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Good Bugs, Bad Bugs

Many gardeners seem to think that any UFI (Unidentified Flying Insect) is a potential threat to their tomatoes or the spinach. When in doubt, they swat it, squish it or submerge it. But most bugs are not bad – and many are helpful.


We all know that lady bugs are good. They eat aphids and in fact, some enterprising businesses are selling lady bugs by the thousand. My advice? Don’t bother buying them. If you’re not spraying your flowers and vegetables with insecticides, you will naturally have some ladybugs and other aphid eaters. Of course insecticides will throw off the balance of nature, and the pests may dominate. But a good healthy garden should attract beneficials like ladybugs in the quantities that you need. Bring in a thousand? They might fly away the same day.


According to the lovely little guide book, Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically by Jessica Walliser, a ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids in its lifetime. But there are plenty of other good bugs. This book, by the way, is simple, well illustrated and sturdy enough to take to the garden. I recommend it.


The assassin bug is just that: a voracious predator that will eat cabbage worms, potato beetles, cucumber beetles, cutworms, earwigs, Japanese beetles, Bean beetles, tomato hornworms, and more. They are generally black, and about half an inch long with a broad body and bristly front legs. They have a sharp curved beak they use to penetrate other insects, allowing them to inject a poison to kill them and turn their insides into a “smoothie” they can drink. They can sometimes pierce human flesh if handled roughly.


Lacewings are beautiful green flying insects with diaphanous wings. You’ve probably seen them on your window screens, attracted to the lights – they’re about an inch long. But it is their larvae that do they work in the garden – they eat about 100 aphids a day! The larvae are brown and white with big mandibles for grasping prey. They are half an inch long, and fast moving. The adults eat nectar and pollen of flowers and weeds including dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod so a few weeds are good to have – alonmg with plenty of flowers.


Parasitic wasps are generally small – from 1/32 of an inch to half an inch – but do great work. There are some 200 different kinds, according to Good Bug Bad Bug. Many have noticeable ovipositors for laying eggs, but don’t be confused and think they are stingers – these beneficial insects do not sting. They generally lay their eggs in the bodies, larvae or eggs of other insects. Once their eggs hatch, the young parasitic wasps feed on their prey.


One type of parasitic wasp feeds on the tomato hornworm. If you see small white “grains of rice” on the back of a hornworm, these are actually larvae of a wasp. Don’t kill the hornworm! Just move it off, away from your tomatoes, and let the wasp larvae do their thing. Like the lacewings, the adults feed on nectar and pollen, so a diverse garden with continuous blooms is a good attractant.


One of the things I like about the book Good Bug Bad Bug is that it offers many solutions to an insect problem. Row cover, a breathable spun fabric, is offered as a solution to striped cucumber beetles, and it reminds the reader that cukes are insect pollinated so you can’t keep it on once your vines start to produce blossoms. The book also suggests interplanting with marigolds, catnip or tansy or putting out yellow sticky cards to catch the culprits. Mulch, the book says, will help keep females from contact with the soil where they lay their eggs, too. I didn’t know that.


Potato beetle

Potato beetle

Potato bugs are my current nemesis. I plant my potatoes much later than my neighbors (in late June) which often means the bugs are already busy by the time my spuds come along. This year they have found me anyway. Every day I go down the row of potatoes, flipping the foliage over to look for adults and orange egg masses underneath the leaves. If I spot eggs, I remove that part of the leaf and put it in soapy water. This sounds tedious, but is actually just a 5 minute job for my 65 plants – and it makes a huge difference.


Diligence counts: I skipped a couple of days of patrol, and found potato bug larvae eating my plants. And picking 50 larvae is a lot more work than removing one leaf. So I shall keep up my vigilance. And if the larvae seem to be winning, I can always spray a biological control called Bt. This is a bacterium that will control them, but damage nothing else. But not all Bt is the same: ask for one that controls potato beetles (San Diego or tenebrionis).


Try to get over your aversion to bugs in the garden, if you have one. Just because a bug is unknown to you is no reason to squish it. It may be an assassin bug, ready to help you!


Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is also a garden designer, gardening coach and public speaker.


Trees and Shrubs for the Shade

I grew up in a small town in rural Connecticut. Behind the house there was a brook and a hardwood forest with a high canopy of old maples that created a cool space for spending hot summer days. My favorite understory tree was a small, bushy tree that had very fragrant leaves and stems, which I decided must be witch hazel, as the barber splashed witch hazel on my neck after each haircut, and it was vaguely the same. I frequently chewed on the leaves and green twigs in lieu of the chewing gum that was forbidden to me.


This summer I discovered the name of that plant: spicebush (Lindera benzoin). One of my gardening clients had requested one for her garden, and as soon as I crushed a leaf, I was transported back 60 years. I knew it immediately. Most winters my part of New Hampshire drop to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, so any plant that will survive here must be rated for Zone 4 (Minus 20 to minus 30). I checked my favorite tree book (Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants), and sure enough, spicebush is rated for Zone 4. I will get my own as soon as I find the right place on my property to plant it.


