Saturday, August 27, 2011

Humbug in paradise

The end of summer is in sight. The days are getting much shorter. The veggies are all dried up and bug eaten.  The annuals are blooming their darn fool heads off.  The perennials are sulking--dried flower pods everywhere.  Gardening has been intense this summer.

With the weather so fine, and the mosquitos so nonexistent, and every day more perfect than the one before, I should be grateful beyond measure. And, I am, I am!

Yet, dare I say it?  I'm ready for summer to be over.  Specifically, I'm ready to see the last 2 foot long zuke, ready to put away the hose and trimmer and turn my mind to something else.  It's heresy, especially after all the winter moaning and whining I did while waiting for spring, but, basta!  Enough!

Let the frost come.  Let the leaves commence to fall.  Let mold eat up the zucchinis.  Let the honey bees nesting in the compost huddle tight in the cold and stop flying about so alarmingly.  Let the tools and gloves stay in their nooks in the shed. Even paradise needs a little change-up.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Japanese beetle control in a Wisconsin home garden, part 1

(Part II is here)
Six summers years ago, Japanese beetles first made their appearance in my Madison WI garden.  Not knowing any better, I went and bought traps.  Literally tens of thousands of beetles were caught. The traps filled up so fast that by midday, some traps were so overflowing that there was no room for the beetles still being attracted to drop through the bottleneck of the bag and be caught, so that in the top of each bag, they swarmed over each other in seething masses trying to get to the trap-attractant.

A garden helper, A.H., was working on the flight path to one of the more popular traps, and he had to move his work station because unholy numbers of beetles kept flying straight into him, ten or a dozen strikes a minute by midday.   Other than colony-dwelling insects, such as ants or bees, I had never seen so many insects in one place at one time to that date. Their buzzing around the traps sounded like a bee-hive--a strong bee-hive of several supers.

Fortunately, I conceived of the idea of flaming the dead bugs before burying them. I have since read that their bodies contain eggs ready-to-go, so that burying dead beetles from traps simply places the eggs where they want to be--underground--despite the death of the beetle carrying the eggs.

The next year was a little better. I had read more about traps in the meanwhile, enough to know that the traps should be placed as far away from the garden as possible rather than in the garden itself, since only about 70-80% of all beetles attracted wind up in the traps.

This improved siting helped somewhat, yet, "better" is a relative term, and there were still no rose buds or hollyhocks that year from early July through mid-August, not a one.  Instead, there were swarms of beetles, sometimes in a mass as big as a grape, sometimes in a mass as big as a golf ball, around each unfortunate bud. It was enough to make me want to quit gardening.

BLENDERIZING THE BEETLES--short term vs. long term effects
One step taken was to buy a cheap blender and knock masses of beetles into it in the cool of the morning.  Once blended (ICK and DOUBLE ICK--it was a long time before I could bring myself to kill living things in a blender--even rose-eating Japanese beetles) I poured the beetle-juice all around. Also, the bags of dead beetles from the traps were lain under the most susceptible plants (mainly guaras). I believe the dead-beetle smell (they stank to high heaven) had a short-term effect because it helped somewhat to repel their friends from landing on those plants.  (By "somewhat" I mean that the day's guara blooms lasted until maybe 1 PM before the last was eaten up, rather than being gone by 11 AM.)

In retrospect, I believe the blenderizing had more of a long-term effect than a short-term one.  The short-term effect was to repel living beetles by the smell of their dead companions, and the effect was mild, at best. However,  the long-term effect was to speed up establishment in the soil of any diseases the beetles might be carrying.  For example, Milky Spore disease is a soil-borne disease which affects JB grubs, establishing chronic conditions which help keep JB numbers in check.  Milky Spore eventually becomes established in the soil as JB's move into an area. I believe (or hope, anyway!) that the blenderizing process, which spread JB bits into the soil faster than nature would have, sped up the establishment of any diseases the JB's might have been carrying, such as Milky Spore.

The next year, I grubbed up the most susceptible plants and either got rid of them or transplanted them into the shade.  Thus, the guaras were all pulled out and the rhubarb (a great beetle favorite) was moved into the shade of a tree.  (High shade, but shade nonetheless).  It has been my observation that beetles strongly prefer plants in full sun, passing over those planted in shade.

