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Common dodder covers some host plants

On a walk in the Smoky Mountains last summer, we came across a patch of plants that were covered with what looked like yellow Silly String. It was crazy looking! Strands and strands of fine golden strings were draped over and twining around these poor plants.

Common dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) covers some host plants

Common dodder (Cuscuta gronovii)
covers some host plants

Eric knew what it was right away – dodder; a parasitic vining plant also known as scaldweed, strangleweed, devil’s hair, devil’s guts, love vine, and many other equally descriptive common names.

Dodder (Cuscuta spp.) is an annual plant that is effectively leafless and has contact with the soil only as a young seedling. These plants do not manufacture chlorophyll so they are unable to produce their own food through photosynthesis like green plants can. With the exception of the first few days after germination, dodder is entirely dependent on a host plant for the water and nutrients needed to complete its life cycle – an obligate parasite!

Flowers of common dodder

Flower clusters of common dodder

Despite its lack of chlorophyll, dodder IS a flowering plant and produces many clusters of tiny flowers from June through the fall. If pollinated, the flowers will form seeds just like other like flowering plants. In fact over the course of a season, a single dodder plant is capable of producing thousands of seeds!

Dodder seeds typically germinate in the spring and the seedlings, which have thin, vine-like stems, grow upwards and twine around the first solid object they encounter. Since the dodder seeds generally drop to the ground under the mother plant, the seedlings normally germinate among suitable host plants. For the first few days of growth, the dodder seedlings survive on nutrients stored in the seed. If they do not contact a host plant within 5-10 days, they will run out of food and die.

Dodder stem produces haustoria which penetrate the host stem

Dodder stems produce haustoria
which penetrate the host stem

Once dodder contacts a host plant, it quickly twines around the stem of the plant and small structures called haustoria are produced along the dodder stem. The haustoria penetrate the vascular system of the host and begin to extract carbohydrates and water from its stem. At this point, the dodder plant is completely supported nutritionally by the host. The original (seedling) stem of the dodder eventually withers and this parasitic plant loses contact with the soil.

Once attached to a host plant, dodder continues to grow and reattach in multiple places along the host stem. Individual plants will often spread to nearby host plants creating a mass of stringy orange stems which can cover large areas. This is what we came across on our hike in the Smokies.

A tangle of dodder stems intertwine to form a stringy mat.

Many dodder plants intertwine to
form a tangle of stringy stems.

Parasitic organisms rarely kill their hosts since they rely on them for sustenance. Dodder is no exception and, though they may weaken and stunt the growth of the host plants, they generally do not kill established plants. However, if they attach to seedling plants, they can seriously weaken them and may end up killing these young plants.

If it becomes established in agricultural fields, dodder can cause a significant reduction in crop yield. Alfalfa and sugarbeets are common host plants for some species of this parasitic plant. It can also infest ornamental plants including many perennials and annuals. Japanese dodder (Cuscuta japonica) often parasitizes trees and shrubs, including many types of fruit trees.

Seed capsules of common dodder contain up to 4 seeds each.

Seed capsules of common dodder
contain up to 4 seeds each.

This is one unusual plant!

It can become a serious garden pest and unfortunately it is usually difficult to control. If you pull the stems off the host plant, any haustoria that remain embedded in the host stem will resprout and continue to parasitize the plant. If it is allowed to set seed, thousands of seeds can drop to the ground!

A pre-emergence herbicide can prevent the germination of dodder seeds but these seeds have a hard seed coat and have been found to remain viable in the ground for more that 20 years! Yikes!

One recommendation for control of dodder in the garden is to completely remove all the host plants and replace them with a non-host species. Thus any dodder seedlings that germinate will not find a suitable host and will die off.

If you find this crazy parasite in your gardens, I hope you are able to win the battle against it!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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These days everyone is concerned about proper nutrition and what we put into our bodies; but what about our turfgrass and the plants we grow? How do we take care of their nutritional needs?

