Archive | March 2018

Gardening Companion

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Official_BirdIt was a Sunday afternoon in early March. It was much warmer than any other March that I could recall in my history. I had just returned from church and stepped out of my car to go into the house when that familiar and unmistakable sound stopped me in my tracks. My heart skipped a beat with excitement and I knew what it meant. My official harbinger of spring had arrived. Scanning the still bare trees, I caught a glimpse of its silhouette lofting from branch to branch. My delight suddenly turned to concern, realizing I wasn’t ready!

I ran into the garage, scrounging behind various dusty and dirty garden tools and supplies, still hibernating from the winter. Reaching beyond the clutter, I grabbed the birdhouse still affixed atop a metal pole. I ran out the door to the middle of the yard, carefully putting it in position. Grabbing the pole and leveraging my entire weight on it to thrust it into the ground, only to realize that even though the temperatures were summer-like, the ground was still frozen only a few inches beneath the surface. Running back into the garage, I searched for my ice pick, returning to feverishly pound a hole in the ground. Pounding. Pushing. Straightening. Repositioning. I finally got the house in place and secure in the ground. A sense of satisfaction overtook me and I stepped back to admire my work, expecting my gardening friend to flutter down from a branch on cue. It was then I realized I was still wearing a dress and my Sunday shoes.

There is one migratory bird that delights me more than any other. The bluebird. I suppose it’s because I don’t have any children of my own, that I become a little more obsessed than the average person. I care for these little creatures as though they were a beloved family pet. To me, they are. I nurture them, provide a home for them, and try to protect them from the enemy, sadly, sometimes unsuccessfully. I even feed them, and they’ve become accustom to my presence in the garden. The Eastern Bluebird is becoming more common in our country landscapes. Not too many years ago the very existence of bluebirds was threatened by loss of nesting habitat by deforestation and the use of DDT on farmlands. In recent years, however, there’s been a resurgence of their population as the use of such chemicals has been banned and many people are setting up bluebird trails. I like to think that I’ve played a small role in their comeback, even if it is just one little family of bluebirds in my front yard.

Bluebirds live in the country and prefer open spaces. So, if you live in the city, the likelihood of you getting a family of bluebirds is doubtful. They are cavity nesters, meaning they need a house or abandoned woodpecker hole to nest. They cannot excavate a hole on their own like a woodpecker though, so in nature, they depend on a symbiotic relationship with other cavity nesters to provide their home. They also compete with other cavity nesters and are often threatened by other birds. The most destructive competitor is the common house sparrow.

House sparrows are known to destroy bluebird nests and even kill the adult birds and their nestlings. They are enemy #1. While it may seem difficult, the best solution to this problem is to eliminate the house sparrows. Since they are a non-native species, it is legal to destroy them. Just one experience of finding a bludgeoned lifeless mother bluebird atop a brood of dead babies will quickly dispel any fondness you may have once had for house sparrows.

Other deterrents involve using fishing line or other tactics, some with minimal results. 18 Another competitor is the common starling. Dissuading them is as easy as using a bluebird house that has the proper hole dimension of 1½” in diameter. The proper size hole will insure that starlings will not enter the house. However, if you still have problems with starlings, it is also a non-native species and can be legally removed or destroyed.

When trying to attract bluebirds, go the extra measure to make sure you are using a house with proper dimensions and ventilation. The competitor I most often encounter, however, is the common house wren. Unlike the house sparrow and starling, wrens are a protected migratory species and it is illegal to destroy or remove them. Some wrens co-exist fine with bluebirds, while some are more competitive and will stuff boxes full of sticks and sometimes destroy the eggs. If you find your bluebird eggs strewn on the ground with puncture holes, you can be assured it is a wren. I have mourned the loss of more than one bluebird clutch because of wrens. The best deterrent is to place your birdhouse as far away from wooded areas as possible.

