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Garden Plot: Weed-eating goats, dastardly deer and terrible tree rats

Thursday - 8/1/2013, 8:07pm  ET

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To keep deer from eating a newly-planted cherry tree, use animal fencing that's bigger than the tree. (Thinkstock)

Goats a cutting-edge trend in weed control

Mike McGrath, WTOP garden editor

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Watch goats eat weeds next week

Professionally managed herds of goats are becoming an increasingly popular way to control weeds and invasive plants without the use of nasty herbicides. Goats can get into otherwise hard-to-reach areas, cause no chemical pollution and even eat poison ivy.

Now, D.C.-area residents can get a chance to see nature's finest weed eaters at work this Wednesday, Aug. 7 through Monday, Aug. 12 at the Historic Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E Street SE, where more than 100 four-legged members of the "Eco-Goat" team from nearby Davidsonville will be chowing down on problem plants from dawn to dusk.

The public is invited to watch the goats at work -- for free. Just enter the cemetery via the gatehouse at 18th and E Streets SE (at Potomac Avenue). Signs will be posted directing you to the goats' location that day.

How to protect new plants from hungry deer

Pam in Columbia, Md., writes: "I want to replace a cherry tree that deer destroyed last year. But our house is in a heavily wooded area with a lot of deer. Any suggestions on how to protect the new tree?"

First, don't plant it this month. There's still too great a chance of new-plant- killing heat waves. Wait until early September to install the new tree. That's the perfect time of year to plant new trees and shrubs.

When you plant, remove and discard any wrappings (no matter what anyone else tells you -- they are wrong). Plant the tree high in the ground, not low (make sure the root flare is visible above ground). And don't improve the soil in the planting hole. Instead mulch lightly around the new tree with compost. Water deeply and slowly after planting -- let a hose drip at the base for several hours. Water deeply any week we don't get rain.

Now, for protection: Make a big circle of animal fencing that's taller and wider than the tree and firmly stake it into place around the tree-anywhere from six inches to a foot away from the trunk. That will protect the tasty young plant from hungry deer and rabbits, who do a lot of bark gnawing in the winter.

Oh, and don't mulch around the base of the tree with wood, bark or root mulch -- or even shredded leaves. Such coverings invite tiny, but voracious voles to eat the roots undetected.

Don't make your landscape a vole motel

John in Spotsylvania, Va., writes: "What do you think about using pea gravel as mulch around fruit trees? I think it's a good idea for me because voles eat the roots of my plants. Four inches of stone and a wire cage around the trunk would seem to make it very difficult for them to kill my trees."

It's a really bad idea for a great number of reasons, John. Stones protect and encourage grassy weeds, while offering plenty of cover for voles -- and chipmunks -- to eat that tender bark without fear of predators.

If you have vole problems, you're probably a heavy user of wood mulch, which turns your yard into a vole motel. Forget the stone and get rid of any wood. Then mulch with one to two inches of rich black compost and your vole problems should be few.

Scalped lawns now = grub damage in September

Pat in Greenbelt, Md., has an interesting observation. She writes: "I was just upstairs where I can look out over my neighbor's backyard, and there were eight to 10 blackbirds chowing down on his grass. None on mine. My neighbor scalps his lawn. I mow at three inches. I did some web searching and found that blackbirds eat Japanese beetle grubs. Is there a reasonable conclusion here?"

Absolutely, Pat. Female Japanese beetles that are "heavy with grub" look for close-cut lawns in which to lay their eggs. They rarely try and fight their way through a correctly cut turf like yours. That's one more reason not to cut your lawn too low, especially now, when we're entering peak beetle egg-laying season.

(PS: Blackbirds aren't the only grub grabbers. The otherwise despised starling is also known to visit grubby lawns for their dining pleasure.)

Evil squirrels ate my love apples

Bruce in Reston, Va., writes: "I have six tomato plants, all of which had lots of growing tomatoes. But over the last couple of weeks, they've disappeared while still green. I suspect squirrels. Do they eat green tomatoes? And if so how do I protect against them?"

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