Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What's up with the Honey Bees?

Beginning beekeeper
Honey bees are in the news. Have been for years now.  In about 2006, a mysterious condition became apparent to commercial beekeepers. Colonies of bees dwindled to just a few young bees and a queen. Instead of tens of thousands of worker bees in a colony only a handful remained. No disease or other pest organisms were apparent. It was not a typical pesticide kill in which many dead bees are found piled up in front of the colony.

The term “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) was coined to describe this phenomenon. Eight years later, a simple explanation for CCD still does not exist. But that doesn't mean no one cares or efforts to find answers have not been made. Last fall a panel of experts who have been studying the problem for almost a decade came to these conclusions:
1)   Consensus is building that a complex set of stressors and pathogens is associated with CCD.  

2)   The parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, remains the single most detrimental pest of honey bees and is closely associated with overwintering colony declines. ( note: overwintering losses are not necessarily CCD)

3)   Several viruses are associated with CCD and Varroa mites aggravate the virus problem. Other pathogens, both new and old, are also increasingly detected.

4)   Poor honey bee nutrition due to lack of good, diverse food sources has an effect on honey bee health. Loss of honey bee habitat and forage is a concern.

5)   Effects of pesticides on honey bees has been increasingly documented (PSU is taking a lead role here). Both acute (immediate, lethal injury) and sub lethal effects are known. Shockingly, Penn State researchers found that more than 100 different pesticides were detected in a sampling of honey bee pollen and wax. Interestingly, the most commonly found pesticides…. and those found in highest amounts, were applied by beekeepers to control Varroa mites!

Get the picture? Simple answers are very satisfying but just won’t do here.  And those who would like to demonize technology in the form of cell phones, GMOs and other modern inventions will not find support from the facts. Even the pesticide issue is complex. For a copy of the full report see this

Frame with honey bees
The good news is that bees of all kinds are getting the attention they deserve. Some cool breakthroughs in long term preservation of honey bee sperm will allow introduction of traits from European strains of bees through artificial insemination. (please note that the honey bee we have in the USA was an Old World import about 400 years ago… along with a lot of other plants and animals we eat and love).

And the public concern for bees has resulted in a surge of interest in beekeeping. The ABC’s of Beekeeping course that I have conducted for the last five years has filled to capacity every year. The same thing is happening throughout the country. Penn State has developed an on-line beekeeping course called Beekeeping 101  that allows you to study practical beekeeping anytime, anywhere.

Honeybees aren't the only bees on the plant. Thousands of other bee species are also experiencing disease, loss of habitat and assaults from pesticides.

Penn States Center for pollinator research is a great place to start if you want to learn more. You can even certify your garden as “pollinator friendly” through his program.

Be careful in assessing what you read about honeybee health in the popular press and the internet. Often times the headline (or even the main article) is designed to grab your attention but not enlighten the reader. Stories about bad guys and bogeymen sell newspapers but fail to fully explain important, complex issues such as the health of a cosmopolitan insect like the honey bee. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Native Green Medal Plants and Jenkins Arboretum

Oakleaf Hydrangea
In early January, Penn State Extension conducted a “Green Industry” conference at Delaware Valley College.  We’ve been collaborating with DelVal, The Pennsylvania Landscape /Nursery Association (PLNA) and The Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) for about 30 years to bring professionals in the green industry together for a day of learning and socializing. This year 175 people participated.

The afternoon keynote speaker was Dr. Harold Sweetman, Executive Director of the Jenkins Arboretum. Harold’s presentation was spellbinding. Great photography and beautiful plants are a winning combination. His message was about Green Medal Plants … plants native to the eastern United States that thrive in the Delaware Valley region and would be beautiful in residential and commercial landscapes throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. The designation is made by Sweetman and the Jenkins staff.  

Here, I’d like to share thoughts on a few of the Green Medal trees and shrubs. There are also Green medal herbaceous plants...wildflower and ferns.  But I’ll stick to the woody plants because I know them best.
You can see the entire list here And, I certainly won’t attempt to compete with the Harold's photographs by including lots of pictures! I encourage you to see multiple images of each species at the website link shown above.

