Tips & Tonics

Over the years, I've answered thousands of questions on just about every gardening topic under the sun, and I've found that most folks have the same problems at one time or another. So to make things easy for you, I've put together the following handy, helpful guide to the most frequently asked questions I receive. They're arranged by topic in alphabetical order, covering everything from slimy slugs, to beautiful roses, to giant pumpkins. So check out the answers below; chances are, you'll find the solution to whatever's bugging you. And, I urge you to always follow safety first when using my tips and tonics.

All-Season Ingredients | Bugs & Slugs | Critter Control | Flowers | House Plants | Lawns
Trees, Shrubs, & Evergreens | Vegetables | Odds & Ends


AMMONIA is actually a readily available source of nitrogen that'll help encourage leafy plant growth. The ammonia you buy at the grocery store is a solution of ammonium hydroxide. It's a clear liquid with a very penetrating odor. Watch out--this is very potent stuff! To avoid burning your plants, never apply it right out of the bottle; always dilute it as specified in my tonic recipes. Ammonia can burn you, too, so always wear gloves when you work with it, and don't get it anywhere near your eyes. And never, ever combine it with bleach (or products containing bleach). The resulting chemical reaction releases toxic fumes.

Year 'Round Garden Magic booklet


Jerry Baker's Year 'Round Garden Magic

Using Jerry's amazing tips, tricks, and tonics -- you'll know exactly what to do and when to do it for a super green lawn, trees, shrubs, evergreens, flowers, vegetable garden, and even house plants! At this price, supplies are limited--so order yours now! (Softcover, 32 pages)

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ANTISEPTIC MOUTHWASH does the same thing in your garden that it does in your mouth. Yep, it actually destroys those nasty germs that cause big-time trouble if you don't get after them. But don't waste your money buying fancy flavored mouthwash for your tonics. The plain stuff works just fine, and your plants won't mind having "medicine breath"!

BABY SHAMPOO and DISHWASHING LIQUID help to soften the soil and remove dust, dirt, and pollution from leaves, so important functions like photosynthesis can take place more easily. These simple soaps make other sprays stick to leaves better, too. And bugs hate the taste (especially of the lemon-scented types), so they head for the hills in a hurry! Just make sure you never substitute detergent for these soaps, and in particular, don't use antibacterial detergent, because it can damage your plants.

BEER serves as an enzyme activator to help release the nutrients that are locked in the soil and puts 'em to work making your plants grow stronger, healthier, and better able to nip any problems in the bud. It also wakes up and energizes organic activity. Foreign or domestic, stale or freshly opened--whatever you have on hand will work just fine.

CORN SYRUP and MOLASSES stimulate chlorophyll production in plants, and they help to feed the good soil bacteria, too. (I'll bet you didn't know that your garden has a sweet tooth, did you?

EPSOM SALTS are a super source of magnesium, which helps deepen flower colors and thicken petals. Magnesium also improves the root structure--and that means strong, healthy plants that are your first line of defense against pests, diseases, and even nasty weather.

GARLIC is great in the kitchen, but it's even better in your garden! Its powerful aroma sends pests scurryin', and it acts like an antibiotic that can help sickly plants get growing on the right root again.

TEA contains tannic acid, which helps plants digest their food faster and more easily. As I always say--a well fed plant is a happy, healthy plant!

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Q: Ants! Ants! Ants! Their hills are everywhere! How can I evict them from my property without resorting to toxic chemicals?

A: You can try either of the following controls:

Make your own ant bait by mixing 1 tbsp. of bakers' yeast and 2 tbsp. of sugar in 1 pint of water; spread this mixture on pieces of cardboard, and place them around your yard.

Pile up instant grits or corn meal in and around their hills; once eaten, the grits expand inside them, and they soon go to that big anthill in the sky!

For more quick and easy insect controls like these, check out my Critter Control & Pest Prevention book.

Q: I have box elder bugs all over the side of my house. What do I do?

A: These critters especially seem to like to hang out in the fall on the warm side (south or west) of light colored houses, especially when there are female box elder trees nearby. Outdoors, it's a good idea to spray and cool off the sides of the house daily with water. You can spray the bugs with ¼ cup of laundry detergent per gallon of water to kill them, just be careful because the detergent mixture can harm or kill any plants that may be growing below. You can also get some temporary protection around windows and doors by using an insecticide containing pyrethrin around these areas. Be sure to follow label directions.

If the critters are indoors, the best way to take care of them is to vacuum them up. Then check to see that the seals around your doors and windows are good and tight. This'll make it tougher for the pests to get in.

Q: Do you have a remedy to keep fleas off dogs? I have a terrier, and he is a house dog, but every time he goes outside, he gets loaded with fleas. Please help!

A: There are a number of things you can do to get rid of fleas. First off, outside, you can get rid of them by spraying your yard with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, followed by an insecticide containing pyrethrin at the recommended rate. Or for an all-natural control, check local garden supply centers or online for beneficial nematodes. They'll go after the flea larvae in the soil.

Q: I live in the Southwest, and the grasshoppers are out of control here. What do I do?

A: A great way to control 'em long term is to use a product called "Nolo Bait™". This is a bait made with a biological, natural-occurring spore that infects the 'hoppers with a disease once it's eaten. The spores are not harmful to people, pets, birds, or the environment, but cause havoc to the 'hoppers. Infected 'hoppers don't immediately go "belly up" but they will become slow, lethargic and begin to eat less and less, reducing vegetation loss. Those that don't die in 3-4 weeks become food for the healthy 'hoppers that continue to migrate in. These then become infected, and so on. Egg laying is affected, too, which helps reduce populations for future years. When quick, immediate "belly up" control is needed, apply an insecticide containing pyrethrin at the recommended rate. Then create a buffer zone around the perimeter of the treated area with Nolo Bait™ for long-term control.

Q: There are ladybugs all over the inside of my house. How do I get rid of them?

