Planting Guide for Woody Plants (Trees and Shrubs)

If you’ve never planted a tree or shrub, you should not be intimidated, but you should know that it is more than just digging a hole and sticking the plant in it. Technique matters.

We have given away this free one page planting guide at Urban Earth for years.

Field grown Emerald Green Arborvitae with the root ball wrapped in wire and burlap (bnb).

Woody plants, trees, and shrubs come in either a container grown form or a root ball wrapped in burlap. Container grown plants tend to cost more than ball in burlap (bnb) but are usually worth the extra money. This is because container grown plants come with a fully intact root system. In contrast, bnb plants are grown in a field and then cut out of the ground by the grower when it is time to ship them to a retailer. As such, in comparison to container grown plants, the ability of their root system to take up nutrients and water is impaired for at least the first few months after planting.

Since the majority of the plants Urban Earth sells are container grown plants, which are better for most consumers, this guide

Container grown plants, like these beautiful Awabuki Chindo Viburnums, cost a bit more than bnb plants but are well worth the extra money.

assumes the reader is planting a container grown plant.


Right Plant, Right Spot

The first step is to pick a good spot. The number one reason plants fail is because plant and location are not properly matched. Plants differ in the number of hours of sunlight they need, the frequency with which they need watering, whether they tolerate wet feet, and their preferred types of soil. For best results, work with our sales staff to make sure the plant you are choosing is appropriate for the spot in which you intend to install it. For them to help you, you will need to know whether the spot is on the North, South, East, or West side of your home, whether the spot is sheltered from Western winds, whether the spot is low with frequent standing water or higher than the rest of the yard, etc.

In this midtown landscape makeover, planted in winter, notice how garden designer, Jesse Howley, picked a spot for this coral bark maple and this holly where they get full morning sun but also get shelter from western winds, planting both slightly high for good drainage, and mulching with pine needles. Right plant, right spot.

Digging the Hole

My drawing skills are terrible! But, this might help illustrate my explanation.

The next step is digging the hole. The hole should only be dug when the soil is friable. To test for friability, pick up a handful of the

Our Hisco long handled garden spade is ideal for taller gardeners or those needing more leverage.

soil and throw it against a hard surface. If it breaks apart into smaller pieces, it is friable. If it splats, looking like a pancake, it is not friable and should be allowed to dry out some before digging. If you dig a hole when the soil is not friable, the sides will become sealed by the shovel as you slide it into the ground, possibly preventing drainage and slowing root growth, becoming like a terracotta pot.

The shape of the hole should be a shallow bowl with a diameter at least 3 times the size of that of the root ball. This will allow water to penetrate the surface better and give new surface roots an easy space into which to spread. For example, if the plant came in a trade 3 gallon container, the most common size in the nursery trade, it likely has a root ball with a diameter at the top of 10 to 11 inches. So, the top of your bowl-shaped hole should be 30-33 inches across, with sloping sides tapering down to 10-11 inches at the bottom.

A high quality commercial grade shovel, like our d-handled Hisco garden spade, is an essential tool for every home owner and gardener.

The hole should be no deeper than minimally necessary to accommodate 80% to 85% of the height of the root ball. For example, if the plant comes in a trade 3 gallon pot, it likely has a root ball that is about 10 inches high. Accordingly, the hole should be about 8 to 8.5 inches deep. Upon completion, the plant should sit a little high, to promote drainage away from the trunk rather than water pooled around the trunk.

Avoid the temptation of digging the hole deeper than necessary and filling back in with what you consider better soil, “for the tap root.” Past the seedling stage, woody plants rarely send roots down, instead sending them out to the sides. Hence, horticulturalists often speak of “the tap root myth.” And, if you dig deeper and then back-fill to bring the root ball back up, there will be settling, meaning the crown of the root ball, where the roots connect to the trunk, may end up below grade, rather than above grade, with the passage of time.

This is in contrast to what many garden guides will tell you, stating that the hole should be deeper than the root ball. For example, the 7th edition of the Mid-South Garden Guide (MSGG), which I consider to be a brilliantly written guide, definitive in most matters, states, on page 36, “Dig a hole a little deeper than the root ball and at least twice as wide.” Though gardening is not known for fast changing, cutting-edge thinking, the gardening community does change its mind about things. Thus, most competent landscape installers I know have evolved in their thinking on this and dig the hole only as deep as necessary, but a bit wider than this quote from the MSGG might imply.

The Mid-South Garden Guide, a classic text that are proud to carry, currently in its 7th edition, is essential for every Memphis gardener.

Putting the Plant in the Hole

After the hole is dug, remove the plant from the pot by grasping the base of the trunk, right at or slightly above the crown, while holding the pot in place or sliding it out. If it doesn’t come out easily, squeeze the sides or even gently pound the sides a bit to loosen it up. If it still won’t slide out easily, use a box cutter to cut the bottom off of the pot and then slice up the side to separate it from plant from pot entirely.

NOTE: Roses are different than most other woody plants. They have a much more fragile root ball and should always be sliced out of the pot with a box cutter, first slicing off the bottom and then placing the plant in the hole before slicing off the slides of the container. The backfill content for roses should also be different and is beyond the scope of this guide.

After removing the plant from the pot, gently loosen its root ball. If it is significantly root bound, with girdling roots (thick roots circling all the way around the root ball) you may want to do some light pruning or cutting of the roots with shears or a pruning saw to open up the root ball a bit. But, don’t go over board with this! Generally, the horticultural community does less severe root ball loosening than it used to do.

Then, place the plant in the hole, with about 15% to 20% of the root ball above the existing grade so that water will drain away from rather than towards the trunk, post planting. Keep in mind that, though roots are designed to absorb water, the cambium layer forming the outside of trunks is not designed to absorb water. Water pooling and sitting against a trunk will eventually cause damage to the outer cambium layer and impair the plant’s ability to take up nutrients.

Putting Soil in the Hole

A good recipe for soil back-fill for woody plants is half of the original soil, half Fox Farms Original Planting Mix, and a 1/4 cup of soil sulfur, well mixed.

There is much written about the ideal soil amendments for planting. In fact, there is an entire chapter on the subject in the 7th edition of the MSGG! And, many suggest that you should always have your soil tested in a laboratory to see what it needs before planting. But, I am currently advising all of our customers to back fill the hole around the plant with a mixture composed of 50% Fox Farms Original Planting Mix, 50% of the original soil, and a quarter cup of soil sulfur. Unless you are doing a wholesale re-landscaping of a significantly large portion of the yard, spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on plants, soil testing adds a layer of difficulty to the task of installing a plant or tree that will only occasionally be rewarded with better results. Similarly, though custom mixing soil from raw ingredients may produce better results for experienced gardeners, most of the time the Fox Farms Original Planting Mix is superior to anything you could mix up yourself.

As you place your soil mix back in the hole, gently press it down around the root ball, adding more as necessary, being careful to keep it from piling against the trunk. When finished, the soil should slope gently away from the root crown, where the roots meet the trunk. Most trees, and many shrubs, will have a slight flaring of the trunk right above the root crown. That part should remain visible.

It would be hard to match a mix of this quality with a home brew soil mix. Though the harvesting of bat guano can be damaging to the habitat of bat populations, our Fox Farm representative has assured us that they use only fossilized bat guano from caves not currently occupied by bats.

In fact, when arborists are called to inspect struggling trees in the ground for less than 2 years, that is often the first thing they notice, that the trunk flare is missing, because the tree was planted too low, causing a gradual breakdown of the outer cambium layer, where the tree’s vascular tissue exists, home of the pathways through which nutrients travel up the trunk from the roots.

Finally, drench the tree with water, perhaps more than you might regularly water with, to get any air pockets out and to rehydrate the roots from any drying that has occurred during the trip from the nursery to the hole. Add more soil if necessary because of settling after watering.

Mulch and Maintenance

After planting, mulch with the 3 to 4 inches of fresh pine needles or 1 to 2 inches of wood chips or bark mulch. For more information about mulching, please read my blog article, “Mulch Ado About Nothing,” in which I explain why pine needles are superior to other mulches. The purpose of mulch is to help reduce weeds, slow the evaporation of moisture from the soil, and give the ground around the plants a uniform appearance.

Going forward, most plants benefit from an application of 12-6-6 granular time-release fertilizer, every spring and fall, or a monthly application of one of our Happy Frog organic fertilizers. I also advise an annual application of soil sulfur, which I usually do in the fall. Some people advise mixing fertilizer into the back fill when planting, initially. Even I will sometimes do that, but newly installed plants are more sensitive to over-fertilization and there is usually adequate nutrition in the soil they came in, combined with the Fox Farm planting mix I described above, and existing soil. If you use the Fox Farm Planting Mix, you will not need to mix in any additional fertilizer into the soil.

Remember, though most soil has a tendency to revert to a neutral ph over time, most woody plants absorb nutrients and water better when the soil is at least slightly acidic. Soil sulfur is a natural and gentle soil acidifier. While soil can be made too acidic for many plants, it is harder to make a mistake when using purely organic ingredients, which are slower acting than purely synthetic products. Soil sulfur is a natural fungicide, and often cures many nutrient deficiencies in plants, since nutrient deficiencies occur most often, not because the nutrients aren’t in the soil, but because the plant can’t pull those nutrients from the soil if the ph is too high (alkaline). Since sulfur is a negatively charged particle, an anion, it also does not bind with negatively charged soil particles, making it more vulnerable to leaching, needing more frequent replenishing.


A four pound bag of soil sulfur costs well under $15.00 ($11.99 at the time of this writing) and is essential for every gardener to have in her shed.

John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings, has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. If you read this blog entry, please email the author at and let him know what you think. 





