Monday, October 31, 2011

Glimmer of Hope: Bats and the Lethal White-Nose Syndrome

A lethal disease is ravaging bat colonies from eastern Canada and New England to North Carolina.  The disease, white-nose syndrome, is caused by a fungus that causes holes to form in the membranes that enable bats to fly.  Surveys indicate that in some areas the population of little brown bats has declined 91% and that of northern bats by 98%.

The economic implications for agriculture can be dramatic because a colony of 150 bats eats about 1.3 million insects each year, according to one study.  Fewer bats, of course, mean more insects and more alternative means of insect control, which generally means more pesticides.  One estimate values bats at more than $3 billion a year.

There is a glimmer of hope, however.  Scientists see some evidence that the disease may not be as lethal in warmer climates.  Note the operative word: perhaps.

If you have any interest in bats and their relationship to the environment, or just enjoy watching a little brown bat swooping over your garden in search of insects, you’ll want to read “On the trail of a bat scourge” by Darryl Fears in today’s Washington Post.  CLICK HERE.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Frosty Morning Beauty


October came in like a lamb and is going out like a polar bear.  Last week we were wondering when we’d get our first freeze.  This week we’re wondering if Saturday’s sleet and snow irreparably damaged our Halloween pumpkins.

We here at Meadow Glenn were on the southern and eastern edge of the white stuff.  We got just enough to frost our trees, shrubs, gardens, and lawns.  The Washington Post this morning said the unusual nor’easter brought bone-chilling rain, sleet, and, in western Maryland, up to nine inches of snow.  All three major airports in the Washington-Baltimore set records for low temperatures for their daily highs.

But today’s the day after, and the temperature here has approached 50°F.  The frosted lawn is bright green again.  Early this morning I went out and took photos of garden scenes.  I find frosted leaves to be fascinating portraits that exist only a few minutes before the warm rays of the rising sun kiss them goodbye forever.

Fountain grass (left) and boxwood
Lamb's ear

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Experiment: Overwintering a Geranium

Geranium to be overwintered

We’re three-quarters of the way through October, and as I look out our kitchen window, I see a geranium blooming in the cool, fall weather.  In just a few days, I suppose, a hard frost will kill the geranium.  But what if I overwinter it—and replant it in the garden next spring?

Overwintering geraniums isn’t something most busy gardeners take the time to do these days, but in times past gardeners often took geraniums from their gardens and stored them overwinter.  I remember a neighbor, Mary Rau, moving potted geraniums into their garage to dry out and overwinter.

Why was that a fairly common fall routine?  Perhaps they were Frugal Gardeners who wanted to save money, and overwintering their geraniums meant they didn’t have to buy new plants the next spring.  Perhaps it was something just about everyone did before the dawn of the buy-use-discard era.

Soil shaken off, plant pruned
To find details about how to overwinter a geranium, I searched the Internet and found lots of postings.  The one I liked best was “Overwintering Geraniums” by Marie Iannotti at  Iannotti describes a broad view of possibilities in a paragraph or two, plus a photograph.  Her seven topics:  storing geraniums for the winter; growing geraniums as annuals; growing geraniums as winter houseplants; overwintering geraniums as cuttings; overwintering dormant, potted geraniums; overwintering dormant, bareroot geraniums; and reviving dormant geraniums in the spring.

I had planted our geranium in our springtime garden, so mine was not a case where I could just pick up a pot and move it into the garage.  I focused on the website page that showed how to store a bareroot plant.  I dug up the plant, shook off most of the soil, pruned the plant to about half its original size, and put it into a grocery bag to overwinter in our garage, where it will be in no danger of freezing this winter.  I’ve already put “Check geranium” twice on my schedule, once each in December and February.  If all goes well, I’ll pot it in March to start the reviving process, and plant it in the garden again in May.  Iannotti’s posting details each step.

Close bag, store in our garage
Will this experiment work?  Will my revived plant be vigorous and a great addition to Garden 2012?  Or will I decide to buy a replacement plant?  I’ll update you periodically about this experiment. 

If you’re tempted to try to overwinter a geranium and want to see how to do it, Iannotti’s article will give you the basics.  CLICK HERE.

And remember the obvious: You have to do this job before frost kills your geranium, and most of us are overdue for our first fall freeze.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Autumn!

Happy Autumn, from Ellen and Bob!  The views from our sunroom are stunning this October.  Bob took the photos from the deck by our sunroom just as the just-risen sun highlighted the reds and yellows of the leaves.  The reddest tree is our favorite, an ancient red maple that, sadly, is now is in slow decline.

