Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Climate Data from Blue Hill Observatory

I love the freedom and creativity involved in designing gardens, trying not to get bogged down in 'rules' and 'guidelines' but looking at each project as a fresh opportunity.  However, I am a bit of a geek at heart and love the science and detective work required to garden.  'Data' is not a topic often covered in gardening and horticultural discussions, but my 'left-brain' wants to come out and stretch its legs.  So, for those who also like to look at graphs, numbers and trends, here is some compelling information from the Blue Hill Observatory at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, MA.

The Blue Hill Observatory is home of the "oldest continuous weather record in the United States."  They keep track of lots of meteorological data and some other cool information like local pond freeze/thaw dates and fruit ripening dates.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I am not making any political statements for those who may want to infer them from my summaries.  That said, there are some potentially compelling conclusions to be made from trends in the data.  Most of the data collected goes back to 1885, and the temperature data goes back to 1831.

Keeping a good track of rainfall is critical for anyone who cares about plants big and small.  Letting nature water your plants is always better, time-saving, and cheaper than doing it yourself.  While many people these days seem to have some form of automated irrigation for lawns and smaller plants, tracking rainfall over a season is critical for ensuring the health and vigor of your larger plants.  Large shrubs, ornamental trees and larger trees need long deep waterings that an irrigation system or short hand watering just can't provide.

An interesting fact is that the 30-year mean for rainfall has been on a steady rise since 1885, and the last 30+ years have shown an even steeper rise in the 10-year mean.  However, that does not mean that we don't have shorter periods of drought or mini-droughts.  This past July, in a post, Water those ornamentals and trees, they are thirsty, I reminded people that we were in a mini-drought with minimal rainfall and a very low previous winter snowfall.  When this happens we need to get out the hoses and provide a deep, regenerative soaking for our big plants to keep them healthy and happy.  One good deep soaking, keeps moisture in the root zone and helps them through a short stressful period.

If we don't get good snowfall this winter to provide valuable melt in the Spring, we will enter next spring again at a deficit.  As the 2012 graph shows we are 9.36" shy of our 110 year mean for precipitation, that's about a 20% shortfall.  But... in 2011 we were over 20% above the mean.

With the precipitation trends on the rise, it is interesting to note that these increases are coming from rain during the warmer months and not from snowfall.  The long-term snowfall graph reveals that the 30-year mean has deviated slightly above and below, but remains almost exactly at the same level from over 100 years ago.  Any budding meteorologists want to explain this divergence?

Temperature and USDA Zones

Measured temperatures over the past 180 years are rising in our area.  There is no ambiguity with regard to the Blue Hill data, and the USDA this year released a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map and most every zone shifted up a half to a full number. These are the numbers you see on plant tags that say whether the plant is expected to survive in the ground in your area.  Inside 495 but outside of the city is generally zone 6b now.  The semi-tropicals you may buy as annuals for your pots often are often hardy in zones 8, 9 and 10.  You can use plants that have your zone number or lower, however, know that these zones are based upon long term averages and a relatively young plant(without protection) that matches your zone may suffer or die if there are abnormally low temperatures during the winter.  The USDA zones are guidelines for what typically will survive in your area.

The Blue Hill map above is intriguing, if it represented a stock I would buy it on the promise it will be higher over the next ten years.  The next two graphs show that November 2012 was the first time in 21 months that the mean monthly temperature was below its 110 year monthly mean, and that 2012 and 2011 are 3.9 and 3.0 degrees above the 110 year average mean.

One last bit of interesting temperature data from Blue Hill is their tracking of Houghton Pond freeze and thaw dates.  Houghton Pond is a medium-sized kettle pond(like our Winter Ponds here in Winchester) in the Blue Hills Reservation.  It's pretty cool to track this over time, and as you might expect from the temperature data, the pond is freezing later and thawing earlier over time.  For those of us who have skaters and hockey players in our families, we remember last year when we only had one good day of skating on Winter Pond because of the late freeze and terrible slush and freezing rain that ultimately ruined the surface.

I would be interested to know the criteria for determining when a pond is considered frozen or thawed.  The day we skated last year happened only because I was driving by the ponds and saw an unidentified man out in the middle of the pond jumping up and down.  He did not fall in and within an hour we were on the pond with 50 other people.  While this technique may be effective, it could lead to some longevity issues. 
Alex(in black) and a friend skating before the big pick-up game happened
during the only skating day on Little Winter Pond last season.