Good rich soil provides the perfect growing environment for your plants

Good rich soil provides the perfect
growing environment for plants

Soil is obviously very important to plant growth. It not only provides a physical medium in which your plants grow, it is also a reservoir of nutrients, air, and water – three requirements for plant growth.

Most of the nutrients needed for the growth and development of plants are absorbed from the soil by the roots. Over the seasons, these soil nutrients become depleted and must be replenished or plant health will decline.

Because the makeup of the soil is so important to the health and well-being of your plants, it should become very important to you as a gardener.

Awareness of the properties of your garden soil will allow you to adapt your cultural practices so your soil environment will be most conducive to healthy plant growth, whether it be a flower garden, vegetable garden, or your lawn. The nutrients that will give you a thick, lush, and green lawn are very different than the nutrients required to have a thriving and productive vegetable garden.

Understanding Plant Nutrients

There are 17 chemical elements known to be essential for plant growth, flowering, and fruiting.

Primary macronutrients

Maintaining a lush green lawn requires more nitrogen and correct pH.

Maintaining a lush green lawn
requires more nitrogen
and correct pH

The primary macronutrients, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), are used in the largest amounts by plants and are thus prone to deficiency in soils. These nutrients are the primary ingredients in most garden fertilizers and the percentages of each are prominently displayed on the bag as the N-P-K numbers. These percentages are always presented in the same order – nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium.

Nitrogen is required for healthy vegetative growth (leaves and stems) and is especially important in young plants. High levels promote dark green leafy growth but not fruits and flowers. Thus a fertilizer higher in nitrogen is great for lawns and leafy vegetables but disastrous when you are trying to grow tomatoes!

Phosphorus is important in all functions of plant growth but especially for root development and growth, and in the production of flowers, fruits, and seeds. Starter fertilizers, which can be used when transplanting trees, shrubs, and perennials, are much higher in phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium. They stimulate root growth and help avoid transplant shock. “Bloom booster” fertilizers with 20%-30% phosphorus help promote flower bud formation.

Potassium is important for the overall vigor of plants. It promotes disease resistance, root formation, and cold hardiness. Plants deficient in potassium will have weak roots and stems.

Secondary macronutrients

The secondary macronutrients are calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S). These nutrients are very important to plants but are used in smaller amounts than the three primary macronutrients.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients, also known as trace elements, are not nutrients of lesser importance to plant health but those that are required in minute quantities. With the exception of iron and manganese, micronutrients are seldom deficient in our garden soil, however, some can become unavailable to plants when the soil pH is either too high (alkaline) or too low (acidic). Maintaining your soil pH between 6.0-6.5 will keep these nutrients available to the plants. Some fertilizers are fortified with micronutrients.

What’s in YOUR soil?

A bountiful harvest depends on building and maintaining proper soil nutrients.

A bountiful harvest depends on
providing proper soil nutrients.

So your lawn is thin and patchy or your vegetable garden is not producing like it used to or your plants just aren’t blooming? It may well be your soil. You probably need to add fertilizer, but what kind and how much? Is your soil deficient in nitrogen? Maybe phosphorus? Perhaps the pH is not optimal. How would you know?

The easiest way is to get your soil tested. Sound hard? Not really and the analysis from these tests will allow you to make informed decisions on how to improve the soil environment for your lawn and garden plants. If you choose to have your soil tested professionally, you will not only be provided with a detailed analysis of the soil but you’ll also receive specific recommendations for amendments to improve the pH and also nutrient content if necessary.

Easy Online Soil Testing …

ThinkSoilThe lawn care professionals at MyTurfandGarden.com have developed a unique, on-line and very straightforward way to test your soil. It’s called Think Soil™.

A soil analysis from Think-Soil™ will provide essential information on relative levels of organic matter, pH, lime requirement, cation exchange capacity (CEC), and levels of plant-available nutrients contained in your soil.

Simply go to MyTurfandGarden.com, and click on Soil Testing in the top menu. There you can read all about it and see how easy it is.