A: What you have are probably the Asian lady beetles. Generally, ladybugs are good guys, and Asian lady beetles were actually imported to gobble up bad bugs like aphids. Unfortunately, unlike our native ladybugs, these swarm in the fall looking for niches and crooks to hibernate in for the winter, and all too many of them find their way indoors. To keep them out, before they start to swarm, seal and caulk any cracks or other areas where they might enter.

For some temporary control in the fall when they are swarming, you can try spraying an insecticide containing pyrethrin outdoors around the perimeter of windows, doors, and other areas where they may enter the house. This will give some short residual, although not long lasting, control. Once they come in the house, you'll have to vacuum 'em up. And remember to change the vacuum bag after each use. There has been some research that shows that the smell of camphor and menthol repels them. If you can find where they're entering the house, you might find a way of using these smells to discourage them. Good luck!

Q: Slugs are ripping my plants and vegetables to shreds. How can I get rid of these pests?

A: There are many effective ways to get rid of them. A few of my favorites are:

  • Handpick them and dump them in water laced with dishwashing liquid or rubbing alcohol.
  • Set out pie tins filled with beer or grape juice. The slugs climb in, and drown.
  • Apply a barrier of diatomaceous earth, ashes, or gravel around your plants. These items lacerate the slugs' bodies, causing them to dehydrate.
  • Wrap aluminum foil loosely around the plant stems. Slugs can't climb it.

Q: Creepy, crawly spiders have invaded my flower garden. What can I use to get rid of them?

A: Don't forget that spiders are generally good guys, gobbling up bad bugs like nobody's business. But if they're really taking over your flower garden, you can spray the beds with insecticide containing pyrethrin according to label directions. Overspray the area with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer first for better adhesion and more effective control.

Q: My yard is swarming with mosquitoes. How can I get rid of them so I can enjoy my backyard again?

A: Remember that any standing water in your yard or garden can turn into a mosquito breeding ground, so get rid of any puddles around your yard. Then, overspray your yard with my Buzz Buster Lemonade: 1 cup of lemon-scented ammonia and 1 cup of lemon-scented dishwashing liquid in a 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, filling the balance of the sprayer jar with warm water. Repeat this treatment 3 times a week in the evening, and the little buggers will be history.

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Q: Birds keep going after my garden. Is there anything I can do to keep them away?

A: Sure! Slit an old tennis ball and force it over the end of a 6-7 ft. piece of old garden hose. Draw two eyes and a mouth on the ball, and place yellow strips of tape like Xs down the hose to resemble a snake. Set this fake snake in the garden, and the birds'll be too spooked to stop in for a snack.

Q: How can I stop the neighborhood cats from using my flower garden as a litter box?

A: Try mixing coffee grounds, cayenne pepper, and/or orange peels into the top layer of soil, or try one of repellents I have in my book, Backyard Problem Solver. You can also stuff dried rue leaves, mothballs, or dry borax soap placed in the toe of old nylon stockings, and hang them in various areas of your garden.

Q: Apparently, it's slim pickings in the woods, because deer keep nibbling on my plants! How can I keep them away from my yard?

A: There are many different solutions, although a good, tall fence is probably the best (and most expensive) one. For less money, try blood meal, thorny bushes, or my special Deer Buster Egg Tonic: 2 eggs, 2 cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp. of cayenne pepper and 2 tbsp. of hot sauce in 2 cups of water. Let set for 2 days, then spray your plants to the point of run-off.

Q: How do I get those darned chipmunks to stay away from my garden?

A: Try sprinkling blood meal around the garden, or scatter dog or cat hair around the area. That should stop 'em in their tracks. You might also want try my All-Purpose Pest Prevention Potion: 1 cup of ammonia, ½ cup of dishwashing liquid, ½ cup of human urine, and ¼ cup of castor oil in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer. Then fill up the balance of the sprayer jar with water, and you're ready to go. Overspray any areas that need to be protected, so long as you steer clear of food crops. To protect your edibles, you'll have to spray around the perimeter of your garden.

Q: The neighborhood dogs are constantly digging up my flower beds. Is there anything I can use to prevent this that won't harm our pet?

A: Sprinkle cayenne pepper over and around the beds, and throw in a few orange peels for good measure. Other repellents include dried blood and oil of mustard. For trash can thugs, spray your garbage cans with a pine scented detergent and ammonia mixed with an equal amount of water.

Q: Moles and gophers have turned my lawn into their own personal condominium complex. What can I do to make them go away?

A: First and foremost, you need to eliminate their major food source--grubs--from your lawn. The best way to do this is to apply Milky Spore Powder at the recommended rate. In addition, you can:

  • Plant daffodils, spurge, and castor bean plants, which moles absolutely hate, in your garden.
  • Place used kitty litter in their runs, which tells them that deadly predators are lurking in the area. Do not use this in vegetable gardens or where any edibles are grown
  • Apply one of my homemade mole or gopher repellents. These are all included in my Backyard Problem Solver book.
  • Insert unwrapped sticks of Juicy Fruit® gum, slit lengthwise, in their runs.

Q: Skunks are digging up my yard, and pawing through my flowers. What can I do to get rid of them?

A: The controls for skunks are similar to those used for moles: if you eliminate their food source--grubs--they'll move on. If you can find their resting area, then you can use ammonia and/or bright light to drive them away.

Q: I have squirrels all over. How do I keep them out of my yard?

A: Keeping them out of an entire yard is nearly impossible. But there are things you can do to keep them from causing damage in specific areas. Try sprinkling dried blood meal as a border around the planting area you want to protect. Or douse your plants with my Hot Bite Spray: 3 tbsp. of cayenne pepper, 2 cups of hot water, 1 tbsp. of hot sauce, 1 tbsp. of ammonia, and 1 tbsp. of baby shampoo. Mix the cayenne pepper with the hot water in a bottle, and shake well. Let the mixture sit overnight, then pour off the liquid without disturbing the sediment at the bottom. Mix the liquid with the other ingredients in a handheld sprayer bottle, and spritz on your flower buds and stems as often as you can to keep them hot, hot, hot!