One interesting thing about the Green Medal designation…. it is for the species not specific cultivars. For some plants (think Cornus florida) you’ll find many cultivars. But the focus of the program is to make us more aware of the species in general. You can branch out from there.

Ok, on to the plants. Maybe the reason I warmed up to Harold’s presentation so much is because I see the plants he discussed almost every day. I have most of them in my front or backyard. And we have some of them in the fledgling Almshouse Arboretum on the grounds of Neshaminy Manor Center where Penn State’s Extension office is located.

So here are a few woody plants that you really should consider adding to your landscape this year. What? You don’t have a landscape of your own? OK. Find a park, school, church, or other public area and set a goal to obtain each of the Green Medal plants.

Eastern Redbud. Cercis canadensis – not red buds…. purple/lavender buds! Before the leaves emerge! That last for weeks! This plant is simply stunning in early spring. White flowered forms are available. And, it also has beautiful clear-yellow fall foliage. There are many cultivars with interesting summer foliage... even variegated, if you must. Small tree.  Fits into existing landscapes.

Common Pawpaw. Asimina triloba – Ok, not so common. Of all the plants on the list, this one may be most unfamiliar to you. But after hearing Harold describe a Pawpaw Daiquiri, I know it has a future. My plants are still young and have not yet borne fruit.  But I have eaten it and they are as tropical tasting as a mango or bannana. Just wild. Pawpaw is tolerant of shade and mucho soil moisture which makes it a good fit for such otherwise challenging sites. Get at least two different individuals to insure cross pollination for fruit set.

Carolina Silverbell.  Halesia carolina or Halesia tetraptera - Looking for a small to medium sized, shade tolerant, flowering,  native tree. Gotta have Carolina Silverbell.  Silverbell refers to the white flowers that hang downward from the previous season’s growth. This plant requires good soil... .deep, moist, acidic, well drained but it will reward you with its unique attributes.

Sweetbay Magnolia. Magnolia virginiana – A semi-evergreen small tree. Ok, I just looked and the specimen at the Almshouse Arboretum is leafless. But the one year old stems are bright green! This magnolia is noteworthy for it flower fragrance. Shade and wet tolerant. Foliage is dark glossy green on top and silvery beneath.  Shade and soil moisture tolerance is a big plus.

Alternateleaf Dogwood. Cornus alternifolia – Here’s a plant I really want. And I hope I live a while because the older specimens have such great character. The appeal of this dogwood is not the flowers, foliage or fruit but the horizontal branching habit. Yes, it has flowers of consequence but since they appear after the leaves they do not have the impact of flowers on Cornus florida. Speaking of which, the very common Flowering Dogwood is still a great plant. In fact, it is hard to beat for flowers, form and fruit. With close to 100 cultivars and subspecies in the trade, you will have no problem locating something you like. Put it at the corner of your house, plant three or five in a cluster near a woods edge or set one as a specimen in front of a wall. You almost can’t go wrong with what plant authority Michael Dirr calls “the aristocrat of native flowering trees”.

Winterberry Holly
Winterberry Holly. Ilex verticillata ­– Want to make a big splash of color in you landscape? In mid-winter? Look no further than this native, deciduous holly. These plants are widely sold and dozens of cultivars exist. They have been bred and selected for heavy fruit set. I know a guy who has three acres of them that are cut for the florist trade. Red and yellow fruit are possible with red predominating. Yes, you’ll need one, dull male. That’s life. And there is not much sense in having a single female when half a dozen will really liven things up. These plants tolerate very wet sites. What better way to solve a landscape problem than by filling it with color. I have never seen a serious pest on this species.

Franklin Tree. Franklinia alatamaha – We don’t have space here to tell the fascinating history of this plant. And for landscape purposes I guess it doesn’t matter. This small tree (10-25 feet) produces beautiful, large, fragrant,  white flowers with bright yellow centers in mid-summer… for starters. Fall color is a beautiful reddish purple. The dark, fluted  smooth bark and interesting branch architecture  make it interesting when dormant.  Hard to transplant and maybe difficult to find except at specialty retailers.  
Most, (probably all) of these plants have important relationships with native insects and other critters. When you fill your landscape with such plants, you are not the only one who benefits.

