Roots and Shoots: Conversations Between Gardeners

By Pamela Doan

When gardening is your thing, it’s impossible to stop by a friend’s house and not talk about the plants. The conversation either starts with the host saying, “I just wanted to show you this …” or with the visitor catching sight of something interesting, “What is that XYZ and where did you get it?” and sometimes, “What did you do to your XYZ?”

Gardening bridges the gaps of polite chitchat and goes straight to a dialogue of common interest and sharing knowledge. It’s a language for exchanging ideas and information that covers anyone who likes to make things grow, regardless of experience. Sometimes the ideas are a bit out of the realm of useful (someone recently told me about peeing on their plants to keep the deer away), but there’s always a good story about trials and triumphs in the yard.

A recent friendly visit started with “Hi, how are you?” and then “What’s wrong with my hostas?” The pale-yellow leaves of an impressively large hosta were looking bedraggled, the leaves brown-tipped and curling.

hosta leaves
Sun-scorched hosta leaves (photo by P. Doan)

Trying to understand what’s happening with a plant that isn’t thriving starts with the basic and most obvious essentials first – soil, water and sunlight – getting to exotic insects and diseases last. In this case, it turned out that a tree that shaded the area had to be taken down, exposing the entire section to more sunlight.

Other hostas with dark green leaves looked fine, though. Had they been moved? No, not transplanted recently and they had been in the same place for a long time, so the soil didn’t seem to be a problem. Water was the next question. We had a very hot and dry month in July, were the plants watered? No, not really.

Here’s a good rule for watering. Even established plants will need extra care in the stretches of hot, dry weather like the month of July we just experienced and that are becoming the norm in our area. Plants, including lawns, need an inch of water each week. One of my favorite tips from the educators at the county Cornell Extension office is to place a tuna can in the flowerbed. It’s an ideal rain gauge. If you’re using a sprinkler, turn it off when the can is full and leave it off for the rest of the week.

Over-watering causes other issues, but signs of under-watering during hot, dry conditions are generally scorched-looking, brown leaves. These hostas had those signs. Since I’m not an expert on hostas, I checked on another reference and found that indeed, hostas do show these signs when they get too many hot, dry days and not enough water.

They’re a little tricky because they don’t show a dramatic wilt at the time, but a few weeks later they’ll show their suffering. Plants that wilt and slump in the heat communicate their needs in the moment and might trigger a trip with the watering can. Hostas are more passive communicators, though, and we don’t find out until it’s too late to do anything for them. The good news is that these hostas will just look a little sad for the rest of the season, but these perennials should return in good form next year.

Next up on the garden tour was a lilac that topped out as high as the second floor windows. It didn’t have any bushy growth around the base, just thick, woody branches that only had leaves at the top. It’s sort of a waste of fragrant, flowering bush, especially when it’s close to the windows and could be enjoyed.

When I asked, the response affirmed my assessment. No, it doesn’t flower. In this case, there isn’t anything wrong with the lilac; it just needs pruning. Here’s an important thing to know about pruning, though. Woody plants have a specific time in their growth cycle when pruning will help and when it will hurt.

Lilacs are best pruned right after blooming. Since this one isn’t flowering, anyway, pruning it now will mean no blooms again next year, but it will give it a season to rejuvenate and then the following year, all things being equal, it should be covered in flowers.

Have a garden question? You don’t have to invite me over, although I may come if you’re a good cook, just email it to askrootsandshoots@philipstown.info or leave it on our Facebook page.