Really Cool Information for Gardeners

Frosted sungold tomato (Nov. 11, 2007)

Whenever two gardeners chat these days, one almost always asks the question, “Have you had a frost yet?”

The temperature here at Meadow Glenn was 38°F. this morning.  I thought there were frost crystals on the roof of our house, but there were no pockets of frosty grass in the low spots of our lawn.  The leaves of the super-sensitive basil in our garden remain bright green, not the drooping black they would be if frost had kissed them good-bye.

Today is October 23, and the 10-day forecast on Weather.Com lists the lowest temperature as 42°F.  Isn’t our first freeze overdue?

The short answer is, “Yes,” but other than from daily observation and recording of temperatures, which I haven’t done, where can I find out when the first freeze will be in the fall and the last freeze will be in the spring in our neighborhood?

After years of wondering, I’ve finally found a good source.  My discovery started last Friday with a posting by the Capital Weather Gang on the Washington Post website: “When should the Washington, D.C., area expect to see its first freeze of the cold season?”

Frosted strawberry leaves (November 8, 2007)
I read their article with increasing interest and began following highlighted links.  One spreadsheet, “List of locations included in the contour map,” contained first-freeze dates for 58 locations here in Maryland—and eight in Delaware, three in New Jersey, three in Pennsylvania, 72 in Virginia, and 18 in West Virginia.

I skimmed down the Maryland list and found Clarksville and Brighton Dam, both of which are about three miles from our home.  The compilation says the average first-freeze date for both locations is October 12.  Since today is October 23, yes, our first freeze is late this year.

The Capital Weather Gang explained that the first-freeze metric is “tricky … and it’s often first elevation dependent, then later (November onwards) dependent on the strength of the cold air mass, and in many cases one’s proximity to water.”

I’d like to add another complication: First-frost may come before first-freeze.  How can that be?   I noticed several years ago that frost often forms in our garden when the official temperature is above freezing by a degree or two.  When I researched that issue, I found that the thermometers used to officially record temperatures generally are located about six feet above ground.  Under certain conditions, the temperature at ground level can be freezing while the official temperature is slightly warmer just a few feet above.

 If you are a curious gardener, I recommend that you read the Capital Weather Gang’s posting, and I even more strongly urge you to follow the link to “weather cooperatives through the broader region,” which takes you to the Utah State University website with historical weather information.  When you arrive at the site, you’ll find “Utah” in the box where you are to select a state.  Select Maryland, or another state, from the pull-down list and click Select again, and you’ll find great information for scores of locations.  There are early/average/late dates for both “last spring freeze” and “first fall freeze,” plus short/average/long “freeze-free days,” which you might call the “growing season.”

Here are the dates for our town, Clarksville: “last freeze,” April 14 early, May 4 average, May 22 late.  “First freeze,” Sept. 24 early, Oct. 12 average, Nov. 5 late.  “Freeze-free days,” 138 short, 161 average, 188 long.   I can use that information, for example, to help determine when to start seeds indoors or plant them in the garden—and for spicing up gardening chats: “Well, you know, [clear throat at this point] on the average we should have had a frost on the twelfth.”

Now it’s time for you to explore. To link to the Capital Weather Gang’s posting, CLICK HERE.  To link to the Utah State University site to check out spring and fall freeze dates for your town, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tomato Patch: Time for Green Manure?

Green manure--or something else?
I’ve bought many bags of composted manure over the years, and when I opened them in our garden, the manure was dark brown.  When I buy a pickup load of composted horse manure and shredded leaves at the Howard County Recycling Center, the compost is, well, dark brown.

So what’s with “green manure”?

“Green manure” is the name often given to plants that overwinter on tilled fields and then are turned under the next spring.  Another term is “cover crop.”  Whichever term you prefer, it has two basic purposes, to enrich the soil and protect it from erosion by winter weather.

The University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook explains “cover crops” this way in its “Vegetables” chapter:  “Cover crops are mostly small-grain species, like oats, rye, and wheat, and legumes, like clover and vetch. …  These crops are typically planted as early as August 1, but no later than October 10.  They should make some growth before the first hard frost.  Some are killed by cold winter temperature, but most go dormant and resume growth in the spring.  Cover crop roots grow deeply into the soil pulling up nutrients that might otherwise leach out of the soil.  The crops are turned into the soil before going to seed, usually sometime from mid-April to early May.”

A Handbook table lists these typical cover crops with directions about when to plant seed and when to turn the plants under in the spring:  alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, crimson clover, forage radish, spring oats, winter rye, hairy vetch, and winter wheat.

