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A Moldy Lawn!

Snow mold on the lawn

Snow on the top of Mother Myrick Mountain - from Mom's deck

Snow on the top of Mother Myrick Mountain – from Mom’s deck

Spring is slowly coming to southern Vermont where I have been visiting with my mom for the past week. This area of Vermont is definitely several weeks behind the Shenandoah Valley but a few sunny days here have edged into the 60’s and the snow is gradually beginning to melt away. There are still a few patches here and there in the woods and along the road, and of course, quite a bit of snow remains on the mountains. But spring is definitely creeping in. The goldfinches that come to the feeders are becoming brighter yellow every day!

When I first arrived, many sections of the lawn were still covered with snow.

Gray snow mold

Gray snow mold covers the lawn.

In places where the snow had recently melted off, I noticed that there were large patches of gray mold covering the grass. I was pretty excited – this was a great example of snow mold and it had been a while since I’d seen this in the lawn. It reminded me of a post we had on our discussion board a few years ago:

Last Spring I had powdery mildew on my front lawn which faces north. It only gets sunlight late in the afternoon. It stunted the growth of the grass but fortunately did not kill the grass. Is there anything I can do to prevent the powdery mildew from recurring next spring?

What they were seeing was probably snow mold rather than powdery mildew. Snow mold is often seen on the lawn in the spring after the snow melts. It is especially common when heavy snow has fallen on unfrozen ground.

A patch of gray snow mold

A patch of gray snow mold

There are two types of snow mold; gray snow mold (Typhula spp.) which usually only infects the grass blades, and pink snow mold (Microdochium nivale) which may infect the crown and the roots of the grass as well as the foliage and can thus be more damaging. With the late winter and early spring snow storms we have had this year, snow mold may be a more common sight this spring.

Snow mold (and powdery mildew for that matter) is generally not a serious problem and fungicide applications are usually not recommended.

The normal recommendation is to simply rake the area lightly to allow the grass to dry more quickly. The raking also disrupts the growth of the fungi.

Snow moldIncreasing the amount of sunlight that reaches the lawn through the selective pruning of a few trees can help reduce the growth of mold and mildew on the lawn.

In most cases, the grass will recover and green up – perhaps just a little slower than the rest of the lawn. However, sometimes small patches of grass may be killed by snow mold. These areas can be overseeded and top dressed with a thin layer of good quality compost in the spring.

As you can see from the photos, Mom had some pretty dense patches of snow mold growing on her lawn but actually after a few windy days with lots of sun, the grass has dried out and the snow mold has disappeared with no treatment at all. The lawn is even beginning to green up a bit!

It’s a balmy 57 degrees right now!

Until next time – Happy Spring everyone!

Robins in a peach tree trying to figure out where spring went

Robins perch in one of our peach trees trying to figure out where spring went!

Daffodil foliage pokes out of the snow.

Daffodils poke out of the snow.

What happened to spring?

The day before yesterday was a beautiful, sunny, 63o day and then less than 24 hours later, the temperature tumbled and it started snowing! This morning we were buried in over 6” of snow! CRAZY! I guess winter wasn’t quite done with us yet.

Actually the precipitation started out as rain but quickly changed over to a heavy, wet snow as the temperature continued to fall throughout the afternoon. The snow came down fast and furious and it wasn’t long before the trees and shrubs were covered. It basically stuck and froze to the wet branches. By morning, the evergreens were bending low under the weight of the heavy snow that was frozen fast to their foliage and branches.

Small American holly bent under the weight of snow

Small American holly completely
bent over under the weight of snow

The poor hollies and azaleas in front of our house were quite splayed out under their burden of snow and a young American holly tree growing along the driveway was bent over all the way to the ground. I’m sure these will all spring back up once the snow melts later this week but it was sad to see them in such a state! In situations like this, where a combination of snow and ice has accumulated on your trees and shrubs, it is important to let them melt off naturally. You risk doing much more damage by trying to knock the snow and ice off.

Don’t be tempted!

China Girl holly buried and flattened by the heavy snow

This China Girl holly flattened by the heavy snow should spring back up.

Helleborus covered with snow. These too will pop back up once the snow melts.

These helleborus will pop back up once the snow melts.

Asparagus bed covered with a blanket of snow.

Asparagus bed – buried!

In anticipation of the coming snowfall, I went out to the vegetable garden and cut back the old stems of the asparagus and fertilized it with Espoma Garden-tone. I also mulched the entire bed with some nice composted leaves. Now as the snow melts, it will carry some good nutrients down to the roots.

We also did some other garden maintenance while the ground was still fairly dry – probably things we should have done last fall but …

Trellises ready and waiting!

