view counter

Features (Green Living)

Time your pruning for both desirable growth and flowers

While azaleas were blooming mid-month, I passed a home in the Deale area where the bushes were so large that it must have been impossible to look out through the lower part of the front windows. They must have been sheared at some point because the middle of the plants appeared very bushy.
    This is a common problem and one that is simple to correct — once you get out the pruners and get past fear. 
    Well-established azaleas are almost impossible to kill. Their only sure death is by over-mulching or repeated mulching with hardwood bark. The plants are very shallow-rooted; over-mulching them suffocates the roots. Repeated applications of hardwood bark lowers the acidity of the soil and releases high levels of manganese, which prevents iron from being absorbed by the roots.
    If azaleas are well established and growing too well, simply prune them back 12 to 18 inches below the windowsill now, as the flowers are wilting. The sooner you prune the better. Stems up to three-quarters-inch in diameter will sprout new branches by the hundreds. Do not prune all of the stems at the same height. Cut some stems back 12 inches, others 18 and others 24 to give the plant a more natural appearance.
    Within three weeks after pruning, you will see small green dots emerging from the bark. Each of those is a potential branch. If you allow all the green dots to develop, you will get too many branches, giving the plant a bottle brush appearance. To avoid this, in mid-June or early July, use your fingers to rub away half of the developing nubs. These newly emerging branches are soft, succulent and easily removed. In mid-August repeat the process, this time keeping the best-developed and strongest branches and removing the others.  
    Do not fertilize or mulch the plants with compost until after vigorous growth appears on the pruned stems. Keep them thoroughly irrigated during dry periods.
    Since azaleas initiate flower buds beginning in mid- to late September, avoid shearing the plants after the middle of August. Flower buds are initiated at the ends of newly developed branches. If you delay shearing until mid- to late September, you will be eliminating most of the new growth, and the plants will have no flowers next spring.

Help give their migration a future

Since the last Ice Age, monarch butterflies have followed the path of the glaciers in their annual migration. The orange and black creatures are more fragile than the magnolia blossoms now in their short season. Yet in September, tens of thousands of monarchs fly from the midlands of the United States all the way to southern Mexico.
    Again this spring, they rise from the oyamel fir trees to reverse their migration. Those seasoned long-distance fliers reach the southern U.S. before their lives and wings are worn out. By then they’ve laid the eggs of the next generation. The grandchildren of those migrators will reach Canada this summer. Their great-grandchildren will be this season’s Mexican migrators.
    Ours could be the last human generation to witness this epic migration.
    Or we can enlist in the army of revival. The company is good, the purpose inspiring and the story an epic in its own right.
    Until the second half of the last century, no human knew where the monarchs went.
    To solve that mystery University of Toronto zoologist Fred Urquhart and wife Norah formed a continental army. Using a print network of newspapers and books, they recruited volunteers to capture, tag and recover the migrating monarchs.
    One of their hundreds of recruits, Elmer Dengler of Bowie, now wants to enlist you.
    Your first mission won’t be as demanding as Dengler’s. A southeastern Pennsylvania boy who saw the Urquharts’ appeal in a library book, he bred and tagged 1,000 monarchs in a single summer.
    “I got a report back from Dr. Urquhart that one of mine was captured on the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama less than 30 days after I’d released it,” Dengler told Bay Weekly.
    Retired now from a career that took him around the nation as an environmental systems manager, he returned to, he says, “the insect that sparked my career.”
    “The current migrating monarch population is as low as two percent of original levels,” he reports. “Time has almost run out.”
    Loss of habitat is the force pushing extinction. Development, illegal logging and agribusiness threaten the monarch caterpillar’s only food: milkweed.
    Reversing those trends on fronts from planting to policy is the mission of a new continental army organized under Monarch Watch.
    Michelle Obama has already signed on, planting a pollinator garden at the White House. The presidents and prime ministers of Canada, Mexico and the United States have joined forces to create monarch-saving policy.
    Dengler’s mission for you is planting one of thousands of monarch butterfly way-stations.
    “As long as you have a patio or more in terms of sunny outside area,” he says, “you can help the monarchs.”
    Working with the Bowie-Crofton Garden Club, Dengler has assembled kits of 11 monarch-friendly plants for the group’s April 26 plant sale.
    “The butterflies are first attracted to the nectar plants,” he says. “After feeding, they slow down enough to notice the food source plants for their caterpillars and begin to lay eggs.”
    At the sale, you’ll learn all about planting your way-station. But, Dengler advises, “the 50 kits will go early.”
    Learn more about protecting monarchs at www.monarchwatch.org.
    Shop the Bowie-Crofton Garden Club sale Saturday, April 26, 8:30am to noon at Bowie Library. Kits $25: www.bcgardenclub.org.

