Friday, June 26, 2009

Daylilies for Dazzling Gardens

Daylilies have emerged as one of the most popular perennials in American gardens. Unfortunately, while the genus Hemerocallis has grown in favor, many gardeners and landscape designers seem to have directed their attention to only one lustrous variety, ‘Stella de Oro,’ while overlooking the staggering range of color, height, bloom size, and form found among the hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties readily available.

Daylilies have been aptly cited as the perfect perennial, as there are cultivars which can fit almost any garden situation, from steep hillsides and hot, sunny borders, to somewhat shady areas prone to flooding. Moreover, daylilies properly situated will thrive and spread, becoming more massive and impressive with each successive year. Do not let the delicate petals of ‘Ruffled Apricot’ or creamy-peach ‘Martha Adams’ deceive you; these plants are tough and can handle seasonal drought or week-long deluges with an aplomb usually only found in native plants.

Thanks to the efforts of thousands of professional and amateur hybridizers, there are now upwards of 40,000 named varieties of daylily, each with unique qualities and characteristics. And while most are not commercially available, there is assuredly a dizzying catalog of choices to be had simply through local nurseries, specialty garden centers, and mail-order companies.

The key to selecting daylilies for your garden is to consider how you plan to use them, create a rough design, and then develop a daylily planting plan. Of course, if you are simply hoping to spruce up the area around a lamppost, you can probably get by with purchasing about four or five of the same variety, even ‘Stella de Oro,’ if you insist, to create an impressive massed planting. Similarly, if you simply want to intersperse colorful daylilies among clumps of ornamental grasses, or add brilliance to an otherwise dull evergreen foundation planting, you should consider using a single outside row of small to medium-sized plants which will not overshadow the other plants.

For a more spectacular display, using daylilies either alone or combined with other perennials, you will need to do some planning before purchasing or planting. Keep in mind that daylilies come not only in different sizes and colors, but also have varied blooming seasons, usually two to four weeks long. To ensure that your daylily border or garden will have successive blooms all season long, usually from late spring through late summer, you will have to note each desired plant’s blooming time.

Actually, the simplest approach is to consult a good reference work on daylilies, most of which provide photographs and planting tables. You will find that bloom seasons are usually divided into six periods, from “early-early” to “very late.” Your planting plan should accommodate the full range of blooming times, spreading each period throughout the full extent of the garden bed.

In addition, your planting matrix should account for the respective height of the plants. Height is based on the “scape,” the leafless stem supporting the buds and blossoms, and typically ranges from low (6” – 2’), to medium (2-3’), up to tall (more than 3’). Consider height along with bloom period. You don’t want the foliage of a ‘Paul Bunyon’ hiding an ‘Eenie Weenie,’ not that you would necessarily want to buy something named Eenie Weenie.

Finally, your planting plan should include your desired color palette, blending your assortment with existing perennials, or complementing the colors of other daylilies. You should note that the beauty of a daylily blossom owes as much to the color of the flower’s throat as to the petals themselves, and to the blending and shades of color and patterns found in each flower. Also, daylily devotees look for interesting shapes or forms in flowers, whether spider-like, flaring, the traditional trumpet shape, triangular, or even the exotic-looking “doubles,” often reminiscent of peonies.

If buying a daylily suddenly sounds complicated – relax. There are a number of intermediate steps between sticking a single plant in a whiskey barrel planter and designing an award-winning demonstration garden. You can start off by purchasing several different plants that strike your fancy. Perhaps you are really taken by the wide elegant ruffles of ‘Saffron Glow’, or the rich, light aroma of old time ‘Hyperion.’ Why not bring them home? To avoid the calculus of bloom periods, select plants known to bloom over a long period or time – or to rebloom readily.

Many gardeners find that a couple of daylilies soon turn into a collection as the years go by. Just adding one or two per year can lead to horticultural drama, especially with the help of propagation. In fact, beyond their beauty and other merits, daylilies have attained enormous popularity as one of the easiest perennials to divide.

