very beautiful, but after its initial pale pink flowers, it has never bloomed again. It is in a window with north light – so it never gets direct sunlight. What might be lacking?

It does not need or want direct sunlight. Interestingly, your Escargot, a member of the Rex family, does not go dormant . Stunning leaves, not those tiny blossoms, are its main attraction. The Escargot probably needs much more humidity. Set it on top of a thick bed of pebbles in a flat container, and keep the water level at the top of the pebbles. Water it sparely, only once a week, never allowing the roots to sit in water. Fertilize with every second watering.


I thought English Ivy was a no-no – it’s invasive and it’s not native to the USA. Can you explain why English Ivy can be seen practically everywhere on Capitol Hill?

To quote Dr. Samuel Johnson – ignorance, Madam – sheer ignorance. Ivy roots are hard to eradicate, and destroy bricks, mortar and trees. -- but ivy requires no upkeep and most of us still think it looks grand. We Americans besottedly continue our centuries-old crush on English ivy.

February, 2019

Does cold winter weather stimulate dormant spring bulbs to grow roots?

No, autumn weather does that. We plant spring bulbs in the fall because the soil still holds summer’s warmth for a long time, encouraging root growth for perhaps two months before the ground freezes. As the sun wanes and temperatures fall, plants stop the spring and summer work of making leaves, shoots, flowers, berries, and fruit. All their energy goes into establishing roots, giving them a head start. Dormant bulbs begin making roots, which freezing does not kill – only halts their growth until the spring. Soil warms up slowly in spring, and for a shorter time, than the long waning warmth of the soil in autumn.

How do flowers bring water and nutrients up from the ground against gravity?

The botanical miracle you cite takes the technical vocabulary of a true botanist to explain. All plants have a complex circulation system in the cells of stalks, trunks and leaves, such that, at the cellular level, using tiny electrical charges among cells, they get water and chemical nutrients in soil to adhere to their stalks in chain-like formation, and rise upward

Is Climate Change affecting the temperature zone map of the United States?

The US Department of Agriculture has tweaked the its Zone Map twice since the 1960s due both to Climate Change and also to better measurements. Some Northerly parts of the country morph lower slightly, and others roughly five degrees higher. Every individual garden also may contain “microclimates“-- warmer or colder parts. In DC we are mainly Zone 7. Zone 3 is in Northern Montana and Maine. Zones 9 and 10 are in Texas, Florida and California. The Zone, referring to the average lowest temperatures of each zone, are important guides to planting.

January, 2019

I hear gardeners refer to something called “Winter Interest”. My garden looks like a wasteland. To what are they referring?

Ah, winter can do such ugly things to a garden! A good six inches of snow might help.  True, some gardeners love the look of dead seed pods, bare mottled tree trunks -- even desiccated hydrangea blossoms – from which they make indoor bouquets. For a winter garden to capture your heart you need first to get rid of dead things that strike you as ugly. If there is nothing left, make it tidy. Add mulch (see below). Then plan for next year. Here are some ideas: low green firs and broad-leaved evergreens help (Camellias, Pieris Japonica, Sarcococca etc.).


Some perennials have gray or purple or crimson leaves, and others have seed heads that do look pretty, to say nothing of tall, ornamental grasses. Many books point the way – one is Continuous Bloom: A Month-by- Month Guide to Nonstop Color in the Perennial Garden, by Pam Duthie.

What if I really have no time for reading garden books?

You do not need to hire a gardener if you like walking for exercise. Plan to walk by the carefully landscaped public gardens at your fingertips – from the United States Botanic Garden and the Enid A. Haupt Garden (both on the Mall) to the U.S. National Arboretum in NE DC. All provide drought-tolerant ideas for all seasons, including now.

Is snow a worry for a garden in DC?

No, it is a blessing – unless the snow is accompanied by freezing heavy northwest winds; or unless the snow coats ice around the leaves of your evergreens; or unless the snow is heavy enough to break damaging tree branches. Keep careful watch.

What is the single most important thing I should do for my garden right now?

Your garden soil should be soft and crumble in your hand. Since we in D.C. are dealing with solid clay, we need constantly to lighten our soil – otherwise plant roots cannot access either water or nutrients, and worms can’t do their essential job either. A three-inch or so layer of cut-up dry leaves applied over the whole garden as a mulch both in autumn and again in spring will work wonders. Lacking your own (free) leaves, use purchased compost, or composted leaves. January is late, but not too late to do it.

December, 2018

What’s in the powder that florists supply to make cut flowers last longer?

Sugar, acid, and bleach. Sugar gives nutrients to the flowers, acid maintains the pH level of the water, and bleach reduces the amount of bacteria and fungi in the water. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has instructions for making your own homemade flower food by mixing water with sugar, lemon or lime juice, and household bleach. Changing the water daily and trimming the flower stems help too.

My neighbor blew away all fallen leaves from her flower garden, but aren’t leaves a good free mulch?

Some gardeners feel that leaves harbor slugs and also that a store-bought mulch looks better. But you are correct, fallen leaves form a free, natural mulch that suppresses weeds, and at the same time, fertilizes the soil as they break down. If you want more work, you can rake up your leaves, break them down with a weed-whacker, and spread the resulting finer-textured mulch. Here is a picture of untreated leaves as mulch.

I have not yet planted my spring-flowering flower bulbs. If it’s too late now, can I plant them indoors?

No. The only flower bulbs you can plant indoors are Amaryllis and Paper white Narcissus. They have been prepared. All the rest – snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, etc. require several months of cold in order to bloom. They must be planted out in the cold, not just in your refrigerator. However it is NOT TOO LATE to plant them outside in December as long as you can dig the soil. In our climate, severe freezes can harm bulbs planted in pots out of doors – so plant them in the garden. Take precautions with strong grating to protect the plantings from squirrels.

When should Amaryllis bulbs be planted indoors?

A good six weeks before you want them to bloom.

How can I make sure my Paperwhite Narcissus bulbs stay upright and ds not flop over half way through their bloom time?

Anchor the bulbs in heavy pebbles with the tops of the bulbs level with the top layer of pebbles. There are lots of unproven old-wives-tales about putting a drop or more of gin in their water. Instead try planting Paperwhites in a wide, straight-sided vase so they can’t flop.

November, 2018

I want to plant spring-blooming bulbs this fall so that there is something blooming from beginning to end of spring. What sequence would you suggest?

Our spring here in DC is over by the end of April – or earlier. Weather can get so hot by then that any so-called “late-blooming” tulip is going to fry before the flower even opens. By May 1 flowering shrubs are more reliable than bulbs – unless your garden is shady. Concentrate, therefore, on early-blooming bulbs -- snowdrops, scilla, crocuses, narcissus, grape hyacinth and hyacinth, very early-blooming tulips, alliums and Summer Snowflake (Leucojums).

I forget where all my spring-blooming bulbs were planted. I know I need more, but don’t know where to begin.

Didn’t you take any photographs? Use a narrow-spiked bulb planter to insert tiny bulbs, and gently probe with a thin-tined garden fork to move the soil around in places where you suspect there might be bulbs. Next spring take photos or make a map.

I planted three Alliums several years ago. One split into two rather weak shoots, while two are hardy and strong. They looked lonely, however – lined up in a row. Any hints for a better use of this gorgeous very tall round flower?

Alliums look good in a bigger clump – a minimum of seven, let’s say – more is better. Another plan might be a single allium amongst a grouping of fuller late spring perennials, which can hide the bareness of the bare allium stalks and provide interesting color combinations. Try Allium along with Lady’s Mantle (Alchemille Mollis, with its chartreuse flowers) or Salvia, Camassia, Penstemon, Cranes bill Geraniums, Euphorbia, even Columbine (Aquilegia).

I would like some winter-blooming camellias, but am unsure whether I have the conditions they prefer. Can you enlighten?

Camellias prefer dappled shade. A bed that faces north is good. Most important is protection from biting, drying cold wind. Also important is protection from early morning or late afternoon strong sun. They like loose, well-drained, acid soil that you can create by using humus or compost mixed with composted manure and some bone meal. Winter-blooming camellias can go from store pots right into the ground now. Camellias have shallow roots. Use no more than two inches of light mulch – made of dried leaves, or pine needles. Do not over-water. They will bloom from now through Christmas and beyond.

October, 2018

Dear Problem Lady,

Are begonias perennials or annuals?

In the tropics they are perennials. Here they cannot survive our winters unless brought indoors.

My daughter says I should buy some Mexican sunflowers next year because they bloom right up to first frost.

Mexican Sunflower – Tithonia Rotundifolia – is a sensational, neon orange or golden daisy-like annual that thrives in zones 1 to 10. If you can give them full sun, go for it.

My darling wife (from the South, you know) wanted a banana tree. We have one. I must say its enormous leaves have been spectacular. Will it survive a DC winter?

Of course it will. Notwithstanding that in our climate the banana tree will never have flowers, let alone bananas, some of us do love those magnificent leaves. When they fall off they can be left at the base of the tree to insulate its roots. New green shoots will appear in spring sunshine.

When should I cut back my tall New England Asters?

Cut them back after all their foliage has died.

The African violet I received for Christmas last year has begun to wilt. What might I be doing wrong?


You certainly have done very well so far. Our biggest mistake as amateurs is to water an African violet too much. When waterlogged, its fine roots die for lack of oxygen. So water only if the top of the soil is dry to the touch. Using lukewarm or warm water, apply from either the bottom or the top. Remove excess water after the plant has taken up all it needs. Violets bloom best when pot-bound. Place in bright but indirect light close to, say, a North-facing window.

My brother admires Virginia creeper vine for its brilliant red color in the fall. I told him to find another vine for the side of his house because Virginia creeper is horribly invasive. What do you think?

Virginia Creeper is immensely strong. Its woody vines with attractive five-part leaves can easily climb 20 feet, forming an attractive and dense green screen with purple berries and scarlet foliage in autumn. If your brother can trim the long runners that spring from each leaf junction, and stop its many underground runners spreading throughout the rest of the garden, he might be the one fellow who can master Virginia creeper. This plant is intensely invasive.

September, 2018

Dear Problem Lady,

This year our wonderful tomato plants have not produced as usual. The plants themselves are spindly, and the tomatoes sparse. Can you pinpoint a cause? The soil is full of manure and compost.

