“Parents are not interested in justice. They are interested in quiet.” – Bill Cosby
“We had a quicksand box in our backyard. I was an only child, eventually.” -- Steven Wright
“Adults are obsolete children.” – Dr. Seuss
“The most important time you can spend in the garden is the time you spend not gardening.” – Paul James
“You have to live life to love life, and you have to love life to live life. It’s a vicious circle.” -- Unknown
”In spite of the cost of living, it’s still popular.” – Kathleen Norris
THE GARDENER GUY’S Q&A
When I do personal appearances, the format is a simple Q&A. It’s more like a cheesy nightclub act than a traditional gardening lecture. But I like hearing what concerns gardeners most, and I like interacting with the audience. So here’s the online version of my live act. And by the way, the questions are pulled from emails you provide, so keep them coming. Just go to the “Comments / Contact Us” tab. I’ll update this page weekly.
Dozens of people from all over the country have inquired about the compost brackets I featured on my show, which is encouraging given the enormous value of compost.
The brackets are available from www.leevalley.com. They cost $79, plus shipping, and all you supply the 1” x 6” lumber used to create the sides of the bin. I suggest you use cedar fencing material, which is readily available. The recommended finished size of the bin is 4-feet square, but I made mine 4’ x 5’ and they’re holding up great (I have two, but my dad is trying to talk me out of one of them since he’s too cheap to buy one himself).
Here’s one I’ve never heard before. Ms. Roopa explained how Freon leaked from her air conditioner and killed a nearby evergreen shrub! She wants to know if it’s safe to plant another shrub.
Regardless whether the leak was above or below ground, the Freon vaporized long ago and it should be perfectly safe to plant another shrub.
Wisteria from Seed
Susan, who hails from central Washington, received two Wisteria seeds as a gift and wants to know how to get them to germinate.
Well Susan, rather than answer your question directly, let me urge you to instead buy a Wisteria plant at a nursery, and here’s why. Wisterias grown from seed typically take years to flower, as in 10 to 15 years. And in some cases they never flower at all. Those propagated vegetatively (from cuttings) ordinarily flower within five years. Virtually all Wisterias sold at retail garden centers are grown from cuttings.
Pesky Pill Bugs
Kris from Washington, D.C., is ready to declare war on pill bugs, and based on the damage they’re doing to his plants, I can’t say that I blame him.
Ordinarily, pill bugs and their cousins the sow bugs aren’t present in sufficient numbers to be considered a pest. In fact, they are beneficial critters because they help break down organic matter. However, when they get out of control, they can be a nuisance. Usually, the simplest approach is to eliminate the habitat they prefer – moist, mulched areas – but Kris has already done that.
So, Kris, you have two natural approaches. One is to use diatomaceous earth (DE). Just make sure you use the horticultural grade of DE and not the stuff sold for use in pool filters. DE feels like a powder, but to a pill bug it’s like walking across cut glass, and it basically destroys the bug’s cuticle, causing desiccation.
Personally, I’ve never had much luck using it, but I know gardeners who swear by it.
What I’ve had luck with is Sluggo, an iron-phosphate formulation used to control slugs. It’s perfectly safe to use and a little goes a long way. It’s also easy to find at retail garden centers or box stores.
Grappling with Azalea Gall
Nancy writes from NE Massachusetts about azalea gall, which is caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii. The fungus overwinters within the infected plant, and appears in late spring to early summer. It’s often worse following extended rains.
Unfortunately, the disease is difficult to control. Removing the galls by hand before they turn white will limit the spread of the disease. And some gardeners claim that Bordeaux mixture is effective. Bordeaux mixture is a fungicide that contains copper sulfate and lime. It’s been around for years, and is approved for use by organic gardeners. Safer also makes a copper-based fungicide. If you choose to use either, bear in mind that spraying should begin in late winter and continue throughout the growing season.
Worms, Worms, and more Worms
Donald, who lives in Allison Park, PA, and composts like crazy, wonders if you can actually have too many worms in your yard and garden.
And the answer, Donald, is no. Worms are nature’s rototillers. They aerate the soil and along the way leave behind their fertile droppings. The fact that you unearth lots of worms whenever you weed or work the soil is a good thing. A very good thing.
Holes in Sweet Potato Vines
Linda in Cincinnati has holes in her sweet potato vines, and judging from the number of exclamation marks she used in email, she’s desperate to know what’s causing them.
Although I can’t say with absolute certainty, my guess is flea beetles are the problem. They leave a tell-tale hole in leaves as they chew, and because they often exist in large numbers, they can do a lot of damage.
The best control is Neem oil, which you should be able to find at your local nursery. Neem is extracted from the Neem tree, and although it’s a broad-spectrum control, it appears to be easy on beneficial insects.
Sequoias in Louisiana?
Seth recently visited the Sequoia National Forest in California, and wants to know if he can grow those “bad boys” at home in Mandeville, Louisiana.
