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Archive for the ‘Spring in the Garden’ Category

Gray treefrog

Our Tree Frog Friends are Back!

Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of our friendly gray treefrogs on the deck and around the front porch!  We’re happy to have them hang around to eat beetles, ants, and other insect pests that may plague our gardens!

Here is a post I wrote in May of 2014 when we first noticed these little insect predators!

Enjoy …

Well, spring is finally here to stay – I hope!

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady’s Slipper
Photo taken by Eric Jones

In fact, lately it seems that we have skipped spring and gone right into summer! It’s been downright hot out there the last few days!

It sure has been a roller coaster ride of high and low temps this season! Spring was very late this year and, with the exception of the redbuds, the flower show of blooming trees seemed to be less than spectacular. Eric is currently teaching his Field Botany May Term course for Mary Baldwin College and he comes in most days disappointed with the slow progression of spring and the lack of blooming wildflowers. They finally saw some Pink Lady’s Slippers on Friday.

Oak catkins

Oak catkins

Just two weeks ago, tiny oak leaves began to pop out and now they have expanded to nearly full size. The pollen-filled catkins are hanging down from the branches and every outdoor surface is beginning to be covered with oak pollen. The pine pollen won’t be far behind – I have just noticed that the male cones are beginning to develop on our big pines. Pollen season is upon us!

For several weeks, we have been hearing the trill of the treefrogs in the evening. This is always a sign that spring is near.

Male spring peeper calling; photo credit Jack Ray

Male spring peeper calling; photo credit Jack Ray

The spring peepers are one of the first treefrog species to emerge and begin singing. You can often hear them in early March. They were late this year and I just heard from my family in Vermont that they are now singing in earnest up there. The sound of their trilling can be deafening on a still night!

“Spring is here,” they seem to say!

Male gray treefrog with throat pouch expanded.

Male gray treefrog with throat pouch expanded. Very pale against the pole.

One warm morning last week as Eric and I were having coffee on the deck, Eric noticed a pale gray blob wedged beside the pole that holds our wind speed indicator. When I went closer to investigate, I discovered it was a treefrog which Eric later identified as a gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor). He was a cute little guy and was doing his best to blend in with the pole. Eric was able to get some good pics.

Gray treefrogs are common throughout the eastern US. They are large treefrogs with grayish skin that is surprisingly dry and warty for a frog. They aren’t quite as warty as a toad but more so than the typical frog.

Gray treefrogs are able to change their skin color to some degree in order to blend in with their background; sort of like a chameleon only the change isn’t quite as dramatic. He was very pale when he was up against the white pole but when he moved away from that light background, he slowly became a bit darker. It was very interesting.

Notice how his color darkened a bit when he moved away from the white pole.

Notice how his color darkened a bit
when he moved away from the white pole.

One of the distinguishing traits of treefrogs is the large discs at the tips of their toes. These toepads allow them to climb up vertical surfaces like our deck post. Apparently, gray treefrogs have particularly large toepads but we couldn’t see his toes very well – he kept them curled up under his body most of the time.

Treefrogs typically vocalize/sing at night but this guy started singing a little bit while he was on the deck – perhaps he was just confused! It was interesting to see his throat pouch balloon out each time he called. The males are the only ones that sing. They sing to attract the female frogs.

Gray treefrog calling. They usually call at night to attract females

Gray treefrog calling. They usually sing at night to attract females.

Frogs and toads are wonderful “friends” to have in the garden because they prey on many of the pests that are destructive to both our ornamental and vegetable plants. They eat insect pests like beetles (including cucumber beetles), crickets and grasshoppers, ants, earwigs, and cutworms.

Gray treefrogs have a distinctive light patch below their eye.

Gray treefrogs have a distinctive
light patch below their eye.

Like I said – great friends to have in your garden!

Toads are especially nice to have around because they LOVE slugs and even snails. Many gardeners put “toad houses” in their gardens just to encourage these warty friends to live amongst their plants. And contrary to popular belief – you can’t get warts from handling toads!

We were happy to find this little visitor on our deck. I hope he sticks around to feast on some of the bugs that get in our deck lettuce every year. I bet those nasty green aphids would be easy (and tasty) pickings for a treefrog!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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ButterflyBuddleia

Take time to stop and smell the flowers!

