Friday, April 29, 2011

TomatoPatch: T-Day 2011, Let the Season Begin!

Seed planting essentials--ready to go

Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Year’s and Christmas, and holidays between. And T-Day.

You haven’t heard about T-Day?

That’s the day I start my tomato seeds. This year it was Monday, April 24, but the date varies.

Why so late? Because I like tomato plants to be about eight inches high, sturdy, ready to blast off when the hot weather tells these tropical plants to grow, flower, and fruit. And I’ve learned over the years that it takes my plants four weeks, plus or minus a few days, to grow that tall in individual cups under fluorescent lights in our basement utility room.

Here’s how I do it:

Step 1, Getting Ready: I open the tailgate of my Tacoma pickup—the perfect height for this job—and gather the essentials: seed packets, sterile starting mix, watering bottle, cups, a Phillips screwdriver, trays, ballpoint pen/sheet of paper/clipboard, a marking pen, a sharp knife, and a tablespoon.

Step 2, Preparing Cups: I use wide-top, six-ounce yoghurt cups or small (a.k.a. “tall” at Starbucks) paper or plastic coffee cups. Why buy when you can recycle so easily and for free? I stack two or three cups together and with the Phillips screwdriver punch two drainage holes in the bottoms. Then I place the cups into the trays. I find it best if all the cups in each tray are the same height, which makes it easy to adjust the fluorescent lights under which they will be growing. I end up with 18 yoghurt cups in one tray, 15 coffee cups in the second, and 16 yoghurt cups plus two coffee cups in the third. I use the knife to cut the two coffee cups down to the height of the yoghurt cups.

Step 3, Adding the Mix: I use one of the yoghurt cups to measure starting mix into the cups. I fill each about three-quarters, shaking each cup to level the mix. I fill each cup over the open bag so spills fall into the bag, and I don’t have to clean up later. One eight dry-quart bag of mix is enough for at least 40 starting cups.

Step 4, Dropping the Seeds: I drop two seeds into each cup. That sounds simple, but first I have to figure out how many cups I want to start of each of the 10 tomato varieties I’m growing this year. I’m starting 51 cups, each of which ultimately will hold one plant. Wouldn’t four or five plants be enough for Ellen and me? Well, yes, if I weren’t a tomato freak who wants to grow both old favorites and new varieties—and have both plants and fruit to give away too.

Notes are better than memory--at least for me
Step 5, Making Notes: The pen, paper, and clipboard are essential. After I’ve decided how many cups of each I’m starting, I make notes as I add the seeds of each variety, including an abbreviation for each variety. “By-R,” for example, means “Brandywine Red.” The last note on my list—“5x2 Brandywine Red (By-R)”—means I’m starting five cups, 2 seeds each, of that variety. Why two seeds? That’s the minimum. Sometimes three drop in. Germination rates of tomato seeds are high. Johnny’s Selected Seeds packets say their rate is 80%. So two seeds should get me 1.6 plants on average, but in reality, both seeds in most cups will sprout.
I'll know this plant is a Sungold
Step 6, Marking the Cups: Every time I finish dropping the seeds for a variety, I stop and make a note on the paper and then use the black felt-tip pen to write the abbreviation for that variety on the side of the cups holding that variety. There’s nothing worse than having several varieties of plants and not being able to identify them when it’s time to transplant them into your garden or give them to friends.

Step 7, Watering: After seeds are in their cups, I water them gently with a home-made plastic watering bottle—a water or soda bottle works well—that has a small hole in its cap. I make the hole by heating the tip of an awl on our electric stove and pressing it through the plastic cap. I gently squeeze the bottle to regulate the water flow just the way I want it. This year I used Miracle-Gro Seed Starting Mix, which is slightly moist to the touch, so I didn’t have to add much water—just enough to help the seeds sprout. Some mixes are dry and must be wetted down first—a messy pain in the bucket to my way of thinking.

Step 8, Covering Seeds: I use the tablespoon to cover the seeds with starting mix. Trial and error led me to the tablespoon. A rounded spoonful of mix covers the seeds in each cup “just right,” about a quarter of an inch.

Home-made watering bottle
Step 9, Watering 2: After the seeds are covered with mix, I gently water each cup again. The drainage holes in the bottom of the cups let me know when I’ve watered more than enough. I’ll check the cups daily until the seeds sprout and give them a little more water if the top of the mix looks too dry. When it dries, the color of the mix turns to light brown from dark brown.

Step 10, To the Utility Room: At first opportunity I move the trays of cups to our utility room, where I place them on a growing stand that friends recycled to me. The temperature there is about 73, just a degree or two below optimum temperature for tomato seeds to sprout. I’ll check the cups daily, and when the seeds sprout in five to seven days, I’ll turn on the lights.

T-Day: I’ve planted my tomato seeds. From time to time I’ll post about what’s happening in my TomatoPatch.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Breakfast Veggie that Isn't

What don’t the French eat for breakfast?

French Breakfast radishes, according to Barbara Damrosch in her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Washington Post.

Damrosch calls French Breakfast radishes “cute, tender and delicious” with “sweet mild flavor and succulent crunch,” the “handiest of snacks,” and “great for dipping.”

Would you like them buttered and salted?

I’d better let Damrosch explain that. To read “The roots of the French Breakfast,” CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

American Tragedy: Slow Death in a Woods near You

Native dogwood along Triadelphia Mill Road
near the Big Branch boat landing,
Patuxent Reservoir Watershed 

Millions have died over the last 35 years, and each spring fewer survive to bloom along our forest edges and along our country roads and highways. They are our native dogwood tree, Cornus florida. The culprit: a fungus, Discula destructiva, also known as dogwood anthracnose, which has been killing and spreading since the 1970’s.

