Monday, October 1, 2012

Scarlet Oak Sawfly

skeletonized oak leaf
“What’s up with the oaks?” or “Are my oak trees are dying?” were common questions from residents in the Hilltown/Perkasie/Bedminster area this year. Symptoms included whitening in the tops of pin oaks and, on closer examination, leaves that had been “skeletonized”. This means that all of the soft parts of the plant tissue were gone but the “bones’ remained… just the skeleton.

You might think, as I did originally, that the insect called Oak Leaf Skeletonizer was the culprit. But a conversation with Penn State entomologist Greg Hoover led to the conclusion that this was another insect, Scarlet Oak Sawfly. Both insects skeletonize leaves but Scarlet Oak Sawfly does not leave tell-tale pupal cases on the leaves as does the Oak Leaf Skeletonizer.

pin oak injury from sawfly feeding
 The clincher was speaking with arborists Craig Brooks (Bedminster) and Bob McMullin (Doylestown). Both reported diagnosing the problem in the past two years. Craig and Bob are International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborists and excellent tree men. If you are looking of tree care, an ISA certified arborist is a really good idea.

So, what will become of oaks infested with Scarlet oak sawfly? PSU’s Greg Hoover thinks that natural predators and parasites will begin to take control and reduce sawfly populations to levels that are almost harmless. Defoliation is the issue here. The question is: “How much foliage can a tree stand to lose?” Answer is: "Some, not too much, not too often." It is not a black and white situation. Many factors such as overall tree condition, amount of foliage loss and site factors come in to play. It is unlikely that partial defoliation in one year will be a life or death situation for an oak.

sawfly larva feeding
 However, major defoliation in consecutive years is a problem. Think about gypsy moth damage. Similar scenario here. Except that Scarlet oak sawfly has two generations, one in early summer and one in late summer. Insecticide options exist, but the bugs habit of feeding from the tops of trees downward can present logistical problems... how to get good spray coverage at the top of a 50 foot tree? If necessary, arborists have the tools to do the job. It is not a do-it-yourself situation.

Personally, I have my bet on Mother Nature to come to the rescue. Sure, She can be unpredictable and is habitually late, but population spikes of one bug eventually result in their enemies coming along to even things out. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fresh From Bucks County Farms

Summer has arrived … and so have seasonal fruit and vegetables. Blueberries are “in” and peaches are not far behind. Raspberries are about to ripen. Get them while you can! The first tomatoes, planted early in greenhouses, are about to become plentiful, too. Some local sweet corn for the 4th of July? You bet.

"New" potatoes and peas
You can find a source for all of these favorite produce items in the 2012 edition of Fresh From Bucks County Farms, a directory of local farms, farm markets and CSA’s published by Penn State Extension. Copies are available on request by calling 215-345-3283 or at this site. Copies are also available in any Bucks County library.

While peaches, sweet corn and tomatoes get all of the attention, there is a lot more to like in the local food scene. “Foodies” have been enjoying garlic scapes for the last 3 weeks. The strawberry crop was exceptionally early and delicious this year. If you have never enjoyed “new” potatoes and peas a visit to the local farmers market will introduce you to a June treat.

Looking of something special? European-style artisanal cheese? Champagne? Duck eggs? Lamb? Grass-fed beef? You will find it all in Fresh From Bucks County Farms.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Start Farming

High tunnel greenhouses extend the farming season
This is a gardening blog so you might think farming is not up your alley. But as gardeners, you have a lot in common with farmers. You watch the weather more closely than most people. You have an intimate relationship with insects… some friendly, some adversarial. You grow more of your own food than most folks. You know the names of beet varieties… because you grow them.

And I’ll bet that some of you have farming fantasies. You can see yourself selling stuff at the local farmers market rather than buying. You stare at tractors, longingly. The smell of manure is like perfume. As you might suspect, you are in a minority. So are farmers. Census data says that about one percent of the U.S. population identifies its occupation as farming. And that group is aging. About 40 percent are over 55. There is legitimate concern about where the next generation of farmers will come from.

What’s Penn State got to do with it? Well, as many of you know, we’ve been in the farming education business since about 1862. Many of today’s farmers were not born on farms. They followed a dream of farming and made it a reality. I can quickly name a Bucks County dairy farmer who grew up in Philadelphia, a vegetable grower who was an electrician and a commercial fruit producer who is a nurse. Each of them would tell you that Penn State has played a role in their success.

