The hardy balloon flower in Kathy Meade’s Coram garden. Buds...

The hardy balloon flower in Kathy Meade’s Coram garden. Buds on these tough plants look like balloons before they open. Credit: Handout

DEAR JESSICA: I planted this flower at least 15 years ago thinking it was an annual. We have landscaped, sprayed it with weed killer thinking it was a weed and covered it with rocks -- and it keeps coming up every spring. Can you identify it? I would love to plant more but have no idea what it is. -- Kathy Meade, Coram

DEAR KATHY: That adorable low-maintenance specimen is Platycodon grandiflorus, commonly called balloon flower, Chinese bellflower or Japanese bellflower. As some of its common names suggest, it's a native of China, Japan and Manchuria. As you've noticed, the plant is as tough as nails. But it's difficult to move or divide because it has a long taproot. It wouldn't take kindly to relocation, anyway, so it's best to grow it from seed.

The plant, which is available in pink, purple or white, can grow to 1 to 2 feet tall, depending on variety, and is a perennial that blooms during summer and thrives in sun to part shade.

Plant balloon flowers in containers or in rock gardens or in front of a border for a beautiful display every summer.

DEAR JESSICA: Help! My grapevine provides beautiful clusters, but after a week or so they become "California Raisins," all dried up. Can you help? -- Josette, via email

DEAR JOSETTE:Sounds like your grapevine has been infected with black rot. The fungal disease thrives in warm, humid weather and is characterized by small, brown, circular lesions on leaves that grow larger and become dotted with black specks.

Fruit also darkens, eventually turning brown and then black and shriveled, as yours has.

The fungus overwinters in the shriveled fruit, called "mummies," and begins a new cycle of infection the following spring, so it's important to remove all mummies before the vine breaks dormancy. Missing even just a few can start the cycle all over again.

It's also helpful to clean up the ground under the vines and turn over the soil to cover up some spore producers that may have fallen and gone unnoticed.

Unfortunately, many of the nontoxic fungicides are not effective in combating the disease. Sulfur- and copper-based treatments are available, but they carry the risk of leaf burn.

If you choose to use a fungicide, be sure to get one indicated specifically for use on grapes and follow package directions carefully.

DEAR JESSICA: I have had nothing but problems growing tomatoes (and everything else for that matter) for the past few years and have tried just about everything I can think of. I have an active fireplace I heat my home with and was just recently told I can throw the ash out onto the garden bed all winter long, turn it over in the spring and this will make the garden grow much better. I have never heard of this before and have found nothing on this anywhere. Is this possibly true? -- Don Kreutel, Patchogue

DEAR DON: Yes and no. If your soil is on the acidic side, which is the case throughout much of Long Island, incorporating wood ashes can help your tomatoes thrive. Wood ashes not only will raise the pH of your soil, but they'll also add nutrients like potassium, which can help improve the overall health of your plants, and phosphorus, which promotes a strong root system. But you cannot count on ashes alone to raise the pH if it's too low; they're not nearly as alkaline as lime, so it would take a tremendous amount of ashes to get the job done.

But if your soil is alkaline -- with a pH of 7 or higher -- adding ashes could interfere with your plants' ability to thrive. The only way to know for sure is to test your soil's pH level either with an at-home test kit, which you can find at local garden centers or online retailers, or by bringing a soil sample to your county's Cornell Cooperative Extension office (call 516-228-0426 in Nassau; 631- 727-4126 in Suffolk). I recommend the latter because Cornell also will make specific recommendations for improving your soil based on your test results. If you do add wood ashes, winter is, indeed, the best time to apply them.

Never use coal ashes or ashes from charcoal briquettes in the garden; they contain toxins.

Although the soil's pH could be to blame for your growing issues, there could be other factors at work. Most vegetables (except leafy greens) require at least six hours of direct sunlight daily to thrive. If your garden is surrounded by trees or other shade-casting structures, you wouldn't likely have success growing them.

The next thing to consider would be drainage. Do you have heavy clay soil that retains too much water? Sandy soil that doesn't hold moisture?

And because you don't specify exactly what problems you've experienced, I can't tell whether your plants have been plagued by insects or disease.

Aside from testing the pH, I recommend adding a generous helping of compost to the entire area. Compost improves drainage and soil structure and adds countless valuable nutrients that help plants thrive.