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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Woman versus squirrel

Wildlife—can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. This month it’s squirrels. I’ve been driven to elaborate measures to keep them from digging up my young seedlings.

Squirrel at work--photo by pelican

     A fair percentage of the seeds I planted indoors this spring succeeded in growing into little plants around four inches tall. I hardened them off, moving them outdoors for lengthening periods over a couple of weeks to make sure they were ready for this season’s wildly oscillating temperatures. 

Toughening up to live outdoors

Then there were delays during days of heavy rain that kept me out of the garden for fear of trampling the soil into concrete.

    In the last three weeks I used whatever dry days there were for planting the seedlings out. Most were headed for the fenced, rabbit-proof vegetable plot.

The vegetable garden fence reaches 12 inches underground to keep rabbits out

Basil and dill seedlings landed in a corner dedicated to herbs. Nearby I also planted seeds of peas, cucumbers, and beans directly in the ground.

     Opposite the herbs is a section that stays dry and partially shaded because of a neighbor’s tall red oak. The tree’s branches extend above the vegetable plot, and its roots efficiently draw up whatever irrigation I provide. This area can’t sustain vegetables, so it has become an insectary garden offering food and shelter for native insects.

      This month I added some seedlings of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and cockscomb (Celosia species) to it and edged the path that bisects the vegetable bed with sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima).

Sweet alyssum attracts pollinators and has a honey scent

     Near the insectary bed, I’m hoping to produce flowers for cutting. In that section I planted the zinnias, bachelor’s buttons, and cosmos I started indoors with hopes of enjoying summer bouquets. Some spider flower (Cleome hassleriana) that had popped up in the homemade potting mix came along too. The flowers of these easy annuals are popular with pollinators.

Exuberant zinnias at Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie, NY

     So far the sustainable-enough approach was working. I’d managed to procure most of the annuals I wanted without resorting to seeds or plants treated with neonicotinoid insecticides. I’d gotten the young plants safely into the garden. That’s when squirrels became a menace. 

     When I dig, squirrels follow after me, digging in the same spot and throwing the young seedlings I’ve planted out of the ground. If I don’t notice and replant them, the exposed roots dry up and the little plants die. Squirrels don’t seem to want to eat the seedlings (except sunflowers, which must have delicious sprouts). Maybe they suspect I’ve buried nuts. Whatever the reason for this behavior, it’s very frustrating.

     To foil this sabotage, wherever I dug in the vegetable garden, I had to cover the loosened soil with wire fencing and then anchor row cover fabric on top of it. 

Row cover fabric lets water and light through and keeps squirrels out

That gave the vegetable seeds and the young seedlings a chance to take root. Yesterday, after the row cover had been in place for two weeks, I lifted it off. I left the fencing in place.

Lettuce and greens growing through the wire fencing

 I covered the bare soil with leaf mulch. Here’s hoping I’ve outsmarted the squirrels, and they’ll dig somewhere else.

 Are these pea plants old enough to be squirrel-proof?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Less lawn, new beds

With a surge of spring energy, I’m launching a project I’ve been mulling over for months. I’m going to eliminate some lawn and open up a new planting opportunity!

    I’ve been wondering what to do about the lawn closest to the house. For several years this grass has been looking particularly woebegone. It’s partly because I walk on it so much traveling from the utility area at the side of the house to the rest of the garden.

Nice flowering trees, but see that patchy lawn in the foreground?

     One day inspiration struck. I could tear out that whole piece of lawn, put in a generous wood chip path to walk on and trundle wheelbarrows over, and still end up with some sizeable new beds. At this point in my garden’s history, I don’t get many chances to plant new areas, so this is an exciting moment.

The grass next to the deck will be replaced with paths and a new planting bed

     It's been a long-term goal to shrink my lawn. Just about every other use of yard space has lower environmental costs than a lawn maintained with regular inputs of water and chemicals and groomed with machines powered by fossil fuels. 

Green, lush, and sterile--photo by Andrew Vicars

Even my lawn, innocent of chemical inputs, offers little to the community of organisms that share my yard.

    To test out my brainstorm, I rolled out hoses on the ground to outline different configurations for the new paths and beds. This is a technique often recommended by basic landscape design texts. I’d never used it before, and I can now testify that it works well. With lines of orange hose on the lawn, I could step back and judge whether paths were wide enough. I could easily nudge the hose around to adjust the size and shape of the beds.

Hose as design tool

     What looked best to me was a five-foot-wide mulched path along the curve of the present beds. Two other paths will be paved in bluestone, reusing the stones that currently surround the deck. A straight eight-foot-wide bluestone path will extend from the outer edge of the deck to the next garden “room,” a circle of lawn surrounding a rectangular pond. 

