Garden Plot: The surprising secret to radiant roses

Kent in Chantilly, Virginia, writes: “I have several great rose bushes in my front garden. Most years, I find that a minimal amount of work produces beautiful roses — water, a little food and spraying to fight black spot.

“But this spring, I did no work; instead I seeded the garden with wild flowers and let the resulting vegetation takeover. It attracted many pollinators — and lots of insects I hadn’t seen before. But the real surprise was the rose bushes. I didn’t water, didn’t feed, and didn’t spray for black spot. As a result of my laziness, the roses were as profuse as ever — and no black spot!

“What gives? Why would black spot be so prevalent when I am spraying the roses, and non-existent when the garden is essentially fallow?”

Simple, Kent — the plants don’t need us. A lot of the things we add to the garden often cause problems to become worse, not better. And a garden filled with life is often the healthiest of gardens.

Simply put, no spraying often equals no problems.

A great ‘garden rebate’ for DC residents

“Frequent Flyer Matt” in D.C. writes: “I found this awesome program where the city will cover some of the costs for changes to your landscape that reduce the runoff damaging the Chesapeake Bay. I just filled out my application, and I should hear back in three to five months, I’ll keep ya posted.”

Thank you, Matt. The districtwide “River Smart” Program will install a nice-sized rain garden on your property for a copay of $75, and/or install a 120-square-foot native plant pollinator garden they call “Bayscaping” for a hundred bucks.

They also offer rebates for replacing hard surfaces with permeable pavers. Best of all, they’ll plant shade trees on your property for free — with no limit to the number of trees! Sounds like a great program.

Get details on the District’s website.

How to make this year’s seeds last several years

“Frequent Flyer Matt” in D.C. also writes: “I’ve racked up quite the collection of seed packets, but of course they all have expiration dates. I’ve done some research and keeping them in the freezer or the fridge seems to be the best option. Any other suggestions?”

Yes, Matt: Forget the fridge. It is cold in there, but it can also be wet, which is death to seeds.

When I was just starting out, you could buy a “small packet” of tomato seeds for two bucks, or a massive quarter-pound sack for four. Of course, I went LARGE. I used the seeds from those big bags successfully for over a decade — and they never saw the inside of a fridge.

The secret is humidity plus temperature. If those two numbers add up to less than 100, your seeds will remain fresh for years So pick the coolest and driest part of the house and seal the seed packets inside tightly lidded glass jars to which you’ve added a bunch of those little desiccating packets that come with vitamins and running shoes.

Get rid of greasy grimy grubs

Last week, we reminded all of you with a cool season lawn composed of bluegrass and/or fescue that the next 30 days are the ideal time to core aerate, seed and overseed — not in the spring.

The same timing is true for eliminating gross, greasy, grimy grubs. These larval forms of Japanese and other scarab beetles are large and in charge underground right now, eating the roots of lawn grasses in preparation for winter.

Their size and appetite makes them prime candidates for elimination with milky spore disease, beneficial nematodes or “BT Galleria” the newest strain of Bt.

All three controls are organically approved and pose no harm to people, pets, birds, bees, frogs, toads, etc. They only harm beetle grubs that are feasting on the roots of your fescue.

Time to get ready for the second season, kats and kittens!

It’s time to sow the seeds of cool-weather greens, like lettuce, spinach, arugula and kale. They’ll sprout fast in our warm soils and will stay sweeter than spring-sown crops because of the shorter hours of daylight and cooler nights to come.

It’s also time to obtain planting garlic, so that you’ll be ready to install the pungent plant’s cloves sometime over the next 30 days.

*For the best flavor you want “hardneck garlic,” and a true (“producer only”) farmer’s market is the best source. You’ll get garlic that’s used to growing in our unique climate.

*Second-best is from a seed catalog, like Burpee, Gurneys or the Seed Savers Exchange.

*Don’t waste your time with supermarket garlic; it’s likely from China, not the right type for our climate and has probably been treated with sprouting inhibitors.

Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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