In his Urban Jungle column, “Devastated dogwoods,” in the Washington Post, Patterson Clark says the fungus has killed about 75 percent of native dogwoods in Central Maryland and 80 percent in Northern Virginia.

After I read that column, I took a drive along nearby country roads and walked along a watershed to look for and photograph native dogwoods in the wild. I saw plenty of the trees in front yards—and many of them looked less than healthy—but I found fewer in the wild than I had anticipated. Apparently the anthracnose is killing them slowly but surely. Tragically, potentially resistant seedlings have little chance for survival in the wild where too-large deer herds browse native flora to the ground.

The Cornell University fact sheet on this problem suggests several solutions. One that I have indulged in reluctantly is to plant the Asian dogwood, Cornus kousa, which is resistant to the disease. Few native critters, however, call the kousa home or feed on it, though deer and squirrels here at Meadow Glenn relish its small, reddish fruit.

The final sentence in the Cornell fact sheet holds out some hope that our native dogwood: “A resistant Flowering Dogwood cultivar named 'Appalachian Spring' has also been developed from a living tree in an otherwise devastated Maryland forest and may soon be available.”

Yes, we soon may be able to plant an anthracnose-resistant native dogwood in our yards, but who will replace the tens of millions of dogwoods that have died in our forests and along our country roads? The sad fact is that in a few years our wild, native dogwoods likely will be “history.”

I suggest you grab your camera and take a drive along a country road or take a walk along a woodland stream to enjoy that spring icon we all love so much, our native flowering dogwood—before there are no wild ones left to enjoy.

To read Patterson Clark’s “Devastated dogwoods” in his Urban Jungle feature in the Washington Post, CLICK HERE.

To read the Cornell University fact sheet about dogwood anthracnose, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dandelions: Weeds, Food, Cancer Killers?

Cancer killer?

Bet you can’t wait to dig those dandelions out of your lawn, or spray them with 2,4-D to kill them slowly but efficiently.

Not everyone considers dandelions to be weeds. Some view them as veggies to be eaten in salads. Others turn their yellow flowers into wine.

And a potential medicinal use: dandelions may have a future as a cancer killer. To read Patterson Clark’s “Eat your weeds,” in his weekly “Urban Jungle” column in the Washington Post, CLICK HERE.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bill’s No-Cost Salad Factory

Bill's no-cost cold frame

Bill Mitchell has been picking lettuce and spinach for salads since the third week of March in his two no-cost salad factories, cold frames he made from odds and ends he had on hand.

The names of Bill’s salad greens may be familiar to many gardeners: Black Seeded Simpson lettuce and Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach.

Bill's Black Seeded Simpson lettuce
“I planted them in early September,” explained Bill, who lives with his wife, Chris, on a wooded lot in Sykesville in northern Howard County. “I put on the glass before frost but took it off on really warm days. During winter, snow sometimes covered the glass cover. The lettuce and spinach came through fine.”

Bill built his two salad machines by recycling materials. “I used untreated scrap 2x6 lumber, which I cut to a size that recycled storm windows would cover the top of the frame, and a dozen nails for each. The soil is basic garden soil plus compost,” Bill said.

His lettuce and spinach are beautiful—and tasty too. Bill shared some that we enjoyed for our evening salad.

For later picking and eating, Bill has more salad greens up and growing in a sunny spot near his cold frames: chard, kale, turnip greens, and more lettuce and spinach.

Bill repairs heirloom chairs
One of Bill’s several other hobbies is repairing chairs. “I splint weave, cane, replace pre-woven cane, and rush weave,” he explained. We know. He recently replaced the pre-woven cane backs of our four kitchen chairs which, after twenty some years, had worn through.

Good jobs, Bill—your cold frames and our chair backs too.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Deer Country: Flowering Quince, a Resistant Shrub

Flowering quince flowers

Gardeners in Deer Country know that deer love to browse leaves of roses, but there is one member of the rose family they avoid, the common flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciose).

This shrub caught our attention with its stunning flowers while we were driving along Triadelphia Mill Road near our home. Four flowering quince shrubs bordered the roadside just across from Pigtail Landing, a part of Patuxent River State Park that serves as the inter-county connector highway system for local deer.

I wanted to confirm that flowering quince really is deer resistant, so I queried Howard County Master Gardeners. Here are their replies:

Pat G.: “Deer do not browse my landscape; they level it! However, they have never touched my flowering quince. The shrub is in full bloom this week and it is amazing.”

Donna W.: “Before my yard was shaded with mature trees, I grew the Japanese flowering quince with no deer damage. Its stems have thorns and I thought that was protective to the plant as the flowers are mostly right on the stems.”

Kent P.: “I have a double orange and deer haven’t touched it.”

Callie P.: “Our farm had many flowering quince on it. Due to its prickles, deer and cows stayed away. Any human who has been stuck will avoid it too.”

Leslie J.: “No problems with the quince here! Mine is about 5 years old and has never been on the deer menu.” Betty R., Fran S., and Jeanine S. (Harford County) also said this shrub has been deer resistant in their gardens.

University of Maryland Extension’s Fact Sheet 655, “Resistance of Ornamentals to Deer Damage,” however, lists Chaenomeles speciosa as “Occasionally Damaged” and Chaenomeles japonica as “Frequently Damaged.”

For additional information about flowering quince, I consulted Michael A. Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th ed.). Here are some of Dirr’s many points, and a few of my comments:

Size: Six to 10 feet, both height and width. If you want a smaller plant, consider a Japanese flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica), which tops out at three feet, but note its listing as “Frequently Damaged” in Fact Sheet 655.