2018 has been a tough year – a cold spring, dry early summer, and then heavy hard rains. One could guess that while your plants did get plenty of sun in June and July, in late July and early August they lacked as much sun as they needed – 8 hours a day. However, my guess is still with the earlier drought. Tomatoes need pretty constant moisture (but not swampy conditions – good drainage is essential). Their roots are somewhat deep, so the watering should be deep. If the roots do not get enough water, the flowers burn up before they can produce. You might enjoy this website written by tomato aficionados:

Our daylilies in pots bloomed, but not as well as usual. They seem compacted. Can I divide them this late in the year?

Yes. Daylilies should go into the ground with enough time before first frost to establish a strong root system, 4-6 weeks before the first hard frost. If you lived in a northern region, you may have missed the boat and should probably wait until spring to divide. However, in this warmer region now might be the perfect time to divide. First trim off the tops of the foliage with pruning sheers, then dig up the whole root ball and divide each into smaller clumps with a knife. Replant in prepared soil 12 or more inches apart.

We need to screen our back garden view – can you suggest a tall perennial that blooms at the end of the summer?

You could try Plume Poppy (left picture). (Its Latin name is Macleaya cordata). It is 5 to 8 feet tall, has large scalloped leaves and grows in sun or part shade. It has a lacy look. It spreads somewhat vigorously – a defect.

You could also try Persicaria, (right picture) featured in the October 2018 Fine Gardening (Persicaria amplexicaulis, commonly known as Mountain Fleece). It typically grows in a dense leafy mound to 3-4’ tall (sometimes to 6’) and as wide. Tiny, rose-red to white flowers bloom June to September (occasionally to first frost) on narrow, pencil-thin, long-stalked spikes. Neither of these two perennials may be suitable for a very small garden. They are very tall.

May, 2018

Dear Problem Lady,

Can you please identify a lovely flower I never noticed before – blooming in a great swath along the border at the back steps of the Hill Center. It’s about a yard tall and covered with sprays of tiny white flowers that sway in the breeze. I want to buy some for our garden.

It is Leucojum, a longtime favorite. You can buy it online from well-known suppliers such as White Flower Farm but only in the fall, because it is a bulb. Just figure out now where to plant it – as at the Hill Center – it likes sun or at the least dappled shade.

When and how does one plant Solomon’s Seal?

You may find some Solomon’s seal growing in wooded areas of USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7, but don’t disturb the wild plants. They transplant poorly. Purchase healthy plants from a local garden center in late February to the end of March. Leave plenty of room for them to spread when initially planting. These plants prefer moist, well draining soil that is rich, but they are drought tolerant and can take some sun without wilting.

My one-upping best pal looked at our shade garden this March and commented “You could do with some Spring Ephemerals” but it’s too late now.” Okay. I don’t want more advice from him. Please translate and help me.

Spring Ephemerals are lovely flowers that you might find wild in the woods – dog-toothed violets, trout lilies, trilliums, jack in the pulpit – there are dozens, all of which bloom early and then, by June, die back completely to their underground roots and bulbs. They’ve become so popular that they are widely available at plant stores and online. The time to plant is usually the autumn – when you see crocus, snowdrops, scilla, Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches – listed in garden catalogues for the following spring. Plant in well-drained acidic soil in light shade – they must have some sun – which is readily available before trees leaf out.

Apparently there are some perennial geraniums that have a spicy smell and last all season. Can you enlighten? I need something that clumps and is fairly low.

The perennial geranium is called a Cranesbill, because of the shape of its seedpod after blooming. It does mound at about 10 inches tall, likes sunshine, lives a long time, and blooms all season. It comes in blues (Johnson’s Blue is the most famous), purples, and pale and bright magenta pinks. Several pink Cinareums have leaves with a pleasing, spicy scent, you will have to sniff them out.

April, 2018

Dear Problem Lady,

We always spend winters away from home. My husband insists, now that April’s here and we’re back home, that we have missed the correct time to prune our large and badly overgrown beech tree. He will not hear of pruning it now. But I can see very high branches ready to fall, and a canopy that – although leafless as yet – is going to be jammed with crossing branches. How can I persuade him otherwise, or shall I just hire a pruner and let the chips fall where they may? 

Your beech tree might be an exception that proves the rule. Your husband is entirely correct. Most trees should be pruned while they are dormant. Otherwise, they suffer – rather like a human being suffering surgery without an anesthetic. But the reasons for pruning are many. The tree may suffer, but still survive, if you notice an insect infestation or rot or disease. You shouldn't wait for the appropriate seasonal timing in this case. Similarly, thinning a canopy that contains broken and crossing branches will avoid hurting people and damaging property. It will also allow air and sunshine to reach the interior of the tree – aiding its longterm health and beauty. 

My usually big bushy Spirea, having suffered through the past winter, is dry and brown. Should I cut it right back, or will the brown disappear with time and cascades of white flowers return? 

Spirea seems to produce leaves late, as its white flowers arrive. Since your Spirea is probably a bridal wreath type, it will bloom on new (or this year’s) wood. That means you could trim any broken or damaged branches now without missing any lovely May and June showers of flowers. But you do not need to. Bridal Wreath Spirea Other Spirea – often the pink kind -- do bloom on “old” (or last year’s) wood. The time to prune these is after they bloom, before summer, when they produce next year’s buds.

I have forgotten what perennials I should have planted to hide the fading leaves of my splendid but now dead daffodils. Can I still plant something? 

Of course, you can. Many people choose lilies. The bright green spears of Daylilies dart up in April to blend with expiring daffodil leaves. Your horticultural instincts are excellent -- allowing daffodil leaves to live on to feed their bulbs and thus hardily bloom again next spring. Cutting Daffodils back prematurely injures their bulbs. Any other summer-blooming perennial would be fine to plant – Rudbeckia, Shasta daisy, a pretty perennial geranium – even a colorful biennial such as Sweet William or foxglove – or annuals like Zinnia, Cleome or Cosmos. 

March, 2018

Dear Problem Lady,

When will the cherry trees by the tidal basin be best this year do you think? When will the cherry trees by the tidal basin be best this year do you think? 

The NationalPark Service says there is a wide window, from March 15 to April 15 every year, for the cherry trees to perform their wonders. We have had some extremely cold weeks. Then came unusually warm weeks. Cold weeks slow the cherry trees from budding. Warm weeks speed the budding process. From March 1 on, cold weather will mean later, warm weather will mean earlier - - no one knows more. High winds, sleet, and snow can ruin everything – but the blossoms almost always manage to triumph in the vicinity of April 1 – give or take! 

Our flowering Quince has failed to flower this year. Can you suggest why? Our flowering Quince has failed to flower this year. Can you suggest why? 

Two ideas occur. First, Quince blooms and fruits on new growth. Therefore it is important, while the shrub is dormant during winter months, to prune away leggy and overgrown branches so it can grow little new shoots. These new shoots are the ones that produce the blooms. Second, Quince dislikes alkaline soil. Try testing your soil and adding sphagnum peat, aluminum sulfate, or dislikes alkaline soil. Try testing your soil and adding sphagnum peat, aluminum sulfate, or composted leaves to encourage acidity. 

Is it true that Columbineslove a shady garden? If yes, can you suggest some attractive Is it true that Columbineslove a shady garden? If yes, can you suggest some attractive columbines to plant? columbines to plant? 

Yes, Columbinestake up little room and give a light touch among heavier plants. Blooming in April into May, Aquilegia by its correct, Latin horticultural name, thrives in light shade. It comes in white, purples, pink, yellow and a brilliant red with yellow stamens – as shown in theAquilegia Canadensis in this photo.

Here, the Aquilegia Vulgaris is a stunning violet blue. Elegant, not vulgar. 

My new husband, who has a wonderfully green thumb, tells me that the soil in my long- My new husband, who has a wonderfully green thumb, tells me that the soil in my longneglected garden needs first aid. Music to my ears. In fact, I am hoping it will become neglected garden needs first aid. Music to my ears. In fact, I am hoping it will become his garden.First things first, however. I want to show good faith and initiative. But soil? garden.First things first, however. I want to show good faith and initiative. But soil? I’ve never quite known a thing about it. How do we begin? I’ve never quite known a thing about it. How do we begin?

You are indeed a lucky bride. Your husband is going to have his own ideas, of course. Men do. And improving poor soil can be a years-long undertaking. Begin with the trees on your property -- if any. Trees tend to suck moisture and nutrients from the soil, depleting it. You could lose any unwanted trees. But leaves in the autumn can begin to save your soil if gathered, dried and composted – to be spread all over the garden.Lacking leaf and other compost, you can begin by buying bagged humus and spreading it liberally all over the garden beds. Read up on soil books. Think also about the actual composition of your soil – is it clay, perhaps? – and ways to lighten and aerate it so plants can actually access the nutrients they need. You may find a nifty – and tilthy -- basis to your new marriage.

February, 2018

Dear Problem Lady,

Right now in the midst of a winter thaw, my garden has been sprouting countless shoots of Autumn

Clematis. I used to have a crush on this airy vine with its masses of fragrant, tiny white flowers in Clematis. I used to have a crush on this airy vine with its masses of fragrant, tiny white flowers in

September. Silly me. Now that its roots have networked throughout the backyard, I can’t get rid of it. It’s September. Silly me. Now that its roots have networked throughout the backyard, I can’t get rid of it. It’s only February, for Pete’s sake. only February, for Pete’s sake.

Digging up the shoots and severing as much of their root systems as you can, will work only temporarily. Hard pruning actually rejuvenates this hardy clematis. I advise using the weed-killer Roundup, but it will not work

until the true growing season begins. In spring, cut off each stem at ground level and paint the remaining cut stems with full strength Roundup.

We have an underground watering system, because of which the garden thrives without much labor. But this We have an underground watering system, because of which the garden thrives without much labor. But this winter the pipes have unaccountably come to the surface of the soil. What is happening, and how can we winter the pipes have unaccountably come to the surface of the soil. What is happening, and how can we

fix it? fix it?

Perhaps your pipes were not installed deep enough to start with, and need to be re-installed when the weather warms up. Or maybe frozen ground has heaved them up. It could be that buried pipes need to be held down by some hardware during installation. Notwithstanding its flaw, your best plan is to try to ignore the problem of unsightly piping until someone can dig down and see what happened.

Can I keep my gorgeous Amaryllis plant alive to bloom again next Christmas? Can I keep my gorgeous Amaryllis plant alive to bloom again next Christmas?

Yes of course. Right now, just cut back those fat flower stalks at their base, leaving the leaves, and keep it

slightly watered as it sits in a sunny window.