Here’s the right way to till the garden

Just because you have a rototiller or a Mantis doesn’t mean you have to till your soil until it is pulverized into dust. The more you till the soil, the more damage you do to its structure. The finer you pulverize the soil, the faster its organic matter is destroyed.
    Here’s how to do the job right.
    Pray for perfect conditions, as soil should never be tilled when too wet or too dry.
    Till the soil no more than twice before planting vegetables in the spring. One shallow tilling in the fall is all that’s needed before planting cover crops. If your soil has a cover crop of rye or wheat, mow it as close to the ground as possible to pulverize the vegetation. To till, set the tines at a depth of three inches for the first pass through the garden to kill the roots of the cover crop and expose the soil to the drying sun and wind. Allow three to five days before the second tilling, hoping it doesn’t rain during this drying-out period.
    Before tilling the garden a second time, set the tines to a depth of five inches and till the garden perpendicular to the direction of the first tilling. This pattern ensures a more uniform tilling and reduces the potential of compacting the pan layer of soil below the tilled layer.
    If your soil test recommendations call for amending with limestone, compost or fertilizers, apply them prior to the first tilling. As limestone is very slow in reacting in cold soils, the first tilling should be done as early in the spring as possible and the second tilling delayed one and a half to two weeks. This technique allows for the lime to react and begin correcting the pH.
    Care in tilling the soil reduces the loss of organic matter. Increasing the organic matter requires the addition of compost or animal manure. Many garden problems can be avoided by maintaining your soil’s organic matter concentration at five percent or above.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

A healthy and happy lawn gives no ground to weeds

A lot of people out there are trying to sell you weed-and-feed fertilizer. Don’t buy them — or you’re buying trouble. Here’s why they don’t always work — and may cause problems.
    Two different types of weed killers, aka herbicides, are blended with lawn fertilizers in formulating the so-called weed-and-feed blend. One kind is advertised to kill broadleaf weeds; another to kill crabgrass.
    The formulation of weed-and-feed fertilizer advertised as killing broadleaf weeds such as dandelions, ground ivy and plantain is a phenoxy compound (2,4-D, Dicamba, MCPP, etc.) in granular form. These compounds can be absorbed through the foliage or by the roots. But only under certain conditions.
    They don’t function when the soil is dry or when weeds are dormant. If applied in early spring, the killing agent may well deteriorate or leach deep into the soil beyond the reach of the roots of weeds. But the roots of trees and shrubs can absorb them, causing injury such as twisting and curling of leaves and damage to new growth. Another problem is leaching into groundwater, which contributes to the pollution of the Bay.
    Delay application until after grasses and weeds have resumed growth, and the fertilizer is likely to cause a disease problem such as fusarium. Fusarium, aka frogeye, kills grass. The symptoms appear as a tuft of green surrounded by a dead brown zone. Another problem: Late application of high-nitrogen fertilizer on cool-season grasses such as bluegrass or fescue forces the grass to produce lush growth at a time when lawn grasses are stressed by the heat of summer. Cool-season grasses grow best in cool weather.
    Weed-and-feed fertilizers promoted to control crabgrass often do not perform as advertised when applied early.  These weed killers are called pre-emergent, meaning that they must be applied before the weed seeds germinate. Their effectiveness at killing germinating weed seeds lasts only  four to six weeks after they have been applied. But crabgrass is a summer annual weed whose seeds do not begin to germinate until a week or two after forsythia has dropped its flowers. So if crabgrass-killing weed-and-feed fertilizer is applied too early, its effectiveness at killing germinating crabgrass weed seeds is severely reduced. Delay applying the product until after forsythia flowers have dropped, and you risk fusarium problems.
    Weed-and-feed fertilizers can also contribute to the pollution of the Bay. Granules that fall on sidewalks and driveways either float or dissolve and become part of the storm water that contributes to the non-point source of pollution. If your property abuts the Bay or its tributaries and a heavy rain occurs soon after application, the granules can find their way into the Bay.
    A healthy lawn does not allow weeds to grow.
    Have your soil tested to make certain that the pH is between 6.2 and 6.8. If the results indicate that your soil contains adequate levels of phosphorus, purchase only fertilizers with 0 phosphorus. If the test indicates your soil has adequate levels of phosphorus and potassium, consider using calcium nitrate.
    Also set your mower to cut the grass no shorter than three inches and taller if possible. Cut it tall and let it fall for a healthy turf that gives no ground to weeds.
    
