Monday, June 24, 2013

Chickens Bobbing for Apples, AKA Japanese Beetles

Watch my chickens "bobbing for apples" here.  They love them, and I enjoy taking them off my plants and turning them into eggs!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Rejuvenating an overgrown garden

I am helping to renovate the garden of a house that the previous owners neglected for decades.  The original gardeners planted it without thought to the mature size of the shrubs, and no one has pruned them in many years.  Along the front of the house grow azaleas and other large shrubs that, unpruned, would cover the windows.  After years of neglect, later owners cut back the shrubs to expose the windows, and now the shrubs look spindly and ragged instead of full because the new owners pruned them out of desperation, not deliberately and carefully over the years.

The jungle before we began pruning

To rejuvenate the overgrown landscape, I am attacking the shrubs with loppers and chemical brush killer.  I try to avoid herbicides when I garden, but I make exceptions for large shrubs that I cannot dig out by the roots and invasive plants that regenerate from fragments of roots.  I use herbicides in ornamental areas when the weeds are out of control or are invasive perennial weeds.  In this garden, overgrown with bamboo, weedy trees, and enormous shrubs, I need help from herbicides.  We hope to make the garden low-maintenance enough so that weeding chores will be minimal in the future for the new homeowners.

In this picture are several magnolia and oak trees, among other shrubs.

In an area about thirty feet square, there is a mature pine tree, a large cedar, four or five magnolia trees, and a couple of other trees.  Adding to the jungle effect are wax myrtles, ligustrum, gardenias, camellias, and azaleas with ivy, wisteria, and Virginia Creeper running through it all.   It appears that the original owners planted a pine tree, a magnolia, and the shrubs.  The other shrubs and trees came up as volunteers, no one bothered to pull them up when they were babies, and now they have formed a sickly mass of vegetation.  Nothing, except perhaps the pine tree, has enough room for proper growth.

My seven-year- old knows how to weed, and follows this simple logic: she asks herself, when encountering a seedling tree or shrub (right now, she reliably identifies pine tree seedlings) “Would they want a mature pine tree in this spot?”  If the answer is no, she yanks up the tree (I have to stop her sometimes in public areas).  If you walk around your yard and remove seedling trees and shrubs now, you save yourself or future owners of your home a battle armed with loppers and herbicides in thirty years.

Azaleas grow eight to 20 feet tall and wide at maturity; loropetalums grow up to 20 feet, ligustrum (a shrub home builders love to use as foundation plantings under windows that are four feet off the ground because it grows quickly) grows up to 18 feet tall or higher, and camellias grow 12-25 feet tall.  Lower-growing varieties of these plants exist, and may be good choices to reside under windows.  However, the cheapest shrubs at the garden center are not usually the dwarf varieties. 

Under the windows are azaleas and camellias

If you prune shrubs that are too big for their spot regularly, as in several times a year, they will behave themselves, but if you are sick or busy for a couple of years, they will obstruct your view out the living room window.  Perhaps you don’t know the identity of the shrubs around your house; the builder put them in and you haven’t done anything to them besides prune them since.  If you have to prune them several times a year to keep them under control, they are too large for the spot, and you will save yourself a lot of work in the future if you replace them with something appropriate. 
I waded into the jungle and began cutting off shrubs and small trees at the ground with the loppers, and spraying the remaining stump with an herbicide recommended for killing brush.  I have tried killing shrubs organically by cutting them back numerous times or digging them out by the roots, but most established shrubs are difficult to dig.  I expect to be done with these plants after one or two sprayings, and by cutting it back first and spraying the cut stump, I use significantly less herbicide than if I sprayed the entire plant. 

Brush pile after trimming, with my daughter for perspective

I will be writing about this garden in future articles, and I will be describing my battle with the bamboo that is advancing on the house from a nearby abandoned home.  As for bamboo, my only advice is, don’t ever plant it, and do everything you can to kill existing bamboo.  I tried the herbicide on it, but I am afraid it will laugh and continue growing.  
Bamboo jungle, technically on the other side of the fence, but bamboo ignores fences

Monday, June 10, 2013

Plant some herbs this spring

When I was in the produce section of the grocery store last week to purchase some salad greens, I stopped in front of the packets of fresh herbs.  Many years ago, I purchased some fresh herbs from the grocery store in my desperation to try a special recipe during a time I was without access to a garden, but most of the time I rely on dried or fresh herbs from my garden. 

At $2.49 for about ½ an ounce of herbs, or in other words, a couple of stems of wilted basil 4 inches long, using fresh herbs in the quantity I like to use them is expensive.  Exceptions are fresh cilantro and parsley; stores sell rather large bunches of these herbs for a dollar or two, and because our heat usually makes the cilantro bolt to seed before tomatoes are ready to make salsa, I buy it at the store.

If you find yourself avoiding certain recipes because they call for fresh herbs, or if you do buy the expensive packets of herbs that cannot actually be fresh by the time they reach the grocery store, try growing your own herbs.  No matter how small your garden, it is easy to grow your own for fresh consumption and to dry some for use the rest of the year.

If you have a sunny spot big enough for a pot, grow some herbs, even if you don’t have room for anything else.  I used to have an herb garden, but now I mix the perennial herbs in with my flowers and shrubs and I plant the annual herbs in rows in the vegetable garden.  They are easy to grow, and with the exception of mint, behave themselves.  Mint needs the confines of a pot to contain the runners; if you ignore this advice, you will battle the runners for the rest of your gardening career.  My mint is not in a pot, and we fight.   

Rosemary is somewhat tricky to establish in the garden but once it decides it belongs in your garden, it does not require maintenance.  In the winter or early spring, tiny beautiful purple blooms attract honeybees.  Rosemary likes hot dry sites; my mother has tried for years to find some shrub that will grow across the front of her brick home that the afternoon sun bakes all day; rosemary thrives where many other shrubs have died over the years. 

I water rosemary often until it is established.  I make sure the soil dries some between waterings, but I don’t let it dry out so much that it begins to wilt.  Many plants tolerate this treatment, but rosemary does not.  Rosemary will also die in soggy soil.  I have killed many more rosemary plants than have lived in my yard, but because I persevered, I have several healthy, trouble-free plants.  If you kill rosemary in one place, move it somewhere else until you find a good spot.  If a friend has an established rosemary bush, ask him or her to reach under the bush and remove some baby rosemary plants that have rooted from the mother plant for you.

Sage, in my experience, is also difficult to establish and likes conditions similar to rosemary’s preferences.  My mother has a patch of sage growing in the same baking sun the rosemary likes that is older than I am, but she gave me several starts of her sage before I got one to grow in my garden.  Using my own sage in recipes instead of that jarred “rubbed sage” is worth the trouble.  Thyme and oregano like more consistently moist, but not soggy, sites.      

After several years of letting parsley flower and go to seed in a corner of my flowerbed, parsley returns every year without any effort from me.  I have enough plants to share with the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly larvae when they need some food, too.  Cilantro and dill also reproduce each year without any trouble from me. 

Put out transplants of rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, chives, tarragon, and parsley at any time of the year except summer.  Water them until they are established, and try not to put them out if temperatures into the teens are expected.  Sow cilantro, dill, fennel, and parsley in the early spring, and sow basil, the only commonly used herb that is bothered by frost, after the last frost in your area.

Perhaps one day I will have a formal herb garden, but for now, I am content having access to some fresh herbs nearly year round and dried herbs from my garden during times the fresh ones are not at their peak.