Trellises are ready and waiting!

Eric pulled up the tomato and cucumber trellises and stacked them against the pea fence for later while I pulled up last year’s pepper and eggplant stalks and did some weeding. I can’t believe that the chickweed and henbit are already in flower! Yikes! I got them all grubbed out and raked up along with some of the other old garden debris.

Everything was looking pretty good and now it’s all buried under snow.

HA! Poor man’s fertilizer!

It seems that spring is on hold for a few days. It will be back soon enough, though. Don’t you worry! Perhaps this is old man winter’s last hurrah!

Time will tell …

Until next time – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The woods were beautiful!

The woods were beautiful!

The dogwood buds wore hats of snow for St. Patty's Day!

The dogwood buds wore hats of snow for St. Patty’s Day!

Orchard mason bee nests in bamboo tubes

Who are they?

Blue orchard bee

Blue orchard bee

They are great little native bees called orchard mason bees or blue orchard bees (Osmia lignaria) and they are one of the most prolific pollinators of early spring flowers. These bees, which are native to the US, are solitary bees. They don’t have a complex social system or live in hives like the European honeybees. They are loners that keep to themselves and do not interact with other bees except when they mate.

Everything about these mason bees, including their life cycle and their nesting habits are very similar to the two other solitary bee species I have written about; ground bees and carpenter bees.

The major difference is that mason bees do not excavate their own nesting cavities. While the carpenter bees chew perfectly round nesting tunnels in wood and ground bees excavate nesting sites in the ground, mason bees make use of pre-existing holes and cavities. They will use holes left behind by wood boring insects, holes drilled by woodpeckers, and sometimes they make their nests in hollow stems.

Nesting tubes plugged with dried mud

Nesting tubes plugged with dried mud.
Note the old nest with the broken plug.

Orchard mason bees emerge from their nests in the early spring. Male bees emerge first because the eggs that are destined to become males are laid in the front part of the tube and the eggs that will become females are laid towards the back. When the female mason bees emerge, they mate and then hunt around for a suitable nesting site. Once they find a good place, they collect pollen and nectar from nearby spring flowers and deposit it in the back of the nesting hole. When a sufficient quantity of pollen and nectar has been collected, a single egg is laid on the pollen ball and a plug of mud (this is where they get the name mason bee) is used to partition off the cell. This continues until the tunnel is filled with separate cells of pollen balls and eggs. The hole is then sealed with a final plug of mud.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the pollen ball over the summer months and then eventually pupate. The adult bees develop in the pupal case but remain dormant in their individual cells through the winter. They emerge from the nest when the weather warms in the spring.

Mason bee house

Mason bee house

Like many species of solitary bees, mason bees are very docile and not prone to aggressiveness. The males do not possess a stinger so they can’t sting and the females will only sting if they are handled roughly or really provoked. Thus, they are wonderful bees to have around in the garden.

Since mason bees are such great pollinators, many gardeners and home orchardists will place artificial mason bee houses around their gardens or fruit trees in order to encourage them to nest there. This can help ensure good pollination of spring blooming trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Several years ago, my sister gave us a very attractive mason bee house which we placed on a post in our little orchard. Every year most of the tubes are occupied by mason bees. Yay for us!

Grass plugs made by a grass-carrying wasp

Grass plugs made by a grass-carrying
wasp fill two tubes.

When I was up in the orchard a few days ago, I noticed that there were several nests of woven grass in some of the tubes of our mason bee house and I was curious about who had built them. I didn’t think that mason bees ever used grass to plug their nest holes. It turns out that a solitary wasp called a grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia sp.) sometimes makes nests in mason bee houses. These wasps line their nests with grass and provision them with crickets or katydids for the developing larvae to feed on rather than making pollen balls as the mason bees do. Interesting!

Homemade mason bee house.

Homemade mason bee house.

Now is a great time to put up some mason bee houses in your garden or orchard. These perky little pollinators will be emerging soon and they might just stick around to pollinate your early spring flowers if they find a vacant “hotel” nearby!

You can even make your own by drilling 5/16″ holes on 3/4″ centers in a block of untreated wood. The holes should be drilled at least 4″ deep depending on the depth of your block of wood. Just make sure you don’t drill all the way through the block – leave about 1/2″ of wood at the back.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

beech leaves in winter

American beech retains leaves through most of winter.

American beech retains leaves
through most of winter.

