Tag Archives | lawn & garden

Azaleas on acid

About a year and a half ago, we planted 6 Encore Autumn lilac azaleas along the front of our house…and they looked awesome.

But now, they look like this.

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Granted, spring has just begun in Arkansas and they haven’t had a chance to green up yet (technically they’re evergreen, but in the winter they do lose a lot of leaves and the remaining turn yellow), but still. Not a happy sight. Not to mention they’ve barely grown (though their growth rate is supposed to be moderate to fast) and hardly bloomed.

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We figured they were just working on establishing roots last spring, but now we’re starting to get worried. Hopefully, as temperatures continue to rise, we’ll see some new growth and greener leaves. But we also thought there might be a deeper problem, so we ordered a soil test kit.

The pH of soil is a huge factor for the health of plants, and azaleas prefer a slightly acidic soil in the range of 4.5 to 6 (neutral is 7). So, I ordered this Luster Leaf rapitest pH test kit from Amazon (comes with testing container, dropper to add water, 10 capsules, instructions, pH guide).

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It was $6.47, and I got free shipping with Prime. It’s a cheap price to pay to ensure we don’t damage our azaleas by treating them with the wrong thing. And it comes with this handy dandy pH guide for all kinds of plants.

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I’m so tempted to test the pH of everything in our yard!

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The first step is to gather a soil sample. It recommends digging up a sample from about 3 or 4″ down. You don’t need very much at all!

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Then it recommends taking out rocks, roots, and anything else that’s not dirt, and then letting the sample dry out. I think we have less dirt in our yard than rocks, but I followed the instructions!

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After it was dry and broken up, I added a tiny amount to the test container up to the soil fill line. Then I opened one of the capsules and poured the powder in.

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Then I filled it with distilled water (recommended so that the pH of your tap water doesn’t alter the results). Lastly, I shook it really well and waited with anticipation for a minute or two. And yikes. This is what we saw.

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That is definitely alkaline. Not neutral, not acidic. Most definitely alkaline.

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I was actually fairly relieved, though. If it had been in the correct range, I would really be at a loss as to why our azaleas are so unhappy! Now that we know the problem (or one of the problems), we can move on to trying to remedy it, and fingers crossed, cure the azaleas of their winter blues.

Our first attempt was using a product by Miracle Grow specifically for azaleas and rhodies. Andrew’s mom had a tiny bit left and gave it to us, so we gave it a go. Simply dissolve 1 tsp in a gallon of water and pour around the plant.

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We only had enough to fill a 5 gallon bucket, though, leaving less than a gallon for each of our 6 azaleas. Also, this product is water soluble, so it’s not a very permanent solution. I did it a week ago, and haven’t noticed any difference. It has also rained several times since then, so in all likelihood, it already washed away.

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But since I figured the pH level was probably the issue, I already bought these azalea fertilizer spikes along with the test kit, and now that we know for sure the pH is wrong, I plan to put one behind each azalea bush. These are slow release spikes that are supposed to last the whole season and not burn the plants.

Hopefully, they’ll get the azaleas the nutrients they need for now, but they’re probably still not a long-term solution. The pH of the soil aids in nutrient absorption, so at some point, we might need to add some kind of sulfur product to increase the acidity of the soil, along with the occasional fertilization treatment. Who knows…but I’m determined to save these plants!

On an only slightly related note, we’re so fed up with our yard! (Related in that it also displays our lack of gardening/landscaping ability.)

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We have wild onions that grow like crazy, they don’t respond to any of our treatments, and the bulbs are almost impossible to dig up!

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This year we also have more dandelions than we’ve ever had, wild clover (which I’m not sure we’ve ever had before), wild mini hyacinths (which are actually adorable!), crabgrass, and who knows what else. We’ve tried treating ourselves, obviously with no success. See, our yard looks like this…

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While several of our neighbors’ yards look like this…

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Bermuda grass hasn’t greened up yet, so other than the patch of fescue under our tree, all the green in our yard = weeds. For anyone in the NWA area, we’re using Ace of Blades (they treat all of our neighbors’ yards, too). We’ve heard they’re way cheaper than Scotts, he said the product is non-toxic, and from what we’ve seen in other yards, they do a great job! He’s actually here spraying as I write this…here’s hoping it’s enough to kill those onions!

