Proper watering

Overall, we’ve had a great rainfall year for plants in most of the state, but that doesn’t mean you can forget about watering. I have received a number of questions about failing plants and often the answer to the question or solution to the problem has something to do with watering. Let’s start with the lawn:

In Delaware, you do not need to water your lawn to keep it alive, even when we have a drought; UNLESS you have new seed or new sod. Then you must keep the soil moist until the seed or sod becomes well established. But, if we forget about new lawns for a moment, the only reason to water a lawn in our climate is to keep it green throughout the summer. That may be important if you are a golf course and make your money based on the playability of your course. But, if you have a regular home lawn, does it really make sense to spend one of our valuable resources, water, on keeping a lawn green all summer long? If you don’t water, your lawn will go dormant. The grass will turn brown, but as soon as normal rains return in the fall, the grass will green up again. If there are a few spots on your lawn that don’t green up, they are indicators of a more serious stress on the lawn that should be corrected, such as compaction, insect infestation or inappropriate high traffic use. Those spots should be fixed before the problem spreads to the rest of the lawn.

If you are establishing a new lawn or renovating an existing lawn, it is critical to water your new seed or sod properly. Supply enough water at a slow enough rate to soak at least one inch of soil and ideally 3-4 inches. With new sod, you may need to water daily for the first week or so. Then as the sod starts to root into the soil, slow the watering to weekly. For newly planted seed, keep the soil moist. Since the soil is exposed or covered in straw mulch, it is easy to monitor soil moisture. For windy, sunny, open areas of lawn, that may require daily watering. When applying water to a newly seeded or sodded lawn, use a sprinkler or soaker hose and water in the morning so you don’t lose too much to evaporation. Avoid evening watering. If the grass stays moist all night, it is easier for fungal diseases to spread.

Shrubs and trees, once established, rarely require watering, but there is a misconception about how long it takes for a plant to become established. We usually say it takes one year for every inch of caliper on a tree. Thus, a four-inch caliper tree, will take 4 years to become established. That means if we don’t get enough rainfall during the spring, summer or fall, the tree will require supplemental watering, for the next four years. If you planted a landscape in the early spring, most of the shrubs will be established by that summer, but you should still check soil moisture around those plants to make sure they are getting enough water. There are some trees that don’t tolerate drought well. Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is one example; it will lose most of its leaves in August /September if we have a dry spell. It may be appropriate to provide some supplemental water during dry periods to specimen or special plants.

When you water a landscape shrub or tree, apply the water slowly. Especially with heavy clay soils, water will start to run off after the first minute or so. Water is not getting to the roots, where it is needed, if it is running down the hill. Gator bags (those green plastic bags that zip up around the tree trunk) or simply a 5 gallon bucket with holes punched in the bottom, will allow you to fill the container all at one time and then the water can seep into the soil slowly.

Container plants on your patio or deck require frequent watering. In most cases they are planted in a porous soilless container mix that is light but doesn’t hold much water. Also, as we near the end of the season, roots have started to fill those containers so there is even less soil volume available for absorbing water. In a hot, sunny location a container plant, especially a hanging basket, may need daily watering. But, it is always best to check moisture in the soil or container mix before adding water.

In fact, overwatering can be as big a problem as under-watering. Surprisingly, the symptoms of too little and too much water are often the same. When a plant is under-watered, it doesn’t take up enough water through its roots so there is not enough water to be carried through the stems out to the leaves. Leaves start to brown on the edges, eventually turn crispy and finally die. When plants are overwatered, their roots can rot, which means they aren’t taking up water and the plant looks like it is suffering from drought. Well-meaning gardeners just water more, which makes the problem worse. Always check the soil to make sure it is no longer moist before you apply more water.

Watering may seem like a mindless task but in fact the person in charge of watering is one of the most important people at a plant production nursery. He or she can make or break the success of a crop by the way it is watered. So, pay attention to how you water your plants at home. Let’s hope we get consistent fall rains, and nature can take over the task of watering. But, it is always a good idea to check for yourselves and make sure your container plants, newly planted shrubs and trees, new lawns and special specimen plants have the RIGHT amount of water.

Gator bag used to slowly water this newly planted tree.