I began thinking about “cover crop” when I tore out the dying vines of Tomato Patch 2011.  Should I plant a cover crop?  Are there alternatives—especially for small, hillside plots that this gardener tills—a youth-challenged gardener, by the way, who is prone to “aching back”?

Thinking I might experiment with a cover crop, I hopped into my Tacoma and drove up to the Southern States farm supply store in Ellicott City, the one place in Howard County that I thought would stock cover-crop seed.

“Do you have seed for any cover crop?”

“Sorry, not today, but next week we’ll be getting in a mixture of rye and wheat.”

“Will it be in bulk?  I only need a few ounces for my garden.”

“The smallest size will be three pounds.”

Straw mulch will work
So much for my Green Manure Experiment.  Back home, I looked at the vineless Tomato Patch and decided on an alternative to a cover crop.  I had mulched our tomato plants in the spring with straw which now was starting to disintegrate and become part of the garden soil, but it is still recognizable as straw.  If I don’t turn it under to hasten decomposition until late winter, it can serve as a “cover crop” to protect garden soil from the ravages of winter storms.

So this winter Tomato Patch is sporting a straw “cover crop” that died in 2010 or earlier and in color is definitely beige, not green.  Will this crop improve the soil?  Little, if any, I suppose, but I think it will do a reasonable job of protecting the soil from the elements.

And as I rearranged the straw to cover as much of the soil as possible, I thought of a very positive outcome of my choice:  the straw will continue to decompose over winter and I’ll have a relatively easy time “turning it under” with my garden shovel in late winter.  Manually turning under a cover crop can be an “ache in the back,” to say nothing of muscle pain.  Score one for the Ancient Gardener.

What else could I have used?

Grass clippings or shredded leaves will do too
Since I don’t have enough straw to spread on all my small hillside garden plots, I protect the soil—and enrich it to some degree—with whatever I have at hand.  I’ve already spread grass clippings on two or three plots—sort of a wimpy “green manure” approach, wouldn’t you say?  When leaves begin to fall, I’ll bag some with our lawn mower and spread the semi-shredded leaves like a brown blanket on other plots, where they’ll also both protect and decompose over winter.

Disappointed that I couldn’t buy a small amount of cover-crop seed locally, I checked availability on the Internet.  Territorial Seed Company has a paragraph explaining cover crops with several links you may enjoy investigating, including one showing varieties of available fall-sown seed.  Johnny’s Selected Seeds also lists a variety of seeds under “green manures.” 

There is one green-manure cover crop I don’t want to grow—winter weeds.  Alas, winter weeds are sprouting everywhere these days and growing rapidly in this extra-warm October.  Today’s chickweed seedlings might protect the soil over winter, but by early spring they will have become thick mats and will have sown thousands of seeds for future crops.

To read the University of Maryland Extension's one-page fact sheet on cover crops, CLICK HERE.
If you’re a new reader, check out my earlier postings about Barbara Billek, who uses hairy vetch as a cover crop in her raised vegetable beds, and Susan Levy-Goerlich, who uses shredded leaves to protect her garlic crop over winter.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Deer Country: Not Tonight, Dear

Whenever I look out a window and see the current crop of eight fawns, I think, “Wouldn’t it be great if there were an effective, cost-efficient deer birth-control pill.”

After my last “Deer Country” posting, a Howard County Master Gardener sent me an email that said in part, "I just heard that UMD has a deer contraceptive but it must be injected."  I hadn’t heard that news so queried contacts who might know about such a development. 

Phil Norman, Deer Project Manager with the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks, clued me in: “GonaCon is an immunocontraceptive that has been approved for use on wild deer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.”

The welcome news is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center over the last few years had developed a new immunocontraceptive vaccine, GonaCon, that is both single-shot and lasts for more than one year.  In controlled, multiple tests on free-ranging does one year or more of age, the vaccine prevented pregnancies 67 to 88 percent the first year and 47 to 48 percent the second year.   A second injection in the same or subsequent year may increase the vaccine’s effectiveness for up to the life of the vaccinated deer.

There is one downside, which I alluded to in my opening question, the vaccine’s cost effectiveness.  To date, it must be manually injected into a deer’s muscle, and that means each deer must be caught first.  Depending on circumstances, that may take the effort and time of a lot of people, which means that though the vaccine itself may be inexpensive, a catch-and-vaccinate program may be expensive.  Estimated costs range from $500 to $1,000 per deer.

But what if we didn’t have to catch the deer and give them a shot?  The NWRC is trying to find an answer to that question by adapting the vaccine so deer can self-medicate by eating treated bait.

