Good questions this month, as they always are. Thank you for sending in these thought-provokers. Keep ‘em coming!

H. Higgens, of Greeneville, writes: “… I’ve always stripped the garden clean … cut the monkey grass to the nibs before first frost. An article I read says I should leave the monkeygrass ‘til spring. I’m confused! What should this city gardener do … leave it alone … clip-n-snip … or what?!”

Like so many other issues in gardening, you won’t go wrong either way, but there are benefits to waiting until early spring for clean-up. There are bad and good insects that lay eggs and winter over in the debris. Harboring bad? Maybe. Helping good? Maybe. My feelings are do what works for you, what you’re most comfortable with.

Cutting back ornamental grasses in early spring will work fine. You’ll still get your blooms/plumes. Why not try both ways just to see if there’s any difference? Trim half, leave half. Nature will survive in spite of us, and the world won’t end either way. The stress the worry causes takes all the fun, so no worries!

P. Scala, of Greeneville, asked about an old climbing rose that he wants to save. It’s overgrown and needs help.

Prune out dead/damaged/crossing. Cut to the ground. Take out very thin, weak canes as well, leaving thick, healthy canes — preferably growing in an outward pattern.

A rose is healthiest when it’s open/airy with good air-flow. The other canes need to be attached to something for the winter. Velcro or old rag strips will work. This will keep the canes from thrashing about in the wind, which is also rough on the foundation of the rose.

If you don’t want to attach them to stability, you can cut them to head or chest high, making the cuts 1/4” above an outward facing bud. Mulch well to protect against frost/freeze.

B. Emsheimer, of Greeneville, wrote about his frustrations with maintaining a “weed-free” lawn when surrounded by fields and unkempt areas. He wanted to know if there are any methods that really work.

Weeds will be with us forever, long after we’re gone. And the word “weed” is so ambiguous. Some things considered weeds by one are considered very desirable by another.

Bill is also frustrated with hard-packed clay soil. My recommendation for both is the laborious job of dethatching, core-aerating, liming and seeding at the correct times.

Weeds seeds can lie dormant in the soil for up to 20 years, so they’re not going anywhere. I never recommend using chemicals such as “Weed ‘N Feed,” because they’re expensive, marginally effective at best and they poison more than weeds. Their toxic effects last long after the application to your lawn, in the waterway, the soil, the wildlife etc.

Getting in the routine of the above mentioned will clean up debris, get oxygen into the soil, leave little pockets where rain and nutrients will fall, and the soil will slowly begin to respond.

Better soil equals healthier grass plants, which will shade out a lot of the weedy plants. Composted manure or any organic fertilizer will help as well. Timing is the key, and I’ll talk about that in another column — or you can email me if you need an immediate answer.

There’s much more, but I’m out of room. Send me your questions!

Sherrie “The Dirt Girl” Ottinger is a dedicated ecologist, speaker, writer and lifetime Tennessean. All comments and questions should be emailed to