Jeanne Grunert is a freelance writer, blogger and book author from south central Virginia. Her books include "Plan and Build a Raised Bed Vegetable Garden" and many others, available on Amazon and wherever fine books are sold. Learn more about Jeanne, her books and her garden at www.homegardenjoy.com
 

 

When Plants Surprise You: Microclimates
by Jeanne Grunert - posted 05/20/16

Last night, I toured the gardens of a local artist, a friend who is also in my Master Gardener group. As another gardener and I marveled at her ingenious solution for keeping deer out of her vegetable garden (fences, very tall fences, and electric fences) and the sunlight dappling the water in her pond, a smudge of purple glowing under the canopy of mature dogwoods and other deciduous trees caught our eye. Speculation ran rampant: what was this tall purple plant? It wasn't until we drew closer that we realized it was the humble foxglove...but blooming in perfect dense shade.

 

Now I had always thought foxglove a sun-loving perennial, but I know from experience that it can tolerate some shade. My own foxglove grow on a slope under the cool shade of the peony bushes. In the spring, I can see their white, lavender, pink and dark purple flowers among the glossy green peony leaves, and the shade keeps them from getting scorched in the hot Virginia summers. The foxglove I've planted along the garden path never fare quite as well; they lack the same shade.

 

I realize what I was looking at in my friend's garden was a wonderful microclimate that she used to great advantage. Her home is situated on the edge of a small deciduous tract of land in a housing development, with a thickly sloped gorge behind the house that probably hid a little stream. Flanking her home were beautiful, stately mature dogwoods and other deciduous trees that provided cooling shade during Virginia's hot summers for the lawn and home. Under their canopy, a small microclimate had developed, a cool moist region that beckoned ferns, hellebores and foxglove into its lush green embrace.

 

Microclimates are small pockets in your garden where the rules about the prevailing climate don't really apply. In my friend's garden, the shade and moisture under the trees created a cool, shady microclimate perfect for her plants. In my dad's garden in New York state, cannas against a south-facing brick wall, and he never once dug and stored them indoors, as you're supposed to do, yet his cannas flourished year after year. Microclimate at work, you see. The sunlight heated the bricks of the house during the day, and the heat radiated off of the house and into the garden, keeping the soil just warm enough to prevent the cannas from being damaged by the cold.

 

You can't predict microclimates, but once you discover them, it's fun to explot them for all they're worth. Sudden spots of cool damp ground in my Virginia garden are rare, but I've found such a microclimate next to the stone foundation of my patio, and lily of the valley and impatiens grow at last in my garden. Impatiens may be a cliche, but I still love them, and being able to plant them at last gives me great joy.

 

You can find microclimates that are cooler or warmer in the garden, these little pockets of surprises that can shelter plants who normally can't withstand Virginia's hot, dry summers or suddenly cold, wet winters. Look for areas of your garden that just don't behave the way you'd expect them to. Places next to the house, under a tree or in a sudden dip in the ground are all prime places to investigate for microclimates.

 

I don't know if you can grow foxglove in your yard, but my friend certainly made the best of her microclimate. Lush Japanese painted ferns, nodding white hellebores and foxgloves hidden in the dark heart of the tree canopy shade beckoned us over from across the lawn. That's a little jewel of a garden, hidden away, using every resource possible to provide plants with what they need and create an imaginative landscape for people.

 

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Controlling the Eastern Tent Caterpillar
by Jeanne Grunert - posted 05/06/16

I don't know about you, but this year, the Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) gives new meaning to the word "garden pest."  In any given year, we see the telltale "tents", or white webs filled with wriggling caterpillars, among the wild cherry trees growing in the woods or lining our country lane. This year, the caterpillars swarmed out of the woods and found our orchard trees.

 

This one seems to have eaten every leaf from an entire branch of one peach tree:

 

 

 

According to the University of Kentucky's Cooperative Extension website, the Eastern tent caterpillar, like the cicada, runs in cycles, with some years (like 2016) producing a bumper crop in my little part of Virginia and a lull in other parts. I guess I'm just lucky this year. 

 

Their normal diet consists of cherry trees, but they also like apple trees and crabapple trees. If they stumble across maple, peach, or pear trees, they won't say no, as I can attest.

It's easy to spot them when they're in the telltale "bags", those white sac-like structures often perched in the crotch of a tree branch. The Malacosoma americanum moth is a small, unobtrusive brown moth. She lays her eggs in the fall or early spring on a suitable tree. When the eggs hatch into caterpillars, they huddle together and spin the web or tent that gives the insect its common name. The young emerge morning, mid afternoon and evening to feed, retreating back into the sticky web for safety when not feeding. As they eat and grow, they expand their web.

 

When they are ready to pupate, they leave the web and strike out on their own. That's what I'm seeing now; masses and swarms of caterpillars hurrying to some unknown destination. They are climbing on my garage doors, on a stack of masonry blocks we have in the driveway awaiting a dry day to complete a construction project, into the crabapple, peach, pear and apple trees. 

 

Some have already found a place to spin their cocoon. The cocoon is a yellow or whitish-yellow fuzz ball about an inch long. I've found many of these inside garden stakes piled next to my shed as well as under the rim of pots. There they await the unseen signal to emerge. Adult moths will continue the cycle.

