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July 27
​Beware of Boxwood Blight

Q.  I read about a new disease affecting boxwoods.  I have quite a few boxwoods in my landscape, and I am a little worried.  What is this disease and what does it look like?

A. Unfortunately, you heard correctly.  Our cool, wet spring this year, set the stage for the development and spread of a new landscape disease - boxwood blight.  The disease has been present in other southeastern states several years, but just recently arrived in Alabama.

Boxwood blight is a fungal disease that was detected in installed landscapes across Alabama this spring.  When infected boxwoods are planted in a landscape, the pathogen can easily spread to other established boxwoods via splashing water, whether irrigation or rain.  Additionally, equipment, soil, shoes, clothing and even animals can aid in the dispersal of this disease.

boxwood blight - leaf sposts2 - jim jacobi.jpgSo, what should you look for?  Symptoms of boxwood blight include circular, tan leaf spots with darker borders.  The spots may develop a bulls-eye appearance.  Infected leaves will turn brown and rapidly drop from the plant.  The sudden defoliation and resulting leaf litter scattered around the base of the plant are important symptoms to look for, as well. 

boxwood blight - Adria Bordas, VT Institute and State University,




Defoliated stems may produce new shoots, giving the appearance that the plants will recover, only to have another round of leaf spots and related leaf drop.  The stems develop dark brown or black thin lesions or streaks that are also unique to boxwood blight.  (Photo: Adria Bordas, VT Institute and State University,

What can you do?  There is no known cure for boxwood blight.  However, a number of steps can be taken to prevent the spread of the blight.

  • In established landscapes with healthy boxwoods, do not bring in new boxwoods.
  • For new plantings, carefully inspect plants for symptoms.
  • Use drip irrigation, rather than overhead sprinkler irrigation.
  • Improve air circulation around plants through proper pruning and plant spacing.  Avoid shearing plants.
  • Don’t compost infected leaves or other boxwood plant material.
  • Clean and sterilize pruning/shearing tools between usage to prevent the spread of the pathogen on contaminated tools.
  • If you find an infected plant, remove the entire plant and place in a plastic bag.  Also, carefully rake up and dispose of all fallen leaves.  The pathogen can live on infected leaves for up to five years. 
  • Fungicides won’t cure plants, but they can be used to protect landscape plants from the disease.  The most effective fungicides contain these active ingredients: chlorothalonil, chlorothalonil + thiophanate-methyl, and tebuconazole.
  • Use resistant boxwood cultivars.  Buxus harlandii, Buxus microphylla var. japonica ‘Green Beauty’ and Buxux sinica var. insularis ‘Nana’ are some of the cultivars with good resistance to boxwood blight.
  • Consider plants other than boxwoods like rosemary, box-leaf euonymous, sweet box in shady spots, and Japanese hollies.

While this disease is not yet widespread, we should become aware of it and be observant.  Following the steps listed above can greatly inhibit the distribution of boxwood blight throughout our Alabama landscapes.  If you suspect that one or more of your boxwoods are showing symptoms, please consult with your local extension agent.  Also, for further diagnosis, you may send pictures or samples to the Plant Diagnostic Laboratory in Birmingham, .

Written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

July 21
Watering Tips for Picky Veggies

​Boy has it been dry lately! With summer temps reaching well above 90 degrees and the rain being scattered, there are a lot of gardens in Alabama that are taking a beating. The number of calls over the last few weeks have really gone up, mostly about problems in the vegetable department, tomatoes always being the “problem child” in the home garden. When summer temperatures start rising, so does the stress on plants, so proper watering is critical to reduce the overall strain on plants. As I commonly tell my callers, healthy plants are happy plants and happy plants make happy gardeners!

j-ville summer 15 - tomato.jpgSo, how much water is enough water?  The best answer is “That depends on ......”  Every environment is different, starting with the location of the garden. Is the soil sandy, full of loam, or is it just that Alabama red clay? How much sun does the garden get throughout the day? Are the plants mulched in the ground or sitting on the patio in pots? All of these details must be considered before making the decision on how much water to throw to your plants.

