Greengirls Helen Yarmoska, Nicole Hvidsten, Martha Buns, Connie Nelson, Kim Palmer and Mary Jane Smetanka are dishin' the dirt from the back-yard garden and beyond. Whether you're a greenthumb or greenhorn, they're eager to learn from your mishaps, mistakes - and most importantly, your sweet successes - all growing season long.

Ants - OK in the garden, but not my walls!

Posted by: Helen Yarmoska under Critters and pests Updated: June 11, 2014 - 8:34 AM

Insects are as much a part of the garden as plants and soil.  In fact, when taking courses to become a Master Gardener, there are a few required on insect identification and pest management.  So I was not surprised when my friend, Pizz, asked me about how to get rid of ants that have started invading her house.

The pests were in the walls of her 1950s era house.  There were chewing noises, not scratching like mice or bats.  She did see some large ants entering the house on the outside, but only a few found on the inside.  She had hired a pest management company who came and sprayed, but she was concerned when it rained the next day.

Ants are OK in the garden.  They sometimes act as pollinators and quite often clean up debris left by other leaf eating insects.  Many people are seeing ants right now around peony buds.  (NO, the flowers do not need the ants to open, the ants just like the sweet nectar around the buds.)  But inside the house… ants are NOT nice.

Ants are colony insects much like honey bees.  They have a queen and without the queen, there is no nest.  So the trick in ant-elimination is to get rid of the queen.  Instant kill sprays really don’t do much besides give the sprayer satisfaction.  Sprays can also be indiscriminate.  They may kill beneficial insects such as bees and wasps.  

Good old fashioned Borax is what I recommended.  She could purchase a feed-kill product and place several drops on cardboard the outside of her house and feed them for several days.   That should get to the queen eventually.   Or perhaps buy a box of the stuff and sprinkle around her foundation.
Do you have any other recommendations for Pizz?

Shrub unexpectedly calls it quits

Posted by: Martha Buns under Perennials Updated: June 10, 2014 - 8:08 AM

I didn’t see it coming. There were no signs of stress, no previous scares. But this spring, after at least 19 years of reliable existence, a shrub in front of the house just didn’t make it through the long winter.

It’s not as if I had massive die-off from this year’s winter vortex. Even a Zone 5 plant I gambled on a few years ago is back and raring to go. But the shrub that had been a chore to try to rein in, that turned the sun room into anything but sunny, this year just took a dive and didn’t revive.

I can't accuse myself of overpruning it, because I didn't get around to pruning it at all last year. It has a few signs of winter damage, since our yard is apparently perfect rabbitat, but nothing like the rhododendron that’s still going OK, even if lopped off near the ground. Certainly the damage doesn’t look like anything enough to take down the entire bush.  But after several laissez faire weeks of waiting to see if it was just a slow starter, it’s clearly just a bunch of brittle twigs.

Maybe there’s something more systemic going on, since a bush several shrubs down is also only partly reviving. Maybe there’s another pest I’m not detecting, although that shrub is coming back from the roots quite nicely.

At any rate, I’m now in the market for a new shrub. (Oh, rats. An excuse to go shopping.) Any suggestions for a front-of the-house landscaping bush? It’s going into a spot in between a variegated dogwood and a ninebark, just down from a hydrangea. What have you had good luck with? And has anyone else run into a no-show after years of reliable performance?

Or I could be insane and try to dig up the overgrown weigela that's likely to have to come out to reconstruct our porch and attempt to transplant it. Hmm.

Plants I regret

Posted by: Kim Palmer under Annuals, Critters and pests, Flowers, Perennials, Trees Updated: June 9, 2014 - 11:16 AM

When I was a younger, inexperienced gardener, I did some things I regret.

I brought home some plants I shouldn't have -- good-looking specimens that I didn't know much about. They're still haunting my landscape.

There's the contorted filbert I picked up at Home Depot about 10 years ago. It was small and quirky, with curly, twisty little branches. I put it in one of my garden beds next to a big boulder, thinking it would stay small and twisty and cute. 

Instead it grew like a giant weed, shooting out long straight branches with none of the curlicued charm that first caught my eye. 

It also brought a most unwelcome invader: Japanese beetles. If I had any before the filbert, I never noticed them. But once the filbert took up residence, they arrived in droves. By mid-summer, the filbert's foliage is thick with beetles. If they just stayed there and munched on the filbert it wouldn't be so bad, but they also move on to feast on my nearby roses and other plants.

Then there's the climbing rose I picked up the summer I moved into my house. The rose attracted me with its bright brilliant pink blooms, so I impulsively bought it and a big arbor to support it. The rose is still pretty -- for about two weeks in early summer when it's covered with vibrant flowers.

The rest of the time, it's just bare straggly canes that burst beyond the confines of the arbor and stab me with their thorns when I try to tame them.

Now that I know better -- that there are beautiful rose options that bloom all season long -- I could kick myself for not doing a little research first. 