 

The caterpillars eat the leaves off of the trees. While the trees do not die from this insult, they are stressed, and need to produce another set of leaves to replace the food factories they've lost. On fruit trees, this may mean less fruit produced as the tree puts more energy into survival than into reproduction or making fruit.

 

Now, how to get rid of them? Because much as I love all forms of nature, this peace-loving gardener declares war on an army of caterpillars seeking to eat every leaf on every tree in my fruit tree orchard. I've waited a decade for these trees to grow large enough to produce edible, salable fruit, and I'm not losing the harvest due to some marauding insects!

The best way that I have found to remove these insects isn't for the squeamish, but it's about the only sure thing. Put on a pair of rubber gloves and pull on your metaphorical big girl panties and get out there and pick them off with your hands. I drop the caterpillars into a bucket, and when the bucket is half-full, pour in water and cover it for the night. The dead caterpillars are then poured out into the woods far from where I can see them. I like to image that some lucky animals gets an all-you-can-eat banquet of drowned caterpillars, but I have no idea if that is true or not. I'm not returning to the caterpillar graveyard to check.

 

Webs can be pulled from the trees using a garden hoe or rake. Then use the tip to squish survivors against the trees. Sprays that controls the caterpillars contain carbyl or malathion, with organic B.T. spray useful. If the young are inside the tents or webs, however, sprays don't do much good. The tent does protect them.

 

The best control are natural predators such as predatory wasps, birds, and animals that eat them. Because they are a native insect, I'm not as worried about them as I am about other insects without natural predators. I do wish they would slow down, though. I had my heart set on apple pie this year, and at the rate these guys keep eating, my poor trees will be too stressed to produce much fruit.

 

Ah, well. The life of a gardener...it's never dull.

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Weeding Tips
by Jeanne Grunert - posted 04/15/16

While dandelions make a nifty tea, nobody wants to look at a sea of nodding seed puffs amidst their perennials. Weeding often takes backseat to other, more glamorous garden tasks. I love planting seeds: lettuce, radish, peas, beets, you name it. I don't mind watering or staking top-heavy plants. The weeding, however, often seems endless.

It's a thankless task, isn't it? I mean, you start, and if you're lucky, you finish in one afternoon. But then next week, the weeds come marching back...with a vengeance. 

Each season here at Seven Oaks, my Virginia farm, brings with it new weeding challenges. Today the dandelion and chickweed, in a few months, the wiregrass and artemesia. Oh joy.

If, like me, you hate weeding, here are a few tips to make weeding if not more enjoyable, at least less burdensome. 

  • Weed in the early part of the day, while the dew is still on the grass. Dew and rainfall make the ground softer and weeds easier to pull. That's especially important for clay soils where hard-packed clay resembles baked bricks.
  • Wear gloves. You may be nicely weeding along and suddenly encounter brambles or another thorny plant. Worse still, your may brush against an angry wolf spider or other insect who thinks your hand is about to ambush him. Gloves protect your manicure and your flesh from both flora and fauna out to get you
  • Pull the easiest weeds first. Go for the big, ugly sons of a gun first. This way you'll feel as if you're making great progress just because you were able to clear a large section of weeds.
  • Weed near your home first. Another trick is to start weeding closest to your doors or windows. It's instant gratification to look outside and see a nicely cleared patch.
  • Don't compost your weeds. Some gardeners disagree with this, but I don't believe in composting weed plants. If you compost them while they are in seed, you could sow a nice crop of weeds in with your compost the next time you add it to your garden. If the compost gets hot enough, it should kill the weed seeds, but can you really be certain it will? I don't like to risk it, so I recommend discarding weeds in the trash. Mine get tossed into a pile on the edge of the woods on my timber farm. If they seed the area, so be it, but if not, my trees get a little extra nourishment.
  • Find your favorite tools. Tools can help you dig out the tap roots of stubborn weeds such as dandelions. I like a long, narrow bladed trowel for digging out dandeliions, but there's also my lovely Cobra Head weeding tool, which I love, and a digging fork, which is a useful gadget for prising up weeds. I use a long-handled  hoe on some areas of the yard with a nice, sharp blade. I like a good wheelbarrow to collect my weedy goodies and a nice metal pail, an inheritence from my in-laws of an old laundry detergent pail (yes, powdered soap used to come in metal pails!) that works well in the garden as a weed catch-all. You've got to find your own method, which will come through trial and error as well as recommendations from experienced gardeners.
  • See to your own comfort. You may wish to invest in a fancy, padded kneeler. I use a padded weight bench - just the bench - from an old weight lifting set of my husband's that has long since been discarded. It saves my knees from the rocky ground. A nice straw hat with a wide brim shades my eyes, and thick cotton gloves protect my hands. Jeans, t-shirts, and work boots are my comfortable go-to getup for weeding. Make sure that you are comfortable, and don't forget the water bottle. Weeding is thirsty work!

 

I don't believe in chemical weed control in planted areas. Walkways and driveways are another matter, and although I don't like chemical controls, sometimes they are necessary. For the rest of my garden, it's good old sweat equity. And boy, do those weeds make me sweat. They make me battle for every inch of ground I can take in the garden. Someday, I'll learn their secret. In the meantime, I use these tips and tricks to find another patch of ground in which I can sneak more iris, daylilies, columbine or petunias.

 

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