, Salem, MA

June 21, 2013

When to keep growing, when to cut back

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: We have enjoyed growing some greens this year. Do I have to give them up very soon or can I grow them into the fall?

A: Make another trip to a seed rack right now before they’re all gone. Buy seeds now for late crops of greens and radishes and anything else that still plan to grow as the weather gets cooler. You’ve still got more than 60 days left in the late growing season, and if you have a cold frame, you could have greens year-round; delicious and so healthy!

Q: I think I missed a question from you which involved getting rid of the day lilies that have reseeded themselves and are living in your lawn.

A: Have you tried using Roundup with the applicator wand? You will have to walk around the lawn and spot-spray the unwanted lilies, being very careful to spray only the unwanted plants. This should kill the plant foliage as well as the root — if not, try a second application.

Q: What do all the numbers and letters on fertilizer packages mean? Do they think that you have a degree in chemistry?

A: You don’t have to have a degree in chemistry to read the fertilizer label. By law, numbers have to be listed the same way.

“N” is for nitrogen. Nitrogen is always the first number in labeling. Your plants need nitrogen to make chlorophyll and for strong leaf growth. Give your plant too much nitrogen and plants will produce the most beautiful, strong foliage you’ve ever seen — but very few flowers. Nitrogen is great on lawns for “greening up” in the spring.

“P” is for phosphorus and is always the second number. Plants need phosphorus for bright blooms, increased fruit development, and strong roots.

“K” is for potassium, or potash, and is always the third number on the label. Potassium is utilized in the plant for strong structure (stems and leaves) and also promotes general health, helps plants fight disease and stress, and improves the quality of fruits and vegetables. It also reduces a plant’s need for water by slowing loss of water through the leaves.

And what about those numbers? What do they mean? These numbers stand for the percentage of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash or potassium in the fertilizer, and are always given in that same order — always nitrogen first, then phosphate, then potash. Keep this in mind when you compare sizes and prices of fertilizers. As an example, 100 pounds of 10-5-10 would always contain 10 pounds (10 percent) nitrogen, 5 pounds (5 percent) phosphate, and 10 pounds (10 percent) potash or potassium. See? It’s almost easy!

Q: What is the best way to cut back my peonies now that the flowers are starting to die?

A: Cut just the dead flower heads after they’ve bloomed, but allow the foliage to grow all summer. In the fall, when hard frost has killed the greenery, clean out the bed thoroughly to prevent the old mulch from becoming a warm place for the winter. After a hard frost, cut back remaining foliage to about 4 inches high for the winter. Remember to remove and destroy all dead leaves and stems to prevent disease.

Q: When can I cut the old stems from all of the spring bulbs? I tied the bunches of foliage together like a teepee thinking they would look nicer over the summer, but now they look like mush or slime.

A: It’s time to gently clip the leaves from your spring bulbs. The leaves have been growing and conserving energy for next year’s crop, but now they have turned brown and their job is done for another year. Gently remove the now-soggy leaves by hand, or cut them about 4 inches from the ground. If you wait long enough, they will gently pull out without cutting. But can you stand looking at those mushy yellow leaves for another month?

Q: My hosta has come out with damaged leaves. Is it bugs? Could I have cleaned out too early this spring and accidently “frozen” the young plant? The rest of my perennials were fine. I’ve got to divide some of them this fall. Will I be transplanting bugs as well?

A: Hostas are a bit unusual; leaves developed in the spring are the leaves you will live with all season. Move them gently, breaking and tearing as few leaves as possible. With very little extra water and care this year, they will emerge again next season with perfect leaves!

If you need to hold hosta plants after digging and before replanting, cover the roots with wet newspapers or towels and keep them in the shade. Spray-mist the plants every day or two, more often if the weather is hot, and replant them as soon as you can.

This week’s dirt: Do you love your peonies but not the ants that populate the flowers? Try this: Cut the peonies as usual and immerse them in a deep pail of water. Set the pail in a cool, protected location, like a back porch. Make your arrangements the next day. You and your peonies should be ant free!


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at