Half baked

Friends, I’m hiding indoors until this heat wave passes.

 
I have much to do in the garden, but it will have to wait. It hasn’t rained in weeks, and the ground is cracked open wide. I miss the summers of my childhood, when it seldom reached 90 degrees and almost every evening, it seemed, brought a soothing, cooling thunderstorm. Lately I’ve been catching the dish-rinsing water in a pan and running outside to relieve the container plants from their exhausted state.
Since I remain indoors, my patio umbrella shades the tomatoes and squash from the midday sun. Providing some shade can help your vegetables struggle through the hottest days and last longer into the season, but keep making succession sowings and keep those plants well mulched and watered.

Talk to you soon, my friends. I need a frosty beverage.

Trash into treasure: Decorating with weeds

Holiday decorations from the garden delight me in ways other ornaments can’t. I’d rather have pots of forced bulbs, a Christmas cactus, or fresh garlands of mixed greenery than anything else. Well, except for a tree.

It is not in my nature to decline a free giveaway, so when the gentlemen at the tree lot offered scrap trimmings (all I could cart away!), and my spouse was preoccupied with tying the tree to the car’s roof, I grabbed an armload. I kept them in a bucket of water on the deck until I discerned a future for them.

Yesterday, armed with a paddle of florist’s wire and a pair of hand pruners, I crafted a garland for our mailbox.

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It began as an 8-foot-long rope of Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), wired together from cuttings 18 inches long or so, and annotated with silver wired ribbon. But it suffered acute dullness.

Pondering what might give it some verve, I remembered the cardinal rule to add texture. And what luck; I have never, in the ten years I’ve lived here, conquered the English ivy (Hedera helix) that I inherited on closing day. So I yanked up a few yards’ worth and tucked them in amidst the fir. In the winter, the marbling of the leaves seems more pronounced.

A march around the garden yielded leaves of Magnolia grandiflora, seedlings of privet (Ligustrum) and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and clippings of Nandina domestica‘s leaves and berries.

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I uprooted an entire plant of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ that has never done well. Off with its evergreen heads, and into the mix they went. They drooped quickly, but no one driving by will notice.

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Not bad for compost-in-waiting, I think.

(Lady) Beetlemania

We’re heading into winter—some of us in the US more than others–which means that you may soon find Asian lady beetles (commonly known as lady bugs) on your windows and in your light fixtures. Although they can be a nuisance, and can stink and stain surfaces if they’re crushed, they don’t do any harm. They’re just looking for a slightly protected space to hibernate.

Asian lady beetles. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Extension, http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/insects/find/multicolored-asian-lady-beetles/

The Asian lady beetles are roughly a quarter-inch long, but their appearance varies. Their forewings may be yellow, orange, beige, or bright red. Ten black spots typically decorate each forewing, but it’s not uncommon for the beetles to have fewer spots, faded spots, or no spots at all. In the spring and summer, these lady beetles prey on aphids and scale insects, benefitting home horticultural and commercial agricultural crops alike. Cooling temperatures signal to adult lady beetles that it’s time to find a protected site where they can spend the winter.

There’s A Place

The lady beetles favor warm and sunny sides of buildings, as well as exposed, light-colored buildings, but any protected location offers some appeal. They may move indoors through cracks in weather stripping, or small gaps around window and door casings or through attic and soffit vents.

I’ll Be Back

You may have noticed that beetles frequently pick the same sites to overwinter. Research suggests that the beetles use chemical cues, possibly from beetle feces or attractant pheromones, to locate the particular crevice they want to inhabit, whether that’s in a tree or in your siding. Although they may seem to permanently inhabit, say, your overhead kitchen light fixture, they actually can’t survive for long periods within the centrally-heated rooms of your house. They prefer to shelter in wall voids or semi-insulated spaces. But they become more active on warm days and move towards bright surfaces, like light-colored walls or ceilings, or lighting fixtures or windowsills. That’s when you notice them.

It’s possible that large numbers of beetles may cause air quality problems indoors that could trigger allergies and/or asthmatic reactions. But fortunately for allergy sufferers, this lady beetle does not reproduce indoors. When the warmer temperatures of spring come around, they’ll move outside in search of food. And they don’t eat wood, so they won’t cause structural damage to your house or to your furniture.

