In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
This season's last camellias have plenty of "Wow" and need care after flowering.
In all the hoopla of spring, when something new blooms every day, it's smart to stay ahead of the overall state of the shrubs in your garden. Start now with basic care and look out for common pests arriving with the vernal equinox.
Where's the Water?
If you do nothing else for shrubs, put in place a conservative alternative to rainfall. Though rainfall levels look better this year than last at this point, summer drought is a threat. Expand the in-ground system that waters your lawn, string soaker hoses, or set up a drip system. After all, the point of watering is not to evaporate the precious resource into the air, but to get it to the root zone of the plants. When plant roots hit soil, the soil food web is begun and water is essential to its activity.
The question of whether and what to feed the shrubs occupies many a chat at the kitchen table on Saturday morning. Unless your soil is luscious, shrubs grow for awhile and then just sit there. Leaves can pale, fewer flowers appear and they may be smaller, and growth may be stunted if inadequate amounts of nutrients are available. There are two ways to approach this challenge. Conventional garden advice says to put synthetic fertilizers around the shrub each spring. Gardeners in our regions often combine that with an annual replenishment of organic matter by working in mulch or compost. That strategy works, but because chemical fertilizers contain salts, they can harm the soil food web, especially if over-applied or improperly diluted. The gardener is constantly replacing what is lost to the soil food web. Organic gardeners try to build the soil food web with regular additions of organic materials, including fertilizers, that do not disrupt the natural process. In fact, shrubs are a good example of plants that can often "outgrow" the need for fertilizer when grown organically. Start your shrub care with a 1-inch blanket of compost and fresh mulch now. Follow that with a complete formula organic product, preferably one with high amino acid content. If you grow acid-loving shrubs like azalea, holly, camellia, or gardenia, it's good to know that organic fertilizers are acid by nature. If you grow shrubs that prefer a more alkaline environment, it may be necessary to add lime or drench the soil with a crushed eggshell tea.
Sometimes it is simpler to diagnose an insect problem by looking at the plant rather than seeking out the pest itself. Spring is the best time to look at both factors, since voracious insects can start in on a healthy looking plant now. Survey shrubs for cracks near ground level that would indicate cold damage. Turn the leaves over to look for webs or black specks with corresponding white spots on the upper surface, indicating azalea lace bugs. If webs are present, and even if they're not, look now for little greenish yellow crawling critters. They are scale crawlers, the most vulnerable state of these insidious bugs. Right now, they can be controlled with two or three sprays of insecticidal soap with pyrethrin. Keep an eye out for ladybugs, too, as the best aphid eaters in the business at this point in the year.
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