New Years Resolutions for Your Landscape

“I have no plants in my house.  They won’t live for me.  Some of them don’t even wait to die, they commit suicide.” 
–  Jerry Seinfeld


I hear people make self-deprecating statements about their gardening abilities all the time. Yet, the reality is that no one is born a gardener. Like all things, people learn to be better gardeners by practicing, and practicing begins with setting goals. This week, the mid-south is bitterly cold, a terrible time to go outside and do yard work, but a great time to write down some of your goals for your landscape in 2018.

But, don’t just write down your goals. Be sure to share them with others! Sharing goals is a way of sharing optimism and a belief in each other.

Accordingly, I encourage homeowners to set goals for improvement in their landscapes and their gardening abilities each year. Then, ask the staff at Urban Earth for help in achieving those goals. If you’re having trouble developing gardening goals for 2018, here are a few I would urge you to consider, tailoring them to your own needs and current abilities:

Learn to identify all the plants in your yard.

If you know the names of your plants, you will be much better situated to take advantage of the many websites and other resources for learning to care for them and learning how to diagnose and solve their problems. Knowing the names of the plants in your yard is the first and most difficult step to knowing how to care for them. Please email me photos at if you need any help!

One of the most common plants in Memphis landscape is azaleas, of which there many different types, and the most common problem with them is azalea lace bug, usually appearing as brown spots underneath the leaves and white spots on top of the leaves.

Develop and work a good irrigation strategy for your landscape.

If you can afford it, a professionally installed irrigation system is a good investment for many homeowners. If you want to go this route, and don’t know of anyone who installs them, we’re happy to refer you to one of the irrigation companies we’ve seen do good work.

Alternatively, email me or visit us at Urban Earth to learn how to water without an irrigation system. To give you an idea, I only water 6-8 times per year because of the plants I chose for my yard, the location I chose for them, how I planted them, how I fertilize them, and because I have a good sense of exactly when and how to water them. With practice, you too can develop this expertise.

Develop and implement a fertilization plan for your landscape.

Fertilization, the providing of essential nutrients for plants, can be a very complicated topic but most people can get 70% of the benefits by doing 5-10% of the work. The old adage, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” is as true for fertilizing as it is for anything.

Thus, my recommendation for the kind of person who simply doesn’t have a lot of time to invest in fertilizing is to do two things:

1. Follow Greg Touliatos’s advice and apply a controlled release 12-6-6 fertilizer to all of your turf and plants, following the application rates on the bag, once in late winter or early spring and again in early fall;

2. Apply soil sulfur to all plants except turf grass and boxwoods every fall at the average rate of a quarter cup per shrub with one or two four pound bags of soil sulfur being perfectly adequate for most yards.

Then, if and when plant problems arise, communicate them to an expert and make slight plant specific adjustments as necessary.

Are there fertilization regimens likely to produce more extraordinary results? Of course! Being or having “the best” is never easy. But, most of our customers are looking for “pretty good” and are not willing to invest the time and money to become true experts at fertilization. If you evolve into one of those people who wants more than our simple suggestion for a fertilization program can provide, we can assist you with that, when the time comes.

Add a water feature to your landscape.

I truly believe that no landscape is complete without a water feature. The presence of water in the landscape is calming to humans and can be attractive to beautiful birds and beneficial insects and pollinators. It can be as simple as a bird bath or as sophisticated as a large ornamental koi pond. And, it can even be somewhere in between, like a fountain or an above ground water garden. Regardless of where you decide you want to be in the continuum, we can help you get there. (I, personally, don’t count swimming pools as a garden feature but some do.)

One of many fountains Urban Earth Garden Center carries by Campania and Fiore Stone.

Develop and implement a plan to control weeds in your landscape.

Digging out weeds is not fun. The best way to approach weeds is to prevent them. You can do this in a few ways:

A. Plant to reduce bare ground in your garden, to keep sunlight from hitting soil, without overplanting;

B. Use a mulch that keeps weed seed dropped by birds, wind, or gravity from touching soil (never use weed fabric);

C. Use a synthetic or organic pre-emergent product to chemically prevent seeds in your soil from germinating without killing living plants.

With care, you can also use a post-emergent herbicide to kill weeds after the seed has germinated. Post-emergent herbicides can be selective or non-selective. Selective herbicides kill some types of plants but not others. For example, there are formulations that kill most broad leaved weeds but not grass and formulations that kill grasses only but not broad leafed plants.

Similarly, herbicides can be contact or systemic in nature. Contact herbicides are those that kill just by touching the plant and usually produce results within a few hours. The advantage of this is that results are quick. The disadvantage is that the results tend to be incomplete, e.g. killing the canopy of a plant but leaving the root system healthy enough to grow a new canopy. In contrast, systemic herbicides are first absorbed into the plant, before killing. They take longer to work, results taking days or even weeks, but are more thorough.

Traditionally, the only organic option for herbicides was diluted vinegar, a contact herbicide. But, in recent years, suppliers are putting in a greater effort at supplying organic herbicides. In my observation, it is not yet clear how effective they are.

Sketch out a long term plan for your landscape.

Few people have the money to completely re-landscape their yard all at once. And, you work hard for the money you choose to devote to landscape. The best way to spend it wisely is to develop a plan first.

I always tell people the way to begin a landscape plan is browsing plants and deciding what you like first; your yard does not care what plants you like. So, what I mean by that is you have to first understand your yard. What direction does your home face? What existing plant material do you have? How many hours of sunlight do the various parts of your yard get? You need to understand the yard you have before you can get the yard you want.

So, your yard is an important partner in choosing plants. And, so are we. Email me to set up an appointment for a free in-store design consultation, if you plan to purchase plants from us and do the work yourself, or ask for a site visit by one of our landscape company’s designers if you would like for us to the work. The fee for the site visit is $100 (as of the publication of this article) but you get a credit of $100 towards the labor portion of any proposal for work that you accept.

For inspiration, you might read Kim Halyak’s informative series of interviews of local garden designers.

Look at ways you can use fewer man-made chemicals in your landscape

If you have a weed or a plant disease problem, we usually have a synthetic or naturally derived chemical solution. But, using chemicals is not without risk to you, to your plants, and the environment. Most of these problems are “cultural,” meaning they relate to how you maintain your plants, whether their water and nutritional needs are being met, and whether the right plant is in the right spot. After you learn to identify all of the plants in your yard, learn to identify their needs so they are less vulnerable to plant disease. Humans have better immune systems when they are physically fit and psychologically healthy and plants are not that different.

Add more native plants to your landscape.

This year, you are likely to hear a lot about the native plant movement in Memphis. The theme for the Cooper-Young Garden Walk this year is native plants, with Doug Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home, as their featured speaker. And, the Memphis Horticultural Society will be hosting a native plant conference later in the year. As part of our Saturday speaker series, we will be hosting Mike Larivee, an expert on the native plant movement, on Saturday, March 24, 2018 at 1pm, part of our Saturday speaker series. Generally, the idea behind the native plant movement is that native plants are less likely to disrupt our native habitats. Yet, they aren’t the plants most people are putting in their yards, instead choosing cultivated plants from other regions of the world, disrupting our eco-system.

Visit public gardens once each season.

Make it a goal to visit the Dixon and the Memphis Botanic Garden once each year. They’re both fun places to go, you’ll learn a lot just walking around and reading the signage, and they could use your support.

Plant at least one thing that will provide interest during each month of the year.

Take a calendar and make sure you have something in your yard each month that looks especially vibrant. For the months you don’t seem to have anything, talk to the staff at Urban Earth about getting

The combination of a holly and a coral bark maple brightens up what would otherwise be a bleak January landscape.

something that will plug those holes. For example, it’s easy to make your yard look extraordinary in May or June, but what about the other 10 months of the year? You should have something that really shines, providing interest in your garden, for each month.

Get an ISA Certified Arborist to inspect your trees.

If you have trees in your yard, especially big shade trees, I think it’s a good idea to have a tree expert you trust examine them once every three years. Although there are people with a lot of expertise in trees who are not certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, ISA Certification is one way of proving expertise. ISA certified arborists have had a number of years of experience, have passed a rigorous exam, and are subject to a strict code of ethics.


Of course, it is also true that some of the most knowledgeable tree experts I have met have never bothered with ISA Certification. So, if you know of someone with a reputation for excellence, don’t rule them out just because they aren’t ISA certified!


Regardless of who does it, getting your trees inspected every three years might save you a lot of money in the long run, heading off problems before they become more expensive. Keep a record of who did the inspection, when they did the inspection, and ask for a written report, in the event a problem comes up down the road, for example, a tree collapsing on a guest’s car.

Expand your planting beds and reduce your turf grass.

Memphians love their turf grass, and, if you have children or grandchildren playing a lot of sports in the yard, it’s really necessary. But it takes a lot of chemicals and a lot of water to maintain a perfectly uniform turf. So, turf grass is not the most environmentally friendly garden element. Because of this, one of the biggest trends in gardening designs is reducing the amount of turf grass you have in your yard, expanding your planting beds.


The simplest way to compost is to come in and buy one of our compost tumblers. Insert your shredded leaves, rinsed out egg shells, vegetable waste (so long as it doesn’t have oils in it), and grass clippings (so long as you have not used any herbicides in your turf grass). Then, when the compost is ready, generally when it has turned to a uniform consistency and is black or nearly black, top-dress your planting beds with it or use it in your back-fill with new plantings.

Our compost tumbler offers a simple solution.


Attend 3 or More Free Seminars/Classes/Talks at Urban Earth

We are working really hard to expand our Saturday speaker series and there is something sure to interest everyone. Consider setting a goal for yourself to attend at least 3 of our scheduled talks. You’ll meet other people who are also interested in gardening and likely learn a great deal from one of our knowledgeable speakers.

