Category Archives: Organic lawn and land care

TOP 5 GARDENING TIPS FOR APRIL

Do not work on your lawn or garden just after a big rain.

A note from a friendly frittilary butterfly: stepping in your garden or working on your lawn when the soil is wet damages your plants’ ability to thrive. (Image 2017 Carol Lundeen. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

#1. CAUTION: WET SOIL – DO NOT ENTER YOUR GARDEN – OR WORK ON YOUR LAWN!

  • Our recent rains have left our soils saturated, and if you step into your shrub and garden beds now you’ll be causing mostly invisible but meaningful damage that makes it harder for your plants to thrive.
  • Compacting your soil: plant roots depend on the spaces between soil particles to hold water and oxygen. When you step on wet soil, you compact these spaces and your plants suffer.
  • One cup of soil may hold as many bacteria as there are people on Earth, never mind the fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, and earthworms – most of which are beneficial to you most of the time. Together, these tiny beings are a living system called the Soil Food Web, and it’s best to not to step on them when the soil is wet.
  • To test if your soil is dry enough, take a handful of soil and squeeze it. If the soil crumbles easily when you open your hand, it is ready to be walked on or tilled. If it does not crumble, it is too wet. Allow the soil to dry for a few more days and test again before digging.

#2. GET YOUR SOIL TESTED – BEFORE YOU PLANT!

  • Before planting is a good time to get a Routine Soil Analysis from the UMass Soil and Plant Nutrient Testing Lab to check pH and fertility. This economical soil test will provide recommendations for liming and fertilizing as needed, as well as indicating the lead level in the soil.

#3. START YOUR COOL-SEASON VEGETABLES – ONCE THE SOIL DRAINS!

  • Now is a good time to sow seeds of cool season crops such as peas, lettuce, chard, kale, arugula, spinach, carrot, radish, beet and turnips.
  • Plant the seeds as soon as the ground can be worked. Sow your spinach, beets, radish, carrots and lettuce thickly in rows and thin later to the desired spacing (read the label) and to allow them to develop properly. Root crops such as carrots, beets, and radishes should be thinned to a 2-inch spacing to allow the roots to develop properly. They can be thinned as soon as they reach small edible size.

#4. EAGER TO JUMP START YOUR LAWN?

  • Your doctor wouldn’t give you a treatment without first making a diagnosis, right? Same goes with your lawn. Why treat your lawn for grubs or other turf insects if you don’t first discover what’s causing a problem? Grub populations are easy to evaluate, as are other sub-surface and surface insects. Once you diagnose properly, you can treat with a reasonable solution rather than automatically throwing money and chemicals at the situation.
  • Start weaning your lawn off the expensive, stepped conventional petrochemical-based fertilizers by switching to a slow release, low-nitrogen organic fertilizer like Roots Fresh Start. Apply once in early spring after the soil has begun to warm up and apply again in early fall. The water-insoluble nutrients will be recycled and released by your friendly soil microbes slowly over the entire growing season as they’re needed by your turf, rather than getting flushed (along with your money) away with rain and any irrigation.
  • Doing a lawn renovation this year? Wait until September for best results and return on your investment.

#5. MONITOR FOR WINTER MOTH CATERPILLARS

  • Winter moth caterpillars cause damage to many different deciduous plants such as oaks, maples, cherries, ash, crabapples, apples and blueberries. their eggs typically hatch early-mid April, and the young larvae quickly start feeding on flower buds, leaf buds and young developing leaves.
  • Winter moth egg hatch has not yet been observed for this growing season as of 4/5/17 in Massachusetts. Scouts are still reporting that winter moth eggs are orange in color and have not yet turned the blue color that indicates hatch is imminent. Eggs can be sprayed with dormant oil before they hatch, but the eggs can hide under pieces of bark and be hard to reach with spray.
  • Once the caterpillars hatch, they’re eager to eat their host plants. Dormant oil will no longer work, but there’s a fairly safe treatment that simply takes their appetite away. It’s a kind of bacteria called bacillus thuringiensis var. Kurstaki. In some forms it’s approved for use on organic farms. Always read and follow the label.

(BONUS #6.) CELEBRATE ARBOR DAY BY PLANTING A TREE ON APRIL 28 

  • Arbor Day is an annual observance that celebrates the role of trees in our lives and promotes tree planting and care. The best tree selection may be a native tree that is well suited to thrive in your yard with your existing soil, sun, water, and other cultural conditions. Have your soil tested before investing in your new tree or shrub.

AS ALWAYS,PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS OR NEED A HAND! 

EMAIL CAROL  OR CALL 617-327-9254

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Why Are My Rhododendron Branches Dying?

Rhododendron, borer, Sharon, MA, insect, damage

Cross-section of a rhododendron branch with a hole in it. A Rhododendron borer has tunneled all the way through this branch, and the branch is dead.

Could it be rhododendron borers? I started spring pruning for an organic gardening client in Sharon last week, on one of those yummy sunny 60 degree March days. Near her front door are broadleaf evergreen shrub beds on either side of an elegant entry path. My goals were to prune out any dead, use selective pruning to open up dense areas and stimulate new growth for a more balanced and pleasing form of individual shrubs and their big picture impact, and scout for pests.

A dead branch on a rhododendron caught my eye. I’m always very curious about why plants and their parts fail to thrive, so I investigated a bit. I cut off a portion of the dead branch and in its cross section found a dead giveaway of a clue.