Other Interesting Information

A previous post covered a critical horticultural measure called Growing Degree Days.  All plants and insects live their lives not on a chronological calendar like humans, but a temperature-based calendar.  When average daily temperatures creep above 50 degrees, the world comes to life in the spring, flowers and fruits appear based upon the accumulation of the degree days.  Blue Hill tracks when the first Blueberries ripen in the area.  Again, as you might expect with the warming temperatures and an understanding of Growing Degree Days, since 1885 the trend is that Blueberries continue to ripen earlier in the year.  Of course, this is far less scientific than tracking temperature since there may be other factors involved in the process, but fun to look at nonetheless.

Now, for total data overload you can go to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and look into just about any bit of weather information you could imagine.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Evergreen Perennials In New England, Not Just A Flower!

I started working professionally in the horticultural field while living in Northern California, and the range of evergreen plants and perennials was unbelievable.  Without the freeze, plants and gardens could look great year-round.  There was always a down period in the winter, but that is when I picked my Meyer Lemons and Clementines.  Many of the wonderful sub-tropical annuals that we use in New England are actually perennial in warmer climes like California and some can deliver year-round interest.

So often we think of perennials in New England as plants that flower in the summer and then leave big gaping holes in our garden, but it doesn't have to be that way.  Following are some images and summaries of perennials that deliver during the off-season too.  It is not an exhaustive list...just some of my favorites.  These plants are great to use around entrances and walkways where there is year-round traffic and a desire to keep the gardens interesting and not beds of mulch.

Heuchera v. 'Citronelle' in front of Epimedium grandiflorum
Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (Barrenwort)
Another BFF perennial that has delicate, early flowers and has rugged foliage that often goes through a range of colors during the season.  Here it turns a nice bronzy-red in the fall.  This image was also taken a few days ago.  Another great plant for massing as it spreads and looks great most of the year until  it flowers early in the spring and sends out a new flush of foliage.  It prefers shade, but will perform in all but the hottest sun.

Alchemilla mollis
Alchemilla mollis (Lady's Mantle)
This is one of my favorite perennials for its versatility, as I have mentioned before, and it looks good until the snow covers it up.  Not the sexiest plant, but in groupings it spreads and self-sows and has beautiful scalloped leaves.  The chartreuse flowers are fantastic and last for two months in the late spring.  This image was just taken in December and they really keep space filled in the beds when most other perennials have been gone for a month or two.  It performs in shade and sun and will need ample moisture if in a hot sunny space.  The flower display will dissipate in deep shade.

Silver Scrolls in mid-December
Coral Bells have been around forever, and many have been of marginal quality, but I love the new villosa hybrids that are quite vigorous.  The Citronelle plants above, in front of the Epimedium, were small divisions in the early summer and quickly became full-sized.  There are so many shades and colors to choose from (some are quite unnatural looking) that they form great masses of foliage with varying textures.  If you trim them up a little they will look great all year and they do well in sun to shade but prefer a little shade.

Dianthus in front of the border
Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Firewitch' (Pinks)
Dianthus is a full sun-loving perennial that carries its grass-like foliage year round.  Many of the newer cultivars will flower throughout the season after their big spring flush.   Don't spend much time caring for this plant, it seems to thrive in hot sun and dry soil.  Cut back the spent flowers and it will spend some energy on its foliage and flower sporadically.  Great edge of the border plant and along walls and pathways as it spreads and spills over.  This picture was taken yesterday.

Helleborus orientalis in Bloom (Van Berkum)
Heleborus orientalis 'Royal Heritage' (Lenten Rose)
This is such an under-utilized perennial that can look great during the off-season and flowers early in the year with the spring bulbs.  It takes a little time for these plants to get established, but when they are, the glossy, leathery foliage is a wonderful textural addition to the perennial bed.  They come in a broad range of colors from white, yellow, pink and reds to maroon and 'black'.  The above link refers to a comprehensive article on Hellebores by Plant Delights Nursery, one of the finest perennial nurseries in the country.

Bergenia turning in fall (Van Berkum)
Bergenia cordifolia (Pigsqueak)
You have to love a plant with the common name of Pigsqueak.  Another decidedly un-sexy plant, but it forms wonderful mats of heart-shaped(cordifolia means heart-shaped foliage) leaves, when planted in groups. The foliage turns a bronzy color in the fall.  It also flowers early in the season with the spring bulbs, and prefers a fair bit of shade in woodland settings.  A nice surprise for those who think perennials are just for the summer.

