Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Vole Aeration

A few mornings ago, I was complaining to Jack about the many vole holes I'm seeing around our garden. For those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar with voles, let me explain. Voles are small, mice-like creatures that you hardly ever see because they usually stay underground chomping on the roots and tender crowns of your plants. In fact, I've never seen one, just the results of their activity. Their favorite meal seems to be whatever your favorite plant is. (Well, that is an exaggeration because there are some plants they leave alone.) In particular, they are fond of hostas. It's so sad to go check your garden and find  this where a favorite hosta use to be.
A vole hole where a hosta use to be.

One part of our garden seems to be the main source of my vole woes. We have a shady area that is heavily planted with hosta and similar plants. The moles love this area because the soil is soft from compost and frequent waterings, and they feast on the earthworms, who also favor these conditions. Voles are opportunistic and they use the moles' tunnels as underground highways that lead them to the plant roots, where they do their damage and leave those tell-tale round holes. (Chipmunks also make similar-looking holes but if the plant is gone, your villain is probably a vole.)
Vole's favorite area in our garden

Later in the week, Jack and I were working on a part of the lawn where the drainage is very poor. The lawn in this area has low places and the soil is very compacted. We brought in sand to level the ground but before putting the sand down, we wanted to aerate that area. We have a sod-plugger/bulb planter that does a great job extracting large cores of soil. Rather than leaving the mostly clay cores on the ground, we used a mix of soil and compost to refill the holes, then we leveled the area with sand. (Disclaimer: this procedure seemed like a good idea to us, but time will tell how it works out.)

Seeing the holes left by the aeration we did in the lawn made me think of the holes made by the voles in our garden area, and I began to wonder whether we could reap some benefit from the those holes. Perhaps we could find a use for the voles' holes in the same way they find a use for the moles' tunnels. Even though the soil was very compacted in this garden area, we thought it best not to aerate it because of an abundance of tree roots. But since the voles had already done the job of making holes, wouldn't it make sense for us to take this as an opportunity to add organic matter, just as we had done in the lawn area? So I've decided to keep a container of compost handy and anytime I see a vole hole, I'm going to fill it with compost. As many holes as they make over a season, it might do some good, and I can't think of any downsides.

When mother nature sends you moles and voles, make lemonade. Oh wait, I'm mixing my metaphors. But you see my point.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Vlasic Truck Is On The Way!

This is the harvest from just this morning.  We've been getting about this amount daily for a couple of weeks!  Do you think I may have overplanted...?

I hope my tomatoes are this productive - no red beauties yet. And the corn!  All of this is in our front yard.  Walter says our neighbors must think the Clampetts moved in!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Beautyberry: Not just for berries!

I've known about the beautyberry plant (Callicarpa americana) for a long time, but I've never grown one until recently. Beautyberry, as you might guess from its name, is grown for its unusual, ornamental berries that ripen in late summer and persist into fall. This picture was taken several years ago in Bill Ferrell's garden by Julie Morgan.
Owner: Bill Ferrell

Jack and I discovered a beautyberry in our garden last fall, obviously planted by some bird because it was growing so close to the fence in our backyard. Or maybe our neighbor had one at some time in her yard on the other side of the fence. In any case, we recognized it by its bright purple/blue berries and decided that we could try to dig it out and give it some space. 

When spring came this year, I wasn't sure it had survived the move. Then a single branch leafed out and more branches came out from the root. Now it has made a fairly decent-looking little shrub.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

On closer inspection, I realized it was covered with buds and airy little flowers. This should not have been a surprise (where there are berries, there must have been flowers) but it was. A very nice surprise! The buds looked like little pink berries.

 And the flowers were lovely--delicate, airy little things. It made me feel happy just to see them.

The beautyberry in fruit has a wow factor. It's bright berries come as a shock that knocks your socks off from quite a distance away. The beautyberry in bloom is just as fabulous, just in a different way. It needs to be appreciated close up and personal. Go check out yours now if you have one. 

If don't have a beautyberry, you might consider it as an addition to your garden. According to the USDA plant database, beautyberry likes moist, loamy soil and grows best in a light shade. More sun equals more berries, but the plant requires more water in a sunnier environment. Ours grows quite well in a considerable amount of shade and a lot of benign neglect. Also, remember to give it some room to grow. In optimal conditions it can get quite large (6 ft or more tall and wide) but it responds well to pruning. 

Clicking on this link will give you more information on beautyberry, including medicinal and practical uses of the plant, for instance using the crushed leaves to repel mosquitoes and other biting bugs. I haven't tried it as an insect repellent yet, but the next time I'm in the garden, I will. How handy would that be to have an organic insect repellent at your fingertips!

