Friday, December 19, 2008

Caring for your Cut Christmas Tree

Christmas trees are a wonderful part of the holiday season. Although artificial tree have taken some of the market away from “real” trees, still, millions of homes display real trees each year. Got mine yesterday and I was reminded of several things….they aren’t that expensive, they’re easy to put up, your wife thinks it’s great that you did it and they smell and look wonderful. If you want some more reasons real trees are a good idea, see the folks at the National Christmas Tree Growers Association. Sure, it’s their product but the website makes some great points.

On to real tree care…. for some reason people want to make tree care more complicated than it needs to be. Penn State Christmas tree specialist Rick Bates dispels many myths in a handy fact sheet. In a nut shell, keep plain old water in the reservoir of the tree stand at all times and everything is OK. Both Penn State and the Christmas Tree Growers think the fire hazard from Christmas trees is way overblown. I recall a very unscientific study my graduate school advisor (and Christmas tree grower) and I did one year in January. We tried to ignite dried out, discarded Christmas trees with a lighter. No luck. I am sure someone has done a better job demonstrating how hard it is to make them burn.

How about tree disposal? Many townships will help you turn that tree into chips. Or do it yourself with a pair of loppers. It takes five minutes to turn your tree into mulch. Ours becomes a bird sanctuary and lawn ornament until late winter.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Shopping for Gardeners

By some estimates, gardening is our nation’s number one hobby. I believe it. So, gardening gifts make a lot of sense. It helps to know your gardener… are they into flowers, vegetables, woody plants, container gardening? Do they have a special interest such as orchids, bonsai or fruit trees? Here are a few shopping hints.

I just took a quick look at the on-line gardening companies that I buy from. They all offer gift certificates. If you don’t know exactly what your gardening friend needs this ought to work. Rummage through the gardeners’ catalog pile at home (all gardeners have one) and you’ll know where to begin. Local nurseries and garden centers would be happy to have you business, too. No doubt you’ve been along on one of those trips and know where your friend shops.

Pruning is a common practice for all gardening. Pruning tools range from saws and loppers to tiny hand shears. Felco, is a Swiss company that sets the standard in this realm. I notice that they offer 16 different kinds of hand pruners. Wow.

If your gardening friend has everything he/she needs or you just want to do something a bit different, consider planting a tree in their honor. Local arboreta, townships and garden clubs can probably help you get that tree planted. Or try

Last but not least… Penn State Soil test kits make great stocking stuffers. They cost nine dollars and are available at any extension office. Or go to to see how to do it on-line.

Friday, December 5, 2008

If a trees falls in the forest..

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? I won’t get into that philosophical question but I recently spent a few days in a forest and had time to make some observations that made me think about tree mortality.

At Penn State Extension, we frequently get questions about why a particular tree has died or is dying. Sometimes we can attribute an insect or disease pathogen to the problem. However, almost all tree mortality is a complex situation involving environmental stresses as well as destructive organisms. Many people want a simple answer (and solution) about tree death but usually the story is more complex and does not have a simple diagnosis or treatment.
What struck me as I sat in the woods and observed trees was that there were a lot of dead and dying trees around me. Walk into any woods and look around. You’ll see the same thing…more or less. I don’t think this is unusual. It’s natural. Sure, there is explanation for most of it. I know that insect defoliation was involved in the death of some of the trees I was seeing. I know that competition for light was thinning out others. I could see lots of fungal pathogens. One species always seems to die at a relatively young age without apparent cause.

What does this mean? For me, it puts tree mortality in perspective. No one likes it when trees die and when important trees die, or die suddenly without explanation, we look for answers. Sometimes the diagnosis appears straight forward. For instance, hemlock wooly adelgid is the primary cause of hemlock mortality in the woods I was sitting in. And in this case, I think I was witnessing not only individual trees dying but perhaps the demise of our state tree as a species in Pennsylvania. More often, trees fail and exhibit a range of symptoms that lead to educated guesses about the cause. Most of the time that’s as far as our knowledge goes.
The suburban trees that we pamper and tend to in landscapes are subject all of the stresses as their wild forest relatives. It’s sad, but part of Nature’s way when they die.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Wrap that Fig

Holidays are good reminders for certain garden activities…. In Bucks County we think of planting tomatoes about Mother’s Day, seeding new lawns on Labor Day, planting garlic on Columbus Day. To this list I’d add… wrap you fig on Thanksgiving.

What? You don’t have a fig tree? Well ask around. You’d be surprised how many Bucks County gardeners cultivate figs. These exotic, tasty fruit ripen in late summer and are a real treat. The plants are almost pest free and require very little care beyond a bit or pruning and winter protection. I joined the fig club a few years ago when a Bucks County Master Gardener gave me a root sucker to plant. I am not certain of the variety but it is probably Brown Turkey which is reported to be hardy to 10 degrees F.

Winter protection really starts with site selection. Place figs in a sunny protected area, preferably against a southern exposed building wall. This alone will go a long way towards improving winter survival of above ground canes. Although I mentioned fig tree, the plants growth habit is more like a multi-stemmed shrub. Fruit is borne on current seasons’ growth.

So, back to wrapping. Is it necessary? Maybe not. The person I got my plant from lives in central Bucks County and provides no protection. For insurance, consider tying all of the existing canes together in a bundle and wrapping them with burlap or any other sturdy cloth-like material and them re-wrapping with a more wind protective material. I’ve used the cheap tarps commonly sold in hardware stores. Some folks wrap loosely and fill the center with insulating material such as straw.It's a two person job.

Finally, mound soil over the crown of the plant. Even if the top growth freezes out, you’re likely to get re-growth from below ground if the crown is protected in this manner. Since fruit is born on current sesons growth you’ll still get a crop, although not as much as when old wood overwinters.

I discovered this the hard way on my first fig growing attempt. I assumed the worst after an unexpected, early December temperature plunge to single digits left my plant unprotected. After tilling the planted area in the spring, I discovered that there was life after all, below ground.

For a fact sheet on growing figs in northrern climates, check out what the folks from Cornell University on Long Island have to say at this site.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pennsylvania Horticulture Society Recognizes Master Gardners Efforts

An educational garden extraordinaire! This garden is the perfect location for a field trip for those anxious to learn about horticulture. There are displays of sun, shade, perennial, butterfly and pollinator gardens. So many varieties all beautifully labeled. Those well placed labels quickly resolved identification disputes. This Penn State Master Gardener Demonstration Garden provides a blast of color in an ocean of cold hard architecture.