Potted plants, particularly tomatoes, will most likely need water every day. Tomatoes that are in the garden may only need a deep, DEEP watering twice a week.  Tomatoes are heavy drinkers and the fruit (or vegetable, but that is a different article) is composed mostly of water, often over 90%! That is a lot of water and a growing and productive tomato plant needs between 1 ½ to 2 inches of rain per week, or its equivalent. A lot of my callers get really wrapped up in the amount, but I emphasize that the amount isn’t necessarily the take home point, the management of that amount is what can make or break, quite literally, your tomato crop.

Tomatoes are most likely the pickiest of plants in the vegetable garden when it comes to water. Too much water and you will have a great big lush tomato plant with no fruit. Too little water and you will have a wilted and dried stick that once resembled a tomato plant. As I mentioned before, managing the water, or more specifically the soil moisture is key to producing the best tomatoes. Letting plants get dry, wet, dry, wet, dry and wet again is the best way to cause the physiological disorder that we call blossom end rot, or BER. BER is one of the most common complaints that I have for tomatoes. BER is not a disease, but is caused by a calcium deficiency. Calcium can be present in the soil, but if there is not enough consistent water to carry that calcium from the soil, through the roots and up to the fruits, BER can occur. Though there are products that are made to boost calcium levels in the soil, proper water management will often prevent a lot of the problem.

In addition to blossom end rot, tomato plants exposed to dry, then wet conditions often produce cracked tomatoes. Now, some varieties are known to crack across the top of the tomato near the stem, especially some of those heirlooms that are so popular. The cracks that I am writing of are those forming on the sides and bottom of the fruit. Rain, especially after droughty conditions, can cause developing tomatoe fruits to grow rapidly, causing the skin of the fruit to crack. Pulling almost ripe tomatoes before or right after a heavy down pour can prevent this from happening.

So, how can you maintain moisture around the plants in the garden? The best solution is to use an organic mulch. Mulching in the vegetable garden is beneficial in more ways that I will tell in this article, but disease management, weed control and maintaining moisture are the big three that I will mention. A thick, 2”-3” of organic mulch will do the trick. Pine straw, grass clippings (combo with other), compost, shredded leaves and most any other organic materials will suffice for mulch. A word of caution: if using grass clippings, hay or straw, be sure to ask about chemicals that were applied to the crop before harvest. Some herbicides have residuals effects that can cause problems for tomatoes. Another benefit of organic mulches is that you can leave them in place and just add more next year, leading to rich, loamy soils that stabalize soil nutriotion and support beneficial biological organisms that encourage plant growth.

With a little preparation, mulching and knowledge, you can help your tomatoes and other vegetables survive through the dry, hot summer that we all love, leaving you with a bountiful harvest of home grown veggies. For more information on mulching, tomatoes, or all things home and garden, contact your local Extension office or visit .  

Written by Hunter McBrayer, Urban Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL.

July 21
Basics of Backyard Livestock

Question:  I grew up in a rural farming community, and couldn’t wait to leave for the big city and bright lights! Now, many years older and perhaps a bit wiser, I’d like for my young family members to experience the fun and responsibility of raising critters other than pet dogs, cats, or hamsters. I have friends who raise honey bees and chickens in urban areas, both of those are great, but I’m curious about other possibilities.

pygmy goat - sallie or istock.jpgWe had 4-H clubs when I was growing up, members raised cows, sheep, goats, even pigs to show at fairs and in competitions.  Are those programs still around, and how can I learn more about creating an “urban farm”?

By the way, I have about an acre of land for this project.

Answer: Along with growing some of our own food, recent trends include harvesting honey from our own bee hives, gathering eggs from our own chickens, or making cheese from our own goat’s milk.

Honey bees, chickens, ducks, sheep, rabbits, goats, and even cows in some cases have become part of backyard barnyards, urban farms, or living with livestock movements, however they’re referenced.  But, all that backyard bonding comes with issues, pros and cons that need to be investigated prior to sinking the first dollar into your project. 

For instance, other than sharing unforgettable (both good and not so great) memories with family members, what else might you do with the animals?  Chickens can be raised for meat or eggs, or both.  Rabbits for fur or meat, honey bees are used for pollinating gardens as well as harvesting honey, and so on.  Will your family members want to bond with critters destined for Sunday dinner? 

And before you get to the bonding stage, what are the zoning regulations in your municipality?  Some cities have restrictions on types of livestock (think roosters crowing), or have rules regarding how far animal housing has to be from human housing.  You may be in an area that doesn’t have regulations but if your neighbors complain about noise, smell, flies, etc., rules could be imposed that re-classify your backyard farm as an illegal operation!