Depending on the particular variety, you may find that your single plant has become a large clump after about four years – a clump much in need of division. There are several methods of division worth mentioning.

If you would like to keep your original clump in place and simply “harvest” some of the extra growth, you have the option to remove some of the outer fans which have spread from the center. A “fan” is a complete plant, containing roots, crown and several leaves. Use a sharp shovel to carefully pull or chisel away at least several fans per division. Removing a single fan will produce a skimpy new plant which may require years to bloom. It is better to harvest several good-sized divisions than a dozen small ones.

You can also slice through the center of the clump with your shovel while the plant is in the ground, divide the clump in half. You may also want to divide each half once again. Remove the sections and replant them, including at least one section in the original spot.

A more effective and preferred method requires removing the entire clump and using a hose to rinse any soil from the roots. Cleaning the plant makes it easier to identify each of the fans and helps to strategically separate them. Most growers prefer using a sharp knife to carefully separate each division, with four to five fans per division.

By propagating and replanting your daylilies, you can soon expand a modest plot begun with ten plants into a dazzling display of 50 or more specimens in a handful of years, especially if you add one or two new plants each year. And, once bitten, why not consider joining a local chapter of the American Hemerocallis Society, where fellow enthusiasts can provide guidance, along with free plant swapping sessions to keep your collection growing.

Select Bibliography:

Hemerocallis: The Daylily, R. W. Munson, Jr., Timber Press, 1989
Daylilies: The Perfect Perennial, Lewis and Nancy Hill, Storey Books, 1991.
The Color Encyclopedia of Daylilies by Ted L. Petit, John P. Peat, Timber Press, 2000.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An Ancient Solution to Modern Pest Problems

Millions of years ago, single-celled aquatic organisms called diatoms roamed the earth’s seas, quietly died and dropped to the sea floor where they formed fossilized deposits. Today, these ancient diatoms are being mined, processed and sold to homeowners to help control a host of home and garden pests.

Called diatomaceous earth or “DE,” this simple, white powdery substance is one of the most perfect pest control products available. It kills pests physically, in this case by puncturing the bug’s protective exoskeleton until it dries up and dies.

Unlike most synthetic chemical or even botanically derived pesticides, there is no issue with toxicity or safe use around children and pets. In fact, DE is U.S.D.A.-approved as an animal food additive for parasite control. Farmers add it to grains to prevent weevil and other pest infestations.

Chances are you’ve been exposed to DE already, whether added to your favorite toothpaste, mixed into silver and brass polish as a gentle abrasive or used as a filter medium for everything from beer production to swimming pools.

The story began about 30 million years ago, as mammals started filling in the ecological niche formerly occupied by the dinosaurs. Within the earth’s waters, microscopic algae or phytoplankton floated with the currents, extracting silica to create protective cell walls, sometimes studded with impressive spines. As these diatoms passed on, their fossilized remains or “skeletons” formed extensive chalky deposits in what are now dried lakes and sea beds. The process continues today, with some 16,000 species of phytoplankton carrying on this tradition from bubbling volcanic lakes to beneath frigid ice caps.

Back on land, man has turned geological mineral deposits into profit through hundreds of industrial and agricultural applications. The “hydrated amorphous silica” is mined, milled and either heat-treated for use in pool filters, which makes it unsuitable for use around the home, or otherwise prepared and packaged for use as amorphous or natural diatomaceous earth, the product that finds its way into consumer goods ranging from paprika to cigars.

Fortunately, an ongoing interest in organic pest control has resurrected these dead diatoms and brought them to life in our yards and gardens.

While the ground-up diatoms feel like a silky talcum powder, under a microscope you would see a universe of lethal crystalline daggers. These micron-small fragments present razor-sharp edges and spikes that lacerate the waxy exoskeleton of most pests, often penetrating the elastic tissue between the hard plates of an insect’s exoskeleton. The silica shards inflict extensive invisible wounds causing the insect to lose bodily fluids. And the diatom daggers are themselves an effective desiccant, further pulling moisture from the insect. Within about 48 hours, the pest is mummified.

