Hay or straw for the garden?

Nowadays people use the terms hay and straw interchangeably and in most cases it makes no difference whatsoever. For example we say we were on a hayride at a get together even though the wagons are filled with straw rather than hay. Straw ride just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

In a garden however, getting the two confused can lead to problems in the future. Hay and straw are often both used as weed control mulch in the garden but the results you get can be quite different.

Hay is a crop that is grown and harvested as a feed crop for cattle, horses and other farm animals. Straw on the other hand is a byproduct of a grain crop, in our area it’s usually usually wheat straw that we see.

Why would that make a difference to us in the garden? The problem lies with hay. Hay often is made up of a combination of different plants growing in a field or meadow. Farmers will cut and bale the plants in a field like that to feed to dairy cows that are in their resting stage, called dry cows. That kind of hay is of low quality and is less nutritious than say alfalfa hay but that is fine for dry cows because they don’t require dense nutrition when they’re not producing milk.

Low quality hay often has a dull color and different kinds of plant stems can be seen.

You never know what plant combination you’ll get in a random bale of hay. More often than not they contain weeds that you can inadvertently introduce to your property. I’ve seen such tenacious perennial weeds like thistle come into a garden as a result of their seeds hiding inside a bale of hay.

Straw on the other hand, is much better for use as a garden mulch. Since wheat and other grain crops are so competitive in a field, they suppress the growth of many weeds. Farmers also will control weeds one way or another to ensure the highest yields they can get of valuable grain. That results in straw with no or very little weed contamination.

Clean wheat straw has an even, bright amber color.

Granted, there are exceptions to the rule. You can find weed-free hay such as one hundred percent alfalfa or timothy but these can be expensive. Sometimes straw can be highly contaminated with weeds if it was grown in less than optimum conditions.

Be aware of the difference between hay and straw when shopping for mulch.

Composting hay can reduce the number of weed seeds to a minimum but that has to be done the right way in order for the compost to reach a high enough temperature to kill the seeds. I’d be wary of composted hay unless you’re sure of how it was composted.

Sometimes you’ll see “spoiled hay” that may be high quality hay that was left outside in the weather and began to get moldy making it unacceptable as a livestock feed. That can be okay for use in the garden if you know it came from quality hay.

Bob

 

Weather related disease problem on sycamore trees

The extra rain and cool weather we’ve been getting has been a mixed blessing. It’s June and a lot of gardens, farms and fields haven’t been planted yet because of saturated soil and cool temperatures.

On the other hand it has been great for established plants like trees and shrubs. In most cases they’ve made tremendous growth except for one notable exception — sycamore trees.

It’s quite startling to see how little progress the sycamore trees in our area have made. Most of them have very few leaves on them at all.

The maple tree on the left is flush with new leaves while the sycamore on the right is nearly bare.

This is due to a disease called anthracnose, a fungal malady of sycamores that is present in varying degrees from year to year. This year’s outbreak is particularly severe due to unusual weather.

A lot of it has to do with timing. Rainy and cool conditions that occur a couple of weeks after bud break allows the anthracnose fungus to thrive. The longer that type of weather stays around, the worse the infection gets. That’s why our sycamores are looking so bad for so long this year.

There’s really nothing practicable we can do to cure or even prevent this disease.

Young leaves killed by anthracnose.

Fortunately, once it gets warmer and drier they’ll bounce right back. Most of the time, very little major damage is done to the trees. The most obvious permanent damage you’ll see is “witch’s broom” a disfigurement of the branches that occurs in the spot the fungus killed twigs. At that point several small branches will grow from a single point giving it the typical witch’s broom appearance. Once the leaves fill out, however, the disfigurement is not so noticeable.

Witch’s broom caused by anthracnose.

Dead twigs eventually fall to the ground and can cause a mess in the lawn. This is probably why some people think of sycamores as messy tree, but it’s not the poor tree’s fault.

Trees can be sprayed or treated but it really doesn’t do much good since the infected parts can’t be healed anyway. Waiting for the weather is the best course of action in most cases. It extremely rare for a tree to die from anthracnose unless it is under stress from something else such as being planted in the wrong area or has a lot of bark damage from lawn mowers.

A little bit of fertilizer may help your tree to grow back its leaves faster. Generally, trees growing in lawns will get the nitrogen they need from the fertilizer used to fertilize the grass.

Anthracnose will always be with us so it’s just something we’ll have to live with.

Bob

 

Dead head lilacs for better flowers next year

Many of the lilacs I’ve seen have put on a nice show of flowers this spring. Some could have been even better if their owners had removed the spent flowers last spring.