Needing about the same space as average sized dogs, some city dwellers-turned-urban-farmers have opted for dwarf or pygmy versions of goats (see photo).  Though small in stature, production of sweet milk can reach 2 quarts per day, and there’s no scale for their ‘cuteness’.

Rabbits and some breeds of duck are practically noiseless, which can be a huge selling point for those wanting a very quiet urban farm.  Rabbits offer meat and hides, in addition to offering children (and adults) a chance to show off their prize bunnies.  Rabbits offer droppings for fertilizer, a boon for gardeners, and if the Angora breed is raised, yarn fiber rather than fur is produced, a sought-after material for knitted garments.  Do Angoras thrive in our AL climate?  Ask the questions before sinking money and time into a pen and hutch.

Is there a clutch of chickens in your future?  Family members bonding with goats or rabbits?  Fresh honey from your hives topping hot buttered biscuits? 
There are several online resources that offer information to potential backyard farmers and livestock folk, and books such as “Barnyard in your Backyard” edited by Gail Damerow.  To provide “live” expertise, the Alabama Cooperative Extension is hosting a “Basics of Backyard Livestock” program on June 17th.  Call your county Extension office for additional information.

By the way, 4-H programs are still around and yes, they’re excellent avenues for teaching children about raising livestock.

Written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

June 24
Squash Pollination Problems

​Q. I was walking in my vegetable garden the other day and noticed that some of my squash blossoms are falling off. What is going on? Is this an insect problem? What should I do?

A. I have gotten several calls recently similar to yours, so don’t feel alone. There are several different issues that may result in blossom drop, but none of them are serious. In fact, your plants may just grow right out of their problem.

squash flowers

Most squash (and cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins for that matter) have separate male and female flowers on the same plant (pictures show female flower on left and male on right - photo's courtesy Chris Becker, Alabama Cooperative Extension System). So, it is important to know which flowers are dropping – male or female. In the center of the female flower, you will find several bumpy structures surrounding a central opening. These structures make up the stigma. Also, female blossoms have what appears to be a tiny squash fruit just below the flower. Male flowers grow on a long narrow stem and contain only the stamens. Each stamen grows on a long stalk and has anthers, filled with sticky pollen. The anthers look a lot like the applicators that are used to apply eye shadow. (My analogy is probably not the best, but hopefully, this gives you a good mental picture).

Now, that we have finished the brief plant biology lesson, let’s move on to your problem. If the earliest blooms are the ones that fall off, don’t worry. Often, the male squash flowers will bloom and wither before the female flowers even appear. In this particular instance, patience is the recommendation. Eventually, your plants will produce both male and female flowers, and fruit set should soon follow.

Notice that I ended my previous sentence with "should" and not "will". If both flower sexes are present and fruit set does not occur, you have a pollination issue. Squash pollen is a very sticky substance, so it cannot be transferred via wind, like some of our other vegetable varieties. We depend on insect pollinators, primarily bees, to successfully pollinate our squash plants. Reduced or nonexistent bee populations or activity in your garden directly affect your squash harvest, or lack thereof. Cloudy, rainy days reduce and sometimes prevent insect flight.

So, is home-grown squash off of your summertime menu if no bees are around? Absolutely not – it will just require a little extra effort on your part. In the absence of bees, squash flowers can be hand-pollinated. The first step is to find a male flower. Cut it off where the flower stem meets the main stem of the plant. Next, all of the petals should be removed, carefully, from the flower, leaving you with a stem and exposed anther. Now, locate a female flower and use your stem and anther to transfer the pollen to the stigma, located in the center of the female flower. Gently rub the anther over the stigma several times, and then move on to the next female flower. Each anther can be used to pollinate approximately five flowers. Instead of using the anther, you can also use an artist’s paint brush or cotton swab to transfer the pollen to the female flower.

No matter the method of pollen transfer, timing is important. Flowers open early in the morning and are only receptive for one day. Be sure to use freshly opened flowers to ensure your hand-pollination success! Happy Gardening!