To Test Your Soil
    Find instructions for submitting soil samples for testing at www.al-labs-eastern.com. For sandy soil, choose the S3 test. Save money by specifying no crop. I offer free follow-up directions to Bay Weekly readers. For my recommendations, add my email (as well as your own): Dr.FRGouin@gmail.com.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

Design your vegetable garden for trickle irrigation

You can reduce the amount of water you use for your vegetable garden by 70 percent and count on a bountiful harvest. If you lay out your garden in rows, trickle irrigation can make a world of difference.
    Its virtues are many. You irrigate only the rows you plant — not between the rows where the weeds grow. The trickle of water also carries water-soluble fertilizer to the roots of desirable plants; again, the weeds get none. Because water is applied slowly in drops directly on the soil, there is no water loss to the atmosphere by evaporation. Because the foliage of plants remains dry, there are fewer problems with disease. Weeds are less a problem when the soil between the rows remains dry.
    Follow the rules and it will work for you.
    You’ll need a real trickle hose. A soaker hose isn’t good enough. Water weeps out from around the entire surface of the hose, which is made of recycled ground rubber tires. The trickle hose has pinholes every six to 12 inches, and they are laid face down so the water goes directly into the ground and does not evaporate.
    I recommend drip tape for your trickle hose. No working length can be longer than 300 feet. The rows in your garden need to be level or nearly level. Water must be clean and free of particles running at a minimum pressure of 10 PSI (pounds per square inch). Well water is safe to use, but surface water from ponds or streams must be filtered to remove solids.

Supplies First
    Trickle irrigation supplies are not available from local suppliers, garden centers or farm supply dealers. I buy mine from Farm Tek. As drip tape is sold only in 1,000-foot spools, you might consider encouraging friends or neighbors to join you in ordering.
    Streamline 636 drip tape (110742) is made of eight-millimeter black polyethylene with drip holes spaced 12 inches apart.
    For each row, you will also need a twist lock that attaches the drip tape to the water supply. I use the 110736 twist lock. Consider the 110740 twist lock with a valve should you wish to shut off lines not in use.
    To insert the twist lock into the water supply line, I recommend purchasing the 110746 8-mm punch. Purchase a small supply of 110738 twist lock couplings in case you damage a drip tape or wish to extend a line.
    You’ll also need a garden hose, three-quarter-inch black plastic pipe and adapters, all available at your local hardware store. To determine the amount of black plastic pipe needed, measure the length of the garden hose that will be supplying water. You’ll also need a three-quarter-inch garden hose, an H-adapter for every supply line, as well as one three-quarter-inch end plug and clamp.