When spring arrives you can put it outside in your garden in a sunny place, keep it well watered and well fed

with bloom and root-enhancing supplements all summer, and bring it in when the weather cools. Then let it

go dormant in a dark cool garage or basement. About 7 weeks before the time you wish it to bloom, bring it

back upstairs. In a sunny window, begin to water sparingly when the first green shoot appears. Voila!

Hell is what this winter has brought to my broad-leafed evergreens -- Pieris and Camellias. Deep-freeze. Hell is what this winter has brought to my broad-leafed evergreens -- Pieris and Camellias. Deep-freeze. Thaw. Then sleet. What fresh hell will February bring? Thaw. Then sleet. What fresh hell will February bring?

We gardeners must learn not – either to blame ourselves for these tragedies – or, harder – not to take too

much credit for our brilliant successes.

January, 2018

Dear Problem Lady,

A Christmas cactus arrived at my house, in full bloom, just before Christmas. It is still blooming. What care does it need? Our town house has limited light exposure. I do hope I don’t have to throw it out when it fades. I love it, and I love the person who gave it to me. I want to keep it as long as I can.

Tricky. Christmas cactuses want cool temperatures; best around 60’F, and no direct sunlight – just bright indirect light, such as from a skylight or north window. They must have high humidity, so put your cactus on a bed of water-immersed pebbles. Do not overwater the plant itself. Do not underwater. Err on the dry side. They also need long dark nights. Summer outside in a shady, cool spot.

When is too late to plant spring bulbs?

It is not easy to plant bulbs in soil that is frozen. That said, because DC weather at this time of year can be – let us say “variable” – much of a garden’s soil may remain “unfrozen” from time to time. So if you can dig through your soil to the depth needed by your bulbs – (about three times the vertical height of the bulb -- six inches or more) – then go for it. Bulbs need about three months of cool dormancy in order to bloom. Yours will not have had a great start. On the other hand, bulbs want to live and bloom more than anything. Like us.

Settle an argument please. My wife thinks that orange roadside lilies are Tiger Lilies. I think they are ordinary Day Lilies, and that Tiger Lilies are the ones shaped like a so-called “Turk’s Cap” and have black spots or speckles.

You are correct. Take your wife out to dinner to celebrate.

Somewhat in despair, I’ve been gazing at my garden this autumn and thinking how unkempt it looks. Somehow it has stopped working. What to do?

Without more details, the Problem Lady believes you are doing the best possible thing already. Just staring at your garden is most helpful – a good, hard look. Should this garden be edited? Even if some things do well, are you tired of them? Does the garden need revving up? Or calming down? What would make you like it again? Walk around your neighborhood to get new ideas. Remember that colorful summer annuals can often transform the blahs. The right answers will come from you alone.

December, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

What do you know about using milk as a fertilizer, specifically on tomato plants? My neighbor insists that milk is a good fertilizer. He pours it around the base of his excellent tomatoes.

Horticulturally speaking, the amino acids, proteins, enzymes and sugars in milk are the same ingredients that feed healthy communities of microbes, fungi and beneficial bacteria in garden soil, once composted – as do composted fruits, vegetables, plant waste, manure, wood chips. How much good will milk by itself do? Relative in volume to organic fertilizer, milk is super expensive, and when decomposed, very low in necessary nutrients such as Nitrogen. It lives on as garden fertilizer only in folk myth.

We saw a beautiful small tree that has delicate flowers with a heavenly scent. Best of all, it blooms in September, which greatly appeals to our garden’s needs.

The tree also has exfoliating bark, like that of the crape myrtle, and shiny slender dark green leaves. Can you identify it from these photos?

This little gem is called a “Seven Sons Tree” (Zones 5-9). It needs full sun. 

The name comes from its profuse but delicate white flowers in groups of seven, inside a whorl.The Latin name is Heptacodium miconioides and it grows to a height of 10 to 15 feet tall, with a canopy spread of ten feet.

I may have gotten a little rash on my hands and arms from trying to reduce the size of a Giant Fleece Flower that we planted this past May. The problem is not the rash so much as the size of the thing. Don’t get me wrong – this Fleece Flower is stunning – a great white whale of a focal point. All eyes gravitate to it immediately. But will I survive?

Of course you will, just wear gloves. Fleece Flower (Persicaria polymorpha) is hard to keep small. It stars in a garden like a shrub, getting taller and taller as it blooms all summer long. But it is actually an herbaceous perennial that dies back completely to the ground by the end of autumn. Next year, starting from nothing, it will again rise up and reign triumphant. It is not invasive, just big and a fast grower.

Giant fleeceflower, Persicaria polymorpha

When should I plant the bulbs for Foxtail lilies? I think we have the space for them.

Plant your bulbs in August.With all of the seed catalogs in the mail, order good quality bulbs early for the best selection. A quality bulb resource will send the bulbs at the proper planmting time.

These stunning, phallic-shaped, seven-foot wonders come in myriad lovely colors, but the Problem Lady prefers white.

Naturally they will dominate, and are best at the back of a bed, yet in full sun and with excellent drainage. They bloom in the early part of summer – around May.

November, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

Will store-bought potted mums survive if I plant them in the garden now?

Alas, probably not. These beautiful chrysanthemums have been grown for their perfect blooms right now, and are actually in decline, without the root strength they would need to carry them through cold weather.

In order to survive in the garden they need to have been planted there through the spring and summer as young plants.

How best prepare potted ferns to return them inside?

First give them a blast of water from a hose to get rid of insects and slugs. Prune off all dead or over-long fronds. To further assure the departure of unwanted creepy crawlies you might even immerse the pot itself in water for ten minutes or so. Then put them in a window that gives some but not a lot of sun and keep them moderately watered until spring.

Freezing killed our Kanjiro Camellia tree three winters ago. It is a Sasanqua – i.e. an autumn bloomer. We had it cut down. The arborist said it might try to live again, and it has. In 2017 this stunning dark pink Kanjiro consists of eleven vertical suckers, the tallest being ten feet tall! They are covered with bursting buds. But it’s not a shapely tree any more. Can we prune the vertical suckers somehow into a more rounded shape?

After it blooms, you could try to encourage a more rounded overall shape by removing some vertical shoots and encouraging the more lateral ones -- if any. This winter do erect a wind barrier if temperatures plunge.

Should we tie two old (20 years and counting) Japonica Camellia trees to make them straight? They have bent severely towards the sun.

Make sure you tie the trunks to something strong. Most importantly, the rope or coated wire you use must never cut into the tree trunks. Baffle the trunks with some soft but tough material, from an old tire perhaps.

When is the best time to plant Crocosmia bulbs?

Not now, in the spring. Crocosmia “corms” – they’re not actually bulbs, but that difference is immaterial -- prefer slightly acidic, rich, lightly moist yet well-drained soil. These tall iris-like plants need full sun. Plant them in groups of no fewer than about ten for best effect, at a depth of 3 to 5 inches, and about 6 to 8 inches apart.

October, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

I know I should mulch my garden to help my plants survive winter – protect their roots and help them retain moisture – but I fear that while a layer of mulch is going to do the job and look neat, it will shut off plant roots from oxygen, which they need. What mulch is best, and how much of it should I spread?

A shallow layer (two inches max) of compost or well-composted leaves makes the best mulch. Do not use mulch that has not been composted first. Raw shredded wood or bark, straw, pine needles, sawdust -- all steal precious Nitrogen from soil as they decompose. In addition, fine Pine and cedar wood shavings are very acidic, so use them only on plants that need acid soil.

Can you advise about bulb planting? I know tulips don’t survive our hot summers very well, but I love them. What’s the best way to get a real show of tulips every single year in DC?

Plant new tulip bulbs every fall.

Buy ones that bloom early, in late March or early April, before the weather gets hot, and choose the biggest bulbs.

Prepare a fairly deep bed, say 9 inches or so deep, and space your bulbs around the bottom of the bed fairly close together, about 4-5 inches apart. Fill up the bed with good loose rich compost.

Then cover the bed with metal screening known as “hardware cloth” to prevent squirrels from getting at them. Remove it after the ground has frozen.

When can I cut ratty-looking peony leaves away?

The right time for peony pruning is in fall, after frost has killed leaves. Clip stems as close to the ground as possible. Gather all leaves, stems and any other plant debris. Don’t compost this material; bag it and put it out with the trash. Peonies sometimes have fungal diseases that can survive winter on a piece of leaf or stem.

Which is best time, spring or fall, for planning clematis? I have my eye on General Sikorski – the most heavenly mauve color.

Fall is a grand time, while weather is still warm enough to help the roots get started. (But spring is OK too.)

Remember to dig a very deep hole, plant a bit deeper than the plant’s bottom growth, which you then cut off. Fill the hole with top quality compost and a handful of bone meal. Mulch well. Plant about 6 inches out from a fence or wall, so the clematis will catch enough rain. Use a small-bore trellis or chicken wire against the fence and train any existing shoots to ray out, even parallel, along the wires.

September, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

What do you know about using milk as a fertilizer, specifically on tomato plants? My neighbor insists that milk is a good fertilizer. He pours it around the base of his excellent tomatoes.

Horticulturally speaking, the amino acids, proteins, enzymes and sugars in milk are the same ingredients that feed healthy communities of microbes, fungi and beneficial bacteria in garden soil, once composted – as do composted fruits, vegetables, plant waste, manure, wood chips. How much good will milk by itself do? Relative in volume to organic fertilizer, milk is super expensive, and when decomposed, very low in necessary nutrients such as Nitrogen. It lives on as garden fertilizer only in folk myth.

We saw a beautiful small tree that has delicate flowers with a heavenly scent. Best of all, it blooms in September, which greatly appeals to our garden’s needs.Yhe tree also has exfoliating bark, like that of the crape myrtle, and shiny slender dark green leaves. Can you identify it from these photos?

This little gem is called a “Seven Sons Tree” (Zones 5-9). It needs full sun.

The name comes from its profuse but delicate white flowers in groups of seven, inside a whorl.

The Latin name is Heptacodium miconioides and it grows to a height of 10 to 15 feet tall, with a canopy spread of ten feet.

I may have gotten a little rash on my hands and arms from trying to reduce the size of a Giant Fleece Flower that we planted this past May. The problem is not the rash so much as the size of the thing. Don’t get me wrong – this Fleece Flower is stunning – a great white whale of a focal point. All eyes gravitate to it immediately. But will I survive?

Of course you will, just wear gloves. Fleece Flower (Persicaria polymorpha) is hard to keep small. It stars in a garden like a shrub, getting taller and taller as it blooms all summer long. But it is actually an herbaceous perennial that dies back completely to the ground by the end of autumn. Next year, starting from nothing, it will again rise up and reign triumphant. It is not invasive, just big and a fast grower.