The biggest mistake in my landscape is a maple, also planted the first year summer we moved into the house. We were new to suburbia, after years of living in the leafy urban core, and we missed the trees. So we planted one. 

Instead of carefully choosing the best location for a tree, we lazily picked the spot where the kids' wading pool had already killed the grass. And instead of carefully researching and choosing the best type of tree, we grabbed a maple at the garden center -- without reading the tag. We figured it would give us beautiful fall color. It does. But it also turned out to be some weird dwarf species that is more bush-shaped than tree-shaped. Instead of a traditional trunk crowned with branches, it produced multiple trunks low to the ground. It's too low and squatty to provide shade you can actually sit under. But, of course, it completely shades my garden, making it impossible to grow the sun-loving plants that thrived there when the tree was young.

One of these years, I'll probably get rid of these unsightly reminders of my impetuous youth. But it sure would have been easier if I'd just done my homework -- at least read the tags -- before I bought them.

Impulse garden purchases can be fun -- but save them for annuals and small plants; that's the lesson I learned the hard way.

Anyone else out there have things in their landscape that they planted in ignorance and now regret?

The tree that should not be

Posted by: Helen Yarmoska under Fruit and berries Updated: June 5, 2014 - 8:40 AM

This is a story about a tree that should not be. 

Twenty-some years ago when I planted my asparagus patch, there was a tiny little bush growing in the area that looked interesting.  I thought it was a nice backdrop, so I let it go.  Eventually, it got bigger and my husband trimmed it as topiary and it lived well.  I was a novice gardener; I didn’t know what it was – and I didn’t care.  It had berries, the leaves were nice and it took abuse.

Well, education stepped in and I found out that it was a buckthorn.  So I figured I better do something about this.  The first two years I did my best to pull off all the berries so the invasive plant would not be spread by birds.  Then there was a big “anti-buckthorn” thing going on in my city and I figured as a past Garden Council President, I better yank the tree.

By this time, it was about 8 feet tall so it required a chainsaw and big shovel.  I didn’t want to disturb my asparagus patch too much so I judiciously trimmed roots.

Go figure, the plant kept coming up.  So I hand painted an aggressive weed killer on the leaves of the upcoming buckthorn shoots. Fast forward, the roots rotted, the area was flat, but something else ‘woody’ was growing.  I let it go.  The area needed a little something besides a flat asparagus patch all Winter and Spring.

Something tree-like appeared.  It seemed to have a fruit-like bark, a nice spring bloom and so we twisted

the trunk for some interest.  Fast forward again.  Thorns appear, still trying to determine the tree type.  Next year, a smooth green walnut sized something appears… fast forward next year.  The green things appear again, but in July start to blush and get soft.

I look in my books, what the…. Low and behold, this is a plum tree.  So, adventurous as I am --  I pop one of these fruits in my mouth.  Delicious!

Now this spring I’m enjoying the multitude of flowers and imagine each of those smooth green walnuts as a plum ready for the breakfast table!

Have you ever had a surprise treat in your garden?  Flowers, fruits, animals? 

Thank wasps for luscious apples

Posted by: Lynn Underwood under Fruit and berries, Green gardening, Trees Updated: June 5, 2014 - 9:24 AM

Last fall, I discovered how to get dozens of beautiful luscious maggot-free apples from my back-yard tree.  Make sure a nest of wasps make their home nearby.

I planted the Cortland apple tree - fertilized by the ashes of my deceased cockapoo - 15 years ago.  But fall after fall, the apples were pocked with icky dimples made by adult apple maggot flies laying their eggs.  I didn’t know - and didn’t  want to find out - if there were still maggot larvae inside. Only deer and other critters were brave enough to eat them.

So I decided to try organic methods to stop those darn flies from turning my apples into a feast for larvae. I tried the sticky traps, slathering clear sticky stuff  over big red balls that were supposed to attract the egg-laying flies. But they weren’t fooled by the decoy balls because my apples were still fully-infested come fall. Plus they sure were a pain to clean before storing  for winter.

I’ve also considered trying the bagging method, which a colleague does religiously every summer.  When the fruit is about the size of a walnut, enclose each one inside a plastic sandwich bag and staple it shut. Snip the bottom corner of each bag with a scissors to let water run out.  But by the time I remember to do it - the fruit is way bigger than a walnut and it’s too late.

Last summer, I was sitting on my  deck, resisting the urge to stain it. Then I spied a gray wasp nest, the size of a papier mache pinata, suspended in a crabapple tree about 10 feet away. Of course, I worried that I would get stung by the wasps or they would dive-bomb me when I was gardening. But I never heard a single buzz from the colony.

 By fall, I was harvesting bucket after bucket of apples pretty enough to fill a bin at Whole Foods.
What the heck happened to the tenacious apple maggots? My internet research revealed that the wasps devoured them.

By winter, the wasps had abandoned the nest, and now it’s pretty much disintegrated. So I’m hoping and praying that another wasp queen will make her home in my very welcoming crabapple tree.

How do you prevent apple maggot infestation?  Have you had an unexplained great crop of worm-free apples?


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