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April 24th, 2012

Daffodils Unbraided

After her daffodils were done blooming, my neighbor spent hours braiding their leaves into tidy bundles. I don’t have time for that. Am I hurting the bulbs by not braiding the leaves?

blog-dougJust the opposite. This is another example of the benefit of standing aside and letting nature do its job.

Think of leaves as solar collectors. Every bit of sunlight that falls on the leaves is transformed through the process of photosynthesis into carbohydrate reserves that are stored in the bulbs. The more photosynthesis, the more energy the bulbs stockpile, which results in a bigger floral display next year.

Anything that reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the bulb foliage will decrease next year’s flowering. This is true of all spring-flowering bulbs, not just daffodils. Your neighbor’s braiding technique, as well as the practice of bundling bulb foliage with rubber bands, won’t prevent the bulbs from returning but it certainly reduces the number and size of next year’s flowers. Even intermingling the bulbs with perennials, such as hostas and daylilies, so the bulb foliage disappears among the emerging perennials, will slightly reduce the bulbs’ future performance.

Allow the leaves to mature fully, until they’ve lost their green color, before clipping them off. Admittedly, tattered daffodil foliage that lingers into June is less than glamorous. In my garden, I operate under the theory that if there are dazzling flowers in another part of the garden in late spring—I recommend peonies, roses, bearded irises, clematis, and poppies—no one will notice the fading bulb foliage.  —Doug Hall

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April 17th, 2012

The Best Soil for Strawberries

My order of 50 bareroot strawberry plants will arrive at the end of April. The supplier recommends mixing 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer into the soil. Can you suggest an organic alternative? I have some horse manure, but it doesn’t appear to be fully rotted to use at this time.

blog-dougStrawberries grow best where the soil is fertile, well-drained, and amply enriched with organic matter. If you have been using compost, organic mulches, and cover crops in your garden for several years, you may need to do nothing further before planting the strawberries. A soil test will give you an accurate reading of how fertile your soil is.

If your soil falls short of the ideal, I recommend you dig in some organic amendments before you plant. Composted horse or steer manure is excellent for this purpose; it’s sufficiently composted when it looks and smells like soil. Yard-waste compost is another good source of nutrients and organic matter. Sphagnum peat moss as a soil amendment adds organic matter but little in the way of nutrients. Ideally, you should prepare the soil a few weeks before planting the strawberries.

Water thoroughly after planting, then give each plant one cup of a half-strength fish emulsion solution or compost tea to jump-start growth. Follow up 3 weeks later with another application if growth is slow.

Let your supply of fresh horse manure decompose longer before using it. You can layer it with leaves, kitchen scraps, and other garden debris to make compost, if you wish, or simply let it age in a pile. Next spring, use it to top-dress the strawberry bed when the plants begin to bloom.  —Doug Hall

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April 10th, 2012

A Child’s Garden of Learning

My granddaughter will be 4 this year. I am an avid vegetable gardener, and I want to share that passion with her. What’s the easiest vegetable for a child to grow?

blog-dougStart with radishes. The seeds germinate and grow quickly; they’re ready to eat in 30 days. On the chance she isn’t a radish fan, let her plant seeds of a few other vegetables that you know she likes to eat, like bush beans or leaf lettuce or snow peas.

Don’t forget to plant some flowers, too. Giant sunflowers are a kid favorite. When I was that age, I was intrigued by the exploding seed capsules of garden balsam. Zinnias and cosmos are great for bouquets and easy to grow from seed.

Books on gardening with children often stress the importance of choosing crops and flowers with big seeds, on the theory that they are easier for small fingers to grasp. But in my experience, kids do just fine with the tiny-seeded stuff, like lettuce and carrots. Seeds are cheap; let her learn by planting. Make your shared garden time informal and fun.

Your granddaughter is at an age when the world is filled with amazing discoveries. She’ll always remember the lessons about nature and life that she learns at your side.  —Doug Hall

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April 3rd, 2012

The Cause of Hollow Rose Canes

Something bored into the canes of my rose bushes last year, leaving hollow openings at the ends wherever I made a pruning cut. This spring I notice that a lot of those canes have died back. What’s doing it?

blog-dougThere are a number of species of bees and wasps that burrow into soft or dead wood to create nesting places to lay eggs and raise their young. These are solitary insects, not colonizers like honeybees. Although they usually seek out decaying wood to make their nests, the pithy heart of a rose cane is soft enough to invite their attention.

One species of burrowing bee is the leaf cutter bee, which leaves more obvious evidence of its presence in the dime-sized, semicircular holes cut into rose leaf edges. These bees are important pollinators, so while you might want to shoo them away from your roses, please don’t go about it by using anything toxic.

You can discourage bees and wasps from setting up household in your rose garden by dabbing a bit of grafting wax (buy it from an agricultural supply retailer) on each cut as you prune your roses, cut bouquets, or deadhead. Some rose gardeners report that a drop of white glue on each pruning cut also works—but it would have to be a type of glue that doesn’t wash away in the rain.

The damage from leaf cutter bees is usually insignificant and doesn’t compromise the plant’s health or vigor. You might decide that applying grafting wax—a messy and tedious task—is worse than simply pruning away the occasional damaged cane.  —Doug Hall

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