Assignment: Design and Build An Attractive Mail Box Planter That Is Both Drought Tolerant and Deer Proof.

Nancy has a beautiful home and yard in a very nice subdivision. She had decided that she wanted to maintain the wooded lot and to have a yard that would echo the statement of a lovely home to be crafted with stone and timbers. Years later she decided that it was time to deal with the “ugly mailbox.” She called and said, “This is a job for john the plant man.”

mailbox 1

We need to build a planting bed that will make this look better and that will fit into the landscape concept.

Nancy had given the project a lot of thought. We talked about it. She had bought different varieties of thyme—four varieties, six pots of each—to plant the project with. She had learned some things about living in her house

  • Deer like wooded lots and eat up landscaping plants
  • Deer do not like thyme
  • Thyme, once established, is a hardy, drought resistant ground cover.
  • Thyme prefers a prepared, raised bed in order to thrive.

We decided to build a raised rock-bordered garden. We started laying the rocks to form the enclosure for the bed:

mailbox 2

A row of rocks doesn’t look right. We can do better.

At this point, the job didn’t look quite right. We decided that we didn’t want just a row of rocks around a pile of dirt.

Nancy said, “I don’t know quite how to describe what I’m looking for.”
I smiled and said, “I think we want it to look like God dropped a handful of rocks and they fell in just the right places.”
“Yes, that’s it,” she agreed.

So, we took it all apart and started over. I had been looking at bags of cheap “topsoil” that were being sold in the box stores. Lowe’s had some on sale for a dollar a bag and when I examined it, I found it to be ground and mostly decomposed pine bark. If you add lime to this, it is a rather good growing medium. We looked around the property (which was blessed with stones) and carefully, one at the time, chose the stones to fit the concept. We added the “topsoil.”

mailbox 3

After working on the layout, we got the stones to look purposefully random.

The rock job was now totally different looking. The new design fulfilled the purpose of holding the soil together, and it looked a lot more natural. Nancy looked at it, smiled, and said, “And praise His Name, they all hit the ground without denting the mailbox.”  We spread a mulch of wood bark and started planting.

mailbox 4

This is going to look good. A topping of small pine bark will hold everything in place.

The mailbox garden fit right in with the natural front yard.

mailbox 5

The garden fits right in

We ran a few hundred feet of hose out to the road and watered the plants. The different kinds of thyme looked happy in their new home, and the fragrance was delightful.

mailbox 6

Different varieties of thyme will grow well and safely in this environment

A couple of weeks later, I stopped to check on the project. I found that all was well and the plants were growing as they should. The deer had turned up their noses and moved on to other treats.


mailbox 7

A couple of weeks later everything looks happy.

Thank you for visiting Johntheplantman’s blog. There are a lot of helpful articles on this site. WordPress has included a very efficient search engine which you will find at the top of the page. Give it a try—type in the main words for your gardening questions and see where it takes you.

Pruning Azaleas in May-June. Follow These Instructions For Better Shape and Many More Flowers.

Azalea two years later for blog

Two years after shaping, cleaning, and fertilizing our neglected azaleas we were rewarded with quite a show

Late May to early June is the time to work on azaleas. If you prune them, clean them up and fertilize them during this period, you will have beautiful plants with more blooms the following spring. Here’s the rationale:

  • Proper pruning will encourage the stems to branch out
  • Branching forms new stem tips—and lots more of them
  • Azaleas bloom on these new tips, so—more tips makes more blooms.
  • Most azaleas form new growth in the summer.
  • Fertilizer will help them to form the new growth.
  • They form flower buds for the following year in August and September.
  • The flower buds on azaleas must go through a cold period followed by a warm period in order to flower.

Years ago I wrote an illustrated article that explains “The Basics of Pruning.” The article is short, to the point, and informative. You will learn about what happens when we trim a plant and then you will have the ammunition that you need to become an expert on the subject.

Click Here To Read “Pruning As an Art Form, The Basics of Pruning.

Two years ago, Dekie and I pruned and shaped some large azaleas on the edge of our driveway. I wrote an article about it then. The picture at the beginning of this article shows the results of our azalea renovation.

Click Below to see the article on how it is done.

Prune Azaleas in May-June. Fertilize Azaleas, Avoid and Kill Poison Ivy

Azalea before pruning:

azalea before pruning

Not long ago the azalea pictured at the start of this article was all straggly and falling over. There were very few blooms.

Shaping Plants of All Sizes. Part one of a series

I have been repeatedly asked to write a book on pruning techniques so I have started the project. To jog my memory, I have been going through older articles. This one is from 2014. I’ve been keeping the leyland cypress under control. Check it out

Johntheplantman's stories, musings, and gardening.

