Last year we put up a new hoop house, it’s mostly to protect all the trees we still have in pots from the winter freeze but I decided we had enough space to try growing some early vegetables. So back in early February we moved some pots around, cleared an area added some compost and planted some peas and fava beans. Watered in and went off to a couple of farm conferences.
When we came back about 10 days later I was expecting the seeds to be up. The weather had been pretty much OK and the temperatures inside the hoop house would have risen quite a bit. The willows and hazelnut trees in there were flowering nicely.
When I went to look I was disappointed. There were no sprouts. What there was however was a vole tunnel. You could see where the little bugger had burrowed all the way along the pea row. There were in fact a couple of pea sprouts on the ground. Just the green tops, the vole had eaten the pea seed out and left the green bit.
The tunnel reached the end of the pea row, then doubled back right down the bean row. Everything was gone!
To say I was PO’ed would be putting it mildly. I was looking forward to those early peas. Course they would not be quite as early as I had hoped since the temperatures in the last 10 days have plummeted and we had 10″ of snow last week which is still hanging around on the ground in large clumps. Today we are expecting another 5″ with 7-12″ forecast for tomorrow.
But I refused to be beaten by a damn rodent. So yesterday I marched across the snow to the hoop house and set to work. I am determined to get my early peas. I went in armed with a roll of chicken wire and digging tools. After stripping down to shorts and T-shirt because it’s hot in the hoop house when the sun is out, I got to work.
First I dug out the row where the peas should be, not one was left. I dug a much deeper trench that I would if I was just planting more peas.
Then I cut the chicken wire to the length of the row. Next I bent the wire over double so that the holes of one side were overlapped by the folded side making the hole diameter half what it would be on normal chicken wire.
That done I bent the folded section in half and laid the wire in the trench I had dug.
Then filled the V shaped wire section with soil and planted the peas near the top. Finally I covered the seeds and folded the last third of the chicken wire over the top of the peas so they are now encased in a cage of chicken wire. I then wired the top in place so it won’t spring back up and expose the peas. I then added just a light covering over the whole chicken wire concoction.
Then I did the same thing for the bean row. Finally it was all watered in and I stood back happily tired from my exertions.
Let the little buggers get through that lot to my seeds!
Now I just have to wait and see if it works. It should not bother the pea seeds their roots can easily get through the wire holes. While voles can be quite small I doubt that they can get through those small holes so my seeds should be safe. Now I just have to hope that the mice don’t come along and eat off the shoots when they emerge.
The hoop house is covered in white plastic not clear. This is to stop the plants inside frying over the winter. The plastic is there to stop the plant pots from freezing not to make them grow. White plastic is also useful to ensure that the hoop house does not get too hot for other plants like cool season peas and beans. Clear plastic would be much too hot and they seeds would most likely fry. White plastic keeps is warmer but not enough to cook the plants inside.
Recently a friend forwarded me a link to a New York Times article talking about how botanists have just discovered that some plant grow better when they are pruned or eaten by animals. Apparently this was totally unknown to science before this and botanists thought that any damage to plants was detrimental.
I was incredulous!
Where have these so called botanists been hiding? In the greenhouse and the laboratory? Obviously not out in the field where the plants grow. Anyone who has spent time outside knows that many plants grow better when they have been eaten or pruned.
Hundreds of ‘how to’ articles are written about as many plants that include phrases like ‘pinch out the tops to create bushing’ or ‘cut plant down to ground to encourage strong growth’.
Botanists don’t think this is damage?
Anyone who has grown up in the countryside where there are grazing animals will have seen how many plants get stronger usually shorter and bushier when animals eat them. I grew up in rural England and I noticed this by the time I was six years old. Many plants, especially those you did not want like thistles grew stronger when the sheep and cows eat them. It was common knowledge everywhere. Now I live in the United States I see how many plants in our fields grow stronger and bushier after the deer have been through and eaten them off. Horseweed especially gets bushy and produces far more flowers than if left alone to grow tall and produce just one flower stalk. I just wish the deer would eat the plant to the ground rather than letting it grow into a bush. Top browsed plants are a lot stronger and much harder to pull out than the non eaten ones.
It is true that many plants don’t do well with browsing. These tend to be the ornamental plants that we bring home from the nursery. Ones that have been bred to have large flowers and no defenses. They are grown in our gardens which are not areas where they are native so they don’t know how to cope with the local herbivores.
