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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

February 19
Grow Good for your Heart Food

Question:  February is such a curious month for Southerners.  St. Valentine’s Day is smack in the middle of it, when red indicates the color of our poor runny noses instead of our lovely blooming roses.  February is also American heart month, connecting red roses, love, healthy hearts, and long, happy lives.  I’m a gardener, and in addition to growing the deep red “tea” roses my mother grew, want to add vegetables and a few small fruits that are good for me and my family.  Suggestions, please and they don’t have to be red although that would be nice.

Roses are red, hearts beat red, too.
Keep yours healthy and working for you!

vegetable basket.jpgYes, St. Valentine had no idea his death on Feb. 14th in 270 A.D. would be associated with roses, chocolate, and love-ever-after, but the support of individuals (Esther Howland) and companies (Hallmark), have enabled his legacy to live on!

Now, aficionados of valentines, roses, chocolate, and hearts have added a 21st century twist to the story. And, since this is a garden column, suggestions for heart-supportive foods we can grow in our gardens and landscapes is quite appropriate.

These fruits and veggies are nutrient rich, or "nutrient dense," meaning compared to total calories, the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber are the winners.  So in addition to exercise gained, growing your own means controlling the freshness at harvest time, what (if any) chemicals are added, and in many cases, cost savings.

Tomatoes, not just the red varieties, are tasty sources of antioxidants, Vitamin C and fiber.  Interestingly, tomatoes are the most popular food grown in backyards across North America, and Alabama is right there at the top with pounds grown per capita.  While it's a little early to plant them, late February is the perfect time to start seedlings indoors for May planting time.

Berries, including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries contain fiber, antioxidants, Vitamin C, are naturally low in calories, and taste best fresh. Most varieties of strawberry are St. Valentine’s red, some are attractive groundcovers, making them a ‘what’s not to love’ plant for gardens and tables.  Blueberries are also ornamental landscape additions with their bright red, winter buds.

Apples, perhaps more challenging to grow in Alabama, are wonderful additions to tasty, healthy meals or snacks.  I grew up on sliced apples and a thin smear of peanut butter, still one of my favorite mini-meals. Although apples come in colors other than red, many of us associate rosy skinned varieties with healthy children happily munching them.

Swiss chard, grown in vegetable gardens for many years, has moved to the ornamental flower bed by virtue of striking color combinations, leaf shape, and texture. Harvest chard for its load of potassium (proper function of cells) and magnesium (muscle contraction, nerve transmission);enjoy them in salads, steamed and seasoned, or sautéed. This is the perfect time of year to add chard to your garden.

Even though growing cool season veggies broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts are not as popular as warm season tomatoes, peppers, squash and okra, their importance to our hearts, joints, and cells is undeniable. Though a former U.S. president famously dismissed broccoli as ‘that food I won’t eat’, many of us enjoy its taste and texture with dips, in stir-fries, and soup. It’s worth growing a small plot as many who’ve consumed fresh broccoli, sprouts, and kale agree their taste is better fresh from the garden!

Garlic and onions are easy to grow, healthy foods for backyards, raised beds, or containers. Red onions fit the month of February red theme, so try growing a small plot of these cholesterol level reducers.  Whether green scallions, or sweet yellows, all onions are super easy to grow.

If you want to learn more about growing and preparing these and other berries, fruits, and vegetables, check Extension’s calendar of events for gardening workshops near you.

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.

February 09
Is It Time Yet?

​Q. Last fall, I purchased a home with a very beautiful, established landscape.  While I am pretty confident about my abilities to tend to most of these plants, I have two prominent areas that contain a plant whose care is totally foreign to me – roses.  SO, with that said, I could use some help with rose maintenance tips, most specifically, pruning.  Can you tell me the when’s and how’s of proper rose pruning? 

101_3696.JPGA. Caring for roses may seem like a daunting task, but don’t get discouraged.  In my opinion, this plant is definitely worth any additional effort that it may require.

