Garden Doctor: Aerating lawns, perennials, and more | Living the Country Life

Garden Doctor: Aerating lawns, perennials, and more

Answers to your questions about improving and maintaining your rural property

Q: My yard is rough and bumpy and getting worse. What can I do to make it smooth and nice? --Columbus, Ohio

A: The first thing I'd do is aerate aggressively. Run an aerator over it four or five times now in autumn and another four or five times next spring. Just be sure the lawn is vigorously growing and well-watered when you do so. The other thing you can do is spread a little good soil over the lawn and then drag a large mat (like a door mat) behind a tractor to spread it out. The soil will settle in the low spots. If you do this several times over a couple of years, it will result in a smoother lawn. Mow your lawn shorter than usual just prior to adding the soil.

Q: I planted some Blue Boy phlox at the beginning of the summer. The season's winding down and they still haven't bloomed. What can I do? --Tuscaloosa, Alabama

A: Be patient. It's common for perennials not to bloom the first year, especially if the plants are young or small. Make sure the soil is good.

If you have poor soil, amend it with organic matter before planting. Then, make sure your planting spot matches the plant's needs. For example, phlox likes full sun, so plant it in a spot that gets 6 to 8 hours of direct sun a day.

Q: My husband built me a beautiful arbor with a bench. I'd love to plant a climbing rose underneath. Can you suggest a good variety? --Cookeville, Tennessee

A: Some of my favorites include Climbing Iceberg, which has white flowers, a mild fragrance, and blooms throughout the summer; Graham Thomas, which has yellow blooms, a fruity fragrance, and blooms on and off from spring to summer; New Dawn, which has soft-pink blooms, a sweet fragrance, and blooms on and off from spring through summer; or Zephirine Drouhin, an old variety with cerise-pink flowers, a strong fragrance, and blooms in spring and fall. To add more bloom power, you might plant a clematis with your roses. Choose a clematis that blooms at the same time as the rose to complement it, or one that blooms in a different season so you have blooms over a longer period.

Q: I bought a beautiful hibiscus this summer. I know it's not hardy and planned to let it die, but I love it so much I want to keep it over the winter. Is there a way I can do this? --Breckenridge, Minnesota

A: As long as you have a bright spot in your house, you should be able to overwinter your hibiscus with little problem. Before you move it in, check carefully for any insect pests and treat the plant with insecticidal soap, if necessary. Then cut the hibiscus back a bit (by no more than a fifth) and bring it to a cool, bright spot. Protect your plant from drafts -- doors, windows, or heating vents -- and water when the top inch of the soil dries out. Don't feed it; instead, let your plant rest this winter. Then in the spring as the days grow longer, it should reward you with lots of beautiful blooms and healthy growth.

Q: I want to plant more evergreens around my property as a windbreak. Can I plant them in the fall? Are larches a good choice? --Kalkaska, Michigan

A: Autumn is a fantastic time to plant trees, as long as you give them plenty of time before it freezes. In your area, you want to get them in the ground by mid-September. Larches, while beautiful, aren't good for windbreaks because they're deciduous, meaning they lose their needles. They're one of my favorite trees for fall color; the needles turn bright gold before falling. If you want larches, plant them in front of evergreens; let the evergreens be the windbreak and let the larches stand for their beauty. Pines and spruces are probably a better choice for you.

Questions for the Garden Doctor?

Justin Hancock is the Garden Doctor at Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publications. E-mail your gardening questions to Justin at For more gardening help, visit

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