From Dirr’s book I learned that spicebush can get to be up to 12 feet tall and wide, and is in the laurel family. There are 80 species of Lindera, both deciduous and evergreen (L. benzoin is deciduous). Apparently it blooms in early spring but the yellow blossoms are only one fifth of an inch across, so not overwhelming (I have no memory of it blooming). Fall leaf color is yellow. Dirr’s book says it does well in moist, well drained soils in full sun or half shade, though in my experience it will do well in dry shade in open woodlands. Dirr says spicebush is not often found in nurseries, but E.C. Brown’s Nursery in Thetford, VT has several nice ones.


Another woodland plant that I would like to try is leatherwood (Dirca palustris). Like spicebush, this is a native shrub that will grow in shady areas but this one prefers moist to wet soil – and I have plenty of that. Apparently it only gets to be 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, and is more open and spreading in shade than in sun. It is has small yellow flowers that bloom very early in the spring, well before the leaves emerge. Native Americans used the bark to make bow strings, fish lines and in the manufacture of baskets. Tough stuff.




Three years ago I planted a sweetshrub or Carolina allspice (Calycanthus florida). The first 2 years I grew it in full sun with deep, rich moist soil. Both years the leaves yellowed – as if the sun were too strong and bleached them out. So last fall I moved it into a grove of old wild apples that provide full shade, and it seems to be doing much better. It is blooming now, and has put on considerable new growth.


Sweetshrub grows to be 6 to 9 feet tall with a 6 to 12 foot spread. Some varieties have very fragrant flowers, but mine is not. Dirr’s book suggests buying the shrub is in bloom in early summer, as the fragrance varies from plant to plant. It is adaptable to acid or alkaline soils, and is hardy to Zone 4.


Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is another fabulous shrub that will grow in deep shade (or even full sun), and I have grown it these past 20 years or so, even though I am on the northern edge of where it is successful. Mine produces delicate three-quarter inch diameter flowers, cups of white with pink veins. After cold winters I don’t always get flowers. There are cultivars with flowers in white to rose, and everything in between. Definitely buy when blooming. It does best in acidic soil that is cool and lightly moist. I have seen it growing abundantly in the wild at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden Connecticut, where there is a high, dry, open hardwood forest.


Climbing hydrangea on barn wall

Climbing hydrangea on barn wall

Of all the shade-growing woody plants, the most dramatic on my property is the climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris). I have vines that completely cover the north side of my barn – and that only get a few hours of sun each day. It is in bloom now, with flower corymbs (flat topped inflorescences) that have both fertile and sterile (showy) blossoms and are 6 to 10 inches across.


Climbing hydrangea is slow to get established – mine took 6 years – but once it begins to grow, it quickly covers a surface. It will attach itself to stone or brick, but needs to be strapped onto wood surfaces, at least at first. Mine has grown through the cracks on the barn and is now self-supporting. Its vines can grow 60 feet or more, and has support arms for its flowers that reach straight out from the barn that are up to 3 feet long. It is truly dramatic.


So don’t despair if your property is mostly in the shade. There are these plants, and lots more, that will amaze and delight you.


Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.


There’s Plenty to Do in the Vegetable Garden

I got an inquiry recently about vegetable gardens: is it too late to start one? In a word, no. But you will have to act quickly if you want one because most garden centers are just about sold out of vegetable starts, though many still have large individual tomato plants in pots for sale. But even if you don’t find 6-packs of tomatoes or peppers for sale, many things can be started now by seed (though it is too late to start tomatoes and peppers from seed).


I planted 6 Hungarian wax hot pepper plants in early June, and quite frankly they look awful. Peppers like hot weather, and we haven’t had as much as they’d like. If I see some nice hot pepper plants for sale I’ll buy them – but I’ll plant them in big planters, not in the ground. Then if they are doing well in the fall, I can bring them indoors when it starts to get cold. I know a fellow who keeps hot peppers growing inside most of the winter.


Broccoli does well in the fall, and I often plant it by seed in mid-July. I prefer to start seeds in 6-packs rather than in the ground, but either way works. By planting seeds in multi-packs I can keep an eye on the seedlings better, and control how much moisture they get.


Replant lettuce regularly

Replant lettuce regularly

Lettuce is a crop that needs regular re-planting. I like to start lettuce every couple of weeks all spring, summer and fall. Read the seed catalogs or packages carefully – some kinds of lettuce do better in the heat of mid-summer than others, and most companies will tell you which varieties do best in the heat. I recently called Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine (www.johnnyseeds.com) to see what they recommend. I was told that Romaine types are the most heat tolerant, things like ‘Muir’, ‘Concept and ‘Nevada’. I’m trying these, and I’ll report back in the fall on how mine did.


If you want to grow lettuce in mid-summer, plant it in places that get some shade in the afternoon – on the east or north side of the corn or tomatoes, for example, or shaded by a tree or building. And be sure to keep the soil moist – you will need to water lettuce during hot, dry times – especially just after planting seeds.


You can start carrots and beets for fall crops now, too. Carrots need a deep, loose soil, so work in plenty of compost and pull out the rocks before planting to get long, beautiful carrots. Raised beds work great for carrots because you can easily build up a deep fluffy soil.


