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Gary's Garden Blog

Gary Garner



Garden news, thoughts, tips, musings, rumors, gossip and occasional good advice
from Gary Garner, the Guru of Grass.




Organic versus is not as simple or as easy as many people think.  Clearing out chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides from the garage or tool shed does not make what you grow organic nor does it necessarily make it healthy.

I thought I might put together a little information about organic gardening that you might not know.  It could save you money, toil and trouble.

  1. Organic gardening costs more than traditional gardening. I think that myth starts with the price of organic produce versus regular produce.  An organic garden should cost no more than a conventional garden.  You may get some what less yield in an organic garden and you may have to put in more time in the garden.  Commercial products become more expensive all the time mostly due to governmental regulations. A commercial pesticide may require more testing and government oversight that a new medicine.
  2. Lower N-P-K numbers on organics does not necessarily mean more should be applied. Organic fertilizers are made from different materials than synthetic fertilizers.  Organics are meant to be used more sparingly.  For example, if you apply to much nitrogen you get lots of leaf/green growth and not much fruit.  Plants don’t grow and bloom and fruit at the same time.  We had customers coming in the store bragging about how their tomatoes were growing but they were not blooming or setting fruit.  We would find out they were fertilizing weekly and watering every other day.  The plants were so busy growing they didn’t have time to bloom or set fruit.  Both or organic and regular fertilizers are tested for the right amounts to apply for a particular crop.  READ AND FOLLOW THE LABEL.
  3. Tilling the soil every year improves the soil. Farmers have found out in recent years that this may do more damage to soil health than good.  You can save a lot of back aches, gas, etc. by doing away with this practice.  No till practices allow beneficial microorganisms and fungi to colonize in your soil.  In turn they feed your soil and plants.  Let it be.
  4. Composted manure is good for your garden. This is true only if it comes from an organic farm.  Farmers may use persistent herbicides to control weeds.  Some of these herbicides can go through the animal, without harm I may add, and into its manure.
  5. A cold hardy plant will eventually adapt to a warmer growing zone. Not true and neither will a warm season plant adapt to a colder growing zone.  Choose plants that are right for your growing zone.
  6. Organic pesticides are non-toxic. Not necessarily true.  While they may not contain synthetic chemicals, they can still be toxic.  Pyrethrum, for example. Is made from mums.  To many people they are a skin irritant.  Sprays made with nicotine, warfarin, and rotenone may all be harmful to pets and humans.  Many organic pesticides and repellants may be harmful to bees.  You should read and abide by the label on an organic product just as you would on a chemical pesticide.
  7. An organic label means its organic. Just because its grown without pesticides does not make it organic.  USDA standards have to be met.  This demands that an item is “protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.”  It will also carry the USDA ORGANIC seal.  Any food labeled organic must be GMO free.

Just a few tips to help you get what you think you are getting.  I think common sense will be all that’s in most instances.  As I have said before I am not an organic or GMO advocate.  I leave that decision up to the individual.  There is a lot of information out there on both subjects some accurate, some not so accurate and some blatant falsehood, in my opinion.


If you need a speaker for your club or group, this spring I am available.  Fee is $50 plus expenses.  I may be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 434-941-1701.

Soil pH - March 26th, 2019


Soil pH simply refers to the measured level of acidity or alkalinity in your soil.  The pH level tells you if you need lime, or if you have applied to much lime.

The pH scale is set at a scale of 1.0 to 14.0 with the neutral point being 7.0.  If the pH is higher than 7.0 then the soil is considered to be alkaline.  If it is lower than 7.0 it is acidic.

Knowing the pH of your soil is very important because various plants grow best at different levels of ph.  For example, most lawn grasses perform best with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0, while azaleas and dogwood like a pH in the range of 5.0 to no more than 6.0.  When liming your lawn, you always want to try and keep the lime in the grass and out of your beds and away from tree roots if possible.