Children can't resist smelling the flowers!

Children can’t resist
smelling the flowers!

Have you ever noticed small children in a flower garden? They tend to immediately bury their little noses into the flowers and smell them.

We adults need to take the time to do the same – and many of us do! Especially when the daylilies are blooming at the nursery, I see so many people, adults and children alike, walking around with the telltale sign of flower sniffing – orange pollen on their nose!

The peonies and iris are blooming in the gardens now and many of these have a wonderful sweet fragrance.

Viburnum carlesii fills the air with its sweet perfume in the spring

Viburnum carlesii fills the air with
its sweet perfume in the spring

When planning a garden, it is important to not only consider form, structure, texture, and color in the flower bed, but also fragrance. Your sense of smell can often bring back pleasant memories of places and times in your past. Whenever I walk past a blooming Viburnum carlesii, I am transported back to my childhood home where a magnificent specimen of these intensely fragrant shrubs grew at the corner of our patio.

What wonderful memories!

What flower fragrances take you back? Roses, lilacs, honeysuckle …
Be sure to incorporate some of those plants into your gardens!

Peony 'Belle Chinoise' has a lovely fragrance

Peony ‘Belle Chinoise’ has
a lovely fragrance

You should plant pockets of fragrant flowers where you will enjoy them the most – near the porch, deck, patio, or poolside. Another good place for a touch of fragrance is along a favorite garden path or beside your sidewalk or driveway. If you place plants with fragrant foliage at the edge of your garden path, the fragrance will be released when you brush against it as you pass by. An interesting idea to keep in mind!

The fragrance of certain flowers is more obvious during various periods of time – when the weather is warm and the air moist, or when the sun goes down and the night bloomers emit their sweetness into the air. I love driving by a patch of wild honeysuckle in the early evening with the windows down – their sweet perfume just wafts into the open windows.
Such a delight!

The beautiful honeysuckle flowers fill the air with sweet summer fragrance

The beautiful honeysuckle flowers fill the air with sweet summer fragrance

Fragrance can be added to the landscape and garden through the use of trees, vines, shrubs, annuals, bulbs, and perennials. There are many fragrant choices in each of these categories.

Some fragrant spring flowers include:

Lilac Sensation

Lilac ‘Sensation’

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Magnolia
  • Calycanthus floridus (Sweet Shrub)
  • flowering quince
  • Daphne
  • Mock Orange
  • Lilac
  • Viburnum
  • Wisteria

Perennials and bulbs:

  • Convallaria majalis (Lily-of-the-Valley)
  • many peonies (like ‘Phillipe Revoire’, ‘Belle Chinoise’, and ‘Le Cygne’)
  • Dianthus
  • Primula
  • many tall bearded iris
  • Jonquils and hyacinths

For summer fragrance, try:

Fragrant flowers of Buddleia attract loads of butterflies

Fragrant flowers of Buddleia
attract loads of butterflies

Shrubs:

  • Buddleia (Butterfly Bush)
  • Clethra (Summersweet Clethera)
  • roses

Vines:

  • Clematis
  • Jasmine
  • honeysuckle
  • moonflower
  • sweet pea

Annual flowers:

  • Snapdragons
  • Cosmos
  • Four O’clocks
  • Nicotiana
  • marigolds
Astilbe bring color as well as fragrance to the shade garden.

Astilbe bring color as well as fragrance
to the shade garden.

Perennials:

  • Astilbe
  • Lilium (oriental lilies)
  • Lavandula (Lavender)
  • Nepeta
  • certain hosta varieties
  • some Monarda and Phlox paniculata hybrids
  • Perovskia (Russian Sage)
  • some daylily varieties
  • Yucca

With the fall comes:

  • Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
  • Sweet Autumn Clematis.
Many interesting varieties of lavender are available including a silver edged lavender

Many interesting varieties of
lavender are available including
a silver edged form

Fragrance from Foliage

There are many plants that produce fragrant foliage rather than fragrant flowers but the fragrance is none-the-less intoxicating. Try the many varieties of thyme, lavender, rosemary, basil, the mints, and a host of other herbs. Artemisia, hay-scented fern, sweet woodruff, lemon grass, lemon verbena, heliotrope, and scented geraniums are a few others that will add a pleasant scent to the garden or containers.