Follow the instructions or watch the YouTube video demonstrating how to take a soil sample from your garden or lawn. Within days of placing your order, you’ll receive a pre-addressed envelope, a leak proof zip-lock baggie, and detailed instructions. After you collect your soil sample, just place the baggie with the sample into the pre-paid envelope and give it to your postal carrier. There is no cost for shipping.

Once your soil sample arrives at the lab, the test results will be ready for you to review within 36 hours. You will be notified by e-mail as soon as the test results are available.

Beautiful lawns and gardens require proper nutrition and soil properties

Beautiful lawns and gardens require
good soil with proper nutrients
and amendments

In addition, Think-Soil™ consultants are available toll free to help with any questions about your test results and to offer advice on what’s needed to remediate your soil. For the first time you’ll have the information needed regarding how much product is needed, how best to apply it, and when to do it.

For the month of August, Think-Soil™ has an introductory offer of 50% off all soil tests plus no cost to send your soil sample.

Doing a soil test is one of the best ways to insure that you amend your soil to provide just what your lawn, vegetables, and/or your flowers need to thrive.

Remember next month is Lawn Care Month. September marks the beginning of the best season for most lawn projects. Be ready!

“Don’t Guess – Do the Test!”

Until Next Time – Happy Gardening!

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Crocus are blooming

Male spring peeper calling; photo credit Jack Ray

Male spring peeper calling;
photo credit: Jack Ray

The other night as I drove past a small pond on my way home, the chirping of the spring peepers was deafening! But I was happy to hear them!

Spring is near!

The peepers are singing, the crocus are blooming, and the daffodils are beginning to open! It seems that spring is slowly creeping into the Shenandoah Valley.

It has definitely been an odd winter this year with some very warm stretches mixed in with a few very cold periods. Some perennials have been fooled and many broke into growth earlier than they should have.

In late January, we received the following question via our Discussion Board:

Hosta damaged from a late freeze can be cut back

Even hosta damaged from a
late freeze can be cut back

I am in Toano, Virginia. We had an unusually warm start to our winter. As a result, my blueberries bloomed, my peonies started to come up as did my daylilies. Some of my daylilies never really went dormant. I covered the daylilies and peonies with pine straw but the daylilies grew almost 6 inches. Now the leaves are burned and chewed. Can I cut the leaves back to the ground now or [should I] leave them alone?

This type of plant damage is not unusual but it normally occurs in the spring when a late freeze damages the tender new spring growth. It’s a bit crazy that there was this much growth during a warm spell in the winter but, as we all know, it was a crazy winter!

Freeze damage on daylilies resembles insect damage.

Freeze damage on daylilies
resembles insect damage.

Here is my response to the question:

Yes it would be fine to cut the damaged foliage of your daylilies back. You can cut them right to the ground. The “chewed” leaves are probably a result of freeze damage rather than damage from a chewing pest. Re-cover the plants with the pine straw after you trim them back.

Pine straw makes a great, long-lasting mulch and the daylilies and peonies will grow right up through it.

Cut Liriope back before growth begins in spring

Cut Liriope back before
growth begins in spring

March is also a good time to trim back the old foliage of some of your evergreen perennials – especially Liriope, Helleborus, and Epimedium. It is so much easier if you do this before the new foliage begins to grow. You can pretty much just gather up the old leaves in a bunch and cut the stems close to the ground. Just be careful that there is no new growth in the way of your shears before you snip!

The old fronds of evergreen ferns should also be cut back now. Last weekend, I trimmed the old foliage from my Dryopteris, cinnamon ferns, ostrich ferns, and Christmas ferns.

Trim back old fern fronds before new growth occurs

Trim back old fern fronds
before new growth occurs

The crowns of these ferns were still firm and tight but the fiddleheads will soon begin to pop up and unfurl. After that, it will become harder to clean up the old foliage without snapping off the tender new fronds.

Ornamental grasses should also be cut back now. This is another group of perennials that is important to cut back before new growth begins. One of the easiest ways to do this is to cinch the old foliage together with twine or a bungee cord and use hedge shears to cut the clump back near the ground. Since it’s already tied up, you can just carry the whole bundle out of the garden. Nice and neat!
Here is a video showing just how easy this method is.