Will the vaccine solve our problem of deer over population?  The obvious answer is that it may help keep herds from growing in size, but the infertile deer still will be chowing down on our flowers, shrubs, and vegetable gardens and on the tree seedlings and native flowers in our parks.

The USDA/APIS/NWRC has several online publications about GonaCon that cover many more questions than the two I’ve discussed here.  To link to a recent NWRC fact sheet that will give you additional and more-detailed information, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mushroom Madness: What Lurks Below?

One of the byproducts of all the rain we’ve had this year—more than 13 inches above average to date in this area—is that mushrooms are popping up here, there, and just about everywhere in our gardens and lawns.  The photos with this posting are some of the mushrooms growing here at Meadow Glenn.

So if I have mushrooms growing in our own yard, why did I stop by the Giant Food store to buy two handfuls of two kinds of mushrooms?  You know the answer: mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify.  An edible variety may look nearly identical to its poisonous relative. A deer or squirrel may eat one, but it might kill you.

In his “Gardening” column in Thursday’s Post, Adrian Higgins took a look at some common wild mushrooms and explained why wise gardeners leave picking them to the experts. 

Higgins also taught me something about the “leviathan” that lurks below the mushroom that pops up in our garden:  “Here’s the thing about the mushroom.  It is merely the fruiting body of a much larger and permanent organism that lives beneath the soil.  It is akin to the flower of a plant, dispersing its seed.  I like to think of a mushroom as the dorsal fin of some great whale that lives in the depths.  It flashes, it is gone, the leviathan passes from our consciousness, but it is still there.”

If you’re curious about the mushrooms growing in your garden or lawn, take a few minutes to read Higgins’ article, “Beneath the planet of the mushrooms,” and look at the photo illustrations.  CLICK HERE.

And remember to leave wild mushroom harvesting to the experts.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tomato Patch: Last Pickings & Pulling Up the Plants

Plants tell me the end is near

The diseased leaves and vines of Tomato Patch 2011 told me it was time to pick the last of this year’s tomatoes and tear out the nearly dead plants—three or four weeks before I usually do this sad job.

I describe the job as a sad one because I just plain hate to see the tomato season end.  When we cut the last red fruit that we’ve harvested from the Tomato Patch, we get that nearly hopeless feeling that we’re left with those red “things” we will not be even tempted to buy at the super market until our memories of our mouth-watering home-grown tomatoes fades with our memories of this year’s autumn leaves.

I tore out the dying vines over three days, a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there.  The first day I picked about 20 big-reds, mostly at breaker stage or beyond, that I thought had a reasonable chance to ripen in our garage, and I took down the cages that had supported the vines.  The second day I picked a half colander of little-reds and then removed their cages too.

Big reds: Last picking
On the third day I pulled out all the plants and wheel-barrowed them to a “compost” pile near the edge of our woods.  Since the vines were diseased, I had no thought other than to remove them completely from our vegetable garden.  Next year I will plant tomatoes in a totally different area of our garden in order to minimize disease carry-over from this year.

My experience with ripening end-of-season tomatoes is that those with cracks around the stem are much more likely to spoil before fully ripening, so most of the fruit I moved into the garage were small Brandywines and the other varieties with few cracks—Celebrities and Juliets.

A week after moving the last tomatoes into the garage, I can report that the extra-warm temperatures of the second week of October 2011 are causing them to ripen rapidly, and I have to check them every day to make sure we eat them before they spoil.  

Little reds: Last picking
Even though I picked the last of this year’s tomatoes and pulled up the vines, I’m not ready to write “The End” to Tomato Patch 2011.  I have a few chores yet to do, and in future postings I’ll show you what I do.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stink Bugs: Chainsaw 128, Peach Trees 0

Stink bugs on my tomato

Stink bugs this year destroyed most of Frank Gouin’s peach crop, so Frank’s going to take his chainsaw to his 128 peach trees.

Is that an overreaction to the stink-bug invasion?

Adrian Higgins, the Washington Post’s “On Gardening” columnist, told Frank story in Thursday’s edition.  Frank is a horticulturist who has tended his orchard from Day One 20 years ago, when he started rootstock from seed and the next year grafted buds of his chosen varieties onto the rootstock seedlings.  He’s been a realistic peach grower who been spraying his crop every 10 to 14 days to manage all sorts of pests and diseases.

And then came the stink bugs.  In 2009 Frank lost about two percent of his crop.  Last year he lost 10 percent.  This year he lost 60 percent. 