It looked like an electric drill had made a 3/16 to 1/4 inch diameter hole in the interior of the stem, parallel to the length of the stem, and I knew right away it was quite likely the work of a rhododendron borer. I kept cutting the branch closer and closer to the ground, and found that the borer hole went all the way down to where the stem met the root flare at soil level. It may be that a second year borer spent some time in the roots, then bored its way toward the tip of this branch, contributing to its demise. I’ll continue to watch carefully for signs of activity and damage, and remember that borers are just one of several flavors of rhododendron pests.

Dead branch on rhododendron, showing a borer hole in its cross-section.

This dead rhododendron branch shows a tunnel entrance created by a rhododendron borer in Sharon, MA.

How do you treat something like borers? Try the following methods, or contact me when you see damage and you need help gathering evidence and deciding how or whether to save your valued shrubs and trees.

Treatment for Rhododendron borers:

  • Look around for dead branches and cut a cross section of one. Look for other signs such as a borer’s exit hole through the branch, frass (insect poop that resembles sawdust), and the condition of the leaves and stems. Photography these signs for your records.
  • Be sure to properly identify the pest that is doing the damage. FYI there’s a separate and distinct Rhododendron stem borer
  • Cut out and destroy all affected tissue – or save a sample to send to a lab.
  • Whether there’s an effective pesticide for the two types of Rhododendron borers seems to depend on what extension service or licensed pesticide professional you ask, and in any case monitoring and prevention are the best next steps. This is an organic client who prefers organic treatments for the health of her family and the environment. An injection of nematodes into the stems may be appropriate if she has the stem borer. I’m looking into it.

Tips to help reduce borers:

  • Keep mulch at least 2-3 inches away from the base of of all plants where the stems meet the earth, including rhododendrons. Your mulch should never be more that 3 inches deep.
  • Keep shrubs well watered during dry periods. One inch of water per week is generally sufficient for established, healthy plants. More water than this is usually needed for plant establishment.
  • Avoid wounding shrubs, as wounds can make it easier for insects and pathogens to enter. If your plants have any branches that directly cross one other, they probably rub against each other when it’s windy, causing abrasion damage and creating entry points for pests and pathogens. Also, do not wound shrubs with lawn mowers and string trimmers.
  • If you don’t have an edged bed around a tree or shrub, make one large enough so that not only will your string trimmer no longer nick the trunk, but the mower won’t run over the root zone. A general guide is to edge out a bed that goes all the way to the drip line, defined as the area all the way from the trunk to the outermost circumference of the tree’s canopy . After cutting out and removing any lawn or weeds, etc. from your edged area, apply 2-3 inches of mulch to the bare soil.

Not all damage to rhododendrons is from borers. There are plenty more causes as well. So be careful, don’t jump to conclusions, get a positive ID, and get help if you’re not sure.

CONTACT ME IF YOU NEED A HAND

IF YOU’D LIKE ME TO HAVE A LOOK AT DAMAGED OR DISEASED PLANTS WITH YOU, I’LL PUT ON MY HORTICULTURIST HAT, HAVE A LOOK AND SUGGEST WHAT YOUR BEST NEXT STEPS MAY BE. CLICK HERE TO CONTACT ME

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How to Keep Your Garden Plants Alive in Winter in a Drought

MA drought map showing more than one third of the state in extreme drought condition

MA drought map updated December 13, 2016.  The area in red, about one third of the state, is in an Extreme Drought condition.

What do you do keep your drought-stressed plants alive this winter?  It’s hard to put a Band-Aid on drought-stressed plants, but here are some things you can do:

  • KEEP WATERING UNTIL THE GROUND FREEZES IN THE FALL/EARLY WINTER.  Check with your city or town to see if even now, in late December, there’s a current watering ban.  Especially with new plantings, and also with drought-stressed ones, you generally want to give them the equivalent of one inch of water per week all the way until the ground freezes.  If time or water is limited, focus on watering your most valuable plants, such as trees and shrubs.
  • IMPROVE YOUR SOIL.  On your lawn for instance, just 1/4 inch of compost every fall makes a huge difference in the resilience of your turf plants.  For your planting beds, pull back the mulch, spread 1/2 inch of compost or leaf mold,  scratch it into the soil surface, and put the mulch back in place.  This will increase the soil’s ability to hold moisture and make nutrients more available to the roots of your plants.  Think in terms of feeding your soil (the soil food web), not feeding your plants.
  • MULCH.  It’s not to late to apply 2-3 inches of mulch to all areas of exposed soil.  Do not let mulch come in contact with the trunks of your trees and shrubs, where it transitions into the root.  This area is called the root flare and should never be covered.  If you see a mulch volcano around the base of a tree, the mulch is suffocating the tree, which stresses it, makes it vulnerable to pests and pathogens, and puts the tree on a path of decline.  About the best mulch of all is fallen leaves that you’ve chopped up with your lawn mower and spread on your beds.  Speaking of chopped leaves, you can also pile them up, adding water to create a water film on most of the leaf surface area, and let them sit for a year or two.  The result, called leaf mold, is another source of organic matter that will make your plants sing.
  • PLANT NATIVES.  Many people picture native plants as being weedy and leggy.  In fact, native plants are best adapted to not only survive, but thrive in the existing environmental conditions.  Test your soil and know how much sun your planting site gets.  Then, it’s easy to select plants that should do quite well with minimum inputs, once established.

For more info about the drought status in MA, visit http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?MA

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Carol Accredited as NOFA Organic Land Care Professional

I’m proud to have become an Accredited Organic Land Care Professional by the Northeast Organic Farming Alliance (NOFA). Read the Easton Journal’s business news for more info.

Horticulturist Carol Lundeen of Easton, MA, carries a sack of locally produced compost, the organic gardeners' secret ingredient for safe, smart, money-saving lawns and gardens.

Horticulturist Carol Lundeen of Easton is a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional.

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