I was pruning a few bonsai trees for a client. This task allows plenty of time for pondering and I got to thinking about the number of ways I apply bonsai techniques to other pruning situations.

Pruning bonsai trees to maintain and enhance their shape Pruning bonsai trees to maintain and enhance their shape

One of my first and most popular articles that I wrote some time ago is about “The Basics of Pruning”(click) which tells about ways in which the plant responds to different pruning actions such as cutting tips and removing side growth. Aside from the fact that I shape and maintain a lot of sculptured plants for clients, My wife Dekie and I enjoy plant shaping as a hobby. I periodically bring home old scraggly plants that nobody wants and we shape them up for our collection. We plan to use our collection for a decorative project in our back yard next spring. (the shoemaker’s children…

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Tree forming-Landscaping from the inside out.

Now we can see the flower beds from inside the living room. It lets in a lot more light, too.

The beautiful view is obscured by the unruly vegetation.

Johntheplantman's stories, musings, and gardening.


Using Bonsai techniques to prune and shape overgrown shrubs and trees in the landscape.

 I have always thought that a good landscape design should provide pleasing views from the inside out as well as just from the outside. A good landscape garden is a four dimensional “sculpture” that has height, depth, and width, but also has the elements of being viewed from inside. Another dimension has to do with the changing of the landscape sculpture with time.

 I have been studying two arborvitaes at the house on the mountain. They were cute little things when someone planted them there but over the years they had grown and were now blocking not only the pathway, but also the inside view of the garden from the window. I cut the tops out of the trees last year and continued studying. The arborvitaes were also inhibiting the growth and development…

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D’Ann’s Garden—Raised beds with brick borders to grow perennials

Johntheplantman's stories, musings, and gardening.

My friend D’Ann loves gardening. She is good at it too, and she doesn’t mind getting a little dirt under her fingernails. I had built some raised beds for her back yard a few years ago and was impressed with the way in which she planted them and kept them up. Her front yard needed help, though.

Before--D'Ann wanted a rose and perennial flower bed but the project needed definition Before–D’Ann wanted a rose and perennial flower bed but the project needed definition

When D’Ann asked me to build some distinctive yet workable planting beds in her front yard I knew that I would have to be rather particular and produce something that looked right and that would give her a base for growing some healthy and vigorous perennials. I started a drawing and things just didn’t work out that way, so we removed and saved the collection of plants and I took a roll of twine, some stakes, and my paint gun…

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Affection and Happiness

John P. Schulz: Quotes and Notes Daily

comic True love and security–by David Cooper

“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.”–C.S. Lewis

Affection provides happiness. It begins at home and then extends outward into the world in ever increasing circles. Throw a stone into a lake and watch the ripples traveling outward. Throw an affectionate smile into a group of people and you will find similar results. Today, on Valentine’s Day, instead of confining all of your affection to one place, go forth and share it with everyone you meet. All it takes is a bright demeanor and…and, yes, a smile to share.

Everything is going to be all right
John P. Schulz

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Nice Plant, no Tomatoes? Cure or Prevent Blossom End Rot.

Sometimes you will have a nice looking tomato plant that is not setting any tomatoes. Like this:

Healthy looking tomato plant not producing many tomatoes?

Healthy looking tomato plant not producing many tomatoes?

Blossom end rot is a plant disease that attacks the blooms of the tomato plant as they attempt to set fruit. Just in case you need to explain it to a friend, when the bee fertilizes the flower, the base of the flower (containing the ovary) makes seeds. The fertilized ovary houses the seeds, makes nutrients for them and turns into the tomato that we eat. Blossom end rot causes the flower to turn brown and get droopy. The base of the flower (the ovary) will eventually drop off. It looks like this:

Blossom end rot on tomatoes looks like this. The disease attacks the blooms and the place where the ovary is attached to the plant

Blossom end rot on tomatoes looks like this. The disease attacks the blooms and the place where the ovary is attached to the plant

The problem is caused by a calcium deficiency. Long ago farm ladies would save egg shells and put them around the tomato plants. This takes a long time to react, though, so at the first sign of this problem on our plants, I went to my friendly hardware store and purchased the two items shown below:

You will need a spray apparatus and a bottle of blossom end rot treatment, the active ingredient is calcium

You will need a spray apparatus and a bottle of blossom end rot treatment, the active ingredient is calcium

The main ingredient is calcium. The product label says it has 10% calcium derived from calcium chloride. As with most chemicals, brand names don’t matter, read the contents on the label.

Here is a close up of the label.

Here is a close up of the label.

