wMORE URGENT GARDEN QUESTIONS: In the July edition of Ken Druse’s and my monthly Q&A radio podcast, we answered readers and listeners curious about the wonderful tree called Stewartia and how to make it happy—plus Ken recommended other garden-sized, multi-season trees to consider adding to your landscape.

In Part 2 (transcript at this link coming shortly) we tackled powdery mildew prevention and aftercare, and what to do when an abundance of roly-poly or sowbugs and pillbugs has descended on the garden. Should you use copper-based fungicides against tomato blight—and what to do after an infestation by the garlic bloat nematode?

Ken, of Ken Druse dot com, is a longtime garden writer, author and photographer and all-around great gardener—and great friend. If you have a question for a future show, you can submit it in the comments on either of our websites, or use the contact form to send us an email from either site, or ask us on my Facebook page.

Read along as you listen to the July 10, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below (or at this link). This is Part 1 of the two-part show, in which we talked about Stewartia care and other recommended small garden trees, including great dogwoods, redbuds, and tree lilacs; again, Part 2 is coming shortly (link to come).

And a small apology: The sound in Part 1 is a little uneven; we had an electrical brownout in the area while taping and lost our master audio file. The backup that survived this unique power event was not ideal, but the transcript is thorough.

part 1 of the july q&a with ken druse


a question from margaret for ken

Q. Before we get to the reader questions, I have one for you, Ken. And I mean, it’s really urgent—and not only urgent but philosophical and existential:

Do you ever get to the end of your to-do list?

Ken. No because there is always something being added.

Q. It the damndest thing, working with a medium that grows the minute you turn your back on it, right? It regrows. [Laughter.]

Ken. People say, “I can’t wait to get the garden done,” and I think: “What are you talking about?” It’s never done, and we don’t want it to be done. It’s something you can do for a lifetime, crawling around the garden as I am doing this week because I’ve got my back issue, so I am crawling around.

Q. So you’re crawling because your back is bothering you, and I’m crawling because I am on a bittersweet hunt. I’ve got all these big shrubberies, like 20 giant shrubs in each island. And you know the birds find the Oriental bittersweet growing somewhere, they gobble up the berries, and then they sit in one of my shrubs in the middle of a bed and then they poop—and then I get hundreds of bittersweet seedlings. And that’s what I am doing. I’m exhuming, excavating, ex-communicating bittersweet. What are you doing?

Ken. I’m pulling some of them, too, and they have yellow roots as you may or may not know.

Q. Yes, orangey-yellow, very characteristic. [A tiny segment of Margaret’s recent haul, above.]

Ken. And that’s good, because when I pull it and I think uh-oh, what did I pull out? And I see the yellow—I think they’re yellow—and I think, “Ah, yes, I pulled the right thing, instead of that million-dollar vine I just planted.”

Q. Right. [Laughter.] What else are you up to on the to-do list?

Ken. Well, I had to make a list of the small trees that I have, and I tried not to make a list of small trees that I want…

Q. And we’ll talk more about that list later, I know.

Ken. That’s exciting. As you know, more and more these days I am into the woodies. They say that those herbaceous things are perennial, but I find that a lot of them don’t come back so I’m not sure if they are annuals or perennials. But the woody plants: They do it for me, and they don’t need a whole lot of care. And when I prune them if I have to prune them I like it.

Q. You know our mutual friend Marco Stufano, who was the founding horticultural director at Wave Hill, the public garden in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City, he says that we are in the “shrub season” of our lives as we become older gardeners. The shrub season is when you don’t want to mess around with a bunch of fussy perennials, but the shrubs really are satisfying. They give you a lot, as you said; but they don’t demand that much and you can do some tinkering.

Ken. And you can shrink your garden. Some people think their gardens are too large, and they want to move to an adult community or something, and I just say: “Shrink it.” Put some more deciduous shrubs along the outside of the garden.

I have a Kolkwitzia here that’s probably 20 years old, and it doesn’t bloom for very long unfortunately but I have never touched that plant. I have never watered it, I have never pruned it—it probably needs a pruning. It’s bigger than a Volkswagen beetle.

Q. It’s beautybush, they call it—it’s sort of an old-fashioned favorite.

Ken. Yes. You know, you’re saying these things and I am thinking of what’s kind of on my mind, and something that’s on my mind is killing plants. You mentioned Marco, and he is a real gardener, a real professional gardener. If he’s tired of something, he’ll just get rid of it. He’ll give it to someone, or he’ll just put it on the compost pile.

I’ll have this half of a basil with two brown leaves and one little green hope at the top, and I’ll coddle it and coddle it, and then after six months it finally croaks. But I can’t seem to toss it. That was just an example, not necessarily true.

Q. One of Marco’s other quotable quotes, to that subject, is, “Bury your dead—and fast.”

Ken. [Laughter.]

Q. Like in other words, when they’re limping—don’t even let them croak, but put them in the compost heap.

Ken. Good idea.

growing stewartia

Q. OK, we can get back to our complaining, moaning and laughing, but enough of our saga of chores unfinished for the moment. I believe we have a caller on the line, Ken, named Robert. Where do you garden, Robert?

Robert. I have a garden-floor apartment in a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Q. And what question brings you to us today?

Robert. I have these Stewartia trees, a pair of them that I planted maybe eight or nine years ago. They have taken off and they are really healthy. The question is that I have had many seasons with them, but this year for some reason there is a profusion of blossoms like I have never seen before on both of these trees. It’s all happy news.

Q. and Ken. [Laughter.]

Robert. But my question is why? I didn’t do anything to deserve this. I didn’t fertilize, and I also am not a big waterer. This is the third incarnation of this garden for me, and this is like the low/no-maintenance garden. Where I used to be spending hundreds of dollars a year in perennials, now it’s all ferns and Astilbe and hydrangeas that come back and these two Stewartia in the center, kind of making a vertical screen so the place feels deeper or more mysterious than it actually is. [Laughter.]

Q. Nice.

Robert. A foil. So the blossoming is the question I have, because I just don’t know what made for it; there was just no kind of change back here, really.

Q. So you didn’t do anything. And these are Stewartia pseudocamellia, I assume, since you are growing them in Brooklyn. Ken, have you grown them; do you have any insights?

Ken. I never got one because I thought it takes too long—it takes a long time to bloom, and then another 20 years and you see the beautiful, patchy camouflage bark. So I always thought I’m not going to live long enough. And that’s crazy.

About two years ago, I planted one. It’s only about 4 feet tall and it’s got buds all over it. I think there are a lot of reasons, perhaps, why your Stewartia are blooming. The main one is that they are older, because they do take a long time to bloom generally.

I also wanted to mention that pseudocamellia, the specific epithet, is “false camellia,” because it has big white flowers that kind of resemble single camellias.

One thing is that time—they are older plants. Another thing I don’t know if a tree in the neighborhood was taken down and they somehow got a little more light. Another thing is that we have had a wonderful spring in the Northeast, with almost an inch of rain every week, so a lot of things are doing well.

Robert. I have heard that all over. I was in Sag Harbor for the weekend, and in my friend’s garden we had a cocktail party, everyone admitted that the garden looked better than ever. And she’s also a lazy gardener that hires other people to do things.

Ken. [Laughter.]

Q. [Laughter.] It happens to the best of us; we all need to turn to some help now and again.

Robert. Oh, my, I feel like I like that option more and more.

Ken. Oh, no, you wouldn’t; come on. Then you couldn’t complain as much. [Laughter.]

I do want to mention one more reason why it could be blooming heavily, which is not a wonderful reason. We…