Several more years went by in this manner, with incremental improvements: fewer susceptible plants, better siting of plants and better siting of traps. In fact, eventually, I got rid of the traps altogether. The biggest improvement, however, came from there simply being fewer beetles. You see, I believe we were on the leading edge of an invasion into new territory. With no natural predators and no diseases, the numbers exploded. After having been established a few years, the diseases and predators caught up to the bugs, and nature has commenced to rebalance their numbers. (I have since attended a lecture by Phil Pelliterri--the entomologist who runs the Insect Diagnostic lab at UW-Madison--who agreed that this theory may be likely.)  However, although the plauge-like numbers went down, JB's are still present in sufficient numbers to threaten new plantings, especially of young trees.

All of which brings us to this 2014 post (Japanese Beetle control, part II) which discusses what additional steps have been taken, what nifty new tricks have been learned, and what has happened since these words were written in 2011.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Uncontrolled experiments--the fish pond

The fish pond was quite cloudy, and getting smelly.  To solve the problem, here's what happened:
  • Half the water got pumped out. (It was used it to water the nearby plants) 
  • That water was replaced with new water treated with a chemical said to turn tap water fish-friendly
  • Two little "bale-ettes" of barley straw (said to clear pond water) were sunk below the pond surface.
  • A heaping teaspoon of beneficial bacteria (bought at a pond store) was thrown into the filter
  • The pond was "shocked" by pouring in ten different places, ten (total) capfuls of a liquid from a bottle claiming to be pond clarifier (motto: "fish love it")
  • The pump was reconfigured to allow more water to run through the UV (algae-killing) light on one portion of the pump
  • Water plants were added, the thinking being that these would remove nutrients from the water for their own growth purposes. Added were: 2 plants of golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia "Aurea") and three plants of water buttercup (I think this one is Ranunculus flabellaris).  (Truthfully, these were both chosen on the grounds of being the cheapest water plants in the water-plant house at Flower Factory, rather than because I knew anything about their special fitness for my purposes.)

Result? Clear water, sure enough, although somewhat green-or golden-colored from--I'm guessing--the barley straw, as all the other additives were clear.

The problem? Which of these step(s) caused the improvement?

Must all of these steps be repeated when the pond becomes cloudy again? This would be unfortunate, given that cloudiness occurs pretty much every time it rains--seems the spore for algae are washed out of the air to multiply like mad in the pond.  So, I'm left to guess and intuit which of these treatments had the most power.

The combined treatments were effective, yes.  Yet this is not a very scientific method of proceeding, is it?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summertime, crazytime, great helpers

There is hardly a moment to sit and write--the garden is in its full flood now. A long-term plan has come to fruition, finally--a shade garden, long planned, is being constructed and planted.The garden-helper working on this project, D.,is gifted for this work. He learned stone-laying right away and he had taught himself to cut stone cleanly with a hammer and chisel, thus far outstripping my stone-laying skills, despite the relative times we have been doing it: me=25 year, D.=8 weeks. As I said, gifted. He also does a neat-handed job of planting the beds he's constructed. Quick, willing, hard-working. I'm lucky, I know.

Mostly, though, the daily life of the garden involves weeding, cleaning the fountain, feeding the fish, weeding, and--since the weather has taken a settled turn for hot and sunny--watering.  And did I mention? Weeding. Also, planting. There are two garden helpers who do this work--R. and N.  Both are willing, thorough, neat-handed.  Lucky, again, that's me.

(My camera is broken, but one of these days, I'll get it fixed or get a new one, and then these posts will have some photos...)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A post in which Russell Page goes to Keukenhof, and by which Newton is elevated above his station

Today, a grab-bag post, which all ties together at the end

Part 1: Russell Page
Russell Page was one of those odd Englishmen, a "serious amateur." He accepted garden design commissions from royalty and plebes, and designed well-thought-of gardens in a mass-planting sort of way. In his famous book "The Education of a Gardener," he talks about what his own garden would look like, if he ever had one.  To my recollection, one fantasy feature would be apple trees, underplanted with spring bulbs.  Whether I correctly remember this passage or no, this image has stuck with me through all the twenty or more years since I read the book.