The most difficult competitor to dissuade, however, is nature itself. In spring, freezing temperatures threaten young nestlings. I have lost three broods to hypothermia in the past. They are most susceptible when they are between 5- 9 days old. This is when they are too big for the mother to sit on them, yet they do not have many feathers and are not big enough to produce enough heat on their own to keep warm. This year, I was determined not to lose a brood to the cold. I purchased a new house made of wood (more insulated than the plastic house I previously used). I went to even greater lengths, wrapping three sides of the house in thin pipe insulation. For five nights when temperatures dipped below 40 degrees, I went to even greater lengths, inserting a pocket hand warmer beneath the house and covering with more insulation to provide some bottom heat for the babies. Desperate? Yes. Successful? Yes! I had a brood of four babies fledge! Bluebirds lay anywhere from 3-6 eggs, and rarely more. The largest brood I have ever had was six. I monitor the babies by checking on them daily until they are about 12 days old, after which it is no longer recommended to check them for fear they may prematurely fledge.

I also feed my bluebirds. You can purchase dried meal worms at Fleet Farm in the bird il_570xN.815577227_3n91feeding section. I simply soak a small handful of them for about a half hour and then place them near the feeder. The bluebirds have become accustom to the daily morning ritual of me providing them breakfast. They hover above me as I place the worms in a dish on my driveway, and shortly after turning away to go back inside, they’re already picking worms out of the dish and flying up in the trees to feed their babies. My latest battle is with a fat robin who keeps stealing my bluebird’s worms. So, I found an old wrought iron decorative bird cage and put it over the dish of worms. The bluebirds can fit through the rungs, while the robin grows increasingly frustrated as it tries to squeeze through, unable to reach the worms. I chuckle at the sight of it.

The mother bluebird is starting to build another nest now, and I’m hopeful she’ll have another brood, assuming the wren leaves them alone. I removed the previous nest as soon as the babies fledged. There are entire books on bluebirds and how to attract them to your yard. I could go on and on in this article, kind of like a mom likes to talk about her kids. So, for those who would like to learn more, I’ll direct you to a great website I have found. On it, you can learn more about the bluebird of happiness, research proper birdhouses and problem-solve. It is It will tell you all you ever wanted to know about this garden companion.


Enjoy Beautiful Clematis

41e8e1011b15529bfcc1bc2d9df3806aA clematis in full bloom can take your breath away. Who hasn’t erected a trellis with the dream of seeing it covered with vibrant red or purple flowers in late spring? But how do you get your clematis to grow as lush and beautiful as you see in magazines or in your neighbor’s garden?

First, you need to know your vine so you can understand the proper pruning that it needs. Your clematis will survive, and even bloom, with no pruning. But with the right pruning, it’ll grow and bloom more vigorously.

Before that, though, let’s understand how to plant for success.

  1. Start with the soil. It is true that clematis prefer slightly alkaline soil. If a soil test* tells you that yours is on the acid side, your vines will benefit from some agricultural lime. But if it’s already alkaline, don’t add lime — you can overdo it. A pH of 7 to 7.5 is just right. Dig the hole 18 in. deep and wide, and work in lots of moisture-holding compost. Set young plants deeply so the first two sets of leaf nodes will be underground. This encourages plants to send up more stems so you’ll have a thicker plant.
  2. Mulching matters! “Head in the sun, feet in the shade” is old clematis advice. However, a 4-in. layer of mulch keeps the roots cool and moist just as well as shade does. To prevent stem rot, keep the mulch about 8 in. from the stems.
  3. The best place to prune a stem is just above two strong buds — where two leaves were growing the previous year. These buds will quickly develop into new vines. Don’t worry about making angled cuts — it’s not necessary.
  4. Recognize disease quickly! Clematis wilt is easy to spot: a portion of your vine wilts quickly, often just as the plant starts to bloom. Wilt is caused by a fungus that enters the stem, usually just above the soil line. There is no cure other than to cut the entire stem to the ground and dispose of it in the trash. Do this as soon as you notice the wilt. That’ll prevent spores from moving to other stems. Systemic fungicides can help prevent wilt from spreading to healthy stems and the rest of the plant will usually survive, providing there are enough other healthy stems. That’s another reason to plant clematis deeply: if a stem becomes infected and has to be removed, more will come from the base to replace it. Cultivars that have proven resistant to wilt include ‘The President’, ‘Ville de Lyon’, Nelly Moser’, ‘Betty Corning’, and ‘Jackmanii’.
  5. Clematis like to be well fed but not overfed. Feed them once a year right after pruning with an all-purpose, granulated fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10.
  6. Choose the right trellis. Clematis climb by twisting petioles, or leaf stems. The vine 3670663326_9f7e6f0a29_bitself does not twine. So, if your structure is too large, the leaf can’t wrap around it. Anything over 3/4 in. in diameter is too large for a leaf to grasp. Nylon fishing line is a great way to get a clematis to climb a light pole or arbor post. Put a knot every foot or so to keep the vine from sliding.

