Hey winter, take a hike! I’ve got planting to do

It’s been a long couple of weeks, waiting for old man winter to pack his bags and hit the road. Up until the last few days, mornings have been frigid with highs at or just below the freezing mark. Having learned a long time ago to temper my itch to start planting, I didn’t have to worry about any damage from our recent late frosts. In fact, I took advantage of the mild afternoons to get a lot of prep work done, in anticipation of spring finally arriving for real:

And after finishing up some hoeing and weeding the other day, I found one of the neighbor’s chickens roaming our back yard, pecking at bugs, seemingly unbothered by my presence.

Neighbors buff orpington on bug patrol in our yard

A video posted by Rudie V (@the_garden_dude) on Apr 16, 2016 at 3:24pm PDT

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The best of spring blooms: Asian magnolias

Few flowering trees are as magnificent in early spring as the Asian magnolias! Flowers emerge long before the leaves (anywhere from mid-February to late March depending on the weather), and many of them are quite fragrant. Most of the Asian species of Magnolias are large, upright shrubs or small trees, usually staying below 20’ at maturity (with the exception of Saucer magnolia, M. soulangiana, which eventually becomes a full sized shade tree). In return for their beautiful spring show, they do have some requirements to pay attention to when choosing one to plant in your yard or garden. They are very prone to flowering during an early spell of warm weather, only to be zapped by frost a few days later, though there are several hybrid cultivars that flower a little later in spring, thus generally avoiding damaging frosts. These are known as the “Little Girl” hybrids (look for cultivars with the names ‘Ann’, ‘Jane’, ‘Betty’, ‘Judy’, or ‘Susan’).  Magnolias do not like to be crowded up against other plants, performing much better in an open space with good air circulation in full sun. It’s also important to keep new plantings well watered the first year while they get established. Without further ado, here is a small sampling of Asian magnolias!

IMG_0482Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’

 

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Magnolia x ‘Jane’

 

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Magnolia denudata

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Azaleas blooming, apple tree grafting

Took this shot today at work of one of our Exbury hybrid azaleas in full bloom. In addition to those stunning blooms, the fragrance is heavenly! Exbury azaleas are hybrids of several native deciduous azaleas that grow in the shady understory of the coastal plain and Piedmont of the Southeast.

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This past weekend, one of Richmond’s local cideries hosted a workshop on how to graft apple trees. Grafting is the technique of taking the scion wood (top half) of a tree that produces the fruit you want, and attaching it to the root stock of a tree that is cold hardy/heat tolerant/disease resistant. All apple trees have to be propagated this way, since they do not breed true to type from seed.

Anyway, we were given two varieties for the scion wood (old heirlooms, Albemarle Black and Golden Pearmead) to graft onto the root stock of the dependable Red Delicious. It took me some time to get the angle of the cut just right, as the thin layer of tissue on both pieces of stem have to line up very closely, with maximum contact giving you the best chance of the graft “taking.” Two cuts on my finger and what seemed like fifteen attempts later, I had two apple seedlings with successful grafts. Both are now planted in the back yard, with a homemade fence around them to keep the deer and other critters away.

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The trees are still many years away from bearing, but that’s a small price to pay for having apples to pick within a stone’s throw of the back door!

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Even with a degree, always more to learn!

On Friday I had the opportunity to sit in on a series of lectures put on by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Virginia Extension service at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. The lectures were part of ongoing education to help licensed pesticide applicators maintain their certification. I don’t have my license just yet…I’m waiting for VDACS authorization to take the test but the information was valuable nevertheless. The topics included:

  • Pesticide laws and regulatory updates
  • Pesticides and storm water runoff
  • Managing and preventing the spread of boxwood blight
  • Protecting our pollinators
  • Safe and Effective pesticide applications
  • Preventing fungicide resistance

I wanted to share some of my notes from these lectures, as the information can be just as helpful and applicable to homeowners who use pesticides, not just landscapers/lawn care businesses.