One thing I have noticed over the decades of involvement with the Green Industry Conference at Delaware Valley College...we have no trouble finding outstanding horticulturists, like Harold Sweetman  right in our own back yard. Kind of like these native plants… you don’t have to go far to find a winner.

Finally, don’t miss seeing the plants we just discussed, and many more, live and “in person”.  Visit Jenkins Arboretum

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fall color

Got a call the other day from a person who was quite concerned about pine trees...needles turning brown and dropping. In fact, she said the ground beneath the trees was completely carpeted with brown needles.   She was distraught. 

Funny, I had seen the exact same thing that day and I was ecstatic! Beautiful fall color! Same trees, different reaction. 

The difference is  understanding that evergreens, such as white pine, while indeed evergreen,  naturally shed dead needles in the fall. Perfectly normal and natural. 

The key is to note that the needles that are being shed are older interior needles. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Fall is for Planting

Fall will probably always have a hard time competing with spring when it comes to generating gardening enthusiasm. I guess there is some natural rhythm that encourages us to plant in spring.  But fall planting has many benefits.

ü  Soil is warm... warmer than in the spring. Roots continue to grow in the fall well past the time that leaves are shed.

ü  Moisture is usually plentiful and reliable in fall. And, deciduous plants that we establish in fall lose their leaves, reducing demands for moisture. Fall planted trees and shrubs have a ‘leg-up” on the spring planted ones regarding root growth and are better prepared for the likelihood of summer droughts. 

ü  Plants are cheaper! Every garden center I pass has some incentive for fall tree and shrub sales. Take advantage of it. You have nothing to lose and lots to gain. Do check plant quality before buying.

Fall is a perfect time for lawn care.  As a serious Philadelphia Phillies fan I have been listening to one of the major turf product suppliers telling me to “feed and seed” my lawn in almost every radio broadcast since March. Well, as the old saying goes, “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day." That fellow was on target in late spring… and again now.

September might be the ideal month for new lawn seedings but Penn State guidelines say seeding until October 15 is fine and we can stretch this deadline to late October successfully in Southeastern PA . One of the best reasons to establish new lawns in fall is to avoid the competition of summer annual weeds such as crabgrass. Crabgrass germinates and competes with spring seedings but not in the fall. The warm, moist soil is ideal for germination and root growth. Spring is a poor second choice when it comes to lawn establishment. A word of advice: simply tossing grass seed on the soil surface will not result in germination. That seed needs to be in the soil, not on it.   See this Penn State publication for details on renovation seeding.
Weed control and fertilization are two maintenance tasks that are best done in the fall. Weeds translocate herbicides very well as they approach dormancy. This means good weed control because the root systems of perennial weeds are killed. Controlling weeds is the fall means virtually weed-free lawns in spring.   Clover, dandelion and other broadleaves weeds are pretty easy to control with modern chemistries available in the garden center. October is a great month to go at it. Weed and feed products can kill two birds with one stone. But generally, sprayed on herbicides provide better control of broadleaved weeds.

If you have not applied some nitrogen fertilizer this fall, do it ASAP. You’ll be rewarded with good plant response this fall as well as next spring. Fertilization may be the best weed control practice you can perform. Dense turf competes with weed invaders. How much fertilizer should you apply? Label instructions will get you in the ball park. For a more precise approach, you can get a Penn State soil test kit here and follow the recommendations.  Ever applied lime to your lawn? If not, there's a good chance that this cheap pH adjuster will pay off. Soil tests will advise on this, too. If you are guessing… 50 lbs of ground limestone per 1000 square feet is a starting point.

Plant bulbs now. This is certainly a case of practicing delayed gratification. It will be months before you see the fruits of your labor. But, you can’t have that glorious spring display of daffodils and tulips if you aren’t willing to go to work now! Plants lots for best  effect. Think in terms of 25, 50 and 100. 

Not into flowers? How about garlic? October is garlic planting month. I use Columbus Day as a reminder to plant garlic but there is plenty of leeway on this. A local farmers market is a good place to find locally adapted garlic varieties and you can find one by looking at our Fresh From Bucks County Farms DirectoryGrowing garlic is very easy. Check out some highlights here in one of my previous blog posts

Odds and ends. What better time to be in the garden than on a cool sunny day in fall? Here’s a list of some other tasks suited to the season:           

            Kill perennial weeds. Canada thistle, bindweed, poison ivy. As long as they have green leaves they are great targets for translocated herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup, etc).  