Pruning roses improves the size, quality, and color of blooms, and should be done after the danger of frost is over.  In our area, that is typically in late February or early March.  However, don’t sharpen your pruners just yet.  Before you get started, it is important to know exactly what type of rose you have because the amount of pruning varies with the variety. With that said, however, the first pruning of any rose, no matter the type, should remove dead, damaged, or weak growth. 

Pruning can also regulate the number of flowers produced. Leave longer canes if more flowers are desired. If large show-type blooms are desired, cut back to a few canes and head the remaining ones back to 12 to 14 inches above the ground. 

Now, let’s discuss specific types.  We will start with hybrid teas.  As referenced earlier, any canes killed by canes killed by cold, diseases, and insects should be removed first. Next remove all suckers growing below the graft union. Cut all the remaining canes back to 12 to 15 inches above ground or to a bud 1 inch below any damaged part of the cane. Be aware of any cold damage or disease cankers. Cold damage will appear as a browning of the stem and, most often, a brown pith or center of the cane. Cuts should be ¼ inch above a bud and made at a 45-degree angle. On most varieties, it is best to cut to an outside bud.  This action encourages growth away from the center of the plant, thereby increasing air movement and light penetration within the canopy. 

Floribundas and grandifloras are treated a little differently.  These roses should not be pruned as heavily as hybrid teas. Often these roses grow to a considerable height and produce more blooms. Cut back an inch below any darkened area to remove any dead and diseased wood. The entire branch should be removed if it is badly diseased or dead. Three to five strong, healthy canes should be left.  Next, any canes having weak growth or those growing toward the center of the plant should be removed. Any remaining canes should be cut 18 to 24 inches above the ground, depending upon the plant’s vigor.

What about KnockOut™ Roses?  This type of rose grows vigorously, so you may prune just as vigorously.  In fact, KnockOut™ roses can be pruned by one-third to one-half, and will flourish the following growing season.  Because of this energetic growth habit, it is recommended to prune them back to about two feet below the height that you want them to reach during the next period of growth.  To maintain a more uniform appearance, you can prune these roses for shaping purposes throughout the growing season. 

The last type of rose to be mentioned is the climbing rose.  Many of these roses bloom in early spring and need pruning at the end of flowering. Any new canes that have developed should be left since these will produce flowers the next year. Cut all old canes back to the ground immediately after flowering.  Some varieties of climbers will continue to bloom throughout the growing season. These varieties produce new canes from old canes rather than from the base of the plant. It is best to leave five or six strong healthy canes and o remove the older canes at the ground. Sometimes these remaining canes produce heavy branching. To control growth and encourage flowering, these lateral branches should be kept headed back. Faded flower clusters should be removed too.

Now, there is one more point to mention.  No matter the type of rose or the pruning time, it is imperative to properly disinfect your pruning tools.  Be sure to wipe the cutting surface with rubbing alcohol or a 10% bleach solution.  This is your first line of defense in decreasing spread of disease. 

I hope this information is helpful.  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.  For answers to these and other garden questions, call the Helpline at 877-252-4769 (877-ALA-GROW).

January 30
Plant a Tree!

Back in 1965, the Byrds released a record, written by Pete Seeger entitled, "Turn! Turn!  Turn!" I am sure many of you have already begun singing the song: "To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap. . ." Today I want to talk to you about planting. January is a time to plant.

As a forester, when I think of the winter months I think of two things: prescribed burning and tree planting. Many people do not realize this, but after a timber harvest, if the landowner chooses to plant pine trees, they will plant approximately 550 longleaf or 730 loblolly pines per acre. That works out to around 22,000 - 29,000 trees on a forty acre block. There's a myth in the community that timber companies "rape and pillage" the land, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The foresters and timber companies I know from my travels across this country are very concerned with the environment. For example in 2014, the Westervelt Company, based in Tuscaloosa, grew over 6.5 million pine seedlings to be planted on its land this winter. On my old truck I have a bumper sticker that says, "To a Forester, Everyday is Earth Day".

