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Archive for October, 2011

Fall leaves cover the lawn

Fall is such a beautiful time of the year.

Such a beautiful view out the front door!

Such a beautiful view out the front door!

I love to look out into our woods and see the bright palette of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns. Every morning it seems to get more colorful but now every morning there are more and more leaves on the ground, so I know the beautiful fall color won’t last much longer! As I drove down the driveway this morning, the wind was blowing and the leaves were pouring down heavily. The driveway is becoming so covered with leaves that it’s beginning to be hard to distinguish between it and the lawn!

Hmmmm, I guess I know what we’ll be doing this weekend.

But wait … what SHOULD we be doing?

Fallen leaves are a precious resource for us gardeners because they provide a fantastic source of “free” organic nutrients. They are packed with minerals and trace elements that can enhance our vegetable gardens, flower beds, and lawns. There are many different ways that our fall leaves can be utilized but one thing is for sure – the worst place for them is in the landfill!

A 2"-3" layer of leaves covered my lawn this morning.

A 2"-3" layer of leaves covered my lawn this morning.

Wonderful “stuff” can be created with your autumn leaves but there is no doubt that you will get the most benefit and the fastest results if they are shredded first. Unshredded leaves breakdown very slowly and tend to mat down and pack tightly together. This can create a barrier to water and air penetration and your lawn or gardens can literally be smothered by densely packed layers of leaves.

A single pass with my mulching mower made short work of the leaves, turning them into small pieces that will mostly disappear over the winter.

One pass with my mulching mower made short work of the leaves. A second pass created even smaller pieces that will mostly disappear over the winter.

Shredding leaves can be as simple as running your lawn mower over them. If you regularly mow your leaf covered lawn before the leaves get too thick, you may never have to rake a single leaf! A mulching mower will shred the leaves into small pieces that are deposited right on the lawn where they will break down over the winter, providing nutrients to the grass and improving soil structure. This is what I have done for the past few years but this year, I think I am going to rake my leaves and shred them with our shredder so I can use them as mulch on some of our woodland perennial gardens. Our shredder came with a small bag that attaches to the output but I got tired of having to stop all the time to empty it so I made a BIG bag out of a single bed sheet! It’s perfect! Now when we empty the bag, we have a nice sized pile to spread!

A beautiful pile of shredded leaves created by mowing over leaves without the mulching attachment. This pile can be used for mulch or to create compost or leaf mold.

This pile of shredded leaves was created by mowing over leaves without the mulching attachment. It can now be used for mulch or to create compost or leaf mold.

If you don’t have a shredder, you can simply run your lawn mower (without the mulching attachment) back and forth over the leaves to chop them up. These leaf bits can then be raked up and used as mulch or added to the compost bin. Many gardeners worry about leaf mulch or leaf compost changing the pH of their soil but the leaves break down slow enough that pH levels are generally not affected.

Shredded leaves are a wonderful addition to the compost pile. They are carbon-rich (brown) and should be mixed with some nitrogen-rich (green) materials like grass clippings, disease-free garden trimmings, or non-meat kitchen scraps in a ratio of about 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. The ratio is approximate but too much carbon-rich material will slow down decomposition and too much nitrogen can result in a smelly compost pile. Using shredded leaves, a good mix is about 5 parts leaves to 2 or 3 parts grass clippings and kitchen scraps. If you turn the pile every 3-4 weeks and keep it moist (not wet), you can have wonderful nutrient-rich compost to add to the garden by planting time in late spring.

We mulch some of our woodland perennial beds with shredded leaves. It's a "free" natural mulch that looks especially nice in this setting.

Some of our woodland beds will be mulched with shredded leaves. It's a "free" natural mulch that looks nice in this setting.

