Monday, March 26, 2012

Outfoxing Furry Critters in Your Garden

Mama & pup

Wouldn’t it be great if you could find a no-cost, natural, sustainable way to control furry critters that eat your garden harvest before you even get a chance to pick some for yourself?

“We have zero problems with bunnies, moles, voles, mice, and chipmunks in our strawberry and blueberry gardens,” explained Beth, a Howard County Master Gardener.  “I’ve got what one of our neighbor’s calls a fox ‘nursery den’ in our backyard and she has the ‘adult den’ in her yard, so small critters just aren’t problem.

“Mama fox gave birth to eight pups last spring,” Beth said.  “I spent hours watching and photographing the pups romp in our backyard while Mama stood guard.  I discovered that my best vantage point was from the edge of my bathtub because it’s perpendicular to the den.  Because the foxes were anywhere from 50 to 200 feet away, I used a zoom lens.  They enjoyed eating the peanuts and sunflower seeds as much as the birds did, and they used our birdbath as a drinking dish.”

Are foxes the perfect critter control for suburban gardeners?

Pups at play
“Not quite,” Beth answered.  “We have a pair of groundhogs that are larger than the foxes—and the groundhogs are stopping by daily to see what’s growing.  And then there are the deer that browse through our property nearly every day.  Last year I planted one tomato plant, and the deer ate all the green tomatoes.  I tore out the plant in frustration.

“I’m told to expect a new litter this year,” Beth continued.  “I saw Papa fox scoping the neighborhood earlier this year, but I’ve not seen Mama yet.  I do hope they return.  The pups are so much fun to watch.”

But the groundhogs and deer—mountain lions, anyone?

More water, please
Thank you, Beth, for sharing your story and photographs.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Clean Water: Does Your Landscape Measure Up?

How does your landscape measure up?
Save the Bay!  Clean up the Potomac!  Capture storm-water runoff!  Keep pesticides and fertilizers out of our streams!

Just about everyone wants to improve the quality of our shrinking supply of fresh water, and we’re used to seeing millions and billions of our tax dollars spent to try to add the sparkle of life to our waterways.

Spending tax dollars wisely on conservation efforts is a good thing, in my opinion, but something even better is for each of us to take a look at our landscaping practices to see what we can do to make good old Earth a better place on which to live.

The University of Maryland Extension has created a simple “Bay-Wise Maryland Yardstick” that enables us to measure how environmentally sound our landscapes are.  The Yardstick awards “inches” for sound landscaping practices.  If your landscaping practices total 36 inches, your landscape is “Bay-Wise.”  Many of the practices rate one inch, but some rate more.

The Bay-Wise Yardstick is built on several environmentally sound principles: Control Stormwater Runoff;  Encourage Wildlife; Protect the Waterfront; Mow Properly/Water Efficiently; Manage Yard Pests with Integrated Pest Management (IPM); Mulch Appropriately/Recycle Yard Waste; Fertilize Wisely; and Plant Wisely.

Here are four sample Actions that you can take in your landscape to earn some “inches”:

“Direct down spouts and gutters to drain onto the lawn, plant beds or rain gardens where rain will soak into the soil rather than running off.  However, direct this water away from the house to avoid wet basement and foundation problems.  Credit: 1 inch.”

“Provide, and properly maintain, a water source, such as a birdbath or small pond, for wildlife.  (Change birdbath water every other day to provide a fresh, clean drink and discourage mosquitoes.)  Credit: 1 inch.”

“Mow cool season grasses high (3-4 inches) to encourage a deeper, more drought- and pest-tolerant root system.  A higher cut also shades out weeds.  Remove no more than a third of the grass blade when you mow.  Credit: 2 inches.”

“Fertilize cool season grasses (fescues, bluegrass and ryegrass) only in the Fall (September through early November).  Warm season grasses such as Zoysia and Bermudagrass should only be fertilized from mid May to early June.  Credit: 1 inch.” 

How many inches have you added with those four simple Actions?  Many of the recommended Actions won’t cost you a penny more than what you’re spending now.  Some may even save you a dollar or two.

Does the Yardstick work if you don’t live in Maryland?  Environmentally sound landscaping practices are important in every state, so print out the Yardstick and imagine that you’re helping your local steam or river instead of the Chesapeake Bay.
Meadow Glenn is Bay-Wise
Yes, I practice what I write about.  In 2006 I “measured” landscape practices here at Meadow Glenn.  Three members of the Bay-Wise Committee of the Howard County Master Gardeners then visited to check my calculations and certified that Meadow Glenn is a “Bay Wise Demonstration Landscape.”

