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Missouri Botanical Garden horticulturists answer gardening questions

Is it too early to plant carrots? What about tomatoes? And is there any use for those spiky sweetgum tree seeds?

Missouri Botanical Garden horticulturists June Hutson and Dana Rizzo were on-hand Monday to answer questions about spring gardening.

If you’re just getting started gardening, turn to the computer, Hutson said.

“I never thought I’d say this, but it’s just where we are today: The best advice I can give a beginning home gardener is get online,” she said. “It’s so succinct. Really, you can look up about anything you want. (For a) quick answer, that’s what you should do.”

But first-timers shouldn’t be afraid of trying flowers or vegetables that interest them.

“You can integrate both of them in your garden, so why choose?” Rizzo said. “Plant them together. Play around. Have a good time.”

And that’s the secret to successful gardening, Rizzo said. “Having a good time in the garden is the best approach.”

When planting different vegetables or flowers, check that they’re suitable for the area. On seed packets, St. Louis is usually in zone 5 or 6.

“You have to make sure that, culturally, that everybody’s going to get along,” Hutson said. Many plants, both vegetables and flowers, want full sun, but some prefer a little shade.

Container gardens are popular for those with limited space or hoping to protect plants from squirrels or rabbits, and nearly anything can be planted in a pot, Rizzo said. She suggested trying small trees, raspberries and perennials or annuals, in addition to the more traditional tomato plants.

While it’s a little early to plant tomatoes, Hutson said they are “heavy feeders,” meaning they may need more fertilizer than the plants around them. That’s especially true for tomatoes growing in containers, even if the soil is fertilizer-rich.

Instead of tomatoes, now’s the time to plant root crops, she said, including carrots, rutabagas, beets and radishes.

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening has several resources for home gardeners, including a horticulture hotline and gardening classes. The hotline is open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday at 314-577-5143.

A few more tips from Hutson and Rizzo:

  • A fence can help keep critters out of the garden, but use caution with netting. If a squirrel can get into the netting, it may not be able to get out. “A hysterical squirrel is not a friendly kind of thing to observe,” Hutson said.
  • Are the hedges taking over? Rizzo said the rule of thumb is to cut back a third of it. Get rid of old wood, for starters. If the plant blooms in the spring, wait until after it blooms to cut it back. If it blooms later in the summer, cut it back now; the new blooms will be on the new growth.
  • Bees are important, but honeybees are not native to this area, Hutson said. “We need to encourage the native bees.”
  • Now’s the time to try to treat crabgrass in the lawn, but new grass seed must wait if preventer is used. Try seeding in the fall.
  • With questions about trees, Hutson recommended contacting an arborist; with questions about pests, like moles or rats, she recommended contacting an exterminator.
  • There are bamboo plants native to this area, but bamboo also is very invasive, Hutson said. Once planted, it will move around and it requires a great deal of diligence to get rid of it. “Move’s a good idea,” she joked.
  • Honeysuckle is another invasive plant. To get rid of it, cut the plant close to the ground and immediately spray it with herbicide. It will likely come back, but it will be weaker, Hutson said. Repeat that process until it’s gone.
  • If tulips get too much water, they’ll rot. Have they moved from where they were planted? Squirrels are known to dig up tulip bulbs, and then bury them, like they do with other food. It’s not too late to plant bulb plants, but they likely won’t produce blooms this year, Rizzo said.
  • Spiky sweetgum tree seeds can be annoying. But they also can be useful: Put them under hostas where they don’t show and they’ll keep the slugs away, Hutson said.

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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