Leaf mold is another product that can be created from shredded leaves. It’s like half compost – made from just the “browns” without the “greens”. Finely shredded leaves placed in a bin or pile, kept evenly moist, and turned every so often will create leaf mold in 6-12 months. Since the leaves aren’t mixed with a nitrogen source, the process is slower and the end result isn’t as rich in nutrients as compost, but when leaf mold is mixed with the soil, it acts as a wonderful soil conditioner to improve drainage and soil structure. Got clay? Add leaf mold!

Bottom line – don’t waste this nutrient-rich resource by allowing it to fill up our landfills or be washed from the curb into storm drains.

Chop up your leaves and create some goodness for your gardens!

Until next time- Happy Gardening

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Beautiful fall color of poison ivy

The woods around my house are beginning to pop with beautiful fall color. I’ve noticed that the understory trees, particularly the sassafras and dogwoods, are especially beautiful this year with their shades of yellow, orange and scarlet. The huge Mockernut Hickory tree just off our deck is a brilliant shade of yellow right now. I wish it would last longer but it seems that as soon as it hits its peak of color, the leaves are gone in a matter of a couple of days!

The shrub form of poison ivy has bright red fall color.

The shrub form of poison ivy can grow 3-4 feet tall has bright red fall color.

The other day, I noticed some bright splashes of brilliant red along the roadside. It was very eye catching! Upon closer inspection, I noticed the tell-tale “leaves of three” identifying it as poison ivy. It was a beautiful! I’ve never thought much about the beauty of this plant; like most people, I only think of its bad attributes.

“Leaves of three, let it be” is the common phrase often cited to teach people how to identify poison ivy and warns them to avoid contact with this plant which can cause severe skin rashes to those sensitive to the urushiol oil found in all parts of the plant (except the pollen). I learned this saying as a kid growing up in NJ because our house was surrounded by woods full of poison ivy. I’m actually rather surprised at the number of people I’ve met that can’t identify it. Happily, I seem to be one of those lucky few who aren’t affected by the toxin. I’ve never gotten a case of poison ivy (knock on wood!) even though I’ve often pulled out plants with my bare hands. I guess that’s just tempting fate!

Poison ivy vine growing on a tree. Note the large clusters of white berries and the smooth shiny leaves.

Poison ivy vine growing on a tree. Note the large clusters of white berries and the smooth leaves in groups of three.

Poison ivy can be found in three different growth forms; a low growing ground cover, an upright shrub, and a climbing vine. In gardens, the ground cover form and the shrub form are the most common. As most gardeners find out, poison ivy is difficult to get rid of and Eric spends a lot of time spot treating with Roundup (or a brush killer) to try to keep it at bay in our woodland gardens. Unfortunately, he is VERY allergic to it. Now the plants that he missed are easy to see are brightening our woods with their dazzling scarlet foliage.

It seems such a shame that these plants are so undesirable and cause so much discomfort to so many people when they add such beauty to the fall landscape!

Turnabout is fair play; sometimes poison ivy gets a rash! Leaf galls on poison ivy.

Turnabout is fair play; sometimes poison ivy gets a rash! Leaf galls on poison ivy.

It can be a never-ending battle to keep poison ivy out of the garden because the seeds are carried in from far and wide by birds that find the white berries a tasty treat in the fall. Spraying or grubbing them out is the most effective way. If you pull or dig them out, be sure to wear disposable latex or rubber gloves and avoid touching any part of your body until you carefully remove the gloves. To make matters worse, even the dead leaves and stems can cause an allergic reaction!

My mother-in-law taught me to use a bread bag as a glove, pull the plant up by the roots, and then pull the bag down over the plant sealing it and its rash producing oils inside the bag – ingenious if you only have one or two plants to get rid of!

Aerial roots on a poison ivy vine

Aerial roots on a poison ivy vine

The vining form is often found climbing high into trees. These vines are covered with fine adventitious roots that secure the vine to the tree it is growing on. Another poison ivy saying, “Hairy vine, no friend of mine”, makes reference to these aerial roots that cover the vine like hair. Poison ivy vines also contain urushiol and can cause an allergic reaction if handled.

Virginia creeper has leaflets in groups of five.