Aren’t you curious to see if your landscape already is a “36”—or what you can do to help make it “measure up”?  To link to the “Bay-Wise Maryland Yardstick” so you can print out a copy and begin measuring your landscape, CLICK HERE

Look for occasional future postings about how gardeners integrate Bay-Wise principles into their landscapes and gardens.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Deer Country: Rutgers Online List of Resistant Plants

Part of a page of the Rutgers
online list of deer-resistant landscape plants

Has your spring fever reached the level that you’re tempted to drive to the nearest nursery and load your car with plants to fill your landscape—but you’re holding back just a bit because you know the local deer will get more nourishment from eating those plants than you will get enjoyment from viewing them?

I have some great news for you. The Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Cooperative Extension—yes, that’s really the name—has an online publication, “Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance,” that I think you’re going to value.

This is not the typical deer-resistant plant list that you have to page back and forth through different categories and resistance levels.   For each plant, the Rutgers list gives Common Name, Latin Name, Type (such as Annuals, Perennials, Shrubs, or Trees) and Rating (A, B, C, or D).  For easy reference, the ratings are color coded.  Green A means “Rarely Damaged.”  Yellow B indicates “Seldom Severely Damaged.”  Orange C means “Occasionally Severely Damaged.”  Red D all but shouts, “Frequently Severely Damaged,” don’t plant!

The color coding makes the list easy to use.  You can skim down the list and spot “red” plants if you want to fatten up your local deer herd or “green” ones if you want to slim them down.

After the Common Name of some of the plants appears a small icon of a camera.  Click on the camera and you’ll see a photo of that plant.  If you want to go from there back to the list of plants, click on the white X in the small circle at the top right-hand corner of the photo.  If you click on your return arrow, you’ll likely go back to where you were before you surfed to this site.

And there’s more.  This site lets you “Browse” or “Search.”

Let’s do “Search,” the simpler one, first.  Just type in a common or Latin name and click “Search,” and presto, there’s a list in glowing colors.  For example, I typed in “holly” and a list appeared with 16 holly varieties.  First was a green line with “American Holly,” “Ilex opaca,” “Trees,” “Rating A” (“Rarely Damaged”).  Last was a yellow line with Wintergreen Holly, Ilex verticillata, Shrubs, Rating B” (“Seldom Severely Damaged”).  And mid-list appeared an orange line with “Hollyhock,” “Alcea sp.,” “Perennials,” “Rating C” (“Occasionally Severely Damaged”).

I suppose most gardeners thinking “landscape” and “holly” are fantasizing about a tree or shrub, but the reality is that a computer runs this list and when you enter “holly,” the computer lists any plant on the list that contains h-o-l-l-y.

The “Browse” function adds to the excitement.  You can select any Rating category (All, or A, B, C, or D), any plant type (All, Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, Ferns, Groundcovers, Ornamental Grasses, Shrubs, Trees, or Vines), and Sort them for delivery by “Common Name” or “Latin Name.”

Interested in common names of shrubs that deer “Frequently Severely Damage” so you replace your landscape every year?  Here’s your list: Evergreen Azaleas, Pinxterbloom Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Wintercreeper, and Yews.

Is the Rutgers list perfect?  Nothing in Deer Country is perfect, not even the Ancient Gardener.  Deer don’t read lists of resistant plants so just might ignore a red-coded plant or chow down on a green-coded plant.  Arrowwood viburnum is green-coded on the list but bambits here at Meadow Glenn browse our two specimens so heavily that I have caged them so we can enjoy more than leafless branches.  And then there’s the misspelled “Pampus Grass,” which I hope does not refer to “Pampas Grass” with an infected cell.

Minor imperfections aside, I recommend you add “Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance” to your Favorite sites for future reference—and for sharing when a neighbor asks you about plants that deer don’t eat.

To go to the Rutgers site, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stink Bugs: Invasion Update from the Washington Post

“Stink Bugs Migrating to the Deep South” by Darryl Fears in today’s Washington Post gives an update on what’s happening in battle with brown marmorated stink bugs.  Though stink-bug numbers seemed to be down in the mid-Atlantic in 2011, the invasive insects are expanding their territory and are an increasing concern in agricultural regions of the South.  To compound the problem, another Asian stinkbug, sometimes called the kudzu bug, is now established in Georgia, where it’s chomping away on kudzu, of course, but also food crops, such as soybeans.  To update yourself on the stink-bug problem, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tomato Patch: Soil Secrets Revealed!

Soil test kit mailer and instructions

Do you know what your blood pressure is—and what the calcium level of your garden soil is?

