Archive for October, 2012

Heavenly Blue Morning Glories

My mother-in-law was a wonderful gardener. She planted the most amazing gardens around their beautiful stone home in Chestnut Hill, PA, just north of Philadelphia. Of course I didn’t really appreciate them until I started working at Viette’s and began learning more about plants and horticulture. I had always had a vegetable garden but until then, I had never really developed an interest in flower gardening and landscaping.

I remember how delighted she was when I first started working at the nursery 26 years ago. We would often stroll through her gardens and talk about perennials and gardening in general. We went to the Morris Arboretum several times and also spent a day at the Philadelphia Flower Show one year. It was really nice because it helped create a very special bond between us.
Gardening tends to do that – don’t you think?

Our rhododendrons aren't nearly as grand as the ones in Chestnut Hill

Our rhododendrons aren’t nearly as grand as the ones in Chestnut Hill but they’ll get there eventually.

Most of her gardens were shade gardens because there were lots of beautiful mature trees surrounding the house. Several grand old rhododendrons were planted around the big wrap around porch and these provided a spectacular show in the late spring.

Instead of grass, the front yard was mostly covered with a beautiful purple-leaved Ajuga and patches of velvety, bright green moss because there just wasn’t enough sun for a lawn. I remember thinking how cool that was!

Her perennial gardens were full of really interesting and unique shade loving plants that she had collected over the years. I remember being excited that I was able to identify most of them and even give the botanical names for them. Thanks, Andre – she was quite impressed!

Such a glorious blue!

Such a glorious blue!
Even the spent flowers are interesting.

I would often bring her a bunch of Viette perennials when we went up for a visit. She would get so excited and we would walk around the gardens to find just the right spot for each one and then we would plant them together.

One of her favorite things to plant, though, was ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory. She always had some of these beautiful twining vines growing in a patch of sun somewhere in one of the gardens. They were so pretty! When they moved out of the big house and into a smaller place, she moved a lot of her perennials as well so she could start a new garden there – and still, every year, she always planted some ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories!

The spiral bud of a morning glory is beautiful in its own right.

The spiral bud of a morning glory is beautiful in its own right.

When she eventually moved into a small apartment on the ground floor, she planted her Heavenly Blue’s in her patio garden off the living room. Eric always had to pay a visit to the upstairs neighbor so he could lower strings down from her deck to the garden below to give the morning glories something to climb on. Her neighbor never minded though because eventually the morning glories made it up to her deck and provided beautiful flowers for her to enjoy!

The flowers of this vining plant are a glorious deep sky blue and as their name implies, they open early in the morning and fade by mid afternoon. But even as they fade, they add interest because of the unique way that they melt away with the petal tips slowly curling into themselves. Even the flower buds add an interesting touch with their unique spiral shape.

Heavenly Blue Morning GloryEric’s mom is no longer with us and we miss her dearly. But this year, in her honor, we planted some ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories on our deck. They have been blooming beautifully all summer and are actually still blooming now even though the foliage has completely died back. The vines have matured to a beautiful red and every morning several brilliant new blue flowers open up reminding us of a wonderful mom and lifting our spirits as we have breakfast.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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White pine shedding 1-year old needles

Help! A lot of the needles on my pine tree are turning brown and falling off. What’s going on? Should I be worried? Is my tree dying?

White pines shed the previous year's needles each fall.

White pines shed the previous year’s needles each fall.

We often get questions like this in the fall. The keyword here is “fall”. Everyone is used to the deciduous trees coloring up and dropping their leaves in the fall but many are not aware that pines and many other evergreens also go through a natural “leaf” drop at this time of the year.

But they’re evergreens! They’re not supposed to lose their needles.

The difference is that evergreens don’t drop all of their “leaves” at one time like deciduous trees and shrubs do so it normally goes unnoticed.
Every year all evergreens, including the broadleaf evergreens, shed at least some of their older foliage. When this leaf or needle drop occurs and how much is shed depends upon the species.

Since we aren’t accustomed to thinking of fall needle drop as being a normal occurrence for pines and other evergreens, many people automatically assume that they have an insect or disease problem when this happens. They’re quite relieved to find out that it’s normal.

1-year old growth drops it's needles while the current season's growth remains green.

1-year old growth drops it’s needles while the current season’s growth remains green.

Pines as a group shed their oldest needles in the fall. Most pines keep their needles for 3 to 5 years spreading out the needle drop over that period. White pines, on the other hand, hold their needles for only one year. Because of this, in certain years, the needle drop on white pines can be rather dramatic. This seems to be one of those years. At least in our area of the Shenandoah Valley, the white pines seem to be full of yellowing needles and this can be a bit alarming to a homeowner.

Why do you notice this in white pines especially?

White pine needles turn yellow then brown before they drop

White pine needles turn yellow then brown before they drop in the fall.