The soil pH greatly affects how much use your plants get out of the nutrients you apply.  If the pH of your lawn is low say 5.5 the plant cannot absorb the fertilizer into the roots.  You would only get usage of a portion of the fertilizer.

For a nice lawn I want my lawn pH to be somewhere between 6.0 and 7.0, no higher.  For my shrub and tree borders I try to keep the pH in the vicinity of 5.0 and 6.0.  For vegetable gardens 6.0 seems to work pretty well.

Ideally the soil pH should be tested about every four years.  You can buy testers at most hardware stores or garden centers.  They are not perfect, but they give you enough information to keep your lawn in good shape.  The lab tests that you pay for are not perfect either.  I could tell a few stories about lab tests but maybe not here and not in print.

Short of testing the soil there are some eye tests that work pretty well.  If your lawn is off color, especially in the spring, you may need lime.  If weeds are growing better than your grass, you may need lime.  Weeds like a lower pH than does grass.  If broom straw appears in your lawn you need lime.

In our red clay soils an application of 15 to 20 pounds of lime per 1000 sq. ft. of lawn area per year would probably keep your lawn in good shape.   If the pH is over 7.0 there are products you can buy, ask at your local hardware or garden center, to lower the pH.  Let me add to that in 40 years of dealing with lawns in Central Virginia I don’t ever remember seeing a lawn that was over limed.  That would be hard to do with our clay soils.

Last but not least, if you need a speaker for your club or group this spring I am available.  Fees start at $50 plus expenses.  I may be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 434-941-1701 for spring scheduling.

Rose Planting Time (Maybe) - February 27th




Many stores in the area either have roses in stock or will have them in stock soon.  Some box stores have had roses on display for several roses.  Stores that have rose inventory naturally say go ahead and plant.  Roses in pots ready to plant or bareroot roses not showing new growth are fine to plant now.  If the plant is showing tender new growth you had better think twice before planting.

If the plant has new growth beginning to show even a light frost will burn and kill that new growth and likely damage the plant. A cool wind will also damage or kill the new growth and may burn the tips of limbs.

Personally, I would not plant a rose that was showing new growth before I was sure there would not be a late frost.  This means I would not plant before very late April or early May.  Mother Nature can be fickle in central Virginia.

Now, on the other hand, if there was a particular variety or pretty rose that I wanted I would buy it early and bring it home and keep it protected until I thought it was safe to plant out.  The best plants sell out early.

There are a number of things to consider when buying a rose.  Do you want a climber, fragrance, lots of bloom, bloom size or a compact plant?  Here is a list of the different roses and some basic differences to help you choose the type that fits your garden needs.

CLIMBERS: Vigorous, sprawling plants that are usually supported by an arbor, fence or trellis in order to remain upright.

FLORIBUNDAS: Free-bloomers that flower heavily.  Flowers usually appear in large clusters.  One of the best roses for landscaping.

GRANDIFLORAS: Vigorous bushes that produce large nicely formed flowers usually in clusters rather than one to a stem.  ‘Queen Elizabeth’ is a classic example.

HYBRID TEA: The most popular type of rose bush.  Produces beautiful long-stemmed flowers that are ideal for cutting.

MINATURE: Small in leaf and stature.  Big in the amount of bloom.  May grow anywhere from 4 to 36 inches high but make great landscape plants.  They are great in edgings or in containers.

OLD GARDEN AND SPECIES ROSES (ANTIQUE ROSES): A huge group of roses that vary in plant habit and flower type.  Many of them bloom only once a year.  Many have fragrant and/or uniquely formed flowers.

POLYANTHAS: Small, compact shrubs producing large clusters of flowers.  Good landscape plants.

By picking the right plant for your location and need you should get many years of enjoyment out of your rose.  Plant in a sunny location in well drained soil, water though the first growing season, add a little fertilizer and your plant should be happy.

As always if you need help or have questions and the personnel at the store where you are buying cant answer your questions satisfactorily, BUY SOMEWHERE ELSE.