Pruning Pointers

So, how do you prune a clematis? Timing is important: don’t prune in the fall. It will encourage the plant to emerge from dormancy at the first hint of a warm day — which could be in January and your plant will die. No matter where you live, let your clematis stay dormant until spring.

Before you start cutting, you’ll need to know which pruning group your clematis is in: A, B, or C. If you don’t know, just watch it for a year. First pay attention to when it blooms. Second, notice whether it blooms on woody stems that grew last year and then survived the winter (old wood) or green, flexible stems that came from a main stem this year (new wood). Once you know this, you can usually put your clematis into group A, B, or C.

The University of Maryland Extension has created a wonderful little brochure that explains exactly how to prune each of the categories of clematis to ensure the best results.

HG107_Pruning_ Clematis

Now that you know these secrets, you no longer have to wonder how to get those spectacular flowers you see in photos — you’ll be enjoying your own!


*Not currently testing your soil before planting? Shame on you! To ensure the best success for your gardens, it’s important to know if your soil is helping or hindering your efforts. Read our earlier blog post on doing soil testing here.




Cultivar or Variety?

In the eighteenth century, when Linnaeus invented the naming system that is still used in biology and botany today, he expected that every plant would have a unique and universally recognized two-word name: the first (genus) capitalized and the second (species) not. Spiraea japonica refers to the same plant the world over.

But sometimes differences arise, as a result of natural mutation or uncontrolled cross-pollination. These differences may be important but not unique enough to justify a new species name. Such plants are called varieties, and their differences are likely (but not guaranteed) to reproduce well from seed. Varietal names, in italics, are not capitalized and simply follow the species name, sometimes set off by “var.” Spiraea japonica albiflora is smaller and paler than its parent.

Cultivars (a contraction of “cultivated” and “variety”) are plants that have been bred or selected for desirable characteristics. They are propagated vegetatively, from cuttings rather than seeds, because their seedlings generally do not reproduce the parent. Cultivar names are capitalized, enclosed in single quotes, and not italicized. Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’, with bright yellow leaves and bright pink flowers is considerably more colorful than Spiraea japonica.

All this helps to assure that everyone — no matter what language they speak — can speak the same language when they want to identify a plant.


We’re honored that our blog is regularly followed, and often reposted, by the Strafford County Master Gardeners in Strafford County, New Hampshire. This is a post that appeared on their blog in early January of this year. An interesting idea for our members who also live in a similar weather zone: planting Mache along with our other fall plantings.

The vegetable is clearly growing in popularity as a quick Google search produced over 15 million results, the most recent being on January 24th of this year: Mache — the Sturdiest of Greens for the Winter Garden. Quickly reading some of the Google articles proved to be an interesting study in the different gardening habits around our county and, indeed, the world. Because mache likes cool weather, for those of us who live in cold weather country, it can be planted in the fall to sprout right away in the spring. However (and this is the best part about how gardeners share their experiences), the blog post shared above is from a master gardener who planted in the late summer and was able to harvest it into December.

Hoping someone tries (or has already tried) this and will share their results!



Flowering Branches

ForcingBranches_PinkThis is the time of year when spirits yearn for green sprouts and signs of warmer weather to come. You can hurry nature along with a glorious indoor display of blossoms from the cut branches of spring-flowering shrubs and trees. Forcing branches into bloom is not difficult, and a thoughtful selection of plants will ensure a succession of blooms for several months.

