When to plant spring bulbs; what to do about sticky oaks

Spring bulbs: Buy now, plant later

We have a special request direct from The Glass Enclosed Nerve Center to discuss spring bulb planting this week. That’s an easy discussion: don’t!

This is a great time to buy your spring bulbs, but not to plant them. Just hang the bulbs in a cool, dry, airy spot that doesn’t get direct sun, in netted sacks — such as the ones they sell onions in — or regular brown paper bags; no plastic of any kind. Keep the bulbs away from bananas, tomatoes and other fruits that give off ethylene gas as well — they could cause premature sprouting.

Correct planting time in our region begins around Halloween and extends through Thanksgiving. That gives the planted bulbs plenty of time to grow strong roots before the ground freezes hard, but not enough time to get frisky and sprout prematurely — a possibility that our weird weather makes even more likely to occur this season.

Now: If your bulbs are already planted, consider digging them back up if they’ve only been in the ground a short time — such as a week or less. Otherwise, just leave them be and hope for the best. Oh — and if you’re going to leave fresh tulip bulbs in the ground, keep Evil Squirrels at bay by spraying the bed with deer repellent or spreading dog hair over the area.

Still time to plant a few edibles by seed

Janice in Alexandria is “trying to make sense of the schedule for planting fall/winter crops.” She writes: “I’ve read that Sept. 15 is the last day to plant, because after that the lessening sunlight won’t allow crops to reach maturity before freezes set in.”

That’s basically sound advice, Janice; we’ve all noticed how depressingly short the hours of daylight have already become. (Boohoo to darkness at 7 p.m.!)

Ah, but some crops are exceptions. The seeds of lettuce, spinach and other salad greens will germinate fast in this insanely warm weather, and you should be able to get a couple runs of tasty baby greens harvested “cut and come again”-style before winter arrives (which may not be for quite some time; remember how it almost didn’t arrive at all last year?).

Other fast-growing possibilities include green onions (aka scallions) and gourmet radishes such as the beautiful and tasty “French breakfast” varieties — which are ready to harvest an almost-unbelievable three weeks after planting(!).

And don’t forget that this is prime time for planting garlic for harvest in late June of next year. And for planting pansies, whose cold-hardy flowers are edible. And …

Corn gluten now? Weeds, no; feeds, yes!

Frequent Flier Clemencia in Potomac writes: “I purchased corn gluten meal with the intent of spreading it on my lawn to fertilize and prevent weed seeds sprouting. If I put it down at this time of year: 1) Will it suppress weeds in the spring? 2) Will it fertilize the lawn?”

It will not suppress weeds next spring if applied now, Clem. The natural herbicidal action of corn gluten meal only lasts for six weeks. So if you want to shoot for some crab grass control, store your supply in a clean, dry area protected from mice, and apply it when forsythia and redbuds begin to bloom next spring.

But CGM is also an excellent lawn fertilizer, and this is the time of year when cool-season lawns of bluegrass and fescue benefit most from a feeding — so you can’t lose either way.

When drippy trees attract danger

Steve in Rockville writes: “We have a very large oak tree in our front yard that does a fabulous job of shading the house and driveway. But over the past few days, what looks like clear and oily sap drippings have appeared all over our cars, sidewalk, driveway and lawn — and this material is attracting bees, wasps and hornets. My five-year-old daughter and a friend have already been stung. Is it normal for trees to drip so much sap that it attracts bees? Do I have to ban my daughter and her friends from the front yard?”

Yes, its normal, and no, you shouldn’t have to put up caution tape — but you do have some work to do.

First, set up a good number of wasp and hornet traps in the area and bait them with something sweet — overripe peaches are a great choice. This should greatly reduce the numbers of stinging creatures. (The stinging culprits here, by the way, are wasp and hornet family members. Honeybees won’t sting unless you step on them. If the attacker looked like a bee, it was almost certainly a yellowjacket — the most aggressive wasp in our region.)

Then, use a pressure washer to spray soapy water to get that sticky stuff off the driveway and sidewalk, and be diligent about keeping it from building back up.

Perhaps more importantly: Get to a car wash ASAP and get every last bit of the “sap” (it isn’t really sap, as we’ll see below) off the cars. And then park elsewhere until the leaves fall, use car covers or rinse the new “sap” off every day. It can become impossible to remove if left on for a long time.

Bleeding oak is not dropping sap

Aphids are generally the culprit when trees appear to be dripping sap at this time of year; the tiny little sap suckers cluster in trees in huge numbers and excrete enormous amounts of “honeydew” — a nice way of saying “bug poop.” This sweet substance attracts all sorts of insects, including the wasps and hornets that are making Steve’s driveway dangerous.

But honeydew is blackish in appearance, not at all like the clear material that Steve has described. (It’s often referred to as “sooty” — as am I.)

Steve’s problem sounds more like (and I am not making this up) drippy nut disease. The unusually warm weather we’ve been experiencing and the clear color of the fluid are strong clues.

The cause is a specific bacterium that infests nuts (in this case, acorns) that have been insect damaged. It won’t stop until the acorns drop — so for now, keep cleaning the sticky stuff up promptly, put out lots of wasp traps to keep the area safe from stingers and collect and destroy all the dropped acorns this fall.

To try to prevent future problems, don’t use chemical fertilizers on the lawn (especially on the tree itself!); use of high-powered chemical fertilizer makes plants much more prone to these and other problems.

And when it is aphids …

The cause of Steve’s “sappy” problem is unusual and specific to oak trees. Many other types of trees are also leaking what appears to be sap at this time of year, but that sap is “sooty,” and that means aphids are at play above.

At the first sign of this “soot” (which is actually aphid poop), spray the tree hard with sharp streams of water; a pressure washer is ideal for this work. Studies have found that being hit with sharp streams of plain water are a more effective aphid control than pesticides(!); the key is to make that stream a laserlike shot of H2O.

Never feed trees chemical fertilizer or use chemical fertilizers near where the affected trees are growing. The lush, unnaturally fast growth these chemicals cause will attract every aphid in the area.

And if you want to go for the gold, release beneficial insects that feed on aphids, such as ladybugs (good) and lacewings (twice as good). They’re available to homeowners via mail order and fun to have around.

As am I.

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