'Rounded shape' of flowering quince
Habit: Rounded shape with tangled mass of more or less spiny branches. The quince spines are specialized leaves, not true thorns. The quinces I looked at had so few spines I had to concentrate to find two or three, so if you are concerned about this plant’s under-armor, check the spines on available varieties before you buy. Dirr notes that the plant is “often used for hedge (makes a good barrier).”

Flower colors: “Range of flower colors is tremendous, … from orange, reddish orange, scarlet, carmine, turkey red and white.” “Best flowering in sun.” In central Maryland, flowering quince blooms just after forsythia.

Fruit: Yellowish-green, bitter-sour fruit ripens in October and can be cooked into jellies and preserves.

Diseases and pests: How many plant sellers inform you about a plant’s possible disease/pest problems? Dirr says an overly wet growing season can result in leaf spot and defoliation up to 75%. He mentions other pest problems but concludes “none [are] of an epidemic nature.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bye, Bye, Stink Bugs!

I’ve accidentally discovered the answer to the invasion of the brown marmorated stink bugs, which threaten to eat our tomatoes, corn, soybeans, raspberries, apples, and who knows what else this summer.

Yes, while scientists of the United States Department of Agriculture are studying the possibility of releasing a small Asian wasp that will parasitize the eggs of the stink bugs, I’ve found a solution that apparently is 100% effective and has no environmental effects—no imported insects to release, no pesticide residues, no nothing, to use the vernacular.

I discovered the miracle remedy at the High’s Shell station in Glenelg, a town that I love because I was always a tad backward at spelling, and Glenelg is my kind of word. Yes, one way it’s Glenelg, and the reverse is glenelG.  But I digress. 

When I was on my way back from picking up a load of compost at the Howard County Recycling Center, I pulled into the High’s station to fill up my Tacoma.

The photo tells the story. I filled the tank with 15.761 gallons of regular for a total of $57.35, which was after a $3.15 discount (20¢ a gallon) from the Giant Foods Bonus Card savings program. Yes, that total is correct: $57.35.

And note that just below the figures are five dead stink bugs that seem to be permanently entombed between the digital readout and its protective glass. I have no doubt the stink bugs died of cardiac arrest when they saw the price of gasoline.

What a discovery! Perhaps our veggies and fruits can be saved without importing predators or polluting our foods with pesticides!

Now all we have to do is to figure out a way to march all the stink bugs past gas stations. That might be quite a challenge, but perhaps the USDA researchers can solve that problem too.

WARNING: This is attempted humor.

Too Late to Prune Lavender?

Lavender crowds sidewalk before pruning

My four lavender plants have grown nearly a foot over the sidewalk, an indication that I have been negligent in pruning them. I’ve gone online to check on the best pruning time, and, alas, the consensus is August.

But this is April. Should I prune them? Hmm, I’ve pruned them in the spring at other times, and they didn’t seem to suffer. Yes, I’ll do it again.

Our plants are of the so-called English line of lavenders (Lavendula angustifolia), thanks to the ancient Roman invaders and colonists who brought it with them from sunnier climes to the British Isles. The specific variety is ‘Munstead,’ named after Munstead Wood, the home of the late Gertrude Jekyll, a famed British garden designer and writer.

Lavender after pruning
When ‘Munstead’ blooms, first come small pollinators—insects of all sorts, most of which I have not identified—but then come butterflies. And after the flowers fade, American goldfinches perch on the flower stalks and dine on seeds. Another great feature: deer have never browsed a leaf. I imagine the oils and fragrances of the lavender are offensive to deer noses and tongues.

But time it is to prune the lavender. “Put on your gardening gloves to protect your hands,” advises, a good online source. “Get down close … so you can see small, green shoots on the lower stems.” Yes, I’ll leave new growth.

After pruning, new shoots predominate

So I clip away with my pruners, cutting out all branches that are crowding the sidewalk on one side of the bed and the lawn on the other side.

“Cut back old, straggly lavender plants in the spring to 6 inches. This may encourage it to form shoots close to the ground and it may save the plant,” says the ehow “Tips & Warnings.”

Save the plant? I just want to shape it, but when I think of my history of pruning plants, perhaps “save the plant” is a good thought.

I clip and shape, but decide not to cut it back to six inches—well, not all of it. Soon all of last year’s growth is gone, and this year’s bright-green shoots predominate. I top off the old mulch with some fresh pine-bark mulch, and the lavender pruning is done.

Buckeye butterfly on 'Munstead' lavender

The four ‘Munstead’ lavender plants have given us so much pleasure, added so much beauty, since I planted them in 2005. With just a little care, an annual pruning, they may continue to please for another 15 years, according to the website.

I smile a happy, Frugal Gardener smile. Twenty years of pleasure—and to think I bought the plants at a half-price, November close-out sale.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rain, Rain, Rain: I Surrender

Rain, rain, go away...

April showers may bring May flowers, but, quite frankly, they’ve washed out my gardening plans.

I had every intention of planting cool weather veggie seeds—lettuce, beets, chard, carrots—during the first few days of April, but rain and showers saturated our garden and made that impossible. One day I started to hoe some winter weeds but surrendered—quite happily—when the sticky soil just wouldn’t fall off the roots of the weeds. Our Maryland soil is basically clay, so if I plant seeds in the wet soil, the soil will crust when it dries and the seeds may find it impossible to break through.

For every day of sun that we’ve had during the first three weeks of April, we’ve had two or three cloudy days, often with showers, rain, even downpours. The “Official weather data” for Baltimore-Washington International Airport through last evening, as reported in the Washington Post, tells the story: we’re nearly an inch above average rainfall year to date. The forecasts for the next five days aren’t encouraging for seed planting either: rain Tuesday, thunderstorm Wednesday, rain possible on Friday.

