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Q: Can I prune my Cleveland sage back now to encourage it to rebloom and keep it from smothering nearby plants?

A: The consensus is that these sages, such as the variety "Allen Chickering", bloom only once and that pruning should be carried out in the fall and winter. At that time, you can shorten stems by up to 1/2 to keep the plant from getting leggy. However, since new growth won't sprout from old wood, you should be sure not to cut back to leafless portions. A little careful pruning now just to reduce its encroachment on its neighbors shouldn't hurt the plant.


Q: I have noticed a number of volunteer trees sprouting in my garden. How can I tell what they are, and what is the best way to get rid of them if I don't want them?

A: Three of the most common volunteers have large featherlike leaves composed of a midrib with a number of leaflets: Shamel ash has 5-9 leaflets, European ash has 7-11 leaflets, and Tree of Heaven has 11 to 41 leaflets (and the leaves have an unpleasant odor when crushed). A fourth common volunteer is the golden rain tree which has even larger leaves that have branches off the midrib with leaflets growing along them so it has a "ferny" look. If you don't want the tree, just water the ground to make it easier to dig and remove the plant with as many of the roots as you can. Or just keep cutting it off at the base every week or so and eventually it will give up.

Q: Is it better to buy or make nectar for hummingbird feeders?

A: Chris Verma, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Claremont, says you should not buy liquid feeds because they have additives that can harm the birds. To make your own, bring one part ordinary sugar and four parts water just to a boil and then let cool. Do not add any dye. If you want to have something red on a plain feeder, tying a ribbon on it will do. Be sure to replace the nectar and clean the feeder every few days to avoid stuff growing in it that would harm the birds.

Q: There are brown areas on my camellia flowers. What is causing them? Could it be too much shade?

A: Camellias like shade and don't like being transplanted so I think you'd be fine leaving the plant where it is. Camellias are subject to "petal blight" fungus which is almost certainly what you are seeing. This is very difficult to control and anti-fungal sprays are of limited effect. The best method is to remove affected flowers and be sure to clean up all the ones that drop, including every single petal. These should all be tossed in the trash and sent to the dump. With luck, the problem will recede in a year or so, but it requires vigilance. The Camellia Society has more info at

Q: I love tomatoes but have trouble digesting the seeds. Are there any seedless tomatoes?

A: Although our March speaker on tomatoes, Dave Freed,  hasn't grown these, he did mention that seeds of a seedless hybrid can be ordered from the Totally Tomatoes website, and we found that plants and seeds are also available from Burpees.

Q: I have some very shady and dry areas in my garden. Are there any plants I could grow there?

A: Definitely one of the hardest areas to find plants for, but cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) and butcher's broom (Ruscus asculeatus) do just fine in quite a lot of shade and have low water needs. Slow growers and insignificant flowers but require very little care other than removing dead leaves occasionally.

Q: My chives still have some green leaves but they have flopped over. What should I do?

A: Give the plants a crew cut by cutting off all the leaves, both dried and green, to about an inch long. New leaves will start sprouting in a few days.

Q: Can you grow strawberries as house plants?

A: Our November speaker, Julie Bawden Davis, says "Yes, indeed" and suggests trying "Seascape" or "Albion" in a sunny window. Fertilize the plants regularly and keep the soil moist.

Q: At the October meeting on composting, a member asked if you can use ashes in your compost.

A: Speaker Dave Schroeder has written to say that you can use small amounts of fire place or BBQ ashes in the soil or in the compost pile as long as you mix them in thoroughly, but that ashes shouldn't be added to a worm bin.

Q: A friend just divided his clump of Chasmanthe and gave me some of the corms. How should I treat them?

A: Chasmanthe floribunda, African flag, is a member of the iris family. Plant corms about 3" deep in groups in light shade in well-drained soil. Plants are dormant in summer. Leaves appear in late fall, growing 3-4 ft tall, and the arching sprays of orange and yellow, thin, tubular flowers appear in early spring. A favorite of hummingbirds. More detailed growing information can be found at

Q: Do you really need to wash and sanitize containers to reuse them?

A: The counsel of perfection is “yes” so that you don’t pass along any infectious material they may contain. [But I admit I usually just wash them out with water (unless the previous plant was ill) and have never had a problem.]

Q: Can you reuse potting soil?

A: Again, ideally no, you should spread it around and dig it into the ground somewhere (unless the plants were ill). However, I’ve left the soil in some very large patio pots for several years, just changing out the plants and adding fertilizer, and the plants have done well.

Q: Is there a way to kill grasshoppers without harming beneficial insects?

A: This is very difficult, as pesticides kill them all. The good news is that serious grasshopper invasions generally only occur every 8-10 years (although they can last 2 or 3 years). The following may help, but since grasshoppers are very mobile, they can migrate into your garden from other places outside of it.

  • Grasshoppers lay eggs in the soil, so tilling the surface 1-2 inches a few times in late summer, fall and winter may reduce the number that develop.
  • The young hoppers like to live in areas of dense plant growth where spiders, blister beetles robber flies, and suchlike prey on the eggs and nymphs, so arrange to have a few areas like that.
  • Grasshoppers prefer uncultivated, weedy, grassy areas, so if you have an out of the way spot, you might let it go (but keep it healthy) and hope the pests think of it as prime real estate compared to your weeded beds.
  • Some birds eat young grasshoppers, so provide some perches in the garden. (Coyotes eat grasshoppers too, but you may not want to attract them!)
  • Among vegetables, they generally give tomatoes, squash and peas a miss, but delight in lettuce, carrots, and beans and onions. Putting row covers over your vegetables can reduce the damage. Hungry hoppers can eat through fabric and plastic, so consider using metal window screening. Be aware, though, that covers` may reduce insect pollination of your crops, so you may need to do some hand-pollination.

Q: Poinsettias — plant outside or toss?

A: Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are frost tender, prefer acid soil, grow to 8 ft in the ground,  and do not bloom well unless they get two months of total darkness at night in the fall. Darkness is hard to provide in an urban garden, so unless you enjoy a challenge, toss.  If you do grow them, wear gloves when pruning as the milky sap of euphorbias can cause skin irritation. (By the way, poinsettias are not poisonous–that’s an urban legend.)

Q: Last year’s seed packets — use or toss?

A: Seeds don’t stay alive forever, but neither do they all expire immediately at years’ end. Like people, the ones in a packet vary a bit in life expectancy. If you keep your packets in a cool, dark, dry location, you can expect to get good germination for several years. Here are some approximate times (years in parentheses): corn (2), lettuce (6), beans (3), cucumber (5), eggplant (4), kale (4), melons (5), onion (1), peas (3), spinach (3), tomato (4), radish (5). If you have older packets and are worried about poor germination, plant more thickly than normal and remove any extras.

Q: What are the flies in my houseplants?

A: Fungus gnats (Bradysia species) are common pests. The adults live about a week and don’t bite people or eat the plants, but are definitely annoying. Yellow sticky traps placed nearby will catch many of them. The larvae thrive in decaying plant matter and can damage plant roots. Their numbers can be reduced by cleaning up any dead leaves and by always letting the soil in the pots dry out to a depth of 1 to 2 inches before watering–dryness kills the eggs and larvae. It may take a couple of months of proper watering to eliminate the populations so be patient. Repotting the plants in new soil every year or so will also help to keep infestations down.