Thursday, September 28, 2006

More Gifts for the Gardener on your Holiday List

By Christina VanGinkel

Last December, I shared with you a short list of ideas suitable for the gardener on your holiday shopping list. With the holidays once again coming around, I thought it only prudent that this year I gather a list to share with you a bit earlier in the season. This way, you have a better chance of finding those hard to find items that you would really love to give, all while there are still store shelves stocked with all the great ideas your gardener could both use and appreciate when they find them tucked under the tree or stuffed into a stocking. If you love to garden yourself, you might even find a few gifts in the list that you will want all for yourself, so be sure to shop early for the best selection of all these fine ideas.

Solar Lights

Solar Lights can be a great gift, as they not only allow the gardener on your list the opportunity to enjoy their gardens longer into the evening, there are no more additional costs involved with them such as high electric bills.

Mini Greenhouse

A mini greenhouse would be the ideal gift for either a beginning gardener or an older gardener who can no longer garden large scale but would still love to participate even if it is to a much smaller extent than they are use to.

Fancy Bulbs, Hand Tools, Gardening Gloves

An assortment of bulbs that they can plant in the spring of a variety that they would want, but have avoided due to cost. This same holds true for those fancy pair of gardening gloves, or that deluxe set of hand tools. Fancy, but a bit costly. These could be a perfect gift for that gardener who loves nice things but is so unwilling to spend any money where they themselves are concerned, even for things that will enhance such a loved hobby.

Coffee Table Books about Flowers

Big, beautiful coffee table book of flowers to keep the color going even when their garden is buried beneath several feet of snow! Some titles that are sure to bring smiles to their face as they open the pages Christmas morning could include R is for Rose by Carolyn Parker, or the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Orchids, edited by Alec Pridgeon, and with a foreword by Alasdair Morrison.

Garden Themed Gift Basket

A basket filled with note cards, seed packets, jarred gifts of food from your own garden, hand towels with a garden theme stitched across the fronts, kneepads, small thermometer, butterfly house, and other small garden themed gifts. Tucked together in a little basket, this would make a great gift to help your favorite gardener while away the hours of winter until the first thaw of spring when they can get outdoors once again.

Nature Journal

Give the gift of journaling to your favorite gardener during the holidays. When snow is piling up high, or the temperatures are just to cool to be out in the dirt, they can put pen to page to make note of all their ideas for once spring has arrived. If your gardener is of a serious nature, choose a sophisticated journal that is both helpful and has room to spare for their own notes. One such journal that is full of both is The Successful Gardening Journal: A Seasonal Diary for Your Garden is published by the Reader's Digest Association Inc. For the more freethinking gardener, a handcrafted journal made from an 8" x 8" scrapbook with an assortment of lined, flower, and nature themed papers would be a splendid gift.

Personal Gift Set

Various companies promote soap and creams for the outdoor enthusiast with a few even targeting the dirt and grime that accompanies being a gardener. One of my favorite such companies that also makes an impressive gift set of the products they make is Burt's Bees. They have a Gardener's Tote, which includes Burt's very own Hand Salve, Lemon Butter Cuticle Creme, Dr. Burt's Res-Q-Ointment, and Beeswax Lip Balm. Be prepared to have your favorite gardener ask you to replace all of these fine items as they use them up though, because they work wonderfully at keeping skin and lips protected and clean from the rugged outdoor work of digging in the garden under the hot summer sun.

Buck Garden

Last summer, I planted a garden in buckets. It wasn't really in buckets, though. It was really in window boxes. I only call it a buck garden because my great grandmother used to plant garden plants in big huge multi-gallon buckets outside her house. So I affectionately called my garden a bucket garden, even though it was not in buckets. When I told my mom this, she thought it was great. She had remembered going to her grandmother's farm and seeing her grandma's bucket garden. She also remembered the great food that came from these buckets! So I hoped that my window box garden would be just as good!

I got about thirteen of these huge window boxes from Wal-Mart and about that many bags of potting soil. I thought that food plants would grow great in potting soil, and planting my garden in buckets would ensure that there would be fewer weeds and less animals and bugs to eat my pants than if I planted it in the soil behind my house. The window boxes cost quite a bit more than buckets would have, but I thought that it would be a good investment, because I would be able to plant rows of things and I would also be able to use these window boxes year after year in order to make great gardens where I lived. So I went ahead and bought them, even though they cost a little bit of money. My mom had offered me a bunch of buckets to use, but I decided to try the window boxes and see what I could get from them.

Next, I bought seeds. I wasn't sure what kind of plants would grow in window-boxes, so I got a little bit of everything. I didn't want to be disappointed with no food whatsoever, but I also didn't want to not know what worked for next year. I wanted this past summer to be a practice, and a trial run, to see what kinds of things would grow the best in my "buckets". I got every type of seed that I would have wanted to plant in my real garden, and I also bought a bunch of actual plants to help me along. I purchased quite a few tomato plants and pepper plants, as well as plants for the bigger things, cucumbers and zucchinis.

I planted one type of seed in each window box, in rows and left them on the sidewalk in front of our house. I made sure to take out the plugs in the bottom of the window boxes, so that the water would drain out of the soil eventually and I wouldn't flood out my fruits and veggies. I lined them up so that they were neat looking in front of the house, and also so that they were accessible from the garden hose.

I watered them religiously every single day, and I was sure to properly weed them and thin them as the plants came up. I was very diligent, and I worked hard to make sure that I was going to have a good harvest! I had to water my plants multiple times a day during this past summer, because it got very hot where I live. So, I watered them and I weeded them, and I waited for my plants to come up! It was easy to do, because they were in plain site, and I didn't have to go into the backyard, or get down on my hands and knees in the dirt. My whole garden was right there next to my flowerbeds, and it worked out wonderfully!