I surrender. If I can’t plant lettuce outside, I’ll plant it inside. And that’s exactly what I did late Monday afternoon.

I gathered essentials for starting plants inside: sterile starting mix (soil), beverage cups that I saved over winter, and, of course, seeds. I took the packets of lettuce seeds—Red Sails (Botanical Interests), Coastal Star (Johnny’s Selected Seeds), and Simpsons Curled (Bentley Seeds)—out of the plastic jar in which I store them in our refrigerator and went to work.

Plastic strips divide cup
First, with a Phillips screwdriver I punched two drainage holes in the bottom of each of the seven recycled cups I planned to use. Then I filled the cups three-quarters full of starting mix, dividing the growing area in half with plastic strips I fashioned with scissors from a blueberry box that I liberated from our recycling bin. (The plastic strips will make it easy to separate the plants, two per cup after thinning, when I transplant them later.) Then I sprinkled two or three seeds into each side, covered them with about a quarter-inch of starting soil, dampened them with water, and took the cups in a plastic tray into our kitchen, where they’ll sprout in five to 10 days in temperatures ranging from the 60s at night to 70s during the day.

I don’t plan to move the seedlings down to our basement utility room to grow for three or four weeks under fluorescent lights. Instead, when they sprout, I’ll carry them outside during daylight hours for a week or so, until they look tall enough to survive the next shower or downpour. Even though temperatures outside dip into the 40s at night, lettuce is a “cool weather” veggie that should be flourishing outside in our garden, not inside our house.

Why do I plant the lettuce varieties that I do?

Red Sails has beautiful, burgundy-tinged leaves that look and taste great in salads, and it’s slow to bolt when hot weather arrives, so we can harvest it longer into the summer. When lettuces bolt, they send up a flower stalk, turn bitter, and go to seed. From planting seeds to harvest: 45 days.

I bought Coastal Star as an experiment while looking in the Johnny’s catalog for Parris Island romaine. I liked what I read. It’s heat tolerant (slow to bolt), and similar to Parris Island but with darker green leaves. From planting seeds: 57 days.

I didn’t buy the Simpsons Curled seeds. They came in a promotional packet from an organization soliciting my membership. I’ve grown greenleaf Black Seeded Simpson, apparently a similar variety, for years. Small plants can be pulled to highlight salads in about 28 days and full-size plants will be ready in about 46 days.

Which variety will sprout first? Most likely the Simpsons Curled.

And I’m still wondering when we will get a week or 10 days, rain free, so I can plant carrot, beet, and chard seeds in our garden.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Deer Country: What’s Blooming This Week?

Bambits browse under spring blooms

Meadow Glenn is awash in colors of spring, but our bambits continue wearing their brown winter coats as they browse bright-green grass near our purple-leaf plum trees (Prunus cerasifera ‘Atropupurea’).

Most of the petals have dropped from the plums now, and their leaves are unfolding. Deer seldom reach for the leaves, as over time I’ve cut off branches that dangle leaves down through the “browse line”—about six feet. Yes, I’ve cut the lower limbs to stymie the deer, but there’s another reason. I want the roll bar of my Kubota tractor to clear the lowest branches without damaging them.

Caged shrub redbuds
Our redbuds are blooming now. When we moved here 14 years ago, Ellen fell in love with a shrub redbud in a neighbor’s yard. I searched nearby nurseries and even asked about special orders, but had no luck. I went online and mail-ordered from Botany Shop, Inc., of Joplin, Missouri. I planted two Cercis chinensis ‘Avondale’ plants just outside the glass wall of a spiral staircase in May 2005. The photo shows how they have grown. Each year they have more blooms. Deer browse redbuds, so we cage our redbuds here at the Clarksville Tree Zoo, where plants are caged and deer run free.

Bleeding heart
Deer haven’t touched a leaf of the bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.) that I planted about 10 years ago and have moved at least two times to large spaces. Bleeding heart grows best in shade, so it thrives on the eastern side of our home. It seeds moderately, and friends and acquaintances ask for my “spares,” so I seldom have more than the original plant. Deer don’t touch it. The downside of this spring beauty is that it begins dying back in late May and by mid-June is gone for the year. By then adjacent hostas and a goldenrod eagerly take over much of the space where the bleeding heart was growing.

Late daffodils may last another week
Daffodils (Narcissus spp.) flourished this cool spring. Our many varieties bloom at different times, so the earliest (April 19) are going to seed while the latest are just now opening and will highlight our gardens for another week at most. Deer love tulips and don’t touch daffodils, which is why we have hundreds of daffodils in our front gardens and not one tulip, though we did plant tulip bulbs there before we discovered our deer problem.

Heather has bloomed since November
Heather (Erica spp.) continues to bloom, as it has since November. What a cheery sight those blooms have been through the winter—pink blooms poking through the snow. Heather is a tough, prickly shrub that deer don’t browse. It will bloom well into May.

Violets, a multi-purpose "weed"
Common blue violets (Viola sororia) continue blooming here, there, and just about everywhere in our lawn. I suppose a lawn “purist” would eliminate them with a dose of 2,4-D, which kills broadleaf plants, but I like their blue, white, and mixed blooms that all but hug the earth. Yes, deer eat violets, but I haven’t bought or planted them. They’re just “naturals” here at Meadow Glenn. And they’re the host of the larvae (caterpillars) of many butterflies. Our violets are attractive, feed the bambits, and host butterflies. I’d say they’re gold-star weeds.

