Ask the gardening expert



My aunt has huge dahlias that grow as tall as she is. She saves the tubers each fall, and they look wonderful. I want mine to grow huge like hers, but she won’t tell me her secret. Can you think of a way to have gigantic plants like hers?

I think it’s too bad it’s turned into a rivalry thing between you two. You’re family, after all; you should be rooting for each other, and sharing secret little hints and ideas.

One of the things she may be doing is starting up her tubers indoors, with warmth and good (secret concoctions) mixes of fertilizer, etc. After the outdoor soil has warmed up greatly, transplant them into the growing spot, and they have gotten this nice leg up to grow like mad in the nice new sunny location.

A gentleman called the answer clinic week before last and asked what kind of fertilizer he should be putting on his lawn this time of year. If you had been on the other end of the phone, how would you have instructed the caller? Let’s see what Erika Johnson, the Master Gardener Program coordinator, tells us.

The ACE (Answer Clinic Expert) on duty for the call gave the following information from WSU Pub EB0482: Fertilizer usage for Washington lawns should be determined by a soil test. In general, Eastern Washington lawns need only nitrogen; however, deficiencies of phosphorus and potassium may occur. In Western Washington, deficiencies of phosphorus and potassium are common; therefore, fertilizers with a 3-1-2 or 6-1-4 ratio of N-P-K usually give best results.

Washington lawns should receive 4 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year, whether from a complete analysis fertilizer or from nitrogen alone. Divide this amount of nitrogen into four equal applications to provide the season total. For Western Washington, make this application between mid-November and Dec. 7. When nitrogen is applied in the fall, avoid early spring applications until after April 1 unless nitrogen deficiency is apparent. Better root growth and vigor will be encouraged by this method and will also avoid the flush of growth by annual bluegrass. A suggested schedule is Nov. 15–Dec. 7, April 15, June 15, and Sept. 1.

Do you remember me? I’m the 11-year-old girl who spent my allowance on plants at a yard sale; you told me how to take care of them until it rains.

Now that we have had all this rain, I will be planting them. I kept them in shade and watered them every day the way you told me to, but now what? They look pretty good, but I wonder if there are some things I ought to use, like maybe some vitamin B-1. (My neighbor told me to buy some at the garden shop.) Or special fertilizers to plant with them? I took such good care of them all summer since July, so now I just plant them and forget them, it feels like I’m abandoning them when they are in the ground.

Wow, such attachment!! (Maybe you need a little house plant or two to nurture)

Back to the shrubs; While it’s rained a bunch, I think we might be surprised at how dry the soil is deeper down. I’m guessing the soil is not all that wet down below, it’s going to take more rain than we’ve had to really get down there where the deep root systems are.

Plant them, water well. Don’t bother to use vitamin B1. It has been proved to be of no help in a plant’s ability to become established in a landscape.

Mainly, don’t forget about your shrubs later in the summer and fall. Check them, see that they are in a good spot in the yard where they get enough sun, or a rain downspout is not hitting them and they are not being stepped on by animals and people; those little things become big things. I think if you can remember to keep tabs on them, they should be doing well when you are grown and living on your own.

Celeste Lindsay is a WSU-certified master gardener. Send questions to