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.
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.
For most gardeners throughout Virginia, now is the time to start sowing lettuce. If you are new to growing lettuce in the home garden, then let me introduce you to some fantastic varieties, colors, textures and leaf shapes you may never have seen before.
Stores usually stock Romaine, Iceberg, and maybe, if you're very lucky, red leaf or a frilly green leaf variety. Salad blends and mixes contain many fun greens, but they're expensive. A package of lettuce seeds can cost anywhere from .25 cents to $1.99, which is probably what you're paying for a head of lettuce anyway. Sow that package of seeds and reap anywhere from a handful to dozens of heads of lettuce!
To grow lettuce, you'll need full sunlight. That means six or more hours of bright, direct sunlight each day. Lettuce, like most garden vegetables, likes a rich, well-drained soil. Keep the seeds moist after sowing them in the garden and don't plant them deeply. Just sprinkle a tiny amount of soil over the seeds. The seeds germinate in about 10 days, and depending on the variety you planted, you'll be able to start cutting heads of lettuce or leaves in a few weeks.
Try these heirloom varieties for some amazing tastes, colors and textures in the garden. Seeds can be found in local stores or at many online vendors.
"Oak Leaf" varieties, which have frilly, oak-shaped leaves and a mild, slightly bitter flavor.
"Rouge d'Hiver", an heirloom red leaf variety
"Amish Deer Tongue", an heirloom variety with rounded, mild tasting leaves.
"Brune d'Hiver", a French heirloom lettuce first introduced in 1855 with light green, pink to red tipped leaves.
"Garden Rose", a red Romaine type.
Learn more about planting lettuce and extending the lettuce harvest on my blog, Home Garden Joy.