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Making the best of a bad front porch

Or no front porch. As I’ve said before, we’d love to totally redo the front of our house to create a nice, covered front porch, but that’s not really in the budget right now, and might not ever be…First things first, we had to get the handrail painted.

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We finished up our exterior house painting project a while ago and this was the last remnant of the old tan trim color. The previous top piece was cracked in a lot of places, allowing moisture to penetrate the wood and flake off the paint, so we had to replace it before repainting. We bought a treated 2×4 and cut it using the old piece as a guide.

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The previous handrail wasn’t cut at an angle on the end…

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But after looking at it cut straight, we thought it might help our ugly and not very substantial handrail look just a smidge more purposeful. And maybe less like a plain 2×4?

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We’d love to do something different for the handrail, too. It’s plain and boring and not even functional! We have to open the storm door before going up the steps (or there’s no room to open it), so we can’t even use it. If we put an additional rail on the other side, it would make it tricky to get up the narrow steps at all. Blah. We need a new storm door, too, so we considered getting rid of the storm door altogether, but we do actually use it! Ugh, these steps are the bane of my existence!

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After replacing the top piece, I applied 2 coats of Kilz exterior latex primer. I don’t think the handrail was primed before, which likely contributed to the peeling paint. It is located right at the edge of the roofline  so water drips on it when it rains. Hopefully, the primer will be enough to keep the paint from peeling so easily! We decided to paint the handrail the lighter gray house color instead of the shutter color for now. It also coordinates with the mailbox post.

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In addition to fixing and painting the handrail, we felt like we needed something on the other side of the steps. We bought a planter a while back at a garage sale (seen empty in the pictures above) and just needed something to fill it. We wanted something that wouldn’t get too big, didn’t need a lot of care, had evergreen foliage, etc. And the other day we saw these little tree shaped rosemary plants at Lowe’s for about $15.

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Isn’t it so cute? And Winston, too? (How could we get rid of the storm door when the cats love it so much? They’d be so sad.)

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I wish the pot was just a little bigger, but beggars can’t be choosers! This one was a couple bucks at a garage sale, as opposed to new ones that cost $50 or more. And according to the care guide that came with the rosemary, it likes “poor soil” so we just dug up some dirt from our yard and mixed in a tiny bit of leftover potting soil from another pot.

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Now don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m not decorating for Christmas early, but it does look a little bit like a Christmas tree, huh? Maybe we need to get it some mini lights!

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The next step for sprucing up our entry is to paint the front door a more vibrant color! With all the orange and black in our brick, we don’t want to do black, red or yellow, so I’m thinking turquoise!

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If only it weren’t so cold outside already! I’m hoping my new little rosemary plant can handle the cold weather! It didn’t really have a chance to adapt to its to new home before we had a cold snap, so we’ll see how resilient it is!

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I hope that some day down the road we can do something about our awkward front steps, but for now, this will have to do!

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Taming a rogue lilac bush

We have a lilac bush in our side yard. Surprisingly, we actually really like where it is (unlike a lot of other plants that we inherited), and when we moved in over 2 years ago, it was little. But after years of no pruning (probably never been pruned) and lots of rain this summer, it got a little too big for its britches (on the right.)

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We walk right in between these 2 bushes to get to the backyard, so they both need to be maintained and shaped so as not to crowd that area. Lilacs can be much bigger and still healthy, we just want to keep ours smaller. It also just recently got big enough that it started killing the grass underneath. Bad lilac!!

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Ours currently has a fungus, but we’re still working on that, too…

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I had never pruned a lilac before, or many bushes at all really, so I did some research and here’s what I learned.

