Gardening can be easy--really!
Written for the Davis Enterprise, April 18, 2002
I am convinced there is no such thing as normal weather anymore. In the last 6 weeks more than half of the days have been significantly above or below average for the high temperature for the day, in many cases by more than 15 degrees F. Periods of very warm days followed by spells of very cold mornings can make it hard to decide when to plant! If you're too cold in the morning you can put on a jacket or go back indoors, but the plants just have to sit there and shiver. The real heat-lovers--peppers, eggplants, annual Vinca rosea, Zinnias--may sulk all season after a cold start.
Volatile weather will cause some damage to plants, but it is mostly cosmetic. Windy weather can burn the tips and edges of tender new leaves. Cold weather can cause the leaf margins to cup or curl as the leaves emerge, leading to distorted mature leaves later in the season (this is especially common on broad-leaved evergreens such as Citrus). New growth can be sunburned if it becomes warm and windy suddenly and the plant has not been well-watered.
Early spring pests
The first spring weather brings a frenzy of activity for gardeners�.we buy, we dig, we plant, and then stand back with a sense of satisfaction. Unfortunately, there are many critters out there that appreciate our efforts! Among the most common pests at this time of year are snails, slugs, earwigs, and aphids. Whiteflies, which prefer hot weather, aren�t far behind. Lace bugs are showing up on Photinias, and scale insects are visible on Citrus and other evergreens. Some of these are night feeders, so a flashlight tour of the garden can be informative. Or take samples of damage to the garden center or to the Master Gardeners� table at the Saturday morning Farmer�s Market in Central Park. Correct identification is important to get the right "prescription."
Safe pest controls
But there's no need to panic. There are many remedies that are gentle on the environment but effective. Snails and slugs can be controlled with Sluggo, an iron phosphate compound which is toxic only to mollusks, but breaks down into fertilizer. Aphids seem to form huge colonies out of nowhere on the upper shoots of roses and other tender new growth. This is because the female, winged aphids that land are pregnant, and produce 50 or more babies a day. When you consider that each of those babies is a pregnant female you can imagine the exponential growth potential! (Male aphids are pretty useless, functioning only for coitus late in the season). Aphids can be controlled with a variety of products: insecticidal soap, pyrethrins (derived from chrysanthemum flowers), and neem sprays provide quick control and minimal damage to beneficial insects. Neem, a safe organic spray derived from the Neem tree, is especially effective on whiteflies�it takes 3 � 4 applications, but gives much better control than more toxic insecticides. Particularly effective on aphids and scale are the new, highly refined horticultural oils.
Traps for earwigs
Earwigs are more of a challenge. While usually a minimal problem, we have severe outbreaks some years with severe damage to seedlings and flowers. The only baits contain carbaryl (Sevin), often in combination with metaldehyde--moderately effective, but toxic to pets. Earwigs are very attracted to the smell of cooking oils, so they can be lured to their deaths by a simple trap. Take an empty milk carton and fill it partly with water. Add a glug of cooking or salad oil, then place it on the ground on its side with the spout open and facing upward. The earwigs are drawn to the smell, crawl up and fall into the water and drown. The more that drown, the more friends and relations are drawn by morbid fascination.
Beneficial insects can provide adequate pest control with a little help from us. Learn to recognize leatherwing beetles, lacewings (especially their larvae), and the larvae of Syrphid flies (hoverflies), as all are voracious aphid eaters. The presence of bloated, listless, tan or black aphids among the others indicates that parasitic wasps are already controlling the population and chemical remedies may not be needed. Plants with tiny flowers, especially yellow, will draw beneficial insects that parasitize pests. Examples include yarrow (Achillea) and common roadside mustard. Under the right conditions you can release ladybird beetles (ladybugs) to control aphids. On cool, cloudy days they will stick around and significantly reduce the population before flying off, and if there are tall grasses or herb plants nearby they are likely to stay longer. Keep them in the refrigerator if it is warm and sunny, then release them at twilight after sprinkling the plants to provide moisture. They can stay dormant in the refrigerator for 2 - 3 weeks.
Some plants are just plain easy to grow
in the spring and summer, giving us flowers over a long season with very little effort on your part. Cosmos, Portulaca, sunflowers, and Sweet alyssum can be planted from seed in full sun, and nasturtiums are very easy in sun or partial shade. Amend the soil, then plant seeds of all these directly in the garden and water daily until they sprout. For the cost of a few packets of seed and a package of planting mix you can get quick, easy color all summer long. A large pot or oak barrel can be planted with herbs and dwarf vegetables for a quick and simple kitchen garden: 'Patio' or 'Ace' tomato, 'Gypsy' pepper, 'Fino Verde' dwarf basil, chives, and oregano can be combined to make a "spaghetti garden." These can be quick, cheap and easy garden projects with kids.
Verbena, Gaillardia, and Coreopsis are just some examples of perennial flowers that can be planted from 4" pots in hot, sunny locations, all of which bloom profusely in electric colors, without special care, all summer. Young plants of fibrous begonias can be planted anywhere from shade to full sun. These have shiny leaves of bronze or green, and flowers in white, pink, or red. Sold as annuals, begonias will often overwinter as short-lived perennials. Even roses, with a reputation for being finicky, can actually be easy to grow. The new shrub and landscape roses such as 'Bonica', 'Carefree Wonder', and 'Flower Carpet' bloom freely right up until frost without any special attention except regular watering.
Spring can seem hectic, and the dramatic changes in weather can flummox even the most ardent gardener. But a few simple plantings of summer's easier flowers can be rewarding for months to come.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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