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Late Summer Perennials for the Midsouth

Many people quit visiting nurseries in Memphis in late July and August. Because of this, there are a group of beautiful plants that are at their best when Memphis is at its worst, late summer. These are the plants that will be coming alive when your roses have bloomed out, your yarrow is melting, and your creeping phlox is more creepy than fluorescent. Though there are many more, I have chosen 8 late summer bloomers to review, plants selected by our staff at Urban Earth.

Eutrochium dubium ‘Baby Joe’

Eutrochium dubium ‘Baby Joe’ (Photo by Martha Garriott)

Eutrochium dubium is commonly referred to as “Joe Pye Weed,” named after an American Indian herbalist from the New England area. Though found in other parts of the world, it is native to the coastal areas of eastern and southern North America, typically found along rivers and in swamps. To do well, it needs well-fertilized, constantly moist soil, but, if well sited, it comes alive in late summer with large blooms varying in shades from pink to purple. It does best in full sun but can handle part shade. Consider picking a low spot in your perennial garden that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight and planting either 1 as a specimen or a drift of several of these for a real show during the hottest part of the summer.

Since “perennial garden” is a near synonym for “butterfly garden,” it is hard to talk about perennials without talking about the butterflies they are known for hosting. Accordingly, this particular plant is known for attracting American Lady, Little Glassywing, and Zabulon Skipper.

The United States patent office issued a patent for the cultivar, “Baby Joe,” in 2009. Thus, this particular cultivar of Joe Pye Weed is still relatively new to the plant market. Discovered in a controlled growing environment in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, this cultivar is distinguished from the species for its upright and compact habit, moderately vigorous growth habit, a longer flowering period, large grayed purple-colored flowers, and strong and upright flower stalks. Despite billing itself as a dwarf plant, it can still get 60 inches tall, though more commonly it is seen around 3-4 feet. This is a good solid cultivar of a native (termed ‘nativar’) that would make a fine addition to any Midsouth perennial or butterfly garden.

Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’

How could you pass on the opportunity to have a plant in your garden commonly known as ‘Hot Lips Turtlehead’?! The name alone justifies the purchase!

An Appalachian native plant, the specific epithet of the botanical name for Turtlehead, lyonii, is in honor of the American botanist, John Lyons (1765-1814), an early explorer of southern Appalachia. The plant is found in low spots in wet woodlands and along streams in its native habitat. Thus, like Joe Pye Weed, it needs constantly moist soil to do well. And, like most late summer perennials, it does best in full sun but can survive in part shade. Its flowers are pink and are often described as snapdragon like.

This nativar, ‘Hot Lips’ is distinguished for having more richly colored flowers and leaves than the species and red stems.

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’

Black-eyed Susans (the common name for Rudbeckia) are prolific bloomers.  They have been a staple in Mid-south landscapes for at least as long as I have been alive. A native plant, it probably should be the Tennessee state flower. Sometimes called a coneflower, this common name is used less because it makes the plant too easily confused with Echinacea, another native, also commonly called coneflower. Though it is versatile in the soils it can tolerate, it seems to do best in dry to medium moisture soils. Thus, I have it in a high spot in my perennial garden in full sun. Though I do water weekly in July and August, I have noticed that it will get powdery mildew and/or septoria leaf spot if over-watered. (A light annual application of soil sulfur in early spring and pine needles as mulch nearly eliminates any risk of these problems.)

The nativar, ‘Goldsturm’, was introduced in 1937 as a cultivar of the variety of Rudbeckia fulgida, sullivantii. Recognized as the 1999 Perennial Plant of the Year, the plant was an overnight sensation (tongue-in-cheek), completely displacing the variety, sullivantii, in the market place. Personally, I find it superior to other Rudbeckia because it is more compact, growing to only 2 feet tall, making it less prone to flopping over in late summer. It also seems to me to bloom longer and more prolifically than others.  It certainly has a longer lifespan in the Midsouth than the biennial, Rudbeckia hirta. Though it can be planted as a specimen, this is a plant that looks great planted in drifts of at least 3 or even planted en masse.

