Timely Tips: May 20 – 31
CELEBRATE LADYBUGS – We now have aphids out there in every color of the rainbow, and their juice-sucking ways are causing leaves to wrinkle and new growth to be stunted on many different plants. Earlier I said to spray them with insecticidal soap, but now we have enough of a population that ladybugs could be pretty effective. These come in a dormant state in containers that need to be refrigerated; they wake up fast and immediately want to fly away to find mates and food. Cover an infested plant with fine netting or even gauze to keep the “ladies” contained with a source of food; after a day or two take the covers off. Find ladybugs and other beneficial insects at your local garden center.
MULCH – Naked soil is a bad idea, especially as we get closer to summer. Anytime you uncover space in the garden, weed seeds that get exposed to light immediately germinate. And the soil dries out. Put down some sort of covering: shredded bark, salt hay, woodchips, rough compost, even cardboard til you’re ready to plant.
SEND THE INDOOR BABIES TO PLANT CAMP – Remember when you knew what your window sills looked like? Now’s your chance to relive that time; dust, scrub, scrape and repaint to your heart’s content while the houseplants move outside to breathe, stretch and bask in the sun. You can almost hear them sigh the first time they encounter actual rainfall! Take them out a few at a time, into a shady well-protected space till they acclimate. Take some time to examine each one; repot if needed, prune & shape, clean out the dead stuff, encourage new growth. Inspect to see if they need any special care, like a bigger pot, spot treatment with some insecticidal soap for aphids or mealybugs, new potting soil, some heavy pruning, or maybe just a decent burial. Remember, though, that small pots and containers get lost in the landscape, so keep them in a high-profile place where they get daily attention. At our house that means the front steps, where they are very happy, but everyone else grouses as the summer progresses and the walkway keeps getting more narrow.
PRUNE FORSYTHIA – If these yellow behemoths are taking over your property, now is a good time to prune them into a more reasonable size. They’ll take a while to start forming next year’s flowers, so anything drastic you do now will not harm future bloom. Hold off on the azaleas, though, since you want to enjoy every one of their blooms before shaping them into a size more in scale with your yard.
TRY A NEW TOOL – How about a battery-operated leaf blower? Nothing is more jarring than the cacophony of early morning chainsaw-wannabees in the next yard, so why be that neighbor??? The cordless varieties are strong enough for most jobs around the landscape, make half the noise, and hold a charge long enough to do a couple hours work. Buy a second battery to keep on charge and you’re set. Next step—the electric chainsaw; like pruning your shrubs with a Tesla!
DO SOME INTENSIVE VEGETABLE GARDENING – Keep cool season greens picked, and as they go to seed, get ready to do that last harvest before composting the remains or digging them in, adding some well-rotted compost to the soil as well. Do some succession planting: plant a few rows of squash or beans, but save some room to put in another planting of the same thing in two weeks. This theoretically spreads out the harvest over a longer time.
REPOT AMARYLLIS – Most of us have a plentitude of rabbit-eared bulbs lurking around the house from the winter. These respond well to replanting in a slightly larger pot with refresh of compost added to the existing soil. They can then go out to a shady part of the garden, where they can put out lots of large leaves and generally build up strength in the bulb for next year’s bloom. Those that I’ve plopped into the base of larger plants that go out in the summer continue to bloom year after year, although not on the xmas bloom schedule.
WATER – May in the Philly area is either feast or famine in the rain department. Plants want about an inch of rain every week, so be ready to supplement when that doesn’t happen. This is especially true with newly planted trees and shrubs, which are putting out new tender shoots and roots that are easily damaged by dry conditions, and with vegetable gardens. Social watering (standing there sprinkling things while you talk to your neighbors) is not enough; learn to read the soil with your fingers to see if there is moisture below the surface. It’s amazing how long you can stand there watering, only to find that everything down an inch is bone dry. Give the ground a good soak. If you must wet the leaves, try to do it early in the day, before the full sun hits and can burn them; wetting leaves in the evening sets up perfect conditions for molds and mildews. Given the choice, though, between watering in the evening or not at all, take your chances with the molds.
TIDY UP THE DAFFODILS – Remove dead flowers and leaves from spring-blooming bulbs, but resist the urge to braid or rubber-band what’s left. The untidy still-green leaves are busy doing the photosynthesis thing to feed the bulbs for next year’s flowers, and need all the light they can get. Give them a boost with a side-dressing of fertilizer or compost. It’s also not too late to plant perennials or even annuals around them to hide their errant ways.