Everything came up, I'm proud to say. I didn't have any seeds that didn't make plants. In fact, because I had used a whole package of seeds in each window box, I ended up with a LOT of plants. I had to thin them out in order to see if I would get any fruits and veggies. But there was where my problem was.

I did have a problem with the plants making food. For some reason, I didn't get a single bean or pea at all, even thought I had multiple window boxes full of healthy bean and pea plants. They just never made food, and I still don't know why. I don't know if the root structure wasn't deep enough, of if being isolated from other types of plants made it so that food wouldn't grow on the plants... I just don't know. Perhaps I didn't thin out the rows enough, and they were crowded. However, it just happened that I didn't get any beans or peas. So I probably won't try those again next year! Maybe I can figure out why, and make a change, but if not, well, at least I tried!

I did get lots of carrots and onions, but the window boxes weren't very deep, so they were tiny. I was able to eat them and enjoy them, but they weren't very big! There simply wasn't enough soil for them to get as big as they would have in the ground. Next summer I will get deeper window boxes and make sure that I put the seeds closer to the top. This will ensure that I get bigger foods! I will also put more soil in next year, because I kind of skimped on the soil this year. So I will fill them fuller and put the seeds closer to the top on the plants that have to grow down!

The things that grew best were my tomatoes and my peppers. These plants yielded multiple fruits during the summer. I had so many tomatoes that I didn't know what to do with them. I'm not really good at canning, so a few of them even went to waste. I was able to give lots of tomatoes to people and share my peppers with them, and my hot peppers really got hot! I really succeeded as far as tomatoes and peppers went.

But it was a good thing to grow my own food and be able to eat it. That was the most important thing that I learned a lot about this summer. I think it was a great idea, and I'm going to do it again next year, with a few alterations. I really enjoyed having this garden because it taught me an awful lot about gardening in general.

Lots of stuff went right, and there are lots of reasons to have a garden in window boxes. In fact, yes, the weeds were much less in the window boxes. Its pretty windy here, so a few weed seeds blew and there were a few things growing in the window boxes that I had to pull out in order to keep my plants healthy. But there was nowhere near the amount of weeds that I would have had to deal with had I planted my garden in the ground outside of my yard. We've done that before, and spent most of the summer weeding the garden instead of enjoying it!

Also, buckets made the plants a lot easier to take care of. Also, they were a lot easier to water, because I lined them up on my sidewalk, so when my flowerbeds got water, so did my garden. They were in the front of the house, and I could see them from my kitchen window, so I never forgot about watering the garden or left it unattended. It was also easy to have people come over and water the garden when we went out of town.

I think it was better for the plants that I used potting soil as well. They were able to get much larger and make more fruits and veggies for me because of the good quality of soil I used. I also did not have to use any chemicals because there wasn't a need for chemicals. Using potting soil might sound excessive, because, after all, there is plenty of dirt in the ground, but potting soil really made my garden grow better, and I am sure that I will use it again next year.

One thing I learned however, was that I didn't put enough soil in. The window boxes weren't full enough, so some of the fruits and veggies couldn't grow as well as they should be able to grow. Next year I will be sure to change this and I will have an even better garden than I did this year ! This is something that I will be sure to change.

I will also change the types of plants that I use. I didn't get any cucumbers or zucchinis, so I will not plant those again. However, I will plant more lettuce and broccoli and spinach, because those all came up pretty nicely. As I have said, I will use more soil and plant onions and peppers and radishes in deeper soil so they grow better.

I will change a few things, to be sure, but I will also keep some of the things the same. I will have a window box garden, and I will be sure to call it my bucket garden. After all, it's family tradition, right?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Planting Bulbs in the Fall

As September draws to a close, most of us are turning our minds away from the idea of gardening and are resigned to the fact that we won't be thinking green until warm weather rolls around again. But wait- don't put away the trowels and fertilizer just yet. The fact is, there's still another month left before your gardening duties are done. Fall is the perfect time to plant spring-blooming flower bulbs so that they'll bloom beautifully just when the weather begins to warm again.

Any seasoned gardener will tell you that now is the time to be planting some of the most beautiful flowers that nature has to offer. In fact, many flower buffs love this time of year because it gives them a chance to fill their gardens with spring-blooming flowers to be enjoyed next year. Some flowers that are designed for fall planting include daffodils, narcissus, tulips, crocus and snowdrops.

If you're new to the idea of fall bulb planting and you're wondering how to get started, the information here will help.

Most stores and plant nurseries put their fall-planting bulbs on display weeks in advance- usually in mid to late August, when it's truthfully much too hot to begin fall planting. While the ideal time for planting bulbs varies greatly by area, there are a few basic rules you can follow to help determine the correct time for you to plant in your state. The bulbs will need to be placed in soil that is around 60 degrees Farenheit six inches under the ground, so you'll need to do a little research to find out when that time will be in your particular climate. Generally speaking, cooler states should plant in September while gardeners in warm states can often wait until the end of December. Ask the employees at your local nursery for a recommended planting date in your area for the greatest chance of success.

If you do miss your recommended planting date, your bulbs can still be put into the ground- as long as the soil is not frozen solid. Do keep in mind that if you plant bulbs late, they will take longer to bloom and may not produce as many flowers or grow as tall as expected.

When buying bulbs for fall planting, choose carefully. The bulbs need to be in good shape so that you're sure to get a successful crop of flowers next year. Avoid bulbs that are shedding "dust" or that look especially dried out and tired, or those that show signs of mold. This can mean that it's an old bulb... and dust can even be a sign that the bulb has insects living inside it. You should also take care to avoid bulbs that have large stems already growing out of them; a small sprout is okay, but large stems aren't supposed to appear until spring, and planting bulbs such as these will result in a weaker plant (or none at all). Remember too that larger bulbs produce larger flowers, so pick your bulbs according to the size of flowers you're trying to grow.