It’s good to thin and weed spring plantings of carrots and beets by the Fourth of July. They should be thinned to an inch apart by now. And carrots, which require quite a lot of nitrogen in the soil for best results, can benefit from a topdressing of fertilizer now. I sprinkle some Pro-Gro organic fertilizer alongside each row of carrots, and then lightly scratch it in with my favorite weeding tool, the CobraHead (www.CobraHead.com).


It’s not too late to plant a (second) crop of green beans, either. Plant seeds directly in the ground an inch deep and 3 inches apart in staggered double rows that are at least 18 inches apart. Or you can plant pole beans, which take up less garden space and keep on producing all summer. Bush beans produce a heavy load of beans over a 3 week period, and then they’re done. That’s great for freezing, but I like some pole beans for daily consumption. ‘Kentucky Wonder’ is the tried-and-true classic pole bean.


Cilantro and dill are herbs that tend to bolt (go to seed) fairly quickly. But you can re-plant seeds now for a constant supply. I forgot to plant basil seeds this spring, but bought some nice young plants in 4-packs recently. But if your plants are big and are starting to flower by now, be sure to pinch the tops back. Basil gets bitter when it flowers. The more you pinch it back (or cut off big sections of leaf), the more it will bush out and produce more leaves.

Blueberries produce best in acid soil

Blueberries produce best in acid soil


My blueberry bushes are doing well this year and are loaded with small green berries. This is a good time to weed out the space around the bushes and put down some ground bark or wood chips to keep the weeds down. Right after blooming is a good time to add some fertilizer, but even now would be fine. Blueberries need very acidic soil, so use a fertilizer like Holly-Tone or Pro-Holly that has sulfur in it. Or sprinkle some garden sulfur around the bushes after you weed them out and before mulching.


 My work in the garden is never done. But that’s okay – having a few weeds keeps me out of trouble – there’s no time for mischief.


Henry Homeyer is a gardener, gardening coach, and the author of 4 gardening books. His web-site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.



Planting Flowers

Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

I love flowers, all kinds of flowers. I probably spend more than I should on seeds, annual flowers in 6-packs, 4-inch pots of trademarked annuals at $5 a pop, perennials, and flowering trees and shrubs. I can get a “runner’s high” just by installing flowers in a new garden space. When I went outside on June 17 with a notebook and a camera, I had 57 species of flowers in bloom, and many more on the way.


I’d guess I planted my first flowers when I was five. Probably some sunflower or morning glory seeds at my Grampy’s home in Spencer, Massachusetts. I spent part of every summer with him from the time I was six until he died on my twenty-first birthday in April of 1967.


But having nice flower beds is more than just buying flowers. Soil preparation and planting make the difference between “bodacious” and “barely bumbling by”. My grandfather was an organic gardener long before it was fashionable, and he taught me how to grow things well by example. He made compost and used it to nourish his soil – and his plants.


Soil can almost always be improved by adding compost. I buy it by the truck load because even the most dedicated gardener rarely has enough. Unless you quit your day job to work on your compost pile, you’ll need to buy compost. It’s rare that you can make enough from left over kitchen scraps and garden waste. For small projects, bagged compost is fine, but most garden centers and many dairy farmers sell it by the pick-up truck load at a reasonable cost.


When preparing a new bed I weed it, and then add 2 to 6 inches of compost on top and mix it in everywhere. This also loosens the soil, getting it ready for plants that have fine root hairs that do the work of penetrating the soil to get moisture and minerals. Soil needs to be loosed to a depth of at least 8 inches, so a garden fork is a good tool to use.


Even if the soil is already dark and rich, I still add a shovel of compost to the planting hole. Perennials get some organic fertilizer, too – half a cup or so in an 18-inch diameter planting hole. Many annuals like lean soil (with little nitrogen, a key ingredient of fertilizers) – so I don’t generally give them any fertilizer. And I don’t fertilize trees and shrubs at planting time – I don’t want them to put on much new growth their first year. And Mother Nature grows tree just fine without fertilizer, you know.


I like organic fertilizers because they provide lots of different minerals that are not present in chemical fertilizers, and they release their nutrients slowly. Pro-Gro is a good one made in Vermont, and Garden-Tone is another nice one. Be careful not to add too much chemical fertilizer if you go that route – it can burn root hairs.


Loosening roots of a perennial

Loosening roots of a perennial

If you’re planting something that has roots that are tangled up or circling the root ball, you will need to loosen them – either with your fingers, or with a hand tool. I like the CobraHead weeder (www.CobraHead.com) for it – it’s my steel finger. At this time of year annuals that come in 6-packs are notorious for roots that are all tangled up. I don’t worry about breaking a few roots in the process of teasing them apart – that will just stimulate them to grow. If you just plop a plant with tangled roots into the soil, the plant might never figure out how to get its roots out into the soil.


Be sure to read the planting guide on the tag from the nursery. Full sun is 6 hours of sun or more each day. Part shade means morning sun, but not hot afternoon sun, or sun filtered through a light canopy of leaves. You can grow full sun flowers in part sun, but they will not flower as much.