Recently, a federal grant was initiated specifically to help beginning farmers get started. Tianna Dupont, Penn State Extension Educator, is heading up the Start Farming program in Southeastern Pennsylvania. In the last two years, this program has reached more than 950 new and beginning farmers through 36 courses with names such as: ABCs of Beekeeping, Exploring the Small Farm Dream, Pasture School, Sheep Short Course, Introduction to Organic Vegetable Production and Small Scale Poultry. About half of the participants had no farm background or farming experience prior to taking the courses. These courses are ideal for working people, those between jobs, folks nearing retirement, and others who cannot devote time to full-time undergraduate course work, but still want to receive high quality education in agriculture.

For those who are ready to take on four years of study, Penn State has about 20 majors in agriculture. And they are popular! From the years 20005 to 2010, College of Ag enrollment at Penn State was up 42 percent. To see what the curriculum in agriculture looks like at Penn State see this.

It is interesting that at a time when concerns about where the next generation of farmers will come from, enthusiasm for food production is sky high….from both consumers and prospective producers. Want to start farming? See what Penn State has to offer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Yes, Kiss Your Ash Goodbye

Emerald Ash Borer larval feeding injury
About nine months ago, this blog described purple traps hung throughout the Delaware Valley which are designed to detect an important pest … Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). The traps were not successful in detecting this insect but a sharp-eyed arborist was. Last Friday I got a call to look at some ash trees that were ravaged by woodpecker feeding. Beneath the bark, signs of larval tunneling were obvious. A few days later, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture entomologists visited the site and verified that this was indeed Emerald Ash Borer.

Bad news for ash trees.

You can read the blog of June 11 last year and get the story … nothing has changed except that a detection has been made about 100 miles east (Warrington, PA, Bucks County) of the leading edge of the Pennsylvania EAB infestation. About the only good news is that a tremendous amount has been learned about this insect in the last 10 years. See this Penn State site or this National EAB site for solid, research-based information. The PSU “Frequently asked questions” feature is a good starting place.

For tree owners, the time has come to consider the fate of your ash. Depending on who’s counting, this insect has killed between 40 and 50 million trees between Michigan and….. Warrington. It is in 15 states and two Canadian provinces. It’s a tree killer. Infested ash die.

Individual trees can be protected with insecticides. Some can be applied by homeowners but, from what I read, the best product is available to arborists only and has to be injected. Upside? Two years of control.

Another hopeful thought is that entomologists now have several parasitoids, (bug killing bugs) that may provide some control of EAB… and perhaps the site recently detected would be a release site for them. That would be nice. Cross your fingers.

But don’t expect predators to catch up to EAB in Bucks County before a lot of damage is done. For now, learn to recognize ash . Think about whether it is really important to preserve those that you see. It is not practical to treat every ash tree. Remember, treatment provides only temporary protection, not immunity or a cure.

Those considering do-it-yourself treatment will find instructions here

Anyone following the story of Emerald Ash Borer knew that it was only a matter of time before this insect would be found killing ash trees in eastern Pennsylvania. Maybe this knowledge lessened the blow a bit. Also, those who closely observe tree and pest interactions know that this is one of many associations between an insect (or disease pathogen) that results in catastrophic impact on a species. See Dutch Elm Disease, Chestnut Blight or Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. More recently, Thousand Cankers Disease of Black Walnut.

I never paid much attention to ash trees until EAB arrived in Pennsylvania five years ago. Now I see them everywhere. Not for long.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Raised Bed Club

My pal Harry called recently to tell me that he had located some rough cut, white oak boards to build raised garden beds. We discussed board dimensions, how to fasten them together, what to fill the new beds with. I knew that Harry was about to become a member of the Raised Bed Club. I have been a member for about 15 years and it is probably the single most productive gardening step I’ve ever taken. I’ll outline some of the benefits and details here. If you want to take your vegetable gardening to another level, consider raised beds.

So, what’s the big deal with raised beds? For many of us (and certainly my original motivation) it is to gain the ability to garden in poorly drained soils… or to get access to garden soil earlier in the season. Raising the soil profile even a few inches creates gravitational pull on water that leaves it better drained. Many folks think that it is the media in the bed that is creating all of that drainage, and to certain extent, it does play a role. But even raising the existing soil on a site improves drainage dramatically. And if you are worrying about the task of importing a lot of stuff to fill you new raised bed… stop. You can accomplish a lot by simply using the existing soil.