For most people this is never a problem since they put there plants into suburban gardens and they bloom wonderfully enhancing the landscape and making the garden beautiful. These plants never see a predator (large plant eating animal) so these plants are soft. Put the same plants in a rural area where there are deer or rabbits and they will get eaten to the ground and most likely not recover. They are not used to it. Some will come back stronger but not that many. If this is where the botanists have been concentrating their knowledge then of course they will think that plants don’t like being eaten. But like all scientists they should get outside the laboratory and look at the real world. Any farmer who has livestock will tell you that a lot of plants grow strong and bushy if eaten. Most often they are not ones that the farmer wants but they still know about them. It’s something you just learn, it does not take a degree to figure out, I suspect, like me, they see it from a very young age and just accept it as part of the plants life.
Many plants we grow also fall into this category. Often people prune shrubs and certainly herbs to make them bush out and produce more bulk. This includes a lot of herb plants. Most people know that if they cut down their basil or parsley plant it will grow back up again. Cut many plants to the ground and they will come back stronger. It’s common garden knowledge.
So how come the botanists think they have just discovered something? I guess it would never occur to them just to ask any keen gardener or a farmer.
Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is a nasty invasive plant that is taking over huge tracks of our countryside. It prefers semi shaded and shaded areas so it is has less other plants to deal with and is effortlessly replacing them all as the main woodland undergrowth. For those who dont know its dangers it looks pretty amazing. Walk through a woodland and you see all this lush green grass growing under the trees. The trouble is that is all you will see. There is absolutely nothing else growing there but Japanese stiltgrass. It takes over everything and smothers out all the native plants that should be growing in the woodland.
The other problem is that native animals, mainly deer, dont like to eat stiltgrass. They prefer the native species. So they will wade through the stiltgrass searching out the few remaining pieces of native vegetation and eating that. This is great for the stiltgrass since it ensures that any competition that it might have is removed and it has a free rain to take over without much chance of being eaten. Before long all our woodlands in the northeast will have nothing but stiltgrass as undergrowth.
Stiltgrass will also invade lawns. This always happens from the shady edges under trees shrubs or at the edge of woodlands. Stiltgrass will begin to encroach on a lawn and can eventually take over these areas entirely. Stiltgrass is rarely a problem in full sun areas as it always prefers the shade.
Stiltgrass is an annual plant. Think of it like a really invasive crabgrass. It flowers drops seed and then comes up again next year just like crabgrass. While crabgrass spreads out in a circle stiltgrass spreads by jumping It creates a long stem with a bend like an elbow joint in it. Where the elbow touches the ground new roots sprout and the grass moves across the ground. This is why its called stiltgrass. Left alone stiltgrass will grow to about 3feet in height but can reach 4 or more and produce an airy fluffy look that can be quite attractive. Often homeowners find the grass growing in their woodland areas, think its nice and are often happy that something is growing on the ground there. Its left alone and before long its marching out to take over the lawn, by that time its too late to control it.
Like crabgrass stiltgrass produces a lot of seeds, but they are pretty tiny and not as easy to see as crabgrass. One plant can produce as many as thousand seeds in a year. These seeds fall to the ground and can then remain viable there for five or more years. They are also pretty sticky they will attach to shoes, pet fur, and wild animals and are easily transported over fairly long distances to reach new areas to colonize. Seeds are produced around August in zone 7 (New Jersey), but can be earlier or later depending on your location.
Once in a good spot they will germinate in the early spring, about the same time as crabgrass. Like crabgrass stiltgrass seeds need light to germinate this is why they do so well in forests where there is usually quite a lot of bare ground during the springtime. It’s also why crabgrass cant do well on a healthy lawn. If the grass blades are close together the seeds can’t get to soil that light falls on and they can’t germinate.
Controlling stiltgrass is a lot more of a problem because it tends to come in from the shady parts of the lawn and from under the trees. Lawn grasses tend not to do as well in such areas and the grass is often spotty and there is more bare ground for the stiltgrass to germinate on. Once it takes hold it will smother out other grasses. Mowing the stiltgrass down only makes it strong and forces it to flower at a much shorter height. It does not remove the problem.
Its most likely going to be a never ending problem. Once you have a woodland area that is prone to stiltgrass unless you can find a ground cover for your woodland, then its going to get more stiltgrass coming in. If you live next to or near a wild area that has a stiltgrass infestation then you will most likely be battling stiltgrass forever. There is no known way to eradicate it.
There are however several techniques you can use to keep it out of your garden.
There are several options. 1. A pre emergent crabgrass killer can be applied to stop the seeds from germinating. The problem with this method is that nothing else will germinate either. If you are intending to plant the area with more mature plants or plug plants this method may work well. It will take some time and the pre emergent may have to be applied for several years to ensure that all the seeds are inhibited. It is also important that the area around is monitored if there is stiltgrass close to your location then it will re-infect the area constantly unless the ground is well covered with vegetation.