Grampy was frugal. He loved his garden, but he didn’t go to garden centers to buy plants – but of course, there really weren’t many back in the fifties and sixties. He started much from seed, and he divided and shared perennials with others, and I imagine he got plants from friends, too.


But if you get flowers from friends, be sure you are not getting the roots of noxious weeds with your gift plant. Study the roots carefully, and pull out anything that is not attached to your new perennial. If your friend’s garden has goutweed, don’t accept any plants, especially iris (which seems prone to bringing goutweed roots tangled in its own). Color is a good way to identify weed roots – they are often different than roots of a perennial flower.


My older sister, Ruth Anne, quoted Grampy as saying, “When you move a plant, dig it up enough soil with it so that it will remember where it came from.” That’s good advice. Soil differs from location to location, and the microbes that favor a perennial at my house might not be present at yours – unless you introduce them.


Lastly, water! New plants need soil that is lightly moist. Check your plants daily, and create a moat of soil around the plants to catch your water, especially on hillsides. Be good to your flowers, and they will reward you handsomely.


Henry is a gardening consultant, coach and the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.


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Gardening with a Chain Saw

Posted on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

Bill Waste of Lyme, NH likes to say he gardens with a chain saw. Bill is a good humored fellow, and likes to joke. But I’ve seen him use the chain saw to get a growing bed ready to plant, so his claim is, at least partially, legitimate. What Bill was doing in the vegetable garden with his chain saw was preparing straw bales for planting.


Bill lives on a hill high above the Connecticut River in Lyme, NH with a great view, but limited space for gardening. He is surrounded by trees and the property has rocky soil that would daunt even a hard-working pilgrim. This was sheep farming country for good reason – growing vegetables is hard work in rocky soil. But each year Bill grows tomatoes, basil, pumpkins and squash. This year and last he planted his squash and pumpkins in hay bales.



Bill Waste with chain saw

Bill Waste with chain saw

If you lack good soil, or have invasive weeds that terrorize your garden plot, you might want to think about growing some vegetables in hay bales, too. It’s easy, and you don’t really have to have a chain saw. Bill explained to me that he places three hay bales side-by-side to let them season – 5 weeks is a minimum, he said. He sprinkles about a cup of organic blood meal on the top of each bale to provide nitrogen to the hay, and waters it in well – encouraging the blood meal to penetrate the hay. The hay then begins to ferment, and the blood meal provides nitrogen for the microbes that are beginning to break down the hay.


This first step of seasoning the hay is important, Bill told me, because it gives off considerable heat. Enough heat so that seeds or plants might be killed after planting. As any farmer can tell you, moist hay can occasionally generate enough heat to start a fire by spontaneous combustion. In tests I conducted some years ago, a compost pile can attain temperatures of 130 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and grass seed will not germinate after a few days at those temperatures.



Root knife

Root knife

But back to the chain saw. After 5 weeks or more outdoors, the hay bales are ready to plant. Bill uses the chain saw to carve out a planting cavity that he fills with soil. The cavity is roughly 6 by 12 inches, and 6 inches deep. I asked if I could prepare one planting hole with a knife, and he let me. I used a 6-inch long serrated knife that I got from Lee Valley tools called a root knife. It was a little slower than Bill’s chain saw, but it did the job. You could do it with a steak knife, I suppose.



After carving out the cavity, Bill fills it with potting soil and a little organic fertilizer. He plants 5 pumpkin or squash seeds in the potting soil, waters well, and steps back, ready for Mother Nature to take over. There are no weed seeds in the potting mix, and the only work that Bill needs to do is make sure the bale does not dry out. If all 5 seeds germinate, he thins out 2 plants.



Bed ready for planting

Bed ready for planting

Although one could grow almost anything in a hay bale, Bill recommends vines, since they can spill over the sides and stretch out across the garden. The only down side I can see is that you must be willing to let the vines grow over the lawn- which cannot easily be cut while the plants are growing. One could, I suppose, put down black plastic or mulch to keep down grass and weeds as the vines grow.


Bill is always looking for ways to save energy – his, that is. He has come up with a method of growing tomatoes that allows him to go away for a week if he wants, without letting his tomatoes suffer from lack of water. It requires access to lots of plastic buckets, which he has. Some fast food places give them away, and some building contractors have excess buckets that sheet rock “mud” comes in.



Bucket watering system

Bucket watering system

What Bill does is bury 5-gallon pails in his garden, leaving just a couple of inches above ground. These are his water reservoirs, and his tools for getting moisture down deep in the ground. Instead of surface watering every day in August when his garden is dry and thirsty, he just waters once a week by filling the buckets. The trick? He has drilled a series of eighth-inch holes in the buckets so that water leaks out to the soil after he fills them.


Around each bucket Bill plants 3 tomato plants, each just as close to the bucket as he can. The buckets have three sets of 6 or 7 small holes, each in an inverted “Y” pattern. The water leaks out in an hour or so, but it gets water where he wants it: down deep.


Each of us has a different approach to weeding, watering, planting. We figure out what works best. I doubt I will ever bury buckets for watering my garden, but if you have dry, sandy soil, you might want to. And hay bales? I’ll probably try it.