Most of us have a good idea about our basic body statistics—but quite a few of us haven’t the slightest idea about the state of our garden soil.  Shame, shame, gardeners—and that included me until four weeks ago.

If you’ve read my earlier postings, you know that I’ve had a problem in my Tomato Patch with blossom-end rot.  Last summer the disease, which stunts the fruit and makes most of it inedible, severely affected my paste-type tomato plants, including Super Marzano and Big Mama varieties.

Blossom-end rot essentially is a calcium problem—either an insufficient supply of calcium in the soil or not enough moisture for the calcium to go from soil to plant to fruit.  When I planted my tomatoes last May, I mixed a tablespoon or two of pulverized lime, a good source of calcium, into each planting hole, added some water to start dissolving the lime, and then drip-irritated the plants over the growing season.

My theory: Tomato plants plus calcium plus water equals perfect fruit.  My reality: Blossom-end rot affected nearly every paste tomato.

I’m not a screamer, but blossom-end rot frustrates me, and my nature is to solve a problem.  That’s why I decided to go back to square one of good gardening practice and test our garden soil so I know what I’ve got to work with and how I might make changes that result in even better crops.

I started my quest for a soil test by reading the University of Maryland Extension’s short brochure, “Selecting and Using a Soil Testing Laboratory,” which explains the value of soil tests and at the end lists six soil-testing laboratories and their offerings.  To see the Extension’s brochure, CLICK HERE.
When I saw that a basic test would identify the calcium level in the soil, I almost shouted “Yes!”—but I’m not a shouter either—because that result would answer a basic question I had about my blossom-end rot problem—is our soil calcium deficient?

I reviewed the offerings of the six laboratories and chose the University of Delaware Soil Testing Laboratory, though the labs all offer comparative services.  I went online and used a credit card to order two of their testing kits—because we have a series of small garden plots wrapping around the crest of our hill, and I wanted to separately test two separate areas to see if they differed significantly.  Each test was $10. 

In a few days a small box arrived with the two testing kits and directions for taking the soil samples.  I followed directions and mailed the samples.  In just over two weeks, I received the two “Soil Test Reports.”

One of our "Soil Test Reports"
Drum roll!  Calcium deficiency—yes or no?

I scanned down the list to “Ca” and saw that the calcium level in both areas of the garden is—I was surprised—excessive!

“Excessive” in this case doesn’t mean the calcium level is a problem.  It means I shouldn’t add more.  The two tests also show pH levels are “Optimum.” Phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and magnesium (Mg) levels also are more than sufficient.  Overall, the two tests show the soil in the two garden areas vary little.  Enclosed brochures explained the various results.

At the bottom of each report is a “Suggested Fertilizer Program” based on test results: Apply one pound of a nitrogen-only (no phosphorus or potassium, because we already have plenty) fertilizer per 1000 square feet of garden area.  Two examples are given: 3 pounds of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) or 2.5 pounds of urea (46-0-0).

Is my blossom-end rot problem solved?  Probably not, but I’m smarter now.  I know the soil doesn’t have a calcium deficiency problem.  If I water properly, there should be no moisture problem.  But there’s still another possible tweak: Can I find a paste-type tomato variety that is blossom-end rot resistant?

I’ve been searching the internet and asking other gardeners for recommendations and haven’t found a list, though I’ve read several reports that the small Juliet hybrid is highly resistant—but its small size isn’t popular with kitchen canners.  I’ve also read the standard-size Amish Paste variety has some resistance, and I’ve already purchased a packet of Amish Paste seeds to try this summer.

The challenges of vegetable gardening keep me researching and learning—something good, I think, for the gray matter of this Ancient Gardener.

I’ll let you know as the summer unfolds and my Amish Paste tomatoes grow, bloom, and fruit whether I’ve solved this annoying problem.

What do you know about your garden soil?  Isn’t it time to have it tested?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Deer Country: Butterfly Bushes and Flurries

Time to prune butterfly bushes
I gave our three butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii ‘Pink Delight’), one of the shrub species our local bambits have never nibbled, let alone browsed, their annual pruning on Tuesday.

Cutting back butterfly bushes is important because they bloom only on growth of the current year.  They are fast growers, so cutting them to one foot or so means that this year’s blooms will be close to eye level and they won’t crowd nearby plants.

In his “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” Michael A. Dirr says of Buddleia davidii, “[I]n many respects better pruned to the ground in spring since it flowers on new growth of the season; … even the compact types like the Nanho series reach 6 to 8’ … high unless restrained; in the Dirr garden, butterfly-bushes receive lots of play, on occasion plants were pruned to 12 to 18” of the ground, at other times untouched with only a tip prune here and there; … unpruned plants produce flowers sooner in the growing season than heavily pruned plants.”  And, later: “Attracts an amazing array of butterflies and bees.”

