Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Secret Superpower of Geraniums

The tiresome Japanese beetle has been busy doing its thing again, tormenting gardeners. The first time I encountered them in my garden I tried to look upon the Boston ivy as a greenish lace curtain draped over the fence. It didn’t work. There was no avoiding the realization that the leaves had been shredded by Japanese beetles.

Last year it was the hazel and by the time I noticed it was too late and the poor tree suffered the same treatment. There were just too many to deal with, and besides, they were out of reach. Other times these shiny brown and green beetles with locust-like appetites have appeared on my roses where at least they’re easy to spot and it’s easy to shake them off into a pail of soapy water. That’s about the most effective way to dispatch them. Sadly, for some gardeners, so many show up to feast they’d need to set up a dishwasher in the back yard and herd them in. So far this year I’ve only seen two and used the quick and simple squishing technique — ugh.

Maybe the winter was hard on the grubs, or enough lovely starlings fed well when on lawn patrol. That’s where the beetles begin their life cycle. After they’ve done eating, they mate, then the female lays eggs in a handy lawn, especially one where the where soil is moist. The following spring, eggs develop into grubs that feed on grass roots, pupate, then emerge as hungry adults in July and take off to the nearest food source, but only when conditions are right. They prefer to take flight when the air is clear, calm, humidity is high, and the temperature between 29 C and 35 C.

It’s at the grub stage in lawns where some control can be achieved by an application of nematodes, but to be effective, correct time of application, weather, and specific soil temperature must all coincide. Even then, it’s of little help if yours is the only lawn in the area to be treated.

You might be wondering why these voracious pests haven’t defoliated their homeland by now. In Japan they’re seen only as a minor pest, simply because of a difference in gardening culture. The country isn’t blanketed with lawns the way North America is, and that means far fewer places accommodate the lifecycle of the grubs.

There are traps available to limit damage, and they work extremely well, or sort of. They attract the beetles with two types of baits or pheromones, a sex one to attract the males and a flowery one to tempt both male and female. The drawback is they can attract thousands of beetles and as they pass over your garden on their incoming flight path, enough of them will stop off for a quick feed and anything else they might have in mind. No harm in trying with traps. Better still, convince all your neighbours to install a few.

The most effective solution, though not the easiest, is to gradually replace any plants and trees that the beetles are attracted to, and there are over 300 species. There are even more that they’ll never bother, and if that’s the route you choose to take, a quick search online will provide lists of both.

One
more possible way to limit the damage the beetles do, is to plant geraniums, lots of them. Research by a couple of scientists confirmed anecdotal reports that geraniums (pelargoniums) are toxic to these pests. After feeding on the flowers, the study showed the beetles became paralysed for up to 16 hours, however, it didn’t finish them off. When they recovered, they went back for more. Made them easier to pick off, I suppose, but it might take a lawn full of geraniums to provide any relief. Other anecdotal reports suggested the same effect occurred when beetles fed on flowers of bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), but when tested, no adverse effects were observed.

Nature does have a way of challenging us, so for now it looks like I’ll continue picking and squishing, at least until balance is restored.  

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Getting High With Plants

 I have a problem with the whole concept of trends, the ones that pop up in glossy magazines or become internet memes forecasting what we are all going to follow next. I always feel as though I’m being manipulated in some way to adopt a completely new style by a current day company of Mad Men.

Yet there is another type of trend, the kind that is actually happening, in the moment, simply because people have decided that something is a great thing to do. In the world of plants and gardens, there are two that are prominent, and they are both connected to that unfortunately branded group, millennials, that is, those born in the years roughly spanning 1981 to 1996.

By all reports, this group is into plants and gardens in two specific ways — or both. One is the surge in backyard vegetable gardens, simply because they like to feed their young families with their own healthy produce. Wait, haven’t Generation X and baby boomers been doing that for ages? Yes, but the latter are tapering off a little as they reach the age when bodies are creaking as much as an old wheelbarrow. Many of that group are now moving into apartments and condos, leaving their gardens behind.

It’s in those new high-rises springing up like — okay, weeds — where the other trend is taking place. That is the growing of houseplants, particularly succulents. Succulents are especially popular because they’re easy to take care of. Little do these people know they’re also the gateway to larger, more exotic houseplants.