            Start a compost pile. Tree leaves, brush, garden clean up stuff.. they all make great ingredients for a compost pile. For the basics check out this publication from Illinois Extension. This cool Cornell University video goes into details and this Cornell publication has even more good composting information.

Winterize garden equipment. Why not put all of that summer garden gear to bed in good condition? Clean and sharpen shovels, hoes and other hand equipment. Rub some linseed oil into wooden handles. Service power equipment. Drain and hang hoses. Empty and store flower pots and other containers. 

Seed cover crops into vacant vegetable garden beds. Rye is probably the best all around winter cover for our area. Find it at farm supply stores. Rye can be seeded until the middle of November and makes a dense, winter hardy ground cover. Spade that overwintered rye into the soil in early spring before it gets too tall. You’ll be amazed at the massive root system it creates.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ten Terrific Summer Garden Ideas

1. Keep planting in the vegetable garden.

'Freckles' Lettuce

Wise gardeners already have an eye towards the fall harvest season. After Labor Day, tomatoes are on their last legs, zucchini are about shot (or you are sick of them), and summer diseases have ravaged the vine crops. By planting cool loving crops in July and August, you can extend the gardening season to Thanksgiving… and beyond. Beets and carrots can be seeded in July and early August for fall harvest. Cabbage family crops such as broccoli and cauliflower can be transplanted at this time. Check out garden centers for transplants. Also, in places where peas, radish, lettuce, broccoli and other early maturing crops have petered out, consider seeding quick maturing crops like beans and summer squash which can mature in 50-60 days from seed. For a good guide to seeding dates and culture of many vegetable see Penn State’s publication, Vegetable Gardening

2. Try something new.

Ever eat Kohlrabi? Rutabaga? Arugula? You might be surprised to find you love them. Each of these is a great addition to the summer vegetable garden and will be ready for fall harvest. Even if your tastes are not adventurous, you’ll surely find a new kind of lettuce in the gardening catalog. My new garden plant this year is Johnny’s Seeds Salanova lettuces. Check it out! These varieties would make a great addition to the fall garden. Seed in early-mid August.

Oh, and I had to try tomato varieties called Paul Robeson and Blue Beech!
Ok, not into vegetables? How about flowers? If you want to see what’s new in annual flowers, take a ride out to Penn State’s Flower Trials  in Landisville, PA (near Lancaster). More than 1000 cultivars are beautifully displayed and labeled. The public is welcome to visit on weekdays from dawn to dusk (Fridays till 2:30) throughout the summer. This place is a “must do” on my summer calendar. There is a one-day special Summer Garden Experience on July 27 with guided tours of the farm, speakers, and special displays. The event is free but parking is ten bucks.

3. Kill poison ivy.
Poison ivy in bloom

Perhaps only a card carrying member of the Northeast Weed Science Society (like me) would put this on their list of summer fun but there it is. Fact is, mid-summer ‘til frost is an ideal time to tackle this weed. The herbicides triclopyr and glyphosate are the best materials for this job. Triclopyr is found in several products sold in garden centers, sometimes sold as Poison Ivy Killer. In some products, it is pre-mixed with glyphosate. Products containing triclopyr alone will kill poison ivy but will not damage turf grasses. Glyphosate products are “non-selective” and will injure all plants that are contacted. As always follow label instructions. For a more complete discussion of poison ivy, see this.

4. Harvest and enjoy garlic.
July harvested garlic

Ok if you didn’t plant garlic last fall you won’t be harvesting your own this July. In this case, make finding a source of locally grown garlic your mission. Farmers markets and garlic festivals are good places to find some locally adapted “stinking rose”. For those of us with garlic, the rule is to harvest when about 60 % of the leaves have turned brown. Usually this is about the 4th of July… or a bit later. Hang the harvested garlic in a warm, well ventilated place out of the sun such as the rafters of a garage and let them dry down for a few weeks. Then trim the tops off… about an inch above the head and store at room temperature. Of course, enjoy some of that fresh juicy garlic right away. If heads of garlic got a bit over-mature, save these for fall planting or eat right away. Be sure to give a head or two to friends and encourage them to join the garlic growing gang.

