Frequently Asked Questions

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From Taylor's Guide to Perennials by Barbara Ellis

Q: How do I choose which perennials to plant in my yard or garden?
A: When selecting plants to grow, use your garden's sun, soil, and weather conditions to guide your choices. Plants selected because they will thrive in the conditions available in your yard inevitably will perform better. Make a list of these plants to bring to the local garden center so that you don't get tempted by choices not suitable for your garden. If shopping early in the season, you may find that the plants are quite small. You should be able to see shoots coming up or a healthy crown with sprouting buds. Later in the season, container-grown perennials should be lush and full, again with healthy-colored leaves that show no evidence of scorched or brown leaf edges or signs of disease, such as black or brown spots or moldy or powdery patches. Be sure to set your plants in a cool, shady, protected site until you're ready to move them to the garden.

Q: What are plant hardiness zones and how should I use that information?
A: The USDA plant hardiness zones range from zone 1, the coldest, to zone 11, the warmest. Zone maps often provide the easiest method to figuring out which zone your property falls into. A good guide to perennials will list the zone range each species can tolerate. Planting species suitable for your zone will lead to the best results in your garden.

Q: Why is dividing perennials beneficial to propagating them?
A: Division is both a propagation technique and a technique used to rejuvenate perennials or control their spread. Good candidates for division include clumps that have died out or become woody in the center, ones that are overcrowded and blooming less, and plants that have spread too far and are threatening to overtake their neighbors. Cool, rainy, or overcast weather is best for dividing plants because it reduces stress on the plants. Dividing a clump of perennials yields exact replicas of the parent plant, and full-size plants result much faster than propagating the plants from seeds.

Q: What is "deadheading" and why should I do it?
A: Deadheading is a simple technique that involves removing flowers after they have faded either by pinching them off between your thumb and forefinger or by clipping them off with pruning shears. Deadheading prevents plants from spending energy to set seed and directs that energy to overall growth. It also encourages plants to rebloom later in the season and keeps your garden looking neat.

From Taylor's Guide to Annuals by Barbara Ellis

Q: What is the difference between annuals and perennials?
A: While a perennial lives for three or more years, annuals germinate, flower, set seed, and die within a single season, but gardeners use the term in a more general way. For them, annuals are plants that grace the garden for a single season and are killed by frost in the fall (whether they set seed or not). The term "tender perennial" describes a plant that would normally be a perennial but is killed by freezing temperatures at the end of the season.

Q: What types of annuals should I grow if I live in a cool weather zone?
A: Hardy or half-hardy annuals, depending on how much frost they will tolerate, thrive in cool conditions. In areas with cool summers — the Pacific Northwest, New England, mountainous areas, or more northerly areas, such as zone 4 and north — they can last the entire summer. Pansies, sweet peas, larkspur, and pot marigolds are popular cool-weather annuals.

Q: How do I know when to plant certain annuals?
A: You'll need to know the last spring and the first fall frost dates for your area. Most annuals, biennials, and tender perennials are sown in relation to the date of the average last spring frost. To determine the optimum scheduling of plantings and to find out the best way to grow specific plants in your region, ask your local Cooperative Extension agent or experts at a local public garden or garden center. Watching public plantings sometimes works, too. If gardeners display beds of pansies in the fall in your city, for example, it's a good bet you can do likewise.

Q: What are the advantages to sowing seeds indoors?
A: Not only does sowing seeds indoors give you a jump on the season over direct-sown seeds, it also makes it easier to control their environment and provide ideal germination conditions, such as just the right amount of soil moisture. Using clean containers and special germination mediums reduces pest and disease problems as well.

Q: What are the benefits of watering indoor-planted seedlings from below rather than from the top?
A: Watering from below takes a little more time than top watering, but it's worth it. You won't have to worry about washing out the seeds or knocking over the seedlings, and the mix will stay evenly moist, promoting good root growth. Also, watering from below helps prevent damping off, a fungal disease that rots the stems right at the soil line. To water from below, set the pots in a pan filled with an inch or so of room-temperature water — capillary action will draw the water up through the mix. Just allow the top of the mix to dry slightly between waterings.