For more great squirrel-repelling strategies, check out my Backyard Problem Solver book. It includes the recipe for my Squirrel Beater Tonic, as well as instructions for spicing up (and squirrel-proofing) birdseed, making your own squirrel baffle, and much more.

Q: Voles have invaded my lawn, and are causing quite a mess with their runways. How do I stop them?

A: There are a few different things you can do. First, you may want to try trapping these critters. Use regular mousetraps baited with cookies, apples, corn or any other small grain, or a mixture of rolled oats and peanut butter. Set the trap in an old milk carton or coffee can to protect children and pets from harm. Because voles are most active in early morning and early evening, set traps by mid-afternoon. Check them the following morning, and if you have caught one, reset the trap in the same location. Continue this until no more voles are caught. Then relocate the traps 10 to 15 feet away in another surface runway. Continue this practice until you have covered the entire vole habitat. After they're eliminated, clean up any hiding/nesting areas up so they won't come back.

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Q: How deep should I plant my bulbs?

A: That depends on what you're planting. As I discuss in my Year-Round Bloomers book, small bulbs like crocus, muscari, and scilla will do just fine if planted 3 inches deep. On the other hand, tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils need a bit more room, and should be buried 6 inches deep. After planting, sprinkle a little bonemeal over your bulb bed to help your bulbs get off to a flying start.

Q: Should I remove the dying leaves after my daffodils and tulips fade?

A: Absolutely not! Go ahead and remove the flower stems after the flowers fade, but leave the leaves alone. The bulbs need the leaves to develop strength and energy for next year's flowers. So leave them on as long as possible. You might try rubberbanding them in place, or planting daylilies around them to hide the dying foliage.

Q: I have a beautiful fern that's been growing great for years, but lately its leaves are turning brown. What am I doing wrong?

A: Your fern is probably suffering from scorch, which occurs when the soil dries out, if it just gets too darn hot, or the fern's exposed to a lot of windy weather. Your best bet is to keep your fern in a moist, shady area that's protected from strong winds. Be sure to water it frequently and deeply to keep the soil from drying out.

Q: How can I protect my geraniums from the cold winter ahead?

A: My Grandma Putt's solution was to jerk 'em out of the soil when they turned brown after the first frost. Then she wrapped each one in a double layer of newspaper, and put them in her cold cellar until March. (If you have a damp basement, I suggest hanging them upside down, and spacing them well apart to allow air to circulate. Otherwise, they may rot.) In the middle of March, she unwrapped them, cut off a third of the roots and two-thirds of the tops, and repotted them in clay pots. She gave them a light feeding, and slowly brought them back to life.

Q: How can I treat hollyhock rust?

A: First thing, you'll want to destroy all the infected leaves that you see. Then you'll need to treat the plant with sulfur. To prevent rust from breaking out in the future, be sure not to get the leaves wet when you water them. Hollyhocks also need room to breathe, so if they're getting too crowded, divide some of the clumps to allow air to circulate.

Q: All of the leaves on my hostas are getting brown edges. What's causing this, and what can I do?

A: Hostas get brown edges when their roots get too dry or they are in an exposed location. They do best when they are kept out of a lot of direct sun or wind. Whenever the weather gets dry, be sure to give 'em lots of water.

Q: For some reason this year my peonies are not blooming. Is there something wrong with them?

A: If the peonies have been in the ground for many years, I suspect they might need to be lifted. The "eye" of the roots shouldn't be planted any more than 1-2 inches below the soil. If they're deeper than this, (which can happen over time) then they won't bloom. Lift and replant them to the proper depth in the fall. Another possibility is that some of the trees in the area have grown since the peonies were put in, causing them to sit in the shade all day long. They need full sun (afternoon shade in the south). Feed them with a balanced fertilizer such as 8-8-8 and bonemeal after they would normally flower and again in the fall. This should do the trick.

Q: What should I do to protect my roses from the freezing temperatures this winter?

A: Most roses are fairly hardy, but they still need a bit of protection to do well. To start with, you need to make sure you clean up all the leaves and debris under your roses and dispose of it. After the first killing frost, but before the ground freezes, pile up 8" to 10" of soil around the canes. Then pile hay, straw, or leaf mulch over the mounded canes, and add a half-cup of crushed mothballs per bushel of mulch. Mix it all up well, mound over the canes, and then throw a few shovelfuls of soil on it to hold it all in place. You can find lots of other tips for keepin' those roses healthy and beautiful in my Year-Round Bloomers book.

Q: My roses have big, beautiful blooms. When should I prune them so that they look just as good next year?

A: It will depend on the type of roses that you have. My book, Year-Round Bloomers gives information on when and how to prune the different types such as climbers, ramblers, bush, or tree roses. For regular bush type roses, you'll want to do your pruning in the early spring in order to get good growing shoots. When the buds begin to swell in the spring, prune back any dead or diseased wood. Stop when you hit healthy green wood and an outward facing bud. Then you'll want to sterilize all of the cuts you made with a mixture of 2 tbsp. of ammonia and 2 tbsp. of dishwashing liquid per quart of water. Once the pruning is done, lay a few tea bags on the soil under each bush. The tannic acid in the tea bags gives the roses a little acidic pick-me-up.

Q: How do I get rid of black spot on my roses?

A: The first thing you need to do is cut off and destroy all of the infected leaves. You don't want any trace of the disease hanging around. Then, when you first start to see the spots appear, apply a fungicide that is safe for use on roses, and is labeled to treat black spot. This should heal your roses, and help prevent future outbreaks.

For a homemade control, spray them with a mixture of 1 tbsp. of baking soda, 1 tbsp. of light vegetable oil, and 1 tbsp. of dishwashing liquid in 1 gallon of water. If all is lost, and you can't save your plant, next time, try buying a black spot resistant rose. Your local nursery should be able to point you in the right direction as far as which roses grow best in your state.

Q: When is the best time to separate and divide my perennials?