Finally, don't forget that bulbs should be firm to the touch- squeeze them gently and make sure that you're not leaving a thumb print in the bulb when you do so. Bulbs that are too soft have already started to decay and will rot in the ground once planted.

Once you've selected your bulbs and the proper planting time has rolled around, it's time to get your hands dirty. Plant fall bulbs in loosely aerated soil- try turning over the flower bed with a pitchfork before you begin. Once the soil is ready, you can simply start planting. For best results, plant each bulb individually with the pointed end up. Bury each one three to four times deeper than its own height. As a general rule, keep three to six inches between bulbs, depending on their size. The larger the bulb, the more space it will need around it.

Cover the bulbs with a light layer of mulch once you've planted- this will help keep them warm as well as protect the soil from weeds in the coming months and in the early spring. You should also water the bulbs lightly to help start root production. Add fertilizer if you so desire.

As the winter months set in, the bulbs will have plenty of time to develop strong roots, and the period of cold months to come will provide the bulbs with the time they need to complete the biochemical processes required for flowering. With a little luck and attention to detail, you'll be rewarded in the springtime with the first- and healthiest- flowers of the season.
-by bjp

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Nuts to Black Walnuts

Majestic mature trees are one of the delights of the established neighborhood in which I live. Maples, oaks, conifers, and elms line the streets. In my own yard stands an ailing Siberian Elm that is at least a hundred years old. It will most likely be standing long after the current residents of the neighborhood are gone. No one wants it cut down as long as the old girl still shows signs of life. I think of my self as a "tree hugger" who feels trees older than I am should be able to live out their natural lives. I do not mind raking leaves or trimming branches because the beauty of mature trees adds elegance to my neighborhood that cannot be duplicated in even the most exclusive of new home developments. I even live in an area that participates in the "Tree City USA Community" program that is sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation, U.S. Forest Service and others. It is because I have such appreciation for trees that my current search for a chain saw is so disturbing.

Towering over my back yard is a mature black walnut tree which dwarfs the nearby utility pole. I have yet to assess exactly how tall this tree is as its branches extend well into the two properties adjoining mine. Gracing my front yard is another, less mature black walnut tree. It merely towers over my house. It is these trees that I seek to destroy. I don't want to merely cut them down; I want to remove any and all of the root systems that may be located in my yard. Why you ask am I obsessed with destroying these two towering beauties? Because black walnut trees are the evilest of all plant life to an avid gardener. I have not come to this conclusion lightly, but after gardening around black walnut trees for six years, I know it to be true. Black Walnuts (Juglans Nigra L.) range in height from 70-150 feet and a diameter of 2-4 feet. See "Black Walnut" ( These trees are toxic to a large number of ornamental annuals and perennials, trees and shrubs. Along with its cousin, the butternut (Juglans Cinerea L.), black walnuts' emit a chemical compound called juglone which causes yellowing, wilting and eventual death to plants sensitive to the compound. Juglone occurs naturally in all parts of the black walnut but the largest concentrations are found in the walnut buds, nut hulls and root system. See "Black Walnut Toxicity" (

A zone of toxicity exists around black walnut trees due to the emission of juglone from the root system and to a lesser extent from the leaves and twigs. The zone is 50 to 60 feet from the trunk of a mature tree. See "Walnut Toxicity" Home Grown MSU Extension-Livingston County. Take a 100 foot ball of twine, tie it around the base of the tree trunk, and measure out 50-60 feet in a circle completely around the tree. If the branches of the black walnut extend past this circle, extend your circle to include those areas under the tree branch. This is your zone of toxicity and plants which are sensitive to juglone will not thrive and will most likely die if planted in this area. The root system of the black walnut tree causes most of the damage but the nuts, leaves and twigs from the tree will also poison sensitive plants.

My current homestead is not my first experience with a black walnut tree. My last home's backyard was graced with a black walnut that by its' size must have been close to one hundred years old. It was there I learned the joy of being pelted by green shell husks as hard as, but larger, than golf balls. I learned the pounding on the roof was not a hail storm but merely the nuts falling from their branches. Black walnuts are covered by a hard, thick, green husk which has an unpleasant odor and stains anything it comes in contact with. A favorite of squirrels, these husks are ready for harvest in August. Immature husks can be found, or felt, as early as late June or July.

I attempted to adapt and tried to harvest the nuts which are reputed to be excellent in desserts. First you need to collect the husks which smell, stain and are impossible to break. Some books recommend driving a car over them. Then you get to the nut shell. It also stains both your hands and your clothing. If it is not infested with insects, the nut must be cured and watched for mold. Then you get to try and break its' shell. I was not successful in harvesting black walnuts.
I also discovered you use the leaves of a black walnut tree as mulch at your own risk. Prior to learning of the existence of juglone, I shredded the fallen black walnut leaves and utilized them as both mulch and an ingredient in a compost "soup". I was starting a garden in the front yard from scratch in rocky soil and could not afford a truckload of topsoil. I mixed leaves that had sat in the yard for months with ground organic matter from the kitchen and rainwater. I used this mixture to fertilize perennials I had purchased at a local nursery for a quarter apiece. The plants were immature, but were supposed to be fast growing, self-sowing perennials suitable for my climate. My garden stagnated. I repeatedly checked the sun exposure, moisture, and other gardening factors. I finally attributed the lack of growth in my garden to the immaturity of the plants and waited for the next growing season.