Attend the Cooper-Young Garden Walk

It is not often that total strangers let you into their yard to nose around, but each year, many of the best gardeners in the city who call the Cooper-Young neighborhood their home open their yards up to let you do just that. And, very often, the owners are there to answer questions! The third annual Cooper-Young Garden Walk will be held May 19 and 20, 2018. Be sure to check it out!


John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. If you read this blog entry, please email the author at and let him know what you think. 


Great Gift Ideas from Urban Earth’s Manager!

Urban Earth is, first and foremost, a plant nursery, but our garden center also includes many unique items related to the gardening lifestyle.


Urban Earth provides free gift wrapping, to the extent the item is one that can be wrapped. We also have great gift bags!



There are more great gifts than could possibly be described in a single blog post, but here are just a few good choices:


Electronic Candles

When I first heard about the electronic candles, I pictured the ones I had seen at Wal Mart 30 years ago, terribly tacky things I could not imagine wanting to buy, much less sell to others. But, when I finally saw these in action, they took my breath away! The ivory candles are made of real wax and, when turned on, the flame is indistinguishable from the real thing. Then, if that wasn’t enough, they can be programmed to turn on at the same time every day and stay on for several hours before turning themselves off. And, not only that, they can be operated with a remote (sold separately for $9.99 but one remote can operate as many candles as you own). There are many options of sizes and finishes from which to choose, including:

Boxed pair of 2 inches x 4 inches candles in an ivory wax finish for $44.99

A 3 flame pillar 6 inches x 10 inches in an ivory wax finish for $139.99

A 3.5 inches x 5 inches in either ivory wax or or burlap wrapped wax for $40.00

Our electronic candles come in a variety of sizes and finishes and are easily wrapped! One remote ($9.99) will operate as many of them as you own. Some are even for outdoor use!

Boxed pair of 1 inch x 10 inches in an ivory wax finish, perfect for candle holders (which we also sell) on the Christmas dinner table $57.50

A 3 flame pillar 6 inches x 6 inches in ivory wax for $109.99

A 3.5 inch x 8 inch in silver finish for $57.50

A 3.5 inch x 9 inch in a waxed ivory finish for $60.00

We also have one really cool Aquaflame Outdoor Fountain Candle, 8.5 inch, with an included remote, for only $45.00 (a discontinued item)!

Traditional Wax Candles

But, if you don’t think the beneficiary of your Christmas largesse would not appreciate the convenience and modernity of electronic candles, we still carry the real thing, waxed works of art that are amazing! Among others, we have:

Volcanica handcrafted candles in two sizes for $17.00 and $42.00

Botanicals short scented candles in a variety of horticultural scents for $14.50

Garden Books

We have a variety of great gardening books but the one that no Memphis area home-owner or gardener should be without is The Mid-south Garden Guide for $23.99. Why buy a garden book that may or may not contain information accurate to Memphis? Written by locals for locals, this 500+ page treasure of information was originally written by Dr. Carolyn M. Kittle and published by the Memphis Garden Club in 1954. The seventh edition, published in 2007, has been poured over by local experts to bring it up-to-date and has beautiful photographs and illustrations. This is the book I have turned to repeatedly in my career in horticulture and it as an especially perfect gift for a first time Memphis home owner.

Garden Gloves

Our garden gloves are decidedly high end, not the kind you want to lose, and they make perfect gifts, the kind you might have your whole life. Here are a few that come in a variety of sizes:


Bionic Tough Pro Heavy Duty Gloves for Men $39.99

Bionic Relief Grip Women’s Gloves $39.99

Bionic Rose Gloves $49.99

Pink and Brown Garden Girl Gloves $18.99

Brown Garden Girl Premium Gloves with Touch Screen Feature $24.99


Garden Tools & Accessories

We carry all sorts of great tools, brands like Hisco, Classic, Fiskars, Corona, and Felco. A few great items that look great when the gardener in your family comes downstairs to see what Santa brought her are:

Fiskars Extendable Pruning Saw (extends from 3 feet to 8 feet) for $34.99

Hisco Garden Turning Fork (the same brand our landscape crews use) for $44.99

Brown Raised Metal Bed Kit (12 inches x 47 inches x 26 inches) for $99.99

Set of 10 Copper Plant Labels $11.99

Plankets for covering plants before frosts in two sizes, 10 feet diameter round for $17.95 and 10 feet x 20 feet rectangular, with stakes, for $24.99

Wind Chimes

We carry wind chimes from several different manufacturers, both ceramic and metal. Our largest are Corinthian Bells and Music of the Spheres. They are both top quality but the chimes by Music of the Spheres tend to be a little more expensive, the preferred brand of the musically inclined, because they are more precisely tuned. Here are just a few of what we have in stock:

Corinthian Bells Wind Chimes

Corinthian Bells in the 36 inch size for $94.99

Music of the Spheres Soprano $89.99

Music of the Spheres Mezzo $129.99

Music of the Spheres Alto $209.99

Valencia Fountain and Music of the Spheres Wind Chimes

Music of the Spheres Bass $599.99


Outdoor Garden Art

As a plant nursery, we naturally think your landscape and garden should be primarily filled with, well, plants. Yet, no landscape or garden is complete without non-plant elements, things like statuary, sculpture, fountains, outdoor furniture,and ponds. Here are just a few:

Cinderella Metal Garden Arch $499.99

Rain Chains $39.99

Lava Indoor/Outdoor Pillows $40.00

Vertical Wall Planters $39.99

Campania or Fiore Fountains, including the Valencia Fountain for $687.00 and the Gold Granite Table Top Fountain for $399.99

Bird baths of all types including a ceramic bird bath in a variety of colors for $139.99

Sitting Cat Statue $193.00

Small garden statuary

Cast Iron Rabbit $69.00

Trout Statue $62.00

Cut Steel Oil Drum Top Wall Hanging $99.00

Edison String Lights Multi-Colored or White $45.00

Children’s Items

(Not infrequently purchased by adults for adults)

When Greg and Carla Touliatos envisioned a garden center, they wanted children involved too, to pull them into the natural world in the hopes they will become gardeners as adults, rather than merely occupying them while their parents browse. In keeping with that vision, the store is stocked with a plethora of unusual items that appeal to kids of all ages, including miniature gardening and fairy gardening supplies, terrarium supplies, miniature garden tools, garden gloves for kids, and paleontology themed items:



Robotic T-Rex Kit $24.95

Dig-It-Up Dinosaur Eggs $24.95

Dig-It-Up T-Rex Kit $24.95

Dig-It-Up Triceratops Kit $24.95

Mindware Brainbox Science & Nature $14.99

Hanging Flying Baby Pteranodon for indoor ceilings or outdoor limbs or structures $369.99

Miniature Garden Sets of Various Types $44.99

Create Your Own Terrarium Kit $29.99

Home Decor and Hosting

We have many items for bringing the garden lifestyle indoors, just a few of which are:

Bee Box Lantern (perfect for holding electronic or traditional wax candles) $59.99

Brightly painted 2.1 Gallon Watering Can, excellently functioning but beautiful too as decor for $29.99

Botanicals Scented Room Mist Spray $12.50

Set of 20 Anne Griffin Correspondence Cards $36.99

Set of 6 Pet Refrigerator Magnets $22.99

Weems & Plath Storm Glass Set $179.99

2018 Master Gardener Calendar $15.00

Cherub Lamp $415.00

Doorknob and Faucet Handle Reusable Wine Corks of various types $31.00

Pig Head Wall Hanging $79.99

Large Distressed Zinc Vase, a perfect farm chic item for holding plant cuttings $16.95

Desktop Conant Thermometer $11.99

Soaps & Body Creams

Farm Soap $11.99

Toke Hemp & Hippy Sandalwood Body Cream $18.99

Little & Bonny Liquid Pump Hand Soap $21.95

Rad Soap Company Soaps of various types $7.99

Ouch Salve by Rad Soap Company $7.99


Pet Items

When you visit Urban Earth, always feel free to bring your well-behaved and leashed dog. We’ll have treats a fresh water bowl ready! And, of course, we wouldn’t want to leave your pets out in our gift items. So, here are just a few:

Purrfect Puppy Bug Relief Cream $12.00

Dirty Dog Bug Repellant Soap $10.99

Purrfect Puppy Hot Spot Soap $12.00



No plant is more synonymous with the fall season than mums! We have them in white, red, pink, orange, yellow, and we might even get other colors in later this season.


Plants become aware that fall is approaching well before humans. For those of us who work with plants, we think of fall as beginning well before coffee shops start offering pumpkin spice lattes. Best to get started on your fall gardening tasks immediately!



Get leaves up as soon as they start falling

The process of leaves falling from trees is called abscission and it begins before the leaf actually falls from the tree, happening in three steps: remobilization, protective layer formation, and detachment. During remobilization, the tree extracts nutrients from chlorophyll, degrading it, and causing the leaf to change color by leaving carotenoids (orange, red, and yellow plant pigments) in place but destroying the chlorophyll. Nitrogen in particular is often bound up in chlorophyll and the tree needs that nitrogen to get through the winter.


This year we are carrying two leaf rakes, a professional grade, by Hisco, just like the rakes our landscape crews use, and a vintage style but durable rake with a stained wood handle that is sure to become a family heirloom.


There are two common misconceptions among gardeners: 1. Plants don’t need nitrogen in winter and any nitrogen they get will cause them to put on new growth and become vulnerable to winter cold; 2. Leaves allowed to decompose in winter will become a good source of nitrogen in the spring.


