Monday, May 23, 2005

Killing the Red Lily Beetle

I have the dreaded red lily beetle (aka scarlet lily beetle). Yesterday I saw several adult beetles living on the Fritillaria imperialis in my bulb bed, as well as on the Lillium ‘America’ in my long bed, but not (yet) on the shorter Lillium ‘Stargazer’ in the same bed about 15 feet away.

So I sprayed Lillium ‘America’ with Schultz House & Garden Insect Spray (0.02% Pyrethrin) yesterday. The product claims to work on beetles, and today I saw no beetles there, although they were still on the unsprayed F. imperalis. But I have seen reports of very limited effect from this organic pesticide, and it’s close to impossible to spray-cover all parts of this Lily plant, whose leaves are still quite curled up, especially if you want to avoid overspray.

I do not want to use far more toxic pesticides such as imidacloprid. Instead, I have a more radical plan, or experiment, in mind. That is to use fumigation (i.e., gas, within an enclosure). In general, fumigants are considered too dangerous for amateur use. But I would use either cigarette smoke or carbon dioxide to kill the beetles, and I can’t see fearing either gas (well, smoke is more like an aerosol), especially when used outside, and within an enclosure.

Basically, I could upend a container like a trash can – preferably clear – on the plants. This container would have two holes in it, one connected to a hose, the other with a flap or other one-way valve on it. Since smoke (and carbon dioxide) is heavier than air, I will pump smoke into the lower hose, with air to vent out the top until the container is full of smoke. The cigarette will be held within a pipe-like mechanism, surrounded by a glass cylinder, so I can watch the cigarette burn down as I pump air into the mechanism, through the hot cigarette, and into a narrower tube placed on the filter. (I may remove the filter; why reduce the toxins?)

Of course, I do not know if this will work – ideally, kill adults, eggs and larvae. I have read of a high-school science experiment / propaganda, where tobacco smoke is shown to kill flies, which are unharmed by a similar amount of paper smoke. Also, nicotine has long been used as an insecticidal powder, and is in the tobacco plant precisely as a systemic pesticide, as are most plant toxins. It’s just a question of dose and duration, relative to the particular susceptibility of the Lily Beetle.

Provided the beetle infestation survives the pyrethrin – which seems likely – I think I will have to head out to a hardware store, or maybe a head shop, if they still have those, soon.

Whether tobacco works or not, I may also try carbon dioxide. It’s easy to get 10 to 20 oz. tanks of pressurized liquid CO2 for use in “constant air” paint ball guns (they’re rather smaller than the standard propane tank used by plumbers).

I have not been able to find anything concerning horticultural use of tobacco smoke as an insecticidal fumigant. Does anyone have any experience with such methods, or know of any source concerning the same?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Three primula bought at Home Depot for a total of $4.00. See story below. Posted by Hello

Home Depot: Godsend or Evil?

In my opinion, Home Depot offers us a dilemma of cheap products sold with a caveat emptor attitude. Here’s some of the Good, the Bad and the Nonexistent:

The Good

I started buying primroses at Home Depot in February, keeping about 3 pots at a time in my dining room window for as long as they bloomed. At $1.49 each for 4” pots, and sometimes $0.99 for slightly older stock, I figured that at worst I was still getting flowers cheaper than the doomed ones from florists. Most of the plants had no label, but the odd pot would have a plastic marker saying “Primula acaulis Danova Mix.” Probably most or all were of this type, although that’s hard to prove with a variable seed-sown strain, and a few were more of the ‘candlestick’ type in shape. As each plant’s blooms got ratty I moved it to my cellar under lights. I put 8 plants out on April 22, most in a wooded strip above the aqueduct path that will be mostly shaded once leaf-out is largely complete at the end of May. Seven of the plants still have fairly healthy looking foliage, and 2 are still blooming, which is pretty impressive considering the plants were forced into growth and bloom well before their natural period in this climate.

