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Charles Fenyvesi
Charles Fenyvesi
(The Post)
Garden Plot Archive
Column: Gourmet Gardner
Column: Ornamental Gardner
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Garden & Patio Section
The Washington Post Garden Book is available on borders.com

The Garden Plot
Hosted by Charles Fenyvesi
Special to the Washington Post

Thursday, Sept. 14, 2000; 11 a.m. EDT

Charles Fenyvesi will be here to field your questions and comments concerning ornamental gardening and horticulture.

Gardeners can do more than grow bulbs and stems. As the Post's "Ornamental Gardener" columnist, Fenyvesi believes they can also harvest beauty. On Thursdays at 11 a.m. EDT, Fenyvesi answers your questions about the flowers, vegetables and fruit that brighten your backyard.

Gardening was a source of joy for Fenyvesi even at the age of 5, when he started planting runner beans in wartime Budapest. He has spent the past 10 years on seven and a half acres in rural Maryland, raising goats and expanding the plots around his house dedicated to flowers, vegetables, berries, and fruit and nut trees. Fenyvesi is inordinately fond of spring-flowering bulbs and ornamental grasses, hazelnut bushes and garlic chives, wood poppies in the shade and black-eyed Susans in full sun.

You can catch Fenyvesi's column on Thursdays in the Home Section, or read "Trees for Shade and Shelter, for Memory and Magic," his book of botanical ruminations published in 1991 by St. Martin's Press.

Read today's discussion below.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Ellicott City, MD: I had heard that in preparing a vegetable garden for next spring, one should mix 'leaf mold' into the soil in the fall. What exactly is leaf mold? Is that dry leaves that fall from the trees?

Charles Fenyvesi: Also known as nature's gold (not an exaggeration), leaf mold is a pile of dead leaves that fall from trees and shrubs at the end of the growing season. You may add them to a compost pile or just keep a pile in a neglected corner of the yard, say behind the garage, and let it rot. You can start a pile by first going over the leaves with a lawnmower. The smaller pieces you end up with decompose faster when put in a pile. Fluffy and rich in nutrients, decomposed leaves or just shredded leaves are ideal for improving our heavy, clay-dominated soil.

Herndon, VA: Always look forward to my Thursday Lunch breaks! Not sure if questions about trees are your topic, but, here goes! Sickly Dogwood trees . . . First, how can one tell the difference between damage caused by the Dogwood 'blight' and/or damage from bores ? My Dogwoods were once large and beautiful, and over the last 3-5 yrs. I've slowly been losing them. There's the moldy looking bark, and bark that drops off exposing 'trails' grooved into the wood. Leaves that either just dry-up and die or leaves that look whitish with mildew, then drop off. Slowly the branches die back ,losing leaves and looking dead. The dead branches get removed and within a year or two the tree has had almost all branches removed and soon its dead and totally removed. I once had 14 beautiful trees; 3 are totally gone, 3 more will be removed by next year, and really only 2 still look healthy. Any recommendations or suggestions would be much appreciated! Also, can another tree be planted in the empty space? Is there anything special I should do to the soil before planting something else - Dogwood or any other tree?
Thanks for any and all suggestions!

Charles Fenyvesi: I am sorry to hear about the decline of your dogwood trees. Unfortunately, their plight reflects the situation all along the East Coast. The blight known as anthracnose can be identified by the appearance of purplish blotches (actually, they are pretty) on the leaves which turn brown and then dead. New dogwood hybrids - crosses between our Cornus florida and the so-called Oriental dogwood (with leaves coming first, flowers later) - are resistant to the blight but perhaps not immune. I'd plant other kinds of trees to replace the old dogwood grove, and I would plant the saplings in between the old trunks.

Leesburg, VA: We have a brown turkey fig tree. It has produced an abundance of figs this year. We will be away for two weeks and are at a loss as to what to do to save the remaining figs that have not totally ripened. Any suggestions?

Charles Fenyvesi: Unfortunately I did not inherit my mother's pickling genes. But I do know that the Egyptians and other Mediterranean people make a delicious honey-based pickle (or maybe that is not the right word, perhaps I should say compote) out of not-entirely-mature figs.

Bethesda, MD: This past weekend, I transplanted several of my perennials, after adding compost etc. It took me several hours, and the plants were out of their soil for a while while I was digging, tilling, etc. Now several of them are really droopy, even some that weren't moved. I've watered them deeply twice, and pruned back the most sickly looking leaves. Any other suggestions? Naturally my parents are coming today and its the 1st time they've seen my garden. Ick!! Thanks!

Charles Fenyvesi: Herbaceous perennials come back from their roots. So, unless those roots dried out completely (which I doubt) they should come back next year. Yes, they look droopy, but that doesn't mean they are dead. I'd wager that more than half of them will come back next year.

Largo, MD: How far back can you cut a three-year-old rosemary plant without killing it? Mine is taking over my garden.

Charles Fenyvesi: Along with basil, rosemary thrives on being cut back. Enjoy your harvest (rosemary sprinkled on potatoes is my favorite) and worry not about the future (of your rosemary plants).