Meanwhile I found out about juglone. I removed all of my organic much, and replaced it with bagged topsoil and commercial mulch. I stopped composting any of the leaves from my yard for fear of contamination from the black walnut leaves. The next year my front yard garden bloomed and thrived. The back yard was home to a black walnut tree and a smattering of grass. Only Kentucky bluegrass thrives under black walnut trees but I had not put down new seed yet.

Researchers claim black walnut leaves can be composted because" the toxin breaks down when exposed to air, water and bacteria. The toxic effect can be degraded in two to four weeks." "Black Walnut Toxicity to Plants, Humans and Horses HYG-1148-93" Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet. This same research claims mulch from the bark is safe after six months. I disagree since the compost I used had been exposed to the elements for a time period exceeding four weeks. As is noted in "Walnut and It's Toxicity Explored" Cornell Cooperative Extension/Yates County by Tom Rood, the safety of black walnut byproducts in compost or mulch is debated. Unless you have the technical tools to chemically test for juglone in your compost or mulch, I think you use composted black walnut leaves or mulch at your own risk, or rather your garden's risk.

I moved to my new home with dreams of rhododendrons, hydrangeas, roses and columbine all of which are juglone sensitive plants that I could not grow in my old garden. The black walnut tree at my old house had a trunk diameter of at least three feet and only the Siberian Elm in my new front yard exceeded two feet. Roses grew on the side of the house so I grew excited about all the new gardening possibilities I had before me. Come fall a large green husk fell on my head in the back yard. I laughed, realizing my escape from the evil black walnut curse had not been complete. This black walnut tree is located in the rear of my yard surrounded by mulberry trees which are compatible with black walnuts. The area is deep shade even on the sunniest days so I planted hosta plants which are juglone tolerant and I had intended to do anyways. I have a sunny area near my rear door so luckily my herbs do not seem to be affected whatsoever by juglone. I had to give up on blueberries and tomatoes but lettuce and carrots grow just fine. I still planned for my flowering shrubs and perennial assortment for the front yard and even started planning where I could put a blueberry bush. I was in denial.

A neighbor told me he thought the tree next to the Siberian elm was a black walnut tree. He told me husks fell on his drive all fall. I couldn't see the tell tale green husks that identify a black walnut so I assumed the husks had been brought by squirrels from the tree in the rear of the lot. I spent my time regrading the front area near the house and redefining and enlarging the garden area. I spent large amounts of time tearing out the overgrown ivy and planning my garden space. I intended to buy mature plants to give the entry area a finished look but my budget and the weather required me to wait another planting season.

Come spring I located all the tulips that had been scattered around the front garden (tulips are said to be juglone sensitive) and looked forward to planting. It was not until my first purchase, a Cinquefoil, suddenly wilted and died that I suspected my neighbor was correct. At first I still could not locate any walnuts. I took a branch sampling and compared it to the tree in the back yard. They were suspiciously similar. I still did not want to believe but I did stop investing in mature shrubs. Over the summer I tried whatever plant was on sale. Some lived, some died. In August, a pair of binoculars confirmed what I had been trying not to see, the dreaded green husks hanging from the tree in my front yard. This house not only had one black walnut tree, it had two. I was in gardening hell.
Time has passed and I have researched plants that are not sensitive to juglone. None of the plants I had dreamed of are on the list and most confusing is trying to choose shrubs which are not susceptible to juglone. Yews are out, barberry in. I am waiting to see if my daffodils will bloom. Some are juglone sensitive. The bunch that was planted near the tree of death formed buds which were then stunted and did not bloom. Some of the fifty daffodils I planted bloomed; others formed no buds at all. I am waiting until spring. Maybe they were immature bulbs.

I have an area that is sheltered from both trees and their roots and it is there both my climbing roses and traditional rose bush thrive. It is a self contained bed between the drive and the house and is already at capacity. I am thankful for this small area and I keep a watch for any part of a black walnut tree which drifts near it and immediately remove any suspicious leaf or twig not to mention walnut. The landscape plan for the rest of the yard is limited to those plants not sensitive to juglone. But don't think I have totally given up on removing these trees from my life. I know the black walnuts are too large for me to remove with a chain saw but for a price you can hire tree services to do that kind of thing. Even if I had them removed, the juglone stays in the remaining roots for 1-5 years. I am willing to dig those out also but the task may be larger than I think. The toxicity zone is 50-60 feet in all directions. Today I can still dream of chain saws, and tree removal services, tomorrow someone may develop a poison that will destroy the entire tree, roots and all, in less than five years. Then I can plant my azaleas.

How to Best Enjoy your Hibiscus Flowers

By: Melissa Martinez

The Hibiscus is a flower that is often associated with the tropics, but it actually originated in Asia. They can now be found in northern Europe, West Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, India, North America and South America. The beauty of the Hibiscus has made it the state flower of Hawaii and they are a favorite by many because they bloom all year round. Unfortunately, the flowers do not last long. Within hours of blooming, their colors can change and by nightfall, many will have fallen off.

The color variations on the blooms, however, can be quite exceptional. The six basic ones are white, red, orange, yellow, lavender and brown. Of course, there are hundreds of possible colors to choose from amongst the numerous varieties of hibiscus available. It is also interesting to note that Hibiscus plants have even more varieties than roses. In fact, the genus Hibiscus is the largest in the Mallow family's 1500 species.

The simplest way to enjoy the beauty of the Hibiscus flower is to plant it in your garden and enjoy the flowers as they bloom. Another fun thing to do with your Hibiscus flowers is to make hybrids with them. Making new varieties by creating a hybrid is not difficult and is exciting because you never know what kind of flower you will get. Once you create a hybrid, it will be six months to two years before the plants bloom because the new hybrid seedlings have a difficult time developing good root systems. In order to give your hybrid a better root system, graft it onto a plant that already has one. The results are worth both the extra effort and the extra wait.

