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Garden Plot: Edible pansies and how to defeat an ant infestation

Friday - 3/28/2014, 8:11am  ET

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The best time to prune crepe Myrtle trees is in the spring. (Thinkstock)
Meet Mike this weekend

I'll be at different events until the end of the month. On Saturday, March 29, I'll be at Severna Park Home Show at the Severna Park Community Center.

On Sunday, March 30, catch me at the Harford County Home Show at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md.

Don't 'crepe murder' your crepe Myrtle

Ellie in Burke keeps it simple; she writes: "Is it too late to trim our crepe Myrtle?"

No, it is not too late at all, Ellie. In fact, people who foolishly pruned their crepe Myrtles back in the fall exposed the poor plants to the possibility of severe winter damage.

The best time to prune crepe Myrtles is right after they begin growing again in the spring. Be sure to remove any portions that were killed by our wretched winter, and give every shoot at least a little haircut to stimulate the best flowering.

If you want to reduce the height a little bit, you can safely remove a few feet of growth. But don't commit "crepe murder" by cutting the poor thing all the way back to the ground. People guilty of this horticultural homicide eventually wind up with little shoots growing out of elephant legs!

Ants are easy; just play ‘follow the queen'

Nancy from Clinton writes: "A friend in Silver Spring is having a terrible time with ants inside her house. I had read about putting boric acid and a sugary liquid into a jar, letting the ants enter the jar and then carry the boric acid back to the queen. Is there an exact recipe for this?"

Yes, Nancy: You mix 1 cup of sugar into 3 cups of water; then after all the sugar is dissolved, stir in four teaspoons of boric acid powder. The boric acid has to be weak enough to allow the worker ants to taste some and then survive long enough carry it back to the nest, where repeated exposure will kill the queen and thus wipe out the whole colony. If you see dead ants near your bait, you made it too strong.

Properly prepared bait traps (with more enticing bait and just the right amount of boric acid) are available online and at hardware stores, home centers and even many supermarkets.

Look for boric acid or some other form of boron (such as sodium tetraborate) as the active ingredient.

And remember: Don't kill any ants you see. You need them to deliver the "package" to the queen.

Beat the beetles (Japanese beetles that is!)

Mike in Beltsville writes: "Several months ago you told us how to protect our roses from Japanese beetles. It was about a ground cover to use under the bushes and not about the traps that I was using."

You're confusing apples and oranges, Mike! It is very important to remove any old mulch or ground cover from under your roses after their spring pruning next month and replace it with an inch or two of compost (not composted manure; that's a different animal). But we do this to prevent disease, not insect attack.

Follow this two-pronged approach to prevent bad beetles from munching on your roses:

  • Don't give your roses any kind of chemical plant food. It attracts the beasts.
  • Then, as the season of invasion approaches, set up a single Japanese beetle trap and check it every day. I'll tell you what to do as soon as you find your first beetle in a "Garden Plot" later this spring. (Hint: the very first thing you'll do is take down the trap.)

Lawn grubs? Let nematodes negate them

James over in in Arnold, Md., writes: "First, thank you for teaching me about corn gluten; it has been a wonderful weed preventer that is safe for my family and dog." (You're welcome James. Remember to keep an eye on the local forsythia and redbuds; the time to apply that all-natural crabgrass preventer is now just a few weeks away.)

Back to James: "I was wondering if you had any similar safe and perhaps creative ideas for lawn grubs?"

Yes, James; grubs, the crescent-shaped larvae of Japanese and other scarab beetles, only feed on the roots of your grass in the fall, so they won't harm your lawn anymore. But left alone, they will emerge as plant-eating adults. The best way to prevent them in the spring is to mail-order some beneficial nematodes (like these from Gardens Alive.) This is a case where you should generally use mail order rather than retail, as the nematodes are living creatures with a limited shelf life. (If you do find them for sale locally, check their expiration date.)

Then be sure to apply them correctly! Wait until the soil temp reaches around 60 degrees (which typically isn't until May). Then, following the directions on their packaging, water them into a well-watered lawn at sunset. (The soil must be warm and wet, and they should never be exposed to direct sunlight or even the heat of mid-day.)

The microscopic predators -- there are millions inside the tiny package you'll receive -- seek out and destroy the grubs before they can emerge as those annoying rose-eating adults. (Nematodes also attack fleas and a few other bad actors, but don't harm earthworms or anything else that's beneficial.)

Oh, and don't try and use milky spore disease on grubs in the springtime. It only works in the fall.

Eat pansies and say bye-bye to spider veins

Susan writes that she heard the anchors and I discussing the medical benefits of pansies last Friday morning and wants more information. My pleasure, Suz!

Pansies are one of the most cold-tolerant flowers, and bloom like crazy long before it's safe to plant most other things outside. Their flowers are also wonderfully edible. A passel of pansies can turn 50 cents worth of lettuce into a salad that looks like a million bucks.

And more to the point here, pansies are the only real food source of rutin, a nutrient that strengthens capillary walls. It makes those tiny blood vessels more opaque and thus makes those disagreeable spider and varicose veins harder and harder to see over time.

Five pansy flowers a day is the recommended dose to get the right amount of rutin. And there's just as much, maybe even more, rutin in the other pansy family members, such as violas, Johnny-jump-ups and wild violets. All are safe to eat, tasty and pretty to look at!

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