Keep ticks at bay and mature tomato plants healthy … here’s how

Save the eggshells from your breakfast -- the calciun will help your garden grow. (Thinkstock)
Garlic oil sprays to ward off ticks

wtopstaff | November 14, 2014 7:25 am

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Mike McGrath,

Alternatives to eggshells for your tomato calcium needs

Alan in Fairfax writes: “I read your suggestion on adding the crushed shells of a dozen eggs to each hole when planting tomatoes to prevent blossom end rot later in the season, but my plants are already in the ground. Is there another good source of calcium I can use?”

Absolutely, Alan. I like the eggshells because they release their calcium slowly over the course of the season and are otherwise hard to recycle (they just refuse to break down in compost piles). But you can also use calcium carbonate tablets to supply the calcium that prevents the heartbreak of blossom end rot on just-ripening fruits. Simply dissolve about a dozen calcium pills in a watering can and water the calcium-rich liquid into the root zone of each plant. Aim for a dozen dissolved pills per plant.

You can also use an organic plant food that’s specifically labeled for tomatoes, or the “Coast of Maine” Lobster Compost I see at lots of area garden centers – they’re both full of calcium.

Which essential oil makes a good tick spray?

Lindy from Gainesville writes: “I was in the process of placing Tick Tubes around our two and a half acres when I came across an ad for a Cedar Oil spray that says it’s highly effective against ticks. I was curious to see if you had heard of this and how effective it would be versus the Tick Tubes. The spray would seem much easier on me as I have a large perimeter to treat.”

Garlic oil sprays (like the original Garlic Barrier and Mosquito Barrier) have been used for decades to reduce tick and mosquito populations, but the use of cedar oil against ticks seems to be brand new, and as far as I can tell from a conversation with the local landscaper whose link you sent, untested. And they’re not offering it for sale. You would have to hire them to spray the product around your property.

I’ll look into Cedar Oil as a tick repellant in general. But for now, if you want to spray your property for ticks, I suggest using a garlic oil product. I’ve had good success with them against mosquitoes, and they seem to knock back tick numbers as well. And, they’re available for sale to the general public at retail locations as well as online sales. Just be aware that any insect (or arachnid) repellant spray has to cover all your ground; a perimeter spray would be worthless against ticks, which generally hitch a ride on mice, deer, birds and other creatures.

But, I feel strongly that the Tick Tubes you’re spreading offer the best and most long lasting protection against ticks. The little permethrin-soaked cotton balls in the tubes kill ticks at their smallest (and some feel most dangerous) juvenile stage while they’re on field mice – the biggest carrier of so-called ‘deer ticks’. I’ve been using them for years and the only time I’ve found a tick on me is when I was slow to place the tubes in the spring.

The magic date for sowing grass seed

Robin in Warrenton writes: “When is the best time of year to put down grass seed?”

There’s only one sensible time of year to sow the seed of cool season grasses like bluegrass and the fescues, and that’s right when late summer merges into early fall. Specifically, the ideal window to sow grass seed in our region is Aug. 15 through early September. The seed germinates rapidly in the still-warm soil and the new grass matures in the shorter days and cooling weather it craves.

Grass grown from seed sown in spring typically burns up in the summer heat and is out-competed by warm-season weeds. But grass grown from seed sown in the Fall outcompetes those same weeds, thrives in the fall, winter and spring weather, and is almost a year old and fully established before it has to deal with summer heat-the worst enemy of lawns in the D.C. region.

Outdoor ants: Naughty? Or nice?

Rich in Warrenton writes: “I have a big ant mound in one of my gardens. It’s not near the house and I’m not sure if it’s a problem for my nearby grape vines. Should I get rid of the ants (and if so, how?) or just leave them alone?”

Ants in the house are pests that should be eliminated with boric acid bait traps, Rich. These products combine a low dose of boric acid with a sweet sugary bait. Worker ants take it back to the nest where the slow acting boron kills the ants – including the all-important queen – after about a week’s worth of exposure. Very safe for you, totally effective against the ants.

Outdoor ants are mostly considered neutral. On the plus side, they aerate the soil and keep termites – their natural enemies – at bay. But they also have a bad habit of protecting clusters of aphids on some plants (especially roses and peppers) so they can “milk” the aphids for their sweet honeydew. I’d leave the ants alone for now. Be sure to continually thin the leaves and fruit clusters on your grape vines to keep them healthy; and if aphids show up anyway, use boric acid to eliminate the ants who are “farming” them.

Use the same baits as you would for indoors, but cover them with something like a shoebox with holes cut out at the bottom so ants can get to the bait, but bees are excluded. Honeybees especially are attracted to sugary things (they’re often fed sugar water) and could be harmed by the boric acid.

Woodsman (or woman): Spare those azaleas

“Name withheld” in Arlington writes: “I just bought a house whose landscaping includes 50 unruly azaleas, some of which are really big and haven’t been pruned in years. I’d really rather not prune them all by hand, and would like to use a gas-powered hedge trimmer. However, I see conflicting information online. Some people say absolutely not. Others say its fine.”

Pruning established azaleas with a gas-powered bad haircut machine would be a crime against nature. I’ve seen azaleas that were attacked with such machinery and the world would be better off without them. (And perhaps without the attacker as well.)

And if you’ve got a new house with a neglected landscape, you shouldn’t even THINK about trying to do everything yourself. Hire someone to intelligently cut each plant back by a third with pruners (and maybe a lopper if they have a gentle touch with it). If the plants are still too big after that, take a chill pill and repeat the 1/3 pruning every spring right after they finish blooming until they’re back down to a good size.

Try to reduce ten years growth in one shot and the Red Cross will send peacekeepers to confiscate your power tools!

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