It’s because, since they only hold their needles for one year, variations in growth rate from one year to the next can have an effect on the percentage of needles that are shed in a given fall. When you look carefully at white pine branches in the fall, you should see that the needles at the ends of the branches (the current year’s growth) are healthy and green and that the one year old needles behind them towards the interior of the tree are the ones that are yellowing and turning brown. Eventually these will be shed.

When environmental conditions favor good, strong spring growth, the lush, new foliage will usually hide the shedding needles behind it. In these years, the natural needle drop in the fall is less obvious.

Browning needles on the one-year old white pine growth

Last year’s needles have turned brown.

However, if new growth in the spring is slowed due to drought for instance, this growth will be shorter and will produce fewer needles than the previous year’s growth (assuming a normal growing season in that year). This sometimes means that a higher percentage of the needles on the tree are one year old needles and when these needles begin to turn yellow and brown in the fall, it becomes much more noticeable (especially if there was a good growing season the year before).

This seems to be the situation for us this year. During the time when new growth was forming on the white pines, our temperatures were above normal but rainfall was well below normal. This resulted in reduced spring growth and consequently, it’s possible that more needles may be shed this fall than are retained on the tree. Interesting, huh?

So now you know and you can rest assured that your white pines are probably not sick or insect infested – they are just shedding … naturally!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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A cover crop of mixed greens and root crops

Planting a cover crop after harvesting your vegetable garden is a great way to replenish soil nutrients (especially nitrogen), loosen the soil, rebuild soil structure, reduce weeds, and control erosion over the winter months. They also add some often much needed organic matter to the soil.

Clover is commonly planted as a cover crop.

Clover is commonly planted as a cover crop.

Wow! What a lot of benefits!

The practice of planting a cover crop to revitalize your vegetable garden soil is one way to make your garden more sustainable.

Winter cover crops, often referred to as “green manure”, are generally sown in the fall, allowed to grow all winter, and then are cut (if necessary) and tilled into the soil in the spring before the planting season. The nutrients that have been assimilated into the roots and foliage are then returned to the soil to be used by your vegetable plants during the growing season. Good stuff, right?

There are a variety of different types of seed that can be used for cover crops, but probably the most common are some of the rye grasses, clovers, alfalfa, oats, buckwheat, and various brassicas.

Mark's "edible" cover crop

Mark’s “edible” cover crop

This fall Mark has decided to “reap” some additional benefits from his cover crops – at least the ones he planted in his vegetable garden. Instead of planting some of the more traditional cover crops, he decided to try some edible crops (edible to humans, that is) like winter lettuce, spinach, beets, daikon radish, kohlrabi, rutabaga, and turnips as a fall cover crop.

Back in early September, Mark planted a mixture of these seeds in the vegetable garden and they have been growing beautifully over the last month. The area has filled in well and formed a dense cover of deliciousness!

Mark cuts some lettuce leaving the roots and crown of the plants.

Mark cuts some lettuce leaving the roots and crown of the plants.

The lettuce is especially nice right now and, since the vegetable garden is here at the farm, we’ve all been harvesting some nice handfuls to take home. Before he let us loose in the bed, however, Mark was very careful to instruct us on the “proper” way to harvest these greens to maximize their effectiveness as a cover crop. According to Mark, one of the tricks to harvesting the lettuce when it is grown in a wide bed as a cover crop is to gather a handful and cut the leaves above the growing point with a sharp knife or scissors leaving the roots and crown in place.

This accomplishes two things. First, when the roots are left, they hold the soil in place so it is less likely to splash up and get the nearby lettuce leaves dirty – which means less time spent washing the lettuce in the kitchen. Second, since the lettuce crown is also left behind, it will soon develop new leaves and not only will you be able to harvest from the plant again but it sustains the “cover” in the cover crop. Seems ideal!

After cutting, no bare soil shows and the remaining lettuce stays clean.

After cutting, no bare soil shows and the remaining lettuce stays clean.

In a month or so we should be able to harvest some of the other crops like the beets, turnips, and kohlrabi. We’re already harvesting a few daikon radishes and they are delicious. I’m curious about the kohlrabi as I’ve never eaten it before. Mark insists that it is delicious and sweet when it matures in the cooler weather of spring or fall so I’ll have to give it a try. I guess we’ll have to minimize the harvest of the root crops to some extent though in order to maintain the benefits of these deep rooted vegetables as cover crops.

Daikon radish develops a long edible root that grows deep to breakup compacted soil

Daikon radish develops a long narrow edible root that grows deep and works to breakup compacted soil

I am really interested to see how hardy the winter lettuce is and whether it will be able to survive some of the hard freezes we are sure to have in the not too distant future. I’m a little skeptical about that but time will tell. I’ll be sure to report back! It does seem like the ideal type of cover crop especially for a vegetable garden.