DE can attach itself to the tiny hairs that cover many insects, actually allowing an ant, for example, to pick up its own means of destruction as well as inflict damage on other ants in its colony. Should DE be ingested, the silica spikes will lacerate the insect’s digestive system, also resulting in death by dehydration.

In the garden, slimy slugs and snails are soon turned to sushi, as are earwigs, aphids, thrips, mites and red spider mites, leafhoppers, fungus gnats, Japanese beetle grubs and sowbugs. Just use DE as a dust around the base of plants or apply directly onto foliage. Directions vary, but DE can be mixed with water, usually four tablespoons per gallon, and sprayed over large turf areas and garden beds. The DE becomes effective as soon as it dries. You can also make a DE slurry and paint it onto the trunks of trees to control numerous caterpillars and deter bark-gnawing borers.

Indoors, DE is deadly for silverfish, centipedes, cockroaches, fruit flies, houseflies, ants of every stripe, and even termites. Commonly available in an easily handled box or can, you can carefully sprinkle a light amount around window and door frames, pipes, cracks and crevices, along baseboards and countertops, under cabinets, behind refrigerators and outdoors along foundations.

Even pet owners have started to appreciate DE’s effectiveness for safely and naturally controlling fleas and ticks, both indoors and out. Just sprinkle judiciously around animal bedding and in favorite resting areas, and consider spraying a wetted mixture on lawns and pet runs.

And though DE is non-toxic, excessive handling of the material will dry out skin. A dust mask or respirator should be used when applying large amounts as a dust. The product will remain viable whenever it is dry, although foliar applications will wash off after rainstorms. Do not worry about residual impacts on soil; DE contains an abundance of beneficial micronutrients, including magnesium, iron, boron, copper and manganese.

While pest-prone homeowners have long used boric acid as an effective tool against roaches and their ilk, products containing the substance pose significant toxicity issues in households with small children, especially crawling infants, as well as pets. Outdoors, boric acid is nonselective and toxic to numerous beneficial organisms, such as earthworms.

For safety’s sake, rely on nature’s friendly fossils, but remember to only use amorphous DE (ADE) or natural DE and follow all directions.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Keep Your Garden Minty Fresh

Mint is unquestionably the dominant flavor of our everyday world. It seems that you can’t leave the house without dealing with mint-flavored dental floss, toothpaste, and mouthwash, and even mint-scented shampoo.

Recently, many of us watched the Kentucky Derby while sipping mint juleps, or enjoyed an after dinner mint – maybe even one of those too-sweet crème de menthe cordials. Then there are the breath mints, chewing gums, and so on.

Actually, it’s not too surprising that mint enjoys such incredible popularity. For more than 2,500 years, mint has been renowned for its refreshing aroma and medicinal qualities. Pliny credits mint with curing 41 assorted ailments, and pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), a mint-cousin, with treating another 20.

Ancient Greeks used wreathes of mint for everything from adorning brides to staving off the effects of a wine-laden bacchanal. Greeks and Romans both employed it to scent bath water, and even suggested its use as an aphrodisiac. A more sober Aristotle actually cautioned against letting soldiers use mint concerned that it would weaken their aggressiveness.

From curing stomach aches, dandruff, snakebite, and roundworms to dispelling fleas and amorous dreams, there was a mint for every purpose.

For gardeners, much the same can be said, considering that there are about 20 species of mint and approximately 1,000 interesting hybrids. Even a run-of-the-mill garden or seed catalog will probably offer about one dozen choices, although the most popular continue to be spearmint and peppermint.

With as many fragrant and culinary applications as there are for mint, it is surprising that more gardens do not boast at least a few useful varieties. Unfortunately, mint has developed a somewhat justifiably bad reputation as an aggressive plant capable of spreading throughout an entire bed – or yard.

