DEAR JESSICA: I have a clay strawberry planter on my front porch. A planter is a planter, but a dear person gave it to me several days before he died, so this one means something special to me. I never know just what to put in it, and right now it is standing there "naked." I'm thinking along the lines of something forever, like English ivy, that could stand up to our harsh, cold winters. I'd love any suggestions. -- Shirley Duncan, Port Jefferson
DEAR SHIRLEY: I understand the planter holds a lot of sentimental value, so you need to know you should not leave it out on the porch year-round. Clay pots tend to crack with the freeze-thaw cycles during the winter months, so it's unlikely it would last long out there. Regardless of what plants you use, the pot should be brought indoors in autumn, either emptied of annuals, cleaned and stored, or planted with tropicals or evergreens and treated as a houseplant during the colder months.
As for plant suggestions, I have a few:
You can fill each pocket with various hardy succulents, like hens and chicks, for a colorful year-round display. Try 'Cobweb' and 'Emerald empress' varieties. They can survive winters indoors if provided with ample sunlight and aren't overwatered.
Or you can plant a creative herb garden, filling pockets with cooking essentials such as parsley, sage, thyme, mint, oregano, basil and rosemary. Smaller plants should be planted at the bottom of the pot; larger ones toward the top, with the biggest, like rosemary or basil, used as a centerpiece. You might even incorporate a few dwarf marigolds. Herbs, too, can be brought indoors and grown (and used!) in the kitchen during winter.
For a floral display, plant trailing geraniums or petunias along the sides, alternated with sweet potato vines. Then add a vibrant-colored grass, like Cordyline 'Festival,' to the top in larger planters, black mondo grass in smaller ones.
If you don't have a lot of sunlight, consider combining different varieties of caladium and coleus for a colorful display.
Regardless of what you're planting, it's a good idea to incorporate a piece of PVC piping to ensure water reaches the roots of every plant. Cut the pipe just slightly longer than the height of the pot and drill holes along its sides, 2 inches apart. At planting time, add potting mix to the planter up to the bottom openings and then position the pipe vertically in the center. Insert plants through the openings (from the inside out) and add more potting mix and plants as you go. Pack firmly, and water and fertilize through the pipe, which won't be visible when your centerpiece plant grows.
DEAR JESSICA: I have a 26-year-old weeping red Japanese maple that lost almost all of its leaves two seasons ago in the middle of the summer. I called in a tree doctor, who said it was due to heat stress and that next spring it should be fine. The following spring, the tree bloomed beautifully, but it burned again in July and the crimson leaves dropped off. New leaves tried to sprout again but fell while small. I was advised by my landscaper to put the hose at the base of the trunk and let the water trickle down to the roots. We have lawn sprinklers and assumed the tree was receiving enough water. I don't want to lose this tree. Is there anything you can suggest to improve this situation and to prevent this from occurring next season? -- Rosemary Cavallaron, via email
DEAR ROSEMARY: It is not uncommon for Japanese maples to experience leaf burn, often caused by excessive fertilization or under- or over-watering. For optimum health, these trees also require at least some afternoon shade. I understand the tree has been growing, presumably without issues, for more than 20 years. Did conditions change two years ago? Were surrounding trees removed, increasing sun exposure?
It's likely, too, that when the tree was recovering and leafing out the second time, it wasn't receiving enough water, and so the leaves dropped again. Avoid temptation to fertilize, as that will only further stress the tree, forcing it to use its limited energy to grow instead of heal, which would weaken it even more. Instead, apply rich trace elements like those found in kelp meal next spring to give the tree a boost.
Pests or disease could be responsible, but your tree experts should have picked up on that. In any event, inspect for damage when the branches are bare. If branches and stems appear healthy and pliable, the tree may simply need better cultural conditions. Spiral a soaker hose around the trunk and water deeply about twice a week.