Lady beetles clustered in doorframe. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University IPM. http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/icm/2007/3-26/asianladybeetle.html

If You’ve Got Trouble Here, There, and Everywhere, and Think It’s All Too Much, Remember All Things Must Pass. And I’m Here to Help.

What can you do to control the invasion?

You Can’t Do That

Don’t reach for the pesticides. You’ll waste your money. Pesticides are not very effective at halting beetle invasions. Spraying and fogging can be hazardous to your and your pets’ health, and excessive use may present fire hazards. Biological controls, like tachnid flies, offer limited effectiveness.

Blacklight traps can catch beetles well in some situations. USDA scientists in Georgia developed a trap that uses no insecticide and it catches the beetles alive for future release or disposal. The trap is about 12″ x 24″ and reportedly can be easily assembled or disassembled. Learn how you can build your own blacklight trap following the USDA’s instructions.

She Came In Through the Bathroom Window

The best approach is to exclude the beetles. Seal around windows, doors, siding, and fascia boards with caulk, weather stripping, or foam sealers. Snugly-fitting sweeps or thresholds on exterior doors can prevent beetles from crawling through those gaps. Keep your window screens in good condition and consider adding insect screens to attic and soffit vents. And as a bonus, doing those things will prevent cold air leaking into your house, saving you money on your heating bills and conserving energy.

Some people vacuum up the beetles. If you like this idea, try a tactic recommended by Dr. Susan Jones of The Ohio State University: Insert a knee-high nylon stocking into the vacuum’s extension hose and secure it with a rubber band. Then reattach the hose and vacuum up the insects. The beetles will be trapped inside the stocking. Remove the rubber band and secure it around the open end of the stocking, or simply tie a knot in the end. Take them outdoors to a protected space under a porch, deck, or shed, and let them hibernate there. In the spring, release them into your garden near aphid-infested plants. If the stocking approach is too much trouble, just use your regular vacuum bag, but be sure to remove it promptly and dispose of it outdoors.

 

For more information:

Controlling flea beetles in the fall garden (help wanted)

I didn’t get row cover on my beans in time this spring, and the flea beetles found me.

tired beans

Flea beetle is something of a catch-all term used to describe several species of beetles (not all of the same genera), all of which are tiny (1/16 to 1/10 of an inch long), that live in the soil and cause mayhem in North American gardens. They adore feeding on your vegetable plants, and can reduce a favorite crop to smithereens if not dealt with promptly. One treatment won’t suffice: They can produce four generations or so in a warm-climate growing season. Overwintering adults typically emerge when temperatures hit about 50 degrees (10 C). In recent years, it’s been 50 degrees at Christmas.

Here is my quandary: Their preferred cuisine is cruciferous, which happens to be what I need to get planted soon. Most winters are mild enough here that greens and root crops may be harvested year-round if grown under horticultural fabric, but that means getting seedlings and transplants off to a good start, starting now.

Row covers can be effectively employed to exclude flea beetles from pristine soil, but (clearly) that’s not what I have. Installing row cover where an infestation has already occurred just traps the beetles inside, keeping them safe from predators while they devour your spinach. Row cover must be sealed tightly all the way around to be effective, by the way.

Trap crops come highly recommended. “Plant a crop of mustard greens!” the gardening literature exhorts. Alas, the trap crops are what I want to eat this winter. Kale, collards, mustard greens, broccolini, radishes, tatsoi, arugula. These are the seed packets sitting on my desk, awaiting my decision. I fear that planting a trap crop, even far away (relatively speaking) from the vegetable bed, will only encourage more of the little punks to move in and feast upon everything in sight.

The garden literature also recommends scouting newly planted beds and counting the beetles as they arrive. This presumes the gardener can count insects best differentiated from dirt with a hand lens before they jump to the safety of the earth. Anyone who has brushed against a plant infested with flea beetles has seen a spray of tiny bugs fleeing the scene of the crime. Who can possibly count them in situ? Even if the gardener manages to hunker silently down and get a view of the action, must she hold her breath to avoid disturbing them? What if she needs to sneeze? (It’s fall pollen season, you know.)

Flea Beetle Management for Canola, Rapeseed, and Mustard in the Canadian Northern Great Plains. Graphic by the Government of Saskatchewan.

I don’t want to spray if I can avoid it. I have been known to pull out the neem oil from time to time, but it’s only moderately effective against flea beetles.

What to do, then?