Sorry, Seth, but you’re out of luck. Neither the Coastal Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, nor the Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum (also known as the Sierra Redwood), will grow in Louisiana. In fact, they only grow in small regions of California.
However, a relative of both does great in your area, namely the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). It thrives in the heat and humidity of Louisiana. You might also consider the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). It should do okay in your climate, and is a really cool tree, especially when you consider that it was thought to be extinct until one was discovered in China in 1945. I’d give it protection from the afternoon sun, however, or its tender leaves will burn.
Q&A UPDATE FOR 7-8-09
I’ve been swamped with questions lately, and there are only so many I can handle at a time. So please don’t get upset if I haven’t gotten around to yours yet. I will. However, some questions simply don’t contain enough information, and it’s difficult to answer them without making lots of assumptions. So please provide as much detail as you can, especially where you live.
One for the Birds
Jack, who fishes the same trout-filled rivers in Arkansas I do, but who lives in Oak Lawn, Illinois, wants to know if it’s necessary to clean his birdhouses every year.
You know, Jack, in exchange for free room and board, you’d think the birds would clean up after themselves! Seriously, you don’t have to bother cleaning your birdhouses. Wild birds get along fine without anybody cleaning up after them. The exception would be houses that were raided by raccoons or other critters. Chances are birds won’t return to those homes.
If you want to clean them just to observe their nest-building ways, that’s cool. Remove the nest, brush away any remaining debris, scrub the house with a solution of 10 percent bleach and water, and let it air dry.
And by the way, I was fishing on the White River below Bull Shoals, and for four days straight they were running all eight gates wide open at the dam. Damn! Needless to say, the water was too high to do any wading and flowing way too fast for canoeing, so I rented a Jon boat and found a few exposed rocks where I could cast into some eddies. I caught a few fish every day, all rainbows, but I had to work at it. I also had one good day on the Norfork, but they were generating there every day as well, sometimes all day.
See you on the river, Jack!
Amy has some tomatoes growing in a bed framed by pressure-treated lumber, and she wants to know if they’re safe to eat.
There are two types of pressure-treated lumber: CCA and ACQ. CCA lumber contains copper, chromium, and arsenic. It was banned for home use by the EPA in 2003, but it’s still used for foundations, so contractors can still buy it. ACQ, in particular ACQ Type-D, is the newer form of pressure-treated lumber. It contains an ammonia compound plus copper.
You don’t say which of the two you used, but regardless, I’d go ahead and eat the tomatoes. Copper and chromium don’t pose a health risk, and the arsenic, although extremely poisonous, doesn’t move in the soil more than a few inches from the wood. Next year, however, I’d suggest you do one of two things just to be on the safe side. Either line the interior of the wood with plastic or, better yet, plant flowers adjacent to the wood and plant your vegetables at least a foot away from the wood.
And by the way, if you’d said you had planted carrots or potatoes next to the wood, I would not suggest that you eat them. Root crops can be contaminated more by arsenic than crops harvested above ground. The root crops don’t actually absorb the arsenic directly, but it does “stick” to them. Peeling will usually get rid of the arsenic, but better safe than sorry.
Dwight from Tulare, California, wants to know if I have the building plans for the barn in my backyard.
Sorry, Dwight, but I built the barn from little more than a rough sketch. On paper, it looked pretty good, but by the time I finished it wound up looking more like a Wild West saloon or Mexican cantina than a barn. Not that there’s anything wrong with saloons or cantinas. I’ve spent a good deal of time in both.
Leslie in Kansas City sent me a dirty email. Sort of, anyway. She says that despite adding composted top soil and manure to her veggie garden, and tilling in it, the soil is hard as a rock.
Several things come to mind, Leslie. First, not all topsoil is alike. Some of it is great, and some of it is lousy. The lousy stuff can certainly compact quickly. But you said you tilled in the topsoil and manure, and that’s what concerns me. If you used a rototiller (you don’t say specifically), it’s possible that you pulverized the soil so completely that you destroyed its texture and structure, and that will cause soil to dry hard as a rock. Rototillers, in my opinion, have no place in the garden for a variety of reasons.
What you need to do now is add more organic matter. If you can find leaf mold at a local nursery, buy several bags. It’s the best organic there is, other than homemade compost. Also look for bagged products that contain shredded alfalfa mixed with manure. Basically, you need something fairly coarse to improve the texture and structure of the soil. This fall, add shredded leaves plus some rotten hay or straw.
Laura likes my grass, specifically the ornamental grasses I have scattered all over my place, and she wants to know what they are.
Truth is, Laura, I grow several different kinds of ornamental grasses, but my guess is you’re talking about the Maiden grasses, which are in the genus Miscanthus. They are beautiful indeed, and easy to grow.
You don’t say where you live, so I can’t say with certainty whether they’ll grow in you area. However, most are hardy to Zone 5, and some can handle Zone 4. Several varieties are available, but my favorite is one called ‘Morning Light.’