2. Hand pulling. Allow the stiltgrass to grow to a reasonable height then go through and hand pull. It is important that this be done before the plant has set seed. This method will need to be applied over several years to ensure that all the seed has been removed but eventually it will be eradicated provided it is not reintroduced from other areas.
3. Flame Weeding. A flame weeder can be used to burn off the plants when they are small. However if you chose to use this method there are several safety factors to consider. a. All ground vegetation must be removed. Using a flame weeder amongst leaf or pine leaf litter will set the whole woodland on fire. b. Use only when the stiltgrass is very small. Flame weeders do not work well on larger weeds they must be small. Using on a large plant again, may set the woodland on fire. c. Always ensure you have a good supply of water with you to put out any fires before they start.
4. Weed killer. While many sources will suggest the use of weed killers its not the best option. The most common weed killer is roundup (Glyphosate). This material while effective at killing weeds is very toxic, it has been proven to cause cancer in humans and it not only kills the weeds that you put it on but kills everything in the soil that it is sprayed on. This basically sterilizes the soil making it very hard for any other plants to live there. It does not make for a healthy lawn, garden and especially not a healthy woodland.
While there are other weed killers available none seem to have much effect on stiltgrass.
HOW TO DEAL WITH STILTGRASS IN VARIOUS LOCATIONS.
Shady areas and woodlands.
Controlling the stiltgrass in woodlands will take quite a lot of effort but it can be achieved.
If the stiltgrass has totally taken over the woodland its going to be hard to stop it. If there is just some stiltgrass then hand pulling each plant as it appears is the best option. If there is a large infestation then hand pull any plants that appear outside this to prevent it from spreading.
During the winter months when nothing is growing go into the woodland area and rake the ground. It is important to remove any dead branches, large twigs and leaf litter at this time so that the area can be worked in the summer months without danger of falling over obstacles that cannot be seen through the stiltgrass vegetation.
Remove the stiltgrass using one or more of the above options. Remember this may have to be repeated for several years before all the stiltgrass is eradicated.
In a woodland setting the important consideration is what to cover the ground with once the stiltgrass is gone. If the ground remains bare then the stiltgrass will take hold again. This can be quite difficult since a lot of native woodland plants tend to come up in the spring and then vanish once the leaf canopy unfolds and the light levels reduce. Stiltgrass does not so finding something that will grow at this time is not always easy especially if you want to keep your spring flowering natives.
Often this can be achieved with the use of native grasses, ferns or other material. See if you can find a native plant nursery in your area and talk to them about what plants would be best to us. Once your new plants are installed ensure that the area is constantly checked and any small stiltgrass plants are removed to ensure that a new infestation does not occur.
If you have a lawn that is in a shady spot that is getting overrun with stiltgrass then you may have to consider removing the lawn. Most grasses, except stiltgrass, dont do well in shady areas. Its almost impossible to create the dense thick covering that is required to stop stiltgrass from germinating. The best option is to replace the grass with something else.
You can try seeding the area with some other low growing plant or adding other plants to your lawn such as clover. While this will not give you the monoculture you might desire it will help to keep the ground covered and with clover it will also fix nitrogen that will help feed the lawn grass and make it stronger and thicker.
Remove the lawn entirely and replace it with a ground cover plant. Things like pacasandra work very well. It produces a dense canopy that the stiltgrass cannot penetrate and provides a low growing cover that will keep the stiltgrass at bay. If you dont like this plant they talk to your local garden center or nursery and see if they can suggest something else that will grow in your area.
Semi shaded lawns.
For areas that are on the edge of sunshine it may be possible to re-establish a good grass lawn. Provided that the shade area behind it has all the stiltgrass removed from it.
Mowing down the stiltgrass will not control it just cause it to set seed as a much lower height. The plants must be removed. Use one of the methods above to remove the stiltgrass. We tend to recommend the use of a flame weeder as being the best option. These can be purchase fairly inexpensively at Harbor Freight stores. Just take care when using one and ensure that there is no combustible material that can cause the garden to catch fire.
Ensure that you have a good grass seed that will grow in a semi shaded area. Work on and seed your grass in the fall NOT the spring. This will allow the grass seed to become established over the winter months are reduce the amount of bare ground that the stiltgrass has to grow on. In spring allow your grass in this are to grow slightly longer than normal to help shade the ground and to show up any stiltgrass plants that grow. Pull these out by hand. It may be tedious for the first few years as all the seeds germinate but eventually it will be eradicated.
Whatever method you choose to remove stiltgrass the main thing to remember is that this invasive is here to stay. If you dont want it in your garden they you will need to be vigilant. If it is here now then it will return from wherever those first seeds came from. Now you know what to look for you can walk around and spot the plants as they come up and quickly remove them. This is going to be an ongoing battle that will never end. You can never truly win but you can keep it under control.