That’s how the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) described the gardens at Neshaminy Manor Center at the awards ceremony earlier this month at PHS headquarters in Philadelphia. We were one of about 75 gardens recognized in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey this year with the Community Greening Award. While Master Gardener coordinator Sue Schneck and I accepted the award, we both know that it is the hard work of dozens of volunteers who make it happen. The design, installation and management of these gardens is done by an outstanding crew of dedicated volunteers. Recently, we cleaned up dead summer foliage and planted pansies, so the gardens continue to look good. PHS folks must have missed it but our mini arboretum is part of our educational efforts and is functional all year long.
What is PHS? Just one of the oldest and most active horticulture societies in the U.S. Most folks know the Philadelphia Flower Show and sure enough, PHS puts on this popular event. But did you know that the proceeds from the Flower Show go to community greening efforts? Did you know that PHS has one of the finest horticultural libraries around? I spent an hour of so browsing the collection. Fantastic! They sponsor great lectures and other educational events. Check out PHS and consider becoming a member.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Household Invaders

Sounds scary... household invaders. But we’re not talking about a break in....more like a sneak in and the culprits have six legs not two. About this time of year we get lots of calls about insects that make their way into homes. The biggest offenders are Boxelder Bugs and the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug.

Boxelder Bugs have been around a long time. In the past, when I talked to someone on the phone about them there was often one crawling around my office because the window I look out of does not seal real well. The bugs made their way in through the tiny crevices. Since recent construction has removed the near-by box elder trees that were their summer host, I haven't seen them. Boxelder bugs feed on boxelder trees, as well as other maples (boxelder is Acer negundo, the same genus as maple) and ash. In the fall they look for a cozy warm place to spend the winter, starting out on the sunny sides of building and moving inside if given a chance. They must have good heat sensors.
These red and black bugs do not do any damage to homes. In fact they don’t do much damage to plants either although they do suck sap from leaves and seeds of boxelder. If anyone cared about this plant it might be an issue but boxelder trees are usually considered a weedy tree.

Most folks don’t appreciate big insects crawling around the house and bug phobic people get real agitated. The solution to boxelder invasion is to seal up the cracks and crevices they use to get in. Once inside, simply sweep or vacuum them up. They do not reproduce inside. If you make direct hit with an insecticide you will kill them but the vacuum cleaner or shop-vac is quicker. I suppose you could consider insecticide applications outside where they congregate but even here, think twice before spraying. First, if they can’t get in the house, what’s the problem? And given the poor control provided by insecticides and the ease of the vacuum, why not keep things simple. If you can find the host boxelder tree and remove it you will have a big impact in future years.

The Brown Marmorated Stinkbug
is a recent phenomenon. Actually, one of Penn State’s extension educators in Lehigh county helped to document the first sightings in 1998. It is native to China.
This bug can cause plant damage. It feeds on several fruit species. But the problem most folks have with them is when they get inside. They fly, they stink a bit when crushed and are creepy in a bug-like way to most folks.
The control measures for the stinkbug is the same as for boxelder bugs. Seal cracks and crevices to prevent entry. Vacuum up those that get in. Realize that they do no structural damage of any kind and do not breed inside.
Some folks think these home invaders are reproducing inside because they see additional bugs after the initial removal. The insects are simply emerging from hiding places. Well, maybe not hiding but previously infested areas. It seems to me that a common entry point for stink bugs is attic areas which are often hard to seal completely.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

First Frost

The “official” median date for the first frost in Bucks County is October 6. That means that about half of the time we will have received temperatures below 32 degrees before this date and half of the time it will be later. My unofficial observations over the last 25 year tells me that by Columbus Day we have usually had a light frost and a real “killing frost” comes later the month.
Mother Nature is right on schedule. My garden was nipped over the weekend but got the killer on Monday night when the minimum/maximum thermometer read 24 degrees. I anticipated the demise of my zucchini and peppers and harvested the last of these on Saturday.

Of course, this does not mean the end of the gardening season. Lettuce, cole crops, and even carrots stand up well to these temperatures and keep on growing. Growth is slowed but in the case of the lettuces and cole crops this simply means that they will hold very nicely in the garden. Their growth is so slow that it’s kind of like and extension of your fridge. I plan to harvest lettuce right up until Thanksgiving. I’ve had lettuce at Christmas.

It is too late to plant much of anything except garlic. But if you have not enjoyed the pleasure of a fall garden, try to remember to keep planting in August and September 2009.

Finally, if you have not used floating row covers to extend your gardening season in early spring and late fall, check them out. They can provide a few degrees of frost protection and trap daytime heat to boost growth in cool temperatures. Most gardening catalogs sell them.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Garlic Planting Time

Columbus Day is a good reminder to plant garlic. What you plant now will be ready to harvest on the fourth of July, 2009. Why plant garlic? Several reasons… it is easy to grow, homegrown quality is better than store bought, and the satisfaction of producing really high quality garlic is hard to beat. Tulips and daffodils aren’t the only fall bulbs to be planting this weekend. Don’t forget the garlic.

Penn State’s on-line garlic fact sheet seems to be in revision or hiding somewhere on the web so I’ll outline some garlic planting basics. First, get the right planting stock. DO NOT plant store bought stuff. If you can find a local grower, that is best. While poking around on line looking for our fact sheet, I found several Pennsylvania producers who will sell to you. I’ve been buying from Johnny’s Select Seeds in Maine for years and they still offer a nice lineup of varieties adapted to the Northeast US. If you go to a local Farmers Market, chat with the garlic sellers. If they grew it, it is obviously well adapted to your area. Many growers are partial to the hardneck types, which have excellent flavor. My garlic buddy sent me a variety called Music that is getting lots of acclaim. I currently have Russian and German Red as well as New York White. I like them all. Right now my garage is decorated with bunches of heads, hanging from the rafters. It is a beautiful sight and a reassuring feeling to know that I have a winter’s supply.

The planting details…you’ll plant individual garlic cloves about 1.5 inches deep in rich, well-drained garden soil in October. Space about 6 to 8 inches apart. A few leaves will sprout this fall. After we’ve had several hard freezes, it is a good idea to mulch the garlic bed with straw or leaves to lock in that cold. This prevents “heaving” that can occur as winter temps fluctuate. Not too deep, just a couple inches of fluffy organic matter. Next spring, the garlic will grow thru the mulch. A shot of nitrogen rich fertilizer in April is helpful and then you simply wait for the bulbs to size up. When about one half of the lower leaves have died, it’s time to harvest.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dan the Chicken Man and His Garden

Last weekend I visited gardening friend, Graham Bell (see previous blog, “Graham’s Garden Inspirations”) in Rhode Island. Our primary mission was to assist his friend, Dan, in the task of processing (killing and cleaning) 85 chickens. It’s kind of a communal thing. Dan raises the chickens. Friends pay a share of the feed costs and get a share of the meat in return. Shareholders pitch in on Chicken Day in October when the birds are ready to harvest. Oddballs like me and my wife go just for the fun of it. So, in four hours about ten of us killed, plucked, dressed (gutted) and bagged the birds.

Since this is a gardening blog, I’ll spare you the details of chicken processing. So here is the gardening part. Chicken Man Dan is also a very good gardener. I sensed this as I wheel barrowed chicken feathers and blood soaked leaves (nitrogen rich) to his compost pile. Dan told me that he’ll add a layer of apple pomace from a cider maker and by next spring he’ll have some killer compost. He adds lots of tree leaves as a carbon source. You read about the value of feathers and blood as compost ingredients but rarely see it. Not many folks are killing their own chickens these days.