Do dandelions make deer tipsy?
Speaking of gold-star weeds, our dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are breaking into bloom. Yes, that proves I don’t use weed killer on our lawn. In ancient times, my great-grandmother would send my mother out to the pasture to pick fresh dandelion leaves to cook. Some modern gastronomes add dandelion leaves to their salads. I’ve seen dandelion seeds offered in seed catalogs, so gardeners somewhere must have neat rows of dandelion plants in their gardens. I hoe any dandelion plant that attempts to grow in my gardens, but our lawn—except for a small green patch in our back yard—is home to hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of dandelion plants. Do deer eat them? I’ve never imagined that they do, but I’ve also never imagined that they don’t. If people eat dandelion leaves, might not deer? If people make wine out of dandelion flowers, do deer get tipsy eating them?

And a mild pang of guilt just surged through my brain. I’ve called violets and dandelions “weeds.”

But isn’t a weed just a plant growing where someone for some reasons doesn’t want it to grow? Since I don’t object to violets and dandelions growing in our lawn, I suppose they aren’t weeds. They’re flowers that just happen to be growing outside my cultivated gardens.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Deer Country: More Deer-Resistant Shrubs & Flowers

Deer-browsed black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia)

Two of Joel Lerner’s “Green Scene” questions and answers in the Washington Post concerned deer and shrubs, trees, and flowers, and he mentioned specific plants that might be of interest to those who garden in Deer Country.

In answer to a question from Virginia about deer eating viburnums and holly, Lerner said deer usually don’t eat plants with thick or furry leaves and suggested four viburnums with those characteristics: leatherleaf, Allegheny, chindo, and burkwood. I haven’t grown them. He also mentioned that deer often badly damage arrowwood viburnum, a native. I can confirm that. Deer have defoliated my two arrowwood viburnums several times during each of the last three summers, and I hope my arrowwoods will benefit from a new deer-repellent spray that I mentioned in my last Deer Country posting.

For the hollies, Lerner said deer-resistant hollies generally included perny, dragon lady, and American hollies but that “deer have started eating plants previously thought resistant.” I have one American holly that our bambits have generally ignored except one fall when it was about 4-feet tall and was moderately damaged when a buck used it to rub velvet from his antlers. Two nearby, less-prickly Nellie Stevens hollies are browsed heavily. Two blue-princess hollies are seldom browsed.

Close-up of deer-browsed black-eyed Susan
In a question about deer-resistant plants, Lerner lists seven perennials: black-eyed Susan, fern, brunnera, astilbe, hellebore, pachysandra, and iris. Deer browsed my black-eyed Susan so severely that I dug it out. When I grew astilbe, they ignored it. They occasionally nip a bearded-iris leaf in early spring, but they ignore the Siberian iris just two feet away. Deer ignore the ferns growing near a stream in our woods. The others I haven’t grown.

Lerner lists four woody plants: lavender, rosemary, leatherleaf mahonia, and Daphne. I have four ‘Munstead’ lavenders that are about five years old now, and the deer haven’t touched them. Donna W., a Howard County Master Gardener, says deer ignore her mahonia. I haven’t grown the other two.

If you garden in Deer Country, try plants on deer-resistant lists that you find in newspapers, magazines, books, and online. In “Deer Country 3,” I mentioned several books plus a free online brochure.

In addition to his two answers to questions involving deer, Lerner answered questions about pruning roses, dealing with mature Leyland cypress trees, and landscaping around new concrete parking pads. To link to his “Garden Scene” column in the Post (April 1),  CLICK HERE.

To link to “Deer Country 3” with recommended books and a brochure on deer management, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Slugs: Slime, Sex, Slugfeast

Slug slithering over edge of brick

Slime trails sparkling in the morning sun. Holes in veggies, fruits, and flowers. Yes, slugs dine overnight in our gardens.

In veggie gardens, slugs sometimes chow down on such favorites as asparagus spears, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. A herd of hungry slugs can mow down a row of lettuce, spinach, beet, and chard seedlings.

In flower gardens, slugs relish hostas and roses, chewing round holes in leaves, at least those deer haven’t eaten.

How can you protect your plants from these pests?

Hand pick them!
Hand pick them—with your hands, not mine—and drop them into a bag with salt at the bottom. Slugs are mostly water, and the salt kills them by osmosis.

Surround plants with strips of copper or abrasive barriers of diatomaceous earth, coarse sand, oyster or crab shells.

Fill a shallow bowl with beer and invite slugs to a drink-and-drown party, though tipsy slugs can be annoying at two in the morning when they start belting out, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall…”

Call in birds, frogs, toads, box turtles, rats, beetles, and snakes—many of which eat slugs. Whoa, you say, forget the rats and snakes. Put up a fence and buy a chicken or duck—champion slug eaters.

Put on your old dancing shoes and dance on their heads when slugs come out of hiding after a warm spring shower.

If such suggestions don’t fit your gardening style or time you can devote to such slug killing, do the two things that I do.

First, I minimize slug habitat in or near our gardens—moist places where they hide from the sun. That includes piles of leaves and flat things like boards, large pieces of bark, bricks, and rocks.

Iron phosphate slug bait
Second, buy a box or bottle of slug bait. My newest purchase is a plastic jug of iron phosphate bait called “Slug Magic.” Other brands include "Sluggo" and "Escar-Go!" I used to use bait based on metaldehyde but switched to iron phosphate because it is less toxic to the environment, though it may be a little less effective in killing slugs.

Whichever bait or brand you buy, read the directions carefully before using it. The label on “Slug Magic” proclaims: “Makes Slugs Disappear. Can Be Used Around Pets and Wildlife. For use around vegetables, fruit trees, citrus, berries, ornamentals, shrubs, flowers, trees, lawns, gardens and in greenhouses.”

