Oscar in Bethesda writes: “I have a plant outside that is currently covered with small black insects. Will they damage the plant? Could you please let me know what they are and how I should deal with them?”
The photo that Oscar attached clearly shows flower buds covered by clusters of aphids — tiny insects that always appear in large numbers, smothering plants as they suck the life out of them. Note: These pests are highly attracted to plants that have been fed chemical fertilizers; another reason to “just say no” to those garden drugs.
When aphids appear, cradle the plant in one hand and blast the aphids off with sharp streams of water from a garden hose. (Not a “shower” setting; you want to really blast the rats with a laser-like shot!) University studies have found this technique to be more effective than insecticides!
Dandelions will make you wise
After hearing last week’s bit on the many ways to remove dandelions without poisons, Marijane in Annapolis demands equal time for the poor put-upon plants. She writes: “I don’t understand this hatred of dandelions. The greens are edible! In fact, I go to Roots and Whole Foods to buy dandelion greens for my salads. When I was young my mother would gather the flowers to make wine, and I’ve heard that some people grind the roots for use as a coffee substitute, yet people are willing to poison the earth to remove this very useful plant.”
Yes, dandelion greens can be a real delight, Mar, but those distinctive serrated leaves must be picked very young, before the plant’s flower buds are visible, to have the best taste. (And, of course, don’t eat dandelions from a lawn that has foolishly been poisoned with herbicides.)
And if you really like the flavor of those unique spring greens so much that you buy them at retail, you should be aware that you can grow those same super-sweet greens at home. All you have to do is buy and plant seeds of varieties that have been specially selected for flavor and slow-bolting, like these from the Burpee seed company. They’re just like the supermarket varieties.
Don’t till that mulch into the soil
Liz in Stafford writes: “I covered my garden beds with shredded leaf mulch last fall. Now that it’s time to prep the garden, do I turn the leaf mulch into the soil or rake it out?”
Great question, Liz. You should never “turn” or “till” anything into your soil. The dormant weed seeds you uncover and then replant will haunt you all summer with unwanted green growth. (That’s why I always recommend building raised beds that are no wider than four feet — because you can reach the center from either side you never step on and compress their loose soil, so they need no tilling.)
Gently rake the leaf mulch away, install your new plantings and then put the leaf mulch back in place to prevent weeds, retain soil moisture and attract earthworms that will aerate your soil and feed your plants with their nutrient-rich castings. Compost makes a great garden mulch, but the earthworm army they attract may make shredded leaves even better. (Just don’t use whole leaves. They’d prevent water from reaching the plants’ roots.)
Remove damaged branches ASAP
Tony in Ellicott City writes: “I have a tree that is two or three years old. I can see that some of the branches are dead. Is it okay to prune them now? Or should I wait until winter?”
Don’t wait, Tony. Branches that are dead, diseased or damaged should be removed as soon as you notice them. That (normally correct) “prune in winter” advice is for the safe reshaping and thinning of limbs on healthy trees.
Now, when you do prune:
Take a close look at where the branch meets the tree; you’ll see a “collar” where the two connect. Be sure to leave the branch collar attached to the tree; don’t make your cut flush to the trunk.
If the limb in question is large, take it off in several sections-for personal safety, and to prevent the weight of the limb from tearing bark off the trunk.
And don’t seal your pruning cuts with anything-nature does a better job.
Oh, and that’s a pretty young tree to have such troubles. If you’re feeding it chemical spikes or fertilizers, stop, and remove any mulch that’s touching any part of the tree. Despite what you see all around, mulch that touches the trunk of a tree will rot that tree into an early grave. (As will mulch that’s deeper than two or three inches.)
Spring blooming? Spring pruning!
Its spring clean-up time for many of you’s.
As the flowers on your tulips and other spring bulbs fade or fall off, clip off any seedpods that form, but leave the green leaves of the plants alone until they turn brown, otherwise the flowers won’t return next year.
Be prepared to do some pruning after the flowers fade on spring blooming shrubs like azaleas, rhododendrons, lilacs and forsythia. This is the perfect time of year to cut back and reshape these plants. Just don’t remove more than one-third of the branches in any one season.
It’s also time to feed all of these spring bloomers, to give them the energy they need to grow next season’s flowers. Compost makes the best plant food, of course, but acid-lovers like azaleas and rhododendrons would prefer an inch of milled peat moss covered by an inch of compost.