5. Plan for late summer turf renovations.
Kids like lawns
Penn State agronomists continually remind us that late summer is the best time to renovate an old lawn or start a new lawn from scratch. Why? Because conditions are excellent for grass seed germination and this is followed by perfect condition for continued growth. Soil is warm, days are cooling, weed pressure is reduced, rainfall is plentiful… perfect for our cool season turfgrass species such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue and fine fescues. So, set a target date in the last week of August or the first week of September. Follow guidelines in Penn State’s lawn renovation fact sheet . You’ll want to be prepared with soil fertility information (pH, nutrient and organic matter levels), so soil test in July or early August. See this to learn how to submit sample to Penn State for analysis.

6. Pinch and Prune
Guess what
While the old saying “prune when the knife is sharp” may be a bit too liberal, the window of opportunity to prune is wider than most folks think. Forsythia over grown? Prune it. Missed thinning out the Wigelia? Do it in July. Didn’t pinch the mums? No wonder they are so straggly! I weed whack my Nipponanthemum nipponicum every 4th of July to keep the plants compact and the bloom upright. Late summer is probably not an idea time to do major pruning but July has some good possibilities. Here is a great Penn State guide to pruning woody landscape plants.

7. Start a compost pile.

Two bin turning unit

As summer progresses, mounds of organic matter begin to accumulate. Grass clippings, garden cleanup stuff, melon rinds and corn husks from a picnic…. all great stuff for a compost pile. If composting is new to you, here  is one of many great guides that will get you started. Turn that trash into treasure. It’s black gold for the garden. If you encounter compost questions as you go, please call us at Bucks County Extension (215-345-3283) to discuss your situation.

8. Visit gardens and arboreta near and far.

Longwood Gardens
If a picture is worth a thousand words imagine the volumes of information you will get by visiting a new garden. This might be a friend’s place down the street or the bulb display in Keukenhof ! Well, save the Keukenhof trip for next Spring. But you don’t have to go to Holland to see world-class gardens. Longwood, Chanticleer, Scott Arboretum, Henry Schmieder Arboretum, Burpee’s Fordhook Farm and many, many more outstanding places in our neighborhood will provide a shot of garden inspiration. Plan to visit one interesting place this summer. Don’t forget Penn State’s Trial Gardens in Landisville.

9. Find a place to plant a tree this fall.

Balled and Burlap Tree Planting

I have been appreciating some of the trees that Penn State Master Gardeners have planted in our Almshouse Arboretum over the last 6 years. It’s amazing how fast they grow. Maybe your own property doesn’t need a tree. I’ll bet you can find a place that does. Schools, parks, churches, municipal grounds and other public places need trees. Get involved. Start a tree planting program of your own… or join an existing one like PHS’s Plant One Million .

Fall is an excellent time to plant trees and shrubs. What to plant? You’ll find good suggestions here  .

10. Hug a bug.
Praying Mantis
Ok, not literally…. but consider doing something nice for an insect. And you don’t have to become a beekeeper to do some good.
For some people, hugging a bug seems counter-intuitive. All bugs are bad to some folks. Certainly gardeners experience their share of destructive insects. Most of us have been stung, literally once or twice in our lives and this leaves a lasting impression. But the vast majority of insects we meet are nice creatures… simply going about their business. And some researchers are pointing out that we may be taking for granted the “free services” that many insects provide, especially the insects that serve as pollinators…. the bugs that move pollen from flower to flower. In many cases, this service is an essential part of seed and fruit production. Lots of these insects are bees….all kinds of bees. Tiny ones and big bumblebee-like ones and everything in between. Most of us will never know their names.

So how can you figuratively hug a bug. Plant them something they like! Make it part of your garden. Herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees can all serve as food and shelter for insects. Want more information? See this. I found this very nice guide by poking around the site. Really into it? Get your garden certified as pollinator friendly. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Emerald Ash Borer Update

Emerald Ash Borer feeding galleries
Last year at this time, we were consumed with figuring out how to deal with the reality that Emerald Ash Borer had been detected in Bucks County. A year later, this pest seems to have faded away. Not so!