Part 2: Keukenhof Gardens
Keukenhof gardens in Holland is a real Dutch phenomena--a calculated mix of gardening prowess and serious commercialism. Each serious bulb grower in the land gets a little plot to show off the best of their best.  These little plots are all crammed together in the remains of a once-elegant parkland, along with rented swans and trays of rollmops.  The sound-track is an ever-running steam calliope by the main gate, the smell-track is flowers mingled with innumerable tiny pancakes frying, the population is busloads and trainloads of tourists.  Yet rising, nay, soaring above these potentially fatal annoyances, Keukenhof Gardens stand as a mecca for bulb lovers--millions upon millions of bulbs in a perfection unearthly to behold

One of the unifying features of the garden, a feature which draws together its disparate little plots, is an unbelievable number of grape hyacinths planted  into a "river" between the trees of an allée which runs lengthwise down one axis of the garden--not in the actual allée itself, but at the tail end of it, where it runs off into a sort of naturalistic woods.  The deep purple river twisting through the dappled shade is one of the most enchanting things I ever saw.

Part 3: Newton, the worthless apple tree
In my garden stands an old, gnarled, worthless apple tree.  Its main use in life has not been to provide apples, no, for these, though plentiful, are mealy and bruise easily.  Rather, its purpose has been to irk--to pelt the unwary passing below with apples in all stages, from tiny springtime green to autumnal wasp-infested brown--we call the tree "Newton" for this reason. Worse yet, Newton harbors mosquitoes, which congregate in unholy numbers under his broad, moist, shady canopy. Fortunately for Newton's continued existence, he is just the sort of decayed tree beloved of chickadees and other small cavity-dwelling birds, thus utterly refuting all arguments of the gardener eying him with malice, saw in hand.  Yet, despite his sacrosanct nature, his no-go domination has become unbearable.

Last fall, determination hardened.  I conceived the idea of cutting out those of his sound branches the old fellow could spare, while preserving nearly all of his decayed, yet nest-bearing limbs.  The idea was to lighten up the canopy, allow sun and wind through to dispel the mosquitoes and permit creation of a planting bed.

(As an aside, never were there more confused workers than the tree guys called in to do the work. By training and inclination, they wanted to cut out the decayed wood and save the sound limbs. However, being the one with the checkbook, and being on hand to point and insist, it got done the way I thought it ought--sound limbs out, rotten branches kept!)

Part 4: Newton (conceptually, at least) is elevated far above his station
Inspired by Page, the vision was to plant spring bulbs in the newly-made bed around Newton's trunk. Yet, a bunch of random bulbs under so large a hulk as Newton? An absurd spectacle! Page undoubtedly had in mind charming young trees, in size-proportion to their underplantings, yet tulips the size of bushes would be needed to compete with Newton. Then it came to me: not just clumps of bulbs, but how about a little grape hyacinth river of my very own, to wind between them?

So, profiting from our late, beautiful autumn last year, and armed with boxes and bags of half-off bulbs from the big-box store, I planted a river and some clumps while lofty thoughts of Page and Keukenhoff danced in my head. The bobcat operator and his helpers, working in a different part of the garden, worked hard to suppress their mirth at the spectacle of me, an ungainly middle-aged spider, crawling under an backward-pruned tree, raising an army of popsicle sticks by which to mark the location of this future cut-rate masterpiece.

And do you know? As absurd as the whole thing really was--this melding of worthless apple tree and fine gardening and sale-price bulbs--it worked!  See for yourself...


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Wall 'o waters

A couple of weeks ago, I set up 18 wall o'waters.  With this cool weather we've been having, the wall o'waters  have had a hard time collecting enough sunlight to really warm the soil inside of them, but it finally seemed warm enough a couple of days ago to get the tomato, eggplant and pepper starts out into the garden.  Of course, these tiny little starts are nothing like the giant starts now for sale at the garden center, but they are the varieties I prefer, whereas those starts are someone else's preference.

