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

The Garden Plot
Hosted by Adrienne Cook
Special to the Washington Post

Thursday, Nov. 16, 2000; 11 a.m. EDT

Whether you remember her as the "Backyard Gardener" or know her as the "Gourmet Gardener," Post columnist Adrienne Cook is one of the area's authorities on organic horticulture. Cook will be online to field all questions, concerns and comments regarding gardening.

A self-proclaimed "practical gardener," Cook's love for horticulture stems from her roots, starting with a grandfather who bred day lilies and camellias. An organic gardener, Cook has been putting her heart and soul into the soil for 30 years. In her job as a Post columnist, Cook has been offering "real and simple solutions for basic problems" for the past 20 years. Practicing what she preaches, Cook balances her time between her numerous backyard projects, including a batch of perennials, fruit trees, a cut-flower garden and a burgeoning green house. Currently she is growing apples, cherries, apricots and various berries, but her favorites are the veggies: peas, tomatoes and herbs.

Over the years Cook has contributed her green-thumb knowledge to several publications, including Organic Gardening, Good Housekeeping, Southern Accents and Fine Gardening.

Below is today's transcript.

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.


Alexandria, VA: Ms. Cook, thanks for taking my question. I am new to the whole gardening/house plant thing and am trying to keep a weeping ficus alive in my living room. It receives indirect afternoon sun and I have kept it in it's original 10" container due to the garden center's advice that these trees like to be root bound. I water it sparingly, about twice a week. The problem is that it won't stop dropping its leaves. Do I need to do something different or is this just normal? I've had the tree for about a month now.

Adrienne Cook: It is not uncommon for ficus to drop leaves in the first weeks after it has been relocated. In fact, I would say that it's very common. It's too bad nurseries and garden stores don't tell customers that ebcuase it is a very frequently asked question once the tree has been in its new home for a couple of weeks! It is not, however,"normal" in the sense that it SHOULD happen. What you are doing right now -- the adepquate light, watering, leaving the plant in its existing pot -- is about as much as you can do to acclimate your ficus to its new environment. The leaves will continue to drop, you can almost bank on that. However, eventually that will stop -- maybe once the tree is denuded, maybe before. Then new growth will begin and it should develop into a lush plant, fully acclimated this time, to an environment that was undoubtedly very different when its current crop of leaves developed. To stem the leaf drop a bit, try misting the foliage daily -- a greenhouse has a much higher humidity level than most homes. Once the tree has developed its new leaves, consider repotting it, but wait until spring, when you will be able to do this messy job outdoors and even leave the ficus outside on balmy days to enjoy the soft breezes and extended natural light.


Adrienne Cook: All bulbs should go in be Thanksgiving. Any late bulbs hanging around now should be put in the ground. Tulip bulbs actually do best when planted early -- even September. You can get away with leaving daffodil bulbs to the end, but after Thanskgiving it gets a little iffy as to whether you'll see much bloom from bulbs that don't get a really good chance to estalish roots before the ground freezes.


Adrienne Cook: This is a great time of the year to be refurbishing asparagus beds. Clip off all yellowing foliage from the asparagus plants; weed carfeully, digging perennial weeds up from the roots so they do not get a chance to reestbalsih themselves early in the spring. Like all perennials, weeds experience strong root growth during the winter, even when the foliage is not visible. Add a four-inch layer of compost to the asparagus bed, working it in gently around crowns -- the tops of asparagus plants. Then cover the entire bed with another six inches of organic mulch -- straw or leaves. Asparagus thrive with the addition of organic materials. The pay-off next spring in fatter and more numerous asparagus is worth the extra effort now.


Washington, DC: A teenager in an SUV drove onto our lawn, sideswiped a large old oak tree, and crushed two yew bushes (and left broken glass all over our yard). We are waiting for the insurance estimates, but is it going to be too late to plant new bushes? Will our tree survive? (there is a one foot diameter section where all of the bark is gone, and the bark is scraped and partially gone over a six-foot area).

Adrienne Cook: Get an arborist in as soon as you can. Go to a reliable certified arborist; you can get a list of names from the D.C. extension service (listed in the blue pages) or go out of D.C. and call Fairfax or Montgomery or PG County Extension Services to get names. Another source would be the National Arboretum, which won't send soemone out, but may be able to give you a listing of certified arborists on your area. It's not too late to plant new yews; the only issue is whether you will be able to locate some good speicmen plants at this time of the year, when many nurseries are beginning to shut down for the winter. Ask you insurance estimator to cover the costs of getting a consultant in who can help you identify what kinds of ywes and some possible replacement. And I'll keep my own teenager out of our SUV for the time being!