Oh and don’t forget!

Mark pruned this overgrown lilac back to the ground.

Mark pruned this overgrown
lilac back to the ground.

If you have some shrubs that have outgrown their space, now is the time to do any heavy rejuvenation pruning. This can be done with boxwood, holly, yew, rhododendron, azalea, and any others that have dormant buds in the bare wood. Even spring bloomers like overgrown lilac and forsythia can be pruned back hard to rejuvenate them and improve blooming, in addition to getting them back to a manageable size.

Normally, spring blooming shrubs are pruned after they finish blooming but severe pruning, where they are cut back hard (sometimes to the ground) is best done while they are still dormant in late winter or early spring. Of course you will sacrifice the bloom for the season but they should bounce back and bloom even better next spring or maybe the spring after.

Winter is on the way out! It’s time to get back in the garden!

Until next time – Happy Spring!

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Dandelions fill a field

Dandelion flowers are bright and cheery even if they are a bothersome weed.

Dandelion flowers are bright and cheery even if they are a bothersome weed.

Dandelions are popping up all over in the fields near Viette’s. I guess spring is really here! The sight of these cheery yellow “wildflowers” reminded me of one of my favorite posts on the Viette View’s blog. I am re-posting it today as a fun (and hopefully informative) spring read.

Happy spring – Enjoy!

I was thinking about dandelions the other day – actually I’ve been thinking about dandelions a lot lately. They seem to be everywhere; the ubiquitous lawn weeds! Actually, I think they’re rather pretty – so bright and colorful in the lawn, like an oasis in a giant sea of green! When we were kids, my sisters and I had to go out each spring and dig up all the dandelions we could find in the lawn. “Be sure to get the whole root or it will grow back,” my dad would say! If only they would just bloom and then go away, it would have saved us from a lot of work! But of course they don’t.

Dandelion seed heads are filled with seeds ready to float away on a gentle breeze.

Dandelion seed heads are filled with seeds ready to float away on a gentle breeze.

They have the nasty habit of going to seed and then spreading all over the place. First you have a few in the lawn, and then you have an epidemic!

And, what little kid can pass up the temptation of blowing on a dandelion seed head just to watch the little “parachutes” float away on the wind? I know I did it – but it sure annoyed the grownups when I was caught in the act!

So … you have this great idea that you’ll chop the dandelions off with your mower before they go to seed. But, after you mow, they’re still there blooming away in all their golden glory. How very frustrating!

Well, here’s an interesting characteristic of dandelions that I never really noticed before. Have you ever watched the progression of their flowering cycle? When they are blooming, the flower stems are relatively short which keeps the flowers close to the ground. This is especially evident when they are growing in your lawn. Dandelions have developed this clever little adaptation as a defense against herbivory – and what is your lawn mower but a giant mechanical herbivore (in a manner of speaking)! Flowers and foliage that grow close to the ground are less likely to be nibbled off by browsing herbivores/lawn mowers.

In a spurt of growth, the stems carrying the dandelion seed heads shoot upward well above the original height of the flower.

In a spurt of growth, the stems carrying the dandelion seed heads shoot upward well above the original height of the flower.

Once the flower closes and the seeds are formed, the dandelion stem undergoes a rapid growth spurt. Seemingly over night, the stems shoot up 2 or 3 times the height of the original flower stalk. Of course this occurs right after you’ve mowed the lawn and the tall, fluffy seed heads rise well above your neatly manicured lawn!

How do they do that?

That’s evolution for you! Survival of the quickest (grower that is)! And there they are, like a bunch of time bombs above your beautiful grass ready explode and spread their seeds with the next puff of wind!

There are products you can use to eradicate these bothersome weeds from your lawn. Pre-emergence weed killers can prevent dandelion seeds from germinating or post-emergence weed killers such as Bonide Weed Beater Ultra or Gordon’s Speed Zone can destroy the weed itself. Bonide Weed Beater Complete and Bayer Advanced Season Long Weed Control for Lawns contain both pre-emergence and post-emergence herbicides. Always read and follow the label directions whenever you use any pesticide!

