Blueberries, horse hockey and — a team-up with Terminex?

Meet Mike on April 16 and 17 at The Calvert (County) Home Show in Prince Frederick, Maryland. Find complete details at

Blueberries need great drainage and acidic soil

Gwen in Middleburg writes: “I want to plant some blueberry bushes. We’ve been very successful with a small garden of raised beds, but plan to put the bushes right in the ground. The area is low and tends to be damp. We would like to use the soil mix that we used for the raised beds — composed of 1/3 sand, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 topsoil — to amend the soil for the bushes.”

Well, in general, I do prefer that long-term plantings such as blueberries be planted in the ground instead of raised beds, but not in your case. Like most plants, blueberries require soil that drains well, and would not thrive in a low damp spot; in fact, they’d probably die pretty fast.

So either find a different spot — higher ground that drains well — or make a nice raised bed for them. You can use your mixture to fill about half of the volume of the bed; the other half should be an equal amount of milled peat moss — the stuff in those giant bales at the garden center — mixed well with the soil.

Blueberries require the most acidic soil of any plants we grow, and peat moss is an easy and inexpensive way to achieve that acidity.

Horse hockey!

Gwen in Middleburg also writes: “I live on a small horse farm. I know you don’t think much of composted horse manure, but I have some stuff that looks pretty good; it’s been sitting for about three years. Where could I use it? Flowers, vegetables, herbs?”

It’s mostly fresh horse manure that I warn people against using, Gwen. Fresh horse manure is so hot with nitrogen that it burns young plants (which should be no surprise, as it’s hot to the touch) and horses have a very inefficient digestive system, so it’s also loaded with weed seeds.

During the composting process, though, those weed seeds burn up, and fully composted horse manure — which has no heat and no smell and looks like rich black soil — is a perfect fertilizer for SOME plants: specifically, nonflowering plants that crave nitrogen, such as lawns and sweet corn.

But because it’s still pretty much all nitrogen, it can inhibit the number of flowers and fruits on garden plants such as tomatoes, peppers and such. To use it on flowering plants, you’d need to mix in some balancing nutrients such as greens and bone meal. Otherwise, you get big plants with few fruits.

‘Hardening off’ is like pre-K for your plants

Claude in D.C. writes: “I have lettuce, peas and other veggies ready to go out and take advantage of the nice weather. But everything I’ve read indicates that I should first harden off my baby plants by leaving them out for a few hours on the first day, and slowly increasing their exposure to the great outdoors by a few hours each day over the course of a week. But I work all day and can’t take a week off to nurture my plants. Is there a hardening-off ‘hack’ for people who may only have a weekend to prep little plants to prosper?”

Yes Claude; especially with the cool-season crops you’re growing — they don’t need as much TLC as tomatoes, peppers and the other crops of summer.

And, of course, we all have to work around that darned physical reality thing. So, yes, take them outside for a few hours on Saturday. Then put them out again on Sunday and leave them out overnight — but still in their containers. Then plant them in the ground when you return home from work on Monday evening. That will give them all Monday night to further settle in before they have to endure their first fully sunny day after being planted.

D.C. makes the top 10!

Unfortunately, it’s for being number 10 on a list that Terminex releases every year of cities whose residents schedule the most service calls to investigate what seems like a termite invasion. (We moved up from No. 15 the previous year; Los Angeles is No. 1.)

It’s obviously not a list we want to be on. But like I’ve been warning for years, putting mulch — of any kind — running right up to the side of a house will keep us high up on the hit parade. And Terminex agrees …

This Just in: McGrath and Terminex in agreement; Storm Team 4 checking for ice in Hades

Yes, I really am in 100 percent agreement with the pest control company Terminex. And while we all now listen for the sounds of ice forming deep underground, I’ll explain that the area of our agreement is mulch.

As I’ve been warning for years, running mulch right up to the side of your house creates the perfect underground pathway for the subterranean termites that thrive in our region to feast on your framing. And, again, Terminex agrees.

In a list of eight nontoxic things you can do to keep termites at bay, Terminex points out the perils of running mulch right up to your structure, and recommends that you keep four inches of bare soil around your foundation. I generally suggest twelve inches. But the important thing here is that your faithful organic adviser and Terminex are in total agreement that mulch touching a home is an invitation to termite invasion.

Eight ways to prevent termite problems

Continuing the most unlikely team-up of all time, here’s Terminex’s complete list of termite prevention tips, all of which I agree with:

  1. Reduce all soil-to-wood contact around your house.
  2. Remove any lumber, wood, plants, mulch, etc. near your foundation.
  3. Create a four-inch barrier between mulch and your home.
  4. If possible, only your concrete foundation should touch the soil, with siding starting at least six inches above the soil.
  5. Keep landscape plants a few feet away from the side of your home.
  6. Make sure that storm drains carry water well away from the foundation.
  7. Fix leaky faucets and eliminate other sources of moisture. Excess moisture creates perfect conditions for termite invasion.
  8. During swarming season (as temperatures rise after the winter thaw), turn off outdoor lights at night. If possible, relocate lights away from doors and windows as light attracts the swarmers.

And the nontoxic solution to termite troubles?

When I got the news that D.C. had moved up to number 10 on the Termite Hit List, I interviewed Jennifer Fox, technical specialist for Terminex. She explained how the rankings are compiled, offered the eight prevention tips above and discussed the options the company offers.

And yes, one of those options is still the dreaded chemical trench around your home, which of course, I hope you will all avoid — which is easy to do, because the alternative, which Terminex also offers, works better: Outdoor bait stations.

These are small units placed around your home with openings below ground for worker termites to enter and take the bait. The bait is an insecticide that works so slowly the workers can take several runs back to the main colony before they feel any effect. But by then it’s too late — it’s been fed to the queen and the colony will quickly collapse. (Just like ant colonies and boric acid baits.)

And outdoor bait stations don’t just prevent termites from reaching your house. Dr. Bill Quarles, director of the Bio Integral Resource Center in Berkeley, California, tells me that bait stations are so effective that they actually draw active colonies out of homes.

Now get out there and rake that mulch away from the side of your house. And somebody please get the devil a warmer coat …

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