Arlington, VA: Are four o'clocks perennials? Will they come up next year on their own without replanting?

Adrienne Cook: They're not perennials but they reseed lavishly, so you should see plenty of new plants coming up next spring.


A Non-Gardener Searching for a Plant ID: Hi! There is large (SUV-size!) shrub in my neighborhood with glossy dark leaves and tiny, nearly-invisible white flowers. On warm autumn evenings it gives off a very intense and lovely fragrance...familiar, but one I can't put my finger on. What is this plant?

Adrienne Cook: I'm guessing night-blooming jasmine? These can get quite large, although if it's planted in the ground, that would be quite the event, since jasmine are tropical plants. The description certainly fits night-blooming jasmine, however.


DC: I planted a Japanese Maple this past weekend in 18 cubic feet of fresh dirt in a new planter in my backyard. Is there anything else I need to do it? How often should I water it?

Adrienne Cook: Sounds great! Water it each week we don't get rain. Water should be seeped in slowly over about 15 or 20 minutes to really soak in.


DC: Will you do a special on trees for the holiday?

Adrienne Cook: Good idea -- I'll pass it along.


Springfield, VA: I want to bring my houseplants that have spent the summer outdoors back inside but how do I rid them of ants and other crawly things that have taken up residence in the pots? Help!

Adrienne Cook: I always like to repot all my outdoor/indoor plants anyway. Besides, that's probably the only way you'll get rid of ants. Other crawly things might inlcude such beneficial critters as worms, and they'll be happier in a larger container with fresh soil too, so go for it. Do your repotting outdoors before you bring them in so you don't have to so as much cleaning up. Use sommercial potting soil, that way you'll have a clean product to bring into the house. Add a houseplant fertilizer to your water when you water the plants, or use kelp or another liquid organic fertilizer. Cut recommended strength back to half for the first several waterings, until February, then go full strenth to stimulate spring growth.


Washington, DC: Hi - I was wondering, does hanging ivy and an aloe vera plant need to come in for the winter?

Adrienne Cook: Probably. Certainly the aloe, but the ivy could be almost anything. Most hanging baskets with green foliage (no flowers) are designed as indoor plants, however, and should be brought in so they are not killed by frost.


Rockville, MD: How late can I wait to double dig a veg. bed? I still have fall crops (mustard, salad greens, chard) in there and would like to wait till they are played out. Thanks

Adrienne Cook: Your mustard and salad greens could carry you through much of December. It's never "too late" or "too early" to prepare your vegetable; only frozen or dry ground will prevent you from making any progress, no matter what time of the year. Get as much dug as you can, leaving the greens alone, and tackle the remainder in February or on a sunny bright day in January; we have our share of those!


Very Late! - sorrry: Is there anything "green" or garden friendly to do with pine cones? This year, I've got tons of them in my yard and I've been collecting them in a box when I mow the lawn or rake the leaves. It seems like a waste (and a shame) just to throw them out. What should I do? Compost? Decorate? How?

Thanks!

Adrienne Cook: Do you have a fireplace? They make great kindling and the ashes can be used in all sorts of ways in the garden -- soil improvement, pest control, "salting" icy driveways. If not, pile them in a corner of your garden and permit them to decompose; eventually, they will become a fine mulch.


Alexandria, Va: What are your favorite tomatoes?

Adrienne Cook: Wow. What a great question. I was just thinking last night, as I was picking the last of my summer tomatoes, that Fourth of July this year has been grand, probably becuase it's bred to produce in cool weather and it sure went all out this summer. Other favorites, like Watermelon Beefsteak and Big Beef and Park's Whopper did far less well, thanks to the cool summer, I'm sure. These are all great in hot summers, however. Lemon Boy is another RELIABLE producer of the most attractive lemon-yellow fruit, never quits. Sweet Chelsea, a cherry tomato; Red Currant, which is pretty much what its name implies -- very spweet. Ponderosa Pink, Belgium Pink, Evergreen, although that one never seems to produce more than a couple of ripe tomatoes before it gets hit with wilt -- but, boy, are they good. Super Roma and San Matea and Italian Sausage for sauces. I wish I could grow 100 varieties!


Reading, PA: Adrienne:

RE: The person bringing her plants in from the outside. Set the pots in a bucket of tepid water so the water is over the top of the pot and let the plant sit in there for about 15 minutes. Anything living has to breathe, so they will either suffocate or come to the surface where they may be picked-off. Dress the top of the pot with new soil so it looks nice. This top dressing also gets rid of the fertilizer-encrusted top layer that is detrimental to the plant. I did this procedure with my orchids (over 60). It took awhile, but the crawlies were incredible!

