Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ortho's Problem Solver

Occasionally, my husband and I go out for a date.  One of our favorite stops is Barnes and Noble.  He peruses the DIY manuals and I make myself comfortable in the gardening section.  I always end up with a dreamy pile to take home.  Sadly, my collection is invariably returned to the shelves.  Our frugal budget reduces my pile into a wish list.  But the combination of books and gardening is a powerful draw for me.

Last summer, a friend introduced me to Half-Price Books, and I was doubly delighted.  I had somewhere to drop off all the literary output my family of five creates, AND I get to turn my wishlist into reality.

I turned a large number of cast-offs into 3 horticultural resources.

More to come on the others later, but today I'm excited to recommend Ortho's Home Gardener Problem Solver.

What a resource!  This is a tremendous diagnostic tool.  Anything that can go wrong in the garden is listed here, with photos, descriptions and solutions.  You name it, they've covered it.  It would take many lifetimes of gardening to document this level of information.

But this book is not just about what can go wrong.  It is chocked full of diagrams and explanations of how to grow plants successfully.  The first section clearly explains plant biology in "How a Plant Grows".  The appendix has lists for everything from Houseplants that Root Easily to Low-Growing Trees Suitable for Planting Under Overhead Wires.  

The first part of the book is divided into sections according to plant material.  Covered thoroughly within are Houseplants, Lawns, Ground Covers, Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, Trees, Shrubs, Vines, Fruit and Nut Trees, Vegetables, Berries and Grapes.

The second part of the book is divided according to problems.  Included are Soil, Cultural and Climate Problems, Plant Diseases, Insects, Weeds, Animal Pests, and Household Pests.

Plants, bugs and diseases can be looked up by either common or latin name.

Organic gardeners may not appreciate the chemical suggestions for solutions, but this is Ortho's resource, after all.  Besides, with all the preventative and diagnostic information packed in here, it has earned the right to sit on every gardener's bookshelf.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Zombie Maple Leaves

A neighbor of mine asked me about her Red Maple.  It had developed small red warts on the leaves.

This unattractive growth has an unattractive name:

Bladder galls

Disgusting name aside, these little annoyances are merely that: annoyances.  They will not permanently damage your Maple.  In the spring, they start out green, then turn to red, and finally, black.  They are unsightly, but once the gall is formed, there's really nothing to be done.  The 'zit' is actually the leaf's response to a small mite.  To control the mite, you can spray the tree with dormant oil spray before the leaves emerge.

But now that I'm on the subject of bugs, whatever happened to insect horror flicks?  You know, those old-fashioned, black-and-white B movies made famous in the fifties.  Hollywood needs to rethink their horror genre and revisit the entomology theme.  Or maybe entomology professors need to rethink their boring lectures....

Take our warty little friend, the Maple Bladder gall, for example.  What we have here is a Vampire Zombie movie in the making.  Imagine, if you will, the life cycle of the gall mite:

It's early spring, a perfectly beautiful day in Illinois.  A delighted gardener wanders outside to enjoy the fresh breeze and sunshine.   Little does she know that a band of insidious mites are perched on her beloved Red Maple, waiting for the unsuspecting buds to leaf out.

When the buds open, the mites attack!  Puncturing the leaves with their fangs (slight exaggeration for the Hollywood effect), the mites inject their zombie poison.  The infected Maple leaves morph, growing galls in which their attackers can live.  The Zombie leaves are then host to their intruders, protecting them even as they feed on its flesh.

Mr. and Mrs. Mite set up house inside the gall and get busy with the egg-laying.  When the baby mites hatch, they victimize more leaves.  Today, the tree.  Tomorrow, the world!

Okay, reality check: bladder gall mites are not headed for world domination.  The zombie poison is simply a plant growth hormone.  And as winter approaches, they all bed down in the bark and snooze away until the next spring.  But don't you agree?  It's time to bring the buggy horror flicks back.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Lovely Stroll

In our landscape design studio at the U of I, all aspiring horticulturists worked on the same property.  Fourteen drafting tables littered the room, each with a different landscape for the same property.  I loved walking around the room, comparing and contrasting ideas and marveling at the myriad options we cumulatively created.

As I toured the gardens of the 2011 Kankakee Kultivator's Garden walk, I was struck by the same concept.  Had you given me any of those yards, I probably would have come up with something completely different (and assuredly, more weedy) than the homeowners.

What a treat to see the fruits of their creativity and effort.  Each garden had lessons for me.  Let me share a few:

Dave and Becky Williams proved to me that I need to quit whining about my small yard.  For a dedicated gardener, size is no hindrance whatsoever; merely a different kind of challenge.  The passion they share for gardening shines clearly in their innovative vegetable garden.  In contrast, my vegetable garden is not so much a labor of love as a labor of necessity.  And it shows.  If I can pull a red tomato from a field of lamb's quarters, I declare success.  The Williams' garden, however, was nothing short of a retreat.  And believe me, when I look at my own, I'd dearly love to retreat to theirs.