Bright Lights Swiss Chard, a nice addition to any fall container arrangement or seasonal bed planting configuration

First, though high nitrogen inorganic fertilizer with no time release component in late summer or early fall may cause a burst of new growth in some circumstances, the concern is usually overblown. Winters in Memphis tend to be mild and approach gradually, and plants need nitrogen in varying amounts year round. Second, as we learned when looking at the process of abscission, much of the nitrogen is sucked out of leaves by the plant before leaf drop.


Accordingly, allowing leaves to sit under trees and around shrubs all winter, year after year, as they do in forests, is not good for the plants. To see what happens in the “natural state,” walk through The Old Forest in Overton Park and notice how a large percentage of plants in an actual forest are in various states of deterioration and decay. Forests survive, often, more by their prolific seed drop rather than because conditions are ideal for individual plants. New plants are ever replacing old plants, giving the illusion of consistency.


So, start getting up leaves as soon as they start falling! Blow or rake leaves out of beds regularly, maybe onto your turf grass, and then run over them with a lawn mower, before the leaf volume gets so great that it will choke your mower. Then bag the shredded leaves and place them curbside for municipal pickup (shredding them first will reduce the number of bags needed tremendously and speed their decomposition in a landfill) or put them in your compost bin.  Remember, though leaves alone are poor sources of nitrogen, composted leaf mulch, mixed with other compost, can be good spring fertilizer or a component for a custom soil mix.

A small moss planter and a package of napkins from Urban Earth, with a few small spoon gourds grown from our Baker Creek Seedsline makes for a perfect host or hostess gift!


Allowing leaves to accumulate excessively on top of the lawn will create the perfect breeding ground for fungal problems. Raise the mower blades to 3-4 inches in late summer and let the mower suck up some leaves and leave a small amount of shredded leaves in the turf.


Plant fall annuals for color

It would be unwise to plant an entire yard in annuals, given the expense. But, every yard should have designated spots for seasonal color.  Some of the best annuals for planting in the fall include pansies, violas, mums, snapdragons, swiss chard, and kale. Urban Earth Garden Center has a full selection in stock right now.  To see more of what’s in stock, check out our slideshows on our facebook page, Urban Earth by Greg Touliatos.


To really learn about fall color, join us for a free class on the subject (“Fall Annuals and Fall Bulbs for Your Garden”) by David Levy, Greg Touliatos, and John Jennings on Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 1pm.


Pro-tip: white blooms show up better outdoors at night than any other color, perfect for evening entertaining.

Put down a granular pre-emergent

Put down a granular pre-emergent in both the spring and fall to stop weed seed from germinating. We like Hi-Yield Turf & Ornamental Weed & Grass Stopper Containing Dimension. One bag will cover up to 3,500 square feet of planting beds or up to 5,000 square feet of turf. Though it is not a cure-all, it will form a chemical barrier that will prevent a large percentage of weed seed from germinating and becoming fall annual weeds.  Preen is the most widely known pre-emergent among consumers but we like this product better.


Put down seed for cool season plants

Apply fescue seed, winter rye seed, or “fall cover crop” mixes to your turf in September and October for best results.


Fescue is often described as a shade grass but a more accurate description is a cool season grass that does well under the canopies of deciduous trees. Zoysia and Bermuda are warm season grasses, meaning that they engage in photosynthesis in the spring and summer and go dormant when temperatures drop. In contrast, cool season grasses, like fescue, engage in photosynthesis, coming alive, after leaf drop. The fact that fescue is not a “shade grass” is important because it would not do well under the canopies of evergreen trees. (Note: Creeping red fescue is a genuine shade grass but is not recommended because it has zero tread tolerance; even a squirrel walking across it will kill it, the reason we don’t carry the “deep shade” fescue mixes some other garden centers carry.)


This year we are carrying a variety of cool season seed offerings, including Five Star Fescue in various sized bags, a fall cover crop mix of annual clover and rye, fall and winter forage crops for hunting plots, and duranna white clover, just to name a few.

Also, remember that fescue is only barely tolerant of our heat.  Hence, it thins in late summer and needs to be over-seeded at least once per year, every fall, and preferably again in late winter, around the time crocuses start coming up or shortly thereafter, to create a lush look.  How to install fescue is beyond the scope of this article but come see us and we will be happy to explain it!


Fall cover crops are plants that do well in cooler temperatures and are special because of their nitrogen fixing qualities. They are generally, with some exceptions, annuals, meaning they won’t come back again after their season completes.


By nitrogen fixing qualities, we mean that they have a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria in the soil that allows the plants to pull nitrogen directly from the ambient air for their benefit and the benefit of plants around them, releasing the nutrients into the soil when they die at the end of their season. These plants include legumes  like red clover (annual) or durana white clover (perennial), both of which we carry as stand-alone products and in mixes.  For a better understanding of how to use fall cover crops to improve the look and health of your turf, please visit our store.


Plant bulbs

Fall is the time to plant bulbs like daffodils, crocus, and tulips for winter to spring beauty. This year, we will be receiving our bulb order from Devroomen, one of the best suppliers of bulbs in the world, in the first or second week of October. Although you can install bulbs well into January or even, in some cases, February, if you wait too long after they arrive at our store to buy them, you will have fewer choices. They go quickly!


This author likes to install bulbs the Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after Thanksgiving as a family activity. Installing bulbs too early can mean that they start coming up too early, making the new growth vulnerable to the destructive effects of a hard freeze. After Thanksgiving, the chances of a false spring are much less.

Notice how the yellow daffodils against the green fescue and rye mix break up an otherwise bleak winter landscape along this driveway in midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

Generally, in Memphis, daffodils and crocuses are perennials, meaning that they will come back every year, while tulips are annuals.  Though daffodils and crocuses are technically perennials here, they have an ephemeral nature in that they don’t seem to come back every year.  In my experience, in any given year, 80% of my daffodils will pop up and bloom, but it won’t be the same 80% each year. Crocuses are similar in that regard.


Crocuses, my favorite bulbs, are often overlooked as options by gardeners.  But, they do well under the canopies of trees, whereas daffodils really need more sunlight to come back up again in future years. Further, crocuses come up earlier than most everything else, often seen pushing up through ice and snow as a beautiful harbinger of spring.  Though the metaphor may be nearly cliche, gardeners are like wine drinkers.  New wine drinkers like sweet and fruity wines, like a pinot grigiot, sauvignon blanc, or even an after dinner sweet port.  But, as they mature in their appreciation of wine, they move onto the cabernets and the merlots.

Though garden trowels or soil knives can work fine for planting bulbs, many gardeners find specialty bulb planters like this Dewitt Bulb Planter
that we carry, made in Holland, with a lifetime warranty, very helpful.

Bulbs are like that in that new gardeners tend to gravitate towards the tulips, mere annuals in our climate, but bright and showy, while crocuses are generally something appreciated by more experienced gardeners for their subtlety.


One thing to keep in mind about bulbs is that the photosynthates absorbed by the plants coming up from the bulbs this year determine their success in the following year. So, if you plant them in too little sunlight, they will likely come up fine the first year but will perform poorly, if at all, the following year. For the same reason, it is important not to cut your plants back after the blooms are spent until the plants themselves begin to deteriorate to give the leaves as much time as possible to create and store photosynthates (a nutrient that can only be made when light is being absorbed) to ensure a good outcome for the next year.


The trick to adding color to a winter landscape is not to try too hard. Learn to appreciate the branch structure and texture of naked trees, Natchez Crepe Myrtles in this case, a tree known for its “cinamon” (exfoliating bark), but add little splashes of color to complement and balance it. You cannot create summer in January in Memphis!

Remember, all bulbs require a certain number of hours of chill time in order to be successful. All of our bulbs come pre-chilled. It is for this reason, perhaps, that after mild winters in Memphis, fewer daffodils and crocuses come up but come back in subsequent cooler years.


Between the time that you buy bulbs and the time you plant them, keep them in a paper sack in a cool dark place, ideally at a temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.


Plant trees and shrubs

Nothing beats a Ginkgo tree for consistent fall leaf color.

Although good gardeners can plant trees and woody shrubs any time of the year, there is no question that the best time to do so in Memphis is the fall. Temperatures are moderating, slowing soil evaporation, and the rainy season is beginning, giving new plants, which always begin with shallow root systems, a much better chance of survival and allowing them to develop a wide and deep root system before Memphis’s drought period in July and August. Further, many plants go into dormancy, a self-protective mode where the focus of their growth shifts from their canopies above ground to their root systems below ground, meaning that they develop root systems faster in the fall than they would any other time of the year.


But beware, a well-managed nursery should not be too soft with its plants in winter.  All plant nurseries wrap their greenhouses in plastic in winter, but good nursery managers are also careful to properly harden their plants off. Tender new canopy growth in plants is a point of vulnerability when a freeze hits. So, if you buy plants from a garden center that has kept its greenhouses too warm, causing them to put on lots of pretty new growth, you may have a dead plant a few weeks after you put it in the ground. Hardening off plants and keeping them hardened off until winter has ended is an art, a process

Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ blooms around Thanksgiving in Memphis.

Greg Touliatos personally supervises and monitors at Urban Earth Garden Center, entrusting it to no one else.


For ideas on trees to plant in your yard, see the article, “Best Trees for Memphis,” or, better yet, come talk to us in the store and we can look at the options together.  For best results, email the street address and photos of the area where you want to plant ahead of time to  If you there is a plant you want but think we might not have in stock, email us to request it.  Be sure to put “Plant Request” in the subject line and we will confirm receipt of your email and let you know if and when we are able to find it, by email.