Sedum reflexum a blue and yellow  (Stonecrop)
There are so many forms of Sedum, from the upright stalwarts of the fall garden to the creeping evergreen groundcovers here.  These have been in their stone container outside for five years and look great with an occasional clean-up.  In sunny beds they will form beautiful mats of foliage year round.  They all have a great flush of flowers in the summer to add to an already interesting foliage plant.  They like it hot and dry and thrive on neglect. Who would want more!

When designing with perennials, we are always looking for the color and pizazz they provide, but often we overlook the value their foliage can provide, especially in the off-season when most perennials are in dormancy.  These good foliage traits can allow you to use perennials in the most visible areas and not worry about holes in your beds in the off-season.  Often these plants are at their worst in the spring, but if you intersperse with spring bulbs, they will take your eye off the plants as they regenerate for the new season.

Pieris x 'Browers Beauty' a favorite shrub in Fall and Winter
for it flower buds that will open in spring and the foliage color

I loved this photo from two weeks ago of Acer griseum in color by
the front door.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What are these Moths doing out in December?!

Male moths hanging around a light at night.
Have you been driving around recently wondering what these drifts of bugs are flying in your headlights?  Shouldn't everything be asleep for the winter... well, not the aptly-named Winter Moth.  This is one of many introduced (non-native) predators that are attacking our local, native and landscaped trees.  While it is possible that these little winged beasts could defoliate and kill our trees, mostly they cause slightly less but still significant damage. So many people I talk to say, "do I really have to pay someone to take care of this?"  The answer is yes.

Winter Moth Fact Sheet (UMass)

Close-up of a male.  Identified by the vertical dark
banding at the bottom of the wings and the
frilly edges.
If you are in a town like Winchester MA, most of the trees were planted long before you were born, and many before your parents were born.  In today's world, we often have such a short-sighted view on that which surrounds us, but as we look at trees, we have to realize that their existence crosses generations and that we need to care for them for future generations to enjoy.

Often, prior to some simple education, I find people are reticent to spend much effort or money to care for their trees, but with a proper arborist and relatively minor annual expenditures, you can be rewarded with healthy and vigorous trees.  Some of these expenses, like pruning, are elective, but some challenges must be handled or the life of your trees can be threatened.

One such threat here in northern New England is the aforementioned Winter Moth (Operophetera brumata).  The moth looks, and is, benign, but the caterpillar in its earlier life stage is what causes such incredible damage.  This insect, introduced from Europe, has caused some real problems in Massachusetts in recent years.  Early in the Spring at about 50 Growing Degree Days(GDD), eggs hatch and small larval caterpillars seek shelter in swelling tree leaf buds.  They then grow by eating the tender, young leaves.  An infestation becomes evident when leaves emerge skeletonized or half eaten.

Most trees will send out a new set of leaves after the pests have rappelled on their silk to the ground, but this new leaf break takes tremendous energy reserves and over a few seasons of attack can wear down even the oldest and strongest of trees.  Young trees, especially fruit trees, can be defoliated and killed in just a few seasons.  The big targets for Winter Moth are Oak, Maple, Ash, Birch trees, but they love all plants in the Rosaceae family (Rose), which include many fruits like apple, crabapple, plum, cherry, Amelanchier and Hawthorn among others.

Physical barrier to keep females from climbing tree.
If you have lots of moths hanging around your outside lights or on your windows, you should contact an arborist and schedule spray treatments for next Spring.  The current applications for this pest are very targeted and not toxic, so you don't have to worry about non-specific chemicals being used and polluting your property.  Ask you arborist about this and they will gladly discuss the treatments.

There is also a physical, non-spraying option where a sticky band is wrapped around the tree and stuffed with a padding material to physically keep the females from getting from the ground up the tree.  It works, but in bad infestations these bands can get filled with moths which allows other moths to walk right over them.  The photo to the right shows a band from a local tree with just a few captured moths.

A female moth I found at night in a stand
 of trees by a local pond.
The life cycle of the Winter Moth is pretty cool.  In the late fall, usually after Thanksgiving, when we have a slight warming the male and female moths emerge from the soil.  The male moths have wings and they are the ones you see flying in front of your car and on your outdoor lights.  The females have minuscule wings and are not able to fly, so they come out of the ground and crawl up the trunks of trees where they are found by the flying males after they emit a powerful pheromone attractant.  The females then lay their eggs on the branches or trunk and die.

