Archive for July 29, 2011

Unwelcome! Weeds and Insects…

An unwelcome byproduct of all this heat is really tough weeds and some very unwelcome insects. I have some effective, yet safe, alternatives for you to try in your house and garden to get rid of these unwanted visitors.

Household vinegar is a safe and inexpensive way to kill weeds.

As far as the weeds are concerned, we are getting a huge amount of them this year. I religiously put down pre-emergent (gluten-based) granules in my yard and garden beds every year, but this year we have had so little rain that they are not leaching into the soil as they are supposed to. There isn’t even any dew in the morning, things are getting so dry. As a result, the oxalis, carpetweed, sedge and even some crabgrass are sprouting. If at all possible, try to pull them before they go to seed and multiply, if there aren’t too many.  If you have an overwhelming amount, I would suggest a spray of a selective herbicide that targets weeds only. Most of these now are available with spray containers attachable to hoses. They are quick and simple to apply.

On walkways, a simple non-toxic and inexpensive way to kill weeds is with household vinegar. I fill an old spray bottle with white vinegar and spray away on all my brick pathways, and within hours the weeds are dead! This also works to spray on cement sidewalks, in cracks, or joints where they seem impossible to remove in any other way. It is totally safe to walk on by people, pets, or wildlife.

An easy method to get rid of ants is with Borax. Simply sprinkle it onto ant hills.

For getting rid of bugs, whether it’s ants or fleas, my favorite method is with boric acid. You can buy it in the laundry section of your supermarket (I use the  Borax 40-mule team brand.) Just sprinkle it on ant hills or encircle your house with it.  A couple times through the summer months should do it, but if you are lucky enough to get drenching rain you might need to reapply. The insects walk through it, ingest it, and carry it into their nests, which gets rid of them all. You can even sprinkle it on your carpets, and furniture indoors. (Just sprinkle it on — let it sit for an hour or so — then vacuum it up.) This will get rid of all kinds of bugs that you or pets might have brought in from outdoors, but in the amount used, it will not be toxic to us or our pets.

If your bushes are being attacked by spiders, it’s because they are attracted to places that are dry and dark. This is easily remedied by opening up the bush by pruning out some of the branches, creating better air circulation and light, and then really washing the plant out with the hose (each branch!). By doing that, it will create the wrong type of climate for spiders to hide in. There are also predator insects which can help rid your plants of other insects; for instance, ladybugs will eat aphids, and praying mantis will eat spiders. Some of the predator bugs are available for purchase through garden centers and online.

I would love to hear from you with any non-toxic methods you know of regarding weeds or insects. There are so many highly dangerous products on the market, and I’d love to share any safe alternatives. We only have one Earth, so we need to protect it!

Update- I have recently heard of a great way to get rid of fire ants. Club Soda- pour it directly into the center of the ant hill, and within a couple of days it will be gone. The carbon dioxide will kill them without harming the environment. One-liter should be enough for 2-3 anthills.

Keeping Gardening Enjoyable

Although time consuming to keep trained, I grow this wisteria next to my back deck just because I love it. Sometimes that is all that counts!

If gardening wasn’t so much fun, it wouldn’t be one of the favorite hobbies of so many people. It lifts the spirit to work with the earth. It also happens to be great exercise, and you can tailor it to your own level of difficulty. I want to share some tips on keeping it fun, while getting everything done.

Right now, because of the extreme heat we have had, there are some flowers that are looking pretty haggard.  I have a rule — I’ll call it the “one hand rule” — each time I go out, I work on one area and pull, deadhead or trim one-hand’s worth of debris. This way I don’t get too hot, and its not overwhelming. Since I am out probably ten times a day, I actually accomplish quite a lot.

If you pick just one handful of weeds each time you go out, you'll be done before you know it.

Keep it simple; know your limits. Plant only what you know you can keep up with. The visual clutter of an unkempt garden is never good. I have seen far too many gardens fall victim to an overly ambitious plan that requires more time to manage than the well-meaning gardener has time to spend on it.  A single pot of beautiful, healthy flowers is always a joy, and in the end more rewarding than a yard full of mess. So if that is all the time you have, then you are using it wisely!

I have mentioned this next one before, but it bears repeating: segment your yard into manageable-sized sections. I call this one “divide and conquer.” You can quickly see the results when you work and complete one part at a time, and feel a great sense of accomplishment as you work your way around the yard.

Liatris- one of my favorite perennials!

Most of all, make sure to include at least one thing that truly makes you happy. Whether its a window box under a kitchen window, or a beautiful collection of flowers by your door, it will put you in a good mood every time you look at them!