Written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

May 27
Not just a Ditch Lily

Question:  I have a delightful neighbor who has lived in this area all her life; she regales me with stories about old landscapes, old homes, and old plants.  One plant in particular she describes with affection and passion is called a “ditch lily”. I’ve done a little reading regarding this lily since my plan was to find and install them in my yard.  Is this a good idea?  Am I asking for trouble by introducing this plant?  Is it considered a delight or a demon?

daylilly - sallie.jpg
Answer:  Whether your “delightful” neighbor explained or not, the “ditch lily”, also called day lily, tiger liiy, roadside lily, and a few other names, is one of a group that fell out of favor with more “discerning” gardeners some years back.  Because of their low maintenance, friendly nature, and ability to spread from one spot to another sans human intervention, some circles have bestowed on them “invasive species” status.

But before you abandon the idea of adding them to your yard, let’s take a closer look at Hemerocallis, the lily’s “proper” or botanical name.

Sometimes considered “passalong” or “friendship plants’, these colorful harbingers of summer originally hailed from Asia, where they were a staple of Chinese diets for many years.  Arriving in the New World with our first colonists, daylilies quickly spread across North America, as determined as our ancestors to stake a claim and establish new territory.

Even then we knew this was not a true lily; true lilies grow from bulbs, the daylily from tuberous roots. But, from its early days, daylilies were known for those characteristics that made it popular in its native environment.

To “tough as nails”, add tenacious.  Daylilies in landscapes offer a range of colors, sizes, and periods of bloom.  As example, some designers use daylilies to fill gaps in the landscape, border a sidewalk, or to hide unattractive items such as air conditioning units.  Requiring minimal maintenance once established, they tolerate a range of soil and temperature conditions although they look their best in full to filtered sun and with their “feet” in soil that drains well.

Massed on banks and areas too steep or hard to mow, daylilies also add ‘bling’ to foundation plantings; some color combinations can be down-right  eye-popping!
In addition to Hemerocallis fulva, the “common” ditch lily, there is a bewildering list of lily possibilities, including night-blooming and a lemon-scented species. Colors, as mentioned previously, come in shades of white, yellow, pink, purple, and striking combinations of any and all. Cultivars also include a range of bloom times, so though “day” lily indicates just that – a flower that blooms for a day – by combining early, mid, and late blooming types, daylilies can be enjoyed the entire summer.

Mix color options, bloom time, height variations, and flower shapes to understand how there are thousands of named cultivars around today. Choose from one or more categories to delve even deeper into the daylily of ditches and devotees, since a few cultivars have price tags equal to the down payment on a new car!

Is this plant a delight or a demon? Depends on who you ask, but as suggested by one expert, ‘if you have a patch of bad yard that won’t grow anything, try daylilies.  Chances are they will do the job and look good in the process’.  

written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

May 12

     When we say "grasses" to gardeners, most think of something you have to mow. But many ornamental grasses are now becoming popular for several reasons.
     Grasses can provide height, color, contrast, wildlife shelter, spiky accents, feathery waves, and low-growing clumps to gardens and landscapes. They can be grown in beds or in pots. They're low maintenance and tough. Many grasses retain their shape and foliage structure through the winter, giving added texture to the garden. th[6].jpg
     Cultivation of grasses is as old as gardening itself. The grass family, Gramineae, produces the world's cereal crops, which are essential to both human and animal food sources. Each region of the world has its own native grasses, but it is only recently that garden cultivars have been introduced. No matter what kind of conditions exist on a site, there is an ornamental grass that is suitable.
     As grasses have increased in popularity, more nurseries and garden centers are stocking them. If you can't find the grasses you are looking for there, then mail order is another option.
     If buying locally this spring or summer, remember to check on the general health of the plant. Look for a grass that has colorful foliage and is not too dense, which indicates that the plant has already become pot-bound and might be difficult to establish if planted.
     Check the root system if possible. It should hold the soil and be visibly healthy without being overcrowded. Choose a plant that has moist soil. Over-watered or dry soil puts stress on the plant. Even though many grasses tolerate such stress, they won't be in the best of health and may be more susceptible to pests as a result.
     When purchasing grasses, keep in mind the ultimate height and spread of the plant, and whether it is suitable for the site. The information panel for each grass should indicate this information. If not, ask someone who works at the nursery or garden center.
     The best time for planting grasses is in the spring or fall. But regardless of when you decide to plant, make sure that the grass is well watered beforehand. When planted in a suitable site, the grass simply requires a little fertilizer initially to give it a boost, an application of mulch, and watering until it is established.
     Many grasses are suitable for growing in pots. This is usually the best option when dealing with a root-invasive grass such as Ribbon Grass (Phalaris). And it is the way to grow tender grasses for your area, such as the purple-leaved Foxtail Grass (Pennisetum).
     Potted grasses can be grown as single specimens or with other plants in larger containers, such as with flowering annuals around the edge. Grouping several potted plants together can form a versatile display in smaller spaces.
     There are many sizes and shapes of containers. Whatever the shape of the pot you choose, make sure it is large enough to contain the grass and allow for more growth. Pot-bound grasses require frequent watering, as well as annual division and repotting.
     For more gardening information, call 1-877-252 – GROW (4769) to reach the Master Gardener Helpline. Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont was used as a resource for this article.