In early spring as the leaf buds start to swell, the larvae hatch and crawl into the leaf buds and eat their hearts out.  People have said that in bad infestations, you can hear the millions of caterpillars munching away.  If you are parked under an infested tree in early spring as leaves start to emerge, you car will be covered in little caterpillar poop that look like tiny poppy seeds.  Soon thereafter the inch long green caterpillars return to the ground and wait until the fall to emerge again.

Because this pest is introduced, there are no natural predators to control their unmanaged expansion, which is why we need to bring in people to manage them for us.  However, there is a parasitic fly native to Europe that controls populations there and has been introduced and been successful in Canada.  Currently people locally are breeding and introducing these flies here in an effort to control the moth.

If you live locally and have noticed these moths recently, please contact a well-regarded local arborist and have them assess your property for trees that host the Winter Moth.

A friend asked me the other day if they needed to worry about these moths getting into their house and eating holes in their nice natural fiber clothes, especially wool sweaters.  The answer is a simple no.  It is not a moth that eats your clothing but the newly hatched caterpillar.  This Winter Moth flying around is male, the females have no wings, and they do not eat in their short life cycle, and since, as males, they cannot lay eggs, you have no worries about any offspring eating your clothing.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Cool and Interesting Garden-Related Gift Ideas

Every year the season comes around and we have to think of new and interesting gift ideas for friends and family.  I learned many years ago by giving my wife the same gift on consecutive years that not putting any thought into a gift can lead to dire consequences.  Following is a list of ideas for the person who loves the world of plants and likes to put a little time into the garden.

I receive nothing from these recommendations other than helping connect friends and clients with my world of gardens, plants and horticulture.

If there is something here YOU like, pass it on to your designated gift giver.

Publications - Some great books packed with knowledge.

The Avant Gardener - For years this was a paper-only newsletter published out of a couple's apartment in New York City.  Recently, Derek Fell has taken over  publication of the ultimate monthly newsletter covering the broad topic of gardening and plants.  A must read for those who want to be in the know!  $28 for one year and $48 for two years of a digital newsletter.

Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael Dirr - People in the business call this and his other publications the bibles of woody plants.  Filled with pictures and descriptions of most any tree or shrub you might consider in your garden.  His Manual of Woody Landscape Plants is the botanical final word on woody plants.  If you need to know the definitions of polypetalous, hippocrepiform and fimbriate then this 1,200 page book or CD set is for you.

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust - While this book might be relatively inexpensive, it may portend some significant financial investments in perennials by the recipient.  This book will provides great ideas to help you understand how to better care for your perennial gardens.  She also has an excellent book called The Well-Designed Mixed Garden that covers designing with woody and herbaceous plants.

Memberships and Societies - Two great local institutions.

Arnold Arboretum - Even if you just get here once a year, the $50 family membership gives you two great publications, invitations to events, free plants, discounts at local nurseries, and you are supporting one of the finest arboretums in the world that is part of Harvard University.

New England Wildflower Society - Again, even if you only go once out to Garden in the Woods in Framingham you get a great publication, discounts and other great benefits.  Access to Garden in the Woods is a great gift for any plant-lover.  It is stunning in the Spring.

Plants - A sampling of cool, specialty, mail-order nurseries.

You can go and order some plants or get some gift certificates.  A gift certificate of Roses or Peonies shows some incredible thought ;-)

Bluestone Perennials - This Ohio nursery has been around for a long time and they always have a great selection of interesting perennials.

Swan Island Dahlia
Plant Delights Nursery - This North Carolina Nursery always has some surprising and hard to find plants.  Probably one of the finest specialty growers and propagators in the country.

Swan Island Dahlias - Want some summer color but don't want to buy the same old Dahlias from the local garden center.  This is THE Dahlia place.  Outrageous grower out in Oregon!

Roses Unlimited - This South Carolina grower has just about any rose you might want and they are shipped in containers not bare-root.

Hidden Springs Flower Farm - This Minnesota nursery specializes in Peonies...now who doesn't love peonies.  Be the first in your neighborhood to have some of the newer yellow herbaceous Peonies.

Garden Tools - A couple of not-so-ordinary tool retailers.