Henry’s Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He can be reached at henry.homyer@comcast.net. He is the author of 5 books.



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Spring Lawn Care

Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

Clover in lawn

Clover in lawn

 I love lawns. Not big lawns, and they don’t need to be pure Kentucky bluegrass, either. I love a little bit of mowed green that has some grass and clover; it can have a few dandelions or bluets or violets, too. I can live with Creeping Charlie (also called ground ivy or by its scientific name, Glechoma hederacea). Overall my philosophy is this: if it’s green and you can mow it, it’s a lawn. Only thistles and other sharp things need to be dug out- but never nuked with chemicals.


Despite that philosophy, people often remark on how lush and thick my lawn is, and how nice it feels underfoot. Having a nice lawn is easy if you follow a few simple rules.


First, stop worrying about it. And certainly never add any chemicals to it. Weed-‘n’-feed formulas kill off not only the broad-leafed plants like dandelions, they also diminish the biological activity in the soil. I want a healthy soil full of microbes (including bacteria and fungi) and know that many microbes are killed or adversely affected by chemicals.


Chemical fertilizers are made of salts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These have the ability to dry out and kill microbes. And of course if your product includes chemicals for killing moss, weeds, fungi or insects, all those chemicals add to the killing power. Your soil cringes when you load up the spreader with weed-‘n’-feed.


Clover and Dandelions are not all bad

Clover and Dandelions are not all bad

If you want to have a good healthy lawn, you need good healthy soil. It needs about 6 inches of reasonably good soil that drains well (so as not to drown the lawn grasses) but is not so sandy that it dries out in an afternoon. Cut and peel back a one-foot square piece of sod after a rainstorm, and look at the soil. Grab a handful of soil. Does it form a cylinder in your hand when you squeeze it, and hold its shape when you open your fingers? If so, you have clay, or a clay-based soil.


If you perform the squeeze test on sandy soil, it will crumble apart when you open your fingers. When you rub the soil between your fingers, you will feel sharp grains of sand. But if you have a nice loam, the soil with be dark and the cylinder will fall apart if you touch it with a finger.


If you are not happy with your lawn, I suggest getting your soil tested. The Extension Service in most states will have on-line instructions on how to take a soil sample, and where to send it. Some garden centers have kits for sale. Find out what kind of soil you have, what it needs, and if your soil pH is in the right zone.


Soil pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline your soil is. Lawns do best when the soil pH is near neutral (which is 7.0) or slightly acidic. Our rain is acidic, and neglected soils – including most lawns – have soil that is pretty acidic. You can fix this easily by adding limestone to the lawn, and a pH test will tell you how much to add to balance it out. If your soil is too far from neutral, some soil minerals will become unavailable to the grass plants, even if the minerals are there. You can add limestone at any time, though most lawn experts recommend the fall so that it will have time to do its work before spring growth begins.


The other additive that helps an anemic lawn is compost or organic matter. Good crumbly compost can be flung around the lawn with a shovel and then raked out to provide even coverage. Doing that now would help. Earthworms in a healthy lawn will be more than willing to eat that compost and then excrete the nutritious ingredients into the soil.


Earthworms, fungi and bacteria will also help you improve your lawn by breaking down your grass clippings. Those clippings will add organic matter and enrich your soil. So cut your lawn regularly – avoiding a thick layer of clippings that needs to be bagged or raked.


Lawn height is critical for a good, easy-care lawn. Get out of the golf course mindset. This is a lawn, not a putting green! I set my mower, generally, one notch down from the highest setting. Right by the front door I keep it a little shorter at times.


Why keep your lawn long? Your lawn is made of millions of plants, and each one can only create a healthy root system if you let it have enough blade to create its own food by photosynthesis. Too short? The roots will be stunted, and the lawn will not be healthy. And the taller the grass, the more it can shade out annual weeds and crabgrass.


Think about it: if there were daffodils that we could mow down only to have them bloom again, we would pay big bucks for them. But call those yellow flowers dandelions, and it’s war. I hope you’ll re-think your position about lawn chemicals if you’re in the weed-‘n’-feed school. Diversity of plant types in the lawn helps to create a lush, lovely green space.


Henry Homeyer is a garden designer and the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s chapter book. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.



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Vegetable Gardening

Posted on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

I planted much of my vegetable garden early this year. Living in a cold spot, I usually wait until June 10 to plant frost and cold-sensitive plants. But lured by perfect warm weather I planted most of my tomatoes on Memorial Day weekend. The soil was 60 degrees and sun strong. Then the weather turned chilly and wet. My tomatoes will survive this, and I can always cover them if there is threat of frost. Still, after all these decades, I should have more patience. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cukes, squash: all these like hot weather.



I did not plant my vine crops early, however. I like to start cukes, squash and pumpkins indoors in May in 4-inch pots, growing them under lights until they have vines a foot long with several leaves. Or sometimes I will buy a few nice big plants. I do this because of the dreaded striped cucumber beetle, a pest that can – and will – eat up a plant’s first 2 leaves in one night. But a bigger plant can survive a few beetle bites without trouble.