So now that I've discovered that the beautyberry has a lovely bloom (are all you gardeners out there saying "duh!") as well as beautiful fall berries, I'm now thinking of it as a multi-season plant. Add to that the beautyberry's practical use as a mosquito repellent and I'm beginning to think think that I've been so under-appreciating this plant! I'm so glad we rescued it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Squash time

I love squash and last year I grew a couple plants in a flowerbed. They were beautiful plants--I think squash blooms are among the loveliest flowers. In the past when I’ve tried to grow squash, they were robust in the spring and produced an initial crop of squash. Then suddenly, the plants wilted, collapsed, and soon died. 
Photo courtesy Suzanne Allen
An examination would show a small hole or wound at the squash stem near the ground, a telltale sign of squash borer, a common and often fatal squash pest.

Photo courtesy Suzanne Allen
I had read somewhere that one way to prevent the adult moth from laying its eggs is to wrap the squash stem in aluminum foil. So shortly after planting my squash, I wrapped the stem. Then I waited while the plants really took off, making large beautiful leaves and quite a few blooms. When the first blooms did not produce fruit, I did not panic. I knew that squash are monoecious, which means that they have male and female blooms on the same plant . Often, the male blooms come out before any female blooms appear and, of course, male blooms can’t produce squash by themselves. But when the female blooms appeared but did not develop into fruit, it was apparent that something was wrong.

I had watched an episode of Family Plot where this problem was discussed and I suspected insufficient pollination. So I hand-pollinated them, which simply means taking an anther from a male bloom and transferring pollen to the stigma of a female bloom. This is a very easy task as long as you can distinguish between the male and female bloom, and my plants soon started fruiting. (This site shows the difference between the blooms and explains the hand-pollination process.)

Meanwhile, the squash moth was taking aim at my squash plants. I did not have a sufficient portion of the stem covered, so the moth simply laid its eggs further out on the stem. (I later learned that the recommendation is to cover the lower three feet of the stem--wouldn’t that be nearly the whole plant?) As luck would have it, the bed where the squash were growing had enough moisture that the stem rooted where it touched the ground. I cut off the original stem where the moth damage was, and the plant (at least part of it) survived.

Understanding the life cycle of the squash borer will help you defend against it. The adult squash moth emerges from the ground in late spring and lays its eggs on the squash stem. The eggs hatch in about a week and produce larvae, which feed their way into the interior of the stem, eventually causing the plant to die. The larvae feed for 4-6 weeks, then burrow into the ground to pupate. In some areas of the country, they will be done for the growing season and remain in the ground to await next summer when they will emerge to plague your squash again. However, in our area, there are two generations of adult moths. The eggs of the first generation remain in the ground 2-3 weeks, then they hatch and are back in August to lay eggs on your squash (if you have any by this time). This University of Tennessee publication explains the life cycle of the borer and gives suggestion for control.

My brother deals with this problem by planting a second crop of squash. This is a great solution in those areas of the country with a shorter growing season because there are no adult moths to lay eggs on the second crop. In our area, however, since there two generations of adult moths, the second crop is also in danger.

As for me . . . I decided that squash bought at the farmer’s market or grocery store is delicious, too!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Arc of the Sun

June 7, 2015 - 8:00 am

We've been in our house for a year now.  I'm still trying to put plants in the proper place, lightwise. My main problem is that I severely underestimate the trajectory of the sun throughout the year.  The hosta bed that I planned in April and planted in May is getting too much sun.  I moved the hostas to another spot last week.  Now I see that the new spot, which I thought would be ok since it gets morning sun, gets sun from sunrise until noon and the hostas are scorching.  So today I will move them again, having paid better attention to the movement of the sun across my yard.  What a dummy.

So I started thinking, wouldn't it be nice if there were a way to get a clearer picture of how the sun actually does move across my property at different times of the year?  Ta da!  I found a site called suncalc.net.

You enter your address (or click Detect My Location) and a map view comes up.  On the top right hand side you can choose between Map or Satellite.  I chose the Satellite view.  Here is my house at various times during the year.  The thin orange curve is the current sun trajectory, and the yellow shaded area around it is the variation of sun trajectories during the year.  The yellow line is sunrise and the dark orange line is sunset.

Jan 1

Apr 1

Jul 1

Oct 1
Can you see how I would have made a mistake in April for a bed on the west side of my back yard? Maybe not, because the way that the trees cast shadows is not evident in this simulation.  But I know my property, so I can supply that bit of information.  You'll be able to do that for your property, too!

I think this is fascinating!  The good news is that the sun is about as far to the north as it's going to get. (Compare the June 6 photo with the July 1 photo.)  From this point on, it'll be moving back to the south (the bottom of the shaded area in the photos.

A note:  I couldn't find a way to print or save directly from the site.  So I used the snipping tool (Google it for a version for your computer) to define the area I wanted to print, then saved the resulting .png to a folder on my computer.  That's why these photos are slightly different in size.