A Bed in Boise
Kathy and Mike are planning to build a three-foot high raised bed over a small stone-covered driveway. (Actually, it sounds as though Mike is going to do the building, and Kathy is going to supervise.) The question Kathy has is whether they (he) should remove the stones and loosen the soil beneath them, or just build on top of them and use the stones to facilitate drainage.
Well Kathy, given the height of the bed, I’d tell Mike to leaves the stones where they are and build the bed right on top of them. Three feet is plenty of depth for growing just about anything, and as long as you fill the bed with good quality stuff, drainage shouldn’t be a problem. When he’s done, I’d also tell Mike that he deserves and big, juicy steak and a cold one.
Stem Blight on Russian Sage
David mass planted 30 Russian sage plants four years ago, and they did well for the first two years. By the third year, however, the leaves began to brown and curl, and the situation has gone from bad to worse.
Sit down, David, because you’re not going to like what I’m about to say. After carefully reading your email (twice), I’m guessing that your plants have a fungal disease called stem blight, for which there is no real cure. To confirm, cut a section of stem longitudinally. If you see a brown streak running continuously down the length of the stem, it’s a sure sign that blight is the culprit.
You can control the disease by pruning the plants in spring. As you prune, check to see if the interior of the stems have any brown areas. If they do, prune some more, and keep pruning until the brown is gone. Dip your pruners in a solution of bleach and water between each cut. Discard the prunings in the trash.
Stem blight in Russian sage is not all that common. It is, however, more likely to appear when the plants are grown in improved soils. It actually prefers lean, rocky soil.
And by the way, Russian sage (Zones 4-9) isn’t a sage and it isn’t from Russia. It’s from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it does indeed grow in gravelly soils. It got its Latin name, Pevroskia, from a 19th-century Russian general.
Stacie from New Jersey is faced with a difficult problem. She wants to plant a small, flowering tree in a planter box on her deck that will survive year ‘round. The area is in shade, and no doubt owing to space restrictions, she says the tree needs to be slender, or at least able to withstand pruning to keep it that way.
Gee, Stacie, have you got any other restrictions for me to consider?
To be honest, I can’t think of anything that fits the bill. However, there are two you might consider, assuming you’re willing to compromise. One is Cornus kousa, otherwise known as the Asian dogwood. It’s hardy in your area, tolerates full shade, flowers in late spring, and can be grown in a container. The other is Styrax japonica, the Japanese Snowbell. However, both trees can get fairly wide, and they might wind up looking pretty weird if you prune them to a more upright form.
Now let me ask you a question – How about an evergreen instead? An upright yew would do beautifully, and you’d have color year ‘round rather than have to look at bare stems during the winter. There are several columnar yews available, but even those that get quite bushy can be pruned into an upright form.
Let me know what you decide. And good luck.
Compost Tea Time
Ken, who hails from Rancho Santa Margarita, California, has a question about compost tea, or more specifically compost tea brewing equipment.
There are nearly as many recipes for brewing compost tea as there are bacteria in compost, and some systems sell for several hundred dollars. What’s more, the recommendations concerning how long to brew it, whether or not to dilute it, whether or not it can be stored or must be used immediately, etc. vary tremendously. Frankly, I’m sometimes skeptical of some of the information I read, and I’m disturbed by the fact that something as simple as compost tea has become so complicated and expensive.
Nevertheless, I do not question the value of compost tea. I think it’s one of the best things you can use, both as a soil drench and as a foliar feed. So just how do you go about making it?
For years, I simply placed a handful or two of compost on a square of cheesecloth, which I then folded up and tied. I plopped the whole thing in a watering can full of water, let it steep for a couple of hours in the shade, and used it right away. Was that compost tea? Of course it was. But there is a better way.
Take a five-gallon bucket, fill it with water, and let it sit overnight so that the chlorine, which cities add to tap water to kill bacteria, is driven off. After all, you want more bacteria, in particular the type that require oxygen, which is why you also need a small aquarium pump with a couple of feet of plastic hose. Place the pump next to the bucket and run the hose into the bucket. (If the pump came with an aerating stone, get rid of it. The stones get clogged in no time.)
Put a shovelful or so of compost on a square of cheesecloth, fold the corners, and tie it at the top. (The exact amount of compost doesn’t really matter, but four or five cups will do the trick.) Toss the bag in the bucket of water with the pump running. Add two tablespoons of molasses (food for the microbes), and let the mix bubble for 12 to 24 hours. Use immediately. If you don’t, a number of critters will begin to die off. And without the pump supplying oxygen to the mix, conditions will soon become anaerobic, and the mix will begin to stink.
So there you have it, Ken. Enjoy!
I’ve had several people ask if they can drop by my house while traveling through Tulsa on vacation. And the answer is, well, no. Sorry, but my house isn’t a tourist attraction. I hope you’ll respect my desire to protect my privacy.