The plot: Sprinkle bait around plants or slug hideouts. Slugs find it when they come out for breakfast in the evening. They chow down on the bait, stop eating the plants, and begin dying in three to six days. During the warm season, I often find slime trails in our backyard between blue-star junipers and a nearby flowerbed. I assume slugs are spending the day in the dense shade under the junipers, so I sprinkle bait into the junipers and around nearby daylilies.

Note: The newer iron phosphate baits can be used around pets. The older metaldehyde baits can be hazardous to dogs, for example, and carry warnings to apply it in ways that do not come into contact with edible parts of plants. The “Precautionary Statement” attached to the back of the “Slug Magic” bottle warns that the bait can cause “moderate eye irritation” and recommends a good washing of hands and clothing that may have come into contact with the pesticide.

Now that we’ve discussed slugs and how to control them, what about "sex" and "slugfeast"?

For those subjects, at the end of this posting please link to Patterson Clark’s “Urban Jungle” column, “The surprising sex life of leopard slugs,” in the Washington Post. You will find slug sex life, well, just short of unbelievable.

And as for slugfeast, I’m not convinced that I will ever eat a slug. Wikipedia notes that a cure in ancient times in southern Italy for gastritis and ulcers was to swallow a live slug. To my way of thinking, that probably was the origin of the saying, “The cure is worse than the disease.” The “Urban Jungle” column lists three factors that “may give pause to the potential slug chef” and ends, “Bon appétit!”

I’ll end with two words too: “Yuck! Yuck!”

To read “The surprising sex life of leopard slugs,” CLICK HERE.

If you have a serious slug problem in your garden, I encourage you to read the University of Maryland Extension’s Fact Sheet 822, “Managing Slugs in the Garden and Beyond.” CLICK HERE.

Friday, April 8, 2011

How Large a Rake Do You Need?

My heirloom rake gets the job done

Do I need a Tacoma pickup truck or an 18-wheeler to cart bags of pine-bark mulch from Sun Nurseries to our house?

Easy answer: My little Tacoma is just the right size, thank you, to haul about a dozen large bags. An 18-wheeler would be overkill—and the 90° bend in our narrow driveway would give fits to even a skilled big-rig driver.

And out in my garden, what size rake do I need for our flower and veggie gardens?

In her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Washington Post, Barbara Damrosch shows a 29”-wide rake available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, one of my favorite catalog and online sites. I looked up the rake in the catalog, and wow, the rake must be the Lexus of rakes.

Called the Bed Preparation Rake, its Swiss-made aluminum head is 29” wide. The head, which has 20 four-inch teeth, is adjustable, to suit your height or the job at hand. There’s even one optional accessory: a pack of six plastic tubes that slip onto the teeth of the rake to mark rows or make a grid. Total: $76.00 for the rake and $4.95 for the tubes, plus $11.95 shipping.

If you have a huge garden, hire hands to care for your garden, or grow neurotic carrots or beets that require straight planting rows for their seed, then this $90 rake is probably just what you need. But do Susie Smith and John Doe gardeners, with their 15x15 veggie beds, need such a large and expensive tool?

This gardener doesn’t. Like most gardeners, I have an old garden rake in the garage. It was my dad’s. The head is standard width, 14”, plenty wide for raking jobs in my small, terraced veggie beds. No, its 14 teeth are not adjustable, but I simply raise or lower the handle to change the angle of the teeth whenever I wish. It works fine the two or three times a year I need a rake.

Low-priced row marker
Can I get along without having plastic tubes to put on my rake teeth to mark rows for crop planting? Well, yes, in ancient times my dad showed me how the rounded handle end of the rake makes a dandy tool to make a row in garden soil. A corner of a hoe blade works just as well. My veggies grow well even if their rows zig a little or zag a little.

This frugal gardener will make do with his heirloom rake, which has served two generations well even though it doesn’t have adjustable teeth.

To read Damrosch’s article and see her photo of the big rake, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Wrens Are Coming

Hanging an ancient wren house

The wrens will arrive on May 5, my dad always said, as he cleaned out his wren house in anticipation of a new nesting season.

I’m not absolutely certain that house wrens arrived in my hometown, Alloway, N.J., every year on May 5, but every year in early May they did return, the males first. One would stake out our wren house and warble away morning, noon, and into the evening, apparently trying to attract a mate. Or was he singing for the absolute joy of it?

If you wouldn’t recognize a house wren from an American robin, take 30 seconds right now and link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” page for the house wren and see an excellent photograph. Just below, under the silhouette of a house wren, click on “Typical Voice” and listen. Ah, yes, the “bubbly” song of the house wren. To link to the wren page, CLICK HERE.

In this week’s “Urban Jungle” column in the Washington Post, Patterson Clark notes that house wrens will be arriving soon in the Washington area. His column has a sketch of how to saw a 1”x6”x48” piece of lumber to make a wren house, if your hankering for a do-it-yourself project. The plan calls for a 1.25” entrance hole. Online charts specify diameters from 1” to 1.5”. Dad always insisted that 1” is best, to help keep out other birds, such as English sparrows.

In addition to the house plan and interesting information about wrens, “Urban Jungle” includes a “Nest Survival” chart for five common birds in the Washington area. There’s nearly an 80% chance that at least one house-wren nestling will fledge—leave the nest safely when it can fly. You may be surprised at the chance of that happening for other species—catbirds, mockingbirds, robins, and cardinals—that use open nests, not houses.

To read Patterson Clark’s “Success in the City,” CLICK HERE.

And, oh, yes, I’ve got to get the wren house out of the garage and get it hung.

The wrens are coming.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Warning: Another Invasive Garden Pest?

Cute, but don't be fooled!