A: I devoted a section to this subject in my book Perfect Perennials, along with my Steps to Division Success to walk you through it. The best time to divide perennials is when they're not actively growing. For most, this means early to midfall, although there are exceptions. The temperatures are cooler, and a gentler sun allows divided plants to recover quickly. For this reason, it is also important to start digging in late afternoon, after the hot morning sun has cooled down. To avoid having to redo all of your perennial beds at the same time, plan on dividing only a few at a time. This way, you'll always have beds in bloom.

For an extra special "perk-me-up," saturate the area with my Perennial Perk-Up Tonic: 1 can of beer, 1 cup of ammonia, ½ cup of dishwashing liquid, and ½ cup of corn syrup in a 20 gallon hose-end sprayer after planting.

Q: How often should I water my annuals?

A: If the weather is hot, sunny, or windy, water the plants at least once a day; twice a day is even better, so long as the soil is dry to the touch. Do this until the plants have adjusted to their new surroundings, for about a week. After that, water thoroughly to a depth of 6 to 8 inches, once a week in cool weather, and every three or four days during the hot summer months. Never let your plants wilt; it will seriously weaken them.

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Q: I have an African violet that's healthy, but it has no flowers. Can I make it bloom?

A: You sure can! The difference between a greenhouse and an ordinary living room is often the reason for non-blooming plants. It's the amount of light that they get. They need bright light. Ideally an east or south window in winter, and a west window in summer. They should be protected from strong sunlight. For winter bloom, it can help to provide some artificial light in the evenings. You can purchase grow lights at your local hardware store and put them in a nearby lamp. African violets also flower best if they are kept standing on moist pebbles which gives them a lot of humidity. You must remove faded flowers promptly to prevent seed formation, which is a deterrent to further bud development. Plenty of indirect fresh air is also important. Repotting may be necessary, but other factors should be considered. An African violet plant food may be applied according to the label directions when buds begin to appear. But do not feed during the short periods when plants are resting and producing no new growth.

Q: I recently got an amaryllis bulb as a gift. How do care for this plant so I get big, beautiful flowers?

A: Plant your bulb in a pot that's about 1 inch larger in diameter than the bulb. Leave the top 1/3 of the bulb exposed. When it's in full growth, water regularly, and feed the plant once a month with a balanced fertilizer. Your amaryllis will do best with full sunlight during this time. When summer rolls around and the leaves dry out, cut it back to 3 inches and store the bulb in the pot in a cool, dry, dark location for at least 2 months. When it shows signs of growing, or about 8 weeks before you want it to flower, bring it out and repot it in fresh soil and a larger pot if needed, and begin watering. Remember to keep it between 60-70 degrees.

Q: How can I get rid of aphids that are all over my houseplants?

A: Aphids hate soap. Give your plants a good soapy bath using 1-2 tbsp. of dishwashing liquid per gallon of room temperature water. Spray the plants thoroughly making sure to get the undersides of the leaves, too. If you can, wipe the aphids away with a soft cloth. Repeat weekly or every other week as needed until you don't see 'em anymore. For something with an even stronger punch, you can use my All-Season Clean-Up Tonic at a rate of 1 tsp. of tonic to a quart of tepid water. Give your plants a good dose of this every 2 weeks and those aphids will be history.

Q: Is there a way to grow avocados from seeds?

A: Avocado seeds are great fun for planting indoors. First remove the thick brownish hide that covers the seed and then wash the seed well. After soaking a 4-inch clay pot, plant the seed in it with 1 inch of the pointed end above the soil. You can use any commercial potting mix. Water it with a solution of 1 tsp. of Epsom salts per quart of water, and put it in a dark place for one week. Then, move it to a nice, bright location. When it's 6-8 inches tall, cut it in half to encourage branching.

Q: Why can't I get my Christmas cactus to bloom?

A: Here's what you can do to get your Christmas cactus bloomin' again. This plant needs a temperature range of 55-70 degrees F. Anything higher or lower, and you'll have blooming problems. The amount of light (or more specifically darkness) it gets also affects blooming. If you want it to bloom for Christmas, you'll have to keep your cactus in an area that's cool and on the dryish side during mid September to mid November until flower buds set. During this time, it should not have more than 11 hours of light during the day. It needs to be in a spot that gets bright light with no direct sun during the day and uninterrupted darkness at night. Watch out for any artificial light sources that can interfere with the dark period. Put a box over it at night--say from 7 pm to 8 am, if you need to. Water it normally when it's in flower and during periods of growth. You'll also want to give it a rest period after blooming, which means watering less frequently during February and March. Then in April, begin treating it normally again.

Q: Our ficus tree seems to be going through shock ever since a recent move. The leaves are yellowing and dropping off. What can we do to save it?

A: Weeping Figs (Ficus benjamina) don't like changes. They drop their leaves to adjust to changes in light and temperature. Put it in a bright spot and water with care. Let the soil dry out between waterings, particularly in the winter months, and make sure you don't overwater it. If it's happy with its new home, it should put out new foliage and adjust.

Q: My potted gardenia is dropping its flowers all of a sudden, some even before they open. What am I doing wrong?

A: Bud drop is common in gardenias. This occurs because of uneven temps and moisture. Your gardenia should be kept at 72 to 78 degrees by day, and not less than 60 degrees at night. It needs plenty of bright light, humidity, and good air circulation. Mist it regularly, but make sure the plant isn't damp at night. Keep the soil moist, but not wet.

Q: There are little flying bugs that look like gnats all around my houseplants, especially around the soil. What are they and what do I do?

A: It sounds like you've got a problem with fungus gnats. These pests look a whole lot like fruit flies and hang around the soil at the base of the plants. They often occur from using unsterilized soil or from keeping the soil too wet. The adults aren't harmful, but they sure are a nuisance! It's the little baby larvae that hatch in the soil that are the problem. Treat the soil with beneficial nematodes according to directions to get them in their larval stage. This should wipe 'em out very effectively.

Q: What can I do for my hoya plant that has no blooms?