Veronica x ‘Sunny Border Blue’

Blooms on Sunny Border Blue Speedwell just beginning to pop in late July 2018 in Memphis at Urban Earth (Photo by Martha Garriott)

Imagine the year to be AD31 and there is a hot and sweaty man being abused and carrying a cross, on his way to be crucified. A woman, depending upon who is telling the story, taking pity upon him, lends the man a cloth to wipe his face. He does so and returns it and when he returns it there is a perfect image of his face upon the cloth. The person lending him the cloth has been variously identified by different names, Seraphia (according to Ann Catherine Emmerich and Mel Gibson), Nike a.k.a. the Greek goddess of victory (according to the Italian writer and mystic, Maria Valtorta in The Poem of the Man God), and Veronica.

Whether you view this story as true, entirely fictional, or generously apocryphal, the relevance of the story is that this woman not only gets referred to in a song by Tori Amos and has a bullfighting technique named after her, but she has also been gifted by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern plant taxonomy, with the privilege of being the eponym for a genus of about 250 plants that includes Sunny Border Blue Spike Speedwell, the name bestowed upon the genus officially around the year 1572.

How does this help you understand the needs of Sunny Border Blue Spike Speedwell? It doesn’t at all but planting and caring for plants is rarely done in isolation. It is the stories about the plants that we get to tell our guests as we give them tours that makes gardening a rich activity.

So, Sunny Border Blue starts blooming in mid to late July in our nursery and blooms well into the fall. It needs to be sited in full sun or at least part sun with soil that is neither as dry as a color guard yucca could handle nor as wet as Joe Pye Weed prefers, medium soil. About 2 feet tall, it shoots up gorgeous blue spikes and pairs nicely with yellow blooming plants like Rudbeckia or Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’. It also looks nice next to Becky Shasta Daisies, a plant with white blooms and yellow centers, comparable in height to Sunny Border Blue. Though introduced in 1946, it was not as fully appreciated as it should be until named the perennial of the year in 1993.

Salvia greggii ‘Radio Red’

Josiah Gregg likely had a genius level IQ, working at various times in his life as a school teacher, a bookkeeper, a merchant, a lawyer, a photographer, and a medical doctor, but he is primarily known for his explorations and his best seller, Commerce of the Prairies, a two volume, 28 chapter treatise, based upon his travels in the southwest United States and Mexico. Born a little over 300 miles northeast of

Salvia greggii ‘Radio Red’

Memphis in Overton County, Tennessee in 1806, he died of starvation, falling off of his horse after getting lost trying to find his way back to San Francisco in the wilderness. But, in the mid 1840s, a few years before his death, he collected many plants, among them a plant commonly and variously known as Autumn Sage, Texas Sage, or Red Chihuahuan Sage, but more properly called Salvia greggi, the specific epithet in honor of Josiah Gregg.

The cultivar/nativar, ‘Radio Red’, is likely the most recent plant considered in this article, a patent for it having been issued in only 2016. It was the product of a controlled breeding program during the summer of 2008 by Scott Treyes in Aroyo Grande, California. Treyes was looking for plants with a compact growth habit and big blooms. ‘Radio Red’ appears substantially smaller, at only 18 inches tall, than its larger cousin, ‘Furman’s Red’. Supposedly, the blooms of ‘Radio Red’ are a deeper true red than any other Salvia gregii, but they appear to be only slightly darker, if at all darker than ‘Furman’s Red’ to this author. However, it is likely to bloom longer and is a more appropriate choice for smaller gardens or for the visual foregrounds, en masse, where a red bloom is needed in late summer. Once established, it likes fairly dry soil. So, be careful of over-watering.

All Salvia greggii are top hummingbird attractors in dryer climates. If paired with Blue Boa Agastache, your Memphis garden is sure to be filled with Ruby Throated Hummingbirds in most years.

Vernonia lettermannii  ‘Iron Butterfly’

The community of Allenton, Missouri, near St. Louis, is in a sad state. St. Louis County designated it as a blighted area, because of its chronic problems. Eureka, the larger nearby town, annexed it in the mid 1980’s, to solve Allenton’s water problems. Because of Allenton’s close proximity to the interstate and Six Flags (the amusement park), real estate developers targeted it at the beginning of the 21st century as a place for a shopping mall and 1700 homes. Getting the local government to exercise its power of eminent domain, they razed the entire town, but went broke when the real estate recession hit, before they could begin the development. Today, the community is a ghost town of concrete foundations.

Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’ just starting to bloom.

But, in the world of botany, likely unknown to most nearby residents, it has much greater significance. From 1864 to 1871, it was the home of the great German-American botanist, August Fendler, who had moved there after leaving Memphis. It was Fendler that introduced George Washington Letterman to the world of plants when Letterman took a job as a school teacher in Allenton, meeting with Letterman to tutor him in plant identification 2-3 times per week in the years 1870 and 1871. Fendler, seemingly a roamer by nature, abandoned Allenton, as have so many others, but not before leaving Letterman with a deep love of plants, setting the stage for him to become one of the greatest American botanists of the 19th century.

Letterman, eschewing multiple offers by Harvard to join its faculty, stayed in the area his entire life, living out of a cabin there, but walking long distances, searching for plants and finding quite a few used in the nursery trade today, among them Vernonia lettermanii, named after him. Letterman, an unrepentant recluse, died in his little cabin in Allenton, attended only by a single neighbor, somewhat obscure but not insignificant, with plant species in 4 different genera named for him.

Vernonia lettermanii, sometimes commonly referred to as Slimleaf Ironweed, is found growing in the cracks within and between rocks in Arkansas and Oklahoma, its native habitat. It prefers hot and dry conditions, blooming purple in late summer.  ‘Iron Butterfly’ is a selection from Alan Armitage’s trials at the University of Georgia.  A more compact and more prolific bloomer than its species, it gets about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, at most. Site it in a high spot, relative to the rest of your garden, perhaps near plants like Colorguard Yucca, Russian Sage, Goldenrod, and Autumn Joy Sedum.

Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’

Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’ just beginning to bloom in Memphis July 2018 (Photo by Martha Garriott)

The goldenrod plant, for years wrongly accused as being the source of hay fever, has not been used much in ornamental horticulture. This particular selection, commonly called Golden Fleece Autumn Goldenrod, but more properly called by the botanical name, Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’, was discovered as a spontaneous seedling in a garden in Eden, North Carolina in 1985, more compact and better blooming than the species. It was tested and introduced to the market by the Mount Cuba Center, in Maryland. Like William Faulkner, American switchgrass, and Jazz, it was better appreciated in Europe before being properly honored in its native homeland, the United States, winning the International Syaden-Union’s Award for an outstanding new plant in Swizterland in 1994.

This plant prefers a sunny and dry spot. So, site it in a higher spot in the garden, near plants like Colorguard Yucca, Ironweed, and Autumn Joy Sedum. Expect a plethora of butterflies and jealous gardeners to visit!

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Jean Baby’

For lovers of blue blooming perennials, Russian sage has always been attractive. But, urban gardeners have often eschewed it, knowing it can easily get 5 feet tall and wide and needing more restrained

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Jean Baby’ just beginning to bloom in Memphis, July 2018

plants because of their smaller gardens. But, ‘Blue Jean Baby’ solves this problem by being a dwarf cultivar of the species, topping out at about 34 inches. Additionally, it starts blooming earlier in the season than other Russian sages.


Perennials gardens are like a symphony. There should be a different section for the beginning, middle, and end of the show. Memphis gardeners are very strong at designing our gardens for a good show in spring and early summer but we are often weaker in planting for late summer blooms. Work these plants into your garden to make the end of the show better.

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. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. All photographs for this article are by Martha Garriott. Martha is a horticulturalist at Urban Earth, a retired social worker, and a Tennessee Master Gardener.



Spring arrangement with sago palm as thriller, variegated swedish ivy as the filler, and a combination of purple and white scaveola and
Setcreasea pallida ‘Purple Heart’ as spillers.

Pick a high quality container based upon size of arrangement wanted, location of arrangement, and whether it is likely to be moved.


Campania ceramic pots, fired longer and at higher temperatures than those of their competitors are the best and most creatively designed in the industry.