B-thesda: The leaves on my mature black walnuts turned black & fell off over the last couple of weeks. The nuts have not yet dropped.

Do I have a fungus? What can I do to prevent this next year?

Charles Fenyvesi: I noticed the same on my Japanese and Persian walnut trees. But at least on mine I didn't notice a fungus. I am a congenital optimist, but when it comes to walnuts (perhaps especially black walnuts which are natives) I don't think there is reason to worry.

Arlington, VA: I am looking for the perfect tree to screen my bedroom dormer window from my neighbor's bathroom dormer. They are a story and a half high with about 30' between. I would be planting the tree in a 6' wide bed between my driveway and fence/property line. I've started to think about a red bud. Any other suggestions or advice?

Charles Fenyvesi: Redbud is a good idea. Or, better yet, a juniper or a holly, as you want year-round privacy.

Succasunna, NJ: When is the proper time to divide perennials such as hostas and liorope? Any pointers on dividing?

Charles Fenyvesi: I'd wait another week or two, or until the foliage is gone. Along as the foliage is green, it is still capable of photosynthesis, and we want every bit of that energy to go into the roots and bulbs. Try to pry the roots apart, but if it is a mat, just slice it apart. You will lose a few bulbs, but it is better for the clumps not to be too crowded.

Alexandria: My husband and I are moving into our first new home in late October. I want to make sure we have some spring bulbs planted so my favorite flowers (Tulips, Hyacinths, and Crocus) will sprout next spring. Is late October/Early November too late to plant bulbs in our area? Also, would we be able to plant any additional foliage, etc other than the sparse bushes our builder will plant, or would it be best to wait until next spring? Thanks!

Charles Fenyvesi: You can still plant that late in our area. But plant the shrubs first, and as soon as possible, as their roots need to spread out before the frost. Tulips can wait the longest. Happy gardening!

Norfolk, VA: It's the obsessive new gardener here, with a couple of questions about the pending change in seasons. Should I even bother to try to take my gorgeous geraniums inside for the winter? I have a super sunny alcove in my apartment that gets serious morning sun. Any tips on getting them inside without all the bugs that are now living in the mulch on the pots? Second question - what can I put on my very sunny deck that will be green over the winter - think pots of something, or window boxes. I'm not sure I can bear a barren deck after the terrific summer I've had enjoying my new garden (and obsessing over it!) And - I'm finally picking juicy red tomatoes from my tortured, root-bound tomato plant!

Charles Fenyvesi: You should save your gorgeous geraniums, and before you move them indoors, maybe you could replace the mulch where all those bugs live. Cut them back if they get too leggy during the winter. There are some tough evergreens you can leave on the deck, but they need to be in very large containers so their roots do not get frozen. Go to your favorite garden centers and check out what they have. But I am more optimistic about the geraniums than on something suitable for your deck.

Damascus, MD: Do you have any recommendations on removing Crown Vetch? I can't spray round up on in many places, since it is intertwined amongst many other perennials (such as Russian Sage). It doesn't seem to sprout until later in the growing season, when the other plants are also large. If I just get round up on a portion of the plant, will it be enough to kill the whole plant? I have been trying to pull it out by hand, without too much luck.

The only plus is the roots do a nice job of breaking up the clay soil!

Charles Fenyvesi: If you spray Roundup on your crown vetch, some of the chemical will descend on your other plants - and Russian sage is too fine a plant to lose. I would just get down on my knees and dig up the wretched vetches. (I do.)

Silver Spring, MD: Dear Mr. Fenveysi,

The earlier question about a dogwood with blight reminded me of my own dogwood tree, which is dying rather rapidly. For a replacement in a front yard facing west, would a mimosa do all right?

Charles Fenyvesi: A good choice, as a maitre d' would say. Mimosa is a fine plant, and it might make you forget your dogwood.

Silver Spring, MD: Last fall, I planted tradescantia, and it came up beautifully this spring. However, after a few weeks of flowering, it seemed to rot away. Is this because of the constant rains, or might there be something else cooking? Any chance it will return next spring?

Charles Fenyvesi: You are talking about one tough native plant! Yes, tradescantia does go away early, but it does come back (and spreads) reliably. Not to worry. All our plants should be that tough.

St. Joseph, Mo.: I planted hostas in my front yard, and it was clearly a mistake. They are getting too much sun. They were planted in about April. When can I move them --- now or in the Spring?

Charles Fenyvesi: Nothing worse should happen to you. Hostas are for shade, though not all of them do well in deep shade. You can transplant them in the next few weeks while you see from the dying foliage where they are. You can transplant them next April but then you may cut into the roots and not recognize where they were. I'd say: do it now.

N.Bethesda, MD: Hello Mr. Fenyvesi:

A local tree specialist is advising that I do a deep root fertilization of my mature scarlet oak and red maple trees next spring. I had another tree specialist tell me that mature trees don't need to be fertilized. I am confused. Do you know whether mature trees need to be fertilized?

