Monday, October 27, 2008

Household Invaders

Sounds scary... household invaders. But we’re not talking about a break in....more like a sneak in and the culprits have six legs not two. About this time of year we get lots of calls about insects that make their way into homes. The biggest offenders are Boxelder Bugs and the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug.

Boxelder Bugs have been around a long time. In the past, when I talked to someone on the phone about them there was often one crawling around my office because the window I look out of does not seal real well. The bugs made their way in through the tiny crevices. Since recent construction has removed the near-by box elder trees that were their summer host, I haven't seen them. Boxelder bugs feed on boxelder trees, as well as other maples (boxelder is Acer negundo, the same genus as maple) and ash. In the fall they look for a cozy warm place to spend the winter, starting out on the sunny sides of building and moving inside if given a chance. They must have good heat sensors.
These red and black bugs do not do any damage to homes. In fact they don’t do much damage to plants either although they do suck sap from leaves and seeds of boxelder. If anyone cared about this plant it might be an issue but boxelder trees are usually considered a weedy tree.

Most folks don’t appreciate big insects crawling around the house and bug phobic people get real agitated. The solution to boxelder invasion is to seal up the cracks and crevices they use to get in. Once inside, simply sweep or vacuum them up. They do not reproduce inside. If you make direct hit with an insecticide you will kill them but the vacuum cleaner or shop-vac is quicker. I suppose you could consider insecticide applications outside where they congregate but even here, think twice before spraying. First, if they can’t get in the house, what’s the problem? And given the poor control provided by insecticides and the ease of the vacuum, why not keep things simple. If you can find the host boxelder tree and remove it you will have a big impact in future years.

The Brown Marmorated Stinkbug
is a recent phenomenon. Actually, one of Penn State’s extension educators in Lehigh county helped to document the first sightings in 1998. It is native to China.
This bug can cause plant damage. It feeds on several fruit species. But the problem most folks have with them is when they get inside. They fly, they stink a bit when crushed and are creepy in a bug-like way to most folks.
The control measures for the stinkbug is the same as for boxelder bugs. Seal cracks and crevices to prevent entry. Vacuum up those that get in. Realize that they do no structural damage of any kind and do not breed inside.
Some folks think these home invaders are reproducing inside because they see additional bugs after the initial removal. The insects are simply emerging from hiding places. Well, maybe not hiding but previously infested areas. It seems to me that a common entry point for stink bugs is attic areas which are often hard to seal completely.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

First Frost

The “official” median date for the first frost in Bucks County is October 6. That means that about half of the time we will have received temperatures below 32 degrees before this date and half of the time it will be later. My unofficial observations over the last 25 year tells me that by Columbus Day we have usually had a light frost and a real “killing frost” comes later the month.
Mother Nature is right on schedule. My garden was nipped over the weekend but got the killer on Monday night when the minimum/maximum thermometer read 24 degrees. I anticipated the demise of my zucchini and peppers and harvested the last of these on Saturday.

Of course, this does not mean the end of the gardening season. Lettuce, cole crops, and even carrots stand up well to these temperatures and keep on growing. Growth is slowed but in the case of the lettuces and cole crops this simply means that they will hold very nicely in the garden. Their growth is so slow that it’s kind of like and extension of your fridge. I plan to harvest lettuce right up until Thanksgiving. I’ve had lettuce at Christmas.

It is too late to plant much of anything except garlic. But if you have not enjoyed the pleasure of a fall garden, try to remember to keep planting in August and September 2009.

Finally, if you have not used floating row covers to extend your gardening season in early spring and late fall, check them out. They can provide a few degrees of frost protection and trap daytime heat to boost growth in cool temperatures. Most gardening catalogs sell them.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Garlic Planting Time

Columbus Day is a good reminder to plant garlic. What you plant now will be ready to harvest on the fourth of July, 2009. Why plant garlic? Several reasons… it is easy to grow, homegrown quality is better than store bought, and the satisfaction of producing really high quality garlic is hard to beat. Tulips and daffodils aren’t the only fall bulbs to be planting this weekend. Don’t forget the garlic.