A: It sounds like it might not be getting enough light, or it might have been pruned incorrectly. Hoya need bright light, but be sure to keep them out of hot direct sunlight. They bloom on vines that are about 3 feet long. If you cut the vines back, or cut off the short leafless stems that grow toward the end of the vines, you lose its flowering ability. If you need to keep those vines in check, a good way to do it is to wrap the vines around a wire loop or trellis rather than cutting them off. After flowering, remove the dead flowers, but not the stems that produce them, so that they will flower again for you.

Q: What should I do for my potted palm that has some brown leaves?

A: It's natural for the lowest leaves to turn brown on a palm. Just cut them off. If, however, the browning is more widespread, and there's some rotting, then you're probably overwatering it. Remove the plant from the pot and inspect the root system. If all of the roots are brown and mushy, you may not be able to save it. If you still have some firm, white roots, wash away the soil from the root ball. Cut away the brown roots and any stems or leaves that are showing rot. Then repot it carefully using a new pot and fresh, sterile potting soil. Keep the plant in a well-lit location away from direct sunlight, and be careful not to overwater it.

Q: My peace lily has developed brown tips. What's wrong?

A: Peace lilies just love humidity, and brown tips are usually caused by air that's too dry for them. Fluoride in city tap water can also be the culprit. Mist the leaves often--once or twice a day. You'll also want to set the plant on a pebble tray filled with water. The plant sits on pebbles above the water level. This helps increase humidity around the plant, and should perk your lily right up. If your water is treated, water instead with bottled or rain water.

Q: How can I get my poinsettia to bloom at Christmastime?

A: In order to get a Christmas bloom, place the plant in a dark closet for 12 hours each night, say from 8pm to 8am, starting in early October. Keep the plant in a sunny window for the other 12 hours of the day. Keep this up until it starts to turn color. This should get your plant turning as red as Santa's nose just in time for the holidays.

Q: There's a crusty white substance covering the top of the soil in all of my houseplants. I can remove it, but it keeps coming back. So, what can I do?

A: It sounds like you might have an accumulation of salt in your soil. This can be caused by a few things, such as watering your plant from the bottom, using liquid fertilizers, or from watering with hard water. When you see it, it's a good time to repot with fresh soil. If the plants are so large that you can't repot, change the soil in the top of the pot. Then in the future, be sure to water well from the top (until it runs out the bottom) with unfertilized water once a month. This helps leach the salts out of the soil so that they don't accumulate.

Q: My houseplants have been invaded by whiteflies. How do I get rid of them?

A: Be sure to isolate the plant from any other houseplants. Give the plant a good bath with 2 tsp. of dishwashing liquid in a quart of tepid water, making sure to wash all parts of the plant. This will help to get rid of any eggs and nymphs on the plant. Rinse it with the same temperature water, and spray with a weak tea solution. Retreat weekly until you get them under control. You can also place yellow cardboard strips coated with petroleum jelly near, or in, the plant to trap the adults. Replace them when they are full.

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Q: I have brown spots popping up around my lawn. What's causing them?

A: Brown spots can be caused by a lot of things, including insects, disease, water stress, fertilizer burn, dog spots, etc. I've given some handy descriptions of the symptoms for many of the common insect and disease problems for lawns in my book, Green Grass Magic, along with my recommendations for treating different problems that should help you out.

Q: Where I live, we've been going through one heck of a drought! What should I be doing for my lawn to help it survive?

A: Your question is a good one, and we seem to be hearing it a lot these days. One of the best things you can do is to cut back, or stop fertilizing altogether during periods of drought. By reducing the amount of available fertilizer, you'll slow down your lawn's growth naturally and safely, and it will need less water. Another thing you can do is add a light coat of compost to your lawn--maybe about ½-inch spread evenly over the area. Compost helps retain moisture, releases nutrients, and conditions the soil all at once. If you are able to, water the area thoroughly after applying compost. My book, Green Grass Magic, also includes other tonics and tips for drought including my Drought Buster Brew and Drought Recovery Tonic.

Q: How do I get rid of grubs in my lawn?

A: Apply Milky Spore Powder any time the ground is not frozen--it's a biological powder that is very effective at controlling Japanese beetle grubs, and starts killing these grubs immediately. As each one dies, it releases even more Milky Spore disease into the soil, helping to protect your lawn for 10 years or more. Then follow up every 2 weeks throughout the growing season by overspraying the area with a mixture of 1 cup of dishwashing liquid and 1 cup of antiseptic mouthwash, in a 20 gallon hose-end sprayer until early August.

Q: Help! I can't grow anything because of my hard, clay soil. How do I get a great lawn?

A: You need to condition the soil before you do anything else. So, apply gypsum at the recommended rate twice a year until things get going. Also, overspraying the area regularly with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer will do wonders for softening the soil. Check out my book, Green Grass Magic, for more tips, hints, and helpful recipes for growing the greenest grass on your block.

Q: I pull weeds till I'm blue in the face, and they always come back. How can I eliminate them?

A: The most basic requirement for weed control is proper lawn maintenance. Thick grass actually crowds out weeds! So make sure that you're mowing your lawn properly, and that there is good soil and adequate fertilization. If you're still having problems, then you've got to haul out the heavy artillery--chemical controls. Be sure to always purchase weed killers that are labeled specifically for the type of lawn that you have. For best control, shampoo your lawn first with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, and then apply the control at the recommended rate. Next year, before weeds pop-up, apply my Preemergent Weed Control Tonic: 1 cup of dishwashing liquid, 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide, and 2 tbsp. of instant tea granules in a 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, filling the balance of the sprayer jar with water. Then follow up with a commercial preemergent type control to help prevent weed seeds from sprouting.

Q: My lawn has a lot of doggie damage spots. How do I get rid of them?

A: To repair and help prevent the damage to your lawn, overspray the turf with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, and then apply gypsum over the area at the recommended rate. One week later, overspray the turf with my Turf Builder Tonic: 1 can of beer, 1 cup of ammonia, and 1 can of regular cola in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer.