Last November, I wrote about why the leaves of deciduous trees drop in the fall. Now as I survey the trees in our woods and around the yard, I am reminded that a few deciduous trees hang on to some or all of their leaves through the winter. Our little Japanese maple and many of the oaks in our woods still retain a lot of their dried up brown leaves. In Vermont, I notice this with the beech trees that are scattered through the woods at my mom’s. This got me thinking about why these trees, oaks and beeches in particular, keep their leaves through the winter.

Marcescence is the term used to describe the retention of dead leaves on deciduous trees through the winter. Certain tree species show this characteristic more commonly; oaks, beeches, hornbeam, and witch hazel.

Why do these trees hold onto their leaves?

Mature oaks usually retain leaves only on their lower branches.

Most oaks usually retain at least some
of their leaves through winter.

The answer is – no one really knows for sure. There has been much speculation and several theories have been put forth but still nothing has been established definitively. It may well be a combination of reasons.

I was always taught that leaf retention in winter was a sign of juvenility and in fact, it is the younger trees and the lower branches of mature trees that consistently hold onto their leaves.

One theory holds that because these younger trees (and lower branches of older trees) are essentially growing in the shadows of the taller trees, they hold their leaves longer in the fall so they can take advantage of the increased sunlight they receive after the leaves of the mature overstory trees drop off. This allows them to continue to photosynthesize through much of the fall and thus produce more food for the tree. Because these leaves continue to function physiologically later into the fall, the abscission layer that normally forms between the leaf and the twig (causing the leaf to fall off) may not develop completely before the onset of freezing temperatures. Therefore, the dead leaves persist on the trees until the swelling buds in spring pop them off.

A young oak hangs on to most of its leaves through winter.

A young oak hangs on to most of
its leaves through winter.

Another theory related to juvenility is that the leaves of these young trees are retained over winter to provide the tree with a nutrient source in the spring when the leaves eventually drop off. According to this theory, leaves that drop in the fall breakdown and release nutrients which may leach out of the ground before the following growing season. I don’t like this theory as well because leaves (especially whole leaves) don’t breakdown very quickly; it can take 6 months or longer for most leaves. This, combined with the fact that the leaves of oak and beech trees (trees that most commonly show marcescence) are some of the slowest to breakdown, makes me question this idea.

Still another hypothesis is that these withered, tough, dry leaves provide protection for the young buds beneath them. Protection from what, you ask?

Leaves may provide protection for the new buds.

Marcescent leaves may provide
protection for the new buds.

Marcescent leaves may provide the dormant buds protection from bitter winds and cold temperatures of winter or a more popular idea is that they protect the nutritious young buds from hungry herbivores like deer and moose. The dry leaves may be unpalatable enough to deter these large browsers from chewing off the tips of lower branches. Perhaps that’s why it’s the lower branches and younger trees that most commonly exhibit marcescence! I wish my fruit trees had marcescent leaves to protect their buds. Walking through our orchard last weekend, I noticed a lot of deer browse especially on the apple trees. Bummer!

My favorite explanation of all comes from a beautiful story, perhaps from Native American lore. You can read it for yourself. I think it’s the best!

A tufted titmouse enjoys a sunflower seed in the shelter of oak leaves

A tufted titmouse perches in the
shelter of oak leaves

Regardless of WHY these leaves persist on the trees, I for one enjoy seeing them throughout the woods in winter – especially the light tan leaves of the young beech trees. They really brighten up the winter landscape and their rustling breaks the stillness of the woods.

The birds enjoy them, too. It provides them with shelter from the winter winds and gives them a place to hide while they peck at sunflower seeds from our feeders!

Until next time –
Happy Gardening!

Special thanks to Scott Welsh for the 2 Vermont photos!

Ever go to water your houseplants and see a cloud of tiny black flies skimming over the surface of the potting soil? These pesky critters are probably fungus gnats.

Fungus gnat adult. David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Fungus gnat adult.

Fungus gnats are common pests of indoor plants. They are not only annoying but they can damage to your houseplants, vegetable seedlings, and greenhouse plants.

Fungus gnats are small flying insects that look sort of like mosquitoes but they don’t bite. In fact, adult fungus gnats live only about 7-10 days and do not feed. It is the immature larval form that can cause damage to your plants.

Fungus gnat larvae are slender maggots that thrive in moist potting media. They feed on organic matter in the soil such as decaying plant material and fungi but may also consume the fine root hairs that absorb water and nutrients to feed your plants. When these tiny root hairs are destroyed, it is harder for the plants to absorb water and they may become wilted. Fungus gnat larvae sometimes feed on the main plant roots as well and can eventually make their way into the stem causing small plants to fall over at the soil level. Young plants and seedlings are especially susceptible to damage from hungry fungus gnat larvae.