DEAL WITH THE POISON IVY – Leaves of 3, let it be. Learn what it looks like, and avoid it like the plague; once you touch it, it’s like wet paint that never dries, and you can spread the itch-causing oil everywhere else you touch forevermore. Take advantage of rain-softened soil to pull out small patches of it by using a plastic trash bag as a glove, gathering up the leaves and following the trailing stem & roots until you have it all in your hand, then turning the trash bag glove inside out to wrap up the whole collection, tying it tightly and sending it away to landfill.
CLEAN LAWN FURNITURE – Now that picnic season has officially started, the outdoor furniture needs some cleanup. Give everything a good blast with the hose to make the spiders vacate, then wash plastic furniture with water & a mild detergent, wicker & wood furniture with water & oil soap. Vacuum cushions, then wash with water, dish detergent and a bit of borax. Don’t bleach anything unless you can do the rinse cycle far from any growing plants or children. My neighbors once bleached their cushions, and ended up bleaching the seats of all their kids’ pants as well.
GET A RAIN GAUGE – Also known as an udometer, pluviometer, or an ombrometer ( I guess because it also measures udos, pluvios and ombros,) this instrument tells you just how much rain or watering you got. Local meteorologists report how much fell at the airport; this can vary greatly from how much fell in our yards, where it really counts. Both vegetable gardens and lawns need about an inch of water a week, especially when it’s hot. Rain gauges come fancy, with long stakes, clear measurements, windmills, windsocks, and automatic depth markers; they also come plain, disguised as straight-sided buckets and cat food cans with rulers.
MAKE A RHUBARB PIE – Local strawberries are coming in, and fortunately for all of us, overlap with the rhubarb harvest. Rhubarb comes in both green and red varieties; although both taste about the same, adding strawberries to the green ones makes the pies look more appetizing. Cut off the flowering stems and compost them. Use the leafy stems for pie, and compost the leaves. Prepare to make multiple pies; this is a seasonal treat, and one is never enough. I could eat this stuff three meals a day, and probably will.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR LAWN – Much as I hate the karmic debt built up by the American Lawn—I mean how we pour fertilizer and water on it to make it grow faster so we can spend money on gas to cut it down– nothing makes quite as much of a visible impact on your yard and garden as mowing the lawn. So if you insist on growing grass instead of food or even a nice ground cover in your available space, at least do it right. Get your lawn mower blades sharpened so they actually cut the grass, not tear it out. Set your blades high (at least 3”) and mow regularly, so you’re only cutting off about a third of the plant. If it’s hot and it hasn’t rained, though, and the grass hasn’t grown much, you have my permission to skip a week. If you water, use your pluviometer to see that you’ve given your lawn enough of a drink.
If, on the other hand, you’re not much into lawn work…you can’t eat a lawn, so it moves to the bottom of the priority list. Judging from the bags and bags of fertilizer and lime and grass seeds in the basement when we moved in, somebody went to a lot of trouble every year to keep a bad lawn going. Every year they limed, aerated, planted new seeds, since the soil is very acid, very shady, and very badly drained. But the weeds that have adapted to those situations are doing just fine. So I mow them periodically, and they are green enough that if I squint they look just fine.
BE ALERT FOR BUGS – Last year that remarkable new pest, the spotted lanternfly, kinda came in out of left field, and we got to recognize it first at its adult stage. This year we have a chance to find it at a much younger and smaller and more vulnerable age, before it becomes the scourge of the silver maples and fruit trees. It’s larger than an aphid and looks a little like an aardvark from outer space, first black with white spots, then red with white spots. So far we’ve seen it on rose bushes and on Maple trees, where people are wrapping sticky belts around the trees so that the babies can’t crawl from the bottom of the trunks –where most of the eggs have been laid — up into the trees. At this size it’s very easy to brush them off wherever we sighted them into a cup of soapy water. Disposal becomes a point of personal choice, but make sure they’re dead before you pour them out. Nobody wants them crawling back up into the trees after you’ve gone to so much trouble to get them out of the trees.
Sally McCabe is Assoc. Director of Community Education at PHS, and grows stuff at two community gardens and in her backyard. She has been a faithful Primex customer since all the way back when Pops (David’s grandfather) was still around.