Giant fleeceflower, Persicaria polymorpha

When should I plant the bulbs for Foxtail lilies? I think we have the space for them.

This month’s newsletter could be pushing the envelope for things that can suit a Capitol Hill sized garden – but go for it!

Plant your bulbs now – in August.

These stunning, phallic-shaped, seven-foot wonders come in myriad lovely colors, but the Problem Lady prefers white.

Naturally they will dominate, and are best at the back of a bed, yet in full sun and with excellent drainage.

They bloom in the early part of summer – around May.

June, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

One of my Giant Alliums came up two weeks late, and as two plants instead of one. It is thus much smaller than the others. Should I try to divide it?

Leave it alone. It is trying to survive. Its bulb is probably damaged. A sprinkling of composted manure might help. Very late summer is the only time to lift and/or divide Allium bulbs. Only after leaves have died away, lift carefully with a fork.

I heard that a garden in a pot should contain just three things – “a Thriller, a Filler and a Spiller”? Meaning what?

Fine Gardening Magazine popularized this wise mantra. The Thriller can be a brilliant spike of bloom or leaf. Filler -- any bushy thing. The spiller -- something drooping down over the edge of the pot. Find three that go together, and go for it.

My springtime Japonica Camellias were sensational this year. But I can never figure out how to arrange them.

Tomorrow’s Tropic Dawn

Camellia Japonica

Yes. Breathtaking Camellia blooms have a perverse way of facing downwards, on short stems. Were we intended to lie down underneath the camellia bush and look up? Try floating picked camellias in water in a shallow crystal bowl.

Due to unconscionable neglect, our Japonica Camellias became trees. This year, after blooms finished, I pruned them back drastically. How best to give them Intensive Care now?

During this growing period feed them once with slow-release acid fertilizer such as Hollytone. Don’t overwater, but don’t let the soil around them dry out. Mulch lightly. If they survive, pay better attention. Maybe join the Camellia Society of the Potomac Valley.

Is there an actual DC law about what one can plant in a tree box?

Yes, dear. Not that enforcement is noticeable. A tree box should contain nothing except a tree. Repeat: nothing. Mulch your tree. If you have no tree, any plantings should be low, so as not to impede automobile sightlines. Fencing should also be low, with no fence whatsoever on the street side. See Rule 24-109: BEAUTIFICATION OF TREE SPACES, DC Regulations.

Could you suggest some drought-tolerant planting ideas for a tree-less tree box?

The usual groundcovers, Vinca Minor (Periwinkle), Pachysandra (Spurge) and Liriope are better than nothing.

Find only the “dwarf” varieties of the following ideas. Few can tolerate strong sun and no water, so you need to check the needs of each plant. In alphabetical order try Ajuga (Bugleweed); Alpinia Pumila; Asarum (Wild Ginger); Epimedium (Barrenwort); Galium Odoratum (Sweet Woodruff); Salvia Sylvestris Marcus; Sedum Angelina; and Tiarella Cordifolia. Annuals might include Sweet Alyssum and Portulaca Grandifolia.

Alpinia Pumila

April, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

We have a cheerful Jasmine shrub that blooms in January. Friends tell me it is not really Jasmine because it has no scent. That is not my fault -- I do wish it did. Now I am curious about what true Jasmine is, and how I can get some.

Your plant, a deciduous shrub with a weeping habit, is known as “Winter Jasmine”. It is extremely hardy here. While not a vine, it can cascade nicely down a slope, if you have one.

Winter Jasmine, deciduous, zone 6-9, sun to part shade , yellow flowers in late winter, not fragrant

Perhaps your friends allude to an evergreen vine with intensely fragrant blooms, also in late winter, that blooms all summer too. This is known as Carolina Jessamine – or Jasmine. It is South Carolina’s State Flower. It thrives there – in zone 8 – but it thrives here, too. It is hardy in the same zones as yours – 6 through 9. Because it is a vigorous vine, you might wish to situate it on a strong trellis or fence.

Carolina Jessamine (or Jasmine), evergreen vine, zone 6-9, Intensely fragrant, small trumpet-shaped flowers spring through summer

Our new townhouse back yard is entirely unplanted. There is a brick patio at the back door, a nine-foot wood fence around three sides, and nothing. What perennials do you suggest we might plant first?

The Problem Lady loves a tabula rasa, but not if it exists inside the gardener’s own mind! Please stop all planting plans for a few seconds to focus on some questions.

  • What purpose must this back yard serve in your life? A place to sunbathe? Meditate? Entertain? Impress your mother? Grow vegetables? Bury pets?
  • Does your household consist of other persons beside yourself? For example, do you have a three-year-old child whose needs might be fully met by a sand box and a birdbath? Will you receive gardening help from spouse or friend?
  • From which direction, and for how long, does sunshine enter the yard?
  • Does your yard have any exposure to winds coming from the Northwest?
  • Of what composition is the existing soil in your yard? Why must you know?
  • How will you water your garden? It is easier to install an underground watering system now, at the outset, before any planting, if you can afford one.
  • Do you wish to have any trees or shrubs? Do you like shade gardens at all?
  • What Hardiness Zone do you live in?
  • How much time each week, if any, can you devote to caring for -- nay, working in -- a garden? Some say this work is a garden’s chief pleasure.
  • How many Capitol Hill backyards have you seen? Capitol Hill Garden Club monthly Programs and Walks can provide ideas close to home that might blow your mind!

March, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

How hot does it get in DC in the summer? It’s already been such a hot winter.

Welcome, stranger! DC temperatures can exceed 100 degrees for days on end. Remember how 19th century denizens simply fled “the swamp” every summer -- to Cleveland Park – or New England -- long before Mr. Trump planned to “drain” it. Summers here can also be rainless. Do find flowers in the “drought tolerant” category.

In January I fell deeply in love with a nearby shrub covered with brilliant smallish dark pink blossoms with a heavenly scent. And so early! Can you guess its name?

You must mean the small “Prunus Mume”, known as a Japanese Apricot tree. It blooms for weeks in late January, early February, and seems much too seldom planted here.

To my ear it sounds pretentious when some of my best friends who are gardeners – all very nice people otherwise – babble away using Latin names for flowers. What’s the matter with saying Snowdrops, Black-eyed Susans or Spiderwort? Am I missing something?

Sane quidem – yes, indeed you are. Botanical naming began with the Greeks, then the Romans – and for centuries all Scientists communicated in Latin. The vernacular was not the language of the literate, who also needed an international language. In Science, accuracy is essential. Gardeners must know exactly what they are talking about. If you go, for instance, as nearby as French-speaking Canada, a garden center cannot help you find -- without the proper Latin name for it -- say, “Rose Campion” – which happens to be “Lychnis Coronaria”. When you are among friends in your hometown, your local garden center is going to know “Galanthus” when you say “Snowdrop” and “Tradescantia” when you want “Spiderwort”. But if you move far away, bring your flower book with the Latin names. And do try to learn to babble away in Latin. You'll find that becoming mildly irritating can be a big plus in the garden.

My mother used to say “There’s nothing good about Glads” -- pronouncing the word with a harsh, flat “A” sound. Maybe she was reacting against their ubiquity in the 1950s. But isn’t the Gladiolus a rather lovely summer flower?

Yes. It is a Zone 4 “corm” or bulb-rooted perennial. Often referred to as 'sword lily,' (“Gladus” = “sword” in Latin), Glads are easy to grow, inexpensive, and take little space. Plant them close together at the back of your sunniest flowerbed on successive weekends in spring, and you’ll get spires of summer color for weeks.

February, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

We forgot to prune our beautiful Lacecap Hydrangeas and are now wondering whether we should still do it this late. Or -- have we missed the boat as far as expecting any beautiful flat blue blooms in 2017? I always get Lacecaps mixed up in my mind with the snowball and oak leaf varieties of Hydrangea.

You are not the only one. Some Hydrangeas can be cut back anytime because they bloom on “new” (this year’s) wood. But a lace cap blooms on “old” wood. Its buds are already “set”. So wait – if it needs pruning -- until just after it blooms this summer

Instead of a bouquet, my dinner guest arrived with two pale yellow orchid plants in pots. I was speechless with gratitude – and fear. How must I care for these exotic things? Their name is Phalaenopsis. I want to be worthy of this flattering gift.

With almost no effort you can be worthy.  Read up on Phalaenopsis care on the internet. The essentials are: bright, indirect light – no direct sun – and not very much water, but high humidity. So fill a dish or tray with pebbles and water to the top of the pebbles. Place the orchid pots on top of the pebbles, near a southern window. Be sure sun does not directly reach the leaves. Water only once a week, most sparingly. They like night temperatures of no less than 62’F and daytime temperatures of no more than 80’F. An average of 70’ will work. Some recommend feeding. Use a special orchid food, or a general 20-10-20 fertilizer – one half teaspoon per gallon of water.

I am considering writing a crime novel set on Capitol Hill. Are there ordinary garden plants whose toxicity would be sufficient to cause the death of an adult?

You would be surprised. While some cause mere stomach upset or skin abrasions, many are lethal – horse chestnut, hydrangea, lupine, the seeds of the sweet pea – look online for a longer list. Your problem, however, will be easy detection by forensic toxicologists combined with implausibility. Victim must not suspect, and neither must all but your canny detective.

We have no water source in our back yard. How can we garden? We do not wish to have to install a tap there yet.


Try a rain barrel, hooked up to a downspout from your roof. They are quite popular. However, you will be as dependent on the arrival of rain as any old-fashioned farmer.

January, 2017

Dear Problem Lady,

What is the best after-care for a beautiful Poinsettia?

After its blooms have fallen, instead of trying to provide the water, light and temperature control available in a greenhouse, throw out your Poinsettia and buy another next year.

What long-blooming houseplant can cheer me up in these cold dark January days?

Try buying a Cyclamen in full bloom now. In reds, pinks, or white, Cyclamen will bloom for months indoors. Water very moderately, and every two weeks add a high phosphorus fertilizer to the water.

Last year my Cyclamen plant had beautiful glossy dark green leaves and a flowering habit that produced literally dozens of brilliant red flowers from November until April. In May of this year, I put the plant in a shed and withheld all water and other care, allowing it to go completely dormant. In early September, I put it out in my backyard and began watering. It quickly produced new growth. In October, I returned it to a cool, South-facing bedroom where it did so well the year before. As of this date [January 6], the plant has put out 15 or so very healthy-looking leaves, but gives no hint yet of any flowers. How can I jump-start the flowering process?