And, of course, everyone loves the many fragrant boughs of evergreens that are used at Christmas time to bring a spicy, nostalgic aroma indoors.

Until next time – Don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers!

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Freeze damage on quince flowers

Well it’s happened once again!

The foliage on some of the daylilies was damaged

The foliage on some of the
daylilies was damaged

Unseasonably warm temperatures in March have pushed spring along in the mid-Atlantic states; only to have below freezing temperatures the first week of April provide a wake-up call that warm weather is not here to stay just yet.

Frost and freeze damage to tender new growth is evident throughout the Viette gardens and we are definitely not alone in seeing plant damage from this sudden cold snap.

The following was posted on our discussion board yesterday morning:

I live in Hollywood, MD (southern MD) and this past weekend we had freezing temps and my hydrangea leaves were damaged. I have 5 plants total, 3 chest-high and two others a little taller. They were looking wonderful with the leaves coming in nicely. They are 5-7 years old. This is the first time I have seen damage like this at the beginning of the season. They are calling for freezing temps again Sat. night. I am planning on buying and putting plant sheets on them to prevent further damage but I am wondering if it is too late. I am so disappointed. I was so looking forward to their blooms this summer. Anyone have experience with this with any tips or what I should expect as far as blooms, leaves coming back?

The dogwood flowers froze and turned brown.

The dogwood flowers froze
and turned brown.

I have had experience with this!

I even wrote a blog post about it at the time. The same thing happened in the spring of 2012 after a very warm March. In early April of that year the temperatures plummeted – just like this year. There was major damage to many shrubs (including my lacecap hydrangeas) and perennials that had broken dormancy earlier than normal due to the unusually warm March temperatures. The dogwood flowers were beginning to open and they got zapped as did the tender new growth on the boxwoods and on a few young native hollies growing in the woods.

New holly leaves turned black but tougher older leaves were fine

New holly leaves turned black but
tougher older leaves were fine

The new growth on the boxwood was severely damaged

New growth on the boxwood
was severely damaged

Boxwood and hollies can be trimmed back to remove any damaged foliage. As for the lacecap hydrangea, it’s best to wait and see. You don’t want to risk cutting off flower buds that might still be alive! Fortunately for me, I did not cut my damaged hydrangeas back that spring and they eventually recovered with lush new growth and they bloomed beautifully in the early summer – much to my surprise and delight!

 

This peony bud was zapped and some of the foliage was damaged a bit.

This peony bud was zapped and
some of the foliage was damaged.

This year it may be different, although it is too early to tell how extensive the damage may be. Walking around the gardens just now, it didn’t seem too bad. Some of the daylily foliage was nipped and a few of the peony buds froze but all-in-all, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. That may change after this weekend, though.

Most of the hosta in the gardens are covered now so I wasn’t able to see if they had been damaged. They were covered before the worst of the cold.

Hosta covered in the gardens

Hosta covered in the gardens

At least most of the herbaceous perennials like daylilies and hosta can be trimmed to remove damaged foliage and they will respond with a flush of new growth. The cold damage will not usually affect the flowering of these summer blooming perennials.

Shrubs that bloom on new wood, such as butterfly bushes (Buddleia), Caryopteris, crape myrtle, and some hydrangea, can be pruned later in the spring to remove any damaged foliage or branches without affecting their flowering. In fact, we recommend waiting until the danger of cold weather has passed before doing any pruning on these shrubs.

As I walked around, I also noticed that many of the blossoms on the quince and the early blooming crabapple varieties had turned brown from the freeze.

Quince flowers were killed but the tougher foliage was not hurt.

Quince flowers were killed but
the tougher foliage was not hurt.

The pink quince flowers just melted out.

Most of flowers on the
pink quince turned brown.

It’s really too bad because they were just beginning to get really pretty!

The crabapple flowers and the tender new foliage were damaged

Crabapple flowers and the tender
new leaves were damaged

The buds that haven’t opened yet seem mostly sound.

That’s good news for the rest of the spring bloom but …

This cold snap is not over yet!