The Bad

The glossy boxes of Peonies and Phlox, on sale this March, showed a color photo of what to expect, but provided essentially no information about the plants, except for estimated heights, the fact that the peonies were double and might need staking, and that the peonies and phlox were each in assorted colors (i.e., nothing on cultivar or even species). A Google search also yielded nothing on these “Growing Colors” products. But at 4 peonies for $9.96, or 8 phlox for the same price, I figured if even one of each survived and proved worth keeping, I was at least breaking even compared to buying potted growing plants. I know that peonies are best planted in fall, but some sources I checked said that planting was also acceptable in the spring as soon as the soil could be worked – rather vague, I know. (The box said to plant the peonies after the ground warms to 50 degrees F.) I planted all of both species on April 22, about an inch deep, watering them in well, and conditions have been mild and moist since then. The peony buds had elongated to 3” spears, so I left 2” above ground, so the crown and base of the buds was an inch or two deep. Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but 25 days later I haven’t seen any growth from any of the phlox or peonies. Other people I know report losing bare-root plants as often as not, but 0 for 12 is ridiculous. Also, it wouldn’t cost them anything to have some more information on varieties or ancestries on the glossy box and whether to bury all of the elongated growing points, and it wouldn’t cost them much to have something on the web from the mysterious “Glowing Colors” firm which the package lists only as a P.O. Box in Lakewood, New Jersey.

The Nonexistent

While Home Depot has a large selection of deadly pesticides and herbicides, they have not offered any of the organic pre-emergent herbicides made from corn gluten. The Home Depot employee I asked had heard about such products, and had no answer for why they didn’t carry them. So I got it at my local garden center, Windy-Lo Nursery (Natick, MA). The product seemed to work. At any rate, the lawn improved a lot where I spread it (a sunny area where annual grasses had dominated in the lawn’s newly seeded first year), although I can’t prove it wouldn’t have otherwise. Tests I’ve seen on the web indicate an 80% to 90% reduction in lawn weeds, a 10% Nitrogen component, and as one would expect for corn gluten, complete safety even for food plants. I’m no purist about being organic, but why spread deadly chemicals all over a lawn if you don’t have to? (Maybe it’s because I just don’t care all that much about lawn perfection, because I will spray poisons to get rid of poison ivy, or pests in my perennials, but I think the difference to me is that the lawn is large and exactly where my kids are playing.)


I’ll continue to shop at Home Depot for hardware, and I can’t resist checking out their plants whenever I go, but I’ll do far more of my horticultural shopping at:

Windy-Lo Nursery (the closest to me, and a lot larger than it looks from the street)

The Saturday farmers’ market on the Natick Common (fresh, often field-grown plants)

One-time events at nonprofits like schools or the Mass. Horticultural Society in Wellesley (I find that plants in a well-managed one-time sale are timed right, not underdeveloped and not pot-bound)

Russell’s Garden Center (more comprehensive selection)

In the parking lot of the Building 19 on routes 9 and 27. (I never would have expected lumpen-retailer Building 19 to have decent plants, but then one of my clients told me that it was a family business not really part of Building 19, and I checked it out regularly last year. Their product is great, at least when it first comes in, and none of the bargains have been disappointments.)

Friday, May 13, 2005

Here is the right side of my long perennial border just after dusk tonight (5/13/05), shot (zoomed in) from the window next to my PC as parental duties ruled out leaving the house. Posted by Hello

Dusk from my window

At right we see Dicentra eximia and the taller and more flamboyant D. spectabilis in their new bloom, taking over from Narcissus bulbs (back left) which are past their perfection, but still beautiful and scene-stealing in the otherwise relatively monochromatic bed. D. eximia is longer-blooming, but I prefer the purer red-pink of D. spectabilis, and its more “heart” shaped flowers – and in this position, shaded from about 11AM to 3PM each day, even D. spectabilis bloomed for about 6 weeks last year. I am glad to have these plants, whose size and timing is crucial in this bed – although their niche could also be filled by early Rhododendron, which would also have winter and more early spring interest.

At left front note a green-over-brown Lillium spear, 4 Fritillaria meleagris in front of last year’s dead cropped Pennisetum grass, and the new spiderwort (Tradescantia) foliage, still streaked with red-brown. The Fritillarias are rather lost here, in part due to my reddish (not the garish dyed red! red) mulch. I have several spaces here to fill (last year’s Pennisetum, Lavandula and Verbena, I’m afraid), which means I can buy more plants without doing more double-digging. I won’t again attempt a Mediterranean plant like Lavandula on this side of the bed.