I started to write todays blog discussing the pros and cons of organic food versus inorganic food.  I soon found that subject to be entirely to complicated for this column.  I determined that just because something is labeled organic does not necessarily make it so and because it is inorganic does not make it harmful.

For example, salt in its pure state cannot be labeled organic.  There are some elements in it that don’t meet the criteria for organic.  If you bottled the air we are breathing, it would not meet organic criteria.  I went to our pantry and looked at cooking sprays, vegetable oils, many kinds of spices and so on without finding anything organic.

To be fair, I think most of you know that I am not an advocate of either organics or non gmo products.  I have been involved in the manufacture of organic fertilizers, sold both regular fertilizer and organics and both gmo and non gmo seed.  The more I learn about organics and gmo products the less faith I have in them.

With that said I try to stay out of arguments about the merits of either.  If you believe and are willing to pay the price go for it.  I would say that you would be well advised to spend an hour or so googling organic vs inorganic and reading both sides of the story.  As with all things there are two sides to the story.

Just to let you know plain old 10-10-10 fertilizer, the nitrogen is basically extracted from the air you are breathing, the potassium and potash are mined from the ground.  Just saying.

After finding how complicated the above subject was I decided to write on good bugs versus bad bugs.  Woe is me that was just as complicated as the above subject if not more so.  I found out that some bad bugs may at times be good bugs.  I also know that it is extremely hard to control bad bugs without harming good bugs.

Only about 5 per cent of bugs, worms and insects are harmful.  Now the other 95 per cent are not all good.  Some are just around.  They really neither harmful or particularly beneficial.

A good example is the stink bug which we have seen and heard a lot about over the last few years.  They don’t eat any plant material to my knowledge.  They don’t bite or sting.  They are really not nasty at least they don’t leave a mess behind.  They do smell bad.  Yet none of us want them in our house or on our bodies.

Caterpillars can do a lot of damage in a short period of time.  A horned worm can eat much of a tomato plant in a day.  Yet they soon turn into beautiful butterflies.  We want to kill them when they are on our tomato plants, we want to protect them and even feed them when they are butterflies.

Some of the beneficial insects will help to control the bad bugs.  Trying to control the bad guys gets to be a tough decision and I am not going to try to offer a solution here.

I believe that pesticides, (chemicals) have their place.  Read the label, use according to the label they work and do little or no harm.  Don’t take the recommendation of a friend or neighbor or me for that matter, find out for yourself.

Other people would not go near their garden or food with a pesticide.  That’s fine.  You have to figure out for yourself how to manage the problems in your garden and landscape.

So today I have written a lot and said very little.  Some of these things I will address more specifically during the season.  Others may not get answered.

As always if you have a question or topic you would like for me to discuss let me know.  I will see what I can do.

February To Do List



I was just thinking of some of the tasks that should be done sometime by the end of February.  It kind of scares me when I look at the list I came up with.  Not all of us will have all of them to accomplish, but we will all have enough to keep us busy, I’m sure.

Let’s start with lawns.

  1. Watch out for cool season weeds.  Chickweed, henbit. If temps are above 40 degrees treat with a post-emergent herbicide.
  2. Make certain mowers, string trimmers and other power equipment are in good running order.  Sharpen blades and repair or replace damaged equipment.
  3. Try to stay off frozen grass.

Now we can look at houseplants

  1. Make sure houseplants are out of drafts and not touching cold windows.
  2. Keep plenty of humidity around tropicals.
  3. Water regularly and reduce feeding.
  4. Prune if needed.

Flowers and Perennials

  1. Cut back ornamental grasses to 6-8 inches.
  2. Cut back liriope to make room for new growth.
  3. Cut back flowering vines.
  4. Apply a light application of 10-10-10 fertilizer to bulbs when shoots emerge.
  5. Plant bare root roses.

Trees and shrubs

  1. Prune roses as soon as the buds begin to swell.
  2. Prune trees and shrubs of any ice or snow damage.
  3. Trees and shrubs can be planted anytime.
  4. Now is a good time to prune most trees and shrubs.  The exception being anything blooming in the spring.  Prune spring bloomers as soon as they finish blooming.
  5. Don’t fertilize shrubs until you see new growth starting to emerge.

