Martha Stewart Living Radio: The Radio Blog

Homegrown Digest: Week of September 27, 2010

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No one wants to think about spring when we're just starting out a glorious autumn, but it is time to plant spring bulbs so we're dedicating this week to everything bulby - our favorites, planting strategies, and planting how-to. And as always, taking questions from you, our delightful listeners.

Tony and I both kicked off the show with our tales of horror involving the destructive (but so adorable!) squirrels in our gardens. These things are going positively coo-coo out there! As we shared our tales of woe, you called in and gave us yours - first, we heard from Jennifer in Michigan who has had a mass chipmunk relocation to her perennial bed. We advised her to use hardware cloth, a metal mesh that comes in rolls, to exclude the chipmunks from the holes they've dug: They can't stand it when their little claws hit the wire. Tony recommended forming the hardware cloth over a cup or glass into a cylinder and pushing it into the holes. Jennifer also wanted to know about protecting her bulbs from the marauders, and Tony reported success with tossing susceptible bulbs (tulips, crocus) with a mixture of dish soap or peppermint scented liquid soap mixed with plenty of cayenne pepper and then planted. He used this when he was working on the original Martha show, so he had no room for error and it worked for him. Let us know how it works for you if you try it!

Then we heard from Anne down in Louisiana who is suffering through a major raccoon infestation. Raccoons are serious, scary business (okay, so I'm pretty much terrified of them) and Anne had seven of them on her back porch this past weekend. Controlling them is difficult, there's no question, and we recommended a concerted effort of working with neighbors to eliminate all potential lures: pet food, bird seed, garbage cans all much be secured indoors until the critters go elsewhere. The Internet Center for Wildlife Management offers some helpful information about controlling raccoons; they are a non-profit, grant-funded site that pools the research of four American universities, so they are definitely a trustworthy resource for dealing with all sorts of invaders. I'm bookmarking it!

Finally, Mary from Maryland called us with a question about transplanting her ornamental grasses. They've grown too close together and she needs to replant. We recommend waiting until spring and doing it at the same time that you'd cut back last season's growth - about March for us here in the Northeast. Leave the old growth on while you dig the roots out of the ground - they'll give you a little something more to work with. Cut it all off before replanting, though.

Thursday's show was dedicated to the more technical aspects of purchasing bulbs: what to look for in terms of quality, and getting certain species (fritillaria, snowdrops) into the ground as soon as possible because they are extremely sensitive to drying out. At the store, make sure the bulbs in the package you're considering are firm, like a fresh onion. The papery coating on many species is called the tunic, and it's okay to purchase tulips if the tunic has loosened somewhat. However, avoid over-handled daffodils and hyacinths, as in those species, the tunic plays an important role in maintaining the bulb's moisture. Some peeling or flaking is okay, but don't buy any that are completely stripped of their tunics.

You know how much we love hearing from our listeners, and Thursday, you definitely did not disappoint! Mindy called from Saskatchewan - she was hauling logs and is a zone 2 or 3 gardener! She was wondering if it was too late to transplant her shasta daisies and delphiniums, since they've already had a few frosts up there. We advised her to wait until spring - transplanting now in such a cold climate doesn't really give the plant enough to time to recover from the damage of being dug before the really harsh weather sets in. Tony directed her to Cold Climate Gardening, a great blog with numerous contributors who are all gardening in zones 4 and colder. So you're in good company, Mindy, and we're still jealous of the gorgeous delphiniums you can grow up there (and Mindy grows at least 9 varieties, so July must be quite a sight!).

Then, Karen called from Chicago. She's enduring a Japanese beetle nightmare and was looking for some control solutions. For years, inoculating your soil with milky spore disease was a popular control method (so much so that the US government inoculated 160,000 sites around the country in the 1930s-50s). Recent research has shown, however, that it is not as effective as it once was, either through the beetles developing resistance or the bacteria losing its strength over time, or a combination of the two. What is recommended now is an application of beneficial nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic worm-like organisms: some are highly damaging to food crops, but other species parasitize grubs in the soil. They come on a sponge which you wring into a bucket of water or a hose-end sprayer and apply to moist soil. It's pretty simple, actually, and it can be done anytime that daytime temperatures are above 52 degrees. I would not recommend applying when the adults (the Japanese beetles) themselves are present, as that indicates there are few to no grubs in the ground, and you don't want to apply the nematodes and have nothing for them to eat, or to fill up on other critters before the next generation of Japanese beetle grubs hatch. Now is a fine time to apply if your daytime temperatures are warm enough, or wait until spring. The point is to pre-empt this next generation and kill it before it emerges. If you've tried the nematodes for Japanese beetles and had success, please let us know! We'd love to hear your story.

Terry called from California, describing a mass invasion of green caterpillars in her herb garden. I had the same thing a few weeks ago, and they seemed to sample all my herbs before deciding that they really liked lemon verbena and basil - though in Terry's garden, they seem to have a taste for sage. Different strokes for different caterpillars, I guess! While it is only a small comfort, caterpillars are just one short stage in the insect's life cycle, so they'll do their damage and basically move on, instead of persisting indefinitely like scale or aphids. I told Terry that what I did was hand pick them whenever I saw them and wait it out. The key is to exclude them on their next life cycle - so if you see moths hovering around a certain plant, cover it with cheesecloth or row cover.

We also heard from Rich in Chicago who hit the jackpot with a whole load of mums at the end of last season for 25 cents apiece. They've done well for him, but now they're huge, bushy, and floppy. Frankly, that's just what mums do, and to prevent it, you have to pinch them back regularly. Here's a good description of how and when to pinch from Purdue University Cooperative Extension. As for this year, however, you can do what I used to do in my days as horticulturist at Tavern on the Green: wrap green twine around them, cinch them up to your liking, tie it securely, and no one is the wiser, thanks to the mums' dense habit.

That does it for this Tuesday we're talking peonies, so tune into Homegrown on Tuesday at 9 am EST. To get your gardening fill in the meantime, please visit us on our gardening blog, At Home In The Garden.

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