Mix the product at a rate of 2 tablespoons per gallon. Apply it in the morning while it is still cool. Spray the foliage and particularly the flowers of the plant(s). Repeat the treatment once a week for three weeks. Make sure the plant is well watered and not stressed before application. You will see a dramatic difference in tomato production.

If you see the problem on your plants, get right on it. It won’t heal itself.
Happy Gardening
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Gardening in Bales of Straw

My friend Joel loves his vegetable garden. He works in it nearly every day. I went to see him the other day and he showed me his latest project of interest—growing vegetables in bales of straw.

“That’s straw,” Joel explained, “as in wheat straw, not hay as in ‘animal feed that contains every weed seed you don’t want in your garden.’”

Joel takes pride in his gardening

Joel takes pride in his gardening

I had heard before about the practice of growing vegetables in straw bales—my brother tried it one year but he lives far away and I was not able to see the results. I was, however, rather impressed with the lush growth of Joel’s straw-bale garden. Joel, of course, was having a good time showing off. The plants looked large, green, and lush for the first of June.

“It’s best,” he said, “to get the bales in the fall and place them where you want them. This way they will have the benefit of the nutrient-rich winter rain and snow.

He told me that it takes a lot of water to get the necessary initial moisture into the straw bales, but after they have been wet it is easy to keep them that way. I saw a soaker hose laid out down the row of bales. “I sprinkle the straw with organic fertilizers, too,” he said, “because the wheat straw doesn’t really have much in the way of nutrients in it. The straw is really just a porous and sturdy base and planting medium. I try to add nutrients every few weeks throughout the growing season. The plants really love it.”

It looks like a bumper crop

It looks like a bumper crop

I could tell that the garden was about to produce a bumper crop of tomatoes. The plants looked good and I noticed a good fruit set. Some of them were about big enough for some ‘fried green tomatoes’—mmmmm.

I can almost taste the fresh squash

I can almost taste the fresh squash

One of the advantages that I immediately saw was that the plants are (of course) up off of the ground and, therefore, less prone to become infected with as many types of mold, fungus, and insects. I think that the main problem with this kind of gardening would be getting the necessary balance of nutrients (fertilizer) to the roots of the plants. I would also think that a good sprinkling of lime would be beneficial.

Swiss chard is a pretty plant

Swiss chard is a pretty plant

Joel and I both stopped to admire the Swiss chard. I will admit that I don’t know much about eating chard, but it sure is a pretty plant. Actually, I guess just about any garden vegetable and most flowers could be grown in this manner. As we looked through the straw-bale garden, I noticed one other benefit—there were only a few weeds and those were easy to pull. Joel bent over and pulled a few weeds and then stood up and held them aloft with a grin on his face that reminded me of a small, devilish boy showing off his trophy snake. It made me smile.

"I don't see many weeds and those that show up are easy to pull."

“I don’t see many weeds and those that show up are easy to pull.”

There are books on the subject of growing in straw bales, but I really don’t think there is that much to learn about the subject. I noticed that the bales had been placed sideways with the strings to the sides instead of to the top and bottom. This would keep the bales from falling apart. A vegetable garden, of course, needs a lot of sun and that would be a necessity. I thought the soaker hose was a good idea—both for effectiveness of application and for water economy. You could do this on the side of a hill, also, if you turned the bales so that the ends went down hill. That would keep them from turning over.

One other benefit—at the end of the season, the bales should be pretty well used up but the straw will have started to rot and will be full of good nutrients. This is the main ingredient in good compost. I’m going to keep watching to see what Joel does as the project continues.

A year or so ago we built a designer herb garden for Joel. I wrote an article that gives the construction details that you will find here: Building an easy-to-tend raised herb garden.  The herb garden is really looking good and I will write an article about it next week.

If you are a follower, you will know that I took a bit of a vacation from the gardening blog. I was working on two related projects. The big one was finishing a book from my cancer experiences about facing cancer with humor and optimism. The name of the inspirational book is “Sweetie Drives on Chemo Days” and it has been well-received as a good read, a comfort, and a thoughtful gift.

The other project has been the writing of what I call “quotes and notes.” I started last October writing with the promise to myself that I would write one a day for a year. You can actually sign up to get these short pieces of inspiration delivered to your email every morning. Check it out here:

Thanks for visiting John the Plant Man
Everything is going to be all right.
John P. Schulz

What’s Wrong With My Gardenias? Yellow leaves, spots, rust…

Most people enjoy the beauty and fragrance of gardenias. My mother loves gardenias and that’s good enough for me. Gardenia plants are usually quick growers and easy to care for, but they do suffer from a few problems that crop up now and then. One of the reasons I write the johntheplantman articles is to answer frequently asked plant questions. A conversation came up on Facebook the other day and I am including it here. The conversation is edited and names changed for privacy.