Transplant trees and woody shrubs

For the same reason fall is the best time to install woody plants in Memphis, it is really the only time to transplant woody plants in Memphis. The very act of transplanting causes significant damage to a plant’s root system, reducing its ability to take up moisture and nutrients from the soil. Transplanting is too complicated in scope to address this article, but please visit us for advice on transplanting.


In particular, this author recommends that you use Fertilome Root Stimulator. Fertilome Root Stimulator contains auxins, plant hormones that help stimulate new root development, and other nutrients needed for plants with damaged root systems. Be careful using other fertilizers when transplanting, because recently transplanted specimen are particularly vulnerable to burn from excessive fertilization.



Apply time release 12-6-6 fertilizer in spring and fall, like the Hi-Yield Growers Special that we carry, or an organic alternative like Happy Frog by Fox Farm.  Apply soil sulfur to all of your woody plants, except boxwoods, especially azaleas, hydrangeas, and hollies. (Note: If you are regularly using Happy Frog Fertilizer for Acid Loving Plants there is no need to apply soil sulfur, in my view.) Apply lime to boxwoods every other year or so to raise the ph, a measure of soil alkalinity or acidity, since boxwoods are about the only plant commonly used in ornamental beds in Memphis that likes a more alkaline soil, preferring a slightly higher ph than other woody plants. Let us guide you in the specifics of applying these products when you visit.

Urban Earth Garden Center is proud to carry Fox Farm Products, including their Happy Frog line of organic fertilizers.


Many gardeners are shy about pruning or trimming plants too late in the year. Pruning and trimming can stimulate new growth, and as already explained above, new growth makes the entire plant more vulnerable to cold damage. But, if you’re in the garden already, in Memphis, it won’t hurt and may very likely help to do a little careful pruning. At least prune any deadwood out of your woody plants, selectively thin plants with dense growth by removing branches, and prune a third of the canopies of your roses back in the fall (You will prune another third of the canopy of your roses back right after Christmas, before the winter winds get especially strong). Do not do any wholesale shearing with a power trimmer to shape as this will definitely stimulate new growth!


Urban Earth has an excellent selection of the best tools, including the famous Felco F2.

When you prune, always use high quality bypass pruners and be sure to disinfect your pruners between plants with a 10% solution of bleach to prevent disease spread.  We carry the industry gold standard for bypass pruners, Felco, but we also carry less expensive but still excellent models by Corona and Tierra Pro. Anvil pruners, which we do not sell at Urban Earth, tend to mash the branches rather than cleanly cutting through them, whereas bypass pruners make healthy cuts with fewer entrance points for plant disease. (I have yet to come across a single good reason for a gardener to own a pair of anvil pruners.) Make sure your pruners are sharp too for the cleanest cuts. If you’re not sure about the pruners you currently own, come see us for guidance and advice in learning to maintain them.



Fall is a great time to go full on Martha Stewart!  It’s easy to cut flowers in the spring and summer and stick them in water. But, fall both requires and allows for more creativity. For more information, google “creating fall centerpieces for tables” and a wealth of information will come up. One of our employees, Martha “Martha Stewart” Garriott, is particularly talented and will be happy to help you pick out the perfect vessel and find seasonally appropriate cuttings and elements to complete the centerpiece.

This fall centerpiece was a joint effort by the author and Martha Garriott, a sales associate at Urban Earth and a Master Gardener. It is simply a combination of cuttings from plants on the premises, and the earliest leaf droppings from trees like Sarah’s Favorite Crepe Myrtle, a Wildfire Black Gum, a Regal Prince Oak, an Autumn Glory Ginkgo, and a Kousa Dogwood.  Notice, also, the small spoon gourds, grown by the author’s son, Henry.



Fall is a great time to read, study, and sharpen your knowledge as a gardener. And, there is no better

If a Memphis home owner owns only one garden book, it should be The Midsouth Garden Guide.

place than Urban Earth Garden Center to help you along this journey. We have a clever selection of books, knowledgeable employees who give good advice, a regular schedule of free classes in our education annex, outside speakers, and hands on assistance and guidance. Follow us on Facebook to find our seminar schedule or look for it in our blog section, updated a few times each year; read our blog; subscribe to and read our emailed newsletter by emailing and requesting that you be added or messaging us on our fb page; and email me with questions and photos (


John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County, the famed land of Pat Conroy.  He was taught the basics of planting by his step-father, Wade, his mother, Melissa, and his father, Karl.  Though both of his parents grew up in Memphis, and he spent vacations visiting his maternal grandparents, Richard and Diana Allen in Memphis, he did not become a resident of the city until he finished college in 1994.  He left South Carolina at the age of 14 to attend The McCallie School for Boys, in ChattanoogaTennessee, graduating in 1990, before getting a degree in English from the University of Richmond, in Virgina,in 1994, finally graduating from the University of Memphis Law School in 1997.  He has a 10 year old son named Henry.  If you read this blog entry, please email the author at and let him know what you think.  







Though a good horticulturalist can be successful planting any time of the year, the best time to plant trees and other woody plants in the Memphis area is in the fall.  So, it’s time to start contemplating what you’re going to plant this fall! (This is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll be doing on fall gardening activities over the next few months.)

Columnar European Hornbeam in a bed designed by Jesse Howley and installed by the author at the home of Tom and Janet Wyatt on Angelus Street in midtown Memphis, Tennessee.


Trees are categorized in many ways. Aesthetically, trees are most often categorized by size, shape, and whether they are deciduous (meaning they lose their leaves in winter) or evergreen (meaning they keep leaves year round). The size categories are usually small, medium, or large, defined best here,, while canopy shape is defined best here:  The tree sizes and shape I advocate most for in urban environments, which usually have smaller yards, are small to medium sized trees with columnar shaped (also called fastigiated) canopies.

This row of arborvitae was planted at a private residence by Greg Touliatos & Associates, Inc. as part of a comprehensive landscape design and installation project.


Columnar trees have a strong vertical form and are often six feet or less in width.  The most well-known columnar tree forms are probably arborvitae and Italian cypress, both commonly associated with Mediterranean landscapes but widely used in Memphis.  For example, Presbyterian Day School has a row of small arborvitae, about 8 feet tall, on the south end of one of its playing fields bordering Central Avenue.  Then, there is a row of 3 very tall Italian cypresses, over 30 feet, in midtown on Evergreen, a couple of blocks north of India Palace Restaurant.  These two examples are both evergreen.

These 3 Italian Cypresses have been in midtown for years and have done well, though likely more were planted in the beginning.


But, lesser known, and I think under-utilized until the last few years in Memphis are columnar deciduous trees.  We often think only of deciduous trees as large shade trees, except perhaps for Japanese and other maples or the widely over-planted crepe myrtles.  Customers rarely specifically request a columnar deciduous tree at our nursery.  In fact, just as new wine drinkers often prefer sweet white wines before maturing into cabernets and merlots, inexperienced gardeners gravitate towards things that are covered in blooms part of the year or evergreen, preferably both, fearing the bareness of deciduous plants in winter and not appreciating the texture of mere leaves without flowers.


One big advantage of deciduous columnar trees over evergreens like arborvitae and Italian cypress is that they tend to have fewer problems.  The evergreens prefer the subtly different Mediterranean climate rather than ours, are sensitive to both under-watering and over-watering, and too often get bag worms and other pests, particularly in early summer.  In contrast, well-planted deciduous columnars are relatively maintenance and pest free, needing only the occasional pruning of dead branches.  Without leaves in winter, a sudden ice storm is less likely to damage them too.  Most importantly, as a gardener matures in her appreciation of the life cycle of plants, she comes to appreciate the changing shape and color of leaves over the course of spring, summer, and fall, and the architecture of bare branches in winter.

Group of Slender Silhouette Sweetgum and Emerald Arborvitae trees right after delivery to Urban Earth in Winter.

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter…. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity. ~John Burroughs


So, increasingly, the landscape industry and home owners are realizing that medium and small deciduous trees in general, including columnar cultivars, are better alternatives than columnar evergreens.  Moreover, they are realizing that smaller trees are better for the close confines of modern urban environments than the old standard unimproved shade trees like oaks, elms, gingkoes, and tulip poplars that were widely planted in Memphis during the twentieth century.  Indeed, if you have ever had to contend with a large old specimen of a deciduous shade tree too close to your home, you know how challenging they can be.  The roots can rip apart foundations and sewer pipes.  Leaf removal under the canopies of large old deciduous trees in the fall can be an enormous undertaking.  And, worst of all, falling limbs or entire falling trees, weighing tens of thousands of pounds, can destroy property and cause human injury or death.  To make matters worse, tree removal of a large deciduous tree that has been diagnosed as too unsafe to keep in place, can cost $15,000 or more.

Fallen tree in midtown after a recent wind storm in 2017.


Consider, for example, a mature oak tree, inexplicably planted 15 feet from the rear of an east-facing home.  The tree has been diagnosed with an incurable fungal problem, its roots have largely rotted, and its leaves are only green because of stored photosynthates.  It remains erect only because it weighs 70,000 pounds and is like a nail whose point has been tapped into the ground.  Eventually, because this is Memphis, a straight-line wind will come along from the west, push the tree over, and flatten the home, destroying it and everything in it.  A wise homeowner, faced with this information may feel they have no choice but to pay to remove it at a cost of as much as 10% or more of the home’s value, enough money to buy a new car or increase the size of the home.  Likely, this tree was not “planted” but rather was a volunteer, allowed, maybe even encouraged by a new homeowner decades before, a homeowner who likely felt very proud that he had not had to pay for it, regarding others who had designed intentional landscapes as spendthrifts.