Possible solutions to flea beetle infestation

I’m tempted to try one or a combination of the following. Have you had success with any of these?

1. Diatomaceous earth. DE is a fine powder made of fossilized remains of diatoms, a kind of algae. When used as an insecticide, the powder absorbs components of the waxy coating of insects’ exoskeletons and causes them to dehydrate. It’s critical to obtain food-grade DE for this application to be effective.

2. Interplanting with garlic. Garlic is a moderately effective insect repellant when sprayed on plant surfaces. I have to plant my garlic somewhere; I suppose it may as well go between my rows of kale.

3. Parasitic nematodes. To read about parasitic nematodes is to discover another of Mother Nature’s horror shows. Employing them can be a bit tricky, because the gardener must get the correct kinds of nematodes (families Steinernematidae and Heterorhabditidae, and some species are picky about who they infect); time the application to coincide with a larval stage of the target species; and keep the soil moist, not too hot, and not too cold.  On the plus side, they don’t infect birds or mammals.

Parasitic nematodes. Photo by Penn State University Extension.

Given my warm climate, and extrapolating unscientifically from the graphic above, I guess I might be able to interrupt a larval cycle if I went out tomorrow and applied the nematodes…maybe?

Please send your advice, post-haste.

Dear Friend and Gardener: June 27, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

It was another hot and dry week in the garden. I fed the beans with some nettle tea to perk them up. I’m starting to see flea beetle damage but the plants are big enough to be able to withstand it, I think. I have also sown a second crop elsewhere in the garden in case these do surrender their fight before long.

The tomatoes are showing signs of ripening, particularly the Principe Borgheses. I am so ready for them! I love dried tomatoes, particularly in the dead of winter, but have never tried drying any of my own. Another kitchen adventure awaits. The basil tastes splendid and there is plenty of it.

I noticed a little mildew on one of my honeyberries the other day. I shall spray it with a little milk spray if it gets truly bad, but I’m willing to let a lot go for the sake of avoiding toxic sprays. It doesn’t look terrible unless you get up close, and if you get that close, well, you shouldn’t be walking on my garden beds to begin with.

I transplanted a few Blue Hubbard squash seedlings sown from the packets I got at the seed library. I have heard that nasturtiums planted with squash will help deter squash bugs. Do you know if this is true?

Hope your garden is giving you joy and lots of tomatoes.

Best,

Amy

 

 

 

Wood sorrel: Turning my garden into public grazing lands?

Waiting for the school bus a couple of weeks ago, my neighbor’s son wandered over to a patch of weeds and plucked up a handful.

“What are you doing?” my daughter asked. “Are you eating weeds?!”

“It’s wood sorrel,” said the boy. “It’s good. It tastes sour, kind of lemony.”

Wood sorrel

Wood sorrel, Oxalis stricta

Wood sorrel is a member of the genus Oxalis. It is edible, if you go for that sort of thing. The leaves, seed pods, and flowers are all safe to eat raw or cooked. My neighbor’s son likes the seed pods especially: “We call them sour bananas.”

The plant is high in vitamin C. It also has diuretic properties and is high in potassium oxalate and oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is a compound also found in grapefruit, parsley, broccoli, spinach, and many other vegetables. While it’s unlikely that anyone would consume enough wood sorrel to suffer any toxic effects from the oxalic acid, people with kidney disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout should avoid consuming oxalis until they consult with a medical professional.

Have I stumbled upon a new means of organic weed management? I envision herds of grazing children, replacing their favorite Sour Patch Kids with this weed that proliferates in my garden. More likely, I’ve found a new phenological cue: “When you see the children grazing, the sorrel is setting seed.” This reminds me that I had clearly better get to the weeding, unless I hope to find even more of the stuff in my garden beds next year.

By the way, my daughter knows not to eat anything in the garden without first checking with me. Encourage your kids to check with you before eating wild plants–even if their friends do it.

For more information:

Know thine enemy: Common weeds to know

Here’s a terrific chart of common weeds, by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Get to know the weeds that make their homes in your garden. The more you know about them, including their life cycles and reproductive habits, the more weapons you have with which to thwart them.

And please, avoid using chemical weed controls. They can be toxic to pollinators, including bees and butterflies, and can persist in the soil for very long periods of time. Mulch and other methods of weed control are more sustainable, and healthier for you, your family, your pets, and the environment over the long term.

 

Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium fistulosum