Not many people are aware that deadheading lilacs is the best thing you can do for them to stimulate better flowers next year.

I don’t fault those who didn’t get around to doing that last year. If you remember, we had a wet spring last year and in the rush to get things planted, lilac deadheading was pushed far down on the list of gardening priorities.

Several years ago I was responsible for a dozen or more lilacs. My helpers and I always took the time to take off those spent blossoms and it really paid off. It’s another one of those delayed gratification things that gardeners always seem to be dealing with.

The ideal time to dead head lilacs is right after they’re done blooming.

Deadheading is very easy work if you have a sharp pair of pruners. Just snip off the expired flower right at its base and let it fall. It can be time consuming on a large bush but after a bit you fall into a rhythm. To me it’s a satisfying job because you can see the old flowers accumulate on the ground as you work at it.  Plus you are aware that next year’s flowers will will be even showier.

Old lilac flowers never fall off. Instead their panicles turn brown as seeds begin to form making the shrub look messy. So taking off the old flowers also keeps your shrub looking nice and neat. To do the most good, deadhead before the seeds set. I like to do it just as the last of the flower color is left.

Don’t worry too much if can’t get around to snipping off the flowers, your lilac will still do fine without any attention. In addition to its reliable flowering habit, low maintenance is another reason why lilacs have remained popular since colonial times.

Lastly, a light application of fertilizer after deadheading will give your lilac the nutrients it needs to regrow its flowers buds.

Bob

Epsom salts for colorful rose blooms

In order to grow and flourish all plants, including roses, require basically the same nutrients. One is carbon which is supplied to the plant by carbon dioxide in the air. Another, even though we may not think of it as a nutrient, is water.

In the soil, there are three primary nutrients that plants use in large quantities: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Together the primary nutrients are known as NPK. Good garden soil usually contains much of the required NPK . But sometimes soil is low in one or more of the primary nutrients so we supplement it with either organic or conventional fertilizers.

Secondary nutrients are need but in far less concentrations. They include calcium, magnesium and sulfur.

A long time ago rose growers noticed, even though roses were growing in very fertile soil, sometimes their blossoms still weren’t as nice as roses in other gardens. After much trial and error they found by adding Epsom salts, roses blooms would be noticeably improved. The missing ingredient was magnesium supplied by magnesium sulfate, more commonly known as Epsom salts.

The same Epsom salts you use in your bathwater can be used for your roses.

There are other sources of magnesium but some of them like dolomitic limestone can raise the soil pH. That would cause problems if your soil pH was already on the high side.

Add Epsom salts at the beginning of the growing season. For each mature rose bush apply a half cup of Epsom salts to the soil around the bush. You can do this either in dry form and water it in or dissolve it in water and apply as a solution. Do this every year to replace any magnesium used by the plant or leached out of the soil.

Bob

Purple dead nettle in the garden

As I was going through my seed potatoes a I remembered something I heard long ago. It was the concept of potatoes and their companion plants or what scientists call positive allelopathy. The basic idea is that some plants grow better in the presence of other kinds of plants.

We hear more about the opposite type of allelopathy, where plants secrete chemical compounds into the soil to inhibit the growth of other plants. The most well known example of a negative allelopathic plant is probably black walnut trees. Anyone with a small yard with a black walnut growing in it can tell you it is impossible to grow certain types of plants in the root zone of the tree.

Purple deadnettle (Lamium) is a common weed in many gardens. This is the time of year when it is most noticeable with its purple flowers and almost magenta colored upper leaves. It is thought by a lot of gardeners to have positive allelopathic effects, particularly on potatoes. A few deadnettle plants growing among potato plants is supposed to enhance growth and improve flavor as well as repel potato beetles.

Purple dead nettle has distinctive purple upper leaves and flowers.

Farmers don’t like purple deadnettle because it is a winter annual, a plant that germinates in the fall and flowers in the spring. But the biggest drawback of deadnettle (and a few other wild plants) is that it can harbor soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) a very severe malady of soybeans that can drastically reduce crop yields. Farmers are not willing to take a chance on their crop by letting deadnettles grow in their fields.

Gardeners on the other hand, rarely grow soybeans so a little bit of deadcnettle here and there is no problem.  Since SCN  is species specific, meaning other crops can’t be infected, you probably wouldn’t find SCN in a garden anyway.

The relatively short purple deadnettle can grow quite nicely under the partial shade of other plants like potatoes. They supposedly don’t steal nutrients from the soil that potatoes need. That sounds like  pretty good qualities to have in a companion plant.