  1. First, I found out that because lilacs set new buds almost immediately, you want to prune as soon as the bush is done flowering (usually in the summer). Fall is not the best time to prune. Pruning encourages growth, and you don’t want the plant to be putting effort towards new growth just before winter. Ours had also set new buds already, but we were pretty desperate, so I decided to go ahead and do just a little. I’ve also heard lilacs are hardy. Let’s hope so.
  2. When pruning, you want to remove new shoots that aren’t growing where you want them, dead wood, and branches over 2″ in diameter, as the older wood is more prone to disease (like borers). Same goes for any branches that are rubbing against another. This may create a “wound” which can be an entry point for disease.
  3. Bushes should have an “open center.” This provides good air flow and allows more sunlight to reach the center, helping prevent diseases like powdery mildew (likely what our lilac has).

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Clearly our lilac does not have an open center.

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Every site I looked at recommended a 3 year plan for making over your lilac. Each year, remove one-third of the large, stocky branches (anything bigger than 2″ in diameter) by cutting them all the way back to the ground. This way you will still have some blooms each year. You can do all of it at once, but for several years might have no blooms on your very sad looking bush. (If you go this route, make sure you still retain some leaves so the bush can create food!)

I have to admit, I was a little afraid to get started. I know my way around a crepe myrtle, but my pruning methods are very different for those since I want them to be more tree-like. So I started with the easy stuff. I removed dead branches first. Then I looked for crossing or woody looking branches, like these.

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After analyzing both branches, I decided the bottom one needed to go, so I cut it off where it met the next branch.

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After completing that, I stepped back to look at the shape of the bush from every angle and chose a few branches that were creating a shape I didn’t like. I cut those off at the base. Then I stepped back again and picked out areas that still looked a little too thick. From these areas, I pruned inward growing branches back to the branch beneath that was growing in the direction I wanted (like the diagram above demonstrates). And my lilac went from this overgrown mess of branches…

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To this.

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It’s a little closer to the shape in the diagram, huh? It’s still not perfect, but c’mon, this is the 3 year plan. I probably didn’t actually prune off one-third of the thicker branches because I was worried it would look too bare!! Hopefully with the increased sunlight the base will be getting, there will be more new shoots next year so I can prune off a few bigger branches without it looking too sparse.

I also didn’t do much deadheading or pruning at the tips since the new buds had already set. I didn’t want to cut them all off! I’ll wait to do that part until right after the bush is done blooming next year.

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Now that I’ve educated myself on how to prune a lilac and taken a first swing…er, snip at things, I think each year will be progressively easier and faster. Realistically, I don’t think it would take more than 10 or 15 minutes once per year to maintain it (since mine is small and I want it to stay that way.)

Here’s one last before and after. Before looking scraggly and wild.

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And after…maybe looking a little sheepish next to the very full crepe myrtle.

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Pruning doesn’t yield a perfect result immediately, but it always surprises me how drastically improved a plant is after the second year of pruning! Even after this one round of pruning, I’m much happier with our lilac. Now we just need to work on this powdery mildew situation…

I have to remind myself, too, that even if I don’t know exactly how to prune each plant, doing something is better than nothing and can go a long way to making your yard look cared for and well maintained. (Unless you’re topping a crepe myrtle. Then, just don’t. Your yard will look like a tornado hit it and wiped out your shrubbery. Say no to crepe murder!)

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The backyard blues

We’ve been singing the backyard blues ever since we moved into this house, and I figured it was probably time for an update. (I’ve been avoiding it because I’d rather pretend the backyard doesn’t exist!) We knew it was going to need a lot of help, but I think we severely underestimated the scope of the project. It was a jungle. This is what it looked like when we moved in. Why did we buy this house? I don’t know. We’re crazy.

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Even so, as I look back at previous backyard disasters issues we’ve resolved, I feel a small surge of hope that if we could fix those things, we can put this yard back together better than it was before…it will just take a ton of manual labor, eons of time (that I’m not sure we’ll ever find), and a pretty penny…or thousands. Time to start collecting.