Gator bag used to slowly water this newly planted tree.

August – Time to Renovate

It is hard to believe, but August is right around the corner.  That means it is time to start thinking about renovating the lawn.  We have had such a moist summer, that lawns have not really gone dormant.  But, your lawn may have dead spots or weedy areas you want to fix.  Maybe your lawn is a complete disaster and you want to undertake a complete renovation.  The first step is to decide where you want lawn and where you can choose a different type of landscaping.  Just because you have always had a one acre lawn in your front yard, doesn’t mean you have to keep that area in lawn.  Think about how you use the lawn—for recreation, for circulation through your landscape, and as a gathering space.  Make sure your lawn is actually useable space.  What you plant instead of lawn is a topic for another column (one that I have covered before but it can’t be said to much so stay tuned).

For the area you want to be lawn, evaluate its current condition.  Is it full of crabgrass?  If so, is that because you are mowing the lawn too close?  A lawn maintained at 3” usually doesn’t develop crabgrass because the crabgrass seed doesn’t receive the light it needs to germinate.  Or do you have weeds because the turfgrass is so patching it isn’t providing any competition against weed incursion.  Maybe the soil is so compacted only weeds can grow.

Kill competing weeds before you try to renovate the lawn.  This can be accomplished with a non-selective herbicide, like glyphosate or by covering the area with black plastic and smothering the weeds.  Black plastic is only practical for small areas and takes longer than using an herbicide.  Plants must be actively growing for the herbicide to work.  If you use glyphosate, wait 10 days to 2 weeks to make sure the glyphosate gets translocated throughout the root systems of the existing vegetation.

Take this opportunity to correct soil problems.  Take a soil sample to find out if your soil is deficient in nutrients or if the pH is too low.  Correct a low pH by adding lime.  Add nutrients as recommended by your soil test results.  Core aerate the soil if it is compact.  Core aeration will also facilitate good seed soil contact once you reseed.  Also, consider adding some type of organic matter, such as mushroom soil, manure, composted yard waste to improve the soil structure.  Add a starter fertilizer (containing no more than ½ pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn). Once the site if fully prepped, you are ready to seed.

Only seed that contacts soil will germinate, so having open soil or compost is critical for a successful lawn renovation.  Select a turfgrass that works well in your location.  In Sussex County, Delaware, we recommend using only tall fescue cultivars.  In New Castle County, you can also grow perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass, but tall fescue is the toughest and most drought tolerant of our cool season grass species.  If your lawn is shady (too much shade means you should select a groundcover other than turf), choose red fescue in a blend.  Spread seed using a slit seeder and by simply broadcasting seed over the site.

Add a light layer of straw or salt marsh hay as mulch on top of the seed.  This will help keep the soil moist and control some of the weeds that might compete with your newly establishing turf.  Keep newly seeded lawn moist with a sprinkler, soaker hoses or irrigation system.  If you have perennial ryegrass in the mix, expect germination in 4 to 5 days.  Tall fescue can take up to 10 days to germinate.  You can cut the grass for the first time when it reaches 4 – 4 1/2 inches.  Cut off 1 – 1 1/2 inches to bring it back to 3 inches.  Be sure to use a sharp mower blade when cutting newly seeded grass.  Once you have cut the grass a few times, you can add about one pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.  Don’t forget to keep the new grass moist.  By this time we should be into September and nights should be getting cooler.

If you only have a few bad patches in a lawn, you may not need to undertake a complete renovation.  Kill perennial weeds if they are a problem and rake out the area so soil is exposed.  Spread the seed and continue as above with straw mulch and watering.  Spreading grass seed on top of existing vegetation with no soil exposed is a waste of time. Late summer and early fall is the best time to renovate the lawn because soil temperatures are still warm enough to promote good germination, but air temperatures are beginning to cool, promoting growth of cool season turfgrasses.

Be sure to follow me on Instagram (sbartonhort) for gardening tips and interesting horticultural news.

This attractive combination of lawn and meadow at Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, PA, shows lawn used as a means of circulation and as a gathering space.

This attractive combination of lawn and meadow at Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, PA, shows lawn used as a means of circulation and as a gathering space.