Higgins wrote:  “Scientists are working hard to find a natural predator for the bug, but for Gouin, time has run out.  After a lifetime of dealing with and beating pests, he is calling it quits.  This winter, he will take a chainsaw to his 128 peach trees.”

And Frank isn’t alone.  Recently one of my gardening friends announced, “I’ve had it.  The stink bugs have destroyed everything.  I’m not going to plant a tomato next year.”  Others have told me that stink bugs have taken all the enjoyment and satisfaction out of vegetable gardening.

What to do, what to do, what to do?  Fruit and grain growers face huge, if not potentially catastrophic, challenges.  We consumers may see higher food prices and have new questions about pesticide residues in our food.

I haven’t surrendered.  My tomato yield improved significantly this year because I periodically used a commercially available garden spray that kept the stink bugs largely, but not totally, off my growing tomatoes.  I’m learning to share a little and don’t mind a few “pin pricks” or “dimples” or other evidence of stink-bug feeding on my tomatoes.

Please “take five” to read Adrian Higgins’ article about Frank Gouin and its short sidebar, “Beating the stink bugs.”  CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Deer Country: Winter Protection for Your Plants

Doe browsing columbine

“Hey, there’s a deer looking at us through the dining room window,” Ellen said this morning just before seven as we were setting up breakfast.

Of course, when I turned to look, there was no peeping deer, so I took a few steps closer to the window to get a wider view.  No, there was no deer looking at me.  There were three—a doe and twin fawns—and they were exploring our perennial beds within 15 feet of the window.

The doe—apparently the one Ellen had seen checking us out through the window—had turned and was nosing around under a small variegated kousa dogwood tree.  The two fawns were sampling the prickly moss phlox in a bed about 10 feet from me. 

When I checked later, I saw what interested the doe—three or four columbine plants, now with leafless stems reaching skyward—and an azalea, of which she had liberated a few leaves.  The fawns had pruned the moss phlox to about two inches from the ground, in the process eating two or three strands of dodder that I had intended to prune out last week but hadn’t.  Thank you, fawns, for a job well done.

Fawns pruning moss phlox
I tapped on the window with a knuckle and the three visitors bounded out of our flower beds and stopped about 25 feet away to see how serious was my pursuit.  Sizing me up correctly, they lowered their heads and began browsing on clover.

This Deer Country mini-melodrama reminded me that the deer seem to be more interested in our garden fare in recent weeks than they have been over the summer.  The pine-bark mulch on our perennial beds is regularly churned overnight by deer hooves.  Sometime during the last week deer have browsed our one Knockout rose, though it’s more than half protected by welded wire.  I gambled that no deer would walk down our front sidewalk to access the rose’s one open side.

I’m surprised somewhat that the fawns chowed down on our moss phlox, a springtime flower that appears on most “deer resistant” lists.  Usually our local deer tear off a mouthful of moss phlox, spit it out, and move on to better chow.  Perhaps I should post one of the “deer resistant” lists in the phlox bed so the fawns will learn it’s a plant they shouldn’t be eating.

Columbine had leaves yesterday
I really must figure out a way to protect the azalea this winter.  I took the first step this afternoon and sprayed it liberally with Deer Out, a mint-based spray I used successfully this summer on hostas, heuchera, and a tomato plant.  But when foul winter weather comes and I forget to periodically reapply the Deer Out, the deer will browse next spring’s azalea buds and leaves.

Cages do work.  Although the azalea is more than 10 years old, it’s only about 15 inches tall because deer browse it every winter.  It has few lavender blooms in the springtime.  I bought it with two others—all three the same size, and the other two, farther down the front of our house, have been protect by a welded wire cage and are more than six feet tall and have beautiful lavender blooms every spring.

Really, Bob, it’s about time to protect that third azalea. 

What should I do about the phlox?  Should I design some kind of PVC structure with deer netting to keep the bambits out?  Or will all the deer except the fawns ignore such lowly plants over winter?  I’ll have to give that some thought, though I did give the phlox a few squirts of the Deer Out this afternoon too.

Ah, the joys of gardening in Deer Country.  We’re now seeing groups of up to 14 deer at various times of the day and know they’ll be increasingly interested in our landscape plants when cold weather sets in after Thanksgiving and they have less easy browse with which to fill their stomachs.

The thinking about protecting our plants from deer over winter is important, but actually protecting the plants is what counts.  I figure I have about six weeks in which to complete these small projects.

And what about your plans for protecting your perennials, shrubs, and trees from the deer this winter?  Post a Comment and share your wisdom.