Now, to talk out of both sides of my mouth, as they say…. let’s not ignore the potential to really improve soil texture and structure by amending that stuff we’ll fill those beds with. If you can add good organic matter to your existing garden soil in a raised bed you will see additional benefits. Where do you go for good organic matter? It’s everywhere. If you live in Southeastern Pennsylvania you are within an hour’s drive of some of the best compost money can buy. And sometimes it’s free! Spent mushroom compost is a beautiful thing. Many garden centers sell it. As you get closer to Kennet Square in Chester County it becomes more plentiful and cheaper. Since this stuff is often a waste product of the mushroom industry, there are mountains of it. It is simply the growing medium that several crops of mushrooms have been living in. It is high in organic matter and nutrients. Mix about 25 % mushroom compost, by volume, into even the crummiest soil and you have a decent growing media. Sure, do a soil test after you make this mix and adjust as necessary but that mushroom soil is nutrient rich and near neutral pH.

Composted leaves are stockpiled in many communities. While these will be less nutrient rich than mushroom compost, they do provide wonderful soil textural qualities. Again, adding about 25 %, by volume, is a good start.

Manure is magnificent. Find one of those old barnyard piles that has been ageing like a fine wine and you have hit the jackpot.

OK you get the idea. Find some organic matter. Amend your existing soil by incorporating about 25 % of what you can find with the existing soil. Then soil test and adjust fertility as needed. This will get you started. As time goes by you will fine tune that media in the beds. It will settle and shrink over time so yearly additions are needed.

Some garden centers and mulch suppliers sell a garden soil mix in bulk, by the cubic yard. Most will deliver. Tell them your bed dimensions and they will tell you how much you need. A bed that measures 8 feet by 3 feet by 9 inches will require 18 cubic feet… less than a cubic yard (27 square feet).

Rock raised bed
Wooden boards are probably material most people use to construct beds but many things can do the job. Rocks work. So do concrete blocks. I suppose you could use the fancy fake rock wall materials that are so popular. Metal, plastic, you name it. In fact, a raised bed can be borderless if you’d like. But the tidiness of wooden raised beds is nice. What kind of wood? Since there will definitely be contact with soil, a rot resistant wood is important if you want the beds to last more than a couple of years. Pressure treated wood sold these days does not contain arsenic.

Borderless Bed
Copper is used instead to resist the rots. Got old pressure treated wood with arsenic? There is pretty good evidence that this does not pose a great threat, but if you are going to spend one moment worrying about it (or trying to convince someone else who eats from your garden that all is fine by explaining the chemical qualities of arsenic) maybe it is a better idea to make a set of stairs out of those old pressure treated boards.

Black Locust Beds
Or… you can use naturally rot resistant wood. Black Locust is probably the most rot resistant species you can find locally. White oak is OK. If you have unlimited funds, Cedar and Redwood are sold. You’ll find locust and white oak at Pennsylvania sawmills. Yes, there are still sawmills around. I have 15 year old white oak beds that are just now breaking down. I expect the locust beds to be heirlooms.

Warped bed Board
The bed length is up to you but the longer board the more expensive they get. You can butt ends of individual beds together, as needed, if you have a big garden and want lots of gardening capacity. Bed width… you want to be able to reach across the bed from either side. Three feet wide is good. Wider is a stretch. Literally. If you don’t mnd working from both sides of a bed make them five feet wide. Board width…a full one inch board width will serve you well.

Locust is like concrete and must be pre-drilled in order to fasten end together. Screws are better than nails. Exterior grade screws are best. Plan to assemble you beds immediately after purchasing the boards at a sawmill, unless the boards have been properly dried, otherwise warping will make this impossible later.

How deep should the bed boards be? Six to eight inches is enough. More is a better but the boards will get expensive. Want deeper beds? Make them the identical dimensions and stack them on top of each other.

Hoops and Plastic make a Mini Greenhouse out of a Raised Bed
It is hard to believe that raising your garden surface less than a foot would yield huge benefits…. But it does. You’ll find gardening gets easier and your efforts are more productive. Your fingers are all you need to plant and weed. You will probably find yourself making low covered tunnels to extend the growing season and seeding crops like lettuce in solid beds instead of rows. You’ll make a cold frame instantly by covering a raised bed with a discarded window. You’ll be gardening earlier and later in the season… harvesting lettuce for Thanksgiving… or Christmas!

Ready for a new gardening adventure? Make a couple of raised beds.

Disarded window makes a cold frame out of a raised bed!

For a nice publication on the subject, see this from Missouri xtension.