December 2014
How's Your Garden?

How's Your Garden?

Your favorite gardener would love to have a special handmade sign like this – a great idea for a Christmas gift this year.  

Recognize a Special Gardener

The gardener in your life who doesn’t really need anything for Christmas might enjoy an official accolade for the garden. This little sign was spotted at the community garden in Ocean Beach, Calif., where there are many plots managed by a multitude of folks. Made of wood and hand painted, this is an idea that you can create in your own style or in the taste of your own Gardener of the Year. Whoever the gardener in your life is, he or she would probably be as proud of the sign as the plants in the garden!

Spray Fruit Trees Now for Fewer Pests Later

Disease and insect problems of deciduous garden fruit trees such as peaches, pears and apples may be hiding on your trees waiting for spring and summer to make their appearance. However, you can thwart or delay them by applying certain sprays in the winter to kill their overwintering forms. There are typically two products you can apply at the same time. Dormant oil (horticultural oil, Volck oil) controls insects such as aphids, thrips and mites by killing all stages of the pests, including the eggs, which often overwinter in the crevices of the bark. Another product, lime-sulfur, helps knock back the overwintering spores of diseases such as peach leaf curl and fire blight. Both of these products meet national organic standards. Copper sprays are used to combat disease, too, but these sprays can’t be combined with the dormant oils; spray them separately at another time. Ideally, the first spray was done after the trees dropped all their leaves in late fall. It’s too late for that one, but, no problem, you have two more chances at the pests. The second spray is around the New Year, and the third, just before the trees start to bud, which would make Valentine’s Day a safe date to remember. If you take care of your fruit trees like this now, and rake and remove all old leaves and droppings from under the trees, you will start the growing season well ahead of the pests.

Pine Needles Protect from Freezes

If you planted half-hardy annuals and perennials this spring and summer, put some mulch on them to protect their roots from damage in a severe cold snap. Sometimes the difference of a good cover can keep these plants from getting killed back in a hard winter. Examples of plants that can be hurt in severe cold in Central Alabama are pineapple sage, lantana, annual dianthus, Hot Lips salvia and Mexican sage. I’ve seen all of these live for several years then disappear in an extreme winter, like the one we had last year. If you will recall, there was a lot of dead rosemary in our state this spring, although the woody shrubs is usually evergreen. Pine straw is a good mulch to pile around the base of these plants because it will insulate the ground, but not pack down too tightly around the base of the plant.

African Violets Tricks

Given humidity, light and moisture, the African violet is a long-lived flowering plant for the indoors. It has stood the test of time. If you should get one as a gift or simply pick up a plant to brighten your home, here are a few tips. Plants will grow one-sided toward the light, so give them a quarter turn each week. They need a bright window, but not in direct sun, especially in summer. Have you ever had one that just didn’t bloom? Well, the plants need 8 hours of darkness each night to initiate blooms, so beware not to place your plants in a spot where there is a light left on overnight! Keep plants away from cold windows and drafts; they need mild temperatures between 60-80 degrees. Always water at the roots, not over the leaves, and use tepid water to keep the soil slightly moist, not soggy. African violets don’t like the salts in soft water, so if you have a water softening system, best to collect a little rainwater just for your violets. Because they like humidity, a bathroom is a good spot for them. You can also increase their humidity in special self-watering pots, which also makes watering from below easier. Check out the resources at, a top African violet brand whose home is in Nashville.

  Not only can it be used for cooking, but swiss chard is also a great choice for ornamental uses. It looks beautiful in a clear vase, or planted  with pansies and parsley for winter color in flower beds.

The Many Uses of Swiss Chard

Swiss chard is a vegetable plant with multiple ornamental uses. You can plant it in with pansies and parsley for winter color in flower beds, at least in South and Central Alabama. (Long-lasting hard freezes may kill it if unprotected in North Alabama.) What I love about using chard at this time of year is how beautiful it looks in a clear vase, especially if you are growing a variety such as Bright Lights that has such colorful stems. In the kitchen, use the big colorful leaves as a base to serve mounds of chicken salad or a spread of cold cuts. Of course, you can always cook with it, too! A lot of folks ask me how I cook with it, as it is not one of the greens that Southerners typically grew up with. We have several great bean and lentil soup recipes from that call for the leaves of chard. Other people I know simply sauté the greens to serve as a bed for a piece of grilled chicken.

Callaway Gardening Symposium

The 29th Annual Callaway Gardening Symposium is coming up January 23-25 at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. For more information, check their website at

Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.