Penn State’s on-line garlic fact sheet seems to be in revision or hiding somewhere on the web so I’ll outline some garlic planting basics. First, get the right planting stock. DO NOT plant store bought stuff. If you can find a local grower, that is best. While poking around on line looking for our fact sheet, I found several Pennsylvania producers who will sell to you. I’ve been buying from Johnny’s Select Seeds in Maine for years and they still offer a nice lineup of varieties adapted to the Northeast US. If you go to a local Farmers Market, chat with the garlic sellers. If they grew it, it is obviously well adapted to your area. Many growers are partial to the hardneck types, which have excellent flavor. My garlic buddy sent me a variety called Music that is getting lots of acclaim. I currently have Russian and German Red as well as New York White. I like them all. Right now my garage is decorated with bunches of heads, hanging from the rafters. It is a beautiful sight and a reassuring feeling to know that I have a winter’s supply.

The planting details…you’ll plant individual garlic cloves about 1.5 inches deep in rich, well-drained garden soil in October. Space about 6 to 8 inches apart. A few leaves will sprout this fall. After we’ve had several hard freezes, it is a good idea to mulch the garlic bed with straw or leaves to lock in that cold. This prevents “heaving” that can occur as winter temps fluctuate. Not too deep, just a couple inches of fluffy organic matter. Next spring, the garlic will grow thru the mulch. A shot of nitrogen rich fertilizer in April is helpful and then you simply wait for the bulbs to size up. When about one half of the lower leaves have died, it’s time to harvest.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dan the Chicken Man and His Garden

Last weekend I visited gardening friend, Graham Bell (see previous blog, “Graham’s Garden Inspirations”) in Rhode Island. Our primary mission was to assist his friend, Dan, in the task of processing (killing and cleaning) 85 chickens. It’s kind of a communal thing. Dan raises the chickens. Friends pay a share of the feed costs and get a share of the meat in return. Shareholders pitch in on Chicken Day in October when the birds are ready to harvest. Oddballs like me and my wife go just for the fun of it. So, in four hours about ten of us killed, plucked, dressed (gutted) and bagged the birds.

Since this is a gardening blog, I’ll spare you the details of chicken processing. So here is the gardening part. Chicken Man Dan is also a very good gardener. I sensed this as I wheel barrowed chicken feathers and blood soaked leaves (nitrogen rich) to his compost pile. Dan told me that he’ll add a layer of apple pomace from a cider maker and by next spring he’ll have some killer compost. He adds lots of tree leaves as a carbon source. You read about the value of feathers and blood as compost ingredients but rarely see it. Not many folks are killing their own chickens these days.

I took a detour on the way back from dumping blood and feathers to check out Dan’s garden. I saw fall red raspberries, tomato trellis, raised beds, etc. That’s when I saw the large mail box in the middle of his garden and knew I had found the solution to the maddening task of storing garden tools and other stuff in a handy place. Dan’s big old mail box
holds all of those tools you often need but don’t remember to carry…. lettuce harvesting knives, dibbles, tying materials, labels, etc. Next to the mail box was a box of spoons… flattened to make nifty row-markers. More durable than wood…or even plastic..

Once again, great gardening ideas from afar. It pays to get out of your own backyard once in a while.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Giant Skeeters... Actually Crane Flies

Lots of calls are coming into the Bucks County Extension office about giant mosquitoes. Turns out, what everyone is looking at are Crane Flies. It’s easy to see how they might be confused. These bugs are long-legged and slender-bodied… like the biting bug that everyone is worried about. Crane flies don’t bite. And they are a lot bigger than most mosquitoes. Right now they are sipping a bit of nectar from fall flowers and mating.. a nice life, but a short one. They live about 10-15 days before laying eggs. Their larvae feed on decaying organic matter, improving habitat for other creatures and getting gobbled up by frogs, fish and other predators. So it turns out that crane flies are good guys.

If you get poking around on-line you may learn that there are a couple of crane fly species (out of about 1500 in North America) that damage lawns. This is mostly confined to the Pacific Northwest. I did see an unusual case of crane fly larvae damage to a lawn a few years ago but that lawn was already severely damaged by other pests. The crane flies were mostly on clean up duty, decomposing the dead turf.
So don’t sweat the long legged, mosquito imposters, even if you see dozens or hundreds on the side of the house on a cool fall evening.

Believe it or not, I found a website called Crane Flies of Pennsylvania on-line and if you need to read more, check it out. I leaned that there are at least 300 species in Pennsylvania and about 10 in Bucks County. Looks like Philadelphia county wins the prize with more than 100 species accounted for.