What a magnificent plants woman you are! Now you must fertilize. The trick again is to add a water-soluble, high phosphorus plant food, something in the nature of 0-30-10. The first number is Nitrogen – of which you need little or none. If one wishes to go to the trouble, Cyclamen do benefit from being placed outdoors during spring and summer, just as you have done, and then brought back indoors by mid-October before any threat of frost.

I seem to remember the immortal Henry Mitchell writing that true gardeners are always busy, even in January. What gardening can I possibly be doing in January?

Now is the time to plan! Peruse seed and gardening catalogues, as you sit cozily by the fire dreaming of spring. Consider starting veggie or other seeds early, under gro lights. Or plan later to scatter the mixed seeds of annuals – say zinnias and asters – on some sunny underused corner. Don’t forget other annuals, such as the biggest ever Begonia, called “Whopper”. It produces 3-inch red blooms and can tolerate torrid heat. Remember to think also about pots, and what new things might work in pots – Crocosmia, Asiatic Lilies and other flowering bulbs, corms and tubers.

December, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

Why do my Garden Clubby friends say that in Washington DC tulips are “annuals”? Certainly not where I come from.

Our summers are too hot for the longtime survival of tulip bulbs, which simply rot in the ground before they can survive to re-bloom properly. New England, the Middle West, even Canada are better for tulip growing. That is the reason, perhaps, why the National Park Service has given us an outdoor “Tulip Library” on the Mall (in SW, near the Tidal Basin). There, about 100 different species tulips are planted every fall for our springtime delight. Google “Tulip Library” to see its exact location.

I hope this question is not too ignorant. Should ferns be “cut back” in the fall?

Gardeners disagree about ferns. Most delay any cutting back of outdoor ferns until new growth begins to appear in early spring. They then cut back just the dead parts. Of course, one can cut back the dead or brown branches of indoor ferns anytime.

I have the same question about some of my other long-blooming perennials – Coreopsis “sunbeam”, Nepeta (“Cat Mint”), Asclepias Tuberosa (“Butterfly Weed”), and the autumn-blooming Japanese Anemone and Michelmas Daisy (New England Aster): should any or all of these be cut back?

The main reasons for cutting any perennial flower back in the fall are, first, to get rid of ugly, useless dead stems and leaves to make the garden look neat; and second, to encourage new basal green growth to help the plant roots build up strength to survive winter. Depending on how cold this December gets, we seem past the time for new growth, but not too late to clean up the dead stuff. However, none of the above will die if NOT cut back in the fall– and some have interesting seed heads and pods.

Do you have a favorite flower or plant to give as a Holiday gift?

Let’s see. It can be difficult to guess which colors and smells some friends hate with an abiding hate. For some it is Paperwhite Narcissus. For others, red roses, which have no scent at all, but reek of cliché! O dear -- Carnations, Cyclamen, Amaryllis, Azaleas – even brilliant Bromeliads, Gardenias, Poinsettias (can I hear even you saying “Please, NOT Poinsettias, ever”) – what about the innocent long-lasting Alstroemeria – supermarkets sell these all year. This is going to take thought. But isn’t it the thought that counts? Perhaps best give something non floral.

November, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

If I stick geranium shoots in water until roots form, and then plant them in potting soil, can my healthy geranium plant overwinter indoors?

Probably yes. You can also put the shoots directly into potting soil at once – minus any buds or blooms. Two other ways to overwinter tropical (Pelargonium) geranium plants is to bring the entire plant in

doors, either in its pot, or bare root. There are excellent YouTube videos online illustrating all three methods (Google “overwinter geranium”).

My friend saw a stunning perennial with magenta flowers called a Lespedeza. He tells me it is hardy from Zones 9b to 4a – perfect for the Washington DC climate – AND drought-tolerant. What’s not to like?

Nothing! Lespedeza thunbergii really is wonderful. It blooms gloriously in late summer and all fall. It likes full sun or part shade. From 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, it can take up a good bit of room. It can also form a “cascade” down an incline. Be sure to get either the pink version, called “Gibraltar” or the white one, “Alba” – and not the “Cuneata” cultivar, which is an invasive weed! Lespedeza also increases the fertility of soil by adding nitrogen.

How can I get a carpet of scilla in my shady front yard? I’ve been planting scilla bulbs for years. They come up very nicely in early-to-mid spring – that heavenly blue -- but still no carpet. Isn’t scilla supposed to “naturalize” – meaning proliferate?

You must plant 100 scilla at the very least – 20 bulbs per square foot. Make sure your soil is loose and airy.

What is actually in the white powder florists use to preserve cut flowers?

Some say sugar. But that doesn’t make sense, since the goal is to keep bacteria out. Here is a list of home nostrums people say preserve flowers: 2 aspirin tablets dissolved in water; a splash of vodka; a bit of bleach; fake sugar; 2 tablespoons of white vinegar; or just use 7-up instead of water! Others say forget any additive; every day merely change the water and snip off the ends of the stems.

Pansies are back in droves. Why does my heart sink?

Pansies tolerate cold weather but you – you want Capitol Hill gardens to be imaginative.

October, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

I am helping a friend transplant two grandiflora rose plants that are struggling in shade. When and how should we undertake the task?

Prune the roses to about 30 inches in height in late fall, well before the first frost. Make your cuts just above a growth point. In two sunny spots that you have previously identified, dig two wide, very deep holes with plenty of compost at the ready, along with some bone meal and composted manure. Fill the holes with water, letting it recede while, with great care, you dig the roses up. Their roots will be very deep; get as much root structure as you can. Keep whatever earth clings to them. Plan ahead how you will transport the plants if they are heavy. Plant them gently, packing light, rich soil around all the roots. Water very well, and keep the new plantings watered until the ground freezes. As temperatures drop, mounding either straw, or leaves, or light soil over the trunk of each rose plant -- to a height of eight inches -- will help the rose retain the warmer temperature of its roots underneath. In spring, when new green leaves begin to sprout, prune the roses back a bit more, to just above a sprouted place. These roses have a very tall habit. You want to encourage growth from low on each cane.

Our new dwarf crape myrtle has lots of dead flowers. Are there pruning rules?

Except for removing dead branches, or cutting back suckers at the base of its trunk, the small amount of pruning any dwarf crape myrtle needs should NOT be done now. Wait until the last week of March 2017. All crape myrtles bloom on new wood, leafing out very late in spring. That will be plenty of time to snip off old flower and seed heads from the previous season. Pruning encourages growth. Two or more new branches will emerge from just beneath every cut you make.

In despair, I’ve been gazing at my unkempt garden this autumn. Somehow it has stopped working. What to do?

Without more details, the Problem Lady believes you are doing the best possible thing already. Just staring at your garden is most helpful – a good, hard look. Should this garden be edited? Even if some things do well, are you tired of them? Does the garden need revving up? Or calming down? What would make you like it again? The right answers can come from you alone.

September, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

We are just back from a month’s vacation to find our shade garden looking quite wan. Any ideas for color and thrills this late in the season?

You will be lucky to find best choices in, as you put it, “color and thrills this late in the season” among plants left in the stores. First you might revitalize the soil in your shade garden by giving it a light mulching (“top dressing”) of rich compost. Most shade-loving perennials have already had their blooming period, but you might still find some Astilbe or annual impatiens (Fusian Glow brand) or begonias (Super Olympia brand) or lambs ears (Silver Carpet). For ideas visit the extraordinary Mary Livingston Ripley Garden on the Mall, wedged between the Hirshhorn Museum and the old Smithsonian buildings and Independence Avenue. Every plant is labeled.

What is so exciting about Thalictrum? My smart landscape designer, who shall be nameless, raved about it so I planted one last summer. Totally underwhelming.

Delicacy? Subtlety? Elegance? You did not appreciate that this tiny plant with lacy leaves and fluffy blooms likes ANY soil type, requires NO CARE, and thrives in either shade or part sun? Thalictrum is a member of the meadow rue family, of which there are 200 varieties. Before giving up, try another color of Thalictrum. Plant three or five or seven in the front of your border. If they still underwhelm, rip them out and plant some gladioli.

Recent wet weather has brought mosquitoes out in swarms. Any new ideas for warding them off?

Mosquitoes are best ignored, if possible, but some sweet-blooded people are especially victimized. If you are one of those, choose a windy day for gardening work during their breeding season – which goes on all year if there is standing water near. For the unfortunate persons who are magnets for bites, there is a small “Off” lamp – a lantern fitted with a stick of “Off” repellant that burns and disseminates as the lantern burns. One stick lasts for four hours over a wide area.

I’ve heard that autumn is the only time one can divide or move peonies. Any quick tips?

Dig roots deeply and carefully. Divide large bulbs with a sharp knife, making sure that each remaining bulb has several “eyes” (growth buds). In replanting, mix plenty of manure with your soil, making certain those eyes are never deeper than three inches below the soil surface. Water lightly. Transplanted peonies can take a year to recover, so do not expect blooms next year.

June, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

When should I start “feeding” my garden flowers?

If you mean when should you apply fertilizers to encourage flowering – maybe never. “Feed the soil, not the plant” is the mantra of experienced gardeners. While nutrients in one’s soil do get depleted, soil itself can be “fed” with regular additions of compost, manure. fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, bloodmeal, bonemeal, and liquid seaweed. Clay soil can be top-dressed with such materials, even some sand, since soil must be airy and light. Sandy soils need a constant “feeding” of compost and humus. If your soil is airy and full of worms -- your plants need no extra “food” except sunshine and water. However, please read on.

BIG FEEDERS. I hear my gardening friends use this phrase, and I’ve never known what they mean.

Your friends mean that a “big feeder” plant or shrub will flower a lot more if it receives fertilizer during the growing season. Although adding fertilizer to flowers planted in poor soil will not help, depleted soils themselves can be rebuilt by the addition of organic fertilizers. These solid or “dry” fertilizers can be worked lightly into the soil around each plant. Acid-soil-loving plants need a different fertilizer from that needed by plants that require a neutral pH soil. Fertilize perennials less often; their established roots give them a head start. Annuals, because they must do all their growing in one season, can use more frequent booster shots of high phosphorus liquid fertilizers.

The three tall Allium bulbs I planted last fall have bloomed since the beginning of May. Their huge purple globes are starting to go to seed. I’m wondering whether these Alliums will spread by seed.