Installation
    For uniform watering, lay your drip tape as level as you can in the rows soon after seeding or transplanting. I hand-water transplants first to firm the soil around the roots before installing the drip tape. The drip holes should be in contact with the soil.
    Cut the drip tape two feet longer than the row, knot it at the farther end and bury that end to prevent wind movement. If the drip tape is being laid on a warm, sunny day, allow slack because it will contract as it cools.
    The three-quarter-inch black pipe water supply line should first be laid in the sun to warm and make it straight since it comes in coils.
    While the black polyethylene pipe is warm, use the 8-mm punch to make a hole in the pipe and insert the twist lock. Unscrew the open end of the twist lock and insert it into the end of the drip tape. Insert the end plug and attach with a clamp at one end of the water supply line and the female hose adapter and clamp at the opposite hose end.
    To make a single drip tape line, you’ll need only one half-inch female hose adapter, which attaches to a length of drip tape with a pipe clamp. Additional rows and lines to irrigate them each need a twist lock. They should all be installed in a straight line on the water supply line.
    You may also need more than one water supply line, depending on the scope of your garden.
    I rotate crops every year, so I have three different water supply lines of different length. The water line that supplies water to my corn patch is designed with a row spacing of two and a half feet. For all other crops, I use three-foot row spacing.
    With proper care, both drip tape and water supply lines can be used for many years. Use care with cultivating and hoeing so as not to cut the drip tape. (Damaged Drip Tape can be mended by using twist lock coupling 110738.) Store the lines in a shed or garage when not in use.

Using Your System
    Water is applied in drops under the drip tape, but capillary action will eventually create a band of moist soil from 10 to 18 inches wide under the surface of the soil. Enough water must be applied to penetrate to a depth of six inches before the flow is turned off.
    With this system, the irrigation needs of most vegetable gardens vary from once to twice weekly, depending on heat and wind. Turn on the water before plants wilt.
    When starting to irrigate, turn water on at full capacity and operate the valve at full capacity until all of the drip tapes have been filled and are dripping water. Next, lower the volume of water until the drip tapes at the highest point on the water supply lines begin to have reduced pressure. At this point, if you gently press the drip tape near the water line, it will collapse. Wait a minute or so until all drip tapes appear to be less turgid before walking away.
    Operate the system for at least four hours in sandy soils and six hours in heavy soils.
    By lowering the volume of water entering the supply lines, you are essentially lowering the pressure. The pressure will vary if you are on well water, but the variation will not seriously affect the flow of water through the drip tape.
    To maximize space and use of water, I sow parsnips, carrots, beets and lettuce in double rows 12 inches apart with the drip tape between the rows. I grow my sweet corn in blocks of five rows two and a half feet apart, sowing seeds six to eight inches apart in short rows 10 to 12 feet long. I fold the drip tape at the end of each row immediately after sowing so I am not wasting water by irrigating ground that I have not sown. I use the same method when sowing snap beans.
    When lifting the Drip Tape after the crop has been harvested, try not to stretch it. For storage, I fold it like an accordion and tie with cotton string. When preparing to reuse the drip tape, remove an inch before attaching it to the water supply.

One-step potting

Larger seeds — such as those of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplants, marigolds, peppers, tomatoes and zinnias — can be direct seeded into the containers in which they will grow until they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. This eliminates the shock associated with transplanting. Direct seeding requires more space initially, but these large seeds do not require the tender care essential in germinating small seeds.
    They will germinate easily providing you keep the rooting medium moist but not wet.
    The container size you select for direct seeding will depend on the rate of growth of the species and the size you want the plant at transplant time. For most vegetable transplants and most flowering plants, three- to four-inch pots will be adequate.
    However, to produce tomato plants or pepper plants with fruit already well formed by the time you transplant them in the garden, you need two stages. To produce such plants, direct seed into three-inch pots. When the plants are eight to 10 inches tall, transplant them into six- to 10-inch pots. Transplant them before the roots circle the inside walls of the three-inch pots.
    To start all these larger seeds, fill the three-inch pots with commercial potting medium such as Pro-Mix, Sunshine Mix, Metro Mix or Farfard Mix to the top edge of each pot. Unless the seed packet indicates that seed germination is 100 percent, which is highly unlikely, place at least two seeds in the middle of each pot and press them in the soil lightly with your fingers. If you are using seeds that you stored from previous years, sow at least three seeds in each pot. As seeds age, germination is reduced.
    Irrigate each pot thoroughly until excess water drains from the bottom.
    Seeds of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, pak choi and lettuce germinate best at temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees. Sow them in March to be tall enough to transplant into the garden in early to mid-April while temperatures are cool. To prevent sunscald, acclimate the plants by placing them in trays outdoors under light shade for at least a week before transplanting them to the garden.
    Seeds of tomatoes and peppers germinate best at temperatures near 80 degrees. Soon after the seeds have geminated, place them in full sun. Never allow them to dry out.
    Because seeds of peppers, both hot and sweet, are slow to germinate, they should be sown in March
    Like tomatoes, seeds of calendula, gazania, gaillardia, marigold, sunflowers and zinnia germinate rapidly and their seedlings develop rapidly. Delay starting these seeds until five or six weeks before you plan to transplant them into the garden.
    If you wish to grow your plants organically, blend any of the potting mixes with one-third by volume compost such as crab or lobster waste compost, which will provide all the nutrients the plants need until they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Otherwise, within six weeks of germination, you will need to initiate a liquid fertilizer program.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Transplanting seedlings

