Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Snake in the Garden

By Christina VanGinkel

Being outside in the garden always has its concerns, such as dealing with the sun and bugs, or weeks where it seems to rain endlessly, day after day. Pollen can be a big fear with many people too. This year, here in the Midwest, it seems like we have been dealing with all of the above to the extreme. Adding to those issues, it seems like we have more than our fair share of snakes this year.

Yesterday afternoon, I was out in our yard, and was across the garden itself, up by our dog pens. My husband has four Plot hounds, and while they all frequent the house often, they spend the majority of their time outside. I had just refilled each dog's water dish, as one of the four, Jed, has developed the habit of dumping his water bowl as soon as he is done with his current drink. This has made for several additional trips throughout the day to make sure that he has water at all times. Yes, we are working on a more permanent solution, but at six years old, he is in our opinion just acting out. As the largest of our dogs physically, he is the biggest baby of them all. He honestly believes he lives in our house. He spends more time with us than not, but when he must be in his pen he acts out! He figures if he dumps his bowl and sits with it in his mouth staring at the house, sooner rather than later, one of us will come out and see why he has flipped it once again.

Anyway, after watering Jed and our dog Oz, I was going to cut through a small trail to the backside of our two female dog's pens, Manta and Cricket, when I decided not too. I figured I would just walk along the edge of the yard, as wood ticks are still a problem and we are still steering clear of tall grass if we can. The trail that I would normally take is in need of a mowing and I figured it would be better to avoid it. I took about three steps away from Jed, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a snake. Let me clarify, I saw a huge snake!

I do not like snakes, big, small, no matter their size, I am one of those people who upon seeing even something that might be a snake, will scream and run. This one was a snake, it was obviously sunning itself, and it was, by my husband's estimation when he saw it, the widest, biggest snake he had ever seen. My husband works outside year round, and has more than seen his fair share of snakes, so when he said it was the widest, biggest snake he had ever seen, that was saying a lot. That I had walked by it to get to the dogs in the first place was not lost on my conscious either. We have so much pollen landing on the ground right now, our yard looks like it has just been snowed on. He was partially camouflaged by all of the white.

Being it is the digital age, I ran inside the house, grabbed my digital camera, snapped a few pictures, and quickly emailed them to my brother in Texas so he could tell me what type of snake it was. Not a snake expert, he is just the person I would normally ask such a question as this, as he just knows these things. Now nearly twenty-four hours later, none of us has been able to identify it, though my husband is almost positive it was just an oddly colored pine snake, as he said they are about the only snake native to our area that could possibly grow that big. I am still wondering if it were not some exotic snake that someone had as a pet, and when it grew as big as it did, someone let it go.

No matter where it came from though, it is already the fourth snake we have had in our yard, and it is not even summer yet. If we normally see one snake a year, that would be one too many, but four and counting has me a bit on edge.

If you are like us, and spend a lot of time outdoors this time of year enjoying your garden and yard, keep in mind that there are concerns such as these to be aware of. If snakes are a possible concern, be alert and walk where you have a clear view. Stay safe!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Take (or Teach) a Garden Class

By Christina VanGinkel

Garden centers and clubs often offer classes at this time of the year. You can usually sign up for various classes and courses ranging from how to create a container garden to environmentally friendly garden tips. You can often find courses through local colleges or extension offices also. Whether you are a beginner, just considering the many facets of gardening, be it growing a plot of flowers, to planting a vegetable garden able to supplement or sustain your family's groceries year round, or even somewhat of an expert in getting the ungrowable to grow, you will usually be able to find a class or course to enrich your gardening skills.

I happen to live not too far from a relatively new apple orchard that grows dwarf apple trees. They sell both apples and the trees themselves. They recently offered a class onsite that taught attendees how to plant, prune, and care for the dwarf trees. They offered a sack lunch and at the end of the day, all attendees were given a certificate to come back and pick up a fresh off the tree apple when they are ripe for picking! If there is any type of specially center such as this in your area, they might be able to offer you access to a unique class such as this, that you will not likely find elsewhere.

If none of these sources work out, either because they are not offering any classes at all, or just not in a field that you are interested in learning more about, you can also check online. A search for online gardening courses or online gardening classes will provide you with quite a selection to peruse. A few that we found included:

Creating a Living Wreath
Basic Landscape Design
Advanced landscape Design
Obtaining Continual Bloom in your Perennial Garden
Irrigation Basics
Plant Selection
Dealing with Diseases and Pests
Garden Basics
Designing and Creating Garden Structures that Work

This is of course just a small sampling of class titles that we found. There were many more on numerous garden subjects. If there is a garden topic that you are interested in learning more about, chances are you will be able to find a class locally or online that will provide all the information you could ever want or need to know on the subject.