wp street trees - aug 2011 033.JPGWhat timber companies are doing in mass, our cities, towns, and individuals can do too. January is the time to plant. I hear people say, "I don't want trees on my property, they are messy." Sure trees drop their leaves, needles, nuts and cones, but trees provide many benefits too. First, properly planted trees will cut your heating and cooling bills by better than a third. Secondly, trees help to encourage spending and reduce crime by providing a welcoming atmosphere in the community, by encouraging "front porch sitting" and friendly interaction with walkers on the sidewalk. Third, trees also increase the property value of your home. While living in Upstate NY a friend of mine asked me to cut down his three mature black walnut trees for lumber. While he was about to make $20,000 for the sale of those three lumber trees, he was going to lose $100,000 off the real estate value of his house. Needless to say, I did not cut those trees down. Fourthly, trees protect our communities in large storms. A study was done in Mobile following Hurricane Ivan. Because of the large number of trees that fell during the storm, someone asked, "If we had no trees would Mobile have fared better in the storm?" The wind study came back with a resounding no! Without trees, the buildings take a direct blow from hurricane force winds. With the trees, Mobile was spared catastrophic damage. In a storm trees behave like a motorcycle helmet in an accident. Trees take the force of the wind and deflect it from the ground. Some trees break and cause damage, but without them even more buildings would collapse.

January is the time to plant. When planting trees one must consider the size and species of the mature tree. Trees grow into three size classes: large canopy, midstory, and understory trees. Planting large canopy trees next to the power lines or the sidewalk is doomed for failure. These trees will soon out grow their growing space and cause problems. Understory trees should be planted in these locations. As for the issue of species consideration, each tree has its "likes and dislikes" of where to live. Pines can handle droughty locations better than most hardwoods. Pine should be planted at the top of mountain ridges and on south/west facing slopes. Hardwoods should be planted on cool north/east facing slopes and in the bottoms. Every September I receive scores of calls from homeowners who planted a beautiful red or sugar maple in their yard 10-15 years ago only to watch it die. Normally it was planted out in the open, in full sunlight as the tag instructed. But in the South, maple trees are understory trees. They may reach the large canopy size, but only in the creek bottoms. In the North, maples are large canopy trees. Up there, they reach the size of our oaks; however, during my eight years in Upstate NY, we reached 90 degrees in only two of the summers. Ask where your tree was grown and look for those grown in a southeastern nursery.  Also, another fact of maples is that they are shallow rooted. They like living in the bottoms where the water level is high. If a homeowner adds soil around the roots, to ease mowing, they will suffocate the tree. I share this information with you, because none of us like to see our handiwork go to waste.

Yes, January is the time to plant. Make a plan, do your research, and get out the shovel. If you need help, call your County Extension office ( ). Extension agents are more than happy to help you with your dreams to find the right tree.

written by Andrew J. Baril of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

January 26
Hold on to Your Hat - More Winter on the Way

Question:  When temperatures dropped to single digits recently, I worried about several plants in my yard.  A neighbor advised me to cover them with plastic or a sheet, some suggested “mulch heavily and leave them alone.” Other than moving container plants indoors, what should I be doing to protect tender perennials, bulbs I planted this fall, or recently planted shrubs and trees?  And what if temperatures warm up again, then drop down to the teens?  Isn’t that hard on plants?

Answer:  Southern gardeners call this the “yoyo” season, when drastic changes occur across a 24 hour period. And yes, dramatic temperature swings do impact plants as well as people, especially if accompanied by wind and/or precipitation. 

To ward off damage, some turn to the “quilt garden” design, whereby colorful sheets, quilts and blankets adorn their plants for protection.  More about protecting your plants in a minute; first what is a cold wave from a plant’s perspective?

blankets on plants.jpgAccording to the U.S. National Weather Service, a cold wave (same as a “cold spell”) is a “rapid fall within a 24 hr. period, requiring substantially increased protection to agriculture, industry, commerce, and social activities.” Plants that experience weather conditions favorable to normal hardening-off in the fall, are less likely to experience cold stress.  In other words, moving from late fall temperatures above normal to cold fronts bringing temperatures that are well below normal can produce changes that reduce plant hardiness.

