Timely Tips: June 1 – 10
CELEBRATE HOSTAS – I understand that they are edible when small, and make an acceptable veggie wrap; but right now they are so glorious in the landscape I would never even consider cutting them for lunch. Yearly care is as simple as adding some compost or generic 10-10-10 fertilizer around the roots, and making sure they are in the right place. Basic rule of thumb: the lighter the foliage color, the more sun they can tolerate. But never full sun! Bright light in the heat of summer makes them look like somebody hit them with a blowtorch. Prune away the scorched parts till you run out of leaves, then plant annuals to take up the vacant spots.
HAVE A COMPOST ADVENTURE – Start a new compost pile. Pick a good place and give yourself some structure to contain it. Plant wastes break down best when your pile reaches a critical mass of 3’x3’x3’, and that’s tough to achieve unless there’s something holding it up. That size mass will heat up enough to kill off weed seeds and most bad microorganisms. Smaller piles will still break down, but you’ll have to be meticulous to keep from adding weed seeds with your weeds. If you have an older pile, take the top 1/3 (mostly still identifiable) and add it to the bottom of the new pile; otherwise line the bottom with small sticks and brush before layering in fresh green plant matter , then brown roughage like dried leaves and fine brush, then green, then brown, then green, then brown, etc.
Compost-making is a fine art, a perfect task for the OCD gardener: the correct order of layering, the exact proportion of carbon to nitrogen, the precise amount of air and moisture and turning over that makes micro-critters flourish, create heat, and break garden & kitchen scraps down into rich soil. The rest of us just sort of throw everything together and hope for the best. But there is one unbreakable rule we must all follow—eventually we need to clean it out. If we have done due diligence and turned it occasionally, this is a simple task and involves raking out the contents, throwing the big chunks and recognizable pieces into the bottom of the next bin, and distributing the soft, fluffy organic matter around the garden. If you haven’t done a thing since you started adding stuff to the pile last year, you need to remove the top layer (most of which is totally identifiable) and hack away at what’s left, breaking up the chunks enough to distribute around the planting beds, swearing to do a better job next year.
PLANT A SECOND ROUND OF SEEDS – Succession planting means a second or even third crop of something you already planted 2 or 3 weeks ago can be on deck while the first crop is putting out an edible yield. This works great for beans, greens, beets, carrots, and other root veggies.
INVESTIGATE BARE SPOTS IN YOUR LAWN – Before it gets too hot to reseed, figure out what’s causing them and try to do something about it. Too much traffic? Dogs peeing in the same place every day? Too much water? Too little sun? Figure out what the problem is before you start throwing seed and fertilizer at it. Fix the drainage, ban the dog, loosen compacted soil and add organic matter, pick seeds that do well in shade; THEN reseed. Or do what I do: let the weeds fill in, then mow them as lawn. No other maintenance needed.
WATER YOUR TREES – Trees, especially new ones, need to be watered, and do best with an inch of rain a week. Practically speaking, this means five gallons of water applied slowly to the roots, either with a dripping hose or a 5-gallon bucket with small holes drilled around the bottom. Once a week is good for street trees, twice for trees planted in the last year. And since water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon, you can skip the gym that day.
PLANT SWEET POTATOES – Every year they arrive looking like the wrong side of death, but I bury them up to their necks in soil with a lot of compost dug in, and the slimy little sticks somehow recover, and put out leaves quickly. Although you can eat the greens as soon as there are enough of them to fill a pot, good-sized tubers take up to 120 days to form. Water well when you plant them, and again whenever the leaves start to flag—that’s a good indication that the whole garden needs watering. Stay tuned to see which sweet potato variety performs best this year, and which one Mr. Marmota prefers.
CLEAN UP YOUR GRAPEVINES – At this point we’ve already missed the point where we can safely spray fungicide to prevent blackrot (Guignardia bidwellii,) so your best bet is to remove as many of the affected leaves as you can without totally denuding the vine. Grape flowers in the city are blooming profusely, putting out a wonderful scent of Old Spice reminiscent of my dad in his younger days.
RECOGNIZE DAMAGE – Recently a reader sent me pictures of his echinacea leaves with big chunks out of them. At first I thought of slugs, but the damage was higher on the plants, and there were no visible slime trails (always my favorite!) Since the holes were rounded, I suspect leaf-cutter bees, Megachilidae. Smaller than bumblebees, they sit on the leaf and saw off a circle around themselves. Just as they’re about to fall off, they fly away with the chunk of leaf in their mouth; they use this to wrap their eggs, packing their nests into holes in logs, branches, wherever they can find space. Really kind of an amazing process, and it doesn’t seem to damage the flowers at all. Do your research, and find out how you can encourage these gentle native solitary pollinators to move into your garden.
GET FRIENDLY WITH YOUR STORM SEWER – Clean out your gutters so that quantities of leaves, trash and tree detritus aren’t washing down and clogging things up. My own personal storm sewer is covered by a piece of chicken wire fencing so that I can control my own flotsam and jetsam; it also discourages the raccoons from using it as a thoroughfare. Permeable pavers or concrete will also help keep heavy rains from washing all the crap out of your driveway into the street.
REVISIT PLANT CAMP – Now that things are settling down out there, it’s time to arrange the bunkmates; group plants with similar needs, and don’t be afraid to move containers around til everyone is happy. Sun lovers together, cactus away from lush tropicals. Remember that potted plants dry out faster outdoors, and small pots dry out faster than large ones, so grouping them to conserve moisture is always a good idea. I try to put at least one “indicator plant” in each grouping, to shout at me when the group needs more attention. I find coleus is best, since it wilts at the drop of a humidity, but recovers without major damage when watered.
GIRD YOUR LOINS; THE GROUNDHOG IS COMING! – Every year the lush green leafiness of the sweet potatoes heralds the arrival of Marmota monax, the resident groundhog. Every year I swear I will find a new way to outwit him: tall fences, tall planters, tall fences with wire underground, tall fences around tall planters; dog pee, shiny things, traps, loud noises. I even throw rocks at him to knock him out of the mulberry tree. This year I will triumph! Call your local Animal Control for advice in your area, which varies from county to county. It is NOT legal to trap them and release them at the nearest golf course or park. I’ve already researched what kind of wine to serve when I eat mine; I consulted the Man at the Wine Store. His suggestion: “It’s game, and that would indicate a red wine. And it’s very small game, so perhaps a rose. But if it were me, I would buy a case of something I really liked, drink it all, and THEN eat the groundhog.”
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.