April 21
My Top 5 Garden Thugs List

​What not to plant

There are very few things that make me angry. While most folks consider me laid back and of a relaxed nature, there are a few things that can make my blood boil. These can include social injustices, potholes on the interstate highway, and high on the list- thugs… specifically garden thugs. You may be asking “What is a garden thug?”.  I consider a garden thug a plant that just can’t behave in the garden. These are plants that will spread wildly or those that tend explode when the wind blows; generally plants that should be avoided. So, in honor of the coming of spring and for the love of the natural environment I will now give you my top 5 list of garden thugs.

kudzu - edited.jpg#5- Kudzu- The plant that ate the South
When many people hear the word “invasive”, kudzu is the plant that comes to mind. First planted by the state department as a means of controlling erosion, this plant has been considered public enemy number one on plant lists for a while. Why do I put it at number 5 and not number one?  First, most anyone with enough sense to walk around would think twice about planting kudzu. Second, I hope that there isn’t to garden center in this great land that would put this plant out for sale, unlike all of the other of the plants on this list.

#4- Chinese Tallow tree (aka “popcorn tree”)
Beloved for its fall color, this tree has been widely planted in landscapes across our great state for decades. Hailing from East Asia, this tree has quickly become a bane to southern ecosystems. The seeds are readily transported by birds and the wind and can seemingly grow wherever the seed lands. Not only is this tree a fast grower, but it also surrounds itself with a circle of toxicity. The sap of the plant is toxic, as are the leaves, making the plant successful in most any environment without the threat of predation. Options in lieu of the Chinese tallow tree include Ginkgo, crape myrtle and service berry.

#3 Japanese Wisteria
This is one of several wildly popular plants that have become incredibly invasive in the southeastern United States. Having been long favored for climbing on walls and over trellises in old fashion gardens, the plant quickly became a nuisance in natural areas. By forming a dense mat of vines, girdling and over-topping trees, this plant can easily become a dominate species if left unattended. While I can understand the potential interest in this plant with its large raceme of purple flowers and unusual seed pods, this is one that can get out of hand quickly. Confederate jasmine or the climbing rose known as ‘lady banks’ are two plants that could easy be used in place of this monster.

#2 Bradford Pear- A bad tree with beautiful blooms
I have a feeling that I am about to step on the toes of some people in this area. So, to protect myself, I understand; these are beautiful trees that bloom a pure white in the spring and have a great form and brilliant fall color. Now for the bad side- this tree is dangerous in more ways than one. First, the ‘Bradford’ was a selection from a tree known as the callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), a non edible pear native to China and Vietnam. Selected for its heavy bloom and upright nature, the ‘Bradford’ selection started out as a good garden citizen. It was widely popular throughout the United States (in a 2006 tree census of the city, the New York Parks Division counted 63,000 in New York City alone!) and continues to be sold at garden centers around the country.

Since its arrival, ‘Bradford’, which at one point was considered a sterile cultivar, has become widely invasive. Driving by abandoned city lots or along natural roadsides in the spring will show just how bad this plant really is. Aside from spreading to open lots and fence lines, this plant is indeed a danger in the landscape. Take a look around this spring after a thunderstorm and count how many of these trees are split down the middle. This weakness is due to that desirable upright nature which leads to what arborists refer to as “poor crotch angles”. These angles lead to included bark and cause pressure to build in the “v” of the branches. One good wind storm and CRACK!! There goes a major branch of the tree, crushing anything and everything beneath it. The second “danger” comes, not from the ‘Bradford’ selection, but rather with the reversion of the plant to the callery pear. The callery pear has some intense thorns- thorns that can puncture tractor tires and shoes or boots alike. Some options for replacement plants are fruiting pears, dogwoods, ornamental cherries and many others.