Virginia creeper has leaflets in groups of 5.

Another vine which is often confused with poison ivy is Virginia creeper. It’s usually easy to distinguish from poison ivy because it has leaflets in groups of five rather than three and the leaf margins are coarsely toothed.

Virginia creeper vine showing the tendrils that anchor the vine to the tree.

Virginia creeper vine showing the tendrils that anchor the vine to the tree.

The vines of Virginia creeper are smooth and attach to the tree by means of branched tendrils tipped with adhesive pads rather than aerial roots. This is an easy way to differentiate between the two if you can’t see the foliage. Like poison ivy, it grows high into trees and has beautiful red foliage in the fall. There is a lovely Virginia creeper growing up one of the pines in our yard and right now the leaves are a flaming red that is just as striking as the poison ivy.

For now, I plan on enjoying the beautiful red foliage of our poison ivy from afar –

there will be plenty of time to work on eradication in the spring.

Until next time –

Happy Gardening!

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Snow lays on the flower heads of Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)

Snow covers the flower heads of Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)

The beautiful fall season is upon us and that has many gardeners venturing out with shears in hand to cut and primp and otherwise tidy up in the garden. While it is a great idea to cut back some plants in the fall, there are a few that should be left uncut for horticultural reasons and others that might be left through the winter for aesthetic reasons.

Some plants SHOULD be cut back in the fall

Phlox paniculata with a pretty severe case of powdery mildew

Phlox paniculata with a pretty severe case of powdery mildew

Many common plant diseases, such as rust, botrytis, powdery mildew, and anthracnose, can overwinter in the old dead foliage left in your garden. If this diseased foliage is allowed to remain in the garden over the winter, it could re-infect your plants the following year. Good sanitation in the garden each fall can lead to fewer disease problems the following growing season.

The foliage of herbaceous perennials that showed signs of fungal diseases should be cut back to the ground in the fall. This is especially important for peonies, summer phlox, asters, hollyhocks, and Monarda. This foliage and other plant debris found on the ground under these plants should be carefully raked up and discarded in the trash – never compost it because most home compost piles do not get hot enough to kill the disease organisms.

Rudbeckia wears a "hat" of snow after a winter storm.

Rudbeckia wears a "hat" of snow after a winter storm.

Good reasons NOT to cut some plants back in the fall

Certain plants like Buddleia (butterfly bush), Caryopteris, Callicarpa (beautyberry), crape myrtle, and ornamental grasses should not be cut back in the fall. We recommend leaving these through the winter and cutting them back in the spring.

It’s really nice to have these shrubs and grasses in the winter garden anyway because they become sheltered havens and even playgrounds for the birds and the seed from the spent flowers and the Callicarpa berries will supply them with food throughout the winter.

A dusting of snow covers the remnants of fennel flowers

A dusting of snow covers the remnants of fennel flowers

Some garden “leftovers” like the stems, dried flowers, and seed pods of many perennials make the winter garden a place of beauty especially when they are coated with a dusting of snow. I like to leave the flower heads of Rudbeckia, Astilbe, fennel, tall sedums and Eupatorium in the garden all winter. They give interest, texture, and depth to the garden during a time when there is little else to catch the eye. The seed pods of yucca, Siberian iris, Lilium, hosta, and poppies are also very attractive.

These perennial “skeletons” impart a simple beauty to the winter landscape. They don’t add much color but this in itself is in keeping with the more monochrome nature of the winter season. I think of winter as a time where beauty in the garden comes more from silhouettes and shadows than from color and blooms. It’s a peaceful time when much of nature is quiet and “sleeping”.

The feathery plumes of Miscanthus remain attractive through the winter.

The feathery plumes of Miscanthus remain attractive through the winter.