The back row has, between and to the right of the clumps of blooming Narcissi, healthy returning perennials – Lupinus, and Alcea (hollyhock), respectively. These were grown from seed sown in situ last summer, and so if all goes well this will be their first season blooming for me. (Last year I placed purchased Lupines in the front of my house, where the afternoon sun killed them.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gardening Books

There isn’t much happening in my garden, with things slowed down by excess cloudiness. (OK, the daffodils are still looking good despite last weekend’s howling winds, the bleeding hearts are beginning to bloom, the Lavender, Verbena and Pennisetum I’ve mentioned earlier are probably dead, but all the Lillium are spearing up.) So I’ve decided to write about my favorite garden books.

I just counted my gardening books. I have 98, unless I missed a few, and I’m damn proud of it, thank you very much. (If I had to report an even 100, you’d assume I was estimating or even exaggerating the count.) Most of these I bought cheap at yard sales, library sales, used book stores, or discount sections. This would of course count as a huge waste of time, if I didn’t enjoy the pursuit. Although library sales and book stores almost always have a separate section for gardening, I count myself lucky to find one useful or interesting book in a rack. It seems inevitable that more than half will be on house plants or will have titles like “Gardening,” with no focus whatsoever. (For me, the latter category can occasionally be worth purchasing if it’s big, old, well-illustrated, or written by one of the greats, who mostly seem to be British).

I won’t tell you which used book stores have had the most interesting selection, because I am selfish, but I will tell you to check out the New England Mobile Bookstore (so-called, it’s actually a masonry building) in Newton, MA. I used to take my lunch break there twice a month just to see what was new in their unusually large section of discounted books.

One of course has to have reference books showing specific plant species and types, ideally some that are broad but shallow, and others that give a whole page or more per species, with cultural information and photos of various cultivars. If you’re reading an essentially photo-less book like The Damp Garden, by Beth Chatto, the presence on the same table of a well-illustrated reference tome makes all the difference between completely useless incomprehension and full knowledge of what she’s talking about.

So, apart from reference books which one generally doesn’t “read” as such, here are the 4 books to which I return again and again:

The perennial garden: Color harmonies through the seasons, by Jeff and Marilyn Cox (1985).

This book has a lot of useful things to say about color and garden design. Some of the color theories presented are flaky and esoteric (such as detailed color-emotion link tables, and matching hues to musical notes and making a literal “color harmony”), but the reader is free to learn and choose from many color and design theories. Since garden design is a subjective art, I can reject the need to use, say, the “golden section” in a given design, yet believe that it’s a good idea to consciously consider it. (I may blog later on different cultures’ contributions to ideas about symmetry, at least 3 of which I am open to.) The book also has about 150 pages of information on specific perennials, by genus, and chapters on matters such as building up soil, and building paths – wasted pages if you already have a good basic library. For me, the book’s best feature is its 80 well-annotated color plates, arranged by season, showing either a medium close-up of 2 or 3 plants or a broader landscape view. It always inspires and humbles me. I got the book at a yard sale for a buck; it’s almost as cheap used via Amazon. (Jeff Cox’s Perennial All-Stars: The 150 Best Perennials for Great-Looking, Trouble-Free Gardens, 2002, is also a very useful possession, but not as fun or inspiring to read.)

Crockett's Flower Garden, by James Underwood Crockett (1981)

Despite its age, if you live in Zone 6 or 7 in the Northeast, this may still be the most useful “what to do when” book you can find. The book is arranged by month, with what should be done to various plant species arranged alphabetically (by common name), along with a few broader pointers, also by month. It can be a bit frustrating to have to look in 2 or 3 places to read all that is written about, say, Phlox, but since now is in fact May, it is most useful to be able to scan one short chapter to see what can be done now, and what you might have overlooked. Has color photos of given plants on almost every page, but not much on putting together plant combinations, or on good garden design. Dirt cheap used on Amazon. (Jim Crockett was the first host of the PBS show “Crockett's Victory Garden” – this, his last book, was finished by Marjorie Waters and John Pelrine, who received credit only inside the book.)

