Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

Posts by Eric Liskey

Smokebush (Cotinus) is one of the great all-time garden plants, IMO. Easy to grow, hardy (to Zone 4), and gorgeous. The plume-like blooms look great from spring, when they emerge, through much of summer. And the foliage is dynamite. This is purple smokebush (Monrovia’s Royal Purple), which as you can see, has great dark foliage. There’s a chartreuse version as well — Golden Spirit — in addition to more conventional green types.

Other plants come in these light/dark pairs too, which I love to combine for foliage contrast. Garden Debut’s Burgundy Hearts and Rising Sun redbuds, or Spring Meadow’s Black Lace and Sutherland Gold elderberries (Sambucus), are two examples.

One of the things that brings on bouts of romanticism in gardeners is the wisteria-draped pergola. This is mine. It took a number of years to get this plant trained up and over. But here it is this year, with mature (that is, big) bloom. And it is breathtaking, worth the wait. Northern gardeners are often frustrated because of the tenderness of wisteria buds in winter, often leaving them with all plant, no bloom in spring. The tag says it’s hardy, but the blooms don’t come, which after all is the reason why you planted it. I’m in Zone 5, and this is a picture of Blue Moon, one of the hardiest and best. Lavender Falls is another good one. It is a reblooming wisteria, which means even if you get some winter damage, you’re likely to get some bloom later in the season.

Snow in May is not unprecedented, so the meteorologists tell us. But it is unusual. And pretty. And aggravating. I would normally be putting my first warm season veggies and annuals in the ground about now. I’ll be delaying that a week or two, obviously! The silver lining is that trees haven’t leafed out yet, for the most part. So the damage is going to be little to none. So we can just sit back and enjoy it. I guess.

I thought I’d share this shot of my front walkway. Flowers are sure happy things, aren’t they? I can’t believe it’s May tomorrow. It’s one of the latest springs I can recall, so this has been a long time coming!

This bed is a testament to the value of maturity. A few years ago I planted a signficant number of bulbs and phlox in this space, and this year, it’s more spectacular than ever. The reason is the sheer volume of bloom. Each year, the daffs and grape hyacinth and phlox just get bigger and better. A nice garden can happen in a season. A spectacular one takes time.

When these blooms fall to the ground, put down your weed preventer.

This is the lone forsythia bush in my yard. Of course, the bright yellow blooms are an awesome, welcome sight in spring for gardeners hungry to get their hands dirty. But I have it there for another reason: it’s a “phenological indicator”. That’s what the geeks say, instead of just calling it a biological clock. It’s long been understood that plants and animals react in predictable ways to warmth, and you can use that fact to help time various gardening activities. In this case, you can use forsythia to time your weed preventer applications for lawns. Crabgrass seeds germinate just about the time forsythia blooms drop from the plant. And you need the weed preventer on the ground before the seeds begin to grow. Many other garden pests can be timed this way too. Check with your local cooperative extension office or master gardener program. They often can tell you when pests typically are active. Just take a look around your garden at those times, and make note of what’s in bloom. Chances are, that will serve as a good guide to when you should apply a controls.
The real reason this is so helpful is that you rarely see pests until it’s too late to control them (or control them easily). Once a borer is inside your cucumber vine, it’s too late. Once weed seeds have germinated, weed preventers are ineffective. So timing is everything.

One of the worst garden pests out there, IMO, is the Japanese beetle. And it’s Japanese beetle season again (sigh). You West Coasters can count yourselves lucky. All of us east of the Plains, buckle up.

In the immature stage, we know them as grubs, the kind that attack your lawn. It’s actually pretty easy to keep them out of your turf. The problem is that the adult beetles are very good fliers, and can travel miles. And they have a seemingly supernatural ability to find the foods they love. So regardless of what you do to prevent them in your own yard, you’ll still have to deal with the hordes that zoom in from surrounding areas.

Contech Japanese beetle trap

There are two things you can do: spray the plants they favor (beans, linden trees, wisteria, hibiscus, and rose, to name a few on a very long list); and use beetle traps. Actually there’s a third thing: many recommend knocking the beetles by hand into a bucket of soapy water. Conceding that the soapy water DOES work on the few dozen or hundred that you might actually succeed in capturing, that still leaves the other 4,568,342,721 to deal with. If you have a mild infestation, you’re lucky, and soapy water might be a viable solution. If you have a bad infestation, well, you know what I’m talkin’ about. Call out the bombers. Or move to another state.

What I’ve started doing is using traps. I know of the research that says they draw in more than they actually catch. But in my case, I’m not so sure. I know this much: when I DON’T use a trap, the beetles do a number on my garden. When I DO use a trap, there’s still a goodly amount of damage, but I think it’s a little less. It certainly isn’t any worse. Meanwhile, as I see it, every beetle in that trap is one less that’s out eating my green beans, and laying eggs for next year’s hatch.

I have used several different traps. They all work. In fact, you would not believe how they pull in beetles! They use a pheromone that gets the beetles in the mood, if you know what I mean. So that would explain why they’re so effective.

It’s what happens after that that sets the traps apart. You see, these things can catch a LOT of beetles. So the capacity of the trap becomes a pretty big deal. But another issue is how easily the trap empties (because they do fill up). And yet another issue is ventilation and drainage holes. Guess what happens when it rains and you get a pile of dead beetles fermenting in warm water of the bottom of a bag? Yeah, it’s as repulsive as it sounds. You better have a cast iron stomach if you want to clean that out without wretching. So…..that’s a problem.

All things considered, the trap I like best is a Contech model. The plastic basket unscrews easily, is vented and drains (not perfectly, but well enough), and it’s heavy enough that it doesn’t flap around in the breeze (which is another thing I don’t like about some other brands). The big problem is its capacity. Often, I come home to an overflowing trap. The other day, I decided to keep emptying it, all day long, to see how many beetles it could capture. And the total was (drumroll, please): 3.4 pounds. Yes, seriously, I weighed it. If the trap could hold a gallon of beetles, it would be the perfect unit. Unfortunately, it only holds about a quart. You can’t have it all, I guess.

3.4 pounds of Japanese beetles -- One day's haul

This all leads to a problem I never considered until I started trapping beetles. What do you do with them all? First you have to kill them. If you don’t, they eventually escape from whatever you hold them in. Usually, a few minutes on hot pavement does the trick if they’re trapped in a bag. Unfortunately, once they’re dead, they stink. Bad. So I have started keeping them in plastic bags on the ground outside our garage (so they don’t smell it up), then I throw them away on trash day. The wife wasn’t real happy about bags of beetles sitting around. She reminded me that our neighbors are trying to sell their house, and bags of dead beetles in the yard next door might be an impediment. Could be she has a point.

But the dilemma remains: what the heck do you do with 20 pounds (a weeks harvest, give or take) of Japanese beetle carcasses? There’s no easy answer.

All I can say is, thank goodness beetle season only lasts a few weeks!

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