Yet another way to enjoy your Hibiscus flowers is to make fresh flower arrangements with them. Hibiscus flowers make lovely additions to any arrangement but can also be stunning on their own. The best time to pick them is in the morning. They do not have to be put into water after they are picked, and just have to be kept in a reasonably cool or refrigerated place until you need them.

Now before you can begin to enjoy your hibiscus flowers you have to make sure that you are able to successfully grow them. The good news is that Hibiscus flowers are quite easy to grow. Just make sure to choose varieties that complement your climate and soil conditions. If you live in a non-tropical area, don't worry. You can always grow hibiscus in pots.

Also remember that grown hibiscus bushes range in height from an average of 4 feet to a maximum of 12 feet, so plant them accordingly. If you plant them too close to one another, they will be too crowded once they've matured. You also have to plan for extreme weather conditions. Before a frost, cover in-ground plants with plastic all the way to the ground but keep the plastic above the foliage to prevent the plant from being burned. Bring potted plants indoors.

If you live in a tropical climate, remember that light colored Hibiscus are sun lovers; they grow best in direct full sunlight. Those with lavender, brown and green flowers do best in partial shade. Also, Hibiscus need lots of water, but can't tolerate soaking. After planting your hibiscus in the ground, be sure to water them often. Hibiscus plants grow best in sandy soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5. It would also be a good idea to check with a local nursery to find out if your city's water changes the pH of your soil.

Keep in mind that the soil where you plant your hibiscus needs to drain well. If it does not, set them in a raised bed that is 12"-18" off the ground. Also, Hibiscus are not acid-loving plants. If you have acidic soil, you may want to add lime to the soil. If you must mulch, then mulch with small leaves and wood chips.

Finally, we should discuss fertilization. Fertilization ensures strong, healthy hibiscus plants that are more resistant to pests and disease. Since hibiscus plants are heavy feeders, it is best to fertilize them often and lightly. In the winter, be sure to regularly fertilize your hibiscus.

If properly cared for, Hibiscus plants can be enjoyed for many years and will beautify your garden or home no matter how you choose to plant them.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Water Gardens and Pond Preparation for the Fall and Winter

Hints of autumn appear to be everywhere. The kids are back to school and routines; in some places, leaves are changing (already!); pumpkins and apples are appearing in local grocery and produce store and produce stores and heavier blankets are being pulled out of closets. Well, you get the picture. There is a definite nip to the air and fall is just around the corner. It is time to get the water gardens and ponds ready for fall and winter and the fish ready for their long winters nap. Rotting plants, dead bugs and bacteria can accumulate, so now that the air is cooler, you can take the time to clean all that nasty gunk out.

You may also notice that your water plants, such as water lilies are slowing their growth and getting ready for dormancy. Do not feed or fertilize any of your outdoor garden plants from now on. Now is the time to trim the dead and fading foliage, but you can wait until the first frost for that (some time after the middle of October). You can take this opportunity to bring in your tropical marginal plants indoors since the nights are getting colder. In order to protect the hardier of your pond plants, lower them to the bottom of the pond for the winter. You might want to wait until spring to divide and transplant the rest of the marginal plants for your pond or garden.

If you are leaving the water in, you will want to take this opportunity to put some sort of protective netting or screening over top of your pond because of falling leaves. This will stop them from entering your pond. But make sure the netting does not enter the water as the fish can get caught in it. Put a piece of dowel in the middle of your pond or water garden and put the netting over it, in much the same way you would do a tent. If you want to empty out your pond of water, now is the time to do so. As the water empties, you need to get a stiff brush and wash down the sides of the pond and clean the rocks and the bottom of the pond. Clean up the debris on the bottom and refill the pond half way (do not forget to dechlorinate the water!). Before emptying your pond, however, you need to decide what you want to do with your fish. If you live in an area with a harsh winter climate, you might want to bring them indoors and put them into a holding tank for the winter months.

However, some fish can stay out doors all winter. My father in law simply cleans out his garden pond, refills it and leaves the fish in all winter (making sure that the top never gets frozen over, so the fish can breathe). You too can do this by feeding your fish a higher carbohydrate diet (and lower in protein) when the autumn begins. During the winter, fish do not hibernate, but their metabolism slows way down as the water cools. If you fatten the fish up before winter, they will not need to be fed during the winter because they will have enough to live on during the winter. Do not feed your fish during the winter since their metabolism has slowed down that they will not be able to properly digest the food even though they may seem hungry! Some people place wood over the top of the pond to keep predators away from the fish over the winter months and this will help deter the growth of algae during the sunny days of winter and into the early spring. Your fish will survive in water that is as little as eighteen inches as long as the water does not freeze solid.

While you are maintaining your water garden or pond, you will need to take a look at your filter. This is the time to clean it thoroughly and store it for next spring. Do not store them where they will freeze such as a shed. Place your de-icers and bubblers into the pond or water garden and keep a careful eye on it during the winter so it will not freeze over. NEVER break the ice if it has frozen over because it sends shock waves into your pond or water garden and can scare or kill your fish.

That is about all you need to worry about. The hard and sometimes nasty work will be done in the autumn and your water garden or outdoor pond will be ready and waiting for the warm months of spring and available for you to enjoy again next year.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Fall, WInter and Your Garden

Ah, fall, what is not to love about this season? The cooler nights and the crisp mornings are enjoyable for most of us. It is the favorite time of year for many people, not only because school starts and we are pushed back into regular routines, but because the air is cooler, the thoughts are turned to spending more time indoors. Although the summer's last gasp is still in the air and the day still gets warm and even now as the day gets shorter, it is time to consider what needs to be done for your garden for the fall and the upcoming winter season.