If you happen to be knowledgeable about a particular aspect of gardening, maybe you could even offer a class of your own. Church groups and women's clubs are often more than happy to offer a class or two on gardening to their members. You could volunteer to teach the class, and to keep costs at a minimum, if you are going to help them create a container garden for example, have a list of needed supplies printed up ahead of time, and just ask that every attendee bring their own supplies. If you plan to charge a small fee, print up a flyer explaining what the cost will cover. This can be a great way to meet others who are interested in gardening as much as you are.

Other possibilities for teaching a class or course could include area nursing homes or extended living centers that try to keep their occupants as active as possible. They are often quite eager to have someone come in for a class on such a popular subject, or even a demonstration of some sort if a class would be a bit too much for the residents. If you are really energetic, you might even want to offer your services to a school. Even the youngest school aged children would love to learn about gardening. A simple project such as planting seeds in Styrofoam cups is a great way to introduce children to gardening and all of its wonders.

Whether you plan to attend a class, take one online, or venture out to teach and share what you know on this favored pastime, spring and the coming summer months are the perfect time of year for participating in anything garden related. Your knowledge can be put to immediate use most of the time and with fall just a few months away, now is also a good time to look ahead for classes that might be better taken or taught at that just as important time of the year for gardening.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dealing with Garden Pests, Including Deer, Rabbits, Cats, and Dogs

By Christina VanGinkel

Dealing with garden pests of the big variety is an issue that we deal with year after year. Deer, rabbits, even neighborhood cats and dogs, all cause damage to bushes, flower beds, and vegetable plots each year. Unlike pests of the sort that can be sprayed with an herbicide, dealing with these larger ones is not as clear-cut an issue.

Deer and turkey come into our yard and garden attracted by both the vegetables and flowers, but also to the many bird feeders that we have scattered about. If you think birds love black sunflower seeds, you should see a young doe the first time she discovers them! One way we initially dealt with this single issue was to raise the height of our feeders, but it did little to help. Deer will stand on their hind legs if it means reaching something as tempting as a feeder full of seed. Planting marigolds around the base of the poles seemed to help for a while, and I have heard many people swear that they keep deer away. I am sure in their instances they did, but the deer around us just step over them to get to what they want. As the plants wither, I have even seen deer munch on them. There are products though, in the form of pellets and sprays, that I have had luck with. A visit to any garden store, or feed mill, should offer you several choices from which to choose.

Fencing is another option for those of you who might not want to spray or place any pellets about, but the problem with fencing is twofold. It can be quite expensive to erect adequate fencing to keep the deer out of an area, even a space that is not overly large. Secondary to the cost issue though, is that fencing that will keep deer out is not always that pleasant to look at. If fencing is used, you might want to search for a type that will also keep out smaller animals such as rabbits and other small rodents. Otherwise, you will find yourself in the predicament of having to use a spray or some form of pellet that will deter these other smaller animals for having a buffet with your hard work as the centerpiece.

Keep in mind that there are many products available, made for deterring deer and other wildlife, that will not harm your plants, nor have any repugnant odor that people can smell. Some even are rain resistant, so once you apply them to your garden and yard, you will not have to do so again for several weeks or even in some instances months. Deerbusters Deer Repellant for example, is said to be rain resistant and last for up to three months before it needs to be reapplied. It is also said to keep away both deer and rabbits.

If you are having problems with cats and dogs coming into your space, using your gardens for litter boxes, or just for a good place to practice their digging, you might want to try Cat Scats. They are made of a weatherproof plastic, and you simply snap them apart and place them prickly side up in and around anywhere that seems to be attractive to cats. Cats will not want to scratch where they are at. While they do not normally need to be anchored in place, if you have a serious problem and feel that a cat may just brush them aside, anchors are included so that they cannot do that. These might also work with smaller dogs, but there is no real proof of that, just my own observation.

Keeping cats and dogs away, as well as deer, can sometimes be accomplished by adding items to the perimeter of your space that will blow in the wind and make noise. Plastic shopping bags tied so that they blow in the wind, wind chimes that are both loud and visual, etc., may all help to keep some of the critters away. If you have your own family dog, letting him roam the space as often as possible will also help to deter other stray dogs and cats from claiming your yard as their own.