Pesticide Laws and Regulatory Updates

  • Pesticide Collection Program
    • Residents and businesses bring their unwanted pesticides to a central collection site where the pesticide is properly disposed of
    • Each year, the collection sites move around the different regions of the state; this year, collection is taking place in the northwestern counties of Virginia along the Valley up towards Winchester.
  • Pesticide Container Recycling
    • Similar to the collection program, but for disposing/recycling of pesticide containers that have already been used up and the container rinsed out properly
    • List of participating localities can be found here
  • *NEW* this year: pesticide label change to include a “bee advisory”
    • Prohibits use of pesticides when pollinators are present
    • Highlights importance of avoiding pesticide drift, either by wind or runoff

Pesticides and Storm Water Runoff

  • Always follow label directions for use and storage
  • Ensure that any excess pesticide residue soaks into the soil rather than running off down paved surfaces into sewer drains, drainage ditches, etc.
  • Use the least toxic solution when possible
  • Time applications to avoid rain
  • Triple rinse containers after using up the pesticide; make use of VDACS disposal/recycling program

Protecting Our Pollinators

  • Colony Collapse Disorder comprised of multiple factors; no single cause identified
    • Varcoa mite (parasite)
    • Chemical residue/pesticides
    • Bee pathogens/disease
    • Other colony stressors
  • Can’t focus on just honeybees; plenty of native bees and other pollinators need our help as well
    • Beetles
      • Very effective pollinators thanks to their “messy” habit of collecting/carrying pollen
      • Attracted to large, white, fragrant blooms like Southern Magnolia, Gardenia, etc.
    • Native bees
      • Often do a better job of pollinating crops than the imported honeybee, upwards of $10 billion worth of crops
      • Bumble bees
        • Social, ground nesters
        • Very valuable in greenhouse/hoop house agricultural pollination
        • 45 to 60 workers can cover 5000 square feet
      • Blueberry bees
        • Very efficient pollinators
        • One female can pollinate 50,000 blooms resulting in around 6000 blueberries
        • Only active when blueberry bushes are in bloom
      • Leafcutter/Orchard mason bee
        • Used in many fruit orchards (almonds, cherries, peaches, etc.)
        • Mason bee uses mud to line nest, leafcutter cuts pieces of leaves (hence the name) to line nests
    • How to help bees
      • Follow the pesticide label! Spray in the morning or late evening when bees are least active
      • Provide a water source, and leave a clearing of dirt or mud
      • Install a “bee house” (http://www.pollenbeenest.com)

Boxwood Blight

  • Brown dots on leaves, can quickly defoliate large chunks of a plant
  • Spreads very easily via wind, going plant to plant with unsterilized shears/pruners, and even just casual contact with plants
  • Good drainage and air circulation critical to boxwood health
  • English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) most susceptible to blight
  • Asian species (Buxus microphylla and Buxus sinica var. insularis) most resistant, particularly ‘Green Beauty’ cultivar

Safe and Effective Pesticide Applications

  • Pay attention to the signal words:
    • “Caution” – lowest level of danger/toxicity
    • “Warning” – moderate level of danger/toxicity
    • “Danger”/Poison – highest level of danger/toxicity
  • PPE = Personal Protective Equipment
    • Long sleeve shirt/pants with sox
    • Chemical resistant gloves and boots/shoes
    • Coveralls/apron/respirator for pesticides with “warning” and “danger” signal words
  • Handling spills
    • The three “C”s
      • Control – shut off the source of the spill
      • Contain – prevent the spilled substance from spreading
      • Clean Up – remove the spilled substance
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Do we really need another butterfly bush?

Every so often (and particularly now that I’m working in this industry), I like to check the websites of the major plant breeders/nurseries like Monrovia and Proven Winners, to see what new plants are on the way for the next year. And to be sure, there are some really neat new plants in development, such as Lemony Lace™ Elderberry and Soft Caress™ Mahonia. A lot of new plant introductions usually are an improvement upon older varieties, but, if we’re honest, there are also a lot of “new” plant varieties that (for example) are only different in that they have blooms that are a slightly darker or lighter shade of purple than others; it sometimes seems to be less about improving the plant’s characteristics than about making an extra few dollars by simply adding to the number of varities for sale. A prime example of this, in my view, is Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.). I counted at least 15 varities just from Proven Winners. And with the exception of the Blue Chip™ series (dwarf types that are sterile and won’t sprout up everywhere), most of these Buddleia differ only in flower color and size, and even then, not by much. And yet breeders continue cranking out more and more of these particular shrubs year after year. It’s the same story with Barberry (Berberis thunbergii). There are multiple cultivars of both the purple and gold types, with 23 cultivars offered by Monrovia, again, many of which only differ ever so slightly.