Favorite quote of the day:  “Life’s a garden — dig it!” —  Joe Dirt

Summer Watering

Triple digit days are with us again!

Wow, is it hot out there! This summer so much of the U.S. is under heat advisory. Here in the D.C. area we have set countless records already, and it’s still July. After such a damp early spring we are now getting mudcracks in the garden. I would like to share some advise on watering in these extremes.

First- be careful. It is so hot I recommend late evening (8-9 o’clock), or early (pre-dawn to 7 o’clock) watering times. It can actually be harmful to the plants to get them wet in this extreme sun. You can end up with blistering on the leaves and flowers if the sun hits them before the water has dried off. It is also a good idea to drain the saucers on potted plants after an hour or two, if the water has not been absorbed. It is easy to end up with fungus and insect larva in the heat and humidity so many of us are experiencing.

I like to wear old clothes and rubber flip-flops when I’m out watering, that way I can hose myself off to stay cool as well! A big hat, sunscreen, bug repellent are all good ideas, but I really advise to just wait until the sun has gone down or at very least, has traveled off the garden before I water it.

One of my all time favorite inventions has got to be the soaker hose. If you combine one with a quick connect, and a timer on the hose, you can really

Some watering favorites- 2 Gallon Watering can, Soaker hose, Multi-spray nozzle, Flip-flops and Sprinkler.

accomplish everything you need to with out even having to brave the heat. With a soaker hose you get the water exactly where you need it on the root zone, so you aren’t wasting a bit of precious water. Even more water conscious would be a drip irrigation system, with individual emitters for each plant, but these systems are not as easily changed each year for different planting formations.

That brings me to the lawn, and whether or not to water or let it go dormant. I think that totally depends on your long term weather forcast. If you are experiencing just a short term dry spell then I would recommend watering. Most turf needs approximately 1″ of water/rain per week. If you long term forcast is an extended drought, I would suggest letting your lawn go dormant. It is healthier for the lawn to allow this, because it struggles too much when it is too hot and dry. Don’t worry, it will come back in the fall, and look healthy and green again.

Trees however should be deep watered at least every 2 weeks, if they are small, tender, or newly planted within the last year. I just let the hose trickle, so that the water sinks in immediately, or use a soaker hose coiled around the tree a few times, letting it run for about 20 minutes to 1/2 hour.

The best tip I can offer is to think cool thoughts, and imagine yourself in snow.

Imagine yourself in a cool place, it actually is proven to lower your temperature.

We will have cool weather before you know it!

Vertical Gardening

Whether you live in a city with not much space outside, or have just run out of horizontal room, vertical gardening is a great solution.

Flowerboxes on balcony in Germany

On a trip to Switzerland and Germany, I was awestruck at the beauty of the window boxes, which are on almost all homes and many of the businesses. They add a huge amount of beauty to the cityscape and really punch up the welcome factor. I was truly heartened to see the level of care people take to keep them so full and healthy looking. You see them being watered and tended carefully throughout the day. On many lamp posts there are hanging baskets as well. Most hang on cables, allowing them to be lowered to be watered. These days, there are many small drip-irrigation attachments which can be hooked up to hoses, and even put on timers, which make this task a lot easier. They allow you to place the water emitters exactly where you want them so the whole basket/box gets watered evenly.

Even walking through the narrow streets and alleyways, you see gorgeous examples of vertical gardening — hanging baskets, trailing vines, window boxes cascading with flowers.

An alleyway filled with hanging baskets and vines in Germany

In my own garden I have been training a pyracantha as an espalier to cover a wall next to my back walkway. Also, a couple of wisteria vines on arbors and a hummingbird vine onto a rail of the deck. Most recently I purchased a fig tree from a cultivar grown at Mt. Vernon. It has now grown big enough that I can start to train it as an espalier, which I hope to plant, and attach it to the chimney on the east facing side of my house. My goal is for the pyracantha to completely cover the wall in a solid mass. The fig will be trained in a more open design, allowing the branches more horizontal growth with space between. This makes it easier to pick the fruit.

When creating an espalier,  you can easily train the plant on a wooden or metal frame when they are small and still in a pot, then transplant to its permanent location as it matures. I find that masonry anchors work best when attaching the plant to my house (brick), but if you have siding there are many clips designed for this purpose. I just attach to the anchors with twist ties. On the wall  I am trying to cover completely, I have a number of wires which run horizontally, and I attach the branches to them. This cuts down on the number of anchor you need.