#1 Chinese Privet- botanical enemy number one
This plant is the one that could potentially be worse than what kudzu has become. Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, was once widely planted as privacy hedges and foundation plants. It has a thick, shrubby growth habit and can be considered “bulletproof” or almost invincible, to even the worst home gardener.

The aggressive nature of this plant, along with its ability to produce thousands of seeds per season, results in the formation of dense growths of privet in natural areas. These almost impenetrable colonies can choke out existing plants and prevent other native plants from growing. As mentioned, the plant blooms densely and produces loads of berries. These small, purple berries are loved by many species of birds, leading to numerous populations of privet along fence rows and wood lines. Adaptable to most any environment, privet hedge will inhabit both shady, wet conditions as well as dry, sunny locations. Aside from concentrated herbicides, privet has no enemies and can quickly take over open lots, woodlands and seemingly anywhere else.  Although this plant is visibly becoming our biggest threat to naturalized areas, many people continue to buy and plant this shrub. There are many alternatives to this exotic invasive including boxwoods, Japanese hollies, and dwarf yaupon.

So, that’s my list of top five garden thugs in the landscape. There are many others that could potentially be many others that fall into the thug category so when choosing a new plant try doing a little research, talk to your local garden center or call your local Extension office to ensure that this new plant will not become another landscape headache.

written by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is an Urban Regional Extension Agent housed in the Marshall County Extension Office.

March 27
Of Weeds and Worts

Question:  There are a lot of plants with the term “weed” in their name; some are sold in nurseries and in catalogues.  I think several are beautiful plants and I’ve purchased them for my flower garden.  I have the same question about “worts”, or rather plants that include the term in their names.  What is the deal with naming plants after “weeds” and “worts”; why not rename them so people would use them more in their gardens? 

asclepias1.jpgAnswer:   We have to name objects and items, it’s just in our nature.  And if we don’t know the “proper” name, a nickname does just fine.  As with people, whom we name “tiny”, whether they’re 2 feet or 7 feet tall, plant names are usually descriptive, affectionate, or informative.

Weeds, often described in less than polite terms by those attempting the “perfect” lawn, garden, or landscape, are mostly plants growing where we don’t want them.  Even that assessment is changing however, as biologists and ecologists are recognizing weeds for their role in the food web, and ability to prevent soil erosion in difficult environments.

A good example of our confusion with “weeds” are the Milkweed plants.  One example, is known botanically as Asclepias syriaca, this is the only food the very picky Monarch butterfly juvenile (caterpillar) will eat during this phase of its life. If in our efforts to eradicate “weeds”,  Milkweed plants are whacked, Monarch caterpillars won’t have anything to eat.  No Milkweed, no caterpillars, no Monarchs.

Other plants named “weed” that are really likable once we get to know them: Joe –Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), a ‘tall Paul’ in the landscape, but attractive to butterflies and gardeners alike.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is related to Milkweed, and sports bright red/orange flowers that attract as many children as they do butterflies and hummingbirds. Monarch caterpillars eat this plant too; in fact all Asclepias sp.

Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) attracts birds and butterflies to its reddish-purple flowers which top stems that reach 6-7 feet in height!  A “wallflower” this isn’t!

“Worts” on the other hand, are non-woody plants historically associated with medicinal cures such as those described in the Doctrine of Signatures, which suggests that plants resembling various body parts can be used to treat ailments of those parts. Therefore, lungwort (Pulmonaria sp) would cure diseases of the lung, spleenwort (Asplenium sp) of the spleen, and liverwort (Hepatica nobilis) … well you get the picture. All of these plants however, have a definite place in the landscape, growing in conditions ranging from shade to sun, acid to alkaline soil, with flowers in white and shades of pink, blue and purple. Other “worts” that add either interest or color to the garden, or both, include bladderwort, lousewort, moneywort, pennywort, and St. John’s wort. This last plant, Hypericum perforaturm, in addition to its use in the landscape, is considered a medicinal plant with anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory properties.  In the landscape or flower bed, its bright yellow flowers add color during summer months. St. John’s wort and most of the weeds and worts mentioned in this article are perennials, returning year after year.