However, it is easy enough to keep this hardy perennial under control by simply growing it in containers, and never planting it directly into garden soil. In fact, an herb garden can look quite striking with several decorative terracotta pots set in place among other plantings. The pots alone will add an air of formality and height to the bed, as will the one to two-foot tall spikes of pale lavender or pinkish-lilac flowers favored by bees and butterflies alike.

Beyond the medicinal benefits touted by ancients like Dioscorides, mints can play a central role in fun and fanciful kitchen recipes. For example, you can pinch off a handful of the creamy-white variegated leaves of pineapple mint and toss them into a mixed green salad.

Use leaves of orange mint to flavor your favorite cup of herbal tea, adding the distinctive bergamot flavor you will recognize from Earl Grey. Also, any strongly-flavored mint will add zest to a refreshing pitcher of iced tea or lemonade. And peppermint leaves can be mixed with fresh-grated ginger to create a soothing yet invigorating tea. Naturally, bourbon and horse fanciers will migrate toward a table offering frosted tumblers of mint juleps. In fact, an old friend from Kentucky makes a point of always having a whiskey barrel planter full of mint at hand, both for Derby Day and warm summer evenings.

Spearmint mixed with bulgar wheat, red onions, tomatoes, parsley, and a lemon-vinaigrette makes for a delicious tabbouleh, the Lebonese national salad. It can also be added to omelets, soufflés, or your favorite quiche recipe.

Peppermint is probably the best variety for drying, and coarsely –ground leaves add a delicious new complexity to steamed carrots, new potatoes, eggplant, or black beans, as well as baked chicken or poached fish dishes.

Curly mint is favored by chefs as a garnish for desserts created with chocolate or fresh fruits, although chocolate mint is also a nice option and a wonderful and tasty surprise for visitors to your garden.

Mint can also become a dessert in itself, either as a simple sorbet, or incorporated into brownies, chocolate cake batter, or the ever-popular grasshopper pie.

Some mint species also have a handsome place in the landscape. For the edge of ponds or even soggy, moist areas in your garden, water or bog mint (Mentha aquatica) is ideal, although it can spread rapidly. It is also one of the mints best known and prized in antiquity, and can be used in teas and salads, although the menthol overtones are a bit too strong for some palates.

For a strong-scented ground cover, consider Corsican mint, a fast- spreading plant with tiny leaves which enjoys being walked upon. Use it in somewhat shaded areas between paving stones instead of mulch, gravel, or grass, and tuck it into nooks and crannies in stone retaining walls. Pennyroyal is a sun-loving groundcover with a lemony aroma, sometimes used in small amounts to flavor meat and fish dishes.

With just a bit of experimentation, you may find yourself as enthralled with mint as were the classical botanists, although you will happily find that your choices exceed theirs by many hundreds.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

An Abbreviated Menu of Mints

Apple Mint
Austrian Mint
Banana Mint
Chinese Mint
Chocolate Mint
Corsican Mint
English Mint
Ginger Mint
Grapefruit Mint
Hillary's Sweet Lemon Mint
Japanese Lime Mint
Orange Mint
Pennyroyal Mint
Peppermint Variegated
Pineapple Mint
Curled Spearmint
Menthol Mint
Improved Spearmint
Scotch Spearmint
Silver Mint
Swiss Mint
Vietnamese Mint
Water Mint
Korean Mint
Jamaican Mint
Mountain Mint
Roman Mint

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bald Cypress Trees: Thirsty for Soggy Soils

Many homeowners are plagued by soggy or low-lying wet areas which seemingly transform suburban backyards into Cajun-friendly bayous. Poor drainage, heavy soils, and excessive runoff from neighboring yards or roadways can make it almost impossible to grow much more than moss and alligators. One solution to this swampy situation might be found in the bald cypress, a fast-growing, bog-friendly tree which not only thrives in moist environments, but can also sponge up and transpire many hundreds of gallons of water a day!

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), also called swamp cypress or southern cypress, is not a true cypress at all but is actually in the same plant family as the sequoias or giant redwoods, and shares some of its Western relation’s fabled characteristics, such as longevity, living 800 to 1500 years, and height, with mature specimens reaching well over 100 feet.