     The second stone path will lead from the back door of the house to the utility area. Together the three paths will define two planting areas adjacent to the edge of the deck, one large and in partial shade, the other rather small but in prized sunny territory near the garage.

     To save my design until the work starts after Memorial Day, I sprayed the grass alongside the hoses with marking paint. That’s the non-permanent stuff used to paint lines on athletic fields. 

Rough outline of the proposed small sunny bed

Meanwhile, I have the fun of choosing which plants to use and where to source them.

     I’m picturing low plants that won’t block the view from the deck, some gray foliage and ornamental grasses, and an emphasis on native plants. 

New York's High Line--a garden style to aspire to

I’ll be on the lookout for neonic-free sources. More to follow as plans develop.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Hemlock farewell

For years I’ve been protecting my hemlocks from a nonnative pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid, by having them sprayed with a pesticide. Now I’ve had a change of heart. Sadly, those hemlocks will have to go.

Our hemlocks need pesticide spraying to survive

     When I was researching The Sustainable-Enough Garden, I interviewed environmentalist Ellie Goldberg of Green Newton for advice on whether this treatment was consistent with an environmentally friendly approach. She didn’t favor the idea. She’d taken down her hemlocks rather than spray them. At the time I wasn’t ready to give up on mine.

     But this spring I’ve decided to follow Ellie’s example. Perhaps learning about neonicotinoid pesticide residue on nursery-grown plants has made me more sensitive to the effects of my actions on the insects around me. 

A praying mantis keeps garden insects in balance--photo by Scott Robinson

     Our eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) were planted by previous owners in two corners of the yard and have grown to about 30 feet tall. The adelgids are tiny imported insects that kill hemlocks by sucking their sap. That’s why you see so many hemlock skeletons and trees gradually losing their needles. 

Hemlocks succumbing to woolly adelgid damage

You can recognize infested trees by the lines of white egg cases along the twigs that look like tiny cotton balls.

Telltale white dots along the twigs are adelgid egg cases

     Leaving the hemlocks untreated wasn’t an option, because untreated trees die within a few years of infestation, and there’s no escaping the ubiquitous adelgids. I didn’t want to provide a staging area for further adelgid depredations in my neighborhood. I wanted to keep the hemlocks alive because I thought that as native trees, they must be hosting native animals in the yard.

A hemlock (not ours) shelters young Eastern screech owls--photo by Matt MacGillivray

So I signed up to have our hemlocks sprayed with horticultural oil. My justification for using the pesticide was that the adelgid is a nonnative introduction with no North American predators.

     The horticultural oil application involves spraying a mist of refined petroleum-derived oil combined with emulsifier into the hemlocks. The spray smothers the insects mechanically by coating them with oil rather than attacking their metabolism as many chemical pesticides do. When the oil dries on the trees in a few hours, it’s non-toxic. Horticultural oil was used on fruit trees as far back as ancient Greece, although back then they used plant oils rather than petroleum.

     If it’s applied in very early spring when the adelgids are active but most other insects aren’t, horticultural oil comes close to targeting only the adelgids. But in practice, the timing never turns out right. It’s not the company’s fault; weather and scheduling get in the way. If they spray now, the oil will also suffocate insects I’m trying to foster in my yard. 

Bees on swamp milkweed are welcome guests

     The only alternative is to remove the hemlocks. I asked arborist Kevin Newman’s team to cut them down in the next few weeks. I’m sad to do it, but it seems better than continuing to spray at the wrong time. To replace the food and shelter that the hemlocks have provided for wildlife, I'll need to plant other native trees or shrubs in their place.

Sunday, May 7, 2017


Things are looking up for my quest to avoid neonics. This week, to my delight, I encountered some new plant sources for ornamental plants that aren’t treated with pesticides.

I want to keep pollinators healthy in my garden

     I made the one-hour drive to Salem, Massachusetts to check out a place I found through a Google search, Thomson’s Garden Center. The owner, Scott Thomson, explained that all his food plants are organic. Despite his motivation, even Scott hasn’t been able to find organic seedlings for some annuals, but his flowers are pesticide-free. 

May offers lots of flowers. Insects need something in bloom through the season.

     That’s the key point for me, because my main goal at this point is to use only plants that are safe for insects in my garden, including pollinators such as bees, leaf-eaters that provide food for birds and other animals, and beneficial insects that keep the garden’s insect population in balance. Thomson’s web site includes a link to an excellent TV segment on WCVB’s Chronicle, featuring Scott as a source, about why neonicotinoid insecticides are a problem for bees and how to make gardens that are bee-friendly.