But then, there are those who over-react to this problem, removing all trees from their property, leaving only foundation shrubbery and turf grass, with no shade, like the homes in new mid to low grade subdivisions.  This approach has its problems too.  There is no shade without trees so more energy is needed to cool the home in the summer and the benefit of deciduous trees that mitigate carbon emissions is entirely lost.  Further, for whatever reason, humans find the close proximity of trees comforting.  They have an inherent attraction for us and we do not find a landscape wholly devoid of them attractive or as appealing as a yard with one or more well-placed trees on it.


Hence, the arbor market is now producing more manageable small and medium-sized columnar cultivars of old standbys.  They tuck nicely into courtyards, make for beautiful allees, and form inspiring focal points in corner beds.  For greater impact they can even be clustered in trios! Here are some of my favorites from our growers:


Allés of European Hornbeams designed by Dale Skaggs at The Dixon Gallery and Garden in Memphis, Tennessee.



Columnar European Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus fastigiata) has been around for a while, the Frans Fontaine cultivar of columnar European hornbeam being my favorite of the various cultivars (a cultivar is a variety of tree discovered by a grower deliberately looking for variations within a population of trees and then propagating, usually by cuttings, that tree because of its atypical but desired qualities.)  The ‘Frans Fontaine’ cultivar tends to get about 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide, tucking into the corner of a foundation bed nicely or making a nice focal point in a larger bed.  They also look great in a formal row.  I first became aware of this tree when the Dixon Garden, under the direction of Dale Skaggs, planted an allee (a walkway or avenue lined on both sides with trees) of them a few years ago.  With alternate oblong-ovate leaves with rounded base and acute tip, pale green in spring, dark green in summer, and pale yellow in the fall, the canopy forms a dense oval of overlapping leaves that flutter in breezes and come across like an impressionist painting from even short distances.


Row of small columnar European hornbeams, likely ‘Frans Fontaine,’ planted at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee by landscape architect, Dale Skaggs.

Though ‘Frans Fontaine’ gets larger in other climates, in our climate it tends to be more restrained, seldom getting much larger than 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide.  Unusually, the tree is tolerant of extreme pruning, some horticulturalists pruning the limbs all the way back to the trunk once each year to keep it even narrower than it already is.  It is not infrequently used as a screen or hedge, similar to how english hornbeams are used at one of Martha Stewart’s homes, as described here:


Goldspire Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba ‘Blagon’) is a new cultivar of an old favorite.  Ginkgos have long been regarded as the oldest species in continuous existence on the planet, in either kingdom, with some fossils of ginkgo leaves as much as 270 million years old.  They have unique fan shaped leaves leafing out pale green in the spring, darkening, and then turning a striking fluorescent yellow in the fall just before leaf drop.  With a large genome of over 10 billion DNA nucleobase letters and over 41,000 predicted genes (the human genome has around 3 billion) the plant has excellent disease resistance and general all-around toughness, having lived through more existential threats than any other plant alive.  Though the species can get over 100 feet tall, the Goldspire cultivar (‘Blagon’) tends to be much smaller, 15-20 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide.


Because the cultivar was only introduced in 2010, coming from France, the tree is hard to find.  I have sold a handful to customers in Memphis but I don’t know where they are planted.  So, just like any new cultivar, it is a risk, since there is not much history to go on.  But, given the success of other ginkgo varieties and cultivars, and the benefits of an unusually small cultivar, perfectly sized for tight urban confines, it seems worth the risk.  If it proves itself over the next couple of years, it may replace ‘Frans Fontaine’ as my favorite columnar tree.  If you want this tree, be sure to email us right away to get on the waiting list for it, as we are only expecting to be able to get a few this fall.


Persian Spire Ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘JL Columnar’) is an even newer cultivar than Goldspire Ginkgo!  Discovered by John Lewis of JLPN Nursery in Salem, Oregon in 2013, it is an unusually slow growing ironwood, upright and columnar in shape, topping out at under 15 feet.  But, the most unique thing about this tree is its foliage, especially in fall, when it takes on purple, orange, and red hues, sometimes all on the same leaf, and holding onto the tree for quite awhile after the color changes, before fall abscission (leaf drop).  Read more about this great new cultivar on the the Pacific Northwest International Society of Arboriculture site:

Persian Spire Ironwood trees have an unusual colored edge when they first leaf out but become solid green as the summer progresses, finally evolving into beautiful multi-hued fall color.

As of this writing, Urban Earth has sold a total of 3 of this plant and has one in stock, all in 15 gallon containers, about 6 feet tall.  2 have been planted at an apartment complex across from Ardent Studios on Madison and one has been planted at a private residence.  We hope to get a few more this fall but don’t expect this cultivar to be easy to get for a few years.  There is no question that anyone who planted one of these trees this year would have one of the rarest trees planted in Memphis, for at least a few years.

Slender Silhouette Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’) is the tallest of all of the trees referenced in this article.  Growing as tall as 60 feet and as wide as four feet, it more commonly tops out at 50 feet with a width of 3 feet.  It is also the quickest growing.  Though it is used in landscapes in Memphis in a variety of ways, one of the best ways I have seen it used is as a corner piece to soften the edge of a two story home in Germantown.  Read more about this tree here:

Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Lindsey’s Skyward’) has been around long enough, at least 16 years, to prove itself to be a great success in the Memphis area.  Though it is a conifer, it is, in fact, deciduous, but tolerating wet feet better than most.  A dwarf, it gets up to 20 feet tall and 6 feet wide.  A truly lovely tree, though this author does not have much experience with it, it is one of Greg Touliatos’s favorites.

Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress Trees available for sale at Urban Earth Garden Center in Memphis, Tennessee August 9, 2017.


Mushashino Zelkova (Zelkova seratta ‘Musashino’) was named the “2016 Urban Tree of the Year” by the Society of Municipal Arborists.  Meant primarily to be a tough street tree, it can also be used, like all columnar trees, as focal points in the landscape, as allees, and as screens.  Though too new of a tree to know for sure, it is said that it “has the genetic potential to reach 45 feet in height and 15 feet in width at maturity,” with orange/red leaves in fall, with leaves in an oval shape and serrated at the edges, reminiscent of a hornbeam’s leaves.  Read more about this new tree of great promise here:


Regal Prince Oak (Quercus x warei ‘Long’ REGAL PRINCE) is perhaps the fattest of the trees described in this article, though not the tallest, getting up to around 45 feet and 20 feet wide near maturity.  The older leaves turn a beautiful red in the fall after the tree has matured for a few years in the landscape.  Look here to find a good concise history of this tree, well proven in the Memphis area:

Arnold Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipefera ‘Arnold’) is an excellent cultivar of our state tree.  It is a compact solution for anyone who wants to show their loyalty to Tennessee but has too small of a yard for a full size tulip poplar.  Most commonly, you can expect this tree to mature at around 25 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide in the Memphis area, though it might get taller in other parts of the world.  Its blooms are yellow-green, tulip shaped, beginning in late spring through the summer.


The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County, the famed land of Pat Conroy.  He was taught the basics of planting by his step-father, Wade, his mother, Melissa, and his father, Karl.  Though both of his parents grew up in Memphis, and he spent vacations visiting his maternal grandparents, Richard and Diana Allen in Memphis, he did not become a resident of the city until he finished college in 1994.  He left South Carolina at the age of 14 to attend The McCallie School for Boys, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating in 1990, before getting a degree in English from the University of Richmond, in Virgina,in 1994, finally graduating from the University of Memphis Law School in 1997.  He has a 10 year old son named Henry.


How to Turn a Galvanized Metal Trough into a Painted Planter

Posted by John Jennings, Manager


Looking for something really unique to jazz up your poolside, patio, or porch?  Can’t find anything just the right color?  Are you thinking of building a planter out of wood just so you can paint it yourself but don’t want it to rot?  Consider converting a galvanized metal livestock trough into a custom painted metal planter.

Painted Metal Planter using Sherwin Williams exterior latex enamel, a blue called “Commodore” (SW6524) with striping and trim in a yellow called “Honey Bees” (SW9018). The plants added for staging are a desert willow and purple pixie lorapetalum.


Metal livestock troughs can be used in a wide variety of ways.  Imagination is your only limitation!  This article is about custom painting a metal livestock trough to use as a planter.  Of course, it can make an excellent planter, as is, with no painting, provided that holes are punched in the bottom for drainage.  But, many prefer a custom color scheme.  To achieve the look, we took the following steps:


  1. Prepare the surface for primer adhesion.


Coat the entire surface with Zep acidic toilet bowl cleaner, let sit for an hour, coat again with Zep acidic toilet bowl cleaner, let sit for two hours, and then rinse off to remove the zinc coating added during the process of galvanization.  No paint that we know of, except for a paint sold by Benjamin Moore that only comes in three colors, will adhere to the surface well unless the zinc coating is removed, regardless of what the manufacturer says on the container.

Begin with a high quality heavy gauge metal trough like the Tarter products we currently carry.

For example, this author first went to a Sherwin-Williams store and the clerk there insisted that their multi-purpose primer would work without first treating the surface.  He even showed me where it says right on the container that it will adhere directly to galvanized metal, saying nothing about removing the galvanization first.  Alas, against my better judgment, I tried it.  None of it adhered, at all, and we had to strip the entire surface and start over.


Use an acidic toilet bowl cleaner to remove the zinc coating before applying primer.

A gallon of the Zep Commercial Acidic Toilet Bowl Cleaner cost us less than ten dollars and we used about half of it on the approximately 2x2x3 feet trough we painted.  At the time of this writing, a 32 ounce bottle is available at Home Depot in midtown Memphis for $4.49 plus sales tax.


The active ingredient in the Zep Toilet Bowl Cleaner is hydrochloric acid.  This is the same active ingredient in muriatic acid, but likely in a much lower concentration.  Experienced painters or those comfortable with chemicals will likely prefer to use muriatic acid and dilute it themselves but, for consumers, we felt this was a better approach.