The nighttime temperatures are forecast to remain in the low 30’s for the rest of the week and by early Sunday morning they may drop into the upper teens in some of the colder areas. Brrrrrrr!

Hopefully the forecast is wrong but don’t count on it! Be sure to protect your plants tonight and keep them covered through Sunday morning.

Maybe this will be the last of the cold weather. Time will tell …

Until Next time – THINK SPRING!

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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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Emerging bean seedlings

Now that you have your seeds and you’ve decided which seeds to start indoors and which to direct sow, the question becomes, when do you plant?

Determining when to start seeds for transplants

Tomato seedlings growing under lights

Tomato seedlings growing under lights

Starting your seeds indoors at the right time will give you nice, healthy, transplant-size plants at the ideal planting time in the spring. The correct timing depends upon where you live (what your average last frost date is) and the type of vegetables you grow.

Cool season crops like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are tolerant of colder temperatures and transplants can be placed out in the garden earlier than warm season crops.

In general, cool season crops for transplanting should be grown indoors for about 4 to 6 weeks, but they can be planted outdoors 2 or 3 weeks before the last frost date. For some, these crops can be started pretty soon!

Peppers grow slowly and should be grown for about 8 weeks before transplanting

Peppers grow slowly and should
be grown for about 8 weeks
before transplanting outside

Warm season crops should be grown indoors for about 6-8 weeks but they should not be transplanted into the garden until a week or two after the last frost date. It doesn’t do any good to plant warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant early because, if the soil and/or air temperature is not optimal, the plants will just sit and not grow much until it gets warmer. These plants need warm temperatures to spur growth.

Here is a link to calculate (by zip code) your average date of last 32°F temperature (50% column on the chart).

Johnny’s Selected Seeds has developed a chart that will give you a date range for starting your seeds indoors and also when it is best to transplant your seedlings outdoors. All you need to do is input your spring frost-free date. You might want to use a more conservative date for this – maybe the 20% column rather than the 50% (average date) column.

When to sow seeds directly in the garden

Root crops like carrots do best when direct-sown in the garden

Root crops like carrots do best
when direct-sown in the garden

The timing for direct seeding into the garden is really more dependent on the spring weather conditions and the temperature of the soil. In general, it is safe to sow seeds directly in the garden after the last frost date but most vegetable seeds have specific soil temperature requirements for germination. It’s not the air temperature but the soil temperature that is critical in seed germination. Seeds begin growing when the soil reaches the optimal temperature for germination.

Seeds can rot in the ground before they germinate if planted in soil that is too cold – a waste of time and money!

Peas can be planted early since they are more cold hardy plants. Pea seeds can germinate in soils as cool as 40°F; whereas cucumbers germinate best when the soil temperature is 70°F and will not germinate at all if the soil temperature is below 50°F.

As you can see, it can be really helpful to have a soil thermometer!

Your seed packets will often provide information on the optimal soil temps for germination and this is the best guideline to follow. Many seed websites, like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, provide detailed growing information including when to direct seed each variety.

A ball of soil too wet to break apart when tapped. Garden needs to dry out more!

A ball of soil too wet to break
apart when tapped. This garden
needs to dry out more!

A word of caution!
Never work in the soil when it is wet – even if the soil temperature is perfect for planting. Digging or tilling in wet soil (or very dry soil) can destroy its structure by compressing the soil particles tightly together so that the pore spaces that hold air and water are lost. This hinders aeration and drainage and can quickly turn good soil into something almost as hard and crusty as concrete.

It is very important to make sure your soil is dry enough before you get in there and tromp around in the garden. You can test this by taking a handful of soil and squeezing it into a ball. If the ball breaks apart when you tap it, the soil is dry enough to be worked.

Using Phenology to determine planting time

Rather than going by a certain calendar date, some gardeners use phenology to determine the optimal time for various gardening chores, such as planting, pruning, weed control, etc. Phenology is the study of the timing of certain events in nature (for instance, the swelling of buds or the appearance of flowers) in relation to weather and climate.

For generations, many farmers and gardeners have relied on these observations of nature rather than the calendar. Plants and animals don’t know when the first day of spring is or what the average date of last frost is but they do respond to changes in local temperature and precipitation and their responses can give us a pretty good idea of how spring is progressing (or not) in any particular year.