Dealing with Mosquitoes

By Christina VanGinkel

With sprin's arrival, and temperatures warming up fast, time spent in the garden and yard is growing by leaps and bounds. At the same time, the population of mosquitoes is too! If you happen to have a pond in you garden or yard, that can exacerbate the issue. Instead of running for cover, and giving up your time spent outdoors enjoying the fresh air and relaxation of gardening and just the plain old taking pleasure in working out there, you will have to find a way to deal with the annoyance that if left unchecked, can be a real health hazard.

Mosquito Bits

If you have a pond, there are products that are biologically safe that can be added to the water to kill the larvae so the mosquitoes do not even have a chance to grow to the biting stage. Mosquito Bits is marketed as being environmentally sound. It is EPA registered in all 50 states, and is applied by sprinkling on any standing water. Be it a pond, or if you have small to moderate sized puddles in your yard or garden from heavy rains, this can be applied if you are concerned about the breeding population of mosquitoes growing there. Even smaller water gardens can be treated, as it will not harm the plants that you have growing there. It is said to work within twenty-four hours, for an effective treatment to once again make your garden and yard with water features once again a pleasure to be in.

Mosquito Dunks

Mosquito Dunks are used in a similar way to the Mosquito Bits, but they look like a small round donut. You drop them in the water of your ponds or standing water, and for the next thirty days, they will continue to work to kill off mosquito and black fly larvae. There marketing states that it will not affect fish, plants, any wildlife that visits the water, or people. It also states that even if some of the wet areas dry out, it will continue to work, and the effectiveness of the product will not be diminished.

Mosquito Sentinel

For hassle free mosquito protection on dry ground, many people are trying the Mosquito Sentinel. It looks like many of the propane type, mosquito control units, but it does not run on fuel, it ruins on electricity. It comes with a one hundred foot long cord, and is said to provide 360-degree protection for a space up to one half acre. The concept of the design is that through UV light, incandescent light, a heat source, and light frequencies with contrasting color patterns that were designed to attract mosquitoes, it then kills the mosquitoes when they approach. Dead mosquitoes are caught in a collection bag, which you empty as frequently as you would like. They recommend once monthly. The number of adult mosquitoes are said to be reduced by up to 87 percent when this unit is in use.

Other Products and Means

There are also many other products made for use in and around a yard and garden to keep mosquitoes away or to kill them before they develop. With mosquitoes the means by which many diseases travel, including heartworm that can be a serious, even deadly disease to our dogs and cats, and West Nile Virus to humans, finding a product or means to keep them at bay can be a serious and time consuming project. If you have any standing water, that is not an asset to your yard or garden, dump it out, or speed along the means of getting it to dry up naturally. If rains have caused standing water, create small trenches for the water to drain more efficiently. Walk around the space and make sure that no buckets or other containers were left out that water has pooled on, such as sheets of plastic left over from a pond project or from lining your gardens to keep weeds at bay.

With mosquitoes, the cause of the spread of such serious illnesses, taking all precautions available is serious business. Be sure to try to keep the conditions in your yard and garden as unfavorable for the growth and development of them as you can, and for those that make it to adulthood, find a means to keep them away, and to kill those that do make it through any deterrent you choose to use.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Recycle Some Whimsy for your Garden

By Christina VanGinkel

I have seen flowers planted in and on various objects in gardens and yards in a variety of ways, some that I shake my head at and wonder why I did not think to carry out such a creative design element in my own garden, and others that just make me shake my head! Recycled items used in unique ways are usually fun to incorporate into a garden space, especially if you are searching for a way to bring some whimsy into the space in a fun and economical way. Some work better than others, but all are at least worthy of considering. Ok, maybe the one I would pass on, but read on for some ideas to jumpstart your own.

One recyclable that always makes me wonder what they were thinking of is actually one that my own mother in law has in her yard, and that is an old toilet filled with flowers. I am a huge fan of recycling, I really am, but a toilet and flowers just do not provide an image that I can in any way find beauty in. However, I have seen quite a few old claw footed tubs, some rusting nearly away, others as glossy as they day they were new, filled to overflowing with flowers of all sorts, and they always make me smile.

Another creative recycling idea that I do like, and that shows off a bit of fun at the same time, is an old wheelbarrow tipped on its side, with flowers seeming to grow from the wheelbarrow of spilled dirt. Quite a few yards in the rural area that I live in, sport this, and I smile each time I see them. Other variations include a tipped bucket, a child's wagon, or a watering can. Each offers a difference in size, but all offers the same little bit of whimsy that is so welcome in most any garden. Annuals grow best in a display such as these, as the display piece itself can be packed away for the winter months to preserve it for future summers.

