Friday, February 24, 2017

Zap Those Plant Pests

My neighbour, Olaf, has a large collection of houseplants. They keep him busy through the winter -- help keep his mind off TV. Like me, he watches too much, especially late movies. Still, he's always complaining. His plants are either turning brown or the flowers are dropping off. If it isn't white fly, it's scale.

There seems to be no end to the pests Olaf has to put up with. His latest problem is fungus gnats -- those things that look like fruit flies -- speaking of which -- I’ve never seen one in a grocery store. Racks and racks of fruit displays screaming eat me, eat me, and not a fruit fly in sight. This worries me. I leave one grape on the kitchen counter and the fruit flies are rolling it out the door!

Anyway, back to Olaf. The Fungus Gnats were driving him nuts. He’d tried everything to get rid of them, but they kept returning. I told him, "You have to destroy the source. They're laying their eggs in the soil, you know. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae and then turn into the gnats that are bugging you”

"Oh, really," he said.

Next day, Olaf went down to the local petro-chemical by-product outlet and purchased a variety of toxic waste to drench the plants and soil with -- so much that I'm surprised he didn't get a visit from a U.N. weapons inspection team. Even so, the stuff had little effect. The gnats vanished all right, but a week later they returned -- bigger and meaner. Olaf was wild.

Since then he’s tried everything: soaking his plants in the shower, wrapping them in plastic, and even heating them in the microwave (moderately successful as far as wiping out the gnat larvae, but it made the leaves a bit crisp). Things got really serious when he put all his plants in the garage and ran the car to try to asphyxiate them. It might have been successful, but he had to call off the experiment when the Peace Lily passed out.

Olaf asked me over for a beer the other weekend -- told me that at last he had a sure-fire way to zap the critters in the soil. "Follow me," he said, and led me into the garage. The car was in there, and so were all his houseplants -- lined up like they were on death row.

The hood was up on the car and he had a pair of cables attached to the battery. The other ends of the cables were hooked to two large meat probes.

"These are my bug-zapping light sabres," he said. “Watch this.” He then yelled, "Clear," just like on E.R. -- or St. Elswhere if you're still watching re-runs -- and plunged the two meat probes into a pot containing a huge schefflera.

Sure-fire was right. Blue sparks flashed and the battery began to smoke as steam rose from the soil. Both Olaf and the schefflera shuddered. "There," he groaned, "that should fry em." I wasn't convinced; I've seen too many Frankenstein movies. I got out of the garage fast with visions of a crazy professor and mutant larvae flashing to mind.

It's been a month now and Olaf still hasn't solved his fungus gnat problem. Last time I talked with him he was thinking of taking them down to the grocery store and standing them beside the fruit racks for a day or two. Meanwhile, I've stopped watching late movies and, just as a precaution, I got the screen on the window fixed.

WARNING! This is fiction. Do not attempt this at home, or anywhere else for that matter -- you may wind up on Grey's Anatomy. But if you see Olaf's sure-fire bug killer on a late- night infomercial, remember, you saw it here first.

TIP: The above might work, but the best is yellow sticky strips and a layer of grit or perlite on the surface of the soil.

Lost in the Art Gallery


As pretty as the landscape is now, shrouded in white with impressive icicles threatening to drag eaves troughs from roofs, I’m beginning to miss color — real colors, not indoor TV colors, but colors produced by nature.

That’s what I was thinking the other day while at my local hardware store browsing an extensive display of seeds. And then I began to think of summer gardens and burgers on a barbecue, probably because of the barbecue in the corner, marked down for an unlikely winter sale.

I refocused on the seeds and I was no longer in a hardware store, but in an art gallery of miniature still lifes. I gazed at the packets of rosy red tomato seeds, marveled at the complex shading in the ruffled leaves of Romaine lettuce, I compared the subtle hues of the shiny green peas, and I admired the glamour shots of the ornamental gourds. Then it was on to the flower seeds — bouquet after bouquet, tiny images of exquisite beauty, each one screaming buy me, buy me.

And I did, but I only bought a single packet of seed, and what’s more, there wasn’t even a picture of a flower on it. It was the name that caught my eye — Columbine (Aquilegia).

Now, I’m a sucker for columbine; it’s one of my favorite flowers, but beneath the species name on the simple white packet, in large uppercase letters it said: Lime Sorbert.
Lime Sorbert? Despite the misspelling, the urge to buy seeds combined with images of sizzling burgers then culminated with a flash image of a dripping lime sorbet. How could I resist?

Am I the only one who shops in this way, allowing a stream of consciousness to influence my decisions? I’d only gone in the store to buy screws; at least that’s what I told myself. Oh well, regardless of how I got there, I came home with a packet of seeds to add to the pile that I’m already coaxing into life, but I can always squeeze one more columbine into my garden.

When I left the store, clutching my packet of seed, it was snowing again and the summer images quickly dimmed, except for the sizzling burger. Just had to make one more stop before heading home.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Getting closer but not there yet

Imagine, lying in bed nice and cozy then suddenly the duvet is whipped off. That’s bad enough, but then the window is thrown wide open and an icy blast flash freezes your tender bits. If this is repeated enough times, those bits will fall off. This is exactly what happens to plants in the garden when the snow melts quickly, as it has this week.

Snow is an insulator, the deeper the better. It keeps plants in a comfortable state of dormancy. Even in winter, soil is giving off heat. Deep down, soil temperature is around 10 degrees or so, summer and winter. Where there’s a deep layer of snow acting as insulation, the surface temperature of the soil may be barely frozen. A study from the University of Delaware showed that for each centimetre of snow cover, the soil temperature will increase by roughly half a degree Celsius. 

Being suddenly exposed to icy blasts won’t bother tough plants, especially native ones, but any tender ones will suffer. And if the icy blasts don’t get them, the soggy soil will. The ground below may remain frozen, but nearer the surface it will be waterlogged. This happens in spring, but the ground soon thaws and normal drainage is resumed. When it happens in the middle of winter, that soggy ground refreezes. Repeat a few times and the expensive, borderline hardy perennial that you planted with care last spring will quietly succumb and no amount of coaxing will revive it. The same conditions can easily cause plants that aren’t well rooted to be heaved out of the ground, dead or alive.

I haven’t reached the point where I’m pushing wheelbarrows full of snow to the backyard to cover tender plants, but I have on occasion tossed a few extra shovelfuls over one or two. I usually mulch around the special ones in fall to help them resist the effect of winter thaws.

There are places in my backyard where the snow drifts deeper, and consequently, plants below are less prone to being prematurely exposed. The same occurs in sheltered areas, usually in shade and out of the wind. It’s worthwhile to note these places as they are in effect, micro-climates. A tender plant may require other specific considerations — soil type, sun or shade etc. — but it might just stand a better chance by being planted where it won’t be subjected to harsh conditions too early in the spring.

It’s also worth noting where the opposite occurs — areas in the garden where wind consistently whips snow away to expose the soil. This happens around the base of shrubs, posts, and against a fence, or building.

The snow is often scoured away along sides of buildings, depending on the prevailing wind, although the soil may be warmed by heat loss from the house, counteracting the effect of the wind. In fact, tender plants often survive well here. For instance, spring bulbs planted close to a sheltered, south facing wall will flower days or even weeks earlier than those in the middle of a garden.  Against a fence there’s no extra heat in the soil and though the fence may cause snow to drift deeply as you may see on a leeward flowerbed, the space closest to the fence is left exposed.

It may not be immediately obvious that a change in the weather is impacting the way a garden will look in summer, but it certainly does. Ahh, summer. Brrr — hang on to that the duvet. Winter isn’t over yet.