A friend linked me to a Utah State University Extension video with shocking news. Another vicious pest is invading gardens. Like the common deer pest, the new pest has lots of friends who think it’s cute. “Don’t be fooled,” warns the video.

The new pest is what is commonly called the garden gnome. The Extension video identifies it as Gnomis englantis, an introduction from England, but I suspect Latin purists prefer Gnomis anglais. The Extension says the invasive gnomes often appear first in herb gardens before moving on to veggies and flowers.

They're everywhere!
After I watched the video, I rushed into my garden to see if the invaders had arrived here in Maryland. I was amazed at what I found—five specimens, all in flower gardens. Apparently ours is an advanced infestation.

I tried to interview several of the gnomes, but they declined, saying they expected their spokesperson back soon from the University of Maryland Extension and that if I saw him I would recognize him because he always rides on a terrapin. Go, Terps!

Gnome d'Plume, Gnome Spokesperson.  Go Terps!
As I rounded the corner of the garage into the front yard, I caught a glimpse of the spokesperson and rushed to interview him.

“What’s your name?” I queried, trying to break the ice.

“Gnome d’Plume,” he replied.

“Is that really your name?” I asked.

'Oh, Give Me a Gnome...'
“No comment,” he replied. I sensed this was going to be a difficult interview, so I tried to break some more ice.

“Looks like you’ve just arrived here,” I said. “Have you been on a trip?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Alaska.”


“Yes, Gnome.”

I knew this interview was going nowhere. As I turned to leave, Gnome d’Plume broke into song—the gnome national anthem, of course—“Oh, give me a gnome, where the deer and the groundhogs roam….”

Gnome Home?
On my way back into the house, I spied a sixth gnome. A plaque—a gift of a friend, jM—contains a gnome and these words: “Gnome Sweet Gnome.”

We seem to have a lot of gnomes here at Meadow Glenn. Maybe I should look for some repellent spray. I suppose it would be labeled, “Gnome & Garden Spray.” The label might say, “Warning: If you haven’t smiled yet, consult your physician.”

If you have a suppressed smile or two and have four minutes and 51 seconds for a chuckle or two, link to Utah State University Extension video, “Gnome Management in the Garden.” CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Deer Country: 3 Deer Candies

Hostas: deer candy

The hostas my dad gave us when we moved to Meadow Glenn grew well along our front sidewalk, but one June morning I discovered that the beautiful variegated plants no longer had leaves—just stems. Deer had enjoyed a nighttime salad, and I hadn’t even left out a bottle of ranch dressing. Now, whenever I’m talking deer and plants and mention hostas, someone invariably says, “Hostas—deer candy!”

Pansies: deer candy
About as many gardeners know that deer love to eat pansies. Ellen loves pansies, and in the spring of 1997, our first spring here, I surprised her by planting a dozen pansies in the narrow garden between the sidewalk and front porch. They were beautiful. The next spring I planted more pansies. Within a week deer surprised me by eating every pansy to the ground. “Pansies—deer candy!”

Violets: deer candy
A third deer candy is now blooming: common blue violets (Viola sororia), also known as common meadow violet, purple violet, woolly blue violet, hooded violet, and wood violet. Sunday afternoon I took a photo of the first bloom I’ve seen this spring. The violets were growing on the western slope of our lawn. Deer love to eat violets and will wade through our daffodils to dine on violet salad that has escaped my hoe.

When I mention this common flower, however, I’ve never had anyone say, “Violets—deer candy.”  I think the reason is that most gardeners don’t buy and plant violets, as they do hostas or the cousins of violets, the pansies. Also, this stemless native perennial hunkers down in lawns, usually, and seldom grows to be more than an inch or two tall, so it doesn’t draw attention, and if it does, some consider it a weed to be killed with 2,4-D.

If you garden in Deer County and are working in your flower beds and find a clump of violets, do what I do. Think, “Violets—deer candy!” Then either move them to a remote spot where they can serve a grand purpose as host the larvae of several of the fritillary butterflies—or add them to your compost pile.

Just don’t leave them in your garden to attract browsing deer that may be tempted to chow down on other plants nearby.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Weasel & Ants: Vole Eater & Aphid Herders

How would you milk an aphid?

Hmm, carefully, I suppose.

In her “A Cook’s Garden” in the Washington Post, Barbara Damrosch discusses a weasel and “farming ants.” The weasel eyes her chickens but catch a vole (meadow mouse) instead. The ants herd and milk aphids in ways hard to imagine.

How do the ants milk aphids? With their forelegs and antennae, says Damrosch.

And how do they keep the aphids from escaping?

Find out by reading Damrosch’s six paragraphs. CLICK HERE.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Deer Country: My Repellent Experiment

Will this work?

This year I’m going to try out a new deer-repellent spray: Deer Out.

I’ve used such sprays—and a grease-like gunk too—over the years and haven’t been impressed. I used them, and the deer kept eating the plants I was trying to protect. Maybe I just wasn’t faithful enough in applying the repellents.

More recently several Howard County Master Gardeners have told me that they’ve had good results with Deer Out, a mint-based spray that doesn’t leave your garden and hands smelling like rotten eggs when you use it. And then my brother, Jay, who lives in an area of Montgomery County that swarms with deer, advised that he had found a “spray that works”—Deer Out.

Always eager to try to discourage browsing deer, I thought about the mint-based spray and looked for it at several retailers, including an excellent local nursery and several big-box stores. The nursery stocked a half dozen repellents, including bottles of coyote and fox urine, but none stocked Deer Out.

“I get it online,” Jay said.

“Oh, yes,” I thought, “and pay a mint for shipping the mint.” And I looked in local stores again and again.