Part of my beef with creating so many cultivars of Barberry and Butterfly bush is that they (with the exception of the Blue Chip series) have a history of being invasive and popping up in the wild from wind-blown seeds. And because neither species is native to the United States, their invasive nature means they tend to out-compete and suppress native plants that wildlife depend on for food and shelter. We should be promoting our native species, which provide far more benefit to wildlife, are much more well behaved, and require much less care and maintenance than exotic “foreigners.” There are some terrific native plants that I almost never see in nurseries and garden centers, such as Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Cyrilla racemiflora, Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana), Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Alabama Snow-Wreath (Neviusia alabamensis), and Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), just to name a few. Of course, nursuries and garden centers will only sell what customers are asking for, so I’d encourage folks to find out what’s native in your area (a plant native to the southeast may not be native to the mid-west or northeast) by checking with your state native plant society or using FindNativePlants.com and if you see a native plant you like, ask your local garden center or nursery to carry it.

As they say, “diversity is the spice of life!” The big growers and breeders ought to “branch” out a little! (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

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February: It’s “Sow” Time for Garden Planning

February is just about upon us, and it’s that time again to start pouring through the seed catalogs and planning this year’s garden. And every year there’s more and more and more to “pick” from (sorry, couldn’t resist!), as breeders develop varieties with increased disease and heat/cold tolerance, dwarf sizes for smaller spaces, and higher yields. For example, between Baker Creek Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, I count no less than 35 varieties of okra! And that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the choices of tomatoes! So how does one go about narrowing down the list of “wants”?  Does disease resistance take highest priority for you? Do you order what looks cool or interesting? Or perhaps you pin the catalog to the wall and throw darts and pick varieties that way?

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In any case, I put together a simple spreadsheet to keep inventory of what I have on hand, how much of each seed packet is left over from last season, and the expiration date for each seed packet (as a general rule, seed germination rates decline rapidly after 2 to 4 years). I also have notes about how each variety performed, which will guide my decisions about what to plant this year. And along those lines, I tend NOT to plant the mainstream varieties that you find at Home Depot, Lowes, Southern States, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with them, but most of those are hybrids, and while hybrids do usually offer better disease resistance and heat/drought tolerance, I like the idea of planting open-pollinated heirloom varieties that have been passed down for decades, as well as being able to save seeds from the last of the year’s crop, and use those seeds to plant next year’s garden. And that’s something you can’t do with hybrids, because you likely will not get the same variety as what you originally planted. Plus, heirlooms just look cooler! Who wouldn’t want to try tomatoes like this?

But I digress. I’ll be planting much the same as I did last year: kale & lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cukes, watermelon, and okra, but adding green beans, peas, and winter squash this time around. And when to plant which crops? Click the link below to view a schedule I put together that should make it easier to figure that out (the chart info should apply to much of the Mid-Atlantic region and the southeast).

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0ZwW6bbR3MTUHpua0xHVW9oUXM/view?usp=sharing

As you’d expect, it depends on the weather. Some years, winter is reluctant to leave and you may have to delay planting out your seedlings. Other years, you can safely get them in earlier than usual. I’m hoping this year will be the latter. Nothing beats fresh, organic produce just outside your back door!

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Plants for soggy soil

Given the absurd amount of rain we’ve received over the past month or so, it dawned on me that I ought to do a post about some plants that thrive in wet, even boggy, soil. A lot of folks have at least one spot in the yard or garden that doesn’t drain well. Rather than going crazy and spending a lot of time, energy, and money trying to MAKE that spot drain better, you could stop by the nursery and pick out any number of shrubs and small trees that don’t mind having wet feet.

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