While no additional detections beyond the original site in Warrington have been noted, the bug has not disappeared. There were many ash trees infested at this site and no doubt the adults that emerged from those trees flew off to mate and infest other trees. Studies of previously infested sites indicate that the infestation will move about ½ to one mile per year, even when attempts to eradicate the insect are in force. In addition, the infestation in Warrington is estimated to be several years old. So…..I figure EAB is most likely already established a few miles from Warrington, it just hasn’t been detected yet.

Still, the good news is that folks who fall outside of a 10-15 mile radius of Warrington can wait and watch. Researchers say that treating trees beyond this is a waste of money. This “lull” period provides time for people and communities to make a plan for the day when EAB arrives. It’s a question of when, not if, and that’s an important fact. There is no doubt that ash in Buck County will be killed when this insect reaches them.

For a refresher on Emerald Ash Borer, see this site.

On Thursday May 9, The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society will conduct and Emerald Ash Borer workshop at Neshaminy Manor Center for municipal, private and community professionals who are planning for the impacts of EAB. Contact PHS to register. Pre-registration is required.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Wood Heat.... Go Wood!

Mini Holzhausen
 Is there anything more pleasant than sitting by a warm, wood fire? Not much, in my book. The pleasure grows if you cut and split the wood yourself. As they say… in this manner the wood heats you twice. First, while working up a sweat splitting it ! Next, when you burn it. The whole process is very satisfying.

Wood heat can be economical as well. A cord of ash or oak has about the equivalent heating value of a ton of hard coal, 130 gallons of fuel oil or 3500 kilowatt hours of electricity. You do the math. Ok, I’ll do some…if fuel oil is selling at $3.50 a gallon, I think I can pay $455 for a cord of dry hardwood such as ash or oak (130 x $3.50 = $455). Currently, you can buy wood by the cord for about half this price. If you have a chainsaw and pickup truck you’ll find wood readily for free. That big storm Sandy was a windfall for some of us… literally. These figures assume you are burning that wood in a reasonably efficient wood stove, not a fireplace.

Of course, tending a wood stove is different from turning a thermostat. Not to mention the need for a wood storage area, hauling ashes, the centralized nature of heat from a wood stove, hitchhiking bugs, cold mornings, etc, etc, etc. I admit it’s not for everyone. On the other hand, it’s hard to get a real romantic feeling from a radiator. At least it is for me.

There is an awful lot to learn if burning wood is a new venture for you. Safety is a major issue. Proper stove installation and venting is critical. Oh, I forgot to mention, the chimney for your new wood burner may cost more than the stove…..yea, I guess we’d better figure in the infrastructure costs of burning wood… not just the fuel itself. Somewhere in my files I have a humorous piece that pokes fun at all of the hidden costs of burning wood. Conclusion is that it can’t pay!

On the other hand, maybe you are lucky and have some of these elements in place, left behind or second hand. That helps a lot. In any event, be sure to make safety first. None of this is worth it if you burn down the house.

Cornell University has an excellent wood heat site. And Heating with Wood and Coal from Northeast Cooperative Extension is a very comprehensive publication on the subject.

Finally, as I poked around on the web I came across a fantastic blog on wood call GoWood. Where? At Penn State! Written by Chuck Ray, Associate Professor of Wood Operations Research at Penn State, this site looks at many aspects of wood uses. Makes sense. We are in Penn’s Woods, after all. Chuck is a prolific blogger and brings many interesting facts and insights to the subject of wood. Lots of cool video links. Old and new.

I stumbled on Chuck’s blog as I was poking around the internet, trying to figure out a way to speed up wood drying. Remember that windfall from Super Storm Sandy? Yep, I have a lot of wood that is not dry enough to burn and I want to accelerate the process. Chuck, too. We both ended up exploring holzhausens. Wood houses, in German. All I can say is… check it out. Above is a picture of my first attempt at making a holzhausen. It's only 6 feet in diameter and about 5 feet tall. Time will tell how well it dries wood. I don’t care anymore; it’s the best lawn ornament I have. Chuck’s blog has a link to the best video I found on holzhausen construction as well as some amazing work of wood art form around the world. Go Wood!