Timing in the Garden


When I reflect on the questions I have received over the years and continue to receive about managing the home landscape, one of the common themes is timing.  When should we fertilize, prune, plant, cut back, harvest, etc?  So here are a few important “timing” answers.


The best time to prune most plants is when they are dormant in the early or late winter.  Before trees leaf out, you can see the branch structure and decide which limbs to remove and which to save.  When pruning to thin out a tree, it is important to maintain the natural shape by carefully selecting tall, outlying branches for removal.  When you prune during dormancy the trees stored resources are still in the roots and large stems.  After pruning, trees can concentrate those resources in the remaining branches for a good growth flush.  If you prune once a plant has started leafing out, the resources have already moved into young branches.  The branches you remove will deplete the tree’s resources.

You need to know if a shrub flowers on new wood or old wood, before you prune.  For most spring-blooming shrubs, it is safe to simply prune after flowering.  There will be a new flush of growth and those branches will flower next year.  If a shrub only flowers on old wood, you shouldn’t remove too much wood in a summer pruning because there will be little old wood remaining for flowering next year.  Don’t prune too late in the season (before dormancy) because that might encourage a flush of growth that won’t have time to harden off before winter temperatures hit.

Some shrubs are repeat bloomers.  If you prune spirea after flowering, you may get a second flush of flowers.  St. John’s wort will rebloom during the summer after pruning.  A new lilac named ‘Bloomerang’ is a rebloomer, but you need to trim off the first flowers and prune it lightly to encourage the rebloom.

Herbaceous plants, especially fall bloomers, can be pruned (pinched back) once or twice until late June to encourage a dense shrubby habit and better blooming.  This is especially true for garden mums and asters.


First remember that fertilizer is not plant food.  Plants make their own food through photosynthesis, so fertilizer should be thought of more like vitamins (if we are going to anthropomorphize) than food.  Nutrients in fertilizer are combined with starches and sugars produced by plants to make proteins that are used in plant growth.  If plants don’t have enough starches and sugars, pushing growth by fertilizing can be detrimental to plant health.

Turfgrass is the most common component of the home landscape to receive fertilizer.  The best time to fertilize the lawn (as I have preached many times) is the fall.  Lawn grasses grow roots and tillers in the fall, so that is the type of growth you are promoting rather than top growth, that must be cut.  If your lawn is suffering, it may be due to compact soil, low pH, not enough sun, disease, insects or weed competition.  Discover the source of the problem and correct it, rather than applying a shot of fertilizer.  Fertilizer applied in late spring, can promote disease problems. Cool season turf enters a stressful time of year when temperatures rise and rains slow (or sometimes stop).  New succulent growth, pushed by a late spring or early summer fertilizer can be more susceptible to disease.  By using a slow release fertilizer, you can put all your fertilizer down in the fall and encourage a deep healthy root system for your lawn.

Annuals and vegetable gardens need fertilizer during the summer.  These plants are actively growing and producing flowers and fruit (or other plant parts) that we harvest.  They pull nutrients out of the soil to support that heavy growth.  Once you stop harvesting a vegetable crop, stop fertilizing.


We always think of spring as the best time to plant. But, most trees and shrubs grow roots actively in the fall, so fall is also a good planting time.  You can even plant all summer, but you need to be more aware of supplying water regularly if we get into a dry spell in the summer.  Even if you planted in the spring, trees and shrubs won’t be fully established that first summer and may require supplemental watering.  Be a little careful planting small perennials in mid to late fall because they may not have enough time to get their roots established prior to freezing and thawing that occurs all winter and potentially heaves the young roots out of the ground.

Plant your new lawn or renovate the lawn by overseeding in the late summer to early fall.  The soil will be warm enough for germination, but the evenings are starting to get cooler and promote the growth of our cool season turfgrasses.  Also, there are fewer weeds to compete with your young grass plants in the fall.


My garden is one big flower shop during the spring, summer and fall.  I hardly ever have to buy flowers for the table once my plants start to bloom.  Consider including good foliage plants for flower arrangements as well.  Japanese solomon’s seal (Polygonum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) is a favorite, with a nice clean variegated leaf that lasts and looks great in arrangements.  Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) is a great ferny texture in a vase. Get cut stems in water quickly, especially on hot days.  Recut stems before arranging them in a vase or flower arrangement.