But before you rid your landscape of dandelions entirely, remember the wise words of Eeyore, “Weeds are wildflowers, too, once you get to know them!”

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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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!

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Solitary ground bee and nest holes

In mid-April, I received this interesting e-mail.

We have bees swarming low all over our front yard. We have had them for the last 5 years. They show up about this time of year and stay for about three weeks. They make round holes in the ground about the diameter of a pencil. They are not aggressive. I can walk right thru them and they won’t sting me – I’m not even sure they have stingers. I think each bee has its own hole. Per the County Extension Service (Hanover County), I should be happy to have these bees because they aerate my yard. But I am not happy because the area the bees have taken over is getting bigger. Soon they will be everywhere…

Andrenid bee. Cheryl Moorehead, individual, Bugwood.org

Andrenid bee.
Cheryl Moorehead, Bugwood.org

Jane also sent some pictures along with her question.

These bees are solitary ground bees (Andrenid bees), sometimes called “mining bees” and it appears that they have decided that Jane’s lawn is the perfect place to dig their nests. The problem is that once they find a nesting site they like, many future generations will continue to nest in that same location unless the conditions change and become unfavorable. This can be annoying if it happens to be in the middle of your lawn as in Jane’s case.

But …

Andrenid bees are important pollinators and should not be killed unless they pose a real problem or danger. They are usually only around for about four to six weeks in the spring and unlike the social bees (e.g. yellow jackets and hornets), these solitary ground bees are not aggressive and generally will not bother or attack you. They are actually very docile critters as Jane says; in fact only the females have stingers (which are actually modified ovipositors) but they generally don’t sting unless they are really provoked or happen to get stuck in your clothing. The males lack a stinger all together.

A female andrenid bee sitting in the entrance hole of its nest.

A female andrenid bee in the entrance
hole of its nest. Nice photo Jane!

Solitary ground bees emerge from their underground nests in the early spring. Male bees usually emerge first and hover low over the ground waiting for the females to come out. Once the females emerge and mate, they begin digging their nest in the ground. The entrance hole of the nest is about 1/4″ in diameter (about the size of a pencil) and is often surrounded by a mound of loose soil. The nest consists of a main tunnel that goes straight down (up to a foot deep) with many small chambers about ½ inch long going off to the side.

You can see why they are such good pollinators! Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org

You can see why they are such good
pollinators! Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org

Once the nest is built, the female bee collects pollen and nectar from spring blooming flowers and brings it into one of the chambers. She forms the pollen and nectar into a ball about the size of a pea and then lays a single egg on it. Once the egg is laid, she seals off the chamber and repeats the process until all the chambers in the nest are filled with food and an egg.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the pollen/nectar ball. They molt several times before they pupate and eventually emerge as an adult bee. The adults chew their way out of the chamber during the warm days of early spring and leave the nest through the main tunnel. There may be more than one generation in a season but the last one will overwinter in the nest and emerge in the spring.

An aggregation of ground bee nests in Jane's lawn.

An aggregation of ground bee nests
in Jane’s lawn.

Solitary ground bees prefer to nest in dry, well-drained areas with sparse vegetation. If they nest in the lawn, it’s usually in an area where the grass is thin. Sometimes there can be large aggregations of nests in an area (as in Jane’s case) and this can be both bothersome and alarming to the homeowner. These bees are great pollinators so we recommend that you encourage them to move on rather that trying to kill them off.

Since they avoid damp areas, one way to discourage them from nesting in your lawn is to set up a sprinkler and drench the area with about an inch of water once per week during the nesting period. Start this when you first start seeing them hovering around in the spring. This is not a permanent solution, though and they may well return the following year.

Ground bee holes in bare soil.

Ground bee holes in bare soil.