I took a detour on the way back from dumping blood and feathers to check out Dan’s garden. I saw fall red raspberries, tomato trellis, raised beds, etc. That’s when I saw the large mail box in the middle of his garden and knew I had found the solution to the maddening task of storing garden tools and other stuff in a handy place. Dan’s big old mail box
holds all of those tools you often need but don’t remember to carry…. lettuce harvesting knives, dibbles, tying materials, labels, etc. Next to the mail box was a box of spoons… flattened to make nifty row-markers. More durable than wood…or even plastic..

Once again, great gardening ideas from afar. It pays to get out of your own backyard once in a while.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Giant Skeeters... Actually Crane Flies

Lots of calls are coming into the Bucks County Extension office about giant mosquitoes. Turns out, what everyone is looking at are Crane Flies. It’s easy to see how they might be confused. These bugs are long-legged and slender-bodied… like the biting bug that everyone is worried about. Crane flies don’t bite. And they are a lot bigger than most mosquitoes. Right now they are sipping a bit of nectar from fall flowers and mating.. a nice life, but a short one. They live about 10-15 days before laying eggs. Their larvae feed on decaying organic matter, improving habitat for other creatures and getting gobbled up by frogs, fish and other predators. So it turns out that crane flies are good guys.

If you get poking around on-line you may learn that there are a couple of crane fly species (out of about 1500 in North America) that damage lawns. This is mostly confined to the Pacific Northwest. I did see an unusual case of crane fly larvae damage to a lawn a few years ago but that lawn was already severely damaged by other pests. The crane flies were mostly on clean up duty, decomposing the dead turf.
So don’t sweat the long legged, mosquito imposters, even if you see dozens or hundreds on the side of the house on a cool fall evening.

Believe it or not, I found a website called Crane Flies of Pennsylvania on-line and if you need to read more, check it out. I leaned that there are at least 300 species in Pennsylvania and about 10 in Bucks County. Looks like Philadelphia county wins the prize with more than 100 species accounted for.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fall Flowers

Spring flowers are a nice thing. Maybe seeing bright colors after a drab winter is the reason that spring flowers are so memorable. But right now I am enjoying fall flowers…. Goldenrods (Solidago), Asters (Aster) White-snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) and Beggar-ticks (Bidens) are just a few of the beauties that are blooming now. September is a good time to appreciate them. Fall leaf color is not competing for our attention yet.

I had to get out my plant references to identify the White-snakeroot that is blooming (white) along the 611 bypass near Danboro. It wasn’t in “Weeds of the Northeast” so I went to “The Plants of Pennsylvania”. I like “Weeds of the Northeast” because it lists several hundred common weedy plants and has lots of color pictures. “The Plants of Pennsylvania” doesn’t have color pictures but lists several thousand species! It helps to have a rough idea of what you’re looking for when consulting it. So, as I was researching the White-snake root I learned that there are 18 Euparoriums, 45 Asters and 26 Solidagos in Pennsylvania.

Besides the colorful show that fall blooms provide, many of them provide forage for insects, including honey bees. If you are near a bee hive in September, the fragrance of goldenrod and aster nectar is unmistakable.
If you enjoy identifying local flora, the two books I mentioned are excellent references. You can find both of them at on-line book sellers.

Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Washington Crossing, PA is offering guided wildflower walks this fall, daily at 2 p.m. for a small fee. A great way to learn the names of more fall bloomers.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Powdery Mildew Appears

What’s that white stuff on my…. you name it….zinnias, lilac, pumpkin, dogwood. It’s powdery mildew, a common fungal disease that appears in late summer every year. Yes, it is a disease but there is no need for alarm. In most cases, it’s just cosmetic.
Actually, there are many different, related fungi that cause symptoms that we call powdery mildew. While related, in most cases they are specific to their host plants. For instance the powdery mildew on apple is not that same as the organism that affects lilac.

Commercial growers of pumpkin, apples, peaches and some other crops must manage powdery mildew or serious crop damage can occur. In backyard gardens, we can usually accept this damage caused by the disease. All deciduous plant leaves are due to drop in the next month so, powdery mildew or not their days are numbered.
Bottom line, don’t worry about powdery mildew. For a more complete story on this common disease see what Cornell University has to say.

Don’t worry about putting mildew infected leaves into the compost. Next year’s infections will come from many sources and the fungus will probably have trouble surviving the compost pile environment anyway.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Budworms ate my blossoms

Penn State Master Gardeners have established several fantastic demonstration gardens at Neshaminy Manor Center, where our Extension office is located. We recently received the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society “Community Greening Award”.

But there is trouble in paradise. The tobacco budworm has eaten virtually every blossom and flower bud from our petunias! Purple ones, white ones, pink ones. We knew what was up because this is a recurring problem. Initially, we thought that the petunias simply stopped blooming but on closer inspection it was easy to see the chewing damage. Once we caught one of the caterpillars it was easy to solve the mystery.

Several weeks ago we applied Bt, (Bacillus thuringiensis) a biological insecticide, and that did the job. We must be into the next generation of budworms now because the color is again gone from our petunia beds. The Bt treatment only lasts a short time.
So, if your petunias (or geraniums or tobacco)seem to have mysteriously stopped blooming, check the flower buds for ragged, chewing feeding symptoms. The insects themselves are elusive, feeding at night and hiding during the day. A shot of Bt did the trick for us. Other insecticides will work but Bt is quite selective for caterpillars and so that is a good choice.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Thanks, Mother Nature

Ah rain. Until Hanna delivered a few inches last weekend, we were in a drought. What’s a drought ? The National Weather Service says an agricultural drought refers to a situation where the amount of moisture in the soil no longer meets the needs of a particular crop.

The effects of drought on annual garden plants such as vegetable and flower gardens are obvious. Certainly the needs of these plants were not met as August yielded less than an inch of rainfall in most of Bucks County….less than half and inch in my neighborhood. But what concerns me more is the long term effect of drought on perennial plants, especially trees. For the last two weeks I’ve observed severe stress symptoms on many trees and shrubs. They will revive and survive but in many cases this stress will lead to disease and failure in years to come. Penn State’s plant disease clinic receives many plant samples each year and has correlated the incidence of drought and certain diseases of woody plants, especially botryosphaeria canker on rhododendron, dogwood, redbud and crabapple and cytospora canker on spruce. These diseases lead to severe branch cankering and dieback.
During the drought of 1999, which was extreme, I observed stress on many woody plants that lead to plant decline and death in the years that followed. Here at Neshaminy Manor Center, home of the Almshouse Arboretum, we watered trees that were planted in 2007 and 2008 to insure that they will thrive in years to come.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fall is for planting