Now is a good time to plant bulbs that will bloom next spring. Bulbs such as tulips and crocuses are the ones that are hardy and will last over the cold winter and bloom into beautiful flowers in the spring. The best thing to remember is when planting your bulbs is to think of where your spring and summer sun falls and where the sun will not be obscured by the leaves of trees, so these blooms will get the most of the sun. You will want to also consider the proximity of the planting to the house. You should plant the bulbs at least five feet away from the foundation of your house because the heat of the house can cause damage to your bulbs. Make sure the soil has good drainage and has a ph level of at least 6.0 and no higher than 7.0.

When you are choosing your blooms, you will want to consider the size of the bulbs. There should be a picture of the blooms beside the bucket of bulbs at the store to give you an idea of the size and color of the flower. Usually, smaller bulbs will produce flowers that bloom earlier in the spring such as crocuses. Larger bulbs, such as tulips bloom later into the spring. Before planting, make sure the bulbs are firm and mold free. These bulbs are best planted after the first frost, so the bulbs will continue to be cool from the beginning but of course, this depends on where you live and what your weather is like. It is best to check with your local nursery and see what they suggest. You will want to keep in mind that when planting fall bulbs and seeds you should add some nutrients to your soil to ensure proper growth of your plants.

The fall is a good time to begin your winter clean up of both your garden and your yard. Also a nice thing about the cooler weather is that it slows the growth of weeds as well. You can start cutting back flowers and plants that have already bloomed. Remove all the dead growth, clean up the dead plant debris (you can take this opportunity to add these to your composter!) But the key is not to be too clean. Prepare your beds by leaving some debris to shelter your gardens from the winter. But keep watering your garden until the snow flies, because when the ground freezes, the water can not permeate the through.

The flowers and plants that you want to save can be covered up at night when frost is expected. You will want to harvest the remaining vegetables and clean up any fruit trees that you have. Take this chance to mow your grass one last time to get the lawn ready for winter as well. Do not forget to pack up your hose. Take some time to drain it, roll it up and put it into your garage for storage. You will want to make sure you turn off your outside taps and bring in any metal hose holders that can rust in the wet and cold winter weather.

Trees and shrubs should be cared for and protected during the autumn clean up season since smaller shrubs can be damaged by heavy ices and snows. You can protect the smaller shrubs by building a lean to out of wood or cover them with thick canvas.

This is also the time to bring your house plants that have spent the summer outside indoors, but make sure you do not bring in any unwanted guests with them. Give your plants a good rinse with the hose or by using some insecticide soap for cleaning the plant. You can take this opportunity to aerate the ground by using a garden fork and if you are planning to use compost as ground cover, now is the time to do this.

Gardening is for some a year round and enjoyable activity for some, but for the rest of us, hopefully these few pointers will help us and our gardens ready for the fall and the winter to come.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Your Garden and Frost

By Christina VanGinkel

If you are a bit disappointed this fall with the abundance, or should I say lack of abundance, of the apples on trees that often provide you with plenty of delicious apples for both eating fresh from the tree and baking apples, then a look back at this past spring might provide you with answers.

For example, the area that I happen to live in, in northern Wisconsin, was hit with a late frost, not to be mistaken with a light frost that can hit on almost any morning in the part of the state that I live in throughout the months of spring and into early summer, but a full on heavy, deep freezing frost. Many of the apple trees in our area had already progressed into a full bloom, and with the heavy frost, some, but thankfully not all of, the local apple harvest was affected. Those trees that often provide apples on the early to mid season side, more mid to late summer than early fall, were those most affected. Still, even some of the more traditionally thought of fall apples were also affected.

An orchard by us that has a variety of apple trees, from Ginger gold and Ambrosia, to Jonogold, Cortland, Honey Crisp, and more, lost quite a few apple blossoms, and thus apples, due to the freeze. I heard them comment that some trees that they originally thought heavily damaged were not, and others that should have been fine went on to produce a minimal amount or no apples at all. Others produced fruit that was a bit smaller than what they would normally produce, but considering that, our area also experienced drought conditions early in the growing season, that that may have had a lot to do with this issue was also under discussion.

With just about any type of plant, whether it is a fruit tree, flowering bush, flowers, vegetables, what have you, frost can have an adverse effect. Sometimes the effect is not that noticeable, such as a slightly smaller crop than normal, but other times it is devastating. Of course, the best way to not have to worry about frost damage with smaller plants, such as vegetables and flowering plants, or those in containers, is to cover or move them to a protected area if you even suspect they might be damaged when there is any risk of frost occurring.

Paying attention to the weather reports on when it is safe to plant or move seedlings outdoors is also highly advisable. It is always awful to hear how well so and so was doing with their seedlings, that they finally had conquered the learning curve of growing plants from seeds they harvested the year before, only to find out that they lost the majority of their hard work to a killing frost because they did not pay attention to the weather.

Plants in containers can be moved underneath eaves, into a garage or shed, or into or up against any outbuilding or enclosure with a roof. If just moving the plants against the wall of a building, the roofline should extend out from the building to increase the likelihood that the plants will be protected. This can be especially important if the frost is heavy. Plants can also be brought indoors, but keeping them somewhere, that the difference in temperatures is not too extreme, is of course best. Going from a cool outside to a too warm indoors can cause your plants to dry out quicker than would normally occur if they were left outdoors, so be sure to check them often, and water them well if needed. Too extreme a change in temperatures can also cause a bit of shock to some plants. So keep this in mind if you do end up bringing plants from the cold outdoors to a very warm inside.