The “bald” in the tree’s common name relates to the fact that while it is a conifer, like pines or cedars, it is unlike those evergreens as it sheds its needles in autumn. This characteristic makes it attractive when landscaping to shade the side of a house in summer, while allowing warming sunlight through in the winter.

Another attractive element is the progression of color in the tree’s foliage. In early spring, the horizontal branches will send out short, flat, feathery needles that are a bright yellowish-green. Entering summer, the needles become somewhat duller and sage green, until fall when the needles take on a pale orange or russet tone, until finally turning brown and dropping.

Besides its deciduous nature, the bald cypress is best known for the “knees” which emerge like conical projections through the soil at various distances from the trunk, typically in the wettest soil areas, such as the zone between the tree and a pond or stream. These knees are believed to help stabilize the tree in soft wet or muddy soils, although there is some conjecture that the knees also help in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide for constantly submerged roots.

A quick visit to the boardwalk and freshwater marsh of Theodore Roosevelt Island, located opposite the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will bring you within petting distance of a dozen or so medium-sized trees ringed round with knobby brownish-red knees.

Of course, the bald cypress is actually native to (and undoubtedly symbolic of) the coastal plains and swamps of the Southeast. It would be hard to imagine the ghostly swamps and bayous of Louisiana -- where it is the state tree -- or even the Florida Everglades, without picturing the buttressed trunks and somber, lichen-covered boughs of the bald cypress, “bearded with moss,” as Longfellow depicted the forest primeval in his famous 1847 poem Evangeline.

Interestingly, while the term “cypress swamp” inevitably conjures images of Spanish moss, still black water, and steamy, Arcadian locales, the bald cypress includes Maryland and Delaware as part of its natural range, as you will find in the Great Cypress Swamp on the Delmarva Peninsula. The species also spreads as far west as Illinois and Indiana. Further to the north, where it grown primarily as an ornamental tree, it has found a welcome home in the not-so-sultry environs of Minnesota and upstate New York.

The appeal of the bald cypress has a broad range as well: natural resource managers favor it for riparian plantings and wetland restoration projects, landscape designers appreciate its elegant adaptability to the wettest of conditions, and gardeners simply love the tree’s natural beauty and majesty, whether planted singly as a specimen tree, or planted in smaller, managed groves beside community ponds.

Naturalists, weekend birders, and hunters are drawn to stands of bald cypress for the habitat they represent, which supports numerous songbirds, turkeys, wood ducks and other waterfowl. Overhead, the upper canopy provides nesting areas for herons, storks, egrets, as well as raptors, such as eagles and osprey. The supportive buttresses of the tree trunks and storied “knees” of the root structures also host populations of rare tree frogs and salamanders, while the murky waters below provide habitat for aquatic organisms as diverse as jumpin’ catfish and ‘gators.

For centuries, bald cypress has been used extensively in a variety of commercial applications thanks to the wood’s natural resistance to rot and decay. After all, if the tree can comfortably sit in water all day for centuries, what difference can it make to spend a few decades as a piling for a marina?

Often referred to as the “wood eternal,” it was used for fence posts, docks, boat hulls, shingles, shakes, and any other location where soil contact, weather and water might contribute to decay. Even the shredded outer bark is sort after as a long-lasting garden mulch or planting medium for orchids.

Regrettably, harvesting was conducted well beyond sustainable limits, and the once vast cypress groves have disappeared, save for protected areas and nature preserves. In fact, it has been noted that the bald cypress suffered the worst reduction in volume of any tree during the twentieth century, with the exception of the blight-ravaged American chestnut.

Yet while the cypress swamps are a shadow of their former selves, there are plenty of opportunities for planting and enjoying this magnificent and versatile tree. And what’s not to love?