I’ve never tried this in my own garden because I don’t have any purple deadnettle. I certainly would never introduce Lamium to my property because it can overrun an area fairly quickly. The seeds are viable for years so once you get deaednettle, you’ll always have it.

Bob

Bradford pear trees may become invasive

Ornamental Bradford pear trees were in full flower last week. They must be everyone’s favorite tree, or you would think so because everywhere there’s a housing development there’s at least one Bradford pear tree planted in front of every house. Even municipalities and businesses are planting them.

They do have a certain charm and they’re quite eye-catching when they’re in full bloom. But there’s so many of them now that they’re beginning to just become part of the background visual-noise instead of  being an accent in the landscape.

Landscapers plant Bradfords because of their flowers, shape and moderate size, and even though they are an introduced species, they are believed to be non-invasive by many. That has been the case in Michigan until recently. There’s evidence that these trees have become tired of being well-behaved and have decided to cut loose from their suburban lawns. This was pointed out to me a couple of years ago by a local, well-respected naturalist. To drive home her point she said all you had to do was look at the number of wild Bradford pears growing all along the highways.

Well, I drove the entire length of I -275 this week and was surprised how many out of place Bradford pears there were. They weren’t overcrowding any one area but there were plenty of single trees and small clusters of them. When you’re looking for them you begin to see them everywhere.

These more boisterous, escaped trees are claiming some area for themselves and have the potential to push out the native plants. The conventional wisdom that they are sterile and unable to reproduce may be true but something is going on. It brings to mind what Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm said in the movie Jurassic Park, “Life uh, finds a way”.

This Bradford pear is in full bloom but no bees are there. They seem to prefer other kinds of flowers.

In some other states Bradford pears are already a big enough problem that they have been place on those states invasive species list and are no longer recommended for planting.

To be fair, Bradford pears may never become a problem for us. I remember early in my career when, for a short time, some people worried smoke trees might escape and become invasive. Some trees did take root out of place here and there but the smoke tree invasion never materialized.

Maybe it’s time to think about developing a replacement for the Bradford pear if for no other reason than to add more variety to the suburban landscape.

Bob

Helping birds by providing natural nesting material

The other day while I was relaxing on our front porch, I had a chance to watch a female robin work on building her nest. She was collecting mud and other muddy debris from the edge of a water puddle to use to cement her nest materials together. She’d look around for the right bit of mud and scoop up a big mouthful then fly off to her nest in a tree on the other side of of our yard. She’d work with the mud and when was done with it, she’d fly back to the puddle for more.

Watching that robin reminded me that nearly all songbirds are in the process of making their nests right now. Although they are perfectly fine on their own, we can help make it easier for them by providing natural nesting material.

Different species of birds use different materials for their nests. It’s usually a specific size of material that they are looking for. Some larger species may use primarily sticks and twigs, other birds may prefer pieces of grass. Many species line their nest with soft material.

Birds will collect all kinds material for their nest. The latest research however suggests that made-made materials such as cloth, string, or drier lint among other things, may cause harm to hatchlings or in some cases even adult birds. So what can we do to help?

The easiest the thing is to let a corner of your yard go wild.  Encourage helpful plants such as shrubs that provide small twigs; milkweed and thistle that produce down for nest lining; grapevines have stringy bark that birds remove in strips for their nests; pine needles are a favorite for many birds; lengths of fine grass are a very attractive building material.

Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.
Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.

Invertebrates such as spiders will set up shop in your wild area and begin to spin webs. Those webs in turn will be used by hummingbirds as nest building materials.

Consider leaving a bare patch of soil in your natural area that you can soak with water to make mud for birds to use.

As an alternative to having a natural wild area in your otherwise manicured lawn, you can collect the aforementioned material yourself and leave it in a spot where birds can easily get at it.

Many species of birds lay more that one clutch of eggs through the summer therefore need nest building material on and off during the summer.

Although birds will sometimes cause a gardener problems by damaging fruit, the good they do by eating harmful insects outweighs the bad. Plus, it’s a lot of fun watching birds as they work on building their nests.

Bob

Monitor soil temperatures before planting

Soil temperatures have been cool enough during April that it has slowed down plant growth. My winter rye cover crop looks to be a week behind last year at this date and last year was later than normal as well. So that means we’re really behind. The apple tree buds have finally, slowly opened.

This may be the year to monitor soil temperatures more closely than usual if this cooling trend continues.

Some vegetable crop seeds can be sown into cold soil and do quite well under those conditions while others will not germinate or grow at all. There are certain minimum temperatures that seeds need in order to germinate. Seeds languishing in cold soil will be damaged or more likely, rot in place before they sprout.

For example, at 35 F you can expect spinach, onions, parsnips and lettuce to germinate. We’re well past that point by now.