The idea behind the wall o'waters is that the tubes of water which make up the sides provide a convenient form of thermal mass--the water holds heat collected from the sunlight during the day, and releases it at night, smoothing out the temperature differentials and preventing a frost from killing their little tropical inhabitants.  The water stays in the tubes--it never comes out and is not for the purpose of watering.

They certainly look impressive set up in the garden, don't they?

The tiny starts inside look less impressive, but actually, will catch up and do better than a larger transplant would--these small transplants are less likely to be set back.

There are 6 each of peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.  The tiny charmer above is an eggplant just showing its first set of true leaves.  The wall o'waters have a little bamboo rod in each to stop them from collapsing--a trick dictated by bitter experience with squished and broken starts. 


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An unexpected doorstep garden

An unexpected doorstep garden

Last fall, I potted up a whole bunch of sale bulbs into old plastic pots I had hanging around.
The bulbs were layered--larger bulbs below, smaller bulbs above--in ordinary garden soil.  It was my intention to hold the pots in the root cellar (40 degrees average temperature) for a few weeks, then move the pots to the unheated shed, where they could freeze for a few weeks.  The further plan was to bring the pots into the house, one pot a week, so as to enjoy a never-ending succession of spring bulbs.

What actually happened was that the bulbs immediately began sprouting, making me afraid to take the pots to the shed.  The fear was all the tender new growth would immediately freeze, causing the entire experiment to fail.  Instead, I just left the pots in the root cellar, watering VERY infrequently in an attempt to get the damn things to STOP GROWING before I was ready for them to do so.

My readiness, however, was not the issue--not at all.  The issue was the BULBS' readiness, and they just kept growing, in the cold, in the dark, until they were like horrible underground mushrooms, tall, spindly, white spears falling over the pot.  It was like a horror movie--the things that lived in the basement.

Not zombies any more...
When the weather consistently got above freezing in the daytime--about late March this year, I brought the pots of horrible white creepy-crawly growth outside and lined them up on my doorstep. I wasn't expecting much from these bulb zombies, but it was too muddy to take the mess to the compost, and I figured maybe, just maybe, there would be a few blooms.

Well---what can I say?  The darn things greened up and bloomed madly, now there's a whole spring garden out on the stoop--a cheerful welcome to anyone coming to the front door.  Perhaps next year's crop can be planted in better-looking pots, now that the bulbs have shown how they want to be grown, and for what purpose--an early spring doorstep garden, rather than a succession of indoor bulbs.

Oh, and by the way--the one pot I did bring into the house also greened up, but the light in the house was not strong enough in mid winter.  The bulbs did bloom, but they made a sickly-looking falling-down mess.  So, doorstep bulbs it will be from now on.

You can see how far ahead the doorstep garden is over the bulbs planted in the ground
PS: the elapsed time of planting and hauling around was maybe two hours total, the expense negligible--I had the pots, the soil was dug from the garden, and the bulbs were on half price sale in at the end of October.  Pretty good return, I'd say.

PPS:  The bulbs will be truly worn out from this, and must be composted.  The soil will be returned to the same bed it came from, and mixed thoroughly with amendments (leaf mulch, compost) to renew it after its winter-long sojourn in plastic pots.  And, despite the fact that it was heavy and seemed to be a lot of soil when it was dug, the fact is, compared to a whole garden bed, this is a very little soil, really.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Disappointment in a big box

Yesterday at Costco, I saw a huge display of plants which will never thrive in our soil--blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons.  These plants require acid soils, yet the soils in this part of the state are neutral to sweet.  Once sold to the unsuspecting and put into the ground, these many plants will stunt and die.  Similarly for sale were tree roses, box bushes of a non-hardy variety as well as many other plants which will never survive a Wisconsin winter.

