Thursday, April 26, 2007

Garden progress

The bad weather of early April disappeared, and so did I, into the garden with all its spring jobs.

Winter damage that's apparent so far includes forsythia blooming only where it was covered with snow, and one young maple tree that bit the dust.

Here's what we (my husband, my helpers and I) have accomplished so far:

-Cut down ornamental grasses and old perennial stalks and cleaned up where necessary. This is huge, as there are several big beds, as large as a suburban yard.

-Cut back hellebores (we have a mass planting of these in our shade garden, thanks to my hot-shot propagator husband), and clematis.

-Pruning of trees and shrubs - a big job still in progress, but I'm lucky to have found an expert who used to work for Royal Botanical Gardens. He has trained all our young hardwood trees to perfection.

-Cleaned up under our big weeping willow and burned the resulting pile of brush.

-Mowed down two-acre wildflower meadow.

-Cleaned up twigs and branches on the lawn areas. Started mowing.

-Planted a few perennials, and got peas and spinach planted too.

-John has begun the usual removal of dead plants from his rock garden, to be followed by planting of new stuff he's grown from seed over the past couple of years.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

April is the cruelest month

I was an English major (a long time ago now), and so in April I like to take time to re-read one of the most famous English poems of the 20th century, The Waste Land. I have always loved the opening lines:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
When T.S. Eliot wrote these words, he had an English spring in mind, not the frigid weather that often descends on us poor northern folk when we're supposed to be enjoying Easter flowers and warm sunshine.

This has been the cruelest April in a long time, with bitterly cold winter weather forcing us all to dig out our winter coats again, or to just linger by the fire. Worst of all, it has lasted for a week, and is going to linger on for a few more days yet. The garden will have to wait.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Gypsy moth coming - get ready to do battle

Over the winter, as I walked the golf course across the road I saw lots and lots of gypsy moth egg masses - so many that I began to scrape them off the trees. Beautiful old burr oaks had dozens of egg masses, most of them so high I couldn't reach them. So I wasn't too surprised to see this headline in the local paper today: Gypsy moth invasion predicted.

I had noticed the gypsy moth caterpillar population building up over the past several years. We've managed to keep them from doing too much damage to our trees by getting rid of the egg masses and killing the caterpillars (mostly squishing them - rubber gloves help!).

The map shows the area of gypsy moth infestation in eastern North America. The gypsy moth caterpillars build over a number of years to the point where they can defoliate entire forests. I remember this happening in the late '80s and the early '90s. The infestation usually isn't fatal, but the trees then have to use up a lot of energy to grow a second set of leaves, and if they're stressed by heat and drought as well, they can die. (So, if you can, do water your trees during drought to keep them healthy.)

After a massive infestation, predator populations rise, and the gypsy moth population collapses. Then we can breathe a sigh of relief for a few years - usually about a decade.

Here's what you can do to control gypsy moth on your property:
• Right now, look at all of your trees, scrape and destroy egg masses to reduce the number of caterpillars during the season. Don't just scrape onto the ground, instead burn them or soak them in kerosene or soapy water. The picture at the right shows you what they look like.

• Watch for small caterpillars in late spring. A garden hose has enough water pressure to knock them off the leaves and tree trunks and kill them, especially when they are very small.

• Wrap a piece of burlap cloth that's folded in half lengthwise around tree trunks. Caterpillars feed at night and they crawl into the burlap fold to escape the heat during the day. Collect and destroy caterpillars each afternoon. An insecticidal soap spray also kills them. You can squish them if you're not too squeamish, or hand pick and drown them in a bucket of soapy water.

• Trap male moths by hanging pheromone (sex hormone) traps on the trees. These traps act as decoys and prevent male moths from mating with female moths.

• In severe infestations, apply the biological insecticide Bacillus thurigiensis kurtsaki (Btk). This kills the caterpillars, but is only effective when they're quite small. The best time to apply Btk is when the bridal wreath spirea shrub is in bloom.
For more information: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service has an informative and well illustrated website about gypsy moth and a list of trees that are most affected.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A cure for crappy soil

Got miserable soil? The big reason that the soil in most yards is so poor is our neatnik habit of carting away every last bit of fallen leaves and plant debris. The result: soil that's starved of humus, and really hard to garden. In the woods, where nobody rakes up, all stuff that falls from trees is recycled into humus, creating rich, crumbly woodsy-smelling soil that plants love.

(The other big reason for crappy soil is developers removing all the top soil, compacting the subsoil during and after building, and then believing an inch or two of top soil will make up for all that abuse before the sod is laid. It doesn't, but that's another story.)

Anyway, this spring, instead of removing all the free organic matter Mother Nature drops off each fall, just chop up the dead plant material and leave most of it on the flower beds. If you've got stray leaves, rake them under your trees and shrubs as mulch.

Not only will this help your soil, but you'll get a good balance of insects too. Erik Grissell goes into this in his wonderful book, Insects and Gardens(Timber Press, 2001). According to Grissell, the folks who vacuum up every bit of garden debris do the garden's insect residents, their soil and their plants a disservice.

Dried-up stems and leaves, plant debris and mulch are all great over-wintering spots for insects – which is why you're usually told to clean the garden up.

Instead, Grissell recommends keeping as much foliage intact over winter as you can to provide cover for a diverse population of insects.

Then you cut back the dead foliage right about now (or whenever early spring comes where you live). Just chop it up and tuck between the plants so it can compost in place.

Here, at our place, we do the chopping with a rented gas-powered hedge trimmer, cutting perennials and grasses back in layers, so that the bits and pieces are about 2 or 3 inches long. (Sometimes, the remains of ornamental grasses are so thick that we do remove some of this material.)

Leaving most of the chopped stuff on the beds means you don't have to drag everything off to the compost pile, and then lug the finished compost back to your beds. If you have enough plants (especially perennials), they grow so quickly that you won't even see the stems and other plant debris you've chopped up. Now, isn't that a practical idea for big country gardens?

For Grissel, the point of creating this mulchy environment is to help stabilize the insect populations for a better balance between prey and predators. For me, the bonus is that it's an easy way to build soil humus.

The only downside for us is that instead of spreading the work of cutting plants down over fall and spring (or doing it all in fall), you concentrate the workload into the spring. This job is exactly what's ahead for us in this month: tackling half a dozen large beds, each the size of an average suburban backyard.