Showing their age, but aren't we all?
If our three butterfly bushes were located in a less congested part of our landscape, I might experiment with pruning them to varying heights to see if they would flower at different levels and times.

Our three plants are showing their age—but aren’t we all?  I planted them in 1998.  Now their main stems are gnarled and show signs of dieback.  In another year or so I probably should replace them.

Early Tuesday the temperature was 28°F.  When I began pruning it was 44°.  Then the overcast day darkened, a breeze picked up from the north, and the temperature dropped noticeably.  As folks in south Jersey would say, “Suddenly it felt raw.”  And then snow flurries began.

I stacked my prunings and will cart them to our woodside compost heap on a nicer day—perhaps one of those 60° or 70° days forecast for later in the week. 

As the old saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather, just stick around for a few minutes.”
A well-named shrub

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Deer Country: Disappearing Crocuses

Crocuses on Monday

The deep purple crocuses caught my attention Monday.  The day was cloudy—we had a few flurries—so the crocuses sulked a bit and didn’t open, as the first photo shows. 

When I went out sunny Tuesday morning to do some late-winter cleanup of that bed, I thought the crocuses would welcome me with open petals.

Alas, our local deer had struck overnight and browsed the crocuses to the ground, as you can see in the lower-right corner of the second photo.  But if you look again at the second photo, you’ll see some yellow in the background—daffodils in full bloom—unbrowsed by our local bambits.

Tuesday's crocus stubs at bottom right
For springtime blooms in Deer Country, think daffodils, which deer normally shun.  To invite deer to a banquet, think crocuses and tulips, deer favorites that, along with hostas and pansies, sometimes are called “deer candy.”

I didn’t get to enjoy our purple crocuses this year, but I did walk around the front yard and cut a handful of daffodils to take into the house.  Ellen was at her quilt-guild meeting, so I put the daffodils in a simple vase and put it on the kitchen table.

Would she notice?

A couple of hours later, she came home.  As she walked into the kitchen, she looked at the vase of yellow flowers and said, “Oh, daffodils.  They’re beautiful.”


Will she notice them?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Frugal Gardener: Cutting Lettuce in March

Red Sails lettuce cut March 2

It was beautiful—the head of Red Sails lettuce I cut Friday when Ellen said we needed lettuce for our lunchtime sandwiches.

The head was the last of three I raised over winter in the mini-greenhouse I fashioned from an inexpensive plastic storage container I bought for a few dollars at Wal-Mart.  The storage container provided enough protection for the Red Sails lettuce—a cold-resistant variety—to grow through Winter 2011-2012. I started the seeds in yoghurt cups on October 31 and transplanted the seedlings into the mini-greenhouse on November 9.

This winter has been unusually warm with temperatures dropping below 20°F only five or six times and never below 18°.  To give the lettuce an even better chance of surviving, I set up the mini-greenhouse on the south side of a brick wall, where it would be both protected from cold wind and would benefit from the heat-absorbing bricks. 

After cutting beautiful heads of lettuce through the winter, I can only declare, “Success!”  The mini-greenhouse works.

Of course I should have two or three lettuce seedlings ready to transplant into the mini-greenhouse—but I don’t.  On Thursday I seeded two varieties—Red Sails and Green Ice—in a yoghurt cup that’s sitting on our kitchen windowsill, but they won’t be ready to transplant for another two weeks.  Do I hear a lecture coming on, “Use Your Head and Plan Ahead, Bob”?

During this experiment I’ve learned that something other than lettuce thrives over winter in my mini-greenhouse—slugs.  When I cut the last head of lettuce on Friday, I looked carefully between the bases of the leaves and found two half-inch black slugs and several so small they appeared more white than black.

I suppose an iron-stomached foodie might consider adding buttered slugs to his or her menu—but, thank you, I’ll take a pass.

I’ve got to add organic slug bait (iron phosphate), such as Slug Magic, Sluggo, or Escar-Go, to my garden shopping list because slugs are a fact of veggie gardening here at Meadow Glenn, where our 10 small, semi-terraced plots curve around the crest of a hill.  Supporting the plots are hundreds of concrete stacking block and even some river-stone mulch and some pavers that provide limitless living places for slugs.

If you want to get a head start on spring lettuce growing, why don’t you make a mini-greenhouse and start your lettuce today—and then reuse your greenhouse this fall to keep your fridge well stocked with lettuce into Winter 2012-2013?

If you want to see my posting about how I built my mini-greenhouse, CLICK HERE.