Another way to minimize beetle damage on any crop is to cover it with row cover, also called Reemay or Agribon (both are trade names). Row cover is a thin woven fabric that breathes and allows more than 90% of the sun’s light to pass through – without burning your plants the way clear plastic would. Got trouble with little green caterpillars on your broccoli? Cover it up. Rain will pass through it, too.



Although you can just lay row cover on your plants, I like to stretch it over wire hoops that are sold for the purpose. It gives the plants room to grow. In either case, you must seal the edges or some critters will crawl under for a free lunch. You can use earth staples sold for the purpose, or just use those stones that Mother Nature pushes up out of the soil every winter.




Row cover with hoops

Row cover with hoops

Row cover holds in some heat, which is good at this time of year. But if you need insect pollination – all the vine crops need it – you must take off the covers when they flower or hand pollinate, which is time consuming. I sometimes leave row cover on eggplants all summer as they are wind pollinated.



Thinning plants started outdoors by seed must be the most tedious of all garden tasks. Carrots, lettuce, rutabagas, beets? All need to be thinned for best results. Beets and carrot babies are good to eat if you wait until the end of the month of June. I try to have them thinned to one inch apart by the Fourth of July, with a wider spacing a month later.


Beet greens are a classic early summer dish that I like served with a sprinkling of gourmet rice wine vinegar instead of the calorie-packing butter that I use on my asparagus. And just a reminder, don’t keep picking asparagus for more than 3 weeks. Oh, it’s tempting to keep picking the spears that pop up to replace those you’ve eaten. But the greens are needed to feed the roots, and picking for too long will cause the patch to run down.


My asparagus patch produced well this year, its third, and I am rewarding it with regular weeding, a light top-dressing of organic fertilizer and a little compost. Then I will cover the compost with a layer of wood chips to minimize the need for weeding later on this summer.



Last fall I covered up my wide raised (mounded) vegetable garden beds with hay, straw or fallen leaves after cleaning out most of the weeds. This really minimized my work this spring. I pushed off the winter cover of mulch into the walkways in early May, which kept weeds from starting up there. The sun warmed the soil, spawning some weeds. But I pulled them out or sliced them off before they got established, and then planted without rototilling.



I know some gardeners who love their rototillers as much as they love their spouses. They do create a lovely-looking bed, and they make all the weeds “disappear”. But if you chop up witch grass or perennial weeds, each piece may well produce a new plant in a few weeks.



Many weeds have what I call ‘photo-triggers’. This means that they need some light to know it is time to wake up and grow. Buried down 4 inches, the seeds can sleep for years. Turn them up with a rototiller and they germinate. So at planting time I try to minimize how much I disturb the soil. I use an ancient 4-tined potato hoe and my CobraHead weeder (www.CobraHead.com) to do most of the soil work.



We’ve all heard of the “runner’s high” – a feeling of well being from running. Sometimes I get a “gardener’s high” instead. Planting a garden will do it for me. I just wish I got the same feeling after an afternoon of weeding – instead of a tired back.



Henry Homeyer’s Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books, and a children’s fantasy-adventure, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet.



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Spring Flowers

Posted on Wednesday, May 28, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

Each year I anticipate spring with great enthusiasm not because I don’t like winter – which I do – but because almost every day there are new flowers blooming in my garden. I’m keeping a list as they bloom this year, and so far, near the end of May, I have almost 50 species and countless varieties that either have bloomed, or are blooming in my garden.


First to bloom each spring are the small bulb plants: snowdrops, winter aconite, scilla and glory of the snow. Then come the daffodils and tulips – many of which are still blooming nicely. My late tulips are still in bud.


This year I have some lovely grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) including one called ‘Christmas Pearl” that I got from Brent and Becky’s bulbs last fall. I especially like it because each little bulb seems to send up 2 blossom stems, one large blossom and then a second smaller blossom a while later.

Spring snowflake close-up

Spring snowflake close-up


Now I have spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) in bloom.Or maybe it is summer snowflake (L. aestivum). They both look a bit like snowdrops on steroids. The white blossoms look down like snowdrops, but are atop 16 inch stems, and have little green decorations at the tip of each petal. This is a bulb plant that I got as a gift over 20 years ago and the clump just gets a little bigger every year. It’s supposed to be a zone 5 plant, and I have had colder winters by far, but it keeps coming back. It’s in full sun with lightly moist soil.


Trillium is technically a wildflower, but I have 4 kinds that bloom for me in shade gardens. The common one is called wake-robin or stinking Benjamin (Trillium erectum). Like all trilliums, it has 3 leaves and 3 petals. The flowers are a deep maroon. Then there is the white-flowered one (Trillium grandiflorum) which generally blooms for a longer time than the common one, and often fades to pink. I also have a double white, which is very rare, and has extra petals. Lastly I have a yellow trillium (Trillium lutea) that I bought at the New England Wild Flower Society’s garden in Framingham, MA. Its native home is in the southern Appalachians, and is less hardy than the others. I have seen painted trillium (T. undulatum) in the woods. It is a native here, but I don’t have any. If I see one for sale, I will surely buy it.