Gardenias are beautiful and fragrant but they do have some peculiarities.

Gardenias are beautiful and fragrant but they do have some peculiarities.

Sandra: Why are my gardenias turning yellow?
Roberta: Uh, oh, If it’s just a few leaves, they’re probably all right. If it’s all turning yellow, is it too wet?
Jo Ann: They almost died last year from the snow so they’re still fragile. A few yellow leaves and some with ‘rusty’ spots…
Dekie: johntheplantman can help you. I learned about it yesterday.
Jo Ann: johntheplantman, please help me save my gardenias! Any tips? I already know about wooden nickels.

I’ve been dealing with these and other problems with gardenias for years. I remember my grandmother telling me about the problems years ago. She was old (a young 70) and I was young then. (Now I am about to enter my seventies and I don’t think it’s old any more) Here’s a picture showing some of the problems:

What's wrong with my gardenia plant?

What’s wrong with my gardenia plant?

The first thing we see is yellow leaves. Yellow leaves on any green plant immediately shows a lack of nutrients—mainly nitrogen. This does not necessarily mean that we need to fertilize, though. Roberta’s comment above asking if it was too wet was a good one. When the plants are too wet, a root fungus could set in and the plant cannot bring nutrients into its system.

Gardenias are funny in this department. They do need the nitrogen. If you study the picture you will see a few totally yellow leaves but you will also see a yellow cast and yellow veining in other places. This is definitely a lack of nitrogen—but what causes it and how do we treat it?

Gardenias are picky in that they like to have their nutrients presented to them in a most particular manner. My grandmother told me to stir up the soil around the drip line of the plant, mix 3 tablespoons of Epsom salts with a gallon of water and then pour the mixture around the plants. I tried it. I found out that the old lady knew what she was talking about. The plant regained its vigor and color. I found later that I could also pour the Epsom salts mixture over the leaves and get even better results.  Try it.

A week after applying the Epsom salts, you will want to mix up a balanced water soluble plant food like Miracle Grow and pour it over the plant and around the plant’s roots.

Now, let’s look at that leaf a little closer.

Close up showing fungus on gardenia

Close up showing fungus on gardenia

Notice the hole in the leaf that has brown margins. Below and to the left you will see a leaf with a stripe that is brown fading into yellow. These are signs of a leaf fungus. There is probably nothing you can do to restore the infected leaves, but you can spray with a fungicide (not insecticide) that will keep the fungus from spreading. A fungicide with Daconyl is a good one. A good organic fungicide is sulphur, and your nurseryman may be able to suggest something else.

I don’t have a picture of it, but sometimes the gardenia plant will become covered and spotted with a black powder. If you look on the undersides of the leaves you will more than likely see evidence of aphids. It seems that the aphids excrete a substance which attracts and supports the fungus life. In this case, you need an insecticide and a fungicide. It is most difficult to get rid of aphids on gardenias. Check with your extension agent or a University near you.  With any insecticide you use, remember the bees.

If you really want to get organic with aphid control, you can import some ladybugs. Ladybugs eat aphids like pie. I think Auburn University has done some research on ladybug availability. I’ll have to check on it unless one of my wonderful readers beats me to it.

Thanks for visiting John the Plant Man. Do try the Epsom salts. You will get almost instant gratification. Of course, you may be one of those people who find “instant gratification” a bit too slow. Sorry about that.

One of the reasons I have been gone from this blog for a while is that I have been finishing off and polishing my new book, Sweetie Drives on Chemo Days. It is a funny, optimistic, and inspirational account of dealing with cancer. You may read about it here.

Humor and Optimism help the cancer victim.

Humor and Optimism help the cancer victim.

Zen and the art of crape myrtle pruning

It’s pruning time for crape myrtles. Check out what John The Plant Man has to say about the issue.

Johntheplantman's stories, musings, and gardening.

Zen and the art of crape myrtle pruning.

Of all the questions I am asked about landscaping and gardening, I think most frequently asked is about how to prune crape myrtles.  While thinking about the complex answer to this question, I have come up with the idea that we should talk about “shaping” the plant instead of “pruning” or “cutting back”.  Learning to grow a plant is one thing, shaping it is an art form.

A 40 ft. tall uncut crape makes nice shade but few blooms A 40 ft. tall uncut crape makes nice shade but few blooms

I guess that the first part of the answer is that a crape myrtle will grow just fine without any pruning at all.  It may turn out to be a large bush or it may turn out to be a tall tree.  In the deep south, these plants are commonly grown as shade trees.  They will become rather large if left untouched—and if…

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