Next thing you know, these folks will be wanting to grow plants on their terraces and balconies. I can see it now — small shrubs, trees even, with masses of vines climbing and cascading over their multi-story building, just like Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest). Bosco Verticale is a pair of residential towers in Milan, Italy where, instead of cold steel and glass, greenery flows over the whole exterior surface of the buildings

But why not here? Sure, Milan has an enviable climate, but we could start with roof gardens. Now I don’t mean green roofs covered mainly in hardy ground covers. They’re fine and have their purpose, but I’m suggesting more. Roofs on these buildings are wasted space when they could be productive. There’s plenty of room for raised beds where the building occupants can grow their fruits and vegetables, or ornamental plants if they wish, maybe even a cutting garden, and plants for pollinators, of course.

But what about a real garden? This isn’t a new concept, and many have been installed. Some years ago, in London, England, I ate at a restaurant located on the roof of a six-storey building that looked out on a beautifully landscaped garden. The garden held over seventy mature trees, including oak. It even had a stream and a pond complete with wandering flamingos. Known as the Derry and Toms Roof Gardens, it was on the roof of the former department store by that name which opened in 1933, when the gardens were first installed.

That may be ambitious, but why not? We’re losing green space, not only because of suburban sprawl, but in our uptowns and downtowns where the word is intensification. In order for this to take place, many new building high-rises are built on land that previously held houses. Gardens at ground level vanish along with the homes. “Paved paradise” anyone?

There is a need for greenery, for people to be able to stay in touch with the natural world, evidenced by the trends above, and countless studies have shown the benefits. Those millennials may believe they’re adding a living artwork to their condo, but it reveals an inherent need to stay connected. For those older baby-boomers living in the same buildings, there’s nothing many would like better than to again have a garden they can tend.

They’d be lining up to buy or rent, so what about it, planners, architects, builders, and developers? You can do it. Start a trend.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Triple mixed up about soil?

Enthusiasm for gardening is at its highest this month, for life-long gardeners and for those about to stick their trowels and shovels into soil for the very first time. But what soil? It used to be easy: call up someone and get a load of topsoil dumped in the driveway. Then the big yellow bags appeared offering a tidier delivery system for regular soil. Tidy yes, but getting the soil out of the bag with a shovel and into a wheelbarrow does make demands on rarely used body parts.

Most plain topsoil is what was stripped from farmland prior to the building of new homes. It might have started out as good soil, but after being stockpiled, sometimes for years, it becomes compacted. This results in the loss of much of the important microbial life. Adding compost will help restore life to the soil.

Also available in bulk is triple-mix. Recipes vary, but it’s typically a blend of soil, peat moss, and compost from leaf and yard waste, and it’s a good choice for most situations. The only drawback is it tends to settle as the organic matter decomposes and after one season it will need topping up, so maybe allow for this when ordering.

When the opportunity arrived to pick up small, easily transported bags of soil, it became so much easier to tentatively begin gardening by filling a planter or two with bags of soil brought home with the groceries. These small, colourful bags are currently stacked up at grocery or hardware stores like sandbags in anticipation of a flood.

The sight of all these bags must be confusing for the new gardener. I wouldn’t have a clue what to use in my garden or in planters if I was just starting out. Garden soil, three-way mix, black earth, potting soil, and what about the equally attractive bags of compost that buttress those bags of soil? There’s sheep compost, cattle compost, maybe horse or even chicken compost. Whenever I pass by I find myself humming Old MacDonald’s Farm.

Which one to choose? For small raised beds, the three-way mix, much the same as triple mix is fine. With the one labelled simply as garden soil I’d be inclined to add the compost of your choice. Plain garden soil is fine for a garden, but not recommended for planters — a soil-free mix can be better for that purpose.

A soil-free mix is composed mostly of peat moss and perlite and may be labelled as potting soil. If unsure, simply check for the bag that’s soft and feels light compared to ones containing more soggy soil. The latter can be lightened by adding peat moss or coir. Major brands are now adding fertilizer or mycorrhizal fungi to the mix, though not essential.

Black earth can be a puzzle, and I don’t know why it’s called earth and not soil. It would be easy to assume that because it’s black it must be nutrient rich soil; however, that isn’t necessarily so as good soil comes in all colours, like the red soil of Prince Edward Island, for instance. Black soil (or earth) could have come from a swampy area or it could have been darkened by adding leaves. Unlike the composts that are produced and sold, there are no requirements for the analysis of plain soils unless the producer does it voluntarily.

Compost is regulated by the provincial government as well as federally through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Regulations are set out to ensure heavy metals and other toxic materials etc. are not present. . For more information on compost, see The Compost Council of Canada website.