Everyone thinks of Spring planting but what about Fall? Just about everything you plant in the spring can also be fall planted. And many of our favorite plants must be established in the fall. Think bulbs… and not just the pretty ones, garlic, too.
The reason that fall is such a great planting season is that the soil is warm and we have a very long growing season from September until about Thanksgiving. Think about that… 90 days of growing weather. True, many plants aren’t pproducing much shoot growth. But the roots of many plants continue to function long after shoots appear dormant. Sure, we’ll have a frost in mid-October but most years this is followed by many days of frost free temperatures.
So, thinking about a tree or shrub for the backyard? Now is a great time to get to the garden center and look over the inventory. Many places offer good deal at the end of the season. Pick plants carefully and be sure they have been well cared for during the summer season. Plant as soon as possible, water well and mulch to get them off to a good start. Certain species are known to be difficult to transplant and probable should not be fall planted. Some oaks, magnolias, Stewartia, sweetgum, crape myrtle, hawthorn and hornbeams are best planted in the spring.
When it comes to lawns, fall is the best season for renovation and establishment. Warm soil, cool nights and reduced weed pressure all add up to success. Even lawn maintenance practices such as liming, fertilization and weed control have more bang for the buck when done in the fall.
How about those bulbs? An afternoon spent in October planting bulbs pays big dividends in the spring. Want to see those impressive displays of color like you see in formal gardens and landscapes? Buy bulbs by the hundreds rather than the dozen and your landscape will shine. On-line or catalog prices on these quantities are really attractive. Get together with the neighbors and make a big purchase.
Finally, my favorite…. Garlic. Maybe it’s not the prettiest plant in the garden but this vegetable is easy to grow, stores well and has better quality when home grown than you can buy at the supermarket. Find a garlic supplier in the Northeast U.S and plan to have the bulbs delivered in October. Plant about Columbus Day or even a little later in rich garden soil. You’ll be rewarded about the 4th of July next year.
Fall is for planting. Get to work!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Japanese Stiltgrass

If you drive along the shady, back-roads of Bucks County you’ve seen Japanese stiltgrass. It is the green grass growing on the road sides. While it provides a pretty fringe to the roadway, this is a nasty invasive plant. One of my early encounters with it was when a naturalist at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve called about 20 years ago to ask me what could be done to control it. It was crowding out the dainty wild flowers.
Japanese Stilitgrass, Microstegium vimineum, is a summer annual grass that is native to Asia and was probably introduced to the U.S in the early 1900’s. It germinates in early spring and dies each fall when we have a killing frost, surviving only as seed.
Stiltgrass has a lot in common with crabgrass. Same life cycle. In fact, most of the controls used for crabgrass, chemical and non-chemical, work for stiltgrass. Stilt grass appears to be much more shade tolerant than crabgrass which is why it creeps in corm those shady areas and into garden beds and lawns.
Establishing dense, competitive turf is the answer where stiltgrass threatens lawns. . Use a shade tolerant grass species such as fine fescue in shady areas and fertilize to keep it dense. Apply a pre-emerge crabgrass control product in early April to prevent stilt grass germination. In landscape beds, preemerge herbicides will do the trick or you can simply pull and mow it all season.
Unfortunately, in unmanaged areas it will continue to dominate those fringe spaces, crowding out other plants.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bagworms "Appear"

Yes, it may seem that this bug just appeared but bagworms have been feeding since early June. Most folks don’t notice bagworms until they have devoured most of the foliage of their favorite host plants such as arborvitae and juniper. Bagworms seem to prefer conifers but they are known to feed on more than 125 different plant species including sycamore, honeylocust and elm. Bagworms can be deadly to some plants. Evergreens that are defoliated do not recover. Deciduous plants can tolerate the feeding much better.
It is important to realize that the treatment time for this insect has passed. You may have the urge for revenge… but hold off. You can get ‘em next year when they are vulnerable.

Here’s a quick review of the bagworm life cycle. Right now they are mature larvae (caterpillar form) encased in a cocoon-like “bag” made up of parts of the plant they are feeding on. Soon, they will stop feeding and pass into a resting stage (pupae). Later this summer the moth-like adults emerge. Actually, only the males leave the bag. Females lure in the males, mate and then die, leaving 500-1000 eggs to overwinter. So, some bags that you see from September through Spring are empty. These are remnants of male bagworms. Some contain eggs… remains of the female insects.

About Memorial Day, 2009, we can expect the little buggers to hatch. They begin feeding in June but go un-noticed by most folks as they blend into the background of the plants they are feeding on. But this is the time to drop the hammer on them. By mid -June most of the eggs should have hatched and small larvae are feeding. The biological insecticide called Bt can be effective if your timing and spray coverage is good. Conventional insecticides such as carbaryl (Sevin) and synthetic pyrethrins are also effective. So, if you have signs of bagworm feeding, mark your 2009 calendar for Flag Day and plan to treat then.
What? You want to pick off all of the bags. OK. Have fun. But don’t call me if you off the ladder. Seriously, hand picking is OK but your chances of getting them all are slim. There is some gratification in hand picking but it ain’t worth breaking a leg.

PS Photo by Sarah Pickel, PA Department of Agriculture. Look closely and you can see the pupal case protruding from the open end of the bag.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Your lawn has never looked worse

Your lawn has never looked worse… and you can consider that a complement. What I mean is that your lawn may look a bit ragged about now, but that is normal. Most of the grass species we use for lawns, such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and the fescues are “cool season” grasses. They thrive under cool moist conditions and go dormant or are very stressed under hot temperatures and drought stress. So your expectations should be low in mid August. That lawn has been struggling for months. OK, those of you with irrigation systems can expect more green but most of us aren't in that boat.

But as day length shortens, temperatures moderate and rains replenish soil moisture… lawns ought to perk up. September is a great time to re-seed patches of turf that just couldn't take the stresses of summer. Plan now for reseeding. If you have large areas that have petered out, consider hiring help or renting a slit-seeder to re-seed. Soil-seed contact is essential. If you simply toss seed onto the bare areas you are just feeding the birds. If you have very small areas to re-seed, scratch them up with a stiff rake before seeding. Firm the seed bed after seeding.

Whether you are re-seeding or not, September is an important month to fertilize. An application of 10 pounds of 10-6-4 fertilizer per 1000 square feet, or its equivalent from other nitrogen sources, is a very good way to encourage growth that will repair summer’s damages.

Other fall lawn care includes liming and broadleaf weed control. Stay tuned for more on that subject. For tips on renovating a really lousy lawn, check out this Penn State resource.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Zukes Croak... Squash Vine Borer

Help! My zucchini are dead!