     Thomson’s seedlings were beautiful, clearly well-grown and healthy. This wasn’t even the full inventory, which Scott said will be coming in later this month. He sources his plants locally. His organic herbs came from Gilbertie's Herbs in Westport, Connecticut, another outlet I’d like to visit. I bought herbs and also pesticide-free marigolds, geraniums, dahlias, cosmos, lobelias, and alyssum.

Marigolds and alyssum, annuals I'd been hoping for

    The next day I scored some more annuals and some vegetable seedlings—tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers--also grown without pesticides, at the seedling sale of the Waltham Community Farm, one town over. With these purchases, I’ll be able to plant out almost all my usual annuals.

Annuals will supplement perennials in the pollinator garden

     What I won’t be doing this year is making a big purchase at my favorite local garden center, which shall remain nameless. It’s a bigger place than Thomson’s with a wide selection of gorgeous perennials, annuals, and vegetables and some shrubs and trees. I love going there. My May shopping trip has long been one of the high points of my year.

Anise-scented sage, Salvia guaranitica, a treasure from my favorite garden center

    But what’s the point of a pollinator garden that kills pollinators? Until this business can certify that their plants are neonic-free, I don’t feel right shopping there. I’ve sent them a letter explaining why. I hope that as customers raise this issue, garden centers will follow the lead of the big box stores that have yielded to pressure and promised to phase out neonics.

     When consumers got interested in planting for pollinators, sellers jumped on the bandwagon, touting plants for pollinator gardens. They just didn’t mention that the plants were treated with chemicals harmful to those same pollinators. Scott Thomson’s attractive stock confirms that marketable plants can be produced without these synthetic chemicals.

Geraniums from Thomson's

     Garden centers understand why consumers want organic food plants. Now we want organic—or at least pesticide-free—ornamental plants too. I’m happy to know that a few growers and retailers are out there supplying them.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Paradigm shift for pots

In response to my question about which perennials to use as fillers in containers, Patricia McGinnis, an astute reader, wrote suggesting that bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) would be a good choice. As she points out, it has attractive multi-lobed leaves that turn red in fall, and it spreads moderately.

Bigroot geranium this week

  Patricia’s email opened my eyes, and now I’m spotting any number of perennials I can use in containers to replace the impatiens and coleus I’ve been buying for years. The impetus for this search is to avoid nursery plants that have been sprayed with pollinator-lethal “neonics,” neonicotinoid insecticides that persist in plant tissues.

No point in attracting insects and then poisoning them

     In case you’re not familiar with the expression, “fillers” refers to a popular dictum for container designs: include “thrillers, fillers, and spillers.” Tender perennials with big bold leaves are my usual thrillers, and I like to balance them with mid-sized fillers. 

Canna with calibrocha filler last July. Lobelia had already melted in the heat.

Ideally I include something that blooms for a long season, but distinctive leaf shapes, colors or textures work too.

     Just about any vigorous perennial of low to moderate height could be a candidate, I see now. If a plant is spreading, I won’t feel bad about digging up a few rooted sections to use in pots. Some perennial clumps are due for dividing. That will be an opportunity to use a piece in a container. If a plant’s showing aggressive tendencies, that’s all the more reason to wrench some out, pop it into a pot, and let it die at the end of the season.

     In the moderately spreading category, I can picture using wild ginger (Asarum canadense), which has large matte green leaves that stay fresh-looking all summer. 

Wild ginger stays elegant through the summer

I could also use its imported cousin European ginger (Asarum europaeum). The shiny round subtly variegated leaves of this groundcover captivated me back when I started my garden. After very slowly increasing for 30 years, it’s starting to pop up in unexpected places, and I have enough to spare for potting. Maybe I could replant it in fall after a sojourn in a summer container.

European ginger this week

     Some hostas and hellebores that I planted too close to shrubs are now looking crowded and unhappy. They could provide some chunky mass to balance the giant leaves of cannas and elephant ears in pots.

A mature hellebore can be quite bulky

     As for groundcovers with invasive predilections, golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) is expanding wildly. Its near-yellow color could provide an interesting contrast, and it might drop stems gracefully over the side of a container.

Golden creeping jenny: don't be fooled, there's no stopping it.

     People often stick something with thin, strap-like leaves, such as a cordyline or an ornamental grass, in the center of a pot as a vertical element. 

Cordyline for verticality--photo by Daryl Mitchell

Perhaps I could draft smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) for this role. It too has taken over a lot of real estate in shady sections of my garden.

Two species of Solomon's seal sending up their shoots

     I can’t wait to try some of these ideas when I fill my containers in May. I bet I’ll see more options as perennials continue to emerge in the interim. Thanks, Patricia!

Ah, April! Yellow trout lily (Erythonium americanum)