Charles Fenyvesi: The question reminds me of the contradictory advice doctors give on prostate growth. Well, I'd go with no root fertilization. Mature scarlet oaks and red maples do well in our area, make do in our clay, and they need not be pampered.

Baltimore, MD: Is there any way to predict which tulips are going to come back this year? I had several types, all of which bloomed nicely last year, which was their first year.

Charles Fenyvesi: Tulips not returning is a sensitive subject. I resent the fact that the Dutch have cheerfully sacrificed the perennial strength of many of their new hybrids and invite you to buy the latest variety every fall. "Botanicals" and "Darwins" are among those that will come back, as do most of the old varieties. Next time you talk to your supplier, demand those that come back year after year. The non-returnees are not advertised as such, which is wrong. But if you ask, the supplier ought to tell you the truth.

Ashburn, VA: We have a scruffy fenced-in weedpatch that we'd very much like to turn into a lovely backyard garden. We plan to have a few flowerbeds, a nice stone pathway, and maybe a small patio area in the center, so we can sit and enjoy the view.

I'd really prefer to get rid of the weeds and grasses by a non-chemical method, if possible -- we are right at a corner in our neighborhood, near a common area where folks walk their pets, and children run and play. (Plus, there's all the wild critters in the vicinity, as well as a body of water about two blocks away.)

I've tried hacking up some of the weeds with a hoe -- not just any hoe, mind you, but an Action Hoe! -- but some of these weeds and thicker grasses just sit there and mock my efforts. (I was able to clear out a small area in the corner, and put in a crepe myrtle (well-timed article last week!) and a pair of the new "Encore Azaleas.")

Do you have any advice for getting rid of our unsightly jungle without resorting to chemical warfare? It's not a huge area (about 10' by 25' or so) but still it is a bit large to be yanking out each weed with a trowel ...

Charles Fenyvesi: Roto-till the area several times. It will pulverize your weeds and improve the texture of the soil. If you don't feel up to a killer 8 hp machine, get half that size and do it very slowly, going over the patch six times. Or hire someone whose business is to rototill. After the patch is tilled, you may want to put on top a black plastic weighed down with bricks and keep it there for a few weeks so the sun kills whatever vegetation is left alive underneath.
PS: I agree with your reluctance to use chemicals.

Arlington, VA: I'm planning to transplant some azaleas from the back yard to the front yard (to replace some that died this spring). Would this be a good time to do that or would it be better to wait a few weeks?

Charles Fenyvesi: I'd wait for another week or so -- just in case we have a heatwave that could wilt your plants.

Arlington, Va.: I planted some ajuga years ago to protect the roots of a clematis.
Now much of the ajuga has moved into the lawn.
What's the best way to treat it?

Charles Fenyvesi: A hand spade with a blade six inches long should help you dig up all the roots of the ajuga. Perhaps there is a herbicide that kills only the ajuga, but I doubt if the poison can be that specific. As I recall, ajuga is not very long rooted.

Bowie, Md.: Thanks for taking my question. We just bought our first house -- and have discovered we know NOTHING about caring for our yard.

There are no shrubs in front of the house, and it looks terrible. Instead, we have a line of hosta (with a LOT of room in between plants) and a lot of weeds and grass.

What's the best way to move the hosta and get rid of the weeds? Then, what should be plant under the windows along the front? I'd like something that will stay short and look kind of boxwood-like.

What do you suggest?

Charles Fenyvesi: Put the hostas in the shade in the next few weeks. They are fine plants, and you'll be happy once you save them. Rototill the weedy patches and plant your favorite shrubs this fall. Fall is for planting, but don't wait too long. There are lots of shrubs that look like boxwood. I'd recommend yew or barberry, but there are scores of varieties on the market, and you need to go to a good nursery (call them first and ask them what they have in boxwood lookalikes), look around and make the decision yourself. It's a good way to begin a new garden.

Bethesda, MD: Hi Charles --

I have just moved to an older home in Bethesda and, as a flower gardener, am sad to say I have lots and lots of shade. I do have some dappled sun though.

When plants are designated as "shade tolerant" or "sun to part shade" just how much sun do they want? Does "shade tolerant" mean they'll survive, but never bloom?

Specificaly, just how "shade tolerant" are hydrangeas?


Charles Fenyvesi: Dappled sun is good. Our summers are too hot, and many perennials that require full sun in fact do better in dappled sun or shade. Hydrangeas for instance like morning and evening sun but shade between 11 am and 3 p.m. The same goes for many of the shrubs called "shade tolerant" or "for sun to part shade." As long as they get sun til 11 am and then a bit more in the late afternoon, they will bloom, and they will be healthier than those that get sun all day. Don't be sad about lots of shade. Lovely plants thrive in the shade (and dappled shade) such as for instance hostas, astilbes, sweet woodruff.

Largo Rosemary grower again: I think because of all the rain, the leaves closest to the ground have turned dark and are falling off. If I cut the stems back to a foot (taking off a foot) there won't be any green leaves left.

Still a good idea?

Charles Fenyvesi: You are right. To be on the safe side, leave a few leaves on top.

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