Succulents for the Garden
by Jeanne Grunert - posted 05/27/16

Succulents never appealed to me. Sure, my parents grew the ubiquitous "hens and chicks" (Sempervivum tectorum) in a little rock garden next to the garage. I remember being fascinated by the 'baby' chick plants growing around the central plant. We've tried growing various sedums in our central Virginia garden, but few seemed to like the rich, acidic soil.



Well, duh. Now that I've looked into growing succulents, I understand exactly why the poor plants hated the rich, acidic soil. Succulents come to us from dry, sandy soils for the most part. There are some native Virginia stonecrops or sedums that are considered succulents who love the forest floor, a woodland plant that thrives in the rich understory. That's the kind of stonecrop I really need for my garden.



No, those that like it hot and dry are great plants for a wide range of conditions, but not for rich, fertile soil. Many sedums, succulents and other plants that evolved from desert conditions are great little water conservation plants. They don't require much care and they actually prefer hot, sandy soil.



Succulents also do well in containers, and I've even seen them grown in arid terrariums. They make good house plants, great rock garden plants, and low-growing border plants that can tolerate the heat of being planted next to a garage, roadway or wall.



Most succulents are disease resistant. The biggest thing you have to worry about with them is over watering. They don't even like too much rain water. Growing them in pots and containers in Virginia may solve that problem by allow excess water to drain away. You can also pull the containers in under an overhand during rainy days to prevent your succulent plants from drowning.



With so much going for them, it's no wonder that succulents have grown in popularity. If you're looking for a plant that's hard to kill, try growing succulents.


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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's never dull.

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