The flowering sequence of forsythia provides a timeline for spring gardening chores

The flowering of forsythia
provides a timeline for many
spring gardening chores

“Indicator plants” are commonly used as a guide for planting and other spring chores.

Lilacs have proven to be a good indicator plant but one of Andre’s favorites is forsythia.

He says …

  • When the forsythia are in bloom, it’s time to direct sow cool-season crops in the vegetable garden. These include: spinach, lettuce, peas, carrots, chard, beets, and radishes.
  • When the forsythia are in full bloom, it is time to prune your hybrid tea roses, floribunda roses, and grandiflora roses.
  • Before the forsythia petals drop, apply a pre-emergent herbicide to control crabgrass in your lawn.
  • When the forsythia petals begin to drop, cut your Buddleia (butterfly bushes) back to about 12″-18″ from the ground. Use this same timing for cutting back your Caryopteris and Vitex.
  • When the forsythia have finished blooming, you can safely plant potatoes.
Lilac are another good indicator plant

Lilacs are another good indicator plant

Here are some others:

  • When daffodils bloom, plant spinach, beets, onions, and kale
  • When apple blossoms drop their petals or the lilacs are in full bloom, plant bush beans, pole beans, cucumbers, squash, and corn
  • When peonies flower, transplant tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and melons

Well, there you have it; a few good tips on when to do some planting!

Until next time –

Happy Planting!

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The rhododendron bald at Craggy Gardens

A few weeks ago, Eric and I took a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway. We tried to time our trip to coincide with the rhododendron bloom in the North Carolina mountains, specifically at Craggy Gardens on the parkway just north of Asheville. While the native rhododendrons, Rhododendron catawbiense, were just beginning to show some color, the flame azaleas and mountain laurel were in full bloom. It was beautiful!

Mountain laurel in full bloom.

Mountain laurel in full bloom.

Azalea gall on native flame azalea

Azalea gall on native flame azalea

When we stopped to take some pictures, we noticed that a few of the azaleas had some strange growths on them that looked like some type of gall. It turns out that this was the azalea gall which is quite common on both native and hybrid azaleas. Catawba rhododendron is also quite susceptible. In fact, the majority of the rhododendrons growing on the rhododendron bald above the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center had at least a few of these unusual, fleshy galls.

I’ve written about galls on plants before but most of those I have talked about were galls that developed in response to insect activity.

Azalea gall has caused swelling and distortion of young leaf tissue of this native rhododendron

Azalea gall has caused swelling
and distortion of young leaf tissue
of this native rhododendron

The azalea gall, Exobasidium vaccinii, is caused by a fungus which infects the leaves, flowers, and branch tips of azaleas, rhododendron, and certain species of Vaccinium like blueberries and cranberries.

The fungus causes abnormal growth in the tissues that are infected. These swollen tissues form the gall and cause distortion of the leaves, stems, or flowers.

Azalea galls can be light green, pinkish, or (as we most often observed) white.

This pale green gall will become white once the spore layer forms

This pale green gall will become
white once the spore layer forms

During the late spring and early summer, a white spore layer forms on the surface of the gall. This may be why all the ones we saw were white. These spores are dispersed by wind or rain to healthy leaves or flower buds on the same or different susceptible plants. The fungus remains dormant in these tissues until the following spring when new galls form soon after the plant begins to grow. Once the spores are released, the gall begins to turn brown and eventually dries up and falls to the ground.

Cool, wet weather favors the dispersal of the fungal spores. Up on the ridge tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains where native rhododendron and azalea are prevalent, fog and misty rains are common in the spring and summer. These conditions are perfect for the spread of this disease.

The rhododendron bald at Craggy Gardens is enveloped in a misty fog

The rhododendron bald at Craggy Gardens is enveloped in a misty fog

A rhododendron flower is completely distorted by a gall

A rhododendron flower is
completely distorted by a gall

Though the azalea galls may look harmful, normally, they do not have an adverse effect on the plants. However, if cool, wet weather persists during the time of spore dispersal, the disease can spread more readily and result in the formation of many more galls the following spring. This can sometimes have a negative effect on the health and vigor of the plant.

