A Mid-Winter's Look Back and Forward
I assume that you've fairly much caught up with all the necessary tasks to button-up the 2007 gardening year. It is December and time to reflect and relax and revisit a lot of notions that you might compartmentalize now, when the mind is less cluttered, for use next year. Some of the following I hope will be useful hints. Others are maybe new information to be applied next year. And others might fit into the category of ... "I knew that, but had forgotten all about it."
Rotation + Rotation = $ucce$$. Rotating crop family types in a new area each season can reduce and even eliminate losses due to soil borne disease agents. The results will yield more produce and/or profit. Rotating insecticides instead of successive sprays with the same one will result in better pest control, reduced pesticide resistance, less insecticide use, a healthier environment, reduced stress on your plants and more money in your pocket.
Soon you'll be setting your bird feeders. Remember to keep them full. Remember to supply water daily. Besides delighting us with their flight, colorful plumage and song, birds are excellent biological controls for all kinds of harmful moths, caterpillars, and insects. Many moths are in flight when temps are just above freezing. The warmer it gets, the numbers multiply.
Variegated plants, whether houseplants or in the landscape, grow at a slower rate that their all green companions. They just don't have as much chlorophyll. Be mindful both inside and out about over-watering and over-fertilizing these more colorful foliage plants. Too much can bring on their demise.
Every year neighbors and friends ask me about the large black carpenter ants they see in and around their homes. They are common as dirt in the woods. In fact, if they weren't present, some of our dead trees would be piled rather high, as these guys make a beneficial contribution to breaking them down to further the efforts of other organisms that utilize the remains for food and shelter. Find them inside the home in December and January and you might have an inside pest problem. If you heat with wood, be careful not to introduce them to your home. If you find carpenter ants inside your home in July or August, they are just outside ants sneaking in, seeking food, usually sugars and fats. Carpenter ants don't eat wood. The simply construct living quarters in wood.
Evergreens planted too near the house, rubbing against a window or obstructing a walkway, need some judicious pruning. Don't throw away the branches. Use them for holiday decorations. Except for pines, most landscape evergreens can be pruned now. Cedar, fir, yew, spruce, hemlock and juniper, plus broad-leaved evergreens like holly with its red berries can be cut. Use in wreathes, swags, door hangings, mantle displays and centerpieces. Indoors these can dry very quickly, so keep cut ends in water and be sure to keep cool to cold and away from heat until ready to use.
When your use of a cut indoor Christmas tree is over, place it outside (visible from a window) where it can serve as a bird shelter and feeding structure. Seed supplied in and around it will keep the action going for birds and other small winter critters. You can also use the boughs as additional mulch to hold down leaves, hay or pine needles in the perennial beds. It will also catch blowing snow and moderate temps in those beds. And/or, come spring, shred and chip. It's recycling, non-polluting, and in the service of the environment.
It is generally accepted that fruit trees can be pruned as long as they are dormant. The time frame usually meant from January on. It is best, however, to wait until late March or early April as the trees will soon after pruning break dormancy and rapidly repair themselves as the healing process coincides with the new growth stage.
Apple trees that were pruned in early spring may benefit from another pruning in early to mid-August. Summer pruning exposes fruit to more light, giving it better color. It works best on trees with heavy growth because the practice tends to reduce vigor, which in turn, increases fruitfulness. Procreation rules!
If you applied an anti-transpirant or anti-desiccant such as Wilt-Pruf at the onset of winter, warmer days in February and March are ideal for reapplying in case the first application may have washed off. The wax like protectant is most effective on broadleaf evergreens in exposed locations which do not have protection from burlap or other structures.
There can be too much of a good thing. An overfed plant is an unhealthy plant, assuming every other need is in place. This applies to trees, shrubs, lawns, groundcovers and houseplants. Woody plants, trees and shrubs, once established, rarely require fertilizing. Their foliage manufactures just about all the food they require. In fact, excessive cultural inputs like water and food make them extra attractive to pests. The pests can be insect, disease, fungal or four legged. The structural integrity is weakened and, hence, more inviting than ever.
When planting closely related varieties of corn or peppers, cross- pollination can produce disappointing results. What you get isn't what you wanted. Separate your planting by time of planting and therefore blooming. Separate them also by space. The greater the distance between them the less likely cross-pollination will occur.
The "southwestern style" is still quite popular in today's home decorating. The carefree houseplant of choice would be the cactus, either a single plant, or a garden. With over 5000 species to choose from, they are ideal candidates. They demand little care and less watering. They come in all sizes and shapes to fit any decor. Bright light is their most important requirement. An occasional rotation and normal room temperature will work just fine. Hold the water until thoroughly dry. They'll flourish and satisfy.
Japanese Beetles: To trap or not to trap, that is the question. Pheromone (powerful sexual hormone that influences behavior and development) traps have been around for a number of years. Research has shown time and again that those traps do not reduce defoliation of host plants. In fact, the more traps used, the higher the rate of defoliation. The traps attract more beetles to an area than are actually caught.
However, traps placed out in the virtual back forty, far from the crops to be protected, those traps are very popular and the desired crops are usually spared major damage.
Spiders are among the most important beneficial predators of insects in the world. Provide them a habitat. Use grassy hay milches. Mix plantings of hedgerows and flower borders to provide humid, temperature-modified conditions. Keep cultivation to a minimum during the growing season. Avoid pesticides. You might be rewarded with one of the most pest free gardens ever.
I offer a spring/early-summer tip. Collecting Japanese beetles made easy: Get two empty one-gallon plastic jugs. Remove the bottom from one of them. Tape the two necks together. Your collection funnel is ready. Put a little soapy water in the bottom, go through the yard in the cool of early morning and just gently tap the foliage of your rose bush or peach tree, or whatever is infested. The beetles will be too sluggish to fly away. They are ectothermic and cannot fly until it warms considerably. They will simply fall into the soapy water. On the University of New Hampshire campus, 1200 were collected in one hour. Imagine the pesticides saved!
An occasional shower with lukewarm water is advised for house-bound plants in the winter. I'm sure they appreciate it when you wash off some dust, soot, the possible whitefly or aphid that's trying to get a thing going. If you have hard water, there's a good chance you find some calcium deposits on the leaves once the water dries. On large leaves like rubber plants or fiddle leaf figs, these can be unsightly. Squeeze a lemon and wipe a little of the juice with a paper towel over the leaves. Presto - spots gone.
There's more where this came from, but for now, read it, file it away for when you can use it, and have an enjoyable winter. In my next column, I hope to have something different.
From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on December 5, 2007
© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.