Many people will tell you that zucchini are a fool proof crop but not so for me. Each year, squash vine borers kill my zukes in early August. This insect bores through the stems and wrecks the plants plumbing, resulting in wilted and then dead plants. Squash vine borer problems are easy to diagnose. The stems, at ground level, are an unsightly mess of chewed plant bits. Yellow frass (caterpillar crap) often oozes from wounds. Dig around in the stems and you’ll find a nice fat larvae, eating the stems from the inside out. Plants wilt because the water conducting tissue of the plant is destroyed.
Plants will limp along, partially damaged for a long time, but they eventually wilt and die. No more zukes. By this time maybe you’ve had enough squash or your perhaps neighbor’s crop is just coming on.
What can be done?. I haven’t tried the frequently describe method of slitting open the zuke stems and stabbing the squash vine borer larvae with a wire. Done early enough this might work. A sure-fire method is to apply an insecticide at the base of the plant stems where female squash vine borers lay their eggs. Most over the counter vegetable insecticides will do the job. Apply in late June and early July and you should kill the larvae that hatch from recently laid eggs. Note that the entire plant does not need to be treated, just the stem, where it enters the soil.
It’s too late for insecticide treatments this year. So, make a note in your garden journal and prepare for 2009. Check out Penn State’s football rival, Ohio State, for a very thorough description of this pest and all of the control options.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fall webworm

Looked at walnut trees lately? The one’s I’m observing have large white webs at the ends of their branches. This is a common sign of an insect called fall web worm that begins feeding about this time of year. By late summer these webby nests will engulf large portion of the limbs. It’s unsightly but not a big deal because they feed so late in the season that the trees have already stored lots of energy to sustain themselves. So, the webbing is ugly but not cause for alarm. I see them in wild cherry trees, too. Sassafras, persimmon, sweetgum and about 200 other deciduous tree species are host plants for this insect.
Inside the nests you’ll find pale yellow, hairy caterpillars with black dots on the back. When disturbed they may begin to jerk around rhythmically in a defensive posture. Pretty cool. Many parasites and predators keep the population in check… in the long run.
If you can’t stand the look of them, you can simply cut of the offending branch. But most of the time it’s way up in the canopy of the tree, beyond reach. Insecticides will kill them but pruning is a more selective, reasonable choice if you have to do something. And remember that this is mostly a cosmetic problem, not a tree health problem.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tomato Troubles

Most gardeners are starting to harvest tomatoes by now. Some have been at it for a month. So, here at the Penn State Extension office, calls about tomato trouble are starting to come in. Want to see gory pictures of tomato problems? Check out Penn State and our sister institution Texas A& M for some exquisite shots.

This week I saw the following:
Early blight, the most common fungal disease of tomato. It causes lower leaves to turn yellow then brown. On closer examination you’ll see brown spots with concentric rings of dead tissue. Later, tomato fruit will develop rotten spots. Staking plants to improve air circulation and quick drying is an important control measure. Fungicides work very well but most gardeners are not interested in spraying plants and despite the infection, plants usually produce a decent crop… for a few weeks. The fungicide chlorothalonil is effective in preventing the disease spread and is available over the counter in garden centers. Organic gardeners can use copper fungicides and get limited control.
My strategy: 1) Stake ‘em up early and often 2) have a second planting coming on and abandon the first when the disease overwhelms them in late August. Go ahead and compost that old stuff.

Blossom end rot causes a dry, leathery, brown rot on the blossom end (opposite the stem end) of fruit. Caused by calcium deficiency. Hard to fix now. Soil test and add needed calcium with lime or gypsum in the fall to boost Ca levels for next year. A Penn State Soil test will tell you how much. Sometimes blossom end rot shows up in gardens with adequate calcium. Anything that prevents the plant from absorbing calcium from the soil, such as moisture extremes or root damage can result in blossom end rot. Sometimes plants have affected fruit for a while and then snap out of it.

Viral diseases mimic herbicide injury. Saw several cases last week. My guess is cucumber mosaic virus but that is just an educated guess. Viral diseases cause weird plant distortion and mottled, mosaic patterns (several shades of color) on fol age and fruit. Fruit are often undersized and misshapen. Viral diseases are a tough case because there is no cure. The virus lives in other plants, often hundreds of species, including ornamentals and weeds and is transmitted by insects such as aphids and leaf hoppers. They can even be transmitted by human handling of infected plants. You may see viral symptoms on beans and vine crops also. I do not know why virus diseases are devastating one year and almost non-existent in another. This is looking like a good year for viral diseases.

By the way, none of these problems make the tomatoes inedible, just cut out the affected parts and chow down. And another thing….aren’t you glad that your paycheck isn’t dependant on your horticultural skills and Mother Nature. That’s the high risk game farmers are in.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Plan now for fall harvest

By now many vegetable gardens have gaps… places where early season crops such as lettuce, peas, beets and other quick maturing crops have come and gone. If you like the idea of broccoli on Columbus Day, cauliflower at Thanksgiving and home grown carrots at Christmas you’ll need to make preparations now. Hey, maybe you are a slow starter and are just now getting around to breaking garden ground. In any event, there is plenty of growing season left in 2008.
Many of our favorite vegetables are cool or cold tolerant. Frost and even a hard freeze are not a problem. It’s true that growth slows during cool, short days of fall, but if those plants have had a good head start you will be rewarded.

So, take a look at your seed inventory, visit garden centers or jump on-line for seeds of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, leafy greens and other cool tolerant crops. Then get those garden areas worked up, fertilized and seeded. You will also see transplants of the cabbage family crops showing up in better garden centers about now. Obviously, with transplants you can start later…into mid August.

One of the beauties of fall gardens is that crops “hold” well. Broccoli heading in June has a short life. Broccoli heading in October will hold tight for a long time. Same with cauliflower. Brussels sprouts anyone? The root crops (beets carrots) are also great fall vegetables. Leave those carrots in the ground after the tops die down and much with straw. Then go digging at Christmas and see what you’ve got. They make great stocking stuffers.

Maybe I’m nuts to be thinking about fall frost when it is 98 degrees but let’s see who’s laughing in October when the harvest is on. For a Penn State has a great fact sheet on growing leafy greens. Check it out.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wineberry... friend or foe?

One of Buck Shorts devoted readers commented recently about wineberry, Rubus phoenicolasius. Quite a coincidence since I had nibbled on it a few just hours before. We’ll, maybe not so much of a coincidence because this wild bramble is bearing lots of fruit right now and many folks enjoy it.

Wine berry looks a lot like other brambles such as red and black raspberry except that it is covered with sticky red hairs and bristles rather than sharp prickles. The fruit are a bit smaller than other brambles but they are very tasty and distinctly “wine colored”. I know wine comes in many colors so let’s call wineberries a deep rosé. They are bearing now, after red and black raspberries but before the blackberries.

One of the nice things about wineberries is that they grow wild and if you know where to look you can just graze on them every year. No gardening necessary. A few popped up in my yard last year (deposited by seeds in bird droppings, no doubt) and I let them grow. Like most brambles, the canes are biennial. Year one, canes are vegetative; year two they bear fruit and then die. Besides the nice fruit, they are kind of pretty, too.