An old stump could also become a planter. The insides often start to rot away, leaving a perfect container like effect, yet in a stump that unless you are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to come and have removed, is probably not going anywhere for a long time to come. Therefore, the idea to fill it with flowers is as good a way to incorporate the otherwise unsightly feature into your yard or garden space as anything I could think of. I also saw one yard that had three trees that had been close together, which had been removed, but the stumps had been left inordinately high. I later saw that the homeowner had turned the three stumps into feeding platforms for the birds and squirrels! What a great idea and use for three otherwise dead trees.

Old wooden wheels have been decorating yards and garden for many years and they continue to be popular. Climbing plants can use their surface to cling to and grow up on. With this in mind, when I saw an old, abandoned gate, one quite figural in design, from a home long since deteriorated, I realized that it would make an ideal design element in a garden. It could be simply propped up, or even 'hung' between two trees to form a fun spot for sweet peas or some other floral climber to scale. Other recyclables that might be used in a similar manner could include an old wooden or metal framed chair, or a wooden ladder.

By incorporating whimsical recycled items into your garden, you are accomplishing two things at once. You are finding a use for an item that would otherwise most likely end up at the landfill, and you are almost assuredly bringing a smile to whoever is lucky enough to enjoy a glimpse of your garden. The next time you are heading to the trash or recycle bin with something, you might want to reconsider if that is where it belongs, or if it could be used in your garden to help you create a display that will bring a surprising element of fun to all who enter.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Creating a Container Garden

By Christina VanGinkel

Gardening is something that many people just take for granted. They have a large back yard or acreage in abundance, where they can plot and plan for everything from vegetables, to flowers, or even an orchard if that is their desire. Those same people may someday find themselves living in a small apartment, or in a locale, that putting in even a small garden just is not applicable. There may be no land to speak of, just a plot of cement, or there may be a spot that might seam ideal for a small garden, but a landlord may not want the grass dug up to make room for one. Thankfully, this does not mean that those who might find themselves in these positions have to give up gardening completely. Container gardening is always an option, and can be done in the smallest apartments, on a patio, or even on a tiny balcony or windowsill if need be. Remember that if you create your container garden inside, that drainage is still an issue, so be sure to place all of your containers into a secondary container to catch the water. Oversized cookie sheets work well to gatherer several small or one larger container on.

First, assess how much space you do have. A single windowsill can support quite a few small containers. Consider space you might otherwise overlook, such as a cement or brick patio, windowsills, or space in front of a window. Containers can be anything from discarded coffee cups and bowls, to empty coffee cans, old boots, an empty teapot, or unused watering can, even an old discarded drawer. I once came across the drawers from an old library cabinet at an estate sale, the sort that held the cards. Each drawer was only a couple of inches wide, but about eighteen inches long. They fit perfectly in a windowsill. To be sure, that drainage was not a problem, I used a double layer of bowl covers, the kind that stretch to fit any cover and have a band of elastic around the edge. They pull up snug around just about any shape container. I am still regretting not picking up every single one they had instead of the couple that I did. I was at first concerned with the fact that the wood might rot quickly, but I used clear plastic and lined the interior of each before I filled them with dirt. I still used a layer of newspaper in the bottom of each to cut down on soil loss, and drilled through the plastic liner and the bottom of each in several spots to allow good drainage. While I realize the wood is still more susceptible to not lasting as long as say, a ceramic coffee cup, the size, and shape outweigh this fact, and I know I will still get several good years of use out of each of them by just taking a bit of care.

Just about any small or mid sized items are workable, as long as the item is capable of holding soil, and if need be, allow drainage holes to be drilled. If you have a spot big enough to situate it, you can have a successful container garden. Be sure not to use a container that is overly large if moving the container will be a concern in the future though. If you are renting for example, and will want to be able to easily move the garden, keep this fact under careful consideration as you plan you garden.

As important as the issue of space, is being sure of what it is you want to grow. A wide variety of plants will grow well in containers, even very small ones. Several varieties of tomatoes will grow exceptionally well in a container, as long as there is adequate soil and drainage. Some herbs grow well in very limited space, as will most flowers and vegetables. Other than some shrubbery and larger trees, you can grow almost any plant you want too. My mother had an assortment of small dwarf fruit trees in her apartment for years. If you want to grow a garden but space has been an issue, do not let it be an issue a single day more. Create your own container garden, and enjoy tending your garden the same as if you had acres of land to plant!