WHAT TO PLANT (OR DO) NEXT, after you remove invasives like garlic mustard? How to grow bulbs such as pineapple lily (above) in pots year to year? What are the pros (and cons) of hosting garden tours? Time to tackle some of the pile-up of Urgent Garden Questions you’ve been madly posting in blog comments, on Facebook, and in emails, with help from Ken Druse, in Part 2 of the monthly Q&A episode of my public-radio show and podcast.

My longtime friend Ken, an award-winning garden photographer and author of many books, including “The New Shade Garden” and “Making More Plants,” produced his own “Real Dirt” podcast for 10 years, all available on KenDruse dot com.

Read along as you listen to the May 15, 2017 edition of the program using the player below (or at this link). The May show is a doubleheader; this transcript is the “overtime” segment, starting at about 24 minutes into the audio file, and Part 1’s transcript is at this other link, including how to work around wet spring soil without damaging it (or crushing desired self-sown seedlings), what to do about moles, or voles in the garden (and how to tell them apart), and more.

may q&a part 2, with ken druse


Q. Are you still there, Ken, or did you go outside?

Ken. I’m still here. [Laughter.]

Q. I have to tell you, my tractor had a nervous breakdown—the first time in all the years I have had it that this has happened. And I’ve got some serious turf to mow, and it’s getting pretty bad. I call every day to the repair place, “Is it fixed yet?” And they say, “Sorry, we have a lot of farmer emergencies, lady.”

Ken. I’ll bet.

Q. My little tractor is behind a line of big macho tractors waiting to get fixed. So I’ll be going home and push-mowing after I finish talking to you, Ken.

Ken. Eh!

Q. Push-mow a couple of acres, why don’t you?

the colors of our soils

Q. Before we talk to our next caller, let’s do one little quickie question, a funny one that came from Pam on Facebook:

“Can you tell if your soil is acid or alkaline by looking at it?” It’s an interesting question, and it had me thinking and thinking—and you know what I found out?

Ken. OK, I’ll bite.

Q. Did you know that the USDA website has information about a color system for soil? You can’t tell the pH necessarily, but there is something called the Munsell Color System, and what you can tell from it—like a whole paint-chip kind of a deal [laughter] with precise colors, this whole system that’s like a worldwide unifying thing about the colors of soil. And what it does tell is what minerals are in the soil, I think. It doesn’t tell you whether it’s acid or alkaline.

Ken. Are you kidding? Just by looking at your soil?

Q. I’m just saying there are indicators apparently about the mineral content, and a really precise system of looking at soil color. [Above, from the USDA page about the Munsell system, a chart of some of the color-mineral correlations.]

But I think that the only way to tell if your soil is acid or alkaline by looking—the only way you might know is if it was really that weird anaerobic-looking gray, if it has been swamped after a water event, which I would assume was acid. But I don’t think you can tell pH that way—I think Pam should get a soil test.

Ken. Yes, you can get a soil-test kit for a couple of dollars for a very general thing, but you can also tell by who’s growing there. If your lawn is doing very well, you are probably a little alkaline. And if there is moss in some place, it’s probably a little acid. [How and why to do a soil test.]

Q. So “read your weeds,” as they say sometimes.

what comes next after removing invasives?

Q. We have a caller on the line, Lisa I believe? Where are you calling from?

Lisa. I live just outside of Lambertville, New Jersey, an hour north of Philadelphia.

Q. Ken, that’s sort of in your vicinity—not exactly, but…

Ken. I know where she is; she’s across the bridge from New Hope.

Q. And your question is?

Ellen. You were talking about nature abhorring a vacuum, and I have garlic mustard [above] a lot around here, and when I pull it, it just grows back. I was wondering what kinds of things can I plant to take its place, and be more pleasing to the eye? I have naturalized purple-flowered Lamium, and the Brunnera with the little blue flowers like a false forget-me-not. Not much else grows and I don’t have time to run around and water the stuff when it gets dry. I need something that’s deer-resistant shade-resistant, and drought-resistant.

Ken. [Laughter.]

Q. Just so people have the backstory on this, what you are referring to when you say nature abhors a vacuum—well, loves a vacuum actually…

Ellen. [Laughter.]

Q. …or at least it takes advantage of a vacuum. Ken, on a recent show I was talking to Elizabeth Farnsworth of the New England Wild Flower Society, about invasives, and if you decide to remove invasives, like Lisa was just saying with the garlic mustard. What we talked about was that you can’t leave the soil bare for very long, because guess what happens? The stuff grows back, or something worse [laughter]. So that’s the context of the question.

I guess the answer is when people are removing invasives—whether garlic mustard or something else (and this answer of what to replace it with is region-specific)—is that when I weed it out I at least dump a bunch of mulch on top to shade the soil.

Ken. Yes, I was going to say that. What’s your mulch? The best mulch we like most is chopped oak leaves, if we can get them.

Q. And I use a composted stable bedding [above], like a very fine wood product that has been used in animal stables and has been composted—it’s dark brown and nice. But I definitely deprive that bare spot of light somehow, even if it’s putting cardboard on it [laughter] so it doesn’t pop up right away. But that’s not a permanent solution obviously.

Ken. But that’s a good thing to do, because when you pull those weeds, you’re disturbing the soil and bringing more new weed seeds up to the surface to germinate.

Q. As far as plants…

Ken. Lisa mentioned the Brunnera [above, photo by Ken], and I can’t believe it but I’ve got a whole patch of it in dry shade—in one of the hardiest spots I have. They flower and everything. You could do Ajuga in some places. Actually if you think about broad-leaf weeds [laughter] those would be great. Even violets if you have violets. Hellebores would be wonderful; they’re a little pricey but then they start to self-sow and you end up with a lot.

Margaret one of your favorite plants that you turned me on to a few years ago: Geranium macrorrhizum [below, at Margaret’s].

Q. Right. Do you know that plant, Lisa—the big-root geranium?

Lisa. I do, but I thought it needed a little more sun. The only place I have it is where it gets a little bit of sun.

Q. It can even do in shade and dry shade, oddly enough. But I was thinking of taking a cue from nature, so here we’ve removed the invasives and what if we added back some native species. I’d take the cue looking to see what grows in a natural area in my region that are deerproof. So for instance some of the native ferns. Obviously they grow in shade, deer don’t particularly like ferns.

Ken you mentioned the violets, and I find that rabbits and woodchucks like the violets.

The wood asters—there are a number of species that bloom in the fall and are great for adding more pollinator interest and fall interest to out-of-the-way garden areas. I love the white wood aster, which used to be called Aster divaricatus but they have renamed everything [Note: It’s now Eurybia divaricata] so I give up. [Laughter.

That’s the other thing to do is look on websites like GoBotany of the New England Wild…