The best way to send them packing permanently is to change the conditions that make your yard attractive to these ground nesting bees. A healthy, vigorous lawn makes a terrible nesting site for ground bees so keep your lawn adequately fertilized, properly watered, and mowed at the correct height to encourage the growth of dense, lush grass. A thick layer of mulch will usually prevent them from nesting in your gardens since they prefer to nest in bare ground.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Special thanks to Jane for sending me these photos of her bees!

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What can be done with wood ashes from the fireplace or wood stove?

A toasty warm fire in the fireplace or wood stove is a great comfort on cold winter days but what can be done with the wood ashes that accumulate over the winter season? A common question that we get this time of the year is whether or not it’s a good idea to spread these wood ashes in the garden.

A cozy fire is so pleasant on a winter's evening

A cozy fire is so pleasant on
a winter’s evening.

The answer is … it depends.

In many circumstances, wood ashes can be very beneficial to lawns and gardens by providing important nutrients such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and some trace elements to the soil. Good stuff, right?

Well – not so fast.

Whether or not it is beneficial to YOUR garden depends a lot on the makeup of your soil and even what you are growing in the garden. You see, wood ashes are quite alkaline and unless they are used carefully, they can significantly raise the pH of your garden soil. This might be okay if your soil tends to be naturally acidic but for areas where the soil tends to be more alkaline like here in the Shenandoah Valley, wood ashes can raise the pH to the point that it becomes detrimental to many garden plants.

Maintaining proper pH levels in your soil is as important to the overall health of your plants as fertilizing, watering, and pest control. Why?

Blueberries require acidic soil to perform their best

Blueberries require acidic soil
to perform their best.

Soil pH affects nutrient availability for one thing. Certain nutrients like iron, copper, and aluminum become less available to plants in alkaline soils and other nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus become less available in moderately acidic soils.

The optimum pH for most garden plants is between 6.0 and 6.5 which is slightly acidic. Certain plants, however, prefer more extreme pH conditions. Shrubs such as rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, and blueberries prefer a more acidic soil; between 4.5 and 6.0. That’s why we often have a hard time growing beautiful, lush rhodies and azaleas here in the Shenandoah Valley unless we add a soil acidifier; our limestone-based soil has a naturally high pH.

Before you spread any wood ashes on your lawn or in your vegetable or flower gardens, have your soil tested – at least for pH but knowing the nutrient content would be helpful, too.

Wood ashes provide potassium and other nutrients but can raise the pH of the soil.

Wood ashes provide potassium
and other nutrients but can
raise the pH of the soil.

If your soil is low in potassium, wood ashes can provide this important nutrient but in general, it isn’t advisable to spread wood ashes in your garden if your soil pH is above 7.0 and you definitely should never spread them around acid loving plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas, and blueberries.

For use on the lawn, wood ash works much like lime except that it is more water soluble and thus works more quickly to change the soil pH. If lime is recommended, dry wood ash can be substituted at the same rate (or even a little higher) – just don’t spread them on a windy day!

In the vegetable garden, wood ashes can be used sparingly around tomatoes which grow fine in slightly alkaline soil and the extra calcium in the ashes can help prevent blossom end rot. Root crops like carrots, beets, and turnips can benefit from the extra potassium that the ashes provide. A few words of caution in the veggie garden:

  • Never spread wood ashes in an area where you plan to plant potatoes as they can raise the pH to the point that potato scab becomes a problem. Potatoes are less likely to develop scab if grown in acidic soil with a pH between 5.0 and 5.4.
  • Do not apply wood ashes at the time of seeding or around new seedlings. Excess salts in the ash can harm young seedlings.
  • Always spread the ashes out evenly and then work them into the soil. Never leave piles or clumps of ashes in the garden or on the lawn because excess salts from a concentration of ashes can leach into the soil and cause problems for the plants.
  • Ashes can also be added (sparingly) to your compost pile. Sprinkle them evenly in a layer and mix them into the pile. Don’t add too many at once.
Be sure to test your soil before spreading wood ashes in the garden or on your lawn.

Be sure to test your soil before
spreading wood ashes in the garden
or on your lawn.