Usually only a portion of the flower head is affected.

Often only part of the flower head
is affected by the gall.

Azalea gall is a common problem in many hybrid azaleas. Physical removal of galls is the simplest control method. Galls should be pruned out with shears before the white spore layer forms.

If galls are prevalent or conditions are favorable for the spread of the disease, fungicide applications may be warranted. Bonide Fung-onil or Bonide Mancozeb can be applied according to the label directions to control azalea leaf and flower gall. Begin applications just prior to bud break in the spring.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Asparagus beetle damage

Asparagus beetles cause mostly cosmetic damage

Asparagus beetles

The other day I had a call from a gardener who was having trouble with asparagus beetles chewing on his asparagus. These beetles don’t usually do a lot of damage but they can make the spears look a bit ragged especially at the tip. If not controlled, however, a heavy infestation of beetles and their larvae can cause defoliation of the asparagus ferns during the summer. This can weaken the plants and reduce spear production the following spring.

Asparagus beetle eggs and stem damage

Asparagus beetle eggs and stem damage

One of the worst parts about having asparagus beetles is that they lay their eggs all over the asparagus stems. These black cigar-shaped eggs are very prominent, sticking out at a right angle up and down the stalk like little prickers. Not very appetizing to say the least! If you have asparagus beetles, you will have the eggs and lots of them! There are two types of asparagus beetles in our area; the common asparagus beetle (Crioceris asparagi) and the spotted asparagus beetle (Crioceris duodecimpunctata).

Common asparagus beetle

Common asparagus beetle

Spotted asparagus beetle

Spotted asparagus beetle

Asparagus beetle eggs stick out from the stem. Damage to the stem from feeding is also evident.

Damage to the stem from feeding

The common asparagus beetle is the most prevalent and unfortunately is the one that does the most damage to the plant. Most of the time, unless there is a heavy infestation, the damage is purely cosmetic. The beetles feed on the stem leaving shallow grooves and scars on the surface. In some cases, the spears can become disfigured, ragged, and bent over like a shepherd’s crook. However, it’s the presence of those little black eggs sticking out all over the spears that is often the most objectionable part of an asparagus beetle invasion! Luckily, they are fairly easy to rub or scrape off when you are preparing the spears for consumption.

Control of Asparagus Beetles

Our asparagus patch is relatively small so I normally just hand pick the beetles and squish them when I find them. If you have a larger bed, this can become an overwhelming job. If you cut the spears when they are still pretty short (about 8″ or so), they normally don’t have much damage and early harvesting has the added benefit of removing any eggs before they have a chance to hatch.

Lady beetle adult

Lady beetle adult

Natural predators in your garden can reduce asparagus beetle eggs and the caterpillar-like larvae. A small parasitic wasp will attack and destroy the eggs. Lady beetles, which are similar in coloration to the spotted asparagus beetle but are round rather than oval in shape, will consume both eggs and larvae of the asparagus beetle. Another trick is to leave a few of the asparagus unharvested. Asparagus beetles are attracted to mature plants with a lot of foliage so these plants can become “trap” plants and the emerging spears are more likely to be left alone. In large plantings or when there are more severe infestations, pesticide applications may be warranted.

Bonide Neem Oil and Pyrethrin are good organic controls for asparagus beetles. These can be used pre-harvest or post-harvest according to the label directions.

For organic control post-harvest only, Bonide Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew which contains spinosad is a good option.

Chemical insecticides to control asparagus beetles include Bonide Eight (permethrin) and Sevin (carbaryl). Be sure to apply according to the label instructions and ALWAYS follow the pre-harvest interval recommendations.

NEVER spray an insecticide (organic OR chemical) when the bees are active. Just because a pesticide is listed as organic doesn’t mean it isn’t toxic to bees and other pollinators. The best time to spray is in the early morning or in the evening when they are less likely to be collecting nectar. Once the foliage begins to yellow in the fall, cut the plants to the ground and throw the foliage in the trash rather than into the compost pile. Weed and rake up all plant debris around the asparagus bed. This will reduce overwintering sites and help lower populations of these beetles the following spring.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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