Good pruning, bad lawns and terrible ticks

Here’s something most of you probably think I never say: You now have permission to prune!

Yes, spring blooming plants such as forsythia, azalea, rhododendron and lilacs should get at least a light pruning after their blossoms have faded. Doing so now ensures you won’t be hacking off next year’s flowers, which will start forming soon.

This is also the perfect time of year to cut back summer bloomers such as butterfly bush and crepe myrtle a bit, to keep them tidy and stimulate good flowering. (But don’t commit “crepe murder” by hacking the poor plant back to the ground. Crepe myrtle blooms best when you remove about as much as it grew last season.)

It’s also a great time to prune any dead wood off figs and similar plants that survive our winters, but with some damage. (That does not include hydrangeas; leave them alone.)

And now’s the time to remove any dead, damaged or diseased portions of roses. Always cut any diseased areas away completely; that means cut past the disease and into healthy tissue.

Promptly remove the prunings and replace any old mulch with an inch or two of rich black compost. (NOT wood mulch! No mulch is better than wood mulch under roses.)

Zika is bad, but let’s not neglect ticks

Let’s not let fear of the Zika virus distract us from a perennial foe — the disease-carrying tick.

First: Do not have your lawn sprayed for prevention. Ticks lurk in wet, overgrown, brushy areas — not lawns — and spraying will only make the lawn dangerous to you. (An untreated but freshly cut lawn is probably the most tick-free place in your landscape.)

The best personal protection when you’re cutting tall weeds or walking in the woods is to wear clothing treated with permethrin — a synthetic version of a botanical pesticide made from the flowers of a certain chrysanthemum. Any tick that even comes near permethrin-treated clothing will quickly die, and you won’t have to slather anything on yourself!

Permethrin sprays for treating your clothes can be found in the camping sections of outdoor stores; one spray lasts through several washings. And a company called Insect Shield will sell you pre-treated clothing, or professionally treat clothes you send to them.

Don’t depend on DEET. Although this chemical repellent is effective against mosquitoes, it has little to no effect on ticks.

Push mowers may mow too low

Old-fashioned, human-powered push mowers (sometimes called “reel mowers”) have been proposed as an environmentally sound alternative to gasoline-powered lawn mowers. Which they are — though, unfortunately, many of them can’t cut the grass high enough for our region.

The cool-season grasses that predominate in the D.C. area (fescue, rye and bluegrass) should be three inches tall after cutting (three-and-a-half inches if they’re growing in shade). That means waiting until the grass is four inches tall and then taking an inch off the top.

But most push mowers can only cut at a maximum of two inches or so, which is great for warm-season grasses such as zoysia, which thrive on a short cut, but not great for cool-season grasses that need to be a decent height to survive D.C. summers.

There are a couple of premium push mowers out there that can be adjusted to cut high enough for our region. If you can find one, go for it. But my choice would be an electric-powered mulching mower. They cut super-clean, don’t make you handle gasoline, are easier to keep sharp, and can easily be adjusted to cut at the right height for our region.

Let your lawn get its own beer

There is some crazy bad lawn care advice making the Internet rounds right now, including the dredging up of some old, dangerous and discredited “home remedies” for fertilizing and pest control.

If somebody tells you to “make your own lawn fertilizer” by mixing up ammonia, mouthwash, soap and beer, you should drink the beer, wash their mouth out with the soap and explain to them that ammonia is toxic to bees — beneficial insects and healthy soil organisms — and can form deadly gases when mixed with certain other household chemicals.

None of those things belong on your lawn. The real way to save money on lawn care is to make sure your mower blade is always super-sharp and that you always leave the nitrogen-rich clippings on the lawn to re-feed the turf every time you cut.

That’s the cheapest, safest and most effective way to feed your turf. No ammonia need apply.

10-10-10 is wrong wrong wrong

Dave in Dumfries writes: “Can I put down 10-10-10 for my trees or is it too late?”

It is neither too late nor too early, Dave — established trees need no fertilizer, just for you not to use herbicides near them or to mound mulch up against their trunks.

And no plant wants a chemical fertilizer labeled 10-10-10, because no plant on our planet uses equal amounts of those nutrients. These so-called “balanced” fertilizers with equal “NPK” numbers on their labels are actually unbalanced for any kind of plant.

And one of those 10s (the middle one) stands for the phosphorus content, a chemical that homeowners in Maryland and Virginia are supposed to be avoiding to try and help the Bay recover from years of chemical fertilizer pollution.

It’s illegal to apply phosphorus to a lawn at any level, and it’s also just a bad idea all around.

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