In the meantime, at least by Thanksgiving, I’m definitely going to harvest some of those rutabagas. When I was little, I hated them but my grandfather always told me that if I didn’t eat my rutabagas, I would get scurvy for sure! It scared me so much that I always (mostly) sucked it up and cleaned my plate. Ha! Now I like them! Maybe he was right, I haven’t gotten scurvy yet!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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White grubs under the sod

Dead patches in the lawn are typical signs of grubs

Dead patches in the lawn are typical signs of grubs

Andre has the most beautiful lawn.

It’s lush, it’s thick, it’s a lovely deep green …

So when Mark asked me to take some pictures of grubs in his lawn, I was really surprised.

But sure enough, when I went down, I saw several brown patches in the front lawn; one of the telltale signs of grub activity. Some of these patches were quite small and not very obvious but there were also some larger areas that were completely dead.

Damaged turf peels back easily

Damaged turf peels back easily revealing the grubs.


As is typical of turfgrass that has been fed on by white grubs, the grass in these damaged areas was very easy to peel up because the grubs had literally consumed most of the roots that held it in place. As the turf was rolled back, the soil underneath was littered with white grubs. I have seen pictures of this in books and online, but I’d never actually seen it in person. It was pretty impressive.

White grubs are the larval stage of scarab beetles, a large family of heavy-bodied beetles which include the Japanese beetle, June bugs, and European chafers. They are typically white or pale gray in color with brownish or orange heads and six legs near the head. When found in the soil, they are usually curled up in a characteristic C-shaped position.

White grubs are usually found curled up in a c-shape.

White grubs are usually found curled up in their characteristic C-shape.

Japanese beetle grubs usually get blamed for a lot of the turf damage in our area but I think these grubs may be the larvae of one of the chafer beetles. There were thousands of these reddish brown beetles swarming around at night in July so I wouldn’t be surprised to find a lot of chafer grubs in the soil this fall.

The problem with grubs is that by the time you see the damage to the lawn, it is almost too late to get good control. Understanding the life cycle of these lawn pests is important in determining the optimal time for controlling them.

A heavy infestation was found beside a willow tree near the pond.

A heavy infestation was found beside a willow tree near the pond.

Fortunately, the timing of the life cycle is similar for most of the grubs that feed on grass roots. The cycle begins when the adult beetles emerge from the ground in late June and July, mate, and begin laying eggs in the grass.
Well, I don’t know – which comes first the beetle or the egg!

Anyway, in about 2 weeks or so, the eggs hatch and young larvae (grubs) begin to feed on the roots of the grass. From late August through October, the grubs grow, molt, and continue to feed heavily on the plant roots. This is when you will begin to see damage to the turfgrass.

A grass plant with roots eaten by grubs (right) compared to undamaged grass plants (left)

The roots of the grass plant on the right were eaten by grubs. Undamaged grass plants have healthy roots (left).

Once the weather turns colder and the soil begins to cool down, the grubs stop feeding and burrow down deeper into the ground. At this point applying grub control products is pretty much a waste of time and money. In the spring when the soil warms a bit, the grubs begin to move up toward the surface again and feed on the roots for a short while before they pupate near the surface. Spring treatments are not as successful as late summer treatments because these larger grubs don’t feed much in the spring and the pupae are fairly resistant to insecticides. The adults emerge in early to mid summer and the cycle begins again.

The best time to go after these grubs is when they are small, close to the surface of the soil, and actively feeding on the grass roots. This usually means that most of August is the prime time to apply a grub killer. In September and early October, the grubs are bigger but are still close to the surface and actively feeding on the grass roots.

  • From August through mid-October, control products containing the active ingredient trichlorfon (Dylox) such as Bayer Advanced 24 Hour Grub Control work well when applied according to the label directions.
  • From May through mid-August, grub control products such as Bonide Annual Grub Beater, Bayer Advanced Season Long Grub Control, or Scotts GrubEx Season-Long Grub Killer can be applied according to the label directions to control grubs in the lawn. (These pesticides may not be available in all states.)

Before deciding on a control strategy, it’s important to determine if chemical control is even warranted. Generally there is a threshold number of grubs (more than 10 grubs per square foot of lawn) above which it might make sense to consider applying a grub control product. There are specific sampling methods that can be used to estimate the number of grubs per square foot in your lawn. The results of this sampling will help you determine whether treatment is necessary. Healthy vigorous grass can usually withstand small populations without much damage and control measures are usually not needed.

Skunks further damaged the turf when they dug for the grubs by the willow tree.

Skunks further damaged the turf when they dug for the grubs by the willow.

A side effect of a heavily or moderately infested lawn is that critters like skunks, raccoons, and moles really love to eat these fat, juicy grubs and will often tear up the lawn digging for them. We saw evidence of this in one heavily infested area at the farm.

Looking at the numbers of grubs that we found in some sections of Andre’s lawn, I think he needs to get out there this weekend and spot treat with a grub control before it’s too late!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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