I wanted to station myself at the display and warn all comers, or talk to the manager and tell him or her to send all these plants on to a region south and east of here--somewhere with a milder climate and an acid soil.  But, however, I did nothing--the ignorance of plant requirements which sends a semi-load of plants to the absolutely wrong region is unlikely to be cured by little old me registering a complaint to a store manager. After all, the plants were well-grown, beautifully packaged and well-priced--sure to sell.  Too bad that not a one of them will thrive, and most will be dead by this time next year.  What a pity, what a waste--disappointment guaranteed.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nature hits the pause button

For each 10 degrees (C) of temperature, the biological activity doubles, and the opposite is true too--when it's cold, nothing grows, despite longer days and plenty of sunshine.  It has been so cool (below freezing every night) that the day lilies, those hardy beasts, have barely poked their heads up, the new apple trees carefully wrapped up in the root cellar are starting to worry anxiously about getting their roots into the ground before they dry up, while the potted-up bulbs overwintered and set out on the stoop have simply stopped growing, although they were doing fine in the protected environment of the shed.

This being the upper tier of states in the midwest, with no moderating body of water nearby, the prevailing weather will veer around one of these days, and the wind will blow off the gulf of Mexico, rather than down off the Canadian shield as it is now doing.  Suddenly, the garden will explode--roses and late tulips blooming together, lilacs and strawberry blossoms compressed into a concentrated riot of spring, followed shortly by the first mosquitos.  For now, though, nature has hit the pause button--the days are getting longer and longer but nothing is growing.

Monday, March 21, 2011


The first robin arrived today.  That means it's

1) time to start indoor seeds
2) time to set up the wall o'waters in the veggie garden.

Oh mercy!  I've lived through to another spring.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The tree guys, a leading indicator

The tree trimming guys were here yesterday and the day before.

The fact that they came shows they know their time for winter trimming is dwindling.  Just as sailors are said to be able to feel the loom of the land, so tree guys can evidently feel the loom of spring: rising sap and mud are coming, oak wilt will soon be on the prowl.  One swallow does not a summer make, and the tree guys don't make a spring, either.  Yet the lengthening days evidently shook them out of hibernation to finally do the trimming contracted for last fall. Not spring itself, but a harbinger of spring, perhaps. A leading indicator, as the economists say--a sign, an omen.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tipping towards the light, faintly

When little master TECH and I pulled out of the driveway at 7:15 on the way to his school this morning, we were greeted with more light than we've had for a long time.  Two feet of snow sheeting the landscape adds considerable brightness, yet even snow cannot dispel darkness.  The sun has evidently begun her long slanting climb to the zenith she will achieve in mid summer.  Every day she rises a little further north along the horizon, every day hoists herself a little higher overhead at noon and today her climb brightened a drive which seems to have been undertaken in darkness for the past two months.

With the greater light, life faintly shimmers.  A flock of mourning doves here-and-gone, shockingly fast on the wing. The crows, their daytime flocks smaller, become sporadically territorial. The buds on the silver maple swell larger every day, a wonder to me--what living mechanism can make that happen with day after day of single digit temperatures?

Yet there is still a long way to go.

No tracks disturb the snow.  The little creatures huddle together, nested tight, breathing so slow they'd look dead if you could see them. On overcast days, only the trees nail the landscape to any sense of proportion--the snowy distance would otherwise fade imperceptibly into the gray sky.  (How do folks know their own scale out on the prairies or in the deserts?  Without trees, contemplation of human insignificance must ensue: it's clear to me why shepherds are the heralds of religion.)  And of course, a sea of mud to come still separates us from walking outside to visit the garden.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The black dog

In the middle of winter, it's hard to remember that the sun will shine again, and water will run again and birds twitter around the garden. Catalogs help, but the problem seems to be lack of light--the overwintered plants, fuchsias and the like, have long outgrown the plant lights and are waving weak tendrils around the place hunting for light.

The people around here have the same problem.  I have no idea how folks cope in Scandinavia--the short winter days seem a heavier weight than the counterbalance of long summer days.  Anyhow, that contrast sounds like a formula for bipolar disorder to me, depressed all winter, manic all summer.  I think we have that here in Wisconsin, just not as pronounced, perhaps.

We are trying to lift our spirits by listening to music and getting out for walks and visiting the gym, but the slightest hint of growing green or the sound of water running would do more than 20 gym visits.  Oh Lord, let it be an early spring!