I did a quick
internet search on this plant and learned that it is not native and is considered invasive in many states. It was introduced as breeding stock and is native to China, Japan and Korea. Wineberry is on Massachusetts’s and Connecticut’s noxious weed list. Many sites describe its invasive nature and I believe that it is capable of displacing native vegetation. So, in some states at least, if you cultivate Rubus phoenicolasius you are breaking the law. The weed police will not bother you in Pennsylvania, so pick away. You can even say you are doing your part to prevent its spread if you beat the birds to the seedy fruit. In any event, you only have another week or so if you want to enjoy the wineberry crop. Take a walk in the woods and you may find some.

Want to learn how to grow your own brambles? Check out
Penn State's guide to growing fruit in the backyard. It has an entire chapter on brambles.

Hey Kathleen, thanks for the photo of Rubus phoenicolasius. Love the images on
your photoblog. And Buck Short says thanks for his new image posted on this site.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Penn State College of Ag Sciences… more than you think!

OK, I’ll admit up front that I am a bit biased because I work for Penn State but I think you will agree that there is more to the Penn State ‘s College of Ag Sciences than you thought… after you take a closer look.

You can take a 200 mile drive west and visit the place. But many of you will find it easier to just check out the web-based resources at You won’t be able to smell the manure, see the flowers, or hear the roar of the Nittany Lion from your desktop but it is still pretty impressive.

The welcome page at the College’s site highlights some current activities. Did you know there was a natural gas rush going on in parts of Pennsylvania? Penn State is playing a role in protecting landowners from being rushed into a poor decision. Are you really into Agriculture? Learn more about Penn State annual Ag Progress Days which will be held in late August. Agricultural research is showcased at this event.

One of the best features of the site is the search box that allows you to mine the depths of the College’s resources. Just for fun I typed in “tomato’ and found fact sheets on growing, canning and staking tomatoes. I also found nice color pictures of tomato diseases. I’ll be talking to you about early blight soon. Stay tuned. Back at the home page I see that Penn State is helping farmers in Nepal manage tomato and eggplant disease.

Next I typed in the word “pond” and found Penn State’s pond website. Besides all of the nice publications and pictures, I learned that an on-line pond management course will be offered this fall. Wow! Penn State Ag Sciences… more than you think!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Watch Your Ash

The other day I found myself taking a cross country walk through suburban Doylestown Township. From Cross Keys to Delaware Valley College, if you know the territory. I was trying to stay out of the sun so I stuck to the side streets, looking for shade. I found a lot of shade but as I proceeded though one particular development I noticed something disturbing. Almost every tree I walked under was ash. Green Ash is a great tree -tough as nails and well adapted to our region. Not much for flowers or fruit but it's a good choice for shade. Or it was.

As you may have heard, there's a new pest in Pennsylvania called Emerald Ash Borer. Just about one year ago the pest was found on the western Pennsylvania border. It traveled east from Ohio. The original infestation in the United States was found in Michigan in 2002 where it has devastated more than 30 million ash trees. Who knows how long it will take for this boring beetle to reach our end of the state but experts agree, it is just a matter of time. The larval stage of this insect destroys the water and nutrient conducting tissue just beneath the bark, causing trees to die. Symptoms include back cracking, woodpecker activity, crown die-back, and ultimately , tree death. Several other borers attach ash. Check symptoms to distinguish between them.

So, as I enjoyed the shade of these fine trees I could not help but think that some day they are likely to be wiped out by a new invasive pest. Forget about eradication. This cat is out of the bag. Individual ash trees will be candidates for insecticide treatment but wholesale protection of woodland trees and most landscape trees is just not feasible. Don't panic now and call the arborist. We'll have more specific instructions when it finally gets here. No sense in treating trees before the bug is here.

For now, enjoy the shade. Think twice before planting ash (we're talking the genus Fraxinus not mountain ash, Sorbus). Be glad that Pennsylvania has only a modest amount of ash in it's forests and landscapes. It may be many years before eastern Pennsylvania deals with this pest. Regulatory agencies are monitoring throughout Pennsylvania to track it's progress. If you happen to see a big purple box hanging in an ash tree, this is one of the monitoring stations.

Click on the Emerald Ash Borer link above to get the full story. You can follow the progress of this insect and read it's history from this site. And watch your ash.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Beetles Reunite for 2008 Performance

Back by unpopular demand for the 92nd year... The Beetles (Japanese Beetles)! Performances began the last week in June and are scheduled throughout the region for the next 30-45 days. Their tune has not changed much. Expect them to be playing Skeletonizing Zinnia, Happiness is a Warm Raspberry, Lovely Rosebush, Grape Leaf Surprise and others among their repertoire of 300 favorites.

By early August, the aging group's offspring, calling themselves The Grubs, are expected to go underground. The new generation will perform, as usual, on (actually under) lawns. They prefer well irrigated turf and usually are a bust if dry weather prevails during late summer. So, if this group's act is not for you, allowing lawns to remain dry is a good way to reduce their presence.

Certain homeowners have taken preventative measures against both the adult and expected juvenile stages of The Beetles by calling The Police who applied very effective chemical controls in the form of imidacloprid to trees, shrubs and lawns. It's too late for this treatment on woody plants but lawns can be treated through the month of July if many Beetle performances occur in your area. Be sure the treatment is watered-in after application.

On thing I've noticed is that once performances begin, they tend to keep playing in the same site for a long time. So eradicating Beetle infestations early is important. Trapping beetles is easy but ineffective. They can fly. A popular control measure used on the The Grubs, called Milky Spore Disease has not proven effective in research studies, according to many Beetle experts. Old timers are known to apply The Hand Jive to control beetles. Catch them napping early in the morning and knock them into a can of soapy or oily water.

Successful tours the past two years may be catching up on the Beetles. Rival groups, including The Wasps, The Flies and even the Birds and The Toads are taking their toll on The Beetle's success.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Graham's Garden Inspirations

Sometimes you have to get out of your own back yard to get new gardening ideas. Every year I visit my good friend and gardener extraordinaire, Graham (Crackers) Bell for inspiration. I got started with raised beds years ago after seeing his. He showed me how easy it is to grow garlic. He has made me a passionate advocate for composted sheep manure. So, when I make my annual visit to his Rhode Island garden, I expect to see something new and useful.

This year it was the tomato support systems. One nifty trick was planting the tomatoes near a fence and then snaking soft twine around the stems as they grow. Tie off the other end to a fence. The other was a two-tiered, heavy gauge, wire combo that the plants grow through (just double click on these images for a detailed look). Both beat the stake and twine system I use. I guess what really matters is getting the plants off of the ground. If you aren't staking your tomatoes give it a try. Yes, you can buy cages and pre-made made systems. But as you can see, devising your own can be just as good. One of the benefits of staking is improved air/light circulation around plants which leads to reduced disease. Also, tomato fruit are lifted off the ground which lessens slug damage and soil borne disease contamination.
Recently, I blogged on and on about raised beds. Check out Graham's rock-raised beds and that beautiful garlic. Well, those are a few of the gardening highlights from my pilgrimage to garden Guru Graham. Next year I hope to master his technique with the martini shaker and find out how to grow borage.