You can’t build a beautiful container arrangement with an ugly pot. Worse yet would be building a beautiful container arrangement with a pot that breaks the first time someone bumps it or there’s a frost. Then, there are those cheap poly-resin or plastic pots that fade at the first hint of sunlight. In short, you get what you pay for.


At Urban Earth, we carry high quality planters made by Campania and Fiore. Whereas some concrete planters decay and crumble in just a couple of years, the best concrete is more durable, properly cured and sealed. Similarly, Campania’s ceramic pots are fired longer and at higher temperatures to create a clay pot that is much more frost resistant than less expensive glazed pottery.


Finally, bigger is generally better. Most people get pots that are too small for the context. The bigger the container the less vulnerable the arrangement will be to temperature fluctuations and drought.


No matter what kind of container you get, make sure there is at least one drain hole in the bottom, unless you’re creating a water garden or a bog garden.


Choose a good potting mix.

Ocean Forest Potting Mix, made by Fox Farms, is widely considered the best in the industry for most applications.


Container gardens never drain as well as in-ground gardens. Therefore, potting mix has to be much lighter and drain better than a garden mix. Otherwise, your plants will quickly succumb to root rot.


At Urban Earth, we carry top shelf organic potting mixes by Fox Farms. Cheaper potting mixes use synthetic fertilizers and cheaper fillers, making for plants with weaker stems and more fungal problems.


Use Soil Moist for hanging basket arrangements or those subject to potentially inadequate watering.

Hanging baskets lose moisture much faster than other types of containers.

Hanging baskets loose moisture REALLY fast! Soil Moist is a water absorbing polymer that, when used correctly, holds in moisture better without making the mix soggy. It is similarly helpful in arrangements likely to receive inadequate attention, places like businesses or weekend homes.


Use a Drain-It disk.


Nearly every plant will need really good drainage to avoid root rot. Having a drainage hole or even multiple holes in the bottom of the pot will not guarantee good drainage. Gravity and time will conspire together to clog those holes. Therefore, good gardeners, in the old days, put gravel, broken terra cotta, or Styrofoam peanuts in the bottom of the pots. But, even then, that only delayed the inevitable compaction. So, the next step was to wrap the material in landscape cloth to keep the potting mix from descending into the reservoir. But then, some genius invented the Drain-It Disk and the world was a better place.

Soil Moist helps arrangements retain moisture longer.


Choose the right mix of plants.


First, if the arrangement is going to be indoors, year round, it needs to be able to handle the stress of an indoor environment. We think of climate control, with year-round constant temperatures as being the ideal, but not all plants can handle it. Some plants need a period of vernalization or dormancy, which generally only occurs when temperatures drop below 50 degrees for a sustained period of time, each year. Moreover, the air in homes is much dryer than the air outside, in many parts of the country, not able to provide the humidity needed by some plants. Finally, in even the brightest spots in your home, there is usually less light than you could find anywhere outside. So, make sure the plants you use are plants with a solid track record of performing well indoors, plants like strawberry begonia, zz plant, English ivy, and philodendron, just to name a few.

A DrainIt! disk is essential for nearly every type of arrangement.

Second, if the arrangement is outside, consider the amount of sunlight the plants will be getting. As is true with all garden designing, you need to know the terms for describing light conditions, “full sun,” “part sun,” “part shade,” “shade,” “morning sun,” and “afternoon sun.” Full sun means at least six hours of direct sunlight daily, part sun means 3-6 hours of direct sun daily, part shade also means 3-6 hours of direct sun daily but that the plants will be sheltered from western exposure (afternoon sun), preferring eastern exposure (morning sun), and full shade is less than 3 hours of direct sunlight daily. Only choose plants that are right for your light conditions.


Third, choose a combination of plants rather than just one or two plants and choose a nice combination of thrillers, fillers, and spillers.


The thriller is the tallest plant, the focal point of the arrangement. It can be a small tree like a coral bark maple, a flowering plant like Cordyline fruticose, or, if the arrangement is small, something like shrimp plant or Angelonia. Where you place the thriller in the arrangement, whether centered or off-center, is determined by the perspective of the arrangement’s intended audience. If the arrangement will be viewed from all sides, it is often in the center. Otherwise, it is off-center and in the back of the arrangement.