Yes, they will. But it won’t happen in a year, or even two. Do you see how each globe flower is actually composed of many little flowers. Each has a green center, which swells and becomes a seed pod. The green pod turns brown and ultimately splits open, to release two or three seeds. You can leave them on their big flower stalks for birds to share, or you can cut the stalks and place them upside down in a paper bag. As the seed pods dry, black seeds will collect. Plant them now in about one inch of soil, well misted so that the earth around them is moist. The little seedlings will take a couple of years to grow bulbs large enough to flower. Or you can simply buy and plant more bulbs this autumn.

May, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

What can I plant to hide the old leaves of daffodils? And, when my Virginia bluebells die back to nothing, as they do – and my white bleeding heart also disappears from view, as always, do you have ideas for what to put in the hole that will not interfere with the bulbs and the Dicentra roots?

You are right to allow leaves of tulips and daffodils to remain, to replenish the bulbs. Mask them with any sun loving perennial or annual, from Lady’s Mantle to Rudbekia to Zinnia or Cosmos. Do make a note now of where your so-called “spring ephemerals” are before they disappear. Try planting a later-growing perennial nearby – autumn-blooming anemone, perhaps, or Astilbe, which comes in small and tall sizes.

Our camellia – a Sasanqua or “winter bloomer” called ‘Yuletide’ because it’s red and blooms in December – died this winter, victim of 70-degree weather in December and January, and then – when it was least prepared – below freezing weather and icy winds. Should I try another Yuletide?

This winter – hot – then freezing – plants and shrubs did not harden off, meaning gradually shut down operations in preparation for winter – and were shocked – often killed – without that preparation. If the whole plant is brown, you may cut it back to stubs. An established camellia can possess the ‘resurrection’ ability of sprouting new growth from the smooth trunk. This will occur by July and in 2-3 years your plant will be back to the same height it was before this winter. However, if by September, there is no sprouting, it means the roots are dead. Do try another Yuletide. It’s an award-winner, evergreen, with an upright habit, and stunning bright red single blooms with big yellow stamens. Plant camellias in protected places, in spring for the best start, but fall will also do.

During a late March cool spell I planted some perennial poppy seeds in MiracleGro potting mix. They took a good 3 weeks to germinate. The seedlings are still too small to transplant. I am wondering what kind of soil these oriental poppies prefer.

Poppy seedlings do not transplant well, so it is best to sow the seeds where you want the flowers to grow. Wet, cool weather is ideal until roots are established. Then poppies prefer hot, dry weather. Oriental poppy thrives in light, fast-draining warm soil that is not strongly acidic. Your potting mix is ideal. Be careful with watering -- over-watering will kill the plants. Try transplanting soon to a sunny place, protecting each still-weak long tap root, and apply hope.

April, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

I have already hardened off some kale and broccoli seedlings. I planted them in pots and planters outside. They are thriving. But snow is forecast for the weekend. Should I bring the pots inside?

I believe that kale and broccoli can survive through a lot of cold. If these seedlings were mine I probably would cover them with a sheet or a wide strip of plastic fastened down somehow. If you choose plastic, do remember to remove it before sun shines on it, so your seedlings will not “cook”.

We long to grow our own tomatoes. We have tons of sun, but almost no space. Can regular sized tomatoes thrive in pots?

Yes! But you must plant so-called “Dwarf” tomato plants. Sturdy and small, dwarf tomato plants have been developed over the past ten years. Dwarf tomatoes are NOT the cherry-sized ones. They are “regular” size, with all the succulence and superb flavor of hybrid, heirloom tomatoes, but grown on much smaller plants, perfect for pots and small spaces. Some favorites among many well-tested varieties are Rosella Purple, Dwarf Emerald Giant, Dwarf Blazing Beauty and Dwarf Sweet Sue. Always buy in seedling form. Online sources include,,

Why has my flowering quince not flowered at all this year?

Could its buds have opened and gotten zapped after the hot weather we had around Christmas 2015?

Gardening on Capitol Hill is now my sole income source. Since our small startup went public on April 1 of 2013 I’ve needed 23 Post Office boxes just to handle incoming stock sales. You may be familiar with our designer teas, brand name Dandelux. They are both medicinal and psychotropic. Our company stock zoomed from $2 to $999 – mostly in Europe – before falling to a firm floor price of $9.99. I took early retirement from DEA to negotiate regulatory and export easements. Last year the Dutch Bourse dubbed Dandelux its Growth Stock of the Year. A photo of me on my front lawn, which consists of thousands of softly puffing dandelion seed heads, was featured in British Vogue. I need ideas by April 1 on how to ward off women who are after my money.

I cannot locate your property, which you say is on J Street NE. Please call soonest with the name of what you are smoking.

March, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

My lovely hydrangea should be pruned, it’s a thicket. But I’m so afraid of losing flowers because I don’t know what kind of hydrangea it is, and I’ve heard that if it blooms on so-called “old wood” I should have pruned it after it bloomed last year. How can I tell whether it blooms on old or new wood just by looking at it closely?

You can’t, that’s the problem here. You absolutely have to know your plant’s name! Find the label it came with if you possibly can. If its flowers were blue or pink, or if it’s an oak leaf variety, then it definitely blooms on old wood and should not be pruned now.

Prune any Hydrangea only if it has dead or crossing branches, or is too large.

The difficulty is that many of the 1000 types of Big Leaf or Macrophylla Hydrangeas (don’t prune now) look like the two other main types of Hydrangea that can be pruned now. These (blooming on new wood) are the “PeeGee” or Paniculata Grandiflora Hydrangeas – of which there are some 80 cultivars – and the Hydrangea Arborescens genus, of which “Annabelle”, with its huge white mophead blooms, is the best known.

My best advice, however, is to do nothing unless you are certain. March is already a bit on the late side for best pruning. Instead, do some research in Michael A. Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.

Three grandchildren are coming for a whole month this March, without their parents. The youngest is four, the oldest seven. I’m trying to think of some gardening project they might enjoy. Any ideas?

Seeds are a great motivator – find something fast sprouting like sweet alyssum or broccoli. But you might need more light – meaning gro-lights -- than just a sunny window. Another idea would be to show them how the ends of existing veggies – carrots, a whole radish, a sprouted potato – will begin to produce roots and leaves when put in water. If too boring, try literature: Jack in the Beanstalk etc.

What can I plant under tall trees without hurting the tree roots?

First, without covering the roots more than a couple of inches, mulch under the trees with organic humus. Then choose shallow-rooted, shade loving ground covers, planting them as far from the trunk as you can. Try Foamflower, Barrenwort, Siberian Bugloss, some ferns, or small spring bulbs.

February, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

We received a blue poinsettia for Christmas, with little sparkles all over the blue leaves. How did they get to be blue?

They were commercially spray painted en masse and the sparkles dusted on after a misting of glue.

Squirrels have again eaten all my camellia buds. So -- another year with no blooms. I know squirrels can’t get through bird netting -- but that netting is hard as the dickens to manage. Can’t squirrels stick to acorns, of which there were billions this year?

Squirrel Nutkin is omnivorous. With her thick fur and layers of tummy fat she can manage on just one or two acorns a day. The roughage from your camellia buds puts her – digestively speaking -- among the squirrel elite.

Are Nandina berries safe for birds to eat?

No. Starving animals will eat anything, but Nandina berries are indeed poisonous. Experts say, one hopes correctly, that birds mostly avoid eating them.

If I had to choose one seed to put out for birds in winter, what might it be?

Some say black sunflower seed provides the best source of fat and carbohydrate.

Pansies seem perfect for all winter long – in a mild year, of course. How much cold can pansies stand?

People around here say the right time to plant pansies is fall. The flowers might droop a bit, but the plants will survive well below freezing – to about 10’ Fahrenheit. Ironically, what kills them off is our summer heat. Anything over about 75’F and they’re gone.

My clematis has blown off its protecting (we thought) wall and is flapping around in the freezing wind. Can it be saved?

Are you out of your mind? Get out there and secure it – somehow. Think of Scott at the Pole. Do not be a sissy when a clematis is flapping. Much, if not everything, will depend later on its roots for its survival.

May I share a small discovery? Great prices of used gardening books on

Most helpful. When they are still in print, you can buy used hard cover editions for wonderful prices. But if the book is out of print the price rises. The PL’s recent crush on the witty British gardening enthusiast, Beverley Nichols, led her to discover his wacky trilogy Merry Hall (1951), followed by Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn available used for astronomical sums.

January, 2016

Dear Problem Lady,

OK, I’m going to start a New Year’s Revolution in our backyard – against my wife’s advice that it won’t work! I want to have a raised-bed vegetable garden in the sunny place. She thinks there’s not enough room. How little a space would I need?

As little as one square foot could work to grow some nice cut-and-come-again leaf lettuce, radishes, scallions, even baby carrots. You can grow a tomato plant in a deep container, too.


A chief pleasure of gardening is (quietly) to gloat at the failures of other gardeners. Here, then, a brief confessional. Gardeners freely describe their personal gardening failures – anonymously, of course. Enjoy!

  • I planted a crape myrtle next to our back fence. Over the years, its glorious canopy grew towards the sun, and rather far over into our neighbor’s yard. One day he chopped off all the branches on his side. And that’s perfectly legal.
  • I thought tulips would come back again the next year; they are perennials, aren’t they? But here in DC they just don’t. Bummer.
  • I killed a beautiful mature crabapple tree that gave such beauty every spring. I added earth around its trunk to raise the soil level in that part of the garden. I had no idea that tree roots need air, and that soil level can’t be higher than level with the root flange.
  • I believed the rubber mulch salesman. Hey, it never deteriorates -- that sounded like such good thing.
  • We failed adequately to treasure our shade garden while it existed. We rejoiced when our wonderful neighbor next door removed his giant magnolia. We now realize we failed adequately to anticipate the hours of watering and the huge water bills our roses, peonies, poppies and lilies require in our new, beautiful but exhausting sunny space. It’s way too hot to sit out there during the summer.
  • We underestimated the brevity of a Daphne Odora’s life span. We’ve now had four die suddenly. Apparently they just do that, even under the best of circumstances – soil, light, moisture and care.
  • I learned the hard way that pruning at the wrong time can cut off all the next year’s blooms.
  • I failed to foster worms. Did not learn for many, many years just how essential worms are to the soil.
  • The false Cyprus label said “Nana -- dwarf”, from the best nursery. That Cyprus is 25 feet and still growing.

Happy New Year, gardeners all

December, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

Our two azalea bushes seem unhappy. Normally evergreen, each has some yellowing leaves. What’s wrong?