If a soil test indicates that your soil will benefit (or at least not suffer) from a slight increase in pH and some additional potassium and/or lime, then by all means spread your wood ashes! It’s a great use for them and is certainly a cheap source of nutrients and trace elements. However, never use the ash from burning coal, pressure treated or painted wood, or from burned trash or cardboard in the garden as these contain harmful byproducts.

The bottom line – wood ashes can be a great soil amendment if used carefully and moderately. BUT, before you start spreading, be sure to have your soil tested!

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.
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  • 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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Vole runways wind through the dead grass after the snow melts.

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!”

Voles can do a lot of damage to trees, shrubs, and perennials in the landscape.

Voles can do a lot of damage to trees, shrubs, and perennials in the landscape.

The beginning of the poem, “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, came to mind when “Bo”, our field manager, came to me this morning exclaiming, “I’ve never in my life seen so many voles before!”

“Bo”, a.k.a. Tim, was bush hogging a field that hadn’t been cut for a long time and he had been watching hordes of voles (Microtus spp.) running in all directions to get out of the way of the tractor. Good thing they were able to hear (and feel) it coming from a distance so they all managed to flee to safety!

He called me over to the field so I could see the extensive runway systems and holes that the voles had created throughout the overgrown field. It was pretty impressive what these little critters had managed to do to this abandoned field.

Meadow voles can create major highways under the cover of snow!

Meadow voles can create major highways under the cover of snow!

In the spring of 2010, we had a post on our Discussion Board asking about “strange marks/trails in my yard … These trails are 1-2 inches wide with smooth turns. The grass is ripped out of the ground and deposited to the edges of the tracks. These appeared in the late winter after snow melt.”

He included some photos and it was pretty clear that they were vole runways. Voles can be very active under the snow because when there is snow cover, they don’t have to worry about predators as much and they can have a real party under there!

The same thing happens when there is a heavy cover of tall grass, although our resident barn owls have no trouble catching as many voles as their fluffy little owlets can eat – and that’s a lot!

Cozy entrance to a meadow vole runway.

Cozy entrance to a meadow vole runway.

In a field, voles usually aren’t much of a problem but in the landscape or orchard, they can be devastating to your perennials, shrubs, and trees. Plant injury from vole feeding can be severe enough to cause significant decline and/or death of many ornamentals and edibles as well. They absolutely LOVE Astilbe and hosta and we have lost many of our prize hosta to their voracious appetites. Although we have not experienced damage to our fruit trees so far, the tender bark of apple trees and other fruit trees is another of their favorite meals. Voles can girdle trees by chewing the bark or devour whole root systems causing the death of the trees.

In many cases, the damage from voles may go undiscovered until the decline or death of a particular plant is noticed. Trees and shrubs which have had their roots chewed will eventually begin to wilt and may even fall over. If the damage is severe, they can often be pulled right out of the ground with very little effort. In vegetable and perennial gardens, entire plants may disappear completely or be partially pulled underground.

So what can you do if you have voles in your garden?
Moles and voles can be difficult to get rid of and some say the only way is to trap them. Many of our gardening friends have had success with certain repellents such as:

    • Bonide MoleMax (Granules and Ready to Spray)
    • Bonide Repels All
    • Mole Scram
    • Liquid Fence Mole Repellent

These repellents are biodegradable and safe to use around children and pets when applied according to label directions.

MicrotusAnother effective way to protect plants and bulbs is to create a barrier between the vole and its lunch! Voles don’t like to tunnel through coarse materials, so when you plant, surround your plants with a coarse aggregate that has jagged edges. Espoma Soil Perfector is perfect for this; it’s safe, nontoxic, lightweight, and easy to use. Soil Perfector also promotes rooting and since it doesn’t breakdown, it creates a permanent barrier.

Tree guards are another effective way to protect your young trees from vole damage. The green tubes you see neat rows of in many fields are there to protect saplings from vole damage. When set-up correctly, they go several inches into the ground and prevent voles from reaching the tender trunks.

Here are a few more ideas to protect your trees and shrubs from vole damage.