The sooner you can transplant seedlings after they germinate, the better they can survive and continue growing. Delay transplanting your seedlings after they have become crowded and have true leaves, and you’ll get stunting, resulting in slower growth.
    The first green leaf-like structures you see on seedlings are called cotyledons. The cotyledons contain all the energy necessary for germination and the development of the first true leaves. To minimize transplant shock, transplant seedlings soon after the first true leaves appear.
    Small plants grow rapidly, and the sooner you transplant them the faster they grow. Transplant bedding plant seedlings into individual three- or four-inch pots in cell packs such as 804. Metro-Mix, Sunshine Mix, Farfard Mix or Pro-Mix can be used as a transplant medium. These commercial blends have sufficient fertilizer to supply the needs of the transplants for six weeks. Eliminate the need for later fertilizer by blending one-third by volume compost made from lobster or crab waste with the commercial mix.
    Your growing medium must be moist, neither wet nor dry. Using the point of a plant label or the point of a knife, lift each seedling or clump of seedlings from their growing medium. With the same instrument, separate the clump of seedlings into individual plants. Using your fingers, lift each seedling by gently grasping the cotyledon. Never lift young seedlings by grasping the stem. The stem is the permanent part of the plant while the cotyledons are only temporary structures engineered to drop from the stem as soon as the plant becomes well established. If you accidently squeeze the stem, you can permanently stunt the plant’s growth.
    At this point of development, the seedling will require full sun. Minimum temperatures should not drop below 65 degrees. The containers should be irrigated only when warm and dry to a fingertip pressed lightly on the surface of several containers.
    Consider conditioning the plants by placing them outdoors in partial shade for at least a week before transplanting them into the garden.  
    Seeds of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers and lettuce should be sown now, from late February through early March. Seeds of tomatoes should be sown approximately five weeks before they are to be transplanted into the garden — unless you desire to transplant tomato plants with tomatoes already attached to the stem.
    A certain amount of pride comes with growing your own bedding plants from seeds.

Coming next week: One-step potting.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Here’s what to sow when

It’s time to start on your garden.    
    Sow slow-germinating small seeds inside in late February through March. These include begonia, celery, impatient, petunia, snapdragon, etc. These small seed plants are not only slow to germinate but slow to grow.
    Wait until March to sow larger seeded plants. Broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and pac choi should be sown so that the plants will be tall enough to transplant into the garden in early to mid-April while temperatures are cool. The seeds of these plants also germinate and grow best in cooler temperatures. To prevent sunscald, acclimate the plants by placing them in trays outdoors under light shade for at least a week before transplanting them into the garden.

What’s Next for Forced Bulbs?

