Joe Pye Weed (Ellen Nibali, Baltimore…)
My azaleas are so big that they're growing above my kitchen windowsills. I know you're not supposed to prune until after they bloom in spring, but I can't wait that long. Will I ruin these shrubs by pruning now?
It's best to wait, because late season pruning can stimulate your shrubs to produce new shoots. This uses up the plants' stored energy and makes it harder for them to prepare for winter survival. Also, the new shoots may not have time to mature and harden for winter, which risks killing them. If you must prune, do it sparingly. Cut at the juncture of a too-long twig and the larger branch to which it is attached. This will stimulate less new growth now.
I would not believe this if I hadn't seen it — hundreds of huge grubs crawling on their backs into my garage. Then I go into the back yard and thousands are "walking" across the concrete and falling into my pool! What do I do?
These are grubs (or larvae) of the green June beetle. They have the unique ability in the grub world to scoot along using ridges on their back without using their legs at all. They normally feed at night on lawn thatch or debris and grow up to 2 inches long. You may have seen small mounds of dirt they deposit around their thumb-sized emergence holes. A heavy drowning rain can force them out of the soil seeking dryer elevations. (Though that didn't work out well for the ones that fell into the pool.) This is a brief occurrence, rarely witnessed. Sweep them back into the lawn or dispose of them in the trash. These are not the destructive lawn grubs that eat grass roots. In fact, lawn pesticide applications can trigger this behavior, too.
Something dug a hole the size and shape of a baseball in my flower bed. What would dig just one hole, and do I need to discourage it?
Sounds like the burrow of a hibernating toad. The American toad is a good garden companion, eating pest insects for you. Because it is cold-blooded, its body temperature reflects the environments surrounding it. So in winter, it must burrow down into soil where temperatures don't get as cold as air temperatures. Fortunately, American toads are good diggers.
Are there any veggies that I can harvest during the winter?
Root crops that are already eating size when the ground freezes will stop growing but, if protected by a bale of straw or 5 to 6 inches of mulch such as mowed leaves, can be dug up and harvested during the winter.
Kale, collards, Brussel sprouts, and leeks whose labels say "super hardy" or "frost resistant" can also be protected with a cold frame or floating row cover and harvested through the fall and winter. This requires planning ahead.
For planting this time of year, certain lettuce cultivars may overwinter if healthy three-week-old transplants are set out around mid-October. These small plants will establish a root system and be able to withstand cold weather with protection. When spring arrives they will begin active growth and produce early harvests. Some recommended cultivars for overwintering include Black-Seeded Simpson, Waldmann's Dark Green, Salad Bowl, Winter Density, Brune D'Hiver, Winter Marvel, and Arctic King.
University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information. Call 800-342-2507 or send a question to the website at hgic.umd.edu.
Plant of the week
Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium 'Gateway'
Eupatorium Maculatum 'Gateway'
It's hard to believe that at 5-6 feet, this is the dwarf version. From July to early fall, this tough perennial native has huge flower heads like rosy lavender clouds attracting loads of butterflies. Joe Pye weeds are not fussy. Plant in as much sun as possible to encourage strong stems. Soil can be clay to loam with moderate moisture. Once established in 2-3 years, they will tolerate some drought. When flowers go to seed, the plants hold their structure well enough to be a good addition to a winter garden. Birds feed on the seeds. Leaves are rough and disease- and pest-resistant. –Ellen Nibali