Mrs. Anita Ballek is the matriarch of the Ballek family of East Haddam. Her family proudly boasts 350 years of land stewardship, with no end in sight! Ballek’s Garden Center is a strong supporter of CHS and now Mrs. Ballek has graciously made herself available to help you with your latest gardening conundrum. To avail yourself of her expertise, please send questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org, subject: Ask Anita!
I have what I call a “dead spot” in the garden and need advice. I’m trying to establish a shrub layer under a small grove of swamp maples on the top bank of a pond. Even the herbaceous layer struggles and I’ve lost many attempted perennials. I think my problem is the aggressive root system of these mature trees. Can you offer any advice on plants that can handle this or planting technique? There’s hot afternoon sun reaching this area. I’m considering giving Rhus aromatica a try. Do you think I’m fighting a losing battle?
PS I love your column and am grateful you share your expertise and experience.
The situation you describe is one of the most difficult. Usually the maples provide shade and abundant leaves that shade-loving ground covers thrive in. There are a few that tolerate hot sun such as epimedium, waldsteinia and lamiastrum (fondly known as the “English Curse”). Even these super hardy plants will need help to deal with impoverished soil conditions.
I would start by adding a thick layer of soil and compost to give your new plants a head start on the competing roots of the maple. I would also put a layer of mulch down to retain moisture. Keep new plants watered consistently and never rake away the leaves. This injures their stems and prevents replenishment of the leaf-mold.
The challenge for understory plants is thirst, starvation and strangulation of any roots trying to cohabitate with a grove of maples already fighting with each other for the same root space, water, and nutrients. For some reason maple roots do not come up into leaf-mold (aged and compressed, decomposing leaves), leaving that layer for shallow rooted ground covers!
Best of luck!
-Mrs. Anita Ballek
My African violet, which I bought at last year’s CT Flower & Garden Show, had many white buds & bloomed beautifully for many weeks but hasn’t bloomed since & continues to decline. The leaf edges are curling under & drooping. What could be the cause? I am careful about watering it. I would appreciate any suggestions you have.
African Violets come from a warm climate with even moisture, fertile soil, and filtered sun. They do not like cold drafts or cold water on their leaves. Use warm water with diluted fertilizer frequently enough to maintain the feel of “moist devil’s food cake” to your fingertip. Any deviation from these conditions compromises their immune system causing stress. Plants in stress are more susceptible to insects and diseases.
If no insects are visible (i.e. mealy bugs or aphids), it probably is an infestation of cyclamen mites. They especially enjoy the new foliage of African Violets causing the middle of the plant to look shrunken and the older leaves to curl.
Since we no longer recommend toxic chemicals, the hot water treatment (suggested by The Violet Barn) might work. In a shallow bowl of 160-180⁰F water (warm but not burning to your hand), dip the plant upside down trying not to get the root ball very wet. Swirl side to side for 2-3 minutes, shake of the excess water, and set in a warm place to dry.
Unless the violet is a treasured heirloom, it may be wise to discard it. Wash nearby surfaces and fabric (i.e. curtains) where these microscopic deviants may be lurking before you place a new or treated plant in the same spot.
-Mrs. Anita Ballek
Hello Mrs. Balleck,
How nice of you to offer to answer questions about our gardens. This past summer has been particularly difficult. Drought, gypsy moths (huge yuk factor), powdery mildew and an increased numbers of rodents. In past years some of my perennials have had powdery mildew. This summer many plants both annual and perennial have had this unsightly problem. What can I do to avoid or reduce powdery mildew in my garden? I garden organically.
Thank you, Debbie
Certain plants are very susceptible to powdery mildew problems, i.e. lilacs, roses, phlox, zinnias, and more. Once they develop a serious case, the millions of spores float off to infest other plants usually not bothered.
Healthy plants put on many layers of silicone that make it difficult for spores to dig in and form a colony. Deprived plants are more susceptible. Our drought last summer exacerbated the problem.
Sunshine and good air circulation help. Trimming (i.e. phlox, asters, and bee balm) to 5 or 6 strong stems per square foot in June lets in the sun and air and gives all the strength of the roots to those few. Cut the tops at the same time to cause branching, giving the same full flowering as the original crowded clump with one head on many weak stems.
Lilacs are often the source of trouble. They should be trimmed to eliminate all weak stems, again to open up to sun and air. If trees have grown up to shade them, I suggest moving them out to sunshine. They are shy blooming in the shade anyway.
Adequate feeding and watering fosters strong plants.
Keep a close watch for pockets of mildew. Cut them out carefully, enclosing them in a plastic bag. Clean your hands and pruners thoroughly before touching other plants, so that you are not a vector.
“Serenade” is an OMRI-approved fungicide that may be applied as necessary. If your garden is prone to mildew, spray weekly to prevent early infestations from becoming full blown problems.
-Mrs. Anita Ballek
As I finish my fall planting, there are always some ‘undecideds’ left in their pots. With winter coming, I want to keep these plants protected until spring. I’ve heard you can ‘heel in plants’ for the winter. How do I do that and is it the method I should use to overwinter my plants?
If these “undecideds” left in pots are perennials they may be stored in their pots in an unheated garage or basement. We keep out next year’s crop in unheated shelters covered in white plastic to keep bright winter sun from heating them up and check on them for moisture occasionally. An unheated mudroom or entryway is also a good situation as long as they freeze a little on the outside but never freeze all the way to the center. They should be kept just barely damp, never soggy wet or bone dry.
Heeling in,” the old way of digging a trench and laying the root balls side by side, covering them lightly and filling the trench with leaves was the standard way of keeping extra plants to give away in the spring or plant yourself. But since the arrival of the legions of shrews and voles, this method serves up a tasty meal with easy digging for these predators.
In my gardens, to have any success with delphinium, lupines, and clematis, I “half bury” 14” pots. This method has worked for four years now. I do put screens over the drain holes to prevent vole entry from below. As the pots rise 6” above ground, that seems enough to prevent entry from the top.
Another method is to bury the pots to ground level with mouse bait nearby. A quart mayonnaise jar with a small hole punctured in the cap, the size of a half-dollar will give access to rodents, keeping your pets safe. Cover the bait with an overturned pot to be able to check and replenish when empty even in deep snow.
-Mrs. Anita Ballek