Short-Handled Spade and Shovel
Hida Tool and Hardware Company - A Berkeley, California seller of Japanese tools.  A very cool small company with some amazing items, including my favorite garden tool, the Hori Hori.

Garrett Wade - A specialty tool and equipment retailer.  They have a little of that Hammacher Schlemmer thing going, but they have some very useful items for the garden and workshop.  If you spend a lot of your time on your knees working around plants, this short handled spade and shovel are pretty cool. The spade is great for dividing plants.

Lee Valley Tools - Another specialty tool supplier that has all sorts of items.  A gardener will have a blast shopping here with a nice gift certificate.

Garden Art - Two local creators of art for the garden.

Madeline Lord - I wrote a piece for this blog on Madeline a few months ago, Art Resurrected from Junk.  She is a wonderful artist and could do just about anything for you, especially with regard to immortalizing your children's art.

Whitmore Boogaerts - Whitmore is a friend down in Dartmouth, MA, who has been creating kinetic sculptures for years.  His work is whimsical and eye-catching.  I have been trying to get together with him to do a piece on his studio and work, hopefully this winter.

Give a gift that will truly be valued and give joy for years.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lots of Spring Flowering Bulbs Still Available...

When I am in the mood to be honest with myself, I accept that I am a procrastinator.  That is only one of my many character flaws, but it is the one that often rewards me for my behavior, and thus makes it hard to remove.

If you, like me, procrastinated on buying bulbs this fall, then you are now being rewarded with big discounts and quite a large inventory of bulbs still remaining at some of the best suppliers at the end of November.

I covered bulbs in two previous posts this fall, and many of my favorites are still available:
Spring Bulbs Part 1
Spring Bulbs Part 2

Bulbs can be planted until the ground freezes.  The only difference with bulbs planted late is that they may not be as big as those planted earlier that have had a chance to set some roots.  But... we don't know what will happen with the weather and when the ground will freeze.

Check out these sites and your will be amazed what $50 or $100 can buy for spring color.

$100 spent at VanEngelen could provide you with up to 750 bulbs (100 Chionodoxa, 200 Scilla, 200 Crocus, 200 Snowdrops and 50 Daffodils) that will give you flowers from the melting snow until late May, and with most of these being smaller bulbs they can all be planted in a few hours.

Brent and Becky's (This link takes you right to the availability list)

Sailboat Daffodil
This is a great supplier of excellent quality bulbs.  They are a little more expensive than some others but worth it, and at 50% off it  just doesn't matter.

They are 50% off all inventory and they  have lots of bulbs still available.  Following is a brief summary of what I saw and some favorites.

Allium, Camassia, Chionodoxa (100 forbesii Pink Giant for $16), Fritillaria, Hyacinthoides, Rock Iris, Leucojum, Muscari (100 armeniacum for $11), Pushkinia and Scilla

Narcissus (Daffodils) - Fruit Cup, Merlin, Mt Hood, Pistacio, Sailboat, Yellow Cheerfulness among lots of others.

Van Engelen (This link takes you right to the availability list)

This is my go to supplier and they are now having a 40% off sale on all inventory.  They often are one of the least expensive and with these discounts you can't help yourself but buy.

Flower Record Daffodil

Lillies (Asiatic, Oriental, Species and OrienPet), Allium, Chionodoxa (100 forbesii Pink Giant for $11),  Tommy Crocus (100 for $8), Galanthus (100 Snowdrops for $24), Rock Iris, Muscari, Scilla (100 Spring Beauty for $10), Flower Record Daffodil and lots of Tulips.

Forget about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, this is where you will get the biggest bang for your buck, and you will appreciate it for years to come.

Monday, November 5, 2012

BFFs for Fall Color, Part Deux

Here is my second installment of favorite trees for fall color.  As I said in my first post, BFFs for Fall Color in New England, to make the list the trees had to have more than just fall color as an asset.

Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia psuedocamellia)

My all-time favorite tree, see my previous post, A Tree Love Affair, with a detailed summary of its traits and landscape uses.  This tree has it all in form, flower, bark, and leaf color.  It is also interesting during every season of the year, even in how it carries snow in the winter.  In fall its leaves turn amazingly bright yellow-orange, orange and red colors, some of the most electric in the landscape.