Now another spring is here, and our deer are lean and hungry.  So I went online and ordered a 40-ounce ready-to-use bottle of Deer Out. It arrived Thursday by UPS. Price: $15.99 plus $5.95 shipping for a total of $21.94.

Even before I opened the bottle, my sniff test declared, “Yes, definitely minty.”

Browsed viburnum
As I took the spray bottle from its shipping box, I read the front label: “Super Long Lasting! Minty Fresh Scent! Works Great Summer, Spring, Winter, and Fall. 100% Natural. Won’t Wash Off!”

Wow, I began thinking that maybe this stuff is too good for deer. Maybe I should just remove the sprayer and take a quick nip. No, Bob, don’t be silly. Read the back label first.

“Covers 1250 sq ft,” said the first blurb on the back. That’d be great—if I had square feet. My plants don’t have feet either, so I’ll just spray away until the bottle empties.

And then a general promise: “Deer Out will effectively repel deer from all garden areas, shrubs, forest & fruit trees, flowers, vegetable gardens and row crops,” followed by a second “DEER OUT will not wash off in the rain.” Then comes an explanation of “natural,” apparently: “DEER OUT contains no animal waste and its organic composition stimulates regrowth on plants previously damaged. All ingredients found in environmentally friendly DEER OUT are exempt from EPA regulation under EPA guidelines category 25b ‘food products.’”

And directions: “1. Shake well prior to using. 2. Apply mist completely covering entire plant. Be sure to cover both the top & bottom of all exposed areas. 3. Allow 1 hour for Deer Out’s custom blend of oils to be absorbed into the plant & dry prior to watering or rain fall. 4. Apply every 90-120 days or as needed. 5. During period of rapid regrowth, reapply Deer Out more frequently. 6. Store in a cool dark place out of the sun.”

And then in lighter type: “Note: During period of intense heavy rain, more frequent applications may be necessary.” I remembered the front label: “Won’t Wash Off!” I remembered the words just an inch above: “DEER OUT will not wash off in the rain.” Deer Out gives, and Deer Out taketh away.

And then a warning for this “100% natural” “organic composition” that is exempt from EPA regulation: “Caution: Keep out of reach of children. If swallowed, call a doctor immediately for treatment advice. In the event of eye contact or prolonged exposure to skin, gently rinse with water for 15-20 minutes and contact a doctor immediately….”

Then a list of active ingredients: “Mentha piperita oil, 1.77%, Garlic oil 0.95%, White pepper .050%, Putrescent whole egg solids 1.25%.” Inert ingredients: “95.53% Water, Gum Arabic, Acetic acid, Vegetable oil.”  Mentha piperita, of course, is peppermint. The active ingredients, as the Deer Out website explains, work “both by smell and taste…. A deer’s sense of smell is 1000 times greater than that of humans. Deer Out’s strong peppermint scent creates a cool menthol burning sensation that deer are repulsed by…. [T]hey may take a bite, but they’re not going to wipe out your flowerbeds anymore.”

And, of course, the standard “Limited Guarantee”: “If you are not 100% satisfied, return the unused portion of this bottle within 30 days of purchase … for a full refund or replacement. Deer Out LLC shall not be liable for any direct, consequential or incidental damage....”

Browsed hostas
Ok, I’m not going to drink any. But if I did and the “putrescent whole egg solids” killed me, the company would be delighted to give Ellen a refund or a new bottle of Deer Out.

A frequent question of participants of my “Successful Gardening in Deer Country” classes is, “Is there a repellent that I can spray on my vegetables?”

Before I bought Deer Out, I queried Deer Out LLC about that: “Is Deer Out safe for spraying directly on veggies (lettuce, chard, beets, green beans) and fruit (raspberries, blackberries, strawberries)? Thank you.”

The company’s reply: “Thank you for your interest in DEER OUT deer repellent. There are no chemicals, latex, poisons or synthetics found in any of our products, only all natural food based ingredients. Since 2002 our products have been successfully used by thousands of gardeners and commercial row crop farmers across the country. Be sure to thoroughly wash, and be sure to stay on top of misting the new growth by reapplying after every 3” to 4” inches of new growth and no deer will ever take a bite.”

Overall I like what I’ve heard and read about this product. The bambits of Meadow Glenn are about to be introduced to Deer Out. To browse, or not to browse, will be their decision!

What will I “mist”?

I’m going to an arrowwood viburnum shrub that deer regularly defoliate and several hostas and a bronze-leaf heuchera (also known as coral bells and alumroot) they browse frequently. And I’m going to set out a few lettuce plants and a tomato plant in the front yard, where we’ve been watching a herd of 13 browse all winter.

I’m going to mist as directed. I promise. And from time to time I’ll give you a progress report.

If you’re a citizen scientist and want to conduct your own experiment, buy some Deer Out or another brand.  Keep notes of what you spray and when. Take a photo or two. Let me know how your experiment works.  Veggie growers will be interested if you spray your edibles and eat them.

If you’re a new reader of my Deer Country series and are interested in using a spray, I suggest you read “Deer Country 4: Do Repellents Work?” and from that posting link to the free University of Maryland Extension Fact Sheet 810, “Using Commercial Deer Repellents to Manage Deer Browsing in the Landscape.” To go to “Deer Country 4,” CLICK HERE.

To read more at the Deer Out LLC website, CLICK HERE.

Friday, April 1, 2011

'We the Vegetables...'

A constitution for squash?

Man the barricades!  Grab a garden fork to defend yourself!  Veggies are on the loose!  They’ve organized, drafted a Constitution, and are demanding their rights!

You’ve got to read their Constitution.  It begins, “We the Vegetables….”

Read on.  History and vegetable gardening demand it!  CLICK HERE.