Penelope Hobhouse’s Natural Planting (1997)

This book covers the use of native and other well-suited plant choices to match your local conditions and create beautiful, generally lower-maintenance, informal gardens. Beautiful photographs, tips for various cultural types (e.g., meadow gardens, shrub borders, woodland edges) and design theory, with a moderate emphasis on the temperate conditions one might find in England or New England. New England Mobile Bookstore has long had a stack of this book selling new for $9.98 (paperback edition). This book has no section arranged by species, but that’s no loss for most garden readers, and Hobhouse shows a detailed knowledge of plants and gives plenty of tips on their specific use within the culturally arranged sections. (Hobhouse has a large number of books in print and out; all that I have read have been worth purchasing.)

The Green Tapestry, by Beth Chatto (1989)

This book has a similar philosophy and arrangement by cultural conditions as Hobhouse’s. While Hobhouse’s looks to gardens around the (temperate, Western) world, this book is all based on Beth Chatto’s garden. But that’s enough, as these are the large and varied display gardens at her retail and commercial nursery. The gardens are set in Essex, an area of England with harsher conditions (drier year-round, with a cold winter) than most of the country, and thus more like that of much of North America. While the book doesn’t have a big alphabetical plant reference in the back, Chatto does have a few pages on each of many of her favorite genera. Amazon shows used Simon & Schuster copies available from $4.50 (Another edition, presumably the one printed in Britain, starts at $124.31!) Chatto has other books worth purchasing if they match your local conditions: The Damp Garden (1996), The Dry Garden (1996), Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden: Drought-resistant Planting Through the Year (2002), Beth Chatto's Woodland Garden: Shade-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest (2002), and no doubt the revised Beth Chatto's Damp Garden: Moisture-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest (May 2005).

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Front row: Nicotiana, Potentilla, Veronica, [invisible Alcea], Lavandula
Second row: Asclepias (yellow), Rudbeckia, Lillium, Pennisetum
Details Below. (August 1, 2004)
 Posted by Hello

Long Bed – Reds and Yellows

Let’s return to my long flower bed, whose theme is primarily one of ‘hot’ colors such as yellow, orange and red, but with some cooler tones, primarily on the shadier right end (covered in an April 29 post). I do want my young children to be pleased as they walk through the U-shaped path, with flowers on either side, so I have made it a little on the flamboyant side for a perennial bed. So far I’ve succeeded with my “best” critic, as my 19-month-old son runs down the grass path yelling “flowers!” upon seeing a patch of daffodils, or “poppies!” when glimpsing anything red, even the picture on a plant label.

With writing, as with a garden, one has to consider one’s audience. I assume that people searching the internet for gardening blogs are already capable of looking up plants and varieties, and so I intend to focus on my experience with plants and groups of plants – what’s worked and hasn’t worked for me, culturally and visually – rather than broader information that may be of use for people in other climates, but would just reflect my regurgitating other stuff I’ve read, or the sort of information you’d likely find on a plant’s label.

The photo above focuses on the front bed, near the right-hand side, just next to the Tradescantia and Verbena I mentioned on April 29.

What’s in it?

At front left in this view, Nicotiana ‘Nicki’ is a popular annual. It performed fabulously, its red and pink flowers blooming through the summer as one expects from most annuals (I did deadhead it almost daily with my fingers). But unlike most annuals, which turned to mush in our October 6 frost, the Nicotiana remained healthy, like most of the perennials – and even flowered into early November, as I recall the only thing to do so except for my miniature rose ‘Starina.’ I expect I will soon get the same plant for this spot.

Next to it is Potentilla ‘Gibson’s Scarlet’ – its flower stalks sprawled a bit more later in the summer, but the flowers also became more abundant. The small, dark red blooms are not as outrĂ© as some of their neighbors, but they do show up better in person (under daylight conditions) than in this photo. It also has pretty foliage. The plant is today (May 2, 2005) a beautiful mound of foliage already about 2/3 as wide and half as high as in this photo.

Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’ (speedwell) didn’t flower or grow much in 2004, but hey, it was a first year perennial. It’s already as big today as in this photo, and I expect to see its blue-purple spikes this year, especially as it’s described as “deer resistant.” I’m hoping that the slightly bluish pink of the lily behind it will allow it to gracefully fit into this composition.