P.S. On my return to Pennsylvania I found Japanese Beetles feasting on my Zinnias and red raspberries. More later on beetle management but if you are seeing beetles on you plants, act now before they invite friends to their dinner party.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Growing Great Garlic

Growing Great Garlic is the title of a book I keep by my bed. Maybe it keeps the vampires away if I haven’t had my daily dose of garlic. It’s a great book but you probably don’t need to buy it. Garlic is real easy to grow and Penn State has a nice pamphlet on growing bulb crops such as onion, leek and garlic that tells you what you need to know… unless you are planning to go into the garlic business or become so enthused about garlic that you just need more information. Then you may want the book.

Garlic is on my mind now because as we approach the 4th of July I know that garlic harvest time is near. Usually by the 4th the leaves on the bottom half of the plants have died and turned brown. This is a sign that the bulb is near optimum maturity. Harvested too soon, the cloves are not well defined and full-sized. Harvested too late and the cloves separate…quality and storage life decline.

Ok, I’m about to harvest but how did I get to this point? Garlic is planted in the fall, so late last October individual cloves were planted about an inch and a half deep in good, rich garden soil. Bum some garlic from a friend or order from a source in the northeastern United States. Do not plant store-bought garlic. Maybe you can find some at a local farmers market that was locally grown (and thus well adapted to our region).

I plant my garlic in raised beds, about six inches apart in both directions. Be sure to add plenty of soil nutrients before planting.. I’d suggest a Penn State soil test to determine nutrient needs. Garlic is a “heavy feeder” as they say. Poor soils do not make great garlic.
A few leaves emerge in late fall. Add some weed free straw as a winter mulch when the ground freezes hard and you are set until spring.

There’s not much to do between spring and harvest. Just pull the odd weed that gets thru the mulch and give them a shot of nitrogen in April. Organic folks can use dried blood (extra vampire deterrent) as an N source. Others can use nitrate of soda or urea.
There is nothing like the taste of fresh garlic... and home grown is especially satisfying. You can start looking for locally harvest garlic in July. Get it while you can. Eat some and save some for planting in October. Then you'll be "off the grid"... garlic-wise.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lymantria dispar, Lymantria dispar, where for art thou or... Where are those gypsy moths?

Many people in Bucks County fearfully awaited the 2008 crop of gypsy moths. In 2006 and 2007 this leaf eating caterpillar caused significant damage in isolated Bucks County locations... Buckingham, Bedminster, Doylestown. Since the infested areas were small, co-ordinated aerial spraying conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection was not in order. Folks with several acres of trees were sweating it out. Their properties are too small to treat by air and too large to treat from the ground.

But the anticipated devastation has not materialized. Why? Score one for Mother Nature. Those cold, wet nights in mid-May helped the natural enemies of gypsy moth do their work. A fungus and a virus that weaken and then kill the caterpillars is at work. Shrunken, oily caterpillars hanging upside down are infected with the fungus. Those that appear kinked in the middle were had by the virus. Penn State's Extension entomologist, Greg Hoover, and I chatted about this yesterday as we marveled at the collapse of this destructive pest. Greg says this is happening in several parts of the state.

So, a bullet dodged. Actually, this is a normal occurrence. When pest populations peak, they are soon prey to natural enemies. Happens all the time. Just in time this year.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oil is cheap! And Effective!

I'm talking about horticultural oil... the kind that is used to kill soft bodies bugs on plants. Many folks still think of oil as a dormant treatment but for more than 20 years professional landscape managers have been using low rates of highly refined oils (plant and mineral) to control aphids, mites, scale crawlers and other soft bodied insects.

Yesterday, Bucks County's trusty and eagle-eyed Master Gardener coordinator, Betsy-Sue Schneck, spotted discoloration on some plants in the demonstration gardens at our office . Closer examination revealed lots of two-spotted spider mites on the underside of the leaves. A shot of horticultural oil , diluted to a 1 % solution (2.5 tablespoons per gallon) knocked them out in 12 hours. Of course we had to use a sprayer that would direct the spray to the undersides of the leaves where the mites were living. Oil only kills the insect it hits and it has almost no residual activity. In a day or less it has evaporated. But it did the job. Lots of dead mites on those leaves this morning.

So, as summer progresses and aphids, adelgids, mites, mealy bugs, lace bugs, scale crawlers (soft bodied immature stage) begin to damage plants, consider horticultural oil as a treatment option. The benefits: It is cheap! It is easy on beneficial bugs; very low toxicity for the applicator; organically approved, and it works well on certain pests.

Limitations: As I mentioned above, you only kill the bug you spray. Thorough coverage is essential. There is no residual activity so pest populations will rebound and a follow up treatment in 7-10 days is usually necessary. Many insects are not controlled by horticultural oil. Borers, Japanese beetles and bagworms (which have just hatched by the way), to name a few.

As always, read and follow label instructions. Oil can cause plant damage if applied to drought stressed plants and under certain other conditions. Watch those rates... plant safety requires careful measuring. You'll find both plant derived and petroleum based oils available in garden centers.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Love those raised garden beds

How do I love thee... let me count the ways:

You are always mellow.

You are twice as productive as my ex.

You are warm and mosit, but never wet.

I don't have to bend over ( forwards or backwards ) to work with you.

Yes, I am in love with my raised garden beds. And anyone I know who has started gardening in raised beds never goes back to "in-ground" growing. So, there has to be something to it. Let's take a closer look at what makes this such an easy and productive gardening style.

First, let's define raised bed. It is simply soil (or other growing media) raised above the natural grade of the soil. Farmers find that raising planting beds, even just a few inches, results in improved yields and quality. Check out those fields of melons, tomatoes and strawberries some time you're near a farm. You'll see what I mean. Home gardeners usually go a step farther... raising the beds eight, twelve or even twenty-four inches above ground level.

Why are raised beds so productive? Most of it has to do with the soil. Soil in a raised bed drains better (gravity at work). And poor drainage is a major reason for plant failure. Raised beds warm up more quickly in the spring, allowing for early planting and growth. Soil in raised beds is spared the compaction that occurs when we garden "in-ground". Think about how hard bare soil becomes when it is walked on repeatedly. Then you use a tiller to relive the compaction, which further destroys soil structure, and on and on....You won't be walking in the raised beds. And your tillage implements are likely to be your fingers. Very handy. They are always where you can find them.

You get to radically amend the soil that the beds contain. A good rule of thumb is to use about 1/3 to 1/2 of your native soil and mix it with good, finished compost. This results in a very mellow ( soft, loose crumbly) growing medium that plants love. Organic gardeners can boost soil fertility by choosing composts with high levels of plant nutrients (aged manures). Even lousy, clayey soils or uber-porous soils are improved in this way because of the magical properties of organic matter... it aerates heavy/clayey soils and improves moisture holding capacity of light/sandy soils.