In order to bloom, the plants must have been dormant for 40 to 60 days in temperatures below 40ºF, so choose branches that set their buds in fall or early winter (see below). Look for branches with fat flower buds (the small buds are leaf buds). To preserve the shape and health of the plant, cut branches that you would normally prune.

Scrape about 2 inches of bark from the cut end of the branch and make a 3- to 5-inch slit in the stem end to enhance water absorption. You can also split the end by hammering it gently; be careful to avoid crushing the branch, which would accelerate decay.

Fill a tall container with room-temperature water and place the cut branches in it. Or fillpottery barn image the bathtub and submerge the entire branch — buds and all. Let them soak overnight so that they will absorb as much water as possible. Fill a second container with cool water, add a floral preservative (available from florists), then transfer the branches to a new container. Place the branches in a cool, dimly lit place. In three or four days bring branches into a bright area out of direct sunlight. Change the water and cut 1 inch off the bottom of each stem every week. Mist the branches at least once a day. They may take as long as 3 weeks to bloom, but the sight of all those precious buds bursting with divine color is a glorious reward for your patient anticipation.

Plant List

Blooming times and cutting times will vary according to your location and the weather conditions. The earliest bloomers are witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), forsythia (Forsythia spp.), pussy willow (Salix discolor), azalea (Rhododendron spp.), and flowering quince (Chaenomeles).

For later forcing choose from magnolia, apple, and crab apple trees (Malus spp.), beach plum (Prunus maritima), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), red bud (Cercis canadensis), and mock orange (Philadelphus spp.).

Poison Spring: The Secret Story of Pollution and the EPA by E. G. Vallianatos

Book Review by OCMGA Master Gardener Karen DesJarlais

9781608199143We’ve all seen him; the guy who is spraying chemicals on his lawn or sections of a yard dressed in flip flops, shorts and a tank top. Proper attire would be something closer to a hazmat suit. But this casual dress and the attitude it reflects toward the toxins is no less calloused than the agency which is charged with protecting our air, water and health–The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

We should shy away from blanket statements and generalizations but in this author’s view, well, just realize that the chemical companies run the EPA and they get what they want. The agency relies on industry “testing” to support junk science to avoid restrictions on chemicals. For decades the EPA has been complicit in allowing industry big profits from poisoning the planet. They intimidate scientists whose reliable studies show endocrine disruption or other toxicity caused by a chemical.

Author Vallianatos worked at the EPA from 1979 to 2004 in their office of Pesticides Programs and was able to save documents which give credibility to his premise of corruption at the agency. He says the EPA is really a polluters’ protection agency. His focus is mostly on pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used on farms, in homes, lawns and forests. Diverting from the depressing anecdotes about the revolving doors from industry to EPA administrators and back, there are relevant eye opening facts that apply to gardeners. Maybe I’m the only one who thought that on any label, “inert” ingredients meant fillers like maybe sawdust, sand or other harmless stuff which were meant to make the active ingredients more effective or easier to use. Wrong. Inerts (about 1800 of them) can be up to 99% of an individual pesticide. They can include benzene, acetone, formaldehyde, naphthalene and the famous cancer causer, petroleum distillates. These poisons show up all around us and can be more toxic than the active ingredients.

If you needed any more urging to bring your reusable bags to the grocery store, realize that your paper grocery bags are contaminated with piperonyl butoxide, a carcinogenic inert. Atrazine (still used by 75% of corn farmers) aldicarb, dioxin, fracking chemicals, 2-4D, glyphosate (Roundup) Monsanto, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical; these are poisons we know and companies we know. All of them are guilty of poisoning life on this planet.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the USDA are no more responsible than the EPA in regulating the substances or the companies. Apparently risk is not measured by the harm to human or animal health but only the economic loss. The cost of illness is rarely included in an economic “assessment” when considering industry products.


The author introduces us to several competent scientists who issue warnings about overuse of chemicals and one of the more frightening ones is glyphosate. Heavily targeted is Monsanto who leads the way in genetic modification. Roundup ready corn and soybeans have a pathogenic virus which reproduces itself. It’s been found in livestock feed and has caused spontaneous abortions in pigs and cows. Evidence that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and disease is well documented. So this calls for more chemicals. Sounds like an addiction doesn’t it?