These Korean feather grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) and alumroot (Heuchera macrorhiza) flowers make great, long-lasting, greenish white cut flowers. They should start blooming a bit later in the summer.

These Korean feather grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) and alumroot (Heuchera macrorhiza) flowers make great, long-lasting, greenish white cut flowers. They should start blooming a bit later in the summer.

If you are establishing new perennial fruit or vegetable beds such as strawberries or asparagus, refrain from harvesting the first year after planting.  With asparagus, you can harvest for about one week the second year, two weeks the third, three weeks the fourth and so on.  A fully established asparagus bed can be harvested for 6 weeks.  Then allow the shoots to form the ferny fronds for the rest of the year.

If you want to learn more about what is happening in the garden and when to do things, follow me on Instagram at SBARTONHORT.

Gardening Questions in May

Q: I have a few English Bluebell plants in my garden. Their leaves are now flat and yellow. What if anything is wrong with them?

A: I am not sure what you mean by English bluebells. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are early blooming spring flowers in this region. They are a spring ephemeral, meaning they come up and flower in the spring and then die back to the ground later in the season. Most bluebells have yellow leaves now and eventually they will die back completely until they come up again next spring.

A reader responded to this question with information about English bluebells. The Latin name is Hyacinthoides non-scripta. She noticed at Winterthur last week they had both Virginia bluebells and Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the latter look almost exactly the same as the English ones. She tried for years to get Virginia bluebells to grow in her suburban Wilmington garden without any luck so finally gave English bluebells a try and they have been great. They have beautiful blue flowers that last for several weeks in the spring.  In her garden, the flowers are now past, but the foliage is still bright green, though mostly flatter than upright at this point. They will go brown later on and fade away as do the Virginia bluebells, but it does seem early for them to be turning yellow.  She ponders — perhaps it depends on location and amount of sun, since they will grow from full sun to full shade, and mine are mostly in shady places.

My response is this confusion is often the problem with common names.  I know that plant as Endymion non-scripta and have called it scilla as a common name.  I see that Hyacinthoides is the correct scientific name.  I still think it is more likely that Virginia bluebells (Mertenisa virginica) would be turning yellow now and fits the description of large flat leaves.  Hyacinthoides has narrow linear leaves.  Both plants are great in the garden!

Q: Please help me to identify this very sweet smelling bush that is growing near my home.

A: The shrub in question is Elaeagnus umbellata or Autumn olive. It is very sweet smelling, but it is an exotic invasive species and should be removed. It invades natural areas and displaces native species. Here is a fact sheet about autumn olive.

Q: I have several Berberis thunbergii “Aurea” bushes planted on the south-east facing side of my house. They suffered what looks like frostbite from the ice storms we had this past month. Will pruning this spring bring them back to health or do I have to treat then with some kind of solution?

Also I have a row of 20 arborvitae on the north facing side of my house that seem have suffered the same kind of damage near the bottom of each plant. Only the very bottom branches of the trees have turned brown. They are all about 7 or 8 years old. Again, do I need to treat them with anything or should I cut the brown limbs off?

A: There is nothing you can apply to correct winter damage. The only solution is to prune back the dead or damaged tissue. With the barberry, they can be pruned hard and they will grow back. But, remember Japanese barberry is on the invasive plant list in Delaware. Maybe you want to take this opportunity to replace them with a better plant. Here is a publication that lists alternatives to Japanese barberry ( The lower limbs of the arborvitae should be pruned, but they probably won’t regrow at the base of the plants.

Selecting the best plants for your garden


Hooray! Spring is really here with its rainy days, windy days and beautifully sunny days.  So, it is time to visit the garden center and buy new plants for your home and garden.  Many people want help in selecting just the right plant for their particular location.  Plant selection is tricky and should be based on a number of factors.  First and foremost, evaluate your planting site.  Does it get full sun, partial shade or is it shady all the time?  Is it dry, moist, well-drained?  Is the soil sandy or clayey?  Are there competitive plants nearby?  Are there walkways or buildings close to the planting space?  All these factors should be considered when selecting the best plant for any landscape.  Remember to learn how large a plant is expected to grow; don’t expect the plant to stay the size and shape it is when purchased.  Think about when and how long it blooms or what fall color and winter interest can be expected.  It is easy to walk around a garden center and be wowed by the plants that are in bloom, but they are not likely to bloom all season, so you should also enjoy the habit, bark, leaves and branch structure of the plant.