The bottom line: just as “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, consider that “weeds” and “worts” have qualities more lovable than their nicknames might suggest.  Check out the Birmingham Botanical Garden’s Spring Plant Sale and try growing a few in your yard! 

written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

March 18

As I drive around cities and towns in late winter, I witness crimes of the botanical kind, most often committed against crape myrtles in urban areas. It seems as though the harsh pruning practice, widely known as “crape murder” is becoming more and more common.

off with her head - crape myrtle.JPGCrape myrtles, Lagerstroemia spp, (sometimes spelled crepe myrtle)  are one of the most common ornamental plants grown in the urban setting. A multipurpose plant group, crape myrtles are used as specimen plants in foundation plantings, as borders and privacy plants, and along road fronts and sidewalks. Being nearly bulletproof, these plants can handle most anything thrown at them, including getting their heads cut off year after year.

Though originally introduced to Charleston, S.C. circa 1790, crape myrtles have been extremely common for the past 50 or 60 years, with varieties such as ‘Natchez’ and ‘Carolina Beauty’ being widely planted throughout the South. Though still considered a “small” tree, the larger varieties can exceed heights of 35 to 40 feet. But since all plants start small, these larger varieties are sometimes planted where they grow much larger than needed for a chosen spot. This excess-of-tree often leads to the trees being improperly pruned (“topped” or utilizing the "heading cut") to heights of 4 feet or less. This topping takes a beautiful tree down to nothing more than a collection of trunks with no small or secondary branching. If your intent is to find a blooming shrub under 15 feet, consider crape myrtle 'Acoma', 'Hopi', 'Chickasaw', or 'McFadden's Pinkie'.

Other reasons for committing “crape murder” that have been discussed include health, increased number of blooms and wrong location. Many believe, often based on observation alone, that these innocent trees need to be pruned in this terrible fashion. Let me make this clear- THIS IS 100% FALSE!!!!. Generally speaking, trees and shrubs do okay by themselves. We prune trees because WE NEED to prune trees, not because they need us to do it for them. Sure, it can be helpful to remove broken or diseased branches to promote healthy growth but trees are pretty good at taking care of their problems without our help. The next argument that I have heard for butchering crape myrtles is that doing so will increase bloom numbers. This is also a widely spread myth. Crape myrtles are one of the many plants that produce flowers on “new wood” that is grown each spring. Although cutting the canopy back to the main stem(s) will give the illusion of more blooms, it is, in actuality, only concentrating the blooms to fewer branches.

Lastly, many people cut back crape myrtles for size reduction. When these plants were planted, they were small plants and had “small tree” printed on their tag. As we all know, descriptions are always relative to the surrounding. Yes, crape myrtles are smaller than a mature Southern red oak that can reach heights up to 80 feet, but next to a small ranch style house, a 3 story tree is quite significant in the landscape. Many crape myrtles were planted in city settings in very small areas, especially in the grassy medians of highways and roads. Once mature, these plants tend to be larger than the spaces they occupy-thus leading to acts of botanical cruelty.

So, how can we stop the perpetual culture of plant torture? Many people have heard the “Right plant, Right place” mantra that Extension professionals continue to preach, and have for years. There is true wisdom in these old words. Crape myrtle varieties are categorized as “Dwarf Form” (3-5 ft), “Semi-dwarf form” (5-10 feet), “Small  trees” (10-20 feet) and “Large Trees” (20 feet and larger). Cultivars in the dwarf form include ‘Centennial’ which blooms a nice shade of purple, ‘Ozark Spring’ which is lavender and ‘Victor’ which puts on a show of dark red blooms for up to 85 days. If you are looking for the pure white blooms of ‘Natchez’ but need something shorter than 40 feet, consider the semi-dwarf variety ‘Acoma’. With high resistance to powdery mildew, recurrent blooming and a beautiful fall color, this tree would fit nicely into most any landscape setting. A favorite of mine is the cultivar ‘Tonto’ which blooms a fiery red and tends to have the form of a multi-stem shrub. For a longer, more complete list see

One last question remains that needs to be discussed- what should you do if you or someone else has already committed crape murder? This is a difficult question to answer. First, if the practice has been consistently done over a span of many years and you LIKE the way that it looks, just keep on whacking. If it has been done and you despise the look, there is really only one choice for you- start over. For those that are familiar with the growth habit of crape myrtles, we know that they are known for producing lots of sprouts from the crown of the plant each year- this habit is called “suckering”. Generally we try to prune these suckers off throughout the growing season to give the trees  a nice clean appearance. But if you are looking to right a serious wrong, these suckers can be the perfect solution.