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Although not as durable, a kitchen thermometer makes an adequate replacement for a soil thermometer

Beets, cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, radishes, turnips, peas, and broccoli will all germinate at 40 F. Even though they are not technically seeds, seed potatoes will begin to grow at that temperature too.

Sweet corn requires the soil temperature to be at least 50 F. If they are pinched for time, some farmers will plant corn at lower soil temperatures but they always use seeds treated with fungicide to keep them from rotting in the soil.

A minimum soil temperature of 60 F is needed for warm weather crops like beans, cucumbers,melons,pumpkins and squash seeds to sprout.

Keep in mind that these are minimum required temperatures. Optimum germination temperatures may be five, ten or even twenty degrees higher in some cases.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include many common vegetables like peppers or tomatoes in these lists. That’s because in our growing area, those plants are generally grown as started transplants, not from seeds planted directly into the ground.

Bob

Soil temperatures

Soil temperatures have been cool enough during April that it has slowed down plant growth. My winter rye cover crop looks to be a week behind last year at this date and last year was later than normal as well. So that means we’re really behind. The apple tree buds have finally, slowly opened.

This may be the year to monitor soil temperatures more closely than usual if this cooling trend continues.

Some vegetable crop seeds can be sown into cold soil and do quite well under those conditions while others will not germinate or grow at all. There are certain minimum temperatures that seeds need in order to germinate. Seeds languishing in cold soil will be damaged or more likely, rot in place before they sprout.

For example, at 35 F you can expect spinach, onions, parsnips and lettuce to germinate. We’re well past that point by now.

.
Although not as durable, a kitchen thermometer makes an adequate replacement for a soil thermometer

Beets, cabbage, cauliflower, swiss chard, radishes, turnips, peas, and broccoli will all germinate at 40 F. Even though they are not technically seeds, seed potatoes will begin to grow at that temperature too.

Sweet corn requires the soil temperature to be at least 50 F. If they are pinched for time, some farmers will plant corn at lower soil temperatures but they always use seeds treated with fungicide to keep them from rotting in the soil.

A minimum soil temperature of 60 F is needed for warm weather crops like beans, cucumbers,melons,pumpkins and squash seeds to sprout.

Keep in mind that these are minimum required temperatures. Optimum germination temperatures may be five, ten or even twenty degrees higher in some cases.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include many common vegetables like peppers or tomatoes in these lists. That’s because in our growing area, those plants are generally grown as started transplants, not from seeds planted directly into the ground.

Bob

Starting plants under florescent lights

We’re growing many of our transplants under artificial light using primarily fluorescent tubes and they are doing quite well. It’s not as good as growing them in a greenhouse under natural sunlight of course.

When you stop and think about it, it’s really a wonder that florescent bulbs work as well as they do considering they have to produce those little packets of energy called photos in sufficient numbers to grow a plant. The plant uses that photon energy and builds itself right out of thin air using carbon dioxide with help from water and minerals in the soil.

Plants can gather enough photons only when the bulbs are close enough to the plant. Some beginning gardeners make the mistake of trying to grow seedlings under what looks to them to be bright light but is not for the plant. As a result the seedling start to show symptoms of light deprivation such as stretching toward the light source, abnormal color and general overall weakness.

We have our florescent tubes set up so that they are around three or four inches from the top of the plants, not more than six inches for sure. Since florescent bulbs give off so little heat, setting them that close is no problem. You wouldn’t want to do that with incandescent bulbs.

It’s  very important to start out with clean bulbs. Just a little dust collecting on them will reduce the amount light of light reaching the plants enough to weaken them. So make sure you clean your tubes, and the reflector of your tube fixture, for optimum results.

I keep my light bulbs no further than 4 or 5 inches from the seedlings. The gray on the bulbs in this photo is just a glitch from the camera.
I keep my light bulbs no further than 4 or 5 inches from the seedlings. The gray on the bulbs in this photo is just a glitch from the camera.

After a few seasons of growing seedlings under florescent bulbs you may notice you just can’t seem to grow them as well as you used to. It’s nothing that you are doing differently, it’s the bulbs themselves that are at fault. Florescent bulbs have a limited lifespan usually rated by the number of hours in use and that can be in the tens of thousands of hours. In reality however, bulbs will begin fading well before their rated life span, maybe even after just a few thousand hours. You won’t see it with your bare eyes but your plants will sure know the difference. Florescent tubes are on their way out long before the familiar gray deposits show up inside the glass.

A good policy under typical growing conditions would be to change out bulbs every three years. That way you’ll be sure your plants are getting off to a good start.

Bob