What appears to be a blank space to the Veronica’s right held a tiny seedling of hollyhock (Alcea) from the Fordhook Giants Mix. The plant grew larger last year and is already an attractive clump of about 10 leaves as of today; it may bloom pale yellow, pink or dark red, judging from the seed packet photo. (I have a dozen of the same strain in the back row, behind the grass path and all of the plants discussed here.)

At front right, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ is smaller than the more popular ‘Hidcote’ and probably more bluish in hue (both types of English lavender are often sold by name despite being raised from seed, and are reported to vary in color and form). I should probably move this plant to the sunnier side of the bed and raise it up a couple inches with some added grit; it was sluggish and floppy last year, and seemed to have some powdery mildew. But perhaps with the infected multiflora roses and brambles removed from the nearby slope, and some chemical steps taken (such as baking soda in water, as I want to minimize the use of more toxic chemicals), it can flourish here in just over half sun, especially if we have a drier summer.

In general I have not been especially careful to segregate plants by water needs, figuring that in a dry year some plants will do well, while in a wet year others will; and under typical conditions, I can water, say, my Siberian Iris, while the daylily beside it will do alright with its seepage. So far, I think my only total failure was Verbascum pulverulatum (elsewhere in the back row of this bed), which flowered weakly and died before even setting seed. If I have the time to start some new raised beds in the sun, I will try Verbascum again, and move or divide other lovers of dry soil into this bed, which I will amend with grit or gravel and sand.

Second Row

At left, Asclepias currasavica ‘Silky Gold’ (a butterfly weed or milkweed, which Monarchs are attracted to). Since nothing has come up from its rather woody stump this spring, I googled this plant today and learned it’s only hardy to Zone 8b, but is often consciously grown as an annual – well worth it, in my opinion, for its large size, clean foliage and long-flowering habit. (Its milkweed pods filled with parachute seeds were also interesting, but I deadheaded most to limit self-seeding and, I thought, keep the plant strong.) So I have another place for a plant, and an improvement. Perhaps I will plant another butterfly weed, this one or the more common Asclepias tuberosa (hardy to Zone 4), and in either case will likely choose one of the more golden-orange flowered types over this yellow-gold cultivar. The yellow plant was, on its own merits, quite perfect last year, but for the fact that it was right next to Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm,’ which had, to my eye, exactly the same shade of yellow.

Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm.’ It seems that everyone who has any perennials has ‘Goldsturm’ – which is the only drawback of this excellent, long-flowering, deeply colored, vigorous and healthy cultivar (and a common problem with many cultivars which are head and shoulders ahead of their siblings, such as ‘Happy Returns’ daylily, Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam,’ and whatever that pale purple rhododendron is that’s first to bloom each spring – like right now). Once you’ve seen a few of one of these ‘All Stars’ you can drive down a country road at 40 MPH and identify the plants from peripheral vision alone. It’s enough to keep me from putting a half-dozen ‘Goldsturm’ next to the street, but it won’t keep the plant entirely out of my beds. It has returned this spring, looking healthy, but is still quite small compared to the mounds of Potentilla and Veronica in front of it.

Lillium ‘Stargazer.’ True lilies may be the most important genus of hardy flowering plants that many experienced gardeners in my area have given up on. Their mortality problem is due primarily to the lily beetle. So I am not going to go hog-wild for lilies, thinking that the more I have the sooner they will find my garden. (Unfortunately, they also eat Fritillaries.) I saw no sign of damage last year.

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' (Fountain Grass). I don’t want to have a lot of ornamental grass, but I think this was one of the finer touches in this bed, keeping its deep red color until frost. This plant is only hardy to Zone 9a, so I dug it up in November and put it in a pot in the stairway down to my basement, not knowing if this would be warm enough. So far no sign of life this year.

As you may have noticed, the bed looks a bit sparse in this photo, with considerable “bare” soil covered in mulch. Viewed more horizontally, as most people do, the multiple rows of plants filled the apparent space fairly well, but I’ll concede they’re far from filling the bed to the sort of lushness most of us hope to achieve.

I do expect that many will be ready for division this fall or next spring. They have already multiplied considerably in their one season of growth. Indeed, many were bought in quart or 4” containers, and most of the plants in this section were put in the ground in late June or July, and were thus in the ground only about a month when this photo was taken. I credit double-digging and a pickup truck load of 2-year-old cow manure.