P. Allen Smith: Garden Maintenance


This month, I’m dedicating my column to answering some of the most common gardening questions that come in to us this time of year.


We love hearing from our gardening friends who connect with us online and visit us at Moss Mountain Farm to see firsthand how we manage our flower, fruit, vegetable and rose gardens.

Q: Watering my flowers and shrubs is costing me a fortune this summer! I want to be more conservative with the amount of water I use in my landscape next year. What kinds of plants require less water and will be able to handle our hot summers?

A: Water is certainly costly, and it is an incredibly valuable resource that needs to be conserved, so I applaud your efforts to landscape with plants that require less water. In my Platinum Collection, I recommend a number of heat- and drought-tolerant plants that thrive in our hot Arkansas climate.

For color all summer, my top picks for drought-tolerant flowers are Goldilocks Rocks Bidens, Luscious Lantana and Vermillionaire Cuphea. I grow these flowers in my gardens and in my containers, where they thrive even through our 100-degree spells. You won’t believe how quickly the hummingbirds will find your Vermillionaire. It’s like those flowers have some sort of secret, magnetic feature that draws them in.

For more permanent plantings in your landscape, take a look at our Arkansas natives and cultivars of natives, since they naturally thrive in our hot, humid summers, and many of them are drought-tolerant too. Here on Moss Mountain Farm, we enjoy seeing the spring blooms of downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) and bee-friendly Decadence false indigo (Baptisia) flowers. Coneflowers, blanket flowers and orange flowering butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) carry us through the summer months until fall ushers in a parade of prolific goldenrod blooms, black-eyed Susans and elegant ornamental grasses including one of my very favorites, Cheyenne Sky switch grass.

Q: Help! We must have poison ivy growing on our property because both of my kids have come down with it in the last few weeks after playing out in the yard. How can I accurately identify it and then how can I get rid of it?

A: Have you heard the old adage “leaves of three, let it be?” This definitely rings true for poison ivy. Look for solid green, alternately spaced leaves held in groups of three, growing as a vine, ground cover or shrub. You’ll find it in the sun and shade along bike paths, at the edges of woods, climbing up trees and fences, under utility wires where birds perch, and unfortunately, in your garden. What we react to is the oily allergen called urushiol in its leaves and stems. That nasty oil is active all year, so your kids are susceptible to it even in the winter.

There are several ways to eradicate poison ivy from your landscape, including mechanical, organic and chemical methods. It is best to consult with your county extension agent and ask what has worked best in your specific region. They may suggest you try to dig out and dispose of the plants, smother them with sheets of cardboard, use organic sprays or drenches, or make chemical applications. NEVER burn poison ivy! The oil can cling to the ashes and get into your eyes, nose and even your lungs.

Once this bountiful clump of irises starts to decline, I’ll know it’s time to divide and replant them. They tend to outgrow their space within 3 to 5 years, but they are easy to thin out so they’ll continue to thrive for many years to come. Photo by Jane Colclasure

Once this bountiful clump of irises starts to decline, I’ll know it’s time to divide and replant them. They tend to outgrow their space within 3 to 5 years, but they are easy to thin out so they’ll continue to thrive for many years to come. Photo by Jane Colclasure

Q: I always look forward to my bearded irises blooming in late spring, but this year there were fewer flowers than usual. Will dividing the clump make them bloom better next year? If so, how and when should I divide them?

A: Irises are such happy flowers, aren’t they? Here at the farm, we divide ours every three to five years to keep them happy, healthy and blooming strong. It sounds like your plants may have become a bit overcrowded and could use a good thinning. The best time of year to do that is July through September, at least eight weeks before frost, when the plants are in a semi-dormant state.

If your clump of bearded irises has grown quite large and you are only seeing flowers blooming around the edges, it’s time to dig up the whole clump and set it out where you can inspect the rhizomes carefully. Use a sharp knife to cut away any parts that are mushy or have tiny pinprick holes in them — that’s a sign of iris borers. Cut the younger rhizomes from around the edge of the clump and dispose of the rest. If you notice any signs of pests or disease, drench the rhizomes you are keeping in a 10-percent bleach solution before replanting them.

Cut the fans of leaves back by half before replanting the individual rhizomes. They might look a little silly now, but it will help the roots get established faster, and new leaves will sprout. Add a little bone meal to the soil when you replant them, making sure to leave about half of the rhizome exposed above ground. Water them in well, and don’t cover them with mulch. Bearded iris rhizomes need lots of breathing space and love the feel of our fresh Arkansas air.

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