If you have these critters in your garden – I’m so sorry! We have them now, too. We never had a problem with them when our outside cat was alive. He kept them out of the gardens for many years. I guess it’s time to replace him – I’m tired of my hosta disappearing!

Until next time, Happy Gardening!

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Persian Speedwell

Persian Speedwell (Veronica persica)

It’s very obvious that our spring has come early this year. The flowering trees at Viette’s are popping with amazing color and the spring bulbs are up and filling the gardens with more bright splashes of color.

Shepherds Purse surrounded by a sea of chickweed.

Shepherds Purse surrounded by a sea of chickweed.

But along with these very welcome spring flowers, come a host of not so welcome early spring bloomers which invade our carefully tended lawns and gardens; chickweed, henbit, mustards, wild violets, dandelions

These common garden weeds came early as well and are up and blooming profusely in my gardens and even in some of Andre’s gardens.

One of the earliest blooming spring garden weeds is chickweed (Stellaria). This annual weed is often categorized as a winter weed because it grows well in cooler conditions and it often forms bright green carpet of foliage as early as January or February – it even grows under the snow.

Chickweed flowers have 5 deeply cleft petals giving it the appearance of having 10 petals

Chickweed flowers have 5 deeply cleft petals giving it the appearance of having 10 petals

One of the keys to its success as a garden weed is that it can go from a seed to producing its own seed in as little as 30 days.
No wonder it’s so prolific!

If you want to look on the positive side, chickweed does have some redeeming characteristics. The seed is a great source of food for the birds and the name “chickweed” comes from the fact that the seed and tender young foliage was at one time used to feed domestic chickens. The foliage is rich in vitamin C and the plant can be used as a source of wild greens.
Hmmmm, I think I’ll stick with spinach!

Purple dead nettle

Purple dead nettle

Two other widespread winter annuals that are blooming right now are Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) and its closely related and equally invasive cousin Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). They are members of the mint family and can be seen blooming profusely all around us, turning whole fields into a sea of pink and purple. In fact purple dead nettle is currently creating quite the ground cover in our blueberry patch. I definitely need to work on that.

These annoying weeds often invade turfgrass and we get bombarded with questions in the spring about how to eradicate it. Of course, one of the best tips is to maintain a healthy, vigorous lawn through proper feeding, watering, and mowing. Mowing the grass high (no lower than 3″) will help to shade out most lawn weeds and a thick, well-fertilized lawn will usually outcompete the weeds.

Henbit is often confused with purple dead nettle and vice versa.

Henbit is often confused with purple dead nettle and vice versa.

Pre-emergence herbicides to control winter annuals like chickweed, henbit, and the others I mention in this post must be put down in late summer or fall before the seed germinates. It’s much to late for that now. Once they are growing, hand weeding or the use of post-emergence herbicides are the best way to control them, especially if you catch them before they get a chance to set seed.

Interestingly, henbit and purple dead nettle are kin to the beautiful (and better behaved) cultivated form of Lamium that many of us plant in our gardens; Lamium maculatum. The variegated cultivars, ‘Beacon Silver’, ‘Purple Dragon’, ‘Shell Pink’, and others are often used as attractive ground covers for the sun and shade.

More early spring “wildflowers” that we consider weeds …

Shepherds Purse with its unusual seed pods

Shepherds Purse with its unusual
seed pods

Shepherds Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is a very common winter annual that produces copious amounts of seed in their little seed pods that resemble the purses once carried by shepherds, hence the name. Each plant is capable of producing 40,000 seeds which can remain viable for up to 30 years – yikes! But – the seed is peppery and can be ground into a  mustard-like seasoning. Got hotdogs?

Two delightfully cute little wildflowers I came across in the grass at the nursery are Persian Speedwell (Veronica persica; seen in the banner above) and Field Pansy (Viola kitaibeliana).

These tiny field pansies are so cute!

These tiny field pansy flowers are so cute!

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I know these weeds can be annoying to have in your lawn and many people strive to eradicate them but their little flowers are just so adorable – how could you?

I’m just sayin’ …

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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