Q  My forced bulbs, amaryllis and paperwhites, have finished flowering. What can I do to bring them back next year?
    –Sandra Olivetti Martin

A  Are the bulbs in gravel or in soil in pots? If they are in gravel, plant them in a mix of half potting soil-half compost, put them near a window facing south and keep them growing until you can plant them outdoors in full sun come spring. In soil, give them some liquid fertilizer. Next fall after the leaves have died back, dig up the bulbs, plant them in pots, place them near the foundation of the house on the north side and mulch heavily with leaves held in place with chicken wire. Near early December, bring in a few pots of potted bulbs and start forcing them. Do not fertilize them again until they have flowered.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

    Because seeds of peppers, both hot and sweet, are slow to germinate, they should be sown in March, under 80-degree temperatures. Pepper seeds require two to three weeks to germinate and seedlings are slow to grow initially.
    Seeds of tomatoes, calendula, gazania, gaillardia, marigold, sunflower and zinnia germinate rapidly, and the seedlings also develop rapidly. Seeds of these species can be delayed five or six weeks before they are transplanted into the garden. This prevents the seedlings from becoming root bound, which will permanently stunt their growth. If you want to grow extra large plants, start them in five- and six-inch containers.
    Many seed catalogs publish seeding schedules, but you must know your climate zone and growing conditions, such as growing in a cool or heated greenhouse or on the window sill. The heated greenhouse in full sun provides the ideal growing condition, while the window sill is the least desirable situation for growing plants, especially those that require full sun.
    If you are growing plants on a window sill, rotate them daily (weekly if that’s the best you can do) to prevent them from leaning toward the light. Follow the same rule if you have a lean-to greenhouse that faces south.
 

That means you forgot to feed them

Are your azalea leaves yellowing and dropping? The loss is more than winter’s toll. You could have prevented it if you had mulched your azaleas with one or two inches of compost in early to mid-September or applied one-quarter cup of an ammonium-based fertilizer soon after the first frost.
    Lacking that help, nitrogen is now translocating from the older leaves to the flower and vegetative buds at the ends of the branches. During late fall and winter, buds are enlarging in preparation for spring when the flower buds open and vegetative buds produce new stems. If the roots of plants cannot provide sufficient nitrogen to the ends of the branches after the plants have stopped growing in the fall, nitrogen from the older leaves will migrate out of these leaves and move up the stem to where terminal flower and vegetative buds develop. Nitrogen is the only plant nutrient that can move about after its initial distribution when plants were in active growth. The translocation of nitrogen is most active in the fall when temperatures are above freezing.
    The leaves of white-flowered azaleas yellow before falling. The leaves of red- and pink-flowered azaleas generally turn red to purple-red just prior to leaf drop.
    This same problem occurs with American holly, especially female hollies that produce an abundance of berries. The production of holly berries requires an abundance of nitrogen. If the roots cannot supply the nitrogen needed, buds will rob the nutrient from the leaves. However, with hollies, the nitrogen is translocated rather uniformly from all of the existing leaves, which causes the uniform yellowing of the foliage. Under severe nitrogen-stress, hollies will drop leaves extensively.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

Get out and dig to be ready for spring

If you did a good job of building your compost pile last fall, now is a good time to stimulate more microbial activity.
    Just before Christmas, temperatures in my compost pile dropped below 100 degrees from a high of 130 degrees measured just three weeks earlier. This falling temperature is due partially to a drop in surrounding ambient air and partially to a lower rate of microbial activity.
    Microbial activity in composting can fall because of low levels of oxygen, excessive dryness, less available carbon or fewer sources of nitrogen. For most home composting projects, low levels of oxygen are unlikely unless your compost pile is taller and wider than 12 feet. Exchange of gasses is likely to be fine as leaves are bulky and do not pack easily. Thus, compost cooling is most likely due to a sudden drop in ambient air or dryness.
    To check for moisture, thrust your hand into the compost and squeeze firmly. If the composting waste feels wet like a sponge, there is adequate moisture. If the compost feels on the dry side, drag out the hose and wet the pile down with a heavy stream of water. After the compost appears adequately wet, use either a grub-hoe or digging spade, going as deep into the pile as possible while adding more water. The excess water will drain deeper into the composting mass.
    If possible, empty the composting bin and wet the waste before re-filling the bin. Digging into the composting materials will grind the larger particles into smaller pieces, stimulating greater microbial activity. Ground leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    Within a week after you’ve reformed the pile, temperatures within it should increase. However, if your compost pile is less than three feet by three by three, it is not likely to give you much temperature rise due to a lack of mass.