Vegetables, herbs and fruits

  1. Prune dormant fruit trees and grape vines.
  2. Replace the top inch or so of container soil with fresh compost.
  3. Apply dormant oil spray to fruit trees before new growth emerges.
  4. Prepare the vegetable garden.
  5. Start your vegetable seed indoors.
  6. Plant cold hardy plants like sugar snap peas and onion sets.

Miscellaneous, cleanup and maintenance

  1. Do not use salt on walks and driveways.
  2. Don’t forget to water.
  3. Turn your compost pile on a nice sunny day.
  4. Make out a garden calendar.
  5. Place orders for seeds and plants.
  6. Mulch flower and shrub beds.  Edge beds.
  7. Plan your vegetable garden and flower and shrub beds.  This will save you a lot of money.  People that came in our store without a plan spent a lot more than people with a plan.

This is probably not a complete list but it’s a start.  You will think of things I missed and won’t need to do some I listed.

Hydrangeas: Plant-Grow-Prune February 1st, 2019



This blog may be a little ahead of the season, but I recently got in a discussion with some ladies concerning their hydrangeas.  Most of it concerned their hydrangeas not blooming.  There are a lot of reasons why the plants did not bloom at all or only bloomed lightly.  I will get into this problem a little later.

Hydrangeas can be beautiful plants and may be used in many different ways.  They do well in containers, make excellent border plants and can be used as a single planting for a focus point.  Nothing is prettier than a hydrangea in full bloom.

Much of the research I saw talked about how easy they are to grow and how well they perform. Maybe that I am the wrong one to write this article because I have never had good luck with them.  I am going to try a couple this summer and see if they do better for me this time around.

Hydrangeas tend to do best planted in rich porous, somewhat moist soil.  Most prefer full morning sun with partial afternoon shade.  Big leaf hydrangeas tend to do well even in all day light shade.

There are several different kinds of hydrangeas.  I am not going to get into all the botanical names here.  I think for the purpose of this article all we need to look at is the fact that some types bloom on old wood and some bloom on new wood.  If your plant is very old it likely blooms on old wood, but not necessarily.

Pruning hydrangeas can be confusing.  The most common varieties are the bigleaf hydrangeas and oakleaf varieties.  These bloom on the previous stems or old wood.  Flower buds form in late summer and bloom the following spring.  They should not be pruned after August 1.

If you have a plant that’s old, damaged or has been neglected prune it all the way to the base.  You will miss next seasons bloom but that’s a start to rejuvenate the plant for future enjoyment.

Plants that bloom on new wood should be pruned hard on a yearly basis.  Make sure you prune before the new flower buds are formed.

Hydrangeas benefit from fertilization once or twice in the spring.  Being heavy bloomers mean they need plenty of food.  Remember, blooming to a plant is akin to childbirth to a woman.

Established plants should not need to be watered.  The roots are deep enough and spread out enough that they can obtain enough water out of the soil.

A large hydrangea in full bloom can hold a tremendous amount of water in a heavy rain.  It may hold several gallons of water.  This causes the plants to bend and sometimes they don’t come back during that season.

Some blue or pink hydrangeas can be made to change color.  The variety nikko blue being a good example.  If its blue and you want to change it to pink simply apply lime around the roots and it will soon change to pink.  If its pink you can make it turn blue by adding an acid forming product to the soil.  Not all pinks or blues will change colors but there are several that will.  That information should be on the plant tag.

The most common reasons for hydrangeas not blooming are to much sun or to much shade, incorrect pruning or plain old neglect.  The last being the hardest to correct.  Also, remember that plants have a life span just as you and I do.  A 20 to 30 year old hydrangea, that’s been neglected is going to be very difficult to restore to full glory.

I hope this helps a little.  A full discussion on hydrangeas would take a lot more time and space than I have here.

If you have questions on other subjects I would love to hear from you.

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