Aside from these conditions outside our control, what can we do in our gardens and landscapes to reduce potentially damaging impacts?  Because as surely as spring brings robins, the yo-yo temp's of late winter are here! 

Make sure to water plants before a freeze event if the soil is dry, particularly if strong winds are expected, as wind dries out plants faster than calm conditions.  Doing this activity three to four days prior to a freeze is recommended.

While not the cure-all for every plant problem, mulch helps moderate soil temperatures, and keeps weeds from popping up and competing for water and nutrients. Loose material such as pine needles or seed-free straw covering roots and crowns 4-6” deep helps protect your plants.  If you’re using mulch to completely cover small shrubs (mounding over the top), be sure to remove most of it after temperatures moderate.

Smaller plants, shrubs, or ornamental grasses can be completely enclosed with cardboard, plastic foam boxes, or ice chests.  Again, be sure to remove them as soon as temperatures normalize, as plants need air and sunshine.  Protect larger plants by building a simple structure for draping blankets. Use 3 stakes a little taller than the shrub, bush, or tree. The cover should go to the ground and be sealed with stones or bricks to completely enclose the foliage and trunk. When temperatures rise and sun reappears, be sure to remove coverings – otherwise damage can occur. Fabric covers are better than plastic.  An important trait of any plant cover is that it shouldn't directly touch the leaves. This gives extra insulation and reduces the chance of burned leaf tips.

Another option involves providing a heat source under the cover.  Wrap the plant with outdoor Christmas lights (you knew there was a reason for leaving them in the garage); the lights provide heat but not enough to burn plants or covers.

NOTE: Freeze damage may take weeks or months to appear on plants, so unless tissue turns slimy, mushy, or develops a bad odor, put off pruning until new growth appears in spring.

Bottom line, do what you can to protect your plants during extreme conditions, understand that plant survival can be hard to predict, and give your gardens and landscape a chance to recover before taking additional action.

written by Sallie M. 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. 

January 12
Scale on House Plants

Question: I am having a problem with my Meyer lemon trees. I bought the tree last spring and didn’t seem to have any problems all summer long. Shortly after moving the trees in for the winter, I began to notice some soft, white creatures prowling the leaves and stems of the tree. What is this and what can I do about it?

cottony cushion scale, lesley ingram - bugwood.jpgAnswer: 
Growing any kind of citrus in North Central Alabama can prove challenging yet very gratifying once you begin to reap the rewards of your labor.  While the plants are relatively easy to manage and maintain with a splash of water, a little fertilizer and protection from the cold, they can be prone to some disease and insect problems when brought indoors or grown in a greenhouse. From your description, this seems to be one of the common problems that affect citrus trees, a scale insect known as cottony cushion scale.

Cottony cushion scale, Icerya purchasi, can infest a number of woody ornamentals and certain crops but common hosts include citrus, cleyera and Japanese pittosporum . Scale insects decrease the vitality of their host plant by sucking phloem sap from the leaves, twigs, branches, and trunk. Feeding can result in defoliation and dieback of twigs and small branches when infestations are extremely heavy. Heavy populations can severely reduce the yield of citrus trees. The body of the cottony cushion scale is orange-ish in color but the identifying characteristic is the large, white and cottony egg sack that is attached to the body. Each scale can carry up to 800 eggs, making the egg sack much larger than the body of the insect. The eggs hatch within a few days during the summer but can take several weeks in the winter (perhaps why they weren't initially noticed). These new “baby” scale are called crawlers and they tend to settle on soft vulnerable tissue, usually along the leaf veins on the underside of leaves.  As the scale increase in size, they molt and appear red or orange for some time before they begin to produce more cottony secretions.

Aside from the obvious white egg sacks that this scale is named for, other indications of a scale infestation include large population of ants and a black mold known as sooty mold that grows on the excretions of the scales (known as honeydew).  Once seen, it is only a matter of days before the population increases in size, remember that ONE egg sack can contain 800 eggs!