For plants that cannot be moved, watering the soil around the plants will help some, but should not be counted on to wholly protect them against the frost. This tactic works better when the frost is of a light nature. Covering plants with pillowcases, sheets, paper bags, etc., is better than just leaving them exposed to the frost. I was always taught to pop a few small holes, think just slightly larger than pin sized, if covering with plastic, to allow the plants to breathe.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Time for Fall Slug Control

An aggressive effort to eliminate slugs during the approaching fall season will produce amazing results come spring, especially for gardeners whom have had slug infested plants this growing season. Controlling your garden's slug population in the fall allows your plants, especially shade plants such as hostas, to begin their spring growth season free from unsightly holes in their leaves and in extreme cases total devastation of the entire plant. Effort now prevents a slug feeding frenzy come spring.

If you are not familiar with slugs they are "simply snails (mollusks) without shells." Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet "Slugs & Their Management HYG-2010-95" by David J. Shetlar. "Slugs and Snails are classified as gastropods. They are more similar to clams and mussels than to other common pests such as insects." Colorado State University Cooperative Extension no 5.515 "Slugs" by W. S. Cranshaw. They come in a variety of colors including black, grey and covered in leopard spots. Grey and black slugs are most common in my part of the country (Midwest) however leopard spotted slugs can occasionally be found, adding a stylish element to garden destruction.

These slimy, ovalish creatures expand to a length of up to seven inches. A slug will normally appear much smaller when you spot it on the underside of leaves but if you catch it moving or you place it on your hand, it will expand up to and average length of around one to two inches. Slugs also have noticeable antenna when they elongate. Normally a gardener will find slugs in a nonelongated state where they appear to be wet black or grey lumps. Black slugs often have grey underbellies. Young slugs will often appear as black or grayish/ beige dots on plants and their surrounding garden beds. Young black slugs are almost impossible to spot unless they are on a plant of contrasting color. Black slugs often are mistaken for wet specks of dirt.

All slugs feed on a wide variety of ornamental plants and vegetables. They can consume young seedlings and maturing fruits and vegetables, damaging your crop at both the beginning and end of the growing season. See CSU Cooperative Extension no 5.515, "Slugs". The most common indicator of a slug problem is the appearance of holes in the middle of a plant's foliage. If a clear slime trail is also present on or around a plant, slugs are most likely the problem. Slug trails are most evident in early morning before dried by the sun. Slugs are nocturnal and feed mostly at night or early morning. They do not like light and hide during the day. The best time to look for evidence of slug infestation, (either the trails or the slug itself), is before the dew is dried by the sun. Slug trails can have a silver tint in the early morning and to assist in differentiating dew from slug trails just remember dew does not form a path to and from your favorite Hosta. Rain will bring these pests from their hiding places so any cloudy day after a rainstorm gives a gardener the opportunity to assess whether slugs are damaging their garden. Nighttime is also a very good time to check the garden but be prepared for strange looks from neighbors when you appear to be gardening by flashlight. Even neighbors who garden are often uneducated concerning the nature of gastropods and may ridicule your efforts. Presentation of a large slug often stops this reaction either because your neighbor is revolted by the slug or suddenly realizes your gardening knowledge is far superior to theirs.

The neighboring garden bed may also be the source for your infestation. A slug can travel further than most realize by utilizing slime trails, traversing over rougher terrain then most researchers give them credit for. I personally watched in amazement as a slug, utilizing a slime trail, traveled from one garden bed to another crossing a new textured concrete drive in the process. The slug was not injured though the concrete drive irritated my hands. Cypress mulch does not slow these creatures even though its rough edges should damage a slugs' body which consists mostly of water. Slugs will also escape yard waste containers if not properly sealed. Examining the lids of trash cans containing infested waste will frequently reveal a number of slugs trying to escape their containment. Excessive heat does seem to eliminate this problem as does topping your waste with salt or other slug pesticide. Before blaming your slug problem on your neighbor's garden it is first wise to correct the problem in your own garden and then begin to place barriers to prevent re-infestation.

Salt evaporates the water in a slug's body thus killing it. Salt, however, cannot be used directly in the garden since it will contaminate your soil and kill your plants. Chemical pesticides are available in most garden stores which claim to retard or kill slug populations. Gardeners with pets or small children are often reluctant to utilize these products in fear that they will harm more than the slug population. Dried egg shells, traps and containers of stale beer are all somewhat effective and detailed in most gardening manuals. An organic alternative to pesticides is the introduction of natural predators to control whatever gardening pest you are experiencing. The natural predators for snails and slugs are not attractive to the average gardener. Frogs eat slugs and if your garden is suitable to maintain a frog this may be a natural and picturesque method to reduce the slug population. Several types of birds eat slugs but I have not found them to be and adequate control method. The presence of a dog or a cat in a yard will reduce your bird population and therefore their effectiveness as a slug deterrent. A comprehensive list of slug predators can be found on the website, "Slug& Snail Trail" " The parasitic nematode, Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita, is mentioned in this list as an effective slug predator. Links to suppliers of products containing these nematodes can be found on the above mentioned website.

If you are nervous about introducing biological agents into your garden or you are merely a frugal gardener, handpicking slugs and their eggs from your garden is the most effective first assault on a slug population. This method is environmentally safe and allows a gardener to assess the degree to which slugs have made your garden their home.

While many individuals are initially revolted by slugs, close observation of this creature inspires a rather begrudging admiration. While I have not yet made a slug my pet, as have individuals I know, I do have respect for their adaptation to their environment and their ability to survive. I view them as a worthy foe, not to be underestimated in my quest for a beautiful garden.
As previously noted, slugs have few natural predators in an average garden. The very elements that produce a beautiful, productive garden, good soil and moisture also produce healthy slugs. While dry weather reduces slug activity, it does not eliminate the problem. A good rainstorm or watering will bring the pests from their hiding places to begin again their assault on your garden.