Sorry, I got carried away dreaming of a beautiful, snowy winter! Anyway, my point is to think about your winter landscape when you are in the garden on cleanup duty this fall. Before you cut everything back to the ground, think about how some of your perennials might contribute to the beauty of your garden throughout the winter. The tall ornamental grasses are especially nice in the winter garden! Their dry foliage will rustle softly with the slightest breeze and the beautiful plumes stand out so beautifully against the blue winter sky. So many other plants if left uncut will add a touch of interest and beauty to your garden this winter.

Just think before you chop – that’s my message for this week in the garden!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Snow covers old Astilbe flowers

Snow covers old Astilbe flowers

Hydrangea Annabelle under a light cover of snow.

Hydrangea Annabelle under a light cover of snow.

Sedum 'Autumn Fire' in winter.

Sedum 'Autumn Fire' in winter.

Miscanthus plumes against a brilliant blue winter sky.

Miscanthus plumes against a brilliant blue winter sky.

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Daddy Longlegs feeds on a stink bug

“Stop the presses,” Nicholas (Copper Hill Images) e-mailed me, “more photos to follow!!!” If you read my last post, Nicholas was the one who sent me all the cool pictures of the praying mantis eating the stink bug. When I received this e-mail, I was really excited to see what else he had found that was so interesting. I was pretty sure it would have something to do with stink bugs and I was right!

A daddy longlegs feeding on a stink bug.

A daddy longlegs feeds on a stink bug.

He proceeded to send me 4 photos of a Daddy Longlegs feasting on a stink bug! Well who would have thought that a daddy longlegs would eat a stink bug, let alone be able to catch one? BUT, did the daddy longlegs actually catch the stink bug he was eating? Good question!

Being a biologist at heart, I began to do some research on these long-legged critters that I used to love watching as a kid. I came up with some interesting trivia!

Did you know?

Apparently, there is a common myth floating around that: “Daddy longlegs are one of the most poisonous spiders, but their fangs are too short to bite humans.” True? NO, definitely not!

There are two very different critters that are referred to as “daddy longlegs”; the one that I think of as a “daddy longlegs” (also called harvestmen) which is NOT a spider but a member of the Order Opiliones and the “daddy longlegs spider” (also called a cellar spider) which IS a true spider in the Order Araneae. Here is an example of a common name being attached to two very different critters. This happens all the time in horticulture, too, which is why at Viette’s we refer to all plants by their botanical name. It helps avoid confusion.

A daddy longlegs spider

A daddy longlegs spider or cellar spider on my ceiling at home. Note the longer 2-part body.

Anyway, true daddy longlegs or harvestmen have a small oval body with 8 very long legs. They differ from spiders in that their body is not divided. The body of true spiders is divided into two separate parts, the cephalothorax and the abdomen. In harvestmen, these parts have been fused creating their characteristic pill-shaped body. They also have only 2 eyes (at most) and don’t have silk glands or venom glands.

True spiders have 8 eyes which are found on the cephalothorax and 8 legs which are attached to the cephalothorax. They also have both venom glands and silk glands.

The “daddy longlegs spiders” or cellar spiders make webs of silk and catch small insects which they subdue with venom injected through short fangs. They feed by sucking the fluid from the bodies of their prey. There is no evidence that their venom is harmful to humans.

Daddy longlegs feeds on a stink bug

This Daddy-O is really chowing down! Yum!

True “daddy longlegs” or harvestmen are typically not hunters but they will sometimes wait in ambush for small soft bodied insects which they catch and consume. They do not have venom glands or fangs and are definitely not deadly to humans! Mostly, they are scavengers and the main part of their diet consists of dead organisms, decaying plant material, and fungi. They are commonly found in woodland areas.

Another interesting tidbit is that, unlike true spiders that typically only suck the fluids from their prey, these guys can consume small chunks of food. So it seems that this stink bug was most likely already dead and the daddy longlegs was just cleaning up the aftermath. Question answered.

You learn something new everyday, that’s what makes life interesting!

Okay enough about stinky stink bugs – but these photos from Nicholas were too cool to not share! Next time I’ll talk about something beautiful from the garden – I promise!

Until then – Happy Gardening!

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