Umbrella Plant

Umbrella Plant


Right now down by my stream is a favorite, a dramatic big-leafed plant, the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata). I planted it over some of the ashes I was given after my sister, Ruth Anne, died in 2009. The flowers are big clusters of small pink flowers that stand two feet above the ground. This year I have 9 stems, each topped with a cluster or cyme, 3 to 6 inches across. Later, the 2-foot wide leaves will grow big enough to serve as umbrellas for gnomes. I placed a marble bench next to these flowers – a good place to reflect on the ephemeral nature of life, while listening to the burble of the stream.


Under my wild apple trees I have what I call my primrose garden. It is dominated by candelabra primroses (Primula japonica) but has several other species as well. The “japonicas” as I call them, have 3 tiers of flowers that blossom in sequence, each a whorl of color- from magenta to pink to white. They throw seeds and spread like crazy for me. I have hundreds. They are in dappled shade and a fairly wet, rich soil.

Double white trillium

Double white trillium


Also in that primrose garden are some with no common name, though I call them “kissing primroses” because the Latin name, Primula kisoana, sounds a little like kiss (I pronounce it Kiss-O-Anna). These are low-growing and spreading primroses that are a deep pink, and are in bloom now. They spread by root, but do not overpower nearby plants, which is nice. There is a white one, which is less vigorous. Everyone should have the kissing primrose. I got mine from Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor, VT.


Also in bloom now is bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabalis). Listed in most books as needing full sun, I recommend just morning sun or dappled shade. In full sun the foliage dies back by mid-summer, while less sun allows it to look good until fall. It likes good, rich soil and some moisture, but I also have them growing out of a sheer rock wall where there is little or no soil at all. Go figure.


There is also a pure white variety (D. spectabalis alba), and pink and white varieties of its cousin, the fringed or wild bleeding heart (D. exemia). The fringed bleeding heart is a native woodland plant, though not common in the woods. I have those in pink and white varieties. They tend to bloom off and on all summer, and will grow in dry shade.


So go enjoy the spring and keep on buying new things and trying them out. We deserve spring flowers after the winter we had!


Henry Homeyer is a gardening consultant and the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

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Garlic Mustard

Posted on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

As a garden writer I get a lot of email from people warning me about pending catastrophes: blights, bugs, invasive plants. Some are accurate, some are not. In 2012 we were told that a disease kills Impatiens (a lovely annual flower for shade) would make growing it impossible – ever again. But last year it did fine for many gardeners. Late blight on tomatoes is predicted every year, but my tomatoes have only been affected once. But I recently learned some disturbing news about an invasive weed, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), that we should all pay attention to.


Invasive plants generally out-compete our native plants because they grow anywhere, often putting out leaves earlier in the spring than our natives, and holding them longer in the fall. Some, like the Norway maple, have roots that suck up water and nutrients far from the mother plant. Others, like barberry or honeysuckle, shade out natives in the understory of the forest. But garlic mustard, a seemingly innocuous little weed with a root system that is not hard to pull, goes one step beyond the others: it produces a toxin that kills necessary root-coating fungi on our maples, oaks and beeches. Where it grows, some of our favorite trees are in danger.


You may know that mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi that coat the fine root hairs of many trees and perennial plants. They get sugars from the green plants and, as payback, share minerals that the green plants need but can’t extract from the minerals in their natural state. The mycorrhizal fungi produce acids that dissolve minerals in the soil and make them into a form that is readily taken up by the green plants. It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.


Here’s the bad news: Garlic mustard kills mycorrhizal fungi by producing chemicals and releasing them into the soil. Maples, oaks and white ash are all trees that depend on mycorrhizal fungi to succeed. Not only that, garlic mustard inhibits the germination of seeds of many species of native plants, including many spring wildflowers. And it has no natural predators here in the United States where it has invaded from Europe. In Europe it has at least 69 insect predators. Garlic mustard produces chemicals that make it uninteresting as food to herbivores like deer, as well as to insect predators.

Garlic mustard flowers

Garlic mustard flowers


So what can we do? First, understand its life cycle and learn to identify it. Garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning that it has a 2-year life cycle. In the first year it produces a low rosette of rounded leaves. The second year it sends up 18- to 36-inch flower spikes with pointy, heart-shaped leaves with jagged edges. The small white flowers have 4 petals and bloom in clusters about an inch or more in diameter. One plant can produce about 4,000 seeds. And although about 70% of the seeds will germinate the next year, some will remain viable in the soil for up to 10 years. A Web site full of good information is http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/plants/garlicmustard.shtml.


Garlic mustard leaves when crushed smell a bit like garlic. Not as strong, but it has a distinct odor. The Europeans that brought it here in the 1860’s often grew it as an herb or a garlic substitute, and I have tasted pesto made from the leaves. But since it produces cyanide at a level much higher than other plants, I choose not to consume it. I figure that if the deer won’t eat it, I won’t either.


Here’s the good news: pulling up garlic mustard is easy. It has a white tap root that comes right out if you give it a tug. It is not like many pest weeds – it doesn’t spread by roots that easily break off and start new plants. Goutweed, Japanese knotweed and witch grass all spread by root, but garlic mustard does not. After pulling it, place garlic mustard in the household trash, not the compost pile. Or if you must, seal it in black plastic bags and let it rot in the sun until full decomposed.