Though not impossible to control, cottony cushion scale can prove to be a challenging problem, especially on indoor plants. When the pest is on plants outside, their numbers are often controlled by several beneficial insects (tiny wasps and mites). When not inhibited by ants, which protect the scale as a source of food, these beneficial insects may keep the pests at a tolerable level. However, once the plant is inside, these beneficial insects cannot gain access to the scale, so the next best option is to remove the scale by hand whenever you see them. The adult scales seem to gather on major stems though they can move around.  When the plants are outside, horticultural oil or insecticidal soaps are effective on the crawler stage of the scale, so timing can be important. After hand-picking the scale, wipe as much of the plant as possible (stems and leaves) with a paper towel soaked in rubbing alchohol.

Growing citrus in Alabama can be challenging and fun. With a little bit of work and patience, you will be drinking fresh lemonade in no time! 

written by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. (photo credit: Lesley Ingram,

January 09
To Prune, or Not to Prune - That is the Question

It’s January, and still the question posed to me on a regular basis, more frequently than any other I hear, “Can I prune my XXX shrub?”  If I had a dollar for every time …. well you catch my drift. And quite honestly, yes you can prune your whatever plant now.  However, that begs the real issue – is this the best time to prune whatever it is you’re contemplating with loppers and gloves at the ready?  It’s cold outdoors, most of our gardening activities have been done for a while, and we’re itching to Do Something while the sun is shining!

So as 2015 begins, let me offer a few suggestions for shrubs you might want/need to prune.

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It’s always OK, regardless of the season, to prune out the three D’s: dead, damaged, or diseased parts on the plant. Like human health, wounds (damage) can provide a “door” to an infection; dead tissue may require pruning, and diseased areas on a plant can’t protect the plant as well as healthy growth. Make sure the branch or limb is not merely dormant, which can look dead, by gently scratching your thumb nail on the bark.  If the cambium (layer beneath the bark) is green, that means the branch is alive and can be left on the tree or shrub.

The May rule of pruning suggests that: if the plant blooms before May 1, prune it AFTER the flowers fade.  These plants set flower buds the previous year, so if you're itchy pruning arm goes to work during fall or winter, most or all the flower buds will be pruned off and there won’t be many, if any, flowers in the spring.  The plant won’t die, and the following year should be OK after new growth sets new buds. The other part of this pruning rule of thumb: if the plant blooms May 1st or later, prune in late winter/early spring as these plants bloom on current year’s growth.  This can be frustrating for those who only remember “my XXX plant didn’t bloom this past summer,” but cannot remember when it was supposed to bloom in the first place. 

Hydrangeas are a ‘special’ group and have sent some gardeners into a frenzy of concern over their prized shrub’s failure to provide a flowering spectacle for their neighbors to enjoy. Part of the confusion comes from not being sure which  hydrangea is involved, and believe me it’s easy to be uncertain unless there’s a tag hanging somewhere on the plant, or you’ve kept a record of what was planted. Basically though, hydrangeas with big pink or blue flowers (H. macrophylla) and the oakleaf (H. quercifolia; photo above) both bloom on old wood so should be pruned right after they finish flowering. The other hydrangeas with white conical shaped blooms (H. paniculata) and the ‘Annabelle’ (H. arborescens) bloom on new wood (current year) and will do better if pruned in late winter/early spring. 

Relax. If a mistake is made and the shrub (you realize later) is pruned when it shouldn’t have been, make a note and adjust your timing, or instruct whoever is doing the work for you.  There’s always next year!
Written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

December 18
All Bugs Good and Bad Webinar Series Resumes on February 6

​Please join us for this webinar series for information you can use about good and bad insects.  Topics will include how you can help good insects in your garden and how to control insects we think of as bad, like fire ants, termites, bed bugs, white grubs, and wasps.  Moles, squirrels, and rats aren't insects but they are troublesome, so we will have a webinar about them too.  The series begins with a February 6 webinar presented by Kaci Buhl: "Pesticide Strategy: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Webinars will be on the first Friday of each month at 2 p.m. Eastern time.  For more informatin see All Bugs Good and Bad Webinar Series Resumes Feb. 6.2015 Webinar Schedule.jpg

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