A good freeze does not kill slugs as it does so many other garden pests. (Note some species do die in winter but not the grey or garden slug) Slugs over winter in your garden. This means slugs essentially hibernate during the winter months when plant life is scarce. During those brief warm spells that occur during winter, active slugs can be found under garden edgings and under leaf piles. In fact slug eggs are rather easy to find during the winter months if you can differentiate them from ice crystals. Slug eggs, tiny crystal-like balls, can be found in groupings of five to thirty, beneath the mulch, dirt, and in cracks and crevices of a garden. These eggs can be found in the garden during the entire year but sense slugs lay their eggs primarily in the fall and in the spring, finding the eggs in the winter is not unusual. These eggs survive the winter and will bring a new crop of slugs come spring.

The mating season for slugs is August to mid-October. There is some evidence slugs can reproduce asexually but most slugs seem to seek a mate. Within a few days after mating, the slug lays eggs into a hole in the ground. See Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. In warm weather these eggs can mature in as few as ten days. Efforts in the fall to eliminate slugs from the garden can not only eliminate fertile slugs that will lay eggs in the spring, eggs laid in the fall ,young slugs can be stopped from over wintering and destroying seedlings and emerging plants in the spring.

Once slugs are identified as the culprit the severity of the problem should be assessed. If a cursory inspection of the garden reveals numerous mature slugs of considerable size and even slug resistant plants are showing signs of slug damage a severe problem is present. Minimal plant damage, no visible slug trails nor mature slugs indicates a minor problem that pesticides or egg shells should correct.
When infestation is severe, drastic action should be taken. All plant debris and mulch should be removed from the affected area. Mulch provides a moist environment that slugs need to survive. Mulch also provides excellent hiding places for slugs and their eggs, making detection and removal extremely difficult. Mulch should be removed and the garden bed should not be re-mulched for at least a year. All yard waste, including mulch, should be disposed of, not composted for home use. If you compost this material you are merely relocating your slug population, not eliminating it.

The most severely damaged plants should be cut to the ground. Annuals should be removed first. Fall is the time annuals are removed from the garden so their absence in fall is not as ascetically unpleasing as removal would be during the rest of the growing season. Check the holes left by the removal of annuals for slugs and their eggs. Remove any signs of infestation. Cut the majority of the perennials to the ground, leaving some plants to serve as bait for the slug population. Dispose of the plant waste. Inspect the remainder of the plants for signs of infestation, not forgetting the remainder of any perennial you have cut to the ground. For seriously motivated gardeners, perennials can be dug up, inspected and replanted if eggs or slugs are not found in the root system or they have been removed. Throughout the fall continue to inspect your garden for indications of slug infestation and utilizing a hand rake or garden claw disturb the garden dirt so as to uncover and disrupt any slug hiding places or eggs. Keep the garden beds free of leaves and other garden waste since slugs are not only attracted to live plants but also to decaying garden matter. After the first freeze, cut the rest of your perennials to the ground.

Finally, check under material used as edging, such as bricks, stones or plastic. If the edging is permanent, utilizing a stick or garden tool, disrupt the ground by creating an indentation in the dirt on both sides of the edging material to discover eggs and active slugs. If your edging is movable, periodically turn your bricks or stones over and inspect them and the ground beneath for evidence of infestation. Garden ornamentation such as small statues, baskets, or flower pots should be checked regularly for live slugs as these ornaments serve as perfect hiding places for garden pests.

Finally prevent slugs from re entering your garden. Slugs will often hide in your lawn. During a particularly sluggy summer, slugs can be seen atop a lawn early in the morning or after a rainstorm. Slugs have also been observed dropping from trees, disturbing more than one early morning paperboy. Most garden books suggest copper striping as an effective slug barrier. Diatomaceous earth and lime are also mentioned. Only the copper striping does not need to be replaced after rain. Copper striping may be effective, but utilizing copper plumbing pipe was not effective in my experience. Dried crushed egg shells appear to have some effect as their edges become razor sharp and theoretically cut the slug causing death. Egg shells must be replaced when it rains but hopefully they add calcium to the soil. If there is evidence that your infestation is coming from either your lawn or adjoining gardens, daily sprinkling of dried egg shells, or any other barrier method is worth a try.

The most common suggestion for disposing of live slugs is to drop them in a bucket of soapy water where they drown. If lugging a bucket of watery dead slugs does not appeal to you , I have found placing them in paper yard waste bags which then must be tightly closed, will also work. A light dusting of salt on the top will ensure that any escapees will be stopped in their tracks. Placing the slugs in plastic bags used to pick up animal waste and disposing of them will also insure your garden pests will not return to their old chomping grounds.

If your slug problem is less severe, or you are obsessed by the need for a perfect garden, inspection in the fall will help you prevent (or at least slow) any slug problems in the spring. Each slug you remove is one more slug that cannot mate, reproduce, or over winter in the garden. Removing leaves, dead foliage, and annuals will go a long way to keeping your garden pest free. The garden will lose the important nutrients that homemade mulch can provide, but most leaves and annuals are removed in spring anyways. Perennials will survive the winter without protection and will look better in the spring if beds are cleaned in the fall. Rotating years when you utilize plant foliage and shredded leaves as additives to your garden is a prudent course of action when only minor slug infestation is present.

Handpicking slugs is dirty, slimy work. The results, especially if started in the fall and continued in the spring, will be a beautiful pest free garden. (Well almost). By getting down and dirty, a gardener becomes in tune to the garden habitat including garden pests and their lifecycles. Problems become easier to identify, thus can be corrected earlier before serious damage is done. Slugs are well adapted to thrive in the average garden. Interrupting their habitat and habits is the most effective way of controlling their population. While winter slug hunting is a little extreme, it may give a bored gardener something to do on a warm February day. Fall slug control; however, is a must for all gardeners who want beautiful plants come spring.