Normally azaleas need little fertilizing. One guess is an iron deficiency, a condition called chlorosis, usually – but not always – caused by soil that is too alkaline. Azaleas need a fairly acidic soil. Do test your soil to make certain. (You can quickly do this by mail at the U. Mass. Testing lab in Amherst: Because your azaleas need to harden off and become dormant at this time of year, it would be unwise to add fertilizer now. But you can top dress now with a few inches of compost and mulch. Then in early spring, following directions, apply Hollytone and perhaps some Irontone – sparingly. Too much fertilizer can destroy azalea’s shallow roots. Work instead to make sure your soil is light and airy, filled with organic materials, and never compacted.

We love our Banana tree, but how can it survive the coming winter here in its sunny spot in the garden?

With care, Banana trees survive well in zones 8 through 11. Some varieties can make it here in zone 7, with extra care. Before the first frost, cut back stems and leaves to about 8 inches above ground. Cover with a good foot of mulch. Wait, when you see new growth in spring, until all danger of frost is over before uncovering.

When should I move a Royal Fern? Shrubs have grown up and I can’t see it any more.

Dig yours up when shoots appear next spring, and plant in a shady place with the crowns just at soil level. Osmunda regalis, Royal Fern, needs highly acid (pH 5.3 to 5.5) wet soil. Use lots of humus and sphagnum peat moss, and keep well watered all season long.

My camellias have suffered catastrophic winter damage – and death in one case. Is there a way I can protect them this winter?

Protect them with a strong barrier against desiccating winter winds and discombobulatingly unseasonable winter sun. Try wrapping them loosely in burlap or some breathable plastic foam, or make a baffle with poles and burlap. A row of protective evergreen trees also works.

What is “Plumbago”?

Plumbago comes in many sizes. Ceratostigma plumbaginoides is a ground cover 6 to 10 inches high that blooms from midsummer to late fall, tolerates some shade, and is beloved for its intensely blue flowers. Use around spring and summer bulbs as they die back, in rock gardens or in the front of a border.

November, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

You warned us that Dahlias were a lot of trouble. I forget how I’m supposed to over-winter them. Hang them upside-down in the garage? – but we don’t have a garage.

First, carefully dig up each Dahlia bulb. Shake off all soil. Lay them down for about a week on dry newspapers not touching one another, until they are completely dry. Layer the bulbs in a cardboard box, again not touching, between layers of crumpled newspapers. Place the box in a cool (40’F), dark place away from any possibility of freezing. Check every six or so weeks. If any bulb looks desiccated, spritz gently, then dry and return to storage. Remove them only after any danger of frost has passed. If in doubt, plant first indoors in pots. After three leaf sprigs have sprouted, snip growth back to one sprig. Plant soon in good soil. Dahlias are divine and -- you now see -- worth it.

I am new to Capitol Hill from Alexandria, VA, where swarms of Japanese Beetles consumed my roses to such an extent that I will never even attempt roses again unless I can be sure to find a way to prevent those beetles. Ideas?

IPM -- Integrated Pest Management principles say we must anticipate and foil the life cycle of the beetle. This means either preventing the beetle’s eggs from existing – or killing the grubs (larva) that hatch and over-winter in the ground. Kill the eggs by killing each beetle by hand (soapy water) in the morning. Kill the grubs by watering with nematodes or insecticide in the fall and spring. But neither will work if the beetle onslaught is heavy. Some localities seem to be free of beetles (also known as “chafers” or “chiggers” or “thrips”) – and roses do proliferate here on Capitol Hill. Let’s hope yours survive.

What are Nematodes?

Beneficial nematodes are a kind of tiny worm that kills a variety of pests, including weevils, clearwing borers, cutworms, sod webworms, chinch bugs, and white grubs. Buy the right kind for your purpose – grubs. Follow application directions carefully.

“Water, water -- but never on the foliage.” Please tell me why directions for watering always say not to water plant foliage and NEVER water in the evening. A twilight rain shower – or even a deluge – is not deemed harmful – but they call me and my garden hose killers in the evening!

Damp leaves attract plant-eating slugs. If we water in the morning, leaves get all day to dry in the daylight.

October, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

Do the spring bulbs I plant in my garden this fall need sun?

They do need some sun. Half a day is probably plenty. Remember that many bulbs will bloom before trees leaf out, so there will be more sun. In full shade, bulbs get long and spindly. They crane their necks for more light. In full sun the summer’s heat fries most tulips, so they won’t repeat. Dappled shade is best.

Is there any way to prevent squirrels from eating the spring bulbs I am planting now?

Yes. Once they have been planted, cover the soil over the bulbs with a sheet of metal hardware “cloth”, available at any hardware store. Remove it after the ground has frozen.

How deep should bulbs be planted?

The bigger the bulb, the deeper.  A good rule of thumb is two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. Crocus, Snowdrops, Scylla and other small, early blooming bulbs can be as shallow as a couple or 4 inches.  Tulips 8 inches; daffodils deeper. Depth protects against the punishing summer heat in our environs, as well as any frost.

I broke the pointed stick we’ve used for years to plant bulbs, one by one. Was this a Freudian slip? There has to be an easier way.

The best method of planting bulbs is to dig and loosen an entire bed to the proper depth; press the bulbs into the soil, then cover all with soil. Because the soil in a spaded bed is better drained and prepared, the planting will last longer. Those one-at-a-time bulb planters require a lot of hand strength.

Why do worms crawl out on wet sidewalks? It’s such an act of helpless self destruction!

Some think water gives them greater mobility to move in the earth and change their location. But they can’t see very well.

My garden this year has been wonderful. The Camassia bloomed their heads off. I thought I’d have to wait a year, but my brand new Festiva Maxima peony had huge blooms. Best of all, the 5-year-old climbing Hydrangea, which had never bloomed before, was covered – covered! -- with flowers. The only bummer has been my camellias – two died – but I have Moved On. I crow about my garden to everyone, it’s disgusting, maybe even a sickness.

Congratulations. Of course your fellow gardeners are already yawning and looking at their watches. They won’t start loving you again until – well -- you will learn that Schadenfreude is one of the 10 greatest pleasures of gardening. 

May, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

What is the best way to move a healthy two-foot-high boxwood?

Don’t do it now. Wait until at least September. Boxwoods are shallow-rooted and suffer extreme transplant shock during warm weather. It will form new roots better in autumn and over the winter. Water the shrub well the day before to ensure that the root ball stays intact during the move. Begin by preparing the new location with rich, loose soil to a depth and width slightly larger than that of the existing shrub. The next day, dig around the plant’s drip line to a depth of one-third of its height. Slowly pry the entire root ball free, making sure you do not sever any major root. Place the root ball into its new location about one half inch above the soil surface. Boxwoods need good drainage and hate wet feet. Apply one inch of composted mulch.

I planted 3 Knockout roses last yer, and while they have survived the winter, they have not thrived. What might be wrong?

Knockouts are tough survivors. They do need water but they also need at least six hours of unfiltered sun per day.

Our Knockout rose has grown far too big. I have probably missed the right time to prune it back – and anyhow I don’t know how to.

Yes, Knockouts are best pruned in early autumn, or very late winter before growth begins. If you prune now, as long as you do not remove more than one-third of the shrub in any one calendar year, you will sacrifice current blooms, but will still get later ones. You don’t need to decide where to cut each twig. Just use loppers or hedge shears, shaping as you need.

How can my garden and I continue to be happy together? The problem is my knees. Also my hips, the arthritic shoulder and the eyesight – not one is what it used to be. I don’t plan to leave this house except feet first – so what can I do?

Why not use your brain to make clever changes? Reduce the size of flowerbeds. Substitute drought-tolerant groundcovers, or tiled or bricked areas, for lawns. Perhaps consider installing an automatic irrigation system if you can afford it. Mulch everything, using composted materials. Choose shrubs or native, drought-tolerant perennials instead of care-demanding flowers. For color, plant flowers in pots. Two recent books have more ideas and pictures: The Right-Size Flower Garden by Kerry Ann Mendez, and Gardening for A Lifetime, How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older by Sydney Eddison.

April, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

Why has my azalea turned yellow? If it’s a bad thing, what can I do to green it up?

The cause could be too much rain, or imperfect drainage. Azalea leaves should be a healthy dark green all winter. Generally, yellowing means iron deficiency – known as chlorosis. Either not enough iron is available in the soil for the azalea to use, or the soil pH is not low enough (acid enough) to release the iron that is there. Azaleas like light, friable soil with a pH from 4.5 to 5.5. Look for something with iron sulfate or iron chelate to add now. Feed with Hollytone in the growing season.

What does “friable” actually mean?

Our soil is clay.One of those code words gardeners use that means “perfect”, it comes from a Latin verb, friare, meaning “to crumble”. Friable earth crumbles so easily in the hand that you can dig it with your hands. To make clay friable you must add composted vegetable matter every spring forever.

Today as I spent hours on my hands and knees lightening clumps of still-clay soil, I worried about displacing all the worms, and separating the worm parents from their babies.

The Problem Lady does not begin to know about worm family life. For answers, try a book called “The Earth Moved” by Amy Stewart ($25, Algonquin). It is entirely about worms, and fascinating.

My camellia buds froze and turned brown. What hope is there?

Japonicas, which as you know bloom around now, won’t show much bloom this year. It’s a waiting game for 365 days. Keep your plants watered during the dry summer months. And hope next winter will not bring freakishly hot days in December, followed by icy northwest sleet in February – to say nothing of March snow.

What can I plant to hide dying daffodil leaves?

And when my Virginia bluebells die back to nothing, as they do – and my white bleeding heart also disappears, do you have ideas for what to plant to hide the vacant places?Before they disappear, do make a note now of where these flowers are. Without interfering with underground bulbs, try planting sun-loving Rudbekia, Monarda or Autumn-blooming Anemone – or bright annuals. If in part shade, instead of resorting to impatiens or begonias, try Daylily or Astilbe.

March, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

The African violet I received for Christmas has begun to wilt. What might I be doing wrong?

Our biggest mistake as amateurs is to water an African violet too much. When waterlogged, its fine roots die for lack of oxygen. So water only if the top of the soil is dry to the touch. Using lukewarm or warm water, apply from either the bottom or the top. Remove excess water after the plant has taken up all it needs. Violets bloom best when pot-bound. Place in bright but indirect light close to, say, a North-facing window. An African violet on a table in the middle of a room won’t get enough light to keep blooming.

When we bought our house on Capitol Hill the first thing I did was double-dig the compacted clay earth on the entire front “garden” space. We then removed about half the clay and mixed the remaining clay with compost. That was 1995. I fear that over twenty years, our soil has reverted back to solid red clay. How can I get the lightness back into it without digging up all my plantings and starting over?