Fungus gnat larvae feeding on the roots of a greenhouse plant. David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Fungus gnat larvae feeding on the roots of a greenhouse plant.
David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

The life cycle of the fungus gnat from egg to adult fly is normally completed in about 4 weeks. Unfortunately, the larval stage, which causes the most damage, makes up the majority of the life cycle, lasting between 12 and 14 days.

Outbreaks of fungus gnats often occur indoors during the winter months. They can be introduced when tropicals and houseplants that have been growing outside all summer are brought inside for the winter (fungus gnats are not just indoor plant pests). Eggs and larvae may already be in the soil and will continue to develop in the warmth of your home.

Fungus gnat larvae with their characteristic black head

Fungus gnat larvae with their
characteristic black head

One of the best ways to prevent an outbreak of these pesky gnats is to avoid overwatering your plants. The larvae thrive in moist soil that is rich in organic matter – they cannot survive in dry soil. Allowing the top few inches of the soil to dry out between waterings will not only destroy existing larvae but will make your pots much less attractive to adult gnats looking to lay eggs.

It is important to alter your watering practices during the winter. Generally indoor plants enter a period of reduced growth during the winter and thus require less water. If you continue to water them according to your summer schedule, you will probably end up overwatering. Overly wet soil not only increases the likelihood of fungus gnat outbreaks, it also promotes disease problems.

In general, water your plants when the top inch or so of the soil has dried out and be sure to dump any standing water from pot saucers.

Melon seedlings destroyed by fungus gnats.

Melon seedlings destroyed by fungus
gnats feeding on roots and stems.

February and March is the time when many of us are beginning to think about starting vegetable and annual seeds indoors. Because young seedlings are particularly susceptible to damage and even death from fungus gnats, we must be particularly careful to guard against an outbreak. Always use a fresh, good quality potting mix when you start your seeds and be careful not to overwater the seedlings once the seeds germinate. This will also help to prevent fungal diseases that cause damping off of seedlings.

Oops – too late!

I already have an infestation! What can I do?

Adult fungus gnat rests on the edge of a flat of seedlings.

An adult fungus gnat rests on
the edge of a flat of seedlings.

The trick to controlling an outbreak of fungus gnats is to disrupt their life cycle. If you destroy the eggs and larvae, you will be well on your way to eradicating the problem. You can do this by following the same cultural practices as you would to prevent an outbreak. Since the eggs and larvae are generally found in the upper two inches of the soil and both stages require moist conditions for survival, let the top few inches of the soil dry out before you water. This should help kill most of the eggs and larvae.

Another trick is to spread about ½” of sand over the surface of the potting soil. This not only discourages the adult fungus gnats from laying eggs, it also traps new emerging adults in the soil because they are not able to crawl out through the sand.

Yellow sticky cards are used to trap fungus gnats

Yellow sticky cards are used
to trap fungus gnats

Yellow sticky cards can be used to trap the adult fungus gnats. These are effective but are used more often in a greenhouse situation than in the home because they aren’t very attractive – especially when they become covered with dead gnats!

For biological control, the naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis (Bti) can be added to the soil as a drench. This bacterium is a different strain than the B. thuringiensis kurstaki strain (Btk) that is used for the control of foliage feeding caterpillars. Bti is used for the control of mosquito larvae in standing water in addition to its use as a soil drench for killing fungus gnat larvae. It is important to choose the correct strain of Bt and to read and follow the label instructions!

Chemical control is usually not warranted for fungus gnats unless the solutions mentioned above fail to control them. Bonide Eight Garden & Home RTU spray can be effective for controlling populations of fungus gnats when used according to the label directions. This product contains the active ingredient permethrin which provides some residual control.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Snow Day!

Goldfinches in their winter plumage feed on dropped seed

A flock of goldfinches in their winter plumage feed on dropped seed

Plowing with my 1948 John Deere Model M. Thanks Grampa!

Plowing with my 1948 John Deere Model M. Thanks Grampa!

What a beautiful snow we had last night!

It started out yesterday evening and continued all night.  We woke up to 15” of beautiful snow this morning. It continued to snow lightly most of the morning but stopped for a while in the middle of the day. It has just now begun to snow again – pretty hard, too.

Rats, right when I just finished plowing the driveway with my old John Deere tractor. Oh well I don’t care – it’s beautiful out. I love snow!

There were loads of birds at our feeders today. We spent much of the morning in our cozy sunroom with the fire going, enjoying our “snow day” with the birds and hot coffee. What could be better?

Bluebirds at the water while finches feed on the snow above!

Bluebirds at the water while finches feed on the snow above!