Q: I've got a serious crabgrass problem. Please help!

A: To get crabgrass after it's already up and growing, you need to overspray the area with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, followed by a good post-emergent crabgrass control. Crabgrass dies in the winter, but will come back unless you take action! So to prevent crabgrass plants from sprouting in the first place, apply my Turf Builder Tonic in the fall, and a commercial pre-emergent crabgrass control in early spring (before the temperature gets above 50° F.)

Q: Help! I recently fertilized my lawn, but I accidentally used too much. It looks like the fertilizer has burned the grass. Is there anything I can do?

A: Treating your lawn for fertilizer burn will depend on what type of fertilizer you used. If a dry fertilizer burned the grass, wash the area down with plenty of water for several days. Then apply gypsum at the recommended rate. The grass should return in anywhere from 1 month to 1 year depending on how much fertilizer was used, and how well the leaching process was done. Spot seed large areas to speed up the process. If your lawn was burned by a liquid fertilizer, wash it down thoroughly immediately afterward with water to help dilute it and rinse away any residual product. Keep the grass watered normally and out of stress, and with any luck, the grass will grow out of it. If it doesn't, you may need to overseed.

Q: Is there anything I can do to rid my yard of moss?

A: That troublesome moss likes to grow in acidic soil, and in shady, damp areas. Often you'll find it where there's a problem with drainage. You might want to get a professional soil test and add lime to sweeten the soil somewhat if this is what the test calls for. It will also help to get more light into the area by pruning trees. And improve drainage in the area, if possible. You can manually remove moss by raking or dethatching, or you can treat the areas with a commercial moss killer. But remember: Unless the environmental conditions are changed, the moss will continue to come back.

Q: Mushrooms are popping up all over my lawn. How do I kill them?

A: To eliminate the mushrooms, first walk all over the area with your Aerating Lawn Sandals to poke a lot of holes in the turf. Then overspray the area with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, and give the mushrooms a light dusting with dry laundry soap. That should do it.

Q: How can we get rid of nutgrass in our lawn?

A: The best way to combat nutgrass is to keep a good, thick healthy lawn. This helps crowd out nutgrass and keep it under control. It's also important to know that nutgrass thrives in wet areas. Make sure you aren't over-watering and aerate and/or improve drainage if needed. To help with this, you might want to check out my Aerating Lawn Sandals. If the nutgrass is just now starting to crop up and the weeds are young and small, try digging them out and getting the nutlets.

Q: How do I get rid of thatch?

A: There is a whole section in my book, Green Grass Magic, devoted to this very question! It is important to open up your lawn to air, water, and nutrients by fertilizing, watering frequently, and mowing your lawn with a sharp blade on your mower. This can be tough if the thatch layer becomes so thick that it prevents water and fertilizer from reaching the soil. You can remove the thatch layer with a manual dethatching rake, or by renting a power dethatcher (available at many equipment rental centers).

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Q: I've got a problem with bagworms all over my favorite evergreen tree. What should I do?

A: Picking off the bagworms is your best bet if you've got just a light infestation. However, for heavier infestations, you'll want to use a biological control containing BtK. This is best used when the worms are small. If the worms are larger and you find that you do need a chemical control, you can use an insecticide containing pyrethrin to get rid of 'em. Keep in mind that it's best if you can get to 'em before late August, which is when they begin to pupate. Once they pupate, they will be protected from the controls.

Q: I'm having problems with black, sooty mold appearing on some of my trees. What can I do about it?

A: This is actually an indication of an insect problem. Black, sooty mold often appears when there is a problem with sucking insects such as aphids, scale, whiteflies, or leafhoppers. They secrete a "honeydew" substance that encourages the mold growth. Taking care of the insects is the best solution. Spraying with a horticultural spray oil can help for scale. Using a good liquid fruit tree spray, or an insecticide containing pyrethrin, may help for the others depending on the type of tree and bug that it is. The folks at your local garden center can steer you in the right direction. Once the insects are gone, the sooty mold will eventually wash away. To speed it along, wash the trees down with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer.

Q: What is dormant spraying, and how do I do it?

A: Many bugs survive the winter by hiding in tree and shrub cracks and crevices. They hatch in the spring with an appetite that would make a hibernating bear proud! To kill the bugs before they hatch, you should dormant spray in late fall, as soon as the leaves of your fruit, nut, and other trees have fallen. You can use a dormant/horticultural oil from your local tree nursery or garden center to nail them in their tracks. First, mix up a batch of my All-Season Clean-Up Tonic, and douse your trees with it to the point of run-off. Then apply the dormant/horticultural oil over the top. Repeat these steps in early spring, before the buds swell up and open. The results will be the happiest and healthiest trees and shrubs you've ever seen!

Q: My evergreen tree sometimes sheds some areas of brown needles it develops during the winter. Come spring it's always looking great again. Is this normal?

A: If you don't see any signs of insects or other problems, then this sounds pretty normal. Needle browning and shedding of older needles is normal with many types of evergreens in both spring and fall. In the fall, it's similar to what happens to deciduous trees when they shed their leaves. The browning that occurs in spring is usually due to moisture loss from the winter winds and/or from sunscald in areas of snow. As long as the tree greens up later, it's not a problem. But to minimize the browning, you can wrap small trees with burlap for the winter. Make sure the burlap does not come into contact with the foliage of the tree. Giving your trees a good, deep watering just before the ground freezes in the winter helps, too.

Q: How should I care for my gardenias?

A: Gardenias really do like a lot of attention. They need full sun or light shade, acidic soil, regular water and feeding, and warm day temperatures with cool nights to bloom. Feed them with fertilizers for acid-loving plants unless the soil where you are located is naturally acidic.

Q: We have had a beautiful lilac that's grown well for many years. All of a sudden though, it's not blooming. What could be the problem?