Most people select plants based on ornamental characteristics like flowers, fruit, fall color, bark and interesting branch structure.  Those are important and should be considered when choosing a plant to occupy space in your landscape.  Think also about how it will be viewed.  Is the plant going to be viewed from a distance, where fall color and habit can play a big factor or is it going to be located right next to your patio where fragrance might be most important?  Maybe a tree should be selected that will provide shade or screen an unsightly view.  Really think about what you want the plant to “do” in your landscape.  That will help narrow your choices.  Of course, start with plants you like, but then focus on the functions the plant will perform.


So far, we’ve been talking about traditional landscape design principles.  But, I propose there is another set of factors you should consider when selecting a plant for your landscape—the ecosystem services that plant will provide.  All plants provide some ecosystem services such as taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen; absorbing pollutants from the air; and taking up water, breaking the fall of raindrops and having root systems that allow water to filter into the surrounding soil. But, not all plants are created equally when it comes to some ecosystem services.  Especially when it comes to wildlife habitat, native plants are superior to exotic plants.  Most plants have evolved defense mechanisms to protect themselves from predation (getting eaten by insects), but plants and insects that have evolved together over many thousands of years have special relationships that allow insects to find food in their native environment.  A good example is the Monarch butterfly whose larvae are able to consume milkweed, even though the milkweed contains a chemical toxic to most insects.  This relationship is so important to these specialist insects that they won’t survive without the native milkweed they have evolved to eat.  So, if you want to support a diverse population of wildlife with your home landscape (and you should), consider including a variety of native plants in your selections this year.

Is It Really Spring?

Many people think spring is the time for lawn care.  Actually, there is not much you need to do for your lawn in spring other than cut it once it starts to green up and grow.  Lawn fertilizer should be applied in the fall, when plants are putting their energy into growing healthy root systems.  Fertilizer applied in the spring, promotes top growth, which you just have to cut.  It also promotes lawn weeds.  In the spring, lawns are battling the winter annual weeds that persist, like chickweed and will soon be battling the summer annuals, like crabgrass; not to mention the broadleaf perennial weeds, like dandelion.  Fertilizing in the spring, helps those weeds compete with the desired grass in your lawn.  If you want your lawn to green up quickly in the spring, it is OK to add about ½ lb of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.  That is equivalent to applying 25 pounds of a 21-3-3 (21% N) fertilizer to a 10,000 square foot lawn.

If you don’t want to worry about when to fertilize and how much fertilizer to use, consider hiring a Livable Lawns Certified lawn care company this spring.  Visit the Livable Lawns website to learn more about caring for a healthy lawn and to find a certified business near you –

The Livable Lawns program can also help you with the other task you might be contemplating as spring gets nearer—new planting.  Consider planting native species.  Native plants have a special relationship with native insects.  Most insects are specialists and feed on only one or two species of plants with which they co-evolved.  If we want pollination services and lots of other ecosystem services provided by a biodiverse ecosystem, we need to include native plants in our home landscapes.  That is certainly not a hardship since many native plants have great flowers, fruit, fall color and all the ornamental characteristics we desire in our gardens. Lots of people have been feeding the birds this winter and look forward to the return of more birds as the weather warms.  Did you know that while adult birds can eat seeds, baby birds can only eat insects?  Without our native insects we can kiss our native birds goodbye.

If you hire a certified Livable Lawns lawn care company you can receive a $50 gift certificate to purchase native plants at participating nurseries and garden centers.  If you want to apply fertilizer to your lawn yourself, visit the Livable Lawns website.  Read through the 8 requirements and sign on the dotted line. Once your application is received, you will get a free soil test kit and your reporting sheet. Fill out the sheet as you fertilize throughout the fall and once you turn it in, you’ll receive a free $50 gift certificate for purchasing native plants next fall.

Livable lawns