Q: How can I attract butterflies to my garden?
A: Successful butterfly gardens must take into account location as well as the types of plants and flowers sown. Start with a sunny spot protected from prevailing winds — a barrier of trees and shrubs is ideal for giving butterflies a relatively windless space where they can fly without being buffeted about. You should include nectar plants (flowers) for adult butterflies as well as food to feed caterpillars (the larvae). Marigolds, sunflowers, and zinnias are just three of the many annuals, biennials, and tender perennials that will attract butterflies. Annuals help ensure a steady supply of nectar all summer long and let you plant an "instant" garden. A mixture of trees, shrubs, and vines are very important plants for larvae. Willows, aspens, and poplars host the larvae of several species of butterfly. The more variety of butterfly-attracting plants you include, the more of these winged beauties you'll see in your garden.

From Taylor's Guide to Shade Gardening, edited by Frances Tenenbaum

Q: What do I need to know if I want to plant a shaded garden?
A: Several time-honored categories differentiate in the broadest terms the type of shade a given area receives: part, light, full, and dense. Assigning your beds and borders these labels (if necessary) can be very helpful in the development of a successful garden. Part shade makes for the sunniest sort of shade garden, an area that alternates between full sun and full shade. The yard that receives morning light and afternoon shade allows for a wealth of plants. Light shade, also called dappled or moving shade, lies between part shade and full shade. Here the sun never seems far away and in fact is not so much blocked as it is filtered (by a deciduous tree, for example). Choice ground-covers, ferns, and woodland wildflowers will flourish in this environment. Full shade suggests a garden that is nearly always in substantial shade during the growing season. Ferns, broad-leaved evergreens, a range of ground-covers and foliage plants, and an assortment of flowers thrive in these conditions. Dense shade challenges the most experienced gardener, often because the impediment to gardening in the shade is not the lack of light but the lack of moisture, types of trees present (evergreen, black maple), and soil quality. Look to plants like English ivy, pachysandra, goutweed, and lilies of the valley when planting in dense shade conditions.

From Wildflowers by William Cullina

Q: Many native plants and wildflowers grow near my property. Should I transplant a few of them to my garden?
A: Unfortunately, unrestrained plant collecting has devastated populations of certain vulnerable ferns, club mosses, and woodland flowers. The New England Wildflower Society does not condone any wild collecting of plants or plant parts with the exception of seeds. If an occasional person dug up a few plants of some fairly common plant, the effect would be negligible, but wildflowers are too popular. Certainly, the vast majority of plants sold today are grown from seed or cuttings, or divisions of nursery stock, but it is the slow-growing woodland and bulbous species that are at once especially vulnerable and still harvested in unconscionable high numbers. These include many of the lilies, lady's slipper, and bluebells, to name a few. When buying woodland wildflowers, ask your supplier about their source. If your supplier is unsure, or the price seems too good to be true, look somewhere else.

Q: What are the benefits of growing native plants?
A: One of the many advantages of growing native plants is that you can choose plants that are appealing and adapted to the climate and soils of the region in which you live. Plants live under the restraints of their environment just as we all do. The important limiting factors for plant life are the availability and quality of light, soil (which includes structure, fertility, and moisture-holding capacity), water, and temperature. Discovering which plants are natural to your area is a good way to avoid the expense and trouble of attempting to grow plants that require certain conditions of soil, moisture, and temperature that are not natural to your garden.

From Taylor's Weekend Gardening Guide to Indoor Gardens by Tovah Martin

Q: I live in an apartment. Will placing a plant in front of a window give it enough light?
A: Since all plants need differing amounts of sunlight, it's important to figure out which directions your windows face. Generally, south-facing windows get the most light, while east- and west-facing windows receive only about half a day of direct light. North-facing windows receive the least light, so it is advised to select plants that prefer low light for these spaces. These are general guidelines for window lighting, so be sure to take into consideration windows that are obstructed by tree shade or outdoor foliage, neighboring buildings, or porch overhangs before choosing plants.

Q: What should I know before selecting a houseplant?
A: Before you select a plant, consider where you plan to place it, how warm the location will be, and how often you can take the time to visit it with a watering pot.

Q: How can I tell if a houseplant I'm about to buy is unhealthy?
A: Always survey the greenhouse or garden center for general overall health of plants in residence. Do you see bugs flitting around? Are the plants wilted, sunburned (leaves show white spots), or otherwise stressed? If the place doesn't have a healthy appearance, go no further. Leave empty-handed. Even if a greenhouse has a healthy appearance, look at a plant closely before you buy it. First of all, look for insects. Examine soft tips of new growth and the leaf petioles for aphids. Turn the leaves upside down and examine the undersides for other types of insects.

Inspecting plants for disease is also important. Rotting stems and mottled foliage are never good signs. Avoid plants with ringlike markings — either concentric circles or round discolored spots. Yellowed leaves are also reason for concern since they indicate stress.

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