A: Usually, problems with blooming occur for several reasons. First is light. They need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. If there is shading from trees or buildings, this can affect how well it blooms. Next is improper pruning. Lilacs flower on the previous year's growth. If they are pruned at the wrong time, such as fall or early spring, the flower buds are cut off, and there will be no flowers in the spring. They should only be pruned when they finish flowering. Lastly is fertilization--either too little fertilizer, or too much nitrogen. Nitrogen can cause a lot of lush foliage at the expense of forming flower buds. So if you fertilize, cut back on the nitrogen. And if you don't fertilize at all, you'd better hop to it!

Q: The leaves on some of my trees turned yellow, then brown, and now they're starting to fall off! What can I do to make my tree better?

A: There are a number of things you can do. First, make sure they are getting plenty of water at regular intervals. Then make sure they are mulched well. Regularly bathing them every 2 weeks with my All-Season Clean-Up Tonic will help eliminate any natural enemies. To seal out dust, dirt, pollutants (including chemicals), sunscald, winter burn, etc., thoroughly soak the trees with an anti-transpirant (can be found at most tree nurseries) just before the real hot or cold weather sets in; it's better than buying life insurance for your plants!

Q: What does it mean to root prune a tree?

A: To root prune, you push a sharp, flat spade in and out of the ground all the way around the plant. This should be done at the "weep line" (the farthest point to which the branches extend) for trees and shrubs. Sprinkle some Epsom salts into the cuts. Next, mix 2 tbsp. of tea, 2 tbsp. of dishwashing liquid, and 1 can of beer in 2 gallons of water. Pour this mixture into the cuts.

Q: We're moving soon, and would like to take our favorite tree with us. When is the best time of year for transplanting a tree?

A: Fall is the best time of the year to transplant trees, shrubs, and evergreens because they've quit growing for the year, and have some time to recover from the shock before the next growing season. Early spring is the second best time. To get them off to a good start, give each transplant a quart of the following tonic: 1 tbsp. of tea, 1 tbsp. of whiskey, 1 tbsp. of baby shampoo, and 2 tsp. of fish emulsion in 1 quart of warm water. Then sprinkle a handful of Epsom salts over the soil, and say "nighty-nite" for the winter.

Q: How do I get my trees and shrubs ready for the long, cold, winter?

A: There are several things you should do:

  • Thoroughly soak the area around the plants before the ground freezes.
  • Spread a deep layer of organic mulch around them to hold moisture in, and to prevent the ground from freezing in the absence of snow.
  • Wrap the trunks of all young trees with an all-weather tree wrap.
  • Coat the foliage of evergreens to the point of run-off with an anti-transpirant.
  • Where appearance is not a concern, set up burlap or other windscreens for smaller trees and shrubs.

Q: I was shocked to discover moss and mold on several of my shrubs. How can I get rid of it?

A: You need to spray them to the point of run-off every 2 weeks throughout the growing season with a mixture of 1 cup of antiseptic mouthwash, 1 cup of chamomile tea, and 1 cup of Murphy® Oil Soap in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer. For small areas on branches and trunks only, a mixture of one part bleach to 10 parts of water should do the trick.

Q: We have a lilac bush that is about a foot tall. It was doing great, then I caught the neighbor's dog urinating on it. It turned brown, and lost its leaves. Can it be saved?

A: Yes--if you act quickly. First, apply pelletized gypsum all around the plant at the recommended rate. Then give it a good, thorough soaking with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer. Two to three weeks later, apply an anti-transpirant to the point of run-off.

Q: I have shoots growing up from around the base of a plum and a crabapple tree. How do I get rid of the shoots without killing the tree?

A: If the shoots are suckers, growing from the base of the tree or from the roots, you don't want to use a weed killer. Just prune them out, preferably below the soil line. If the shoots that are growing under the trees are seedlings growing from fallen fruit, use one of the systemic plant controls containing glyphosate, like RoundUp®, at the recommended rate. For super control, overspray the whole area with 1 cup of dishwashing liquid in your 20 gallon hose-end sprayer first--it won't hurt anything, and it will help the control adhere better. Make sure you apply this chemical on a wind-free day, and be careful--the glyphosate kills all that it touches, so spot treat the shoots only!

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Q: How can I get my asparagus ready for the upcoming winter?

A: To put your asparagus to bed for the winter, cut back the ferns once they have turned brown and brittle, and burn them, or have them hauled away (you don't want to add these to your compost pile). Test your soil's pH again to make sure everything is as it should be. Then spread at least an inch of compost over the bed, and top it off with about 6 inches of chopped leaves or straw. My book, Terrific Tomatoes, Sensational Spuds, and Mouth-Watering Melons has lots more great tips like this for growing absolutely heavenly asparagus.

Q: The broccoli I'm growing seemed to develop small heads this year. What can I do so that I get big, beautiful broccoli in the future?

A: The smaller heads on your broccoli could be caused by a number of reasons. Broccoli may experience stunted head growth if it didn't get enough water, especially when it's just starting out. Cool weather can also do it. Spacing is another factor. Spacing them farther apart will help give larger central heads, but fewer side shoots. Closer spacing gives smaller central heads, but more side shoots. Be sure to follow the spacing suggestions given on the label of the variety that you plant. You may also want to consider the variety of broccoli that you have. There are several that will normally grow smaller heads than others. This would mean that there isn't necessarily anything wrong with your broccoli; it's just in their nature to grow smaller heads.

Q: My beans have been overrun by Mexican bean beetles. What should I do?

A: Adult Mexican bean beetles overwinter in plant debris, so make certain that you clean up and destroy all plant debris after harvest to reduce their numbers for the following year. To treat for these pests, you can use commercial controls such as Sevin. Be sure to pick off and destroy any eggs, larvae, and adult beetles that you see.

Q: Do you have any information on how to grow gigantic pumpkins? I'm thinking about entering a pumpkin contest this year.

A: I sure do! In fact, I give my 12 steps program for growing them in my Terrific Tomatoes, Sensational Spuds, and Mouth-Watering Melons book. A secret I learned years ago, too, was to remove all but the biggest two fruits from each vine and to be sure to give them plenty of water--they can grow as much as 8 inches a day!