Every garden, no matter how small, would benefit from having a Stewartia.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

I have a love/hate relationship with this tree.  On one hand is one of the most beautiful flowering trees in the spring with pinkish/magenta flowers right on the stems and branches and this wonderful yellow fall color.  It is a smaller understory tree with wonderful heart-shaped leaves.  BUT... Its nickname in the trade is Deadbud as they have a tendency to not do much and die or suffer from dieback on its branches.  This is a tragedy if it is in a position of prominence in the garden, but if you remember that it is a native understory tree and use it as such, it will perform very nicely indeed.  The key seems to be not to give it too much love or rich soil.  Ignore it a little.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

This is one of our most beautiful native trees and one of the most underutilized.  They are very slow to grow and can be a little finicky to establish, which means sometimes buying smaller specimens that take more time to mature.  However, the mature tree tends to be tall and columnar with very cool flowers in mid-summer that look like the flowers on the andromeda shrub.  It is in the Ericaceae family and closely related to Andromeda, Rhododendron, Azalea and Mountain Laurel.  The flowers persist on the tree and after the frost the leaves slowly change to orange and red.  It can differ by year and tree, but the colors are absolutely brilliant.  This tree, close to downtown Winchester,  that I have watched over the years, is absolutely stunning this year.  Most of the leaves are the bright orange-red and it seems to light up the surrounding area.

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

This is my second favorite tree, if only it had a flower it would be my absolute favorite.  A beautiful rich cinnamon-brown bark that peels off every year, right up to the smaller branches.  It has a tri-foliate leaf(three leaflets) and the leaflets are small and tri-lobed. The leaves come out a little late in the spring, but they are an electric green, that turn a darker green during the summer, that forms such a wonderful contrast with the brown bark.  Then, in fall, the leaves turn an unbelievable orange-red towards the end of the leaf season.  My trees haven't even started to show color yet, these came from a local park.  A medium sized tree that is very slow growing and can be made to fit just about any situation.

Little-Leaf Linden (Tilia cordata)

This is a great medium-large shade tree that is best utilized away from the house, terrace, deck or driveway. See my post, Summer Fragrance Surprise:  The Little Leaf Linden, along with the great summer fragrance, it is a late-to-color tree with a soft yellow, heart-shaped leaf.  If only I had a 100-acre property to have all of these favorites and a bunch of Lindens to provide fragrance and beautiful fall color.

It will just have to remain a dream for now.

Fernleaf Full-Moon Maple (Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium')

For a different specimen Maple, consider the Full-Moon Maples or Acer japonicum.  This one is Aconitifolium, as the leaves are reminiscent of the perennial Aconitum.  This is a small, spreading tree with these very large deeply-lobed leaves.  In early spring the tree is covered with maroon-red flowers (you usually don't notice most maple flowers) and then these big floppy leaves come out.  Late in the leaf season, the tree turns all shades of orange to red.  This is another favorite that is well worth the space by the terrace or window.

Such a beautifully complex leaf.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Soil Testing is a Valuable Gardener's Tool

Well that was exciting.

We spent about 26 hours in the dark and nearly 48 without phone/cable/internet, and for my son nearly a lifetime without XBox.  And with school out, he had to go old school when hanging out with his friends.

The image to the right is a large Norway Maple that was living in the 3' sidewalk strip that went over at 4pm on Monday afternoon and took all the power and cable lines with it.  It impacted about 200 homes in the neighborhood.

No one I know was injured and things seem to be getting back to normal and the clean-up has started.

I have no natural segue into my post on soil testing so here it goes anyway.
Want to do something cool this fall for your garden and bring back some of those old high school chemistry memories (or nightmares)?

Test the soil in your garden.

After you get the leaves and branches cleared up, or anytime up until the ground freezes, look to test some beds in your garden where plants might not be thriving or flowering to their potential.

Digging with a trowel
Why would one care to do this?  Do you have plants that are supposed to flower but do not flower regularly or at all?  Do leaves on your plants turn yellow and do the plants look a little barren with some dieback?  Does your soil look like a Dunkin Donuts coffee with cream, or a Starbucks Dark Roast?  Do your plants look like they are just sitting there year after year and not thriving and growing and looking lush and happy?  Do your have Blueberries that don't berry or annuals that don't do much after you plant them in the spring?  Do you grow Asparagus but not really have much to harvest?

If anything in your garden is not thriving, a soil test will help you to answer the question, why.  It will also make specific recommendations for how to remedy the problem.

