Seeking ground cover
Q: I was intending to install some peanut ground cover, but since you've mentioned before that it can look wan in the winter, I wonder if there are any other low native ground covers that would look good — and flower — all year?
A: Perennial peanut, Arachis glabrata 'Arblick' or 'Ecoturf,' is a great ground cover for full sun to part shade with pretty little golden flowers that are edible and taste like peanuts. However, yes, it does look a little ratty during winter. Sunshine mimosa, Mimosa strigillosa, a great little native ground cover with unique purple puff ball flowers, for full sun, also looks a little rough in the winter.
English ivy (right), Hedera helix, and all of its cultivars are great for shade only; they are very cold hardy, but don't flower. Another plant for shady areas is spider plant, Chlorophytum capense, green or variegated. It's usually thought of as a hanging basket, but great in the shade on the ground.
Gardenia buds are dropping
Q: We have a mature gardenia and when it is time for it to bloom, almost every single bud falls to the ground and we are left with only a few blossoms. The bush itself seems healthy — new growth and deep green leaves. I try to stay away from pesticides, so if it is infested, is there a natural remedy? Andrea Cate, St. Petersburg
A: Bud drop can be a very frustrating dilemma, especially when the plant looks healthy. Never fertilize just before or during bud formation; fertilize right after flowering. Aphids can suck the life out of the bud and its attachment, causing bud drop. They are pear-shaped, yellow to green, measure 1/16 inch and are easily seen in mass. Thrips have a rasping/lapping mouthpart that causes buds to shatter and drop. They are pointed at both ends and jet black and measure 1/8 inch. They're difficult to see; tap buds and flowers over a white sheet of paper for better identification. Aphids and thrips can be managed by using insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils at bud formation; follow label directions.
Another potential gardenia culprit: uneven soil moisture. Devise a miniature, low-flow irrigation system under the drip line of your bush and hook it up, with a timer, to your outside water faucet. Run before and during bud formation and through flowering, keeping soil evenly moist, then disconnect the drip line and save it for next year. A quick drop in temperature at bud formation causes a quick drop in flower buds, and high night temperatures result in moisture leaving the plant via transpiration faster than the roots can supply, causing bud drop. For further information on gardenias, talk to the experts — Richard at Carroll Brothers retail nursery in St. Petersburg, or Bob, who grafts and grows hundreds of thousands of gardenias for market at their wholesale site in Clearwater.
Q: My beautiful staghorn fern has marks in the leaves. Can you please help me?
Dorothy Walsh, New Port Richey
A: The marks on your staghorn fern are probably spores on the underside of the leaf that will be a rusty brown. This means your plant is reproducing, which is normal.
Soapy watering okay
Q: Can you use the rinse water from your washing machine to water plants? What about using the soapy water?
Porter Downey, Largo
A: Rinse water and soapy water are okay for plants as long as the soap doesn't contain boron. However, most municipalities have ordinances against running gray water from inside the house to the yard. Check with your city or county.