If you have healthy plantings in place, the soil is probably not so far gone as you fear. Plant roots themselves work the soil to a degree. But if plants lack oxygen, they stop being able to access nitrogen, phosphorus and other essential chemicals. You can still do much to bring your soil back to friability. When the growing season begins, apply a three-inch layer of composted organic matter – homemade or purchased. This would include peat moss, composted leaves, composted manures, perhaps a bit of sand. In addition, do make sure your soil is protected from being walked on. Create walkways or stone islands upon which to stand. When you see worms again you will have begun to succeed.

Do oak leaves make good mulch? I’ve heard they’re too acidic, and decompose too slowly.

Oak leaves do not affect pH appreciably. When they first fall you should shred and compost them with green leaf waste and manure. But if you merely left the leaves where they fell, they are now leaf mold, protecting plants in winter, but in springtime needing additions of composted manure and peat moss to decompose enough to help your soil.

February, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

My healthy, robust indoor Clivias have not bloomed ever since we moved to the house across the street. I swear I have put them in identical light and temperature conditions as before, but they just won’t bloom and it has been four years. Help!

Check to see whether one of the following essential requirements is missing. Clivias need to be pot-bound. They must not be over-watered – nor can they be allowed to dry out! To bloom they require 6 to 8 weeks of cool temperature in the fall -- at least 15 degrees cooler than that of their normal spot in the house. 40’F. is not too cool. Then, even though they love shade, in order to bloom they must have a few hours of sunlight – perhaps best in the early morning.

We received a lovely Cyclamen for Christmas. It is still blooming beautifully but how can I preserve it? Can it go outside?

Cyclamen need cool temperatures too – no higher than 68’F during the day, and preferably between 40 and 50’F at night. They need light, however – yet never direct sun. Watering is tricky. Water must not touch leaves or stems, so it is best to water from below. Place the cyclamen in a saucer of water for 15 minutes, and then allow all the water to drain out. Stop watering when the plant stops flowering and store it in a cool, dry, dark place for two months. Then, gingerly, begin to water again. In their native environment, Cyclamen go into dormancy at the beginning of summer, and come back to life as damp, cool weather arrives in the fall.

Can you explain why Hellebores are popular? I understand that their flowers actually stink.

Only one variety of Hellebore, “Heleborus foetidus” meaning “rotten smelling or rank” actually does stink. Its drooping, greenish, bell-shaped flowers are nevertheless prized. But there are many odorless others, whose blooms range from white to pink to red to maroon to speckled – even to yellow -- that delight the February garden. Later, all summer long, their broad leaves enhance the shade garden.

Where can I find roses that actually have scent for my sweetie on Valentine’s Day?

Not from a professional florist. The only roses that have scent are roses you can grow in your own garden in June. Would she accept lilies? Hyacinths? Lilies-of-the-Valley?

January, 2015

Dear Problem Lady,

My vigorous winter-blooming ‘Kanjiro’ camellia, planted in 1994 and now a 20-foot tree, was so devastated by freezing temperatures and harsh winds in 2013-2014 that few leaves appeared all year. The main trunk and branches are bare. But in late November, the ends of two long, mid-level branches have burst into numerous blooms. Can I save this magnificent plant?

Perhaps. Sudden thaws are equally damaging when followed by deep freezes. Do try to protect the tree from freezing winds this winter with sheets of foam plastic – not an easy task. Wait to see what sort of new leaf growth you get in the spring. If you then believe that much of the trunk/plant is dead, you should remove the dead wood. Shaping will be a big challenge, and because camellias grow slowly, cut it back as little as possible. You may lose blooms the following season, but ‘Kanjiro’ is a variety that responds unusually well to proper pruning.

What should I do with my beautiful spent Amaryllis?

Let the plant develop leaves indoors until spring. In a sunny spot outdoors keep it fed and watered until the end of August. Then stop watering and store it in a cool, dark place (garage, basement) until the end of October – when you can return it to a sunny window to start all over.

I do not wish to dwell upon all my gardening failures, or make New Year’s Resolutions to fix them. My garden, you see, is, like me, “mature”. Everything has grown too large for my small backyard. Was it failure to prune in time? Failure to plant the right things? Neglect? My problem is how to redeem an unredeemable garden.

Dear guilty one – do buck up. In gardening nothing is unfixable. The rich rip everything out, including all their soil, which they then replace with all new, rich, deep soil – friable enough that one could thrust an arm into it up to the elbow! Of course they don’t do this themselves – professionals do. Why not enjoy fantasizing about this yourself all winter. Then around March, when your old daffodils and crocuses emerge, pick the very worst single problem in your garden and figure out what to do. Have a very happy winter in the meantime. You are NOT alone.

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November, 2014

Dear Problem Lady,

Last winter severely damaged our blue Hydrangea bushes. They have come back – alive, but splayed and leggy. Should I prune them? Or should I find another shrub? We wanted something with glorious blooms that can tolerate shade!

What would that something be? Most shrubs that bloom in shade are deciduous – and not very beautiful in winter. The American Yew is evergreen, likes shade, but has no glorious blooms, only red berries. Clethra has lovely white summer flowers and turns yellow-orange in autumn, but needs a bit of sun. So do most other shade-tolerant shrubs, such as Spicebush. And so does your Hydrangea – which needs quite a bit of sun to produce blooms. And no, you should not prune now – only after blooming. If you do keep these Hydrangeas you ought to protect them during the coming winter, with burlap or some kind of cover, and mulch. Might you also thin some branches above it, to allow more sunlight to reach it?

When and how should I move my Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’?

Wait now until next year, after it blooms. If you divide before it blooms you may end up sacrificing next year’s flowers. Dig them up with a trowel. If they have proliferated, separate the additional plants with a knife and replant.

I moved some hardy, years-old Monarda, the dark red kind, to our new house near Annapolis. We haven’t moved in yet, but already the Monarda’s leaves have been chewed to lacy nothingness. How could this glorious perennial suddenly succumb to bugs in a new location – I thought nothing ate Beebalm.

It could be earwigs. If your Monarda plants survive, try one or more of these ideas: spray with insecticidal soap, flick the earwigs off by hand into soapy water, sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the base of the plants, or trap the earwigs by leaving shallow containers half-filled with vegetable oil and soy sauce around the yard. You really have to be there to conduct this war.

How can I prevent Paperwhites from falling over?

Set the new bulbs in the bottom of a clear glass vase about 12 inches tall. You will be able to enjoy watching the foliage and flowers extend upward, while the vase prevents them from flopping over.

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October, 2014

Dear Problem Lady, 

Our Nandina plant has no berries. What’s wrong?

Nandinas thrive and produce berries in shady as well as sunny spots. They do not need another plant to fertilize them. If your plant’s flowering stems were cut off this past spring, by human hands or by frost – either before or after blooming – it would be unable to make berries this year. But otherwise, I can think of nothing, unless you happen to have a cultivar that does not produce berries. This is unlikely.

I have a problem with the fact that you listed Goldenrod as a good choice for a perennial that will bloom all autumn. Don’t you know how invasive it is?

A butterfly asked me to list it. Goldenrod (Solidago) is a native plant treasured by our rapidly disappearing songbirds, which eat insects that like Goldenrod for its nectar. Pollinated by insects, not by wind, Goldenrod is easy to pull out by the roots. For humans, its tall height, strength and golden beauty should count for a lot!

I think we have Mahonia in too shady a spot. After two years, only one of our plants flowered, and that flower – so chartreusely gorgeous on a February day – was very very small. Could you rehearse for me what kinds of shade are good for shade-loving plants, and what kinds of shade are too shady?

We do learn only by trial and error in these matters. Mahonia adapts, of course, but generally Full Shade is a tad too shady for it. You probably should move it to a spot that has “partial shade” (also known as “partial sun”!). Here are the agreed-upon limits – and of course these things change as surrounding shrubs, trees and tall flowers grow up around. Full Shade is only two hours of sun – or less. Partial Sun (Partial Shade) is four to six hours of Sun. Full Sun is six or more hours of Sun.

I have just fallen in love with dahlias. How much work are they to grow?

Lots. First, dahlias cost big money to buy. Second, you need to protect them all winter, best done by digging up the roots, drying them, and storing in a cool dry place until after all danger of frost is over. Then you replant. Love is blind. Love involves suffering. But oh, love makes the world go round. Do go for it. Dahlias are gorgeous. Almost every state has a dahlia society. Ours in DC is already 75 years old.

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September, 2014

Dear Problem Lady,

Ihave two beautiful grandiflora rose plants that seem to bloom less and less each year. They get good morning sun. Each is about ten years old. How can I encourage more blooms?

Your roses are signaling their constitutional need for full sun. At least six hours of sun per day – and, with adequate watering, even more than six. Roses are sensitive and dislike being transplanted. Still, assuming that you can find a sunnier place for them, you really should transplant. The good news is that in D.C., for an established rose, early autumn is the best time to transplant. 

   Please research the following steps fully. Each is more important than I have space for here. First, water the rose plants for two days prior to moving them. Prepare the planting holes in advance, in fertile soil. Make the holes deeper and wider than the root balls you dig up. Do the move on an overcast or rainy day. Carefully dig around each rose at least a foot from the stalk, and to a depth of at least 16 inches. If the root ball is too heavy for you, place it on a heavy piece of plastic for ease of carrying. Place root ball in the hole, spreading out any apparent roots. Rose should sit slightly above ground level, same as before. Water thoroughly. Fill in with rich soil. Press down firmly. After planting, using angled cuts, prune the plant back as much as possible. Keep it watered.

My peonies should be thinned out. I know peonies hate being dug up, and I don’t know how to divide them, or when.

Autumn is the best time to do it. You may lose blooming in 2015, but blooms will diminish even if you do nothing, so go for it now. First, cut off all foliage. Gently extract the roots. Wash thoroughly. Discard shriveled or rotten roots. Choose roots that have the most “eyes”, and no fewer than three. Each so-called eye is a bloom bud. On a cutting board, slice the roots with a strong, clean, sharp knife. Replant in rich, fertile soil with eyes only two inches from the top of the soil. Water.

Settle an argument please. My wife thinks that orange roadside lilies are Tiger Lilies. I think they are ordinary Day Lilies, and that Tiger Lilies are the ones shaped like a so-called “Turk’s Cap” and have black spots or speckles. 

You are correct. Take your wife out to dinner to celebrate.

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