So far, we’ve removed a bunch of trees between our neighbor’s chain link fence and our wooden fence (they were knocking our fence over!), resinstalled our wooden fence including a section of new planks, taken the planks off the deck with the help of some friends, realized the support of the deck had termite damage and so took that apart, too, removed tons of weeds and junk (metal stakes, pieces of wood, remnants of what looked like a bon fire, random pots and plants, loose lattice, etc.), cleaned up random areas of mulch, and most recently fixed our air conditioner pond problem

That’s what the area around our air conditioning unit used to look like every time it rained. Well, actually that picture is after it drained a bit…if it was raining hard the unit was in a couple inches of water. Once we realized the railroad ties were attracting termites, we got rid of them and replaced them with cinder blocks for the time being.

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This is the main reason for our entire back yard redo. Whenever it rains, water drains straight toward the house and this whole bottom level looks like a pond. Like this… (Sorry for the bad iPhone picture.)

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Because all the water flows toward the house, we’ve had to re-grade under the deck (hence why it came apart) so that this bottom level slopes away from the house. We still need to install more drains, regrade the other levels of the yard, and move the retaining wall back a couple feet. No small task, as you can imagine.

Since we’ve seen no damage to the house from the water, though, our immediate concern was just the ac unit. We replaced the nearly 30 year old unit when we moved in, and these babies aren’t cheap!! With the help of our friend (who also happens to own the HVAC company that did the install), we filled in that hole and were able to make it the same level as the bottom tier of our yard. I believe they had to unhook some stuff to move it…but he also serviced it and only charged us for the service call.

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It’s still not pretty, but at least now when it rains, it is out of harm’s way and above the water line. Yay, progress. We’ve also “gained some ground” with all of this boxwood lining our chain link fence. Literally. We were losing quite a bit of our yard to these overgrown monster bushes.

They’re actually growing in our neighbor’s yard, but they never prune them and branches were sticking out at least 4 feet through our fence when we first moved in. We’ve pruned them back a little bit each year, but this time we decided to spare no branches and we cut all the way back to the fence!

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We left some of the small boxwood plants that were growing on our side of the fence and moved some other random plants (they’re everywhere!) close to the fence. We want to cultivate the ones in our own yard so that we have more control over their growth. Andrew got some long handled pruners to cut back the taller growth so that the baby boxwoods on our side will get enough sun.

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We still like the idea of having a hedge of boxwoods here to help camouflage the chain link fence and give us a little privacy from our neighbors, but we wanted to reclaim a foot or two of our yard and grow the boxwoods more purposefully they way we want them.

Here’s the huge pile of everything we cut down. You can’t really tell, but it was taller than us…

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The city took their sweet time coming to pick it up, so all our grass there died. They also claimed they’d already come (and yet our pile was still there?) so they took both of our free mass pick-ups. Thanks for nothing, city! But now it’s July and we don’t water, so our grass is dead anyway. Don’t you just love summer?

Anyway, here are a few more angles of before and “current” pictures of our backyard, just to show you that even though our backyard is still ugly and unusable, we have been working our little tails off!! Before from the right side of the house…(I told you it was a jungle!)

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Some progress.

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And it’s current state.

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Boxwood is pruned, fence is back up (and trees behind it are gone), grass is beginning to fill in a little, weeds and random plants are at a minimum (seriously, I’ve found so many weird plants in our yard!) Little by little, we’ll get there.

Here was the deck when we moved in. Love the red color…NOT!

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It will be going back up, minus the lattice, plus a few more square feet (hopefully) and enhanced with some kind of built-in bench (also hopefully). Here it is a few months ago.

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And unfortunately now it looks worse.

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But sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better, right? That’s what we keep telling ourselves, anyway. From this angle it doesn’t look so bad, though. Grass is a good thing!! (Notice all the pieces of the deck stacked against the house on the left. We’re hoping we can re-use most of them.)

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We know it’s still far from pretty, but having spent so many weekends out there sweating and crying tears of blood (ok, so not…), it’s nice to see that we have done something useful. Our next exterior project is house painting!

Repeat after me. It will be an oasis. It will be relaxing. It will be beautiful. It will be worth all the hard work and money! Ugh, who am I kidding. I’m going to go out to my backyard and scream now.

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