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Helen Chesnut: How to avoid 'the elevator look' for heuchera

Many heucheras have the habit of rising, with the years, well above ground level.
Fruit protection bags, secured with drawstrings around fruit like this apple, are left in place until harvest time. HELEN CHESNUT

Dear Helen: I’ve had heuchera plants in my garden for several years now. A few of them are looking rather peculiar. The ornamental foliage I value in these perennials seems to be perched well above the ground. Why has this happened, and is there a way to return the plants to their low-growing ground cover habit?


Many heucheras have the habit of rising, with the years, well above ground level on woody bases that gradually elongate. I’ve seen this “elevator” heuchera look described as turning the plants into “tufts of leaves on stilts.”

Solutions are easy, but best left until the spring. One is to cut the tall stems back to between five and eight cm. Another is to lift the plant, divide it into sections and replant the individual tufts of leaves with the elongated stems buried in the soil.

Just a few days ago, on one of my weeding sprees, I accidentally pulled out a tuft of heuchera leaves from a multi-stemmed plant. I inserted it into the modestly moist soil of a site that is sheltered from hot afternoon sun. Though the timing of the transplant was not ideal, the small tuft of leaves emerging from a short, slender base should settle in nicely.

Dear Helen: I’m wondering about the “fruit protection bags” you wrote about in a recent column. Do you leave them secured around each apple all summer?


Yes, until harvest time. Once the fruit has been thinned and the bags are placed over the small, newly formed fruit, there is nothing more to do except watch for any loosening in the ribbon drawstrings that keep the bags closed. I’ve had only two fall from the tree, on windy days, and I’ve found a few with slightly loosened drawstrings. Re-tightening is the work of a moment.

The bags I used are green organza, of a size close to the 22 by 18 cm recommended for protecting most fruits.

Dear Helen: How do I know when to dig and store my garlic bulbs? The top growth on my plants have begun to turn brown at the tips.


Garlic bulbs are ready to harvest when about half of the top growth has turned brown, this month. The exact timing will vary, depending on growing conditions in individual gardens.

If the weather is hot, limit the lifted bulbs’ exposure to direct sun to only half a day, to dry the outer skins. After that, it is generally recommended to hang in bundles or lay the harvested plants out in a dry, airy location for three weeks to cure before cutting the bulbs off, brushing them clean of clinging soil, and storing them in an evenly cool place, out of sunlight.

I store my cured garlic bulbs in open baskets or paper bags. Avoid storing garlic bulbs in closed containers, or in the fridge. Cold temperatures initiate rooting.

As keen as I am to plant garlic cloves as early as possible in the fall, I wait until the soil has cooled and has become thoroughly moistened with fall rains. My preferred late September planting time is not possible in an autumn that brings more prolonged warm, dry weather than usual.

Dear Helen: I have masses of bracken fern emerging in my garden, which is surrounded by forested areas. I leave some of it, but I need to pull the plants up where I have cultivated food and flower beds. Are the bracken plants all right for composting? I’ve heard they do not decompose well.


Bracken ferns, chopped up, are good for composting. They are high in potassium and can be chopped and used also as a soil-cooling, moisture-retaining mulch around plants in summer as well as part of a protective mulch layer over bare soil areas in winter.

I try to pull the bracken stems up and compost the plants while they are still young. Older plants develop hard stems and woody bases, which I’ve found do not decompose easily.

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