Our research also indicated that white vinegar can work, since it too is very acidic, cleaning vinegar in particular, but will take much longer and may not completely remove the coating, leaving spots where paint can come off.  Note that if you just want an aged zinc look, rather than painted metal, an application of white vinegar for 20 minutes, followed by a rinse off, might do the trick.  But, you’ll want to experiment with a cheaper piece of galvanized metal, like a small trash can before trying it on a more expensive, brand new trough.

This is the point at which we pulled off the tape, were pleased with the lines, but realized that the initial primer effort had failed because we had not first removed the zinc coating.

Remember to carefully read the safety instructions on the bottle of Zep and follow them.  Wear goggles and gloves and reduce exposed skin areas as much as possible.  We used disposable latex gloves that offer some resistance to hydrochloric acid but neoprene or plastic might have been better.   Do not mix with any other chemicals, being sure in particular to avoid bleach which will combine with it to create a toxic gas, and be sure to keep baking soda on hand to quickly neutralize the acid and wash it off if any gets on you.  Do this project outside or in an area with really good ventilation.  Keep children and pets away.


  1. Provide proper drainage for plants.


Punch drainage holes in the bottom of the container with a large nail or other pointed hole punch and a hammer or drill holes with a bit specifically for cutting holes in metal.  Be sure to punch holes in the bottom from the outside, with the nail going into the container, to keep the bottom of the surface level.  File down any jagged or sharp pieces that might cut you or others.


When you plant, make sure to put some product in the bottom, like gravel or packing peanuts, wrapped in landscape cloth, to keep soil from packing and plugging the holes you created.   An excellent solution we currently sell is called “Drainit,” disks that come in a variety of sizes, ranging from $4.99 to $12.99 at the time of this writing.  (


Most plants need access to moisture all the time, through their root system, but will die if sitting in too much water.  Very few plants can handle constant or even nearly constant wet feet.  (A few exceptions might include equisetum, Louisiana iris, and papyrus, plants that typically grow in boggy areas or along the edges of bodies of water.)


Be sure to use something like pot feet to raise the planter up enough to preserve drainage and some sort of reinforcement under the trough to provide support.  There are many ways of accomplishing this objective, too numerous to list here; just know that if there is no space between container and ground, there is no drainage.  Water must have an empty space in which to drain.


  1. Prime the surface.


Spray the entire surface with Rustoleum Self-Etching Primer.  There are likely many types of primer that will work but this is the one that works best of the primers we tested.  One can cost $4.76 at the time of this writing at Home Depot in midtown Memphis.  We used only one can but ran just a little short, filling the gap with another primer we liked less.  We could have used another quarter can or so.


Remember that when you removed the zinc coating, you lost the benefit of galvanization, rust resistance.  It is best to coat the entire surface, even the edges of the holes you made for drainage, with both primer and at least two coats of paint to reduce the likelihood of rust.


Allow the primer to dry for 2-24 hours, depending upon temperature and humidity.  Dry to the touch is probably good enough.  We painted 3 hours after applying the primer on a hot July afternoon.


  1. Define the lines with tape.


If you are attempting to do a two tone look, like ours, use painters tape or masking tape to define the lines.  Unless you are an experienced artist or just painting the entire container a single color, don’t try to free hand it.  Make sure the tape is firmly adhered without bubbles along the edges to keep paint from drifting underneath it, distorting what would otherwise be a clean line.


Initially, we taped over every area where we do not want yellow paint, leaving only the stripes and trim exposed. In this image we are about half way through the first round of taping.

When you go to apply the second color, you will have to remove the first round of tape and apply new tape over the area previously painted.  If the first color is not thoroughly dry, the tape may pull it off so don’t be in too much of a hurry to apply the second color.  We waited until the following day but it was a hot time of the year in Memphis, July, despite being very humid.  You might be able to apply the second color after only a few hours on the same day or you might have to wait 2 or 3 days depending upon the temperature and humidity.


  1. Paint it.


We used Sherwin-Williams exterior latex enamel.  In all likelihood, most paints will work if the surface is prepped and primed properly but we wanted the most durable, easily washable coating possible.  We decided that would be an exterior latex enamel and Sherwin-Williams just happened to be the closest most convenient source for us.  For this project, we also wanted a shiny, vibrant look to intensify spring and summer color and balance blander winter tones when trees defoliate, warm season grasses tan, and flowers disappear.

First of 3 coats of yellow, having taped over every area we did not want yellow paint. Later, we took off all the tape and then taped over the yellow before applying the blue.


We waited two hours after the first coat before applying the second coat, and then applied a 3rd coat the next morning.  We repeated the process after removing the first tape and applying new tape to define the field of application for the second color, again applying 3 coats.


  1. Plant it.


Remember that healthy plants start with good soil.   There are many different brands that are good.  We are currently selling Fafard’s Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, which we like a lot, but we also sometimes sell Dr. Earth, Vortex, Fox Farms, and Happy Frog, all good mixes.  There are also lots of recipes online for making your own from bulk ingredients, if you need a lot.  Just make sure that the soil is a container/potting mix rather than garden mix.  Garden mixes tend to have too much organic matter and are heavier, retaining too much water for containers that may not drain as well as in-ground planting beds.


When planting in containers, choose plants that are hardy for your area to two zones less than your planting zone.  Remember that plants in outdoor containers must be cold hardier than plants installed in-ground to survive our winters.  For example, Memphis is a Zone 8a (though it used to be classified as 7b).  Therefore, any plant you expect to survive our winter will need to be zone 6a or better unless the winter is unusually mild.   For obvious reasons, plants in containers just aren’t as well insulated from temperature as plants in-ground.

Kelly Myracle, one of our bright and talented employees, did most of the labor associated with this project and is a good person to talk to when you visit us, if you are considering a similar project.

This project will likely take you about 6-8 hours spread out over a few days.  It could be done in one weekend but does not have to all be done at once.  It can be a pleasant stress relief to do alone but it can be an even better experience to do it with partners or children.  Just be sure to exercise every safety precaution and perhaps use the hydrochloric acid (acidic toilet bowl cleaner in this case) before including a child in the project.  As always, don’t be in such a hurry to get to the outcome that you miss out on what you might have gotten from the process.  As Pirsig wrote in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, “We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”   Garden projects are the perfect vehicle for connecting with others!


Greg Touliatos’s Healthy Water Gardening Recipe


John Jennings, Manager

“We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken. We have a ‘blue mind’ — and it’s perfectly tailored to make us happy in all sorts of ways that go way beyond relaxing in the surf, listening to the murmur of a stream, or floating quietly in a pool.” – Wallace J. Nichols writes in Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, published in July 2014

Last Saturday, Greg Touliatos gave a great talk on water gardening. If you missed it, look for it on next year’s calendar of free classes. In the mean time, here are my thoughts, based upon Greg’s talk and his one page “Healthy Water Gardening Recipe.”


One of our customers converted an old leaky in-ground hot tub, that had quit working and was beyond repair, into a beautiful water garden containing comet and shubunkin fish, a plethora of water plants, and a fountain he constructed of stacked stone, using our pond products and following Greg’s Healthy Water Garden Recipe.

No garden is complete without a water feature of some sort. Water is life.  Indeed, in nearly every description of gardens in literature, water figures prominently.

“A river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.” – Genesis 2:10

A healthy water garden is essentially a balanced, nearly self-contained, eco-system. If set up correctly, in the beginning, it can be very low maintenance, though not no-maintenance, for years to come. Everything works together.

First, a healthy population of beneficial bacteria is essential for any healthy pond. Beneficial bacteria chews up fish waste and debris that washes into the pond. It keeps odors down and turns many toxic substances into benign or even beneficial substances for pond plant life.

Because the size of your population of beneficial bacteria is a function of surface area, Greg recommends a layer of medium brown gravel for the bottom of your pond. Over-sized gravel has too much space between rocks. Also, it is difficult to walk on, if and when someone occasionally has to get into a pond to clean it or retrieve an item, like a baseball. Conversely, pea gravel packs down too tightly, defeating the point of gravel, which is to increase the quantity of surface space on the bottom of the pond for bacterial colonies to develop. Finally, medium sized gravel is relatively inexpensive, less than $50 per ton at the time of this writing. It can be supplemented for appearance purposes with more expensive rock, like Carolina Creek Rock or Mexican Beach Pebbles, but these products are too expensive and impractical to use as the main gravel for layering the bottom of a pond.

Build it and they will come? Maybe. Since we maintain good bacterial colonies in the pools we keep our fish and water plants in, it is likely that you will take some of those good bacteria home with you to your pond when you buy fish and plants from us. If you have set the stage with the right environment for bacteria to thrive in, with gravel and well-oxygenated water, chances are good they will find their way there. But, it is better to be sure.

Thus, Greg recommends two products for helping to maintain a healthy colony of beneficial bacteria, “Microbe Lift PL” and “Microbe Lift TAC.” He suggests ignoring the quantities in the instructions on the container (but not ignoring any safety instructions) and using what his experience has taught him is the correct approach, through trial and error.

Products Greg recommends as part of his “Healthy Water Garden Recipe”

Microbe Lift PL is a liquid, very stinky but very good. It comes with a measuring container in the box, about the size of a shot glass. Greg says use one shot glass per week, just dumping it directly into the water. If you have a UV light of some kind that you use as a part of your filtering/maintenance system, something Greg is not a big fan of, you need to turn it off for at least 72 hours after every application, or it is likely to just kill the bacteria.

