April 9, 2008
Spring Q & A for Gardeners.
The following questions are culled from many dozens that used to come into my phone line each spring. They always seem relevant at this time of year and I thought it good to revisit some of them.
Q1: A woodpecker is driving me crazy with the rat-tat-tat on my TV antenna every morning. Is there anything I can do to discourage it or make it find a tree somewhere?
A: This is a common inquiry, and one with few satisfactory answers. I would suggest if the antenna is reachable to try coating it with Tanglefoot or some other sticky material to keep it from perching. Sometimes balloons, pinwheels or streamers act as frightening devices. A simulated owl (a natural enemy of most birds) positioned nearby might work. Find an old section of unused garden hose and paint it to resemble a snake. Put it on the roof. Good luck. Don't even think about killing one without a permit. The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects woodpeckers. A stiff fine and jail time are the consequences.
Q2: Can you suggest an ideal crop for children to plant that will produce results quickly and easily?
A: Radishes. Plant them early (when forsythia is flowering) or in late September. Those that mature in very hot weather tend to be very sharp tasting and pithy, and are usually small and hollow. The reason is the plant concentrates its energy on producing foliage in the summer. Prepare the soil so that it is loose and well drained. Our heavy clay soils may result in misshapen roots. Thin so seedlings are an inch or more apart. Make sure they get an inch of water per week. Try any of these: Cherry Belle, Sparkler, Champion, Scarlet Knight, Icicle and French Breakfast.
Q3: I know the time is approaching for me to prune my apple trees. A couple of these are as high as twenty-five feet and are too high to effectively spray or pick fruit. Can I cut the top off to a better height without killing the tree?
A: Yes, you can safely reduce the height of your trees to around fourteen or fifteen feet. Make the major cut just above a large side branch growing from the center. Later in the year water sprouts will grow up from around this cut. These can be removed during the summer, as needed, to allow for maximum sunlight and air drainage. Make sure you prune before bud break when leaves are not yet expanding, or wait until after flowering.
Q4: I think moles are digging up and eating my flower bulbs and tubers. What can I do?
A: If moles are causing all the damage, commercial mole traps are the most effective control. You might also use liquid thiram as an aversive taste repellant. The moles real source of food is grubs and earthworms. I suspect the true culprits might be squirrels or pine voles, with the latter the most likely, unless you've actually seen squirrels at work.
Look for many small holes about the size of a quarter in soft, loamy soils with mulch applied over the bare ground. If its voles, you must trap all of them to eliminate the problem. If the ground feels spongy, it's because of the voles long connected tunnels just below the surface. Removing the mulch will reduce the cover for their foraging activity. Get yourself some inexpensive snap-back mousetraps. Pre-bait the infested area by placing small pieces of apple into the entrance holes in the evening. The following evening bait the traps with more apple and place near the holes. Cover the trap with an overturned container or pot so non-target critters aren't caught by accident. Keep it up even after you think you've caught the very last one. Go an extra week baiting and setting traps. It takes dedication to win this battle. Bulbs are their favorite food, after all.
Q5: Please suggest some varieties of peaches that will do well here in our borderline hardiness zone 5.
A: I don't usually recommend planting stone fruits in our area, certainly not for commercial purposes, because every so often we experience a winter that puts us into Zone 4 and plants not at least that hardy experience some winter kill. I have peach and plum trees that have been fairly reliable producers over several years. They are well located, however. The hardiest peaches I would recommend for this area would be Harbinger, Reliance, Canadian Harmony and Redhaven. Plan for eight hours of sunlight, the high side of a slope so cold air can drain away, and well drained soils. Just remember that you might not get a reliable crop every year.
Q6: The time to apply pre-emergent crabgrass control is always tied to the bloom time of shrub forsythia. Why is this? And what happens if it's applied early or late? Won't the crabgrass germinate and not be controlled?
A: Yes, it will germinate if the timing isn't correct. The singular factor on which crabgrass seed germination is dependent is soil temperature. Not air temperature. Technical purists (imagine golf course superintendents) take temperatures of soil at a three-inch depth between 7 and 8 A.M. For crabgrass seed to germinate it must be 52 degrees F for loam soil, 53 to 57 for heavy clay soil, and 49 to 51 for sandy soil. If you have a soil thermometer and are diligent, this is easy to track. If you don't, you can see why the forsythia method is so popular. The forsythia must be in full bloom or just past, and as an additional check, the common lilac has not yet bloomed.
Q7: How can I prevent my lawn grass from getting into and slowly taking over my perennial bed?
A: You need to be aggressive. Surround your bed with a steep sided trench three to four inches deep. Use either a flat bladed spade or a crescent bladed lawn edger. The edge at the lawn side should be as vertical as possible, and the edge of the bed side can be sloped to the bottom of the trench. Grass roots are unable to cross the cliff-like gap of air. Do this around the entire perimeter of the bed. Shake off the soil from the sod and put aside the grassy sod pieces for the compost. The precise look and the visual definition of the beds will be most pleasing. Maintaining this edge once or twice through the growing season will require little effort, and really makes the beds stand out.
Some gardeners prefer to use a physical barrier of plastic or metal. These need to be anchored with spikes to keep them in place. I've never cared for this approach as the barriers are usually placed with their tops flush with the soil surface, so, while roots can't reach out and invade, the accumulations of grass clippings and grass growth usually exceeds the top of the barrier and sooner or later the roots reach across the top of the barrier and you're back where you started.
Putting in a band of brick or stone as a mowing strip is useful for a time, but I also find it is usually penetrated by the invasive grass roots, and they usually find their way into the beds you want to protect.
There will be more questions seeking answers as the season progresses.
A garden always gives back more than it receives.
. Mara Beamish
The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on
April 09, 2008
© 2008 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.