Eric had to shovel out around the water bowl so the birds could get to it. Poor birds, there was no way for them to get to the water because there was a 12” wall of snow straight up all the way around the bowl! Once they had an approachway, the birds were able to fly in to get a drink.

Below are some photos Eric took with his 500mm lens. Gorgeous!

What a way to spend a snowy day!

Until next time – Happy Snow and stay safe everyone!

A beautiful male bluebird fluffs up against the cold

A beautiful male bluebird fluffs up his feathers against the cold

A catbird waits for a turn at the water bowl

A catbird waits for a turn at the water bowl

A bright red male cardinal perches on one of the feeders

A bright red male cardinal perches on one of the feeders

A white-throated sparrow scavenges for dropped seed

A white-throated sparrow scavenges for dropped seed

Like the bluebirds, this hermit thrush comes mainly for the water

Like the bluebirds, this hermit thrush comes mainly for the water

One more fluffy bluebird

One more fluffy bluebird

Coffee grounds can add nutrients to the garden

What is the story on spreading coffee grounds in the garden?

This has been the subject of much discussion in the gardening world. Some say they’re great and some say they’re good but with a word of caution.

Recently a question was posted on our Discussion board asking about spreading coffee grounds in a raised bed …

I have read that spent coffee grounds are a good source food for those raising worms. Would it be a good idea to add spent coffee grounds to raised vegetable beds during the winter months, knowing that the present worm population will break them down before spring planting time?

Can I spread my used coffee grounds in the garden?

Can I spread my used coffee grounds
in the garden?

From almost everything I have read, it seems that coffee grounds are a great addition to the garden. They can supply important nutrients to the soil; nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and copper. They also improve the soil structure because as they decompose, they release humic acid which acts as a glue to bind tiny soil particles together into larger aggregates, which improves drainage and air circulation. This is especially good for clay soils.

Okay, so coffee grounds can be good for the soil. Now the question becomes, what is the best way to use these grounds that will provide the greatest benefit to your plants?

It seems that coffee grounds are most beneficial to plants after they have been broken down by microorganisms in the soil. Though potassium, magnesium, and some of the phosphorus and copper are available to plants immediately, the nitrogen in coffee grounds is not available to the plants until it has been broken down into a usable form by soil organisms.

Our compost "bucket" for coffee grounds and vegetable scraps sits beside the coffee pot.

Our compost “bucket” for coffee
grounds and vegetable scraps
sits beside the coffee pot.

For this reason, adding your coffee grounds to a compost pile and letting the soil critters break it down may be the most efficient way to use them. We have been composting our coffee grounds for many years, filter and all. It all breaks down. The grounds are a great addition to a compost pile because they are high in nitrogen – around 2%. In the composting world, this means that they are considered a “green” additive; similar to grass clippings. This is great for us because our compost pile is usually a bit “carbon” heavy since we add so many leaves to the pile in the fall. Anything we can throw in that will add more “nitrogen” to the pile is welcomed. It is best to try to keep the carbon to nitrogen ratio at around 25 or 30 to 1 for a healthy compost pile.

As an added bonus, worms love coffee grounds and in a compost pile, the more worms the better! Some people that maintain worm bins add a cup or so of coffee grounds to the bin once a week.

But wait – aren’t the coffee grounds acidic? Won’t they lower the pH of my garden soil or compost? This is one of the greatest concerns that people have with putting coffee grounds in the garden or compost. It turns out that, contrary to popular belief, most spent coffee grounds are not very acidic at all. The acid in ground coffee is water soluble so most of it is leached out into the coffee that you drink – making your coffee quite acidic and the leftover grounds just slightly acidic with a pH of around 6.2 – 6.8.

Coffee grounds can be added to the compost bin

Coffee grounds can be added to
the compost bin

Coffee grounds should not comprise more than 25% of your compost pile; but that would be a lot of coffee grounds! We average one pot of coffee a day so there is no danger of us overloading our big compost pile with coffee grounds. People who collect used grounds from coffee shops could potentially accumulate enough to cause a problem in a compost pile – they just need to be careful to add enough carbon-rich ingredients to maintain the optimal C:N ratio.

Used coffee grounds can also be broadcast right on top of the soil. If they are then tilled or scratched in, the worms and soil microorganisms can get to work on them faster to break them down and release the nutrients.

The bottom line:

  • Coffee grounds are a great soil amendment especially if they are composted first.
  • They should not be used as a substitute for fertilizer.
  • Organic fertilizers like the Espoma “Tones” are slow release and also add organic matter to the soil.
  • It is always a good idea to have your soil tested for pH and nutrient content before adding chemical fertilizers and lime to the garden.
  • Good quality compost is always a wonderful addition to your garden soil.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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