Adrienne Cook: Good advice!


Alexandria, VA: I want to plant bulbs in my front yard. My husband and I just moved into our first home, and the soil is awful!! Any suggestions as to what we need to add to amend the soil?

Also, what zone are we in?

Thanks!

Adrienne Cook: Alexandria is Zone 7. Get the soil tested before you do anything; the Alexandria Extension Service or Arlington or Fairfax County Extension service does this. I'm curious about how "awful" the soil is -- red clay is difficult to work but it's basically good soil that just needs organic matter to make it more loamy and drain better. Bulbs do fine in it, though. Can you describe?


D.C.: I'd like to plant several different fruit trees and several different berry bushes in my new yard, which gets a variety of indirect and direct sunlight. Any thoughts on which fruit trees to plant? Which (and how much space for) berries to grow? Other thoughts? Thanks so much.

Adrienne Cook: Start small -- small trees, and only very few. Try rspberries first, since they grow well in sun and shade. A dozen or so of these plants should give you agood start. Alpine strawberries also tolerate shade; you can find plants in the spring at large nurseries or plant centers. Figs are another good choice, but they should get more sun than shade. Nearly all fruit trees -- apples, cherries, pears, plums, peaches, etc. -- need sun and plenty of it. You could try soem dwarf varieties in large containers that can be wheeled into sunlight from season to season. Edible Landscaping in Ashton VA has the best selction of fruit trees and shrubs for difficult or challenging environmental conditions. They have a website and a phone # from Dir. Assistance.


Alexandria, VA: Good morning. Do you have any suggestions for helping a jasmine plant through the winter? It was in terrible shape until I put it outside this summer. It bloomed two or three times while it was outside. Should I expect it to bloom this winter?

Adrienne Cook: Cut it back severely -- by two-thirds; take it out of the pot and check the roots. If they are circling around each other, it's time to repot. If not, leave the plant in its container. Bring it in, mist it daily, keep it watered. It will lose some of its foliage but eventually it will acclimate itself as long as it gets enough light; place it in a window. It should bloom again indoors. What a lovely scent it has!


N.Bethesda, MD: I have tall scarlet oak and a red maple in a corner of my lot. We were contemplating installing a patio in that corner, but I am afraid that a slab of concrete for a patio will hurt the root systems for the trees. Any suggestions?

Adrienne Cook: I would check with a certified arborist before putting concret over the roots. For one thing, the roots may win out in the long run and spoil your patio. Maple generally can be "tamed" with laying bricks down on surface roots and they do fine and do not lift the patio concrete. I'm less sure of oak; that's where an arborist willbe best able to help you. Consider putting down wood decking, raised a little, above the roots so they can still breathe and won't grow into your patio.


Bad Soil in Alexandria: We live in a new development, and we dug a few test holes to find lots of rocks, bricks, etc. Our soil is very clay-y, but not very red. Does this help?

Thanks for the zone information.

Adrienne Cook: Oh. Yes, that kind of soil. That's the worst. I'd forget it and put raised beds on top of it, rather than trying to get rid of the massive amount of debris that is probably in your soil; there should be a law agaisnt builders doing that. You really can't do much planting in ground itself until you get rid of all the stones and bricks, and that could take years. If you decide to try that route, at the same time, keep adding organic matter -- ground up leaves, grass clippings, compost, to the soil. Again, it may take a couple of years before you can declare it ready for planting. In the meantime, start some rasied beds on the surface of your awful soil, ignoring what's below. Frame the beds so the soil level inside the beds themselves is about six to eight inches deed. That will do for most annuals. For bulbs and perennilas, however, you should build it up to 12 to 18 inches. Good luck!


Alexandria, VA: Thanks for answering my tomato question. You named tomatoes I've never heard of! I tried three this summer - Celebrity, Big Boy and one that the woman at the garden center talked me into, Brandywine maybe? I think she said it was an heirloom tomato? Anyway, all three did real well but I thought the Big Boy and Brandywine tasted better than the Celebrity. I was surprised I had such good luck given my inexperience and the cool summer we had. Do you ever eat store-bought tomatoes? I don't think I'll buy another one after eating the ones out of my garden.

Adrienne Cook: Brandywine is a fine, fine tomato! I'm not partial to celebrity, liked it the first year it came out, an AAS winner, incidently, but then kept finding other varieties I liked better. Occasionally I'll break down and get a mealy tomato in January or February, but, mostly I rely on canned ones.

Thanks for all the great questions -- gotta go get in my green tomaoes before it rains. Next week, same time, different host -- I think it's Adrian Higgins




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