Soil Sampling Tool
Locally, I use the UMass Soil and Tissue Sampling Laboratory, it is the best $15 (per sample) you can spend in your garden.  I suggest you try and break down your garden into separate beds to test.  If you have a vegetable garden, that should be one test.  A perennial bed would be a separate test.  Your front foundation would be a separate test.  Ideally you want to get several (5-10) different small samples from each bed you are testing and blend them into one sample.  This will tell you generally what is happening in a specific bed and minimize the chance of one sample skewing the result.

A previous post, It's all about the Soil, goes into great detail about soil structure, pH and nutrients.  If you want an in depth discussion about all the details, the post covers most of the bases.  The previous link also goes into great detail about the information that will be contained in the results of your soil test, but the lab should also supply quality information.

This post will go through the details of how to collect good soil samples.

Separate the top part
from the soil in
the root zone
When collecting the sample to submit to the laboratory, it is critical that you get soil from the root zone where the plants retrieve their nutrients.  There are two easy ways to obtain samples.  First you take a hand trowel and scrape away the surface mulch and dig down 6 inches into the soil.  The soil at the bottom of the hole is what you want for your sample.  If you have a bed of Rhododendrons that you are testing, dig half a dozen holes around the bed and blend the soil you get from the bottom of the holes.  The second, and easiest way to collect samples, is with a soil sampling tool, a long, hollowed out metal rod that you can push into the soil.  When you push the tool into the soil and remove it, the hollow rod contains a long core of soil.  You can remove the top six inches and take the remaining several inches from deep in the root zone.

Lay out the soil for drying
When you have your group of samples you need to lay them out to dry.  In the image I have used old birthday plates as the drying rack.  Once the soil is on the plate you can break up the clumps, remove any big stones and remove the stray piece of mulch that may have gotten into the sample.  After a day or two, the soil is dry enough to be bagged, labeled and sent to the lab.  Take care not to mix soils or label improperly, because if you apply the wrong item to resolve a problem to the wrong bed, you may end up killing some plants.

Rocks and twigs removed and clumps
broken down, ready for sample
When filling out the paperwork, the form will ask you to classify the plant material in the bed you are testing.  Filling this out appropriately will result in the lab providing you with accurate instructions for remedying any problems.  For example, if one of your beds contains Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Mountain Laurels, you would classify that as "Acid-loving Shrubs"(see form).  If the results say the bed has a pH of 7.1, it will tell you how much acidifier to add to the bed to achieve the proper pH.

UMass does an excellent job of eliminating the guesswork, but their test results and suggestions are only as good as the samples they receive, so spend the time and collect good quality samples.

Come early spring, you will be armed with information to improve the environment of your planting beds, and in short time you will start to see results in the health and vigor of your plants.

If you grow vegetables, this is a must for ensuring you do not have high levels of metals and lead in your soil.

Packaged, labeled and ready to go

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What do you do with Hornworms after you have caught them?

Fat and Juicy Hornworms
Do you have a little pent up anger towards the many pests and critters that take advantage of all your hard work in the garden?

Anyone who has grown tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes and other members of the Nightshade Family (Solanaceae), have run into the dreaded Hornworm at some point.  These big, fat, fleshy green caterpillars have been known to devour the leaves and fruit on these plants.  They are distinctive with their black and white striping and the little red horn on their trailing end.

Tomato Hornworm Fact Sheet

Given their bright green color they can be hard to detect until they sit fat and happy on the lone branches left on the plant.  Constant vigilance in checking your plants can keep them at bay, especially when you notice leaves being chomped.  Marigolds have been known to keep them at a distance, and apparently they even glow under black lights at night.

So what does one do with hornworms after they have been caught?

The other day while visiting our local reptile store with my son and a friend of his, I noticed a container with several very large hornworms feeding on some grotesque leafy mixture.  When I asked the store owner what he used them for, he said that Bearded Dragons love them.

Funny...we have a Bearded Dragon at home.

So for 50 cents my son and his friend gleefully took one home and immediately fed it to our Dragon.  After about 3 seconds of measuring up this fat, green treat, the Dragon inhaled it with four or five quick chews, sat down in the corner and took a nap.

Below are a few images of our Dragon having his meal, this should be good therapy for those who have suffered the damage of feeding hornworms.  It is kind of a funny encounter of two living creatures that would never find each other in their natural habitats.

Going in for the kill...

First Bite!

Man, this is going to be a big bite.

Almost there

Time for a nap.