First, decide what you want the tree to look like in a few years- multi-stemmed or single- trunked. If you decide that you want a tree that has three main trunks, select and mark five of the best suckers and remove the rest. Now for the choice that you have to make; either leave the old trunks that have been haphazardly cleaved for another year or remove one or two of them down at ground level. Removing the older stems all at once, allows more plant energy to push the new suckers up. If you are nervous to cut them all down (I prefer the term “basal prune”), just leave them for another season or so and wait for the new stems to grow- and boy will they grow!  Remember that the root system of the tree is still there and is ready to support a large canopy, plus this tree has the ability to make sucker growth. Those existing roots will really push the suckers up fast and will generate a lot more suckers from the crown. Be fastidious in your removal of the unwanted, excess suckers, and you’ll get faster results. Don’t forget to train the new stems to the look that you prefer. Within three years or so, those “suckers” will be become a nice sized tree again and will soon return the tree to its previous glory.

written by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL.

March 04
Simplifying Seed Catalog Lingo

​Q: This time of year I start getting gardening catalogs galore in my mailbox. I enjoy reading through them, looking and drooling over pictures of beautiful vegetables and reading descriptions of them. Can you give any suggestions regarding which catalogs are the best and what I should order? And, where can I find help on when to plant “things” once I’ve decided to buy them?

DABG scarecrow - cropped.bmpA: Yes, catalogs come along when we’re dealing with “cabin fever.” We know it’s too early to start the warm season garden in this area, but those pictures are so tempting! Over a period of 3 weeks, my mailbox coughed up nearly a dozen of the colorful things, from all over the country, listing every kind of ornamental, fruit or vegetable known to man, or at least most of them.

How to determine which catalogs offer varieties adapted to the southeastern United States and which ones have efficient and timely delivery systems is based primarily on research; with a little trial and error thrown in. If you’ve lived around here for a few years and know some gardeners, chances are those folks will be happy to offer their stories about which companies seem to know their business and which ones don’t. So, ask your gardening friends, garden club members, etc.

If you’re new to the area, check out books at your local library as they contain a plethora of information on appropriate plant materials for our locale. The public library at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is one of the best around for plant material. Also, your county Extension office offers publications that help with the “when” part of your question. You may also check the Extension website for two popular planting guides: ANR-0047 Alabama Gardener’s Calendar and ANR-0063 Planting Guide for Home Gardening in Alabama.

Do be careful about a couple of issues. Some seed companies offer plant material that is better adapted to other regions of North America. Some catalogs even offer not-so-subtle warnings with phrases such as “not for southeast U.S.” Take those comments to heart and order only if you’re prepared to experiment. There are companies whose catalogs offer seeds of plants, both ornamental and edible, that are grown on other continents and that are very exotic. While these plants may be beautiful and no one else in the neighborhood has one, they could also be invasive or exhibit less charming characteristics not mentioned in the seed book (catalog). However, that doesn’t mean you can’t try seeds or a plant you’ve not grown before. In fact, to many gardeners, that’s one of the “fun” things about gardening— trying something new every year. Just be a bit cautious about the origins of the plant; we really don’t need another Kudzu vine in Alabama!

While it won’t guarantee success, before ordering from any catalog, know the winter hardiness zone where you live and stick to plants suited for it. This area usually falls in zone 7b or zone 8a.  Make sure the plants won’t ship until time to plant in your hardiness zone – most reputable catalog companies will ship close to the time you should plant, but be sure before ordering.

The best catalogs include details such as the correct botanical name of the plant, whether it needs sun or shade, how much water will be required to keep it happy, how short or tall it grows, what wildlife it attracts such as bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc. These catalogs often include comments regarding the plant’s drought tolerance, and if vegetables, will tout the pest resistance of some varieties. Information often includes when to plant the bulbs, seeds or transplants, as some are fall blooming but should be planted in spring.

And above all, especially if you’re new to garden catalogs, remember the lovely pictures in the catalog are of mature plants at their best. Yours won’t look that way for a year or two so don’t panic or pull yours out of the ground. Keep trying—that’s what gardeners do, and gardening catalogs are there to support our efforts and lure us into experimenting!

Garden Talk is written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Visit the ACES website, Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @acesedu

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