OK, you've got a well-drained, aerated, moisture-holding, warm growing medium. If you're a plant, what's not to love? A little fertility (organic or otherwise) and you're going to grow to your full least until the rabbits, ground hogs, bugs and diseases appear. But that it another story.

What are raised beds structures made of and how big should they be? Here is where you can get creative. No one says they have to be square or rectangular. If that works for you, fine. A buddy of mine has serpentine raised beds made of rocks. Beautiful and functional. I've got beds made of black locust, dawn redwood and white oak. Make them any dimension you want but here are a few tips. Don't make them any wider than twice your reach or you won't get to the middle. Even this may be a stretch. So a maximum width of forty-eight inches makes sense and there is nothing wrong with beds as narrow as twelve inches. I think mine are thirty-six. If I stretch I can reach the other side. How about height? Eight to twelve inches seems to be common. Six is OK and you can stack beds and make the whole thing as high as you want. It is lovely to garden standing up.... or sitting in a chair. If you end up with the typical, low bed, get one of those cushioned pads to kneel on and you're in business.

What kind of wood should you use? I won't enter the pressure treated lumber controversy. Lumber treated with copper, chromium and arsenic (CCA) was popular for years. Certainly plants had no problem with it (unlike wood treated with creosote or pentachlorophenol). Yes, arsenic is a toxic substance but it is likely that your exposure to this was minimal. Now, other preservatives are available and CCA is not an option unless you inherited some. After many long conversations with gardeners about the relative hazard of CCA treated wood I came to this conclusion: anything that takes away from the potential for you to enjoy your garden (or is going to make you gag as you bite into your first born beet) ain't worth the benefits. So just find a material that you are comfortable with. There are lots of options. If you can find black locust and have the patience and strength to make beds out of it... your great grand children can use them. Put it in you will. Don't ask me where I got my twelve-inch dawn redwood boards. I ain't telling. It is light, apparently durable and a pleasure to nail and screw. Time will tell if it will compete with black locust for durability. I kind of doubt it. Saw mills are getting few and far between but they are still out there and can sell you rough cut lumber for beds. Hey, you can order pre-cut, rot resistant cedar boards for raised beds on-line if you have the money. You've got options. Cement blocks work.

A few final things that make raised beds fun. You can convert a raised bed to a cold frame easily by attaching something that will support light transmitting plastic. Beds become mini-greenhouses for pennies. Now you are extending your growing season dramatically. Floating row covers work nicely too but offer less heating potential.

Weeding, a chore even for garden fanatics, is so much easier in raised beds. Weeds still emerge but pulling them is child's play. And because your crop plant density is so much higher in raised beds, their competition reduces weed growth dramatically. By the way, this plant density accounts for much of that two-fold yield increase over in-ground gardening.

Tools get smaller. There are nifty cultivation and planting tools for raised beds. Nothing is motorized. And fingers can do most of the planting. Instead of a hoe you'll be making seed planting rows with your pinky.

I suppose I could go on and on but those are the high points.

Any downside to raised beds? Well, despite all of that nice organic matter, raised beds do dry out quickly. So watering becomes important. Maybe even critical. Since they have high organic matter content the contents of the beds "shrink" during the course of the year as the organic matter decomposes. So you have to refill beds annually. Do it in the fall after the harvest season and let Mother Nature get things setteld in over winter. Other than that, I can't think of a negative. And even watering is really just adding a level of garden management that pays off.

Ok I gotta go. I have a date with Romaine.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lettuce bolting... tomatoes smoking

Lettuce is a wonderful garden crop. Easy to grow. Makes a crop in as little as 28 days. And if you find a good seed catalog you'll find dozens of lettuce types... stuff you don't even see in the stores. Almost nothing bothers lettuce except the occasional slug... and hot weather. The recent heat wave and lengthening daylight periods has caused my lettuce to "bolt". Bolting is the natural inclination of lettuce to form seed stalks under long days and high temperature. So there was a mass harvest in my garden and everyone I know is getting a bag full. Fortunately, I have seeded lettuce several times and the less mature plants are still coming on. Plant breeders have improved heat tolerance in lettuce varieties and this helps. For tips on growing lettuce check out Penn State's nifty fact sheet called growing leafy vegetables.

Some like it hot. Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and melons thrive under the conditions we're having right now. You can just about see tomatoes plants grow before your eyes! Even the most tender vegetable crops should be in the garden now. Many gardeners used row covers and other devices to get a jump on the growing season, especially with these cold sensitive crops.

Tomatoes are almost as fool proof as lettuce, but we had a call in the Bucks County Extension office today describing a complete disaster. Twenty-five tomato plants went in... twenty-five are wilting. Same thing happened the previous year. While you will read and hear about Verticillium wilt and Fusarium wilt, these tomato diseases are now a rare occurrence because plant breeders have done a fantastic job breeding for resistance to these problems. So what was up? A quick look at our references came up with a possible cause. Question? Was there a walnut tree growing next to the tomato patch? Answer. Yes. Mystery solved! Walnuts produce a toxin in their roots (as well as leaves and other plant parts) that is deadly to tomato. Doesn't happen often but there it was. A CSI moment. Our web-based tomato fact sheet appear to be under revision but we'll mail you an old fashioned paper copy if you call 215-345-3283 and request it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Strawberries are hot!

Strawberries are "in-season" right now in Southeastern Pennsylvania. So there is no better time to get a taste of a locally grown specialty. I know of at least 15 farms in Bucks County where you can pick your own or buy pre-picked, luscious strawberries. (I'll tell you how you can find them in a minute.)
I think many folks miss the opportunity for a gourmet treat by going to the grocery store rather than the farm for berries.. not to mention a lot of other locally produced food. You just CANNOT beat field-ripened fruit.
Strawberry season will only be "in' for another couple of weeks and this hot weather is condensing the picking season, so if you want some of these delicacies, get them while they're hot.
If you want to enjoy fresh strawberry taste all year long, preserve them. Penn State's Let's Preserve fact sheet series will tell you how to make jams and jellies or freeze that fresh flavor. A little strawberry jam in January goes a long way to beating the winter blues.
OK, want to find a local berry farm? Call us (215-345-3283) for the 2008 Fresh From Farms market directory. It lists 63 places where you can find Bucks County grown berries, sweet corn, peaches, eggs, meat and other good stuff. Check it out on the web at:

Monday, June 9, 2008

It's June... why are my tree's leaves falling?

No, it's not normal for tree leaves to begin falling in late Spring.... but it happens. If you've been observing sycamore trees lately you'll see what I mean. A fungal leaf disease called anthracnose causes stem cankers and leaf disease that results in premature leaf drop.

Should you be concerned? Think about it. Those big old sycamore trees have probably had anthracnose many times. They survived it. So although it looks bad now, obviously they can tolerate this. Why? When summer temperatures arrive the disease stops and trees re-foliate. Certainly the trees have been stressed but they usually recover.