Try it out and let me know in the comments how it works for you!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Demise of the Roses

When Jack and I moved into our house in 2011, there was a single rose on the property, a pink floribunda. I like roses, especially fragrant ones, so I found a sunny spot and made a rose bed. Sadly, most of our roses have succumbed to rose rosette disease--all, that is, except the one type I thought would. My knockout roses are still doing fine. So far.

The type I hated most to lose were the Drift roses. This is a small rose, short and bushy. It comes in a variety of unusual attractive colors, and it blooms continually from early spring until frost. Last fall I saw some early indication of rose rosette disease in the Drifts. This spring, I cut them back hard and hoped for the best. But they leafed out looking weak and then this week I saw the unmistakable thorny witches broom caused by the rose rosette virus.

Rose rosette on Drift rose

Here's a closer look at the "witches' broom."  Notice the many, small thorns growing from the bright red, deformed shoot.

Over the past two years, one by one, I've removed infected roses from the bed. I knew that it was very likely that all the roses would become infected but I decided to remove bushes as I saw evidence of infection. Tomorrow, I'm removing a border of coral Drift roses from the rosebed I created.  Alas, after the Drifts go, Mr. Lincoln, a deep red, very fragrant hybrid tea rose, will be the sole survivor in the rose bed.

We have two other Drift roses on the property that still look healthy and the pink floribunda that we inherited is hanging in there. Sadly, I've decided that maybe roses are not for my garden. . . .

Here is an article with more information on rose rosette.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Balls and galls!

The housing development where Jack and I live is called "Shady Creek."  Idyllic-sounding, huh? Trouble is, most of the trees creating that shade are sweet gum. As most of you know, sweet gums are attractive trees that produce a most unattractive fruit: a brown, horned ball slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball with no known useful function. Well, you might find a craft use for a few, but a single tree produces hundreds of them. Our lot has many of these trees, and if you multiple many trees by hundreds of balls . . . well, you get the picture.

We also have a few oak trees, which I've always considered to be among the best of the large trees.  Since we moved to our house in 2011, these oak trees have had galls on them every year.  We had a certified arborist take a look at them a few years ago, and he told us that the galls usually do not affect the health of the tree. They are caused by wasps that lay eggs in the branches, causing them to produce the galls.

This year, however, our oaks trees are so heavily infested with galls that I am concerned about the health of the tree.  You can see the many galls in this picture and how the twigs die beyond the gall.

Here's a closer look at the gall itself (at least the most prevalent type--we have several types: horned, gouty, and apple gall).

Oak gall

So I called the arborist back to re-assess the condition of the trees, some of which are very near our house. He told me that he has seen an increased amount of gall infestation this year and that an effective control for the wasps producing this damage has not been determined. For now, his recommendation was to rely on biological control, that is, cleaning up the galls that fall around the tree and letting the natural predators of the wasps and their larva do their job. Since the trees do not appear to be in imminent danger of dying, we decided not to remove any and hope for improvement next year.

More information on oak galls can be found here,

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cardinal Flowers

A couple years ago I discovered the red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) at Gardens Oy Vey in Arlington. Exploring the gardens there, I was surprised to find a magnificent stand of brilliant red flowers on deep green stems blooming in a shady area. I don't know if it was the intensity of the red flower or finding it flowering in a shady area that surprised me more. I bought some for my garden and the next spring I was rewarded with several additional plants. This spring I was happy to see that the number of plants had doubled again.

I really love the red cardinal flower and would like to add blue cardinal flower (Lobelia syphilitica) to my garden. But apparently blue cardinal flower does not love me. I've planted the blue one on two different occasions with no success, in spite of the fact that I read it is "tried and trouble free." If anyone has been able to grow these, please share your secret.

Last week at the Dabney Nursery my eye was caught by a bronze-leaved cardinal flower and I couldn't resist buying one for my garden. This is a Lobelia hybrid called  'Vulcan Red.' I've read conflicting information about whether the bronze color will persist through the summer--I hope so. Also, being a hybrid, I wonder whether it will produce seeds, and, if it does, if they will have bronze or green leaves.

Lobelia speciosa 'Vulcan Red'

Last year, I had a few cardinal flowers planted outside my kitchen window with a few 'Black and Blue' salvia. It seems the hummingbirds enjoy both kinds of plant, and I enjoy sitting at the kitchen table watching them. I happened to be sitting at the kitchen table one morning with my cellphone within reach and was able to catch one of the little guys visiting. You'll have to look closely at the flowers just outside the window to see him. On this particular day, the salvia were clearly his favorite.

This year, both the salvia and the cardinal flowers have spread in that bed so I'm hoping he'll be back and bring all his friends!