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Plants

Throw the Book at Planting Problems

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Garden problems can be as varied as the gardens themselves. They can range from hard winds that bully flowers to weak stems that leave otherwise handsome plants drooping.

But whatever trouble you have, there’s usually a simple, do-it-yourself solution. Common sense helps, and so do books that focus on problem-solving. An ambitious new one is “The Big Book of Garden Solutions” ($25, Time-Life Books, 1999).

To get an idea of what kinds of obstacles face gardeners, we interviewed several and offered some remedies suggested by the book’s editor, Janet Cave, and her writers.

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Bad Weed

Rita Beckwith gets angry just thinking about weeds. She has company; these persistent invaders were mentioned by almost everybody we talked to, usually with a high degree of exasperation.

The thing is, Beckwith and others think they’ve whipped weeds only to see them rise again. That’s frustrating and time-consuming.

“I’ve used weed-killing [chemicals] and I’ve yanked them out every day, but it’s impossible keeping up with them,” said Beckwith, who lives in Fountain Valley. “My husband teases me. He laughs and says we should make them part of the garden, but no way.”

“The Big Book of Garden Solutions” concedes that removing weeds by hand (make sure you get down deep to the roots) or using herbicides or boiling water directly on them might be the best solution if they’ve already sprouted.

The best strategy is prevention. Start by using organic materials such as leaves, wood chips, bark, even newspaper. These serve as weed-blockers in mulches laid over the topsoil. Also, consider planting dense shrubs around flowers and lawns to help block airborne weed seeds.

Another idea is to plant a weed-resistant ground cover. “Play it safe,” the book states. “By choosing controlled covers such as periwinkle, hypericum, sedum, moneywort, plumbago and creeping phlox.”

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What the Heck Is That?

Besides weeds, diseases and pests earn mention. Many gardeners can’t even identify the numerous insects and other plagues on their flowers and shrubs.

Mark Sanchez said he was introduced to powdery mildew (a milky-colored covering that comes from fungus) when he noticed his plants blanketed with the stuff.

“I hated it [because] it looked like they were getting choked to death,” said Sanchez, who lives in Irvine. “I didn’t even know what it was until a friend told me. To keep them controlled, you just have to watch them all the time and keep spraying, and I hate using insecticides and other sprays.”

Using fungus-, insect- and disease-fighting concoctions might be all that’s left to you when dealing with an infestation that pruning and selective maintenance won’t cure.

But again, prevention is the key. The book recommends “solarizing” your soil beds before any planting. The sun’s heat will kill many of the dormant fungus, diseases and weed seeds if you follow this plan:

Rake the soil smooth in a sunny area and dig a trench a few inches deep around the plot. Then water the soil to a depth of at least a foot. Next, get two sheets of clear plastic that roughly matches the plot’s size. Spread one sheet on the soil.

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Put empty soda cans on their sides about two feet apart on top of the first sheet and spread the second sheet over them. Tuck the ends of the sheets into the trench to make a seal that will trap heat and moisture. Leave the plot sealed for several days (it might take as many as four to eight weeks) while the sun does its thing destroying parasites.

Fallen and Can’t Get Up

Jennie R. Smith loves tall-stalked plants and flowers but has hassles when they’re just too weak to stand on their own. Maybe they’ll look great during the planting, but too often she’ll see them drooping by morning.

“They look so forlorn, [and] I hate having to support them with stakes and wire,” said Smith, of Newport Beach. “Some look strong [at the nursery] and stay that way, [but] some just loll right over when you get them home.”

Simple staking may be the best bet here. For single-stemmed plants and flowers, use a stake about three-fourths the expected height of the mature plant. Tie with twine about halfway up the stalk and continue to tie it higher as the plant grows.

To avoid staking altogether, plant strong-stemmed but attractive annuals such as larkspur around the weaker-stemmed varieties to act as support. Also, you might cut back tall-growing perennials to limit their height and prevent drooping.

Blowhard

Even hardy flowers are pained by big winds, especially constant ones. And the more delicate plants and flowers could wither and die if pounded for any length of time.

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Marci Poisson lives north of Laguna Beach on property near the ocean, where heavy breezes are almost a daily event. Some of her flowers can take it, but many can’t.

“It’s a problem because often the more colorful, pretty ones are so fragile,” she said. “I’ve not had a lot of successes with those. The winds, which can be very whipping are too much.”

Poisson should consider a windbreak, the only lasting solution. But it doesn’t have to be ugly. In fact, Cave and her writers suggest planting tall evergreens where the wind is most intense.

That may obstruct Poisson’s view, but the trees and bushes don’t have to stand as a dense, impenetrable wall. As long as they slow or change the wind’s direction, it might be enough to plant just a few.

Evergreens good for windbreaks include Colorado fir, Colorado spruce, Douglas fir, American arborvitae, Norway spruce and Eastern white pine.

Claiming Territory

Some plants look great but have bad personalities. James Manos has issues with the aggressive kind that insidiously spread, taking over more terrain than they should.

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“I have to keep pruning them back,” said Laguna Beach’s Manos. “I guess that’s all you can do to keep them controlled. And if you get lazy, they just take over.”

Some invasive plants are hardy ageratum, clustered bellflower, plume poppy, pink coreopsis and common yarrow. Keep them and others from grabbing too much property by hemming them in with buried containers.

Get a 10-gallon or larger plastic pot (old trash cans and buckets will do, as long as they have bottom holes for drainage), then dig a hole deep enough to hold all but the top inch or so of the container.

Place the pot and pour in just enough soil to bring the top of the plant’s root ball level with the ground. After the plant is in, cover the restraining container rim with mulch to hide it.

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