First year garlic mustard leaves

First year garlic mustard leaves


How can you help to prevent its spread? Pull it if you see it. Watch for first year plants – it sometimes arrives in hay used for erosion control – it will grow in full sun or full shade. A good close mowing of plants will help, though one report I read said that garlic mustard cut at 10 cm (roughly 4 inches) would survive 29% of the time.


Garlic mustard is blooming right now! So go look for it. Organize a neighborhood group for a “pulling party”. It behooves us all to look out for it, and to do our best to reduce its numbers and prevent its spread.


Henry Homeyer can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. He is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s chapter book about a boy and a cougar. His website is www.Gardening-guy.com.



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Posted on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

Windowsill-grown tomato

Windowsill-grown tomato

This year I met a lifelong goal of growing an edible tomato in the house, though I have I have to admit that it was quite by accident. Last fall I dug up an avocado plant that had started itself in the compost pile. Mixed in with the soil were seeds that germinated, including a tomato, a pepper and of course, weeds. I let the tomato grow and harvested a ripe tomato on May 10.


The plant has been in a west facing window and, although I did provide some supplemental lighting, that was only for a month or so. I don’t know what kind of tomato it is, but the flavor was excellent – a combination of sweet and tangy.


A few words about “volunteer” tomatoes: I get some in my garden each year, but never let them develop because many are not particularly tasty. Most modern tomatoes are hybrids (Big Boy, Jet Star, Sun Gold are all hybrids). That means that someone figured out that specific crosses of the parents would produce a tomato with desirable characteristics. But seeds from these hybrids will not breed true. Seeds saved from a Big Boy will most likely revert to one of the parents of the fruit, which may not be especially nice. So as you clean up your garden this spring, I recommend that you yank the babies.


What we call heirloom tomatoes do breed true. Tomatoes, unless manipulated for growing seed, are self pollinating. Heirlooms such as Brandywine, Purple Cherokee and Ox Heart will produce seeds that you can save each year and get just what you had the generation before. Heirlooms are not often sold at the grocery store because they are often of irregular size and shape (hard to package) and don’t have the tough skins needed for shipping and handling. But they have amazing flavors.


I grow both heirlooms and hybrids each year – a total, usually of about 30 plants. So why do I grow hybrids if heirlooms are so wonderful to eat? The modern hybrids have been bred for disease resistance, which is important. There are a variety of fungal diseases that can kill the leaves – or even the entire plant, and old fashioned breeding programs have developed tomatoes that resist them.


The worst disease for tomatoes is late blight. If it hits your garden, your tomato plants may well turn into a soggy, blackened mess of inedible fruit and dead plants in just a few days. Late blight also affects potatoes, and was the cause of the Irish potato famine. One hybrid tomato , the Defiant F-1, which was developed by the plant breeders working for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, is listed as “highly resistant” to late blight with “intermediate resistance” to early blight, another pest. I’ve grown it and like it. It has nice medium sized fruit, good flavor, and matures early.


There is much talk about GMO labeling in Vermont right now – they just passed a law that will require processed foods to indicate if there are genetically modified ingredients. As far as I know, there are no GMO tomatoes or other garden vegetables on the market. One GMO tomato was developed in 1994, but the public objected and the market for them was nil.


This year I started my tomato seeds indoors on March 24, three weeks earlier than usual. I transplanted them into bigger pots in early May and they are growing like crazy. But the plants are getting huge, which is a problem: they are too big to fit on my plant stand. I’ve had to remove a shelf so the plants can continue to grow.

Planting tomatoes sideways

Planting tomatoes sideways



If you have long, leggy plants like mine, you’ll need to plant them sideways when the time comes. I will dig a hole for the root ball and then a trench for the long stem. I’ll pinch off all the lower leaves, then cover the root ball and the stem except for the very top cluster of leaves. I‘ll bend the tip of the stem up so that the leaf cluster is above ground level. The plant will straighten itself up in a few days. The long stem will turn into roots. Alternatively, you could plant the rootball deep, burying part of the stem.


Whether you grew your tomatoes from seeds or bought plants at the garden center, it is important to harden-off the plants before they go in the garden. That means introducing them to the sun’s powerful rays and the wind’s drying effects a little each day until the plants are ready to go out in full sun. Put them near the house on the north side so that they get just a few hours of morning sun, then gradually give them more sun. Just like a fair-skinned toddler, plants can burn if they get too much sun. Greenhouses provide a lot of protection. And bring them in on cold nights.


A soil thermometer is a useful item at this time of year. Cold, wet soil is not good for most plants, and tomatoes in particular. Sixty degrees is a good minimum soil temperature to attain before planting.


I don’t plant frost-sensitive plants until well after the last frost, though a few warm days always tempt me. But lettuce, peas and other frost hardy things are going in now. I’m ready for summer!


Henry’s Web site is www.Gardening-guy.com. Contact info is there, along with previous articles and information about his gardening books.


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