Kathy Bessette's vast woodland landscape filled the shadows with color, texture and creativity.  Over the years, I've encountered many homeowners who are thoroughly flustered with similarly shady backyards.  The combination of tree roots and lack of sunshine provide enough deterrent to keep them from creating beauty.  Kathy was not easily offset.  Her powerful imagination envisioned the world of hosta and perennials residing beneath the shade and a good amount of determination brought it to life.  Where some may have seen limitations, she found possibilities.

As someone who is losing the battle to weeds (yes, I know it's only June) in her current vegetable garden, I have a great appreciation for the immaculate beds of David and Cheryl Bishert.  I love that they simply used grass clippings (naturally nitrogen-rich and notably free!) to mulch and keep interlopers at bay.  Large tomato cages were ready to handle our bulky Illinois growth, unlike the cheap tomato cages I employ, which are overgrown by the end of July.    

A small stroll from the Bishert's brought me to Rick Hoekstra's vineyard.  Lush grapevines abounded.  Here I discovered the easiest of all the take-home-messages: Mmmmmmmm.....Moscato!  I found a wine to enjoy when the work is done.

At this point, let me say that this particular day I had been mislead by the weather forecast (not uncommon for me this year).  I donned blue jeans in the morning, expecting a cooler day.  The resulting 89 degrees of heat and humidity did not agree with my denim.  Babysitting fees were racking up and so was my internal thermometer, and I thought very heavily about heading home after the vineyard.  I'm so glad I didn't.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mulch Calculator

I am the product of a high school math teacher (mom) and an engineer (dad).  But somehow, the genetic predisposition to number crunching that should have been mine, wasn't.  I'm a word girl.

I prefer Scrabble to Sudoku.  
Spelling to Subtracting.  
Letters to Lineal Equations.  

But I do have to admit that geometry comes in pretty handy in landscaping.  So this one's for you, Mom and Dad!

Mulch Calculator
1 yard of mulch covers
150 square feet
2 inches deep

Measure the square footage of your beds (length x width).
Divide that number by 150.
That's how much mulch you need in yards.

For example:
RuthAnn has a 50x25 foot landscaping bed 
that she needs to cover in mulch.  
How much mulch should RuthAnn order?

1,250/150 = 8.3
So she would order 8-8.5 yards of mulch.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rambo in the Garden

I realize that the dichotomy between my last post, The Gentleman in the Garden, and this one, Rambo in the Garden sets up some legitimate questions regarding my mental balance.  I'd like to say any concerns you may have for my stability will dissipate by the end of this post, but I doubt it.  Especially when I explain that I will be playing the part of Rambo.

At this point, I'm sure you're feeling empathy for my neighbors, but there's no need.  I don't tie bandannas around my forehead, nor do I own an automatic weapon.  And I'm not on America's Most Wanted (yet).  So what could a 30-something, mother-of-three possibly have in common with Rambo?  A knife.  A big, sharp, serrated knife.  Why am I carrying this knife around my yard?  Irwin hardly passes for a high-crime neighborhood.  Well, mine is technically known as a soil knife, but why dwell on details?

Alright, good idea.  We should dwell on the details.  This knife has become my go-to tool.  Some people don't leave home without their American Express, I don't leave without my soil knife.  It weeds like a dream.  The point is sharp enough to plunge through hardened soil and thick roots.  The blade is wide enough to lift small plants from the ground.  And the serrated edge is sharp enough to do some rough pruning.

Chore number #1 when I received my soil knife was to eradicate a long-established bed of creeping charlie in my yard.  What would a long-established bed of creeping charlie be doing in my yard - a professional horticulturist's yard?  Weeds love procrastinators.  Need I say more?  Anyway, the soil knife sliced and diced and practically removed it all on its own.

Chore #2: Removing rogue lilac starts.  My carefully pruned Lilac sends these up all the time as a means of letting me know it doesn't appreciate the 'manicured look'.  Not the same as weeding, as you don't actually want to kill the root of the plant you're trying to remove.  So it basically turns into an underground pruning job.  Have you ever tried to prune below grade?  It's a bit of a challenge.  Once, in a moment of desperation, I hacked at them with an axe.  But usually I just try to cut them off with the blade of my spade.  Neither the pruners, nor the axe, nor the spade were doing a very good job.  Enter the soil knife.  HEAVENLY!  Apparently no one informed the soil knife that it is difficult to slice underground.

Chore #3: Cleaning up bed edges.  Hand-edging beds is not my favorite job.  And as we all know, I do love to procrastinate.  But as I was weeding my beds with my newly beloved soil knife, I discovered that it sliced a nice new bed edge with ease.  Made quick work of the invading grass roots.  I wouldn't recommend it for large-scale bed edging, but maintaining the edge whilst weeding on my knees was a breeze.

The final reason I love this knife: its bright orange handle.   I am committed to not losing this tool, and a fluorescent handle is a good start.  I don't want to moon over any more lost loves in my garden....

Cautionary note:
this knife (purchased from A.M. Leonard) is S-H-A-R-P!  I have very nearly removed a digit, and I highly recommend a good pair of leather gloves and a healthy dose of respect for the blade.
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