Microbe Lift TAC is a powdered product, also filled with beneficial bacteria. Each jar comes with a small scoop and Greg says to add one scoop per day of this. If you don’t visit your pond every day, don’t let it become a burden. Just dump a scoop directly into the water every time you visit your pond, so long as you are also adding a shot glass of the Microbe Lift PL each week.

Second, make sure there are plenty of plants in the pond. Cover half to three quarters of the surface of the pond with plants to provide hiding places from predators for fish and reduce the prevalence of algae by cutting off sunlight intruding into the water. Reducing sunlight intruding into the pond water reduces algae.

Some of of our many tropical water lilies, photographed by our employee, Martha Garriott

There are four types of water plants to use in your pond: 1. Underwater oxygenating plants, like hornwort and purple cabomba; 2. Floating water plants, generally tropical and replaced yearly, like water hyacinth, sensitive plants, ludwegia, and water lettuce; 3. Water lilies, both hardy and/or tropical; and, 4. Marginal (shallow water) plants, like pickerel rush, powdery thalia, umbrella palm, equisetum (horsetail reed), and louisiana iris.

Floating water hyacinth add a lot of color to the water garden and provide cover for fish to hide from predators. Though they die when temperatures drop in the Fall, they multiply quickly and produce strong color all summer long.

Third, use a product called Microbe lift Bio-Black, sparingly. I say “sparingly,” because a little goes a long way! Potent stuff.

Bio-Black is a liquid combination of pond colorant and enzymes. By tinting the water slightly, without making it opaque, sunlight penetration is reduced and, as I have already mentioned above, reducing sunlight reduces algae. According to the manufacturer and our experience, it: 1. will not stain birds, fish, pond rocks, or most concrete fountains once diluted; 2. is safe for humans, plants, and aquatic life; 3. safely colors water a reflective shade of black; 4. blocks out specific light rays that normally contribute to algae blooms; 5. digests organic waste; 6. reduces noxious odors; 7. does not necessitate restrictions on irrigation or fishing; and 8. Mixes completely in hours.

“Green water” is one of the biggest complaints we get from customers and clients. Green water is just algae, and Bio-Black is an important algae preventative measure. People like to be able to see your fish!

Fourth, circulate water with a high quality pump and filtration system. Make sure that your pump is continuous duty, i.e. not just made for short term use, and is of high quality, like the ones we currently carry that are made by Anjon. Although choosing a pump is a bit more complicated than this, a rule of thumb is that you want to circulate the water in the pond at least twice each hour. So, for example, if you have a 300 gallon water feature, you would want a pump that is rated at least 600 gallons per hour, minimum, with few exceptions.

Anjon Big Frog Pump, one of our many high quality pumps usually in stock or available to be ordered.

Generally, pumps last longer if water is filtered before entering the pump. The best way to do this is to use a skimmer box with a filtering system built around the pump. The skimmer box, usually on the edge of the pond, allows the pond owner to access the pump without going into the pond and completely separates the pump from debris. It makes for fewer clogged pumps and easier maintenance.

But, installing a skimmer box, cutting the pond liner to fit around it and getting the skimmer box perfectly positioned, is better done by an experienced professional. So, if you have never constructed a pond with a skimmer box, you are better off placing the pump directly on the bottom of the pond. Sometimes, even pros choose to sit the pump directly on the bottom of the pond, if something about the site makes a skimmer box impractical. This can work with a good pre-filter, like our Matala Ez-Bio 11 and Ez-Bio 20 pre-filters. Debris can clog or at least slowly wear out pumps. Our highest grade of pumps, the Anjon Big Frogs, are said to be able to cut a golf ball into four pieces if one gets sucked through! But, it is best if it doesn’t have to do that.

If you use our Matala pre-filters, make the tubing between filter and pump as large as possible, use flexible tubing, make it long, and attach a piece of string or rope so that you can pull it up from the bottom if an when it appears blocked by accumulated debris. Small tubing, though tempting to use from an esthetics point of view, puts more strain on the pump and usually kinks easier, creating more problems all around.

So, bigger is usually better, within reason. Bigger capacity pumps get clogged less, last longer, and circulate the water more frequently. Bigger filtration systems reduce the particulate matter going through the pump so that it lasts longer. Bigger tubing, connecting pre-filter to pump and pump to outflow, means less clogging.

This Matala EZ Bio 20 Prefilter and its smaller sibling, the EZ Bio 11 can be attached to the intake valve on most pumps that sit on the bottom of ponds to dramatically reduce particulate matter moving through the pump, making the pump work better and last longer.

Many pumps, particularly the smaller pumps, come with a built-in but removable filtering device. In most cases, except perhaps in a fountain with no fish or plant matter and no trees to drop leaves in it, this built-in filter is inadequate and should be discarded and replaced with a better quality filtration system.

Fifth, use Microbe-Lift Aqua Xtreme when constructing a new water garden or changing water in or adding water to an existing water garden. According to Greg, “This product helps create a slime coat that protects your fish and fortifies water added to the pond.”

Sixth, every time you add a scoop of Microbe Lift TAC, toss in a pinch of pond salt. Pond salt also contributes to a healthy slime coat on your fish, reducing fish disease, but, additionally it helps settle out suspended particles, making your water less cloudy, and less hospitable to algae. According to Greg, it is “frankly a miracle for helping keep your pond right.” If you don’t do a pinch per day, at least do a handful or two per month.

‘Water that is too pure has no fish.” –Afghan Proverb

Finally, don’t be one of those people that demands perfectly clear water. Ponds are natural eco-systems, always in flux, filled with millions of organisms. I don’t know anyone from Afghanistan and I don’t know that Afghanis are particularly knowledgeable about water gardening, but, like many blog writers, I hunt for quotes to justify what I believe and I found a good one, a supposed Afghan proverb, floating (see what I did there?) around on the internet: “Water that is too pure has no fish.” Water gardens should not be cesspools but they are not swimming pools either.


Little bugs and black sticky stuff all over my crepe myrtles. Help!

Your crepe myrtles likely have a relatively new problem called crepe myrtle bark scale (CMBS). CMBS came over from Asia in a shipping container, possibly through Mexico, first arriving in Texas a few years ago. It has slowly moved East from there. The actual scale insects look like tiny pieces of puffed white rice. Though the male of the species is quite mobile, the female, which causes most of the problems, is relatively immobile, leaving us a little puzzled as to how the disease/pest spreads. Our thinking now is that it might spread by wind or birds but more likely spreads through mulch, bought in bulk from mulch yards, made of limbs and debris dumped at the mulch yard by landscapers, i.e. crepe myrtle bark pruning byproduct (think of the crepe murder that so many practice every year). Another possibility is that it gets on the clothing of landscapers themselves who travel from yard to yard. Regardless, it’s here!

The insect hurts the crepe myrtles in two ways. First, it feeds off of the tree, getting its nutrients from the outer cambium layer, depriving the tree of much needed nutrients, causing it to deteriorate. Second, it excretes a clear sticky substance, euphemistically called ‘honey dew,’ which becomes a perfect host for sooty mold, turning the tree black, coating the leaves and inhibiting photosynthesis, and often coating nearby plants too.

Currently, we are recommending a two-pronged approach, a systemic insecticide in the form of a soil drench, absorbed through the roots and moving throughout the tree, killing the insects when they feed on the tree. This is a slower but more thorough approach, slower because trees have a passive circulatory system and the substance is only pulled up through the tree as moisture transpires from the leaves during the night. The second prong is a contact pesticide or oil to provide a quicker knock-back, but a less complete kill. The important thing to remember is that a single pregnant female insect introduced on a crepe myrtle can have the entire tree covered in CMBS in just 2-3 weeks! So, act with a reasonable degree of haste.

We are currently recommending Fertilome Tree & Shrub Systemic Insect Drench (containing imidacloprid in a very high concentration) as the systemic, which may stay in the tree up to one year, combined with either horticultural oil or the liquid version of Sevin.

Environmental concerns: We prefer organic and natural approaches where possible, but there doesn’t seem to be an effective organic/natural control/kill for CMBS yet. Though this is debatable, with good arguments on both sides, we currently think the systemic, imidacloprid, despite being a neonic, has minimal impact on pollinators and other beneficial insects, because of the difficulty it has traveling into the flowers of the crepe myrtle. We do, however, caution that one should be cautious in using it near other plants that pollinators utilize, like perennial gardens. Additionally, we do know that any contact pesticide will kill any insect it comes in contact with. Therefore, out of respect for the benefits pollinators like butterflies, bees, etc., provide us, we urge you to only use the liquid Sevin, for example, closer to dark, when pollinators are less active. Finally, we urge that you consider cultural changes like switching to pine-straw mulch rather than wood mulch or at least getting the wood mulch in bag form, not planting crepe myrtles or removing and replacing the ones you already have with other trees, asking that your landscapers not come to your yard right after pruning infected crepe myrtles and making sure they are educated about the disease, making sure the trees are adequately watered and fertilized because we know that healthy trees are less attractive to harmful insects, etc.

Unfortunately, though we initially thought the CMBS species would limit itself to crepe myrtles, there is some evidence that it is attacking beauty berries, hawthornes, and maybe even other plants.

Each year, Greg Touliatos gives a seminar on this new disease and other pest problems. To learn more, check our facebook page or email us for a schedule of our free classes and attend them on Saturdays.

Caution! Don’t forget to read the label carefully and follow all procedures. The label is the law. Although we are told that imidacloprid is not easily absorbed transdermally, wear gloves and take other precautions necessary to keep it off of your skin and certainly keep it away from your face, i.e. not allowing it to splash as you are pouring. Further, remember that it is more harmful to pets than to humans. Therefore water it in heavily after applying it to the soil and keep your pets away until it has had a reasonable amount of time to sink below the surface.