The filler is usually shorter and wider than the thriller but more upright than the filler. Its color and texture should simultaneously complement and contrast with the thriller. The filler should never try to compete with the thriller, its primary purpose being to provide visual support for the thriller. A few of my favorite fillers include hens and chicks, sweet flag, Firewitch dianthus, route 66 coreopsis, chocolate chip ajuga, or even mondo grass. But, it should be shorter than the thriller and taller than the spiller.

In this simple indoor arrangement, split leaf philodendron acts as the thriller, strawberry begonia is the filler, and variegated English ivy is the thriller. In time, it will fill in for a much more lush look. The container is a “Bradford Planter Rust Lite” by Campania, with a rolling ornamental metal plant caddy by MayRich to raise it off the ground and promote good drainage, and a Bond plastic saucer to catch excess water. 

Finally, the spiller is like the scarf or the tie that completes the outfit. Great spillers include variegated English ivy, burgundy glow ajuga, creeping phlox, portulaca, wave petunias, and lemon ball sedum.


Consider the time-frame.


In magazines, arrangements are filled with plants, a solid mass. But, usually, in real life, arrangements start off with some blank space between plants, to allow the plants room to grow to their full size. If you place too many plants in a pot, you’ll be pulling some out in a few weeks as they grow to maturity and the arrangement becomes too crowded. So, it’s not good to overplant.


On the other hand, if the arrangement is for a special event, and you are determined to have immediate gratification with a full arrangement NOW, fill it up! Just know that, if you do, you’ll need to revisit the arrangement every few weeks, eventually repurposing or throwing away some of the plants.


A former employee, Dawn Johnson, made the most of a broken pot with this creative arrangement!

Incorporate non-plant elements (sometimes).


Consider creative touches like lattice-work for a climbing thriller (think clematis or Carolina jessamine), miniature garden figures or small statues, and stones or gravel. But don’t go overboard and if you have a lot of container arrangements, don’t use non-plant elements in every one.

Miniature garden figures can make great creative additions to arrangements.


Promote good drainage by raising the pot off of the ground.


Even if you have chosen a pot with a drainage hole and you have sprung for a drain-it disk, if there is no space between the bottom of the pot and the ground beneath it, it won’t drain. Create space between the bottom of the pot and the ground with pot feet, pot dollies, plant stands, or even coins. You can, literally, accomplish this part of the arrangement for a few pennies!


Use plastic saucers or deck savers to catch excess water.


The thing about arrangements with good drainage is that they, well, drain. And, if the surface beneath your container isn’t something you want to get wet, you need to put something down there to catch the water, or, in the case of a deck, at least keep it from sitting and pooling in one place and rotting the wood.


Fertilize and water the arrangement appropriately.


Different plants need different levels of moisture. Succulents, like hens and chicks, and stonecrop rarely need watering. In contrast, big leaf hydrangeas and dwarf giant papyrus need water very often. But, most plants are somewhere in between and will thrive if you apply the knuckle test regularly. By knuckle test, I mean that, after the first watering, stick your finger in the soil every day or two and water only when you don’t feel moisture by somewhere between the first and second knuckle, depending on where the plants’ water needs are on the continuum. Remember, most plants need the top inch or two of the soil to dry out between waterings.


Similarly, plants won’t reach their full potential if you don’t feed them. Less expensive potting mixes use synthetic time release fertilizer, advertising that no fertilization is necessary for three to six months. (The outright cheap potting mixes contain no nutrients at all.) But, better potting soils use purely organic ingredients, with nutrients that are gentler and more accessible to the plants. Even the Fox Farms mix with the longest nutrient charge only provides nutrients sufficient for the first 4-5 weeks.

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

So, you need to fertilize, and, when you do, use a high quality organic fertilizer, a granular like Happy Frog All Purpose or a Liquid like Fox Farms Big Bloom. For all of my own personal container arrangements, I sprinkle a teaspoon full of Happy Frog All Purpose organic fertilizer once weekly.


Remember, you can always come to Urban Earth for help. We’ll help you design your arrangements at no charge and we’ll even plant them for you if you bring your containers or buy containers from us and have the means to transport planted arrangements!

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. 



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


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.