Another scientist chronicles the inefficient and dangerous use of pesticides that reach only minute amounts of their targets. In bean fields, no more than 0.03 percent of the sprayed insecticides hit aphids. On cotton farms, an absurd 0.0000001 percent hits the heliothis caterpillars. The rest ends up elsewhere; on helpful insects, birds, fish, poisoning our soils and washing into our rivers, lakes and blowing in the wind. This is true of most of the hundreds of millions of pounds of agricultural poisons.

We’ve all heard about the startling decline in the number of pollinating honeybees. Parathion neurotoxins sprayed on farm crops are destroying hives. One example of this is a California beekeeper who drove his bees by the truckload south to pollinate a corporate farmer’s crops. “I’d return home always with a third of my bees dead. The farmer’s pesticides would kill my bees,” he sadly reported.

This book explains that neonicotinoid insecticides act by blocking receptors in an insect’s central nervous system. Any insect that feeds on the plant dies but bees and butterflies that collect pollen or nectar are poisoned. The damage is cumulative. With every exposure, more and more receptors are blocked. Worker bees neglect providing food for eggs and larvae and their navigational abilities breakdown. With just a small quantity of exposure, entire colonies collapse. You can thank Bayer and Dow Chemical for this and the EPA for letting them do it.

So here are my big questions. If chemical companies put profits before any health consideration and if the EPA has been aiding and abetting for decades this poisoning of the planet, what will they eat, drink or breathe? Don’t they have families and loved ones who will also be poisoned by their greed? Do they live in a protective bubble separate from the rest of us? Is there any wonder that there is a cancer epidemic in this country?

What to do? Read Poison Spring. Let the EPA know that you know and demand that they stop selling out to chemical industry bullies. Buy your food at the farmers’ market. Grow your own. Boycott these death dealing companies and their poisons. Let them know that you know. And try to stay healthy.


Poisonous Garden

We often hear of people trying to make gardens safe for children and pets. However, there are so many potentially toxic plants that, if you were determined to eliminate every edible hazard, you wouldn’t have much of a garden. In addition to plants like nicotiana and oleander, which are poisonous in every part, there are some plants that have both edible and toxic components, such as tomato and rhubarb. The tomato fruit is safe, as are the red rhubarb stems. But eating the leaves of these plants can cause nausea, convulsions, coma, and in extreme cases, death. Similarly, apricots, peaches, and plums are fine, but their seeds are not, and the bark and leaves of the trees that bear them can be dangerous, too.

Potentially dangerous parts of ornamentals include daffodil bulbs; clematis leaves; the leaves and flowers of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea; leaves and stems of wild black cherry (Prunus serotina); chokecherry (P. virginiana), and pin or wild red cherry (P. pennsylvanica).

Also on the list are English ivy berries; the corms and seeds of autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale); the stems, flowers, and leaves of monkshood (Aconitum spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum); the leaves and flowers of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), and truth to tell, several hundred more.

Instead of trying to keep poisons out, we should focus on teaching your children not to put random pickings from the garden — or anywhere else — into their mouths.


And, speaking of poison, did you know that you can get a poison-ivy rash in the winter? Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a native North American trailing or climbing vine, and occasionally a shrub. Every portion, including roots and stems, contains an oil called urushiol, which is capable of producing a nasty dermatitis even in winter.

Although in winter the plant is without its distinctive three leaflets, the bare vine can be recognized by the hairy appearance of its brown, leafless stem, which can scale trees to great heights. The numerous dark rootlets and fibers make it look fuzzy.

Urushiol from the stem and rootlets can remain on tree bark even after the vine has been removed, so if you get the rash and can’t remember seeing any likely cause, the problem may be your firewood.

Poison ivy’s garb at other times includes a handsome crimson leaf in fall (often tempting unwary flower-arrangers), tiny green flowers in spring, and white grape-like berries in late summer that may linger through winter. This fruit is a valuable food for birds, which, unaffected by its oil, help spread the plants when the seeds pass through their system.