Q: How do you grow rhubarb, and when is the best time to water and harvest it?

A: You should mound-plant rhubarb in the fall in soil that has a liberal amount of human hair and oatmeal mixed in with it. Feed it with fish emulsion every 3 weeks throughout the growing season. Harvest in early summer before the stalks go to flower. During the winter, I want you to emulsify all of your table scraps in a blender, and pour this liquid "compost" on the rhubarb. They'll wake up in the spring rarin' to grow!

Q: My tomatoes have blossom-end rot again this year. How can I help them?

A: Blossom-end rot can affect peppers, cucumbers and squash, too. It's caused by a calcium deficiency, which can occur from insufficient calcium in the soil, uneven watering that makes it difficult for the plants to take up the calcium, or leaching of the calcium out of the soil by heavy rain or watering. It often appears after a period of rapid growth, followed by dry conditions, or in periods of heavy rain. To help even out soil moisture be sure to mulch well, and water regularly.

Q: Our problem--early and late blight on our tomato plants. I planted disease-resistant seed and sprayed with liquid copper, but I have had limited success. I still lose about half of my plants by August. What can I do?

A: There are two things that I want you to try--first, mix 1 tbsp. of bleach in 1 qt. of warm water, and spray it over every 100 sq. ft. of garden area as soon as the temperature gets to 50ºF. Then wait 3 weeks, and plant. As soon as buds form, overspray the plants with a mixture of 1 part skim milk and 1 part anti-transpirant to 9 parts of warm water, or apply a commercial fungicide listed for use on tomatoes regularly at the recommended rate. Try either one--both should keep the blight away.

Q: I had some watermelons and cantaloupes die this past year. When I pulled the plants up, there were small, white worms about ¼-inch long, inside the stems. What can I do to control them next year?

A: It sounds like squash vine borers. They can attack melons and cucumbers in addition to squash plants. With these bugs, the best chance of survival is to prevent, prevent, and prevent some more. One way is to dust around the base of the plants with a vegetable dust containing rotenone. With squash, you can also try either early or late plantings to avoid them, or mound soil over the squash plants to the first leaf joint.

My favorite trick, though, involves my favorite garden helper: panty hose. Wrap it around the stem to keep the borers from attacking. If it's too late and the borers are already in the stems, slit the infested stems open and kill the borers with a crochet hook. If the plant hasn't died, cover the damaged stem with soil to encourage new roots to grow above where the worm was. Then give it a lot of TLC for the rest of the growing season.

Q: Are there any vegetables that are good to grow in a patch of my garden with a lot of shade?

A: Sorry, but most fruits and vegetables need at least 6 hours of full sun during the 10 am to 6 pm hours. It's probably best if you find another site if you want to grow vegetables. However, if you want to try, leafy vegetables will do better than fruiting ones in the shade.

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Q: What's the difference between detergents and soaps when it comes to tonic recipes?

A: Actually, all soaps are detergents, but not all detergents are soaps. Detergents that are not soaps can be damaging to plants. When my recipes call for dishwashing liquid, you'll want to use those that are meant for handwashing dishes. Do not use automatic dishwasher detergents or anything containing antibacterial agents. The best ones are sometimes the cheapest. These will often be less concentrated. Also remember not to use any that say they contain degreasers or are antibacterial.

Q: What is a 20 gallon hose-end sprayer?

A: A 20 gallon hose-end sprayer is a 1-quart sprayer jar with a sprayer head that attaches to the end of your garden hose. The sprayer head will siphon and mix the contents of the jar with 20 gallons of water as it is passing through the hose.

Q: I've looked all over and haven't been able to find a 20 gallon hose-end sprayer for your recipes. Where can I get one or does it matter what type of hose end sprayer it is?

A: You're in luck! You can find inexpensive 20 gallon hose-end sprayers right here. Using the right kind of sprayers for my recipes is important so that the tonics will be properly diluted.

Q: Can I use my Miracle-Gro Sprayer with your recipes?

A: Nope, sorry. These types of sprayers do not deliver the correct metered dilution rate needed for the tonics.

Q: Can I use my adjustable rate, dial-type sprayer for your tonics, and if so, what setting should I set it at?

A: While some dial sprayers can be used, others will be labeled that they may be damaged if used with soaps. It's usually best to use the recommended 20 gallon hose-end sprayer with the recipes rather than risk damaging your sprayer. Make sure you read the label and instructions for your sprayer before using it with my tonics. If you decide you want to take the chance, the ratio breakdown for my 20 gallon hose-end sprayer recipes is 1.6 oz. of tonic per gallon of water.

Q: How can I keep my Christmas tree looking green and healthy for as long as possible?

A: There's nothing like a fresh, great-smellin' Christmas tree to really spread that holiday cheer. To make your tree as beautiful and long-lasting as possible, when you get your tree home, cut 1 inch off the bottom of the trunk to remove the dried sap. Then mix up 2 cups of clear corn syrup, 2 tbsp. of bleach, and 4 multivitamin tablets + iron in a bucket of very warm water. Set the trunk in the bucket, and let it soak overnight. Finally, before bringing your tree inside, spray it with an anti-transpirant to help it retain its moisture through the holidays. And be sure to keep your tree watered at all times.

Q: Is there a tonic I can use to speed up the decomposition process in my compost pile?

A: Yes, there is--just spray on my Compost Starter Tonic: ½ can of beer, and ½ cup of ammonia in 2 gallons of warm water.

Q: I want to start a compost pile, but don't know what to put in it. Could you start me out with some suggestions?

A: Making your own compost pile is easy. Simply follow this list as a guide:

leaves diseased or pest-infested plants
grass clippings poisonous plants
plant debris weeds that have gone to seed
vegetable peelings meat products
eggshells oils and oily products
coffee grounds fats and fatty products
used tea leaves

Cut all items into small pieces before putting them in the pile. Remember, a compost pile is a great way to improve your soil while recycling your yard waste.

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