Make sure you don’t bring home more than you expect.
No matter if you are buying plants in the garden center or from a mail order company, check your plants before you buy or plant them. They could have bugs or disease that you don’t want to bring home.
While most plant companies do their best to supply good healthy disease free plants that is not always what happens. An excellent example is impatiens downy mildew that decimated the Impatiens growing in the northeast several years ago. Working the master gardener hotline we were inundated with unhappy gardeners who found their Impatiens dying on them. One day the plants were fine the next they were just stalks. This disease was brought in on plants grown outside the area and looked fine when they were sold but soon developed the disease and all of them died. Since this disease can live on in the soil for many years it now means that we can no longer grow Impatiens in our area a devastating loss for those who loved color in shaded areas.
Just last year I had a man call our Master Gardener Hotline and ask how to deal with a pest on his plants. After some questioning the story unfolded thus. He had found some plants at a big box store on heavy discount. They had bugs on them, he could see that but he thought he could ‘save them’. So he bought them and brought them home. He planted them in his garden then sprayed them with something. Now he is calling me because his spray did not work and the bugs have spread to all the plants around is ‘saved’ plants some of which are now dead and others are on their last legs.
Moral of the story. Don’t bring home diseased plants and try and ‘save’ them. Pass them right by and go for the healthy ones only. It might sound like a bargain but if it takes off in your garden it could cost you dearly in other plants.
How to inspect plants before you buy.
Always look carefully at every plant you buy in a garden center. For the most part good garden centers are very careful with their plants and only sell ones in excellent health but small numbers of bugs or lurking diseases can get through as cased by the impatiens disaster.
Look at the leaves are the mottled, do they have streaks.
Look at the underside of the leaf, this is where bugs hang out most of the time so you should be able to see them if they are there. They may be little spots tiny bugs
Are the leaves shiny and sticky? This is a sure sign of leaf sucking bugs. Check the plant but also look up. Sometimes the plants have been put under trees or other plants which may have the bugs on them not the plant you want to buy. Check all the leaves just to be sure.
Check the buds. Often bugs like to hang out on the newly formed bugs since they are young and tender. Look to see if there are any extra lumps or spots.
Look at the stems or tree bark . Are there any bumps. Can those bumps be wiped off with your fingers? If so its got scale you don’t want it. Scale is very hard to get rid of.
Look for any downy, powdery or white splotches on the leaves. Mildew is common on quite a few plants you may get it in your garden anyway but don’t take home extra.
Look at the overall plant. Does it have black or dying leaves, leaf tips or shoots. This could be a problem too.
Go with your gut. If the plant just does not look healthy, leave it behind. Find another garden center that has better plants. You may have to pay more but its worth it not to kill the rest of your garden.
Buying plants by mail.
Most nurseries that sell by mail do a wonderful job. We have bought plants many times from different companies. Sometimes there is no choice if you want a specific plant then you have to. However you should always check all material that comes in. Don’t just assume that its fine.
Recently we purchased some new kiwi vines (long story for another blog entry). One of our interns started to unpack them until I yelled at them to stop. The leaves of the plants were all mottled, an obvious sign that something was wrong with the plants. I looked under one of the larger leaves and was shocked to see hundreds of spider mite eggs. This plant was totally infested!
I have never had such a plant sent to me before. I contacted the company and they issued a refund since their whole greenhouse was infested they could not send me clean healthy plants.
The questions this raise in me were:
How come they did not notice when they packed the plants?
How come no one was scouting the greenhouse and noticed that there was a huge infestation of spider mites? This was one of the worst I have seen. This should have been spotted in the greenhouse long before it go this bad.
How could you try and send me such an infested plant?
How many other people had they sent infested plants to?
Hopefully other gardeners who received such plants also complained and got refunds. Never accept any material that has disease or bugs on it. You introduce that into your garden and it could infest all your other crops. Always inspect any plant that arrives are your door before you plant it. Make sure there is nothing wrong with it. If unsure then isolate the plant somewhere away from all other plants the may in any way be similar and grow it on it a pot for a while to see what develops. This is what all commercial nurseries do. They are always buying material in from other nurseries. They have a ‘quarantine’ area where all new plants go for a while to be checked out and ensure that they don’t have any problems before they are moved into the ‘general population’ of the main nursery. Commercial growers don’t ever want to introduce something into their plants that is going to cause a problem because it could cost them a great deal of money.
You don’t want that either. It may not be your livelihood riding on the plant disease but the beauty of your garden is. So check your plants out. Make sure they are strong and healthy before you get them anywhere near your other garden plants. Never ever bring home a sick plant and try to ‘save’ it. It could cost you your whole garden.