Wisteria on Arbor

Many vines will attach themselves without any anchors, by twisting around their supports (like wisteria), but be careful of vines with little roots (like ivy) which can literally destroy mortar and siding. Another tip is to make sure that the arbor is strong enough to take the weight of the vine. They can get quite heavy, and when coupled with a wind or rain storm, it needs to be secured strongly to take the weight. I had one topple over with a hummingbird vine attached to it a few years ago, but found that securing it with tent spikes helped during bad weather.

Pyracantha in my garden, trained as an espalier against the wall.

My last tip is for extra hydration during the hottest of summer days. Placing a handful or two of ice cubes around the base of flowers in hanging baskets or window boxes will help them to slowly absorb extra moisture and keep their roots a little cooler. This also works great in pots. Stay cool, and enjoy the beauty.

Camouflage for the Ugly Necessities

Isn’t it always the case that there is an ugly utility meter, or a garden faucet, A/C unit, or some other necessity right in the most visible location? Here are some of my solutions to camouflage, or at the very least minimize the visibility of objects which mar the beauty of our respective gardens.

Painting meters makes them less noticeable.

First, in regard to utility, we need to remember that access must still be easy. If it’s not, the meter readers and repair personnel will make their own way, which probably won’t be the way in which we would like it. I have found that a couple of stepping stones make a pathway obvious, and is usually respected. Aside from that, I have been known to paint meters to make them blend in better against the house. Make sure that is allowable first, though. I don’t want anyone getting in trouble!

As far as masking a view with plants, try to plant something that can take a bit of knocking around, and is fast growing, if possible. That way, if someone gets careless, the plant will hopefully recover quickly. I would also encourage you not to use plants which are sharp or thorny. It seems so often a holly is planted too close, according to our A/C repairman. Make sure that you know where your underground utilities are buried so that you don’t accidentally hit one when planting around meters where they come up to the surface for connection. In many areas there is a free service provided where the utility companies will come out and mark in your yard where they are, and give you their approximate depth underground.

Bushes are good for obscuring A/C noise as well as visibility. But try to leave 1-2 feet of breathing room around units.

Some might also try a small trellis, or an arbor, or a section of fencing to cover the ugly area.  We have even gone so far as to make removable lattice covers for our A/C units at our last house. I’m not so sure that it was really an improvement though, because it was even more visible, although better looking. I had one neighbor who built a cabinet with old shutters to cover their array of meters. It was quite pretty, but the meter readers didn’t know where to look, and were hesitant to open what looked like a beautiful cabinet. No matter which route that you take try to leave at least a couple of feet for breathing room and access, if possible.

With faucets, you have some new options. Simple extensions can be added which allow the control location to be changed to a more convenient and less visible location quite easily. Just be sure to drain them before frost in the fall.

Please let me know of any creative ideas you have on any of these issues, I would love to share them!

Perfect Time for a Garden Critique

With the Fourth of July here, most plants in the garden have filled out to their maximum for the year. This makes it the perfect time to take a critical look at their placement.

Lillies under a peartree in my back garden. These require careful division each year because they are exceptionally fast growing.

You can easily see which plants will benefit from a move in the fall. Even though I try to respect the garden tags which show mature sizes of the plants when I buy them, they are not always accurate. It is also the perfect time to look closely at the perennials to see which ones are candidates for being split. Long ago I heard a phrase that is very accurate about perennials: The first year they sleep, the second they creep, and the third year they leap. If you follow that rule, every third year or so you would split or divide them. I find it helps to keep a notebook on this, because as your garden grows, there can be a lot to remember! In my garden I do the plant moving between mid-October and mid-November, but in your region, just pick a time after they are past their peak for the year, but still have time for the roots to establish before the full effects of winter are upon them.

That brings up another topic — the effects of winter. We had a couple of severe winters recently, and with them a lot of snow damage. I try to remove all the broken branches, but then leave them alone for a year to see if they will recover, before reshaping them back to a natural point. By doing this you can see where the plant can redirect its existing branches, and if it can fill in the holes left by the damage. If it isn’t going to be able to heal, by that point, I like to replace it with another.

In this garden I will be adding 3 Crepe Myrtle trees to help with the intense summer exposure.

I also like to evaluate how the plants are doing with regard to the sun exposure that they get.  Even if a plant is one that can tolerate full sun, it may need some respite from the intense afternoon sun, or moved to a location that gets a half-day worth of sun.

It is also a good time to trim up the lowest tree branches. If you keep them limbed up to six or seven feet it makes it much easier to mow and to stand under them.

Not that I need any more reasons to go out and enjoy my garden, but it is really gratifying to walk the entire yard and check out how things have grown. It is an important step to critique and edit, and I love planning towards the next year and beyond. Time to go enjoy the fruits of your labor, and don’t forget your notebook!

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