November 2010: Green Scene


Southern hospitality

Late autumn is propitious for shrubs. The extreme battles of summer heat and drought are over. Above ground all is still and undemanding; below, cool, moderate soil temperatures encourage root growth. Cut the grass high one last time, stow the mower, and turn your attention to the bushes. 


Azaleas have set flower buds for next year and don’t want to be disturbed except for an application of acidic slow-release organic fertilizer (like Holly Tone) and a couple of inches of rotted leaves or pine tags. Hollies (Japanese, Chinese, and American) would like some of that, too, but also should wait for hair cuts until next spring when new growth will cover stubs. Lilac and boxwood, however, are another matter.

Iconic in estate gardens throughout our area, they’re an odd pair, neither native to central Virginia (both originated in southern Europe), nor particularly forgiving of acidic ill-drained clay, heat or humidity. Yet like so many other transplants to central Virginia, they’ve made their place among us. 

Lilacs push the limit of their heat tolerance down here in Zone 7, and there is a mistaken belief that they lack vigor and reliable flowering in the south. However, they can prosper for us with proper care, as fine old specimens at UVA’s Pavilion gardens and Morven testify. 

They need room to spread their roots and send up colonies of suckers. Cut out a third or so of older thicker trunks every fall and winter to keep energy flowing to the young sprouts, which can also be thinned. Keep the soil close to a neutral pH of 7 with regular applications of wood ash, bone meal or lime, and mulch with leaf mold or other compost. 

The key to good flower production in lilacs is strict attention to dead-heading in spring, so no old flowers are left to divert energy into making big fat seeds. Gardeners can become distressed at the sight of powdery mildew on the leaves in late summer, but this is a mere cosmetic blemish for which full sun and good air circulation are the best remedies.  

In contrast to the universally beloved scent of lilac, boxwood presents an interesting olfactory Rorschach test—stinking of cats and discredited aristocracy, or exuding the musky aroma of nostalgia and elegance, depending who you ask. Either way, it’s more demanding than lilac, which can persist in shade and neglect; if boxwood isn’t happy, it will turn orange and brown and die before your eyes. Drainage, soil pH and exposure to wind and harsh winter sun are the culprits.

Keep the pH around 6.5 to 7.2, as with lilacs. Cut out dead twigs, thin dense growth through December by plucking holiday greens for the house, and give everything a good shake. Rake up and clean out the debris. Beware of over-mulching and use only one to one and a half inches of light leaf mold, compost or very finely shredded hardwood. 

Do the southern thing and take the trouble to make these visitors who came to stay feel at home.—Cathy Clary

Show me the light

Lighting accounts for 20 percent of the average monthly electric bill, so this month’s column promises to turn you on with cost savings! 

By now you’ve heard of CFL bulbs, but LEDs are getting a lot of ink, too. Which is greener? Here’s Betty’s comparison:

Compact fluorescent lighting (CFL)

It’s true that if every American changed just one incandescent bulb to a CFL bulb, that would be the equivalent of taking 800,000 cars off the road. At $4 each, they offer three to four times the energy savings of an incandescent. They are readily available nowadays, and aesthetically are able to mimic the lighting effects of the old ones. The cons: They contain trace amounts of mercury (which collectively adds up), and some complain that their warm-up period to reach full brightness is too long (instant gratification, anyone?). Remember, McIntire recycles these bulbs and everything in them can be reused.  

Light emitting diodes (LED)

These bulbs are pricier at $30-40 each, but imagine never having to change a light bulb again. They offer 10 times the energy savings and create less heat (they’re even cool to the touch), which results in lower home cooling costs. There is no mercury in the manufacturing or the bulb itself. The cons are the upfront cost and the fact that they’re not as readily available; both should continue to improve.

Don’t forget motion sensors as a smart alternative to leaving lights on for long periods of time, and solar lighting if you enjoy outdoor lighting accents.

Energy efficiency is the key, so just remember to “turn on the darkness” when you leave the room.  

Check out Better World Betty’s local green living resource list at and blog at

Superhip recycling

Experiencing JohnSarahJohn, a “pop-up shop” on the Downtown Mall, is like an intimate walk through a dynamic stage set or the apartment of a righteously hip chemist. The storefront is the physical home (and studio) of the designing trio of John Gibson, Sarah Owen and John Owen. For the past two decades the Johns (and for the last several years, Sarah) have been collaborating on events, branding, products and now, retail. The philosophy of the collection of items in the shop? In Gibson’s words, “Beautiful objects come from lots of kinds of places.” 

There are repurposed glass beakers (made into a gorgeous collection of lamps), a reclaimed wooden billboard printing block from the 1930s, piles of chunky glass and the incredible work of a Tennessee farmer who covers furniture with sheets of salvaged zinc. 

Pulling from “secret sources” and its creators’ arts backgrounds, JohnSarahJohn was only fleetingly open to the public early this fall. Not to worry: The shop will reopen before the holidays in November (check—Christy Baker