The tree remains relatively pest-free, requires no fertilizing or pruning, and grows amazingly quickly with little encouragement: up to two or three feet per year, although some cultivated and named varieties grow more slowly. In fact, a new Dutch dwarf variety called Peve Minaret will provide a compact eight-foot specimen more suited for use as a large shrub along a foundation or entranceway.

Finally, while a bald cypress can easily handle all the wet weather and runoff your yard can throw at it, and even possibly transpire a lot of unwanted wetness away, this incredible tree is also quite comfortable on dry sites, from the middle of a sunny yard, to alongside a hot, busy street. Of course, without wet soils, you will never find cypress knees popping up unexpectedly in your lawn or driveway, but that might actually be for the best.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Eeeeeeek! A Bug!

Pity the poor insects. Misunderstood, loathed, and generally under appreciated. They provide us with honey and silk, wax and dyes, and tirelessly pollinate our crops and flowers. In return, we swat at them, squash them, stomp on them, and even try to electrocute them.

Insects make up 95 percent of all species on Earth. There are more than one million different insect species, although a growing number of entomologists suspect that the true number might be as high as ten million. And among that vast number, less than one percent are pests, with just a few hundred species posing a consistent problem to agriculture, gardens, homes and structures, or human health.

That reality has not really hit home with most people. Insects are pests – period. And so we light lemon-scented candles and set up ultrasonic devices to scare them away, with limited success. Unfortunately, those rather benign measures, like fly swatters, are the exception. For the most part, the twentieth century has taken a more toxic approach to this war on bugs. Chemical weapons for the first two world wars were adapted and modified for commercial and home use. We discovered and applauded DDT – and unleashed ecological Armageddon and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Globally, approximately 25 billion dollars are spent annually on pesticides, with a 1988 World Health Organization report reflecting that there were one million occupational poisonings from these chemicals. A more recent State of the World report from the Worldwatch Institute found indications that these poisoning estimates might range from three to 25 million annually. And closer to home, a study by the American Association of Poison Control Centers estimated that 79,000 children were involved in household pesticide related poisonings or exposures that year.

We are paying -- and overpaying -- a high price for this insecticidal conflict. Oh, and the insects are winning, by the way. They have been quickly adapting to our chemical arsenals and for decades have enjoyed our new agriculture systems which no longer take advantage of traditional crop rotations, plant adaptations, and beneficial predators. Meanwhile, we are contaminating groundwater supplies, poisoning surface water, exposing our children, pets, and selves to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and generally making a real mess of our environment. How’s the war going?

Perhaps before we do any more bug-bombing, spraying, dusting, trapping, or electro-zapping, we ought to take another look at the dominant lifeform on “our” planet. Perhaps we need to realize that there are good bugs and bad bugs, learn the difference, learn a little tolerance, and address pest problems sensibly. After all, our insect friends play an essential role in the global food chain, they help keep real pests under control, provide vital services as scavengers and decomposer organisms, and add fluttering beauty to our world with colorful, gossamer wings or the gentle chirping that lulls us to sleep in the summer.

What’s bugging you?

During my earlier life with the Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Environmental Protection, I had - each fall - the duty to respond to a combination of letters and phone calls which dramatically illustrated the far-too-common and irrational reaction people have to harmless insects. The dread menace was the same in each case: boxelder bugs. These black and orange insects, are nothing more than nuisances. They do not bite people and are harmless to property. They feed almost exclusively on the leaves and flowers of the female boxelder tree. They do not transmit disease, do not cause structural damage indoors, nor damage indoor furnishings. Further, they do not reproduce inside, and will only live several days if not otherwise captured and removed. Okay, they are not pretty butterflies and can be annoying for several weeks when they swarm -- but they are harmless.

Each individual wanted an immediate response from their local government. One person demanded that the host boxelder trees in the community be chopped down – or at least insisted that the government spray pesticides in their densely populated area to kill the bugs. Similarly, a mother who saw a bug or two on her children’s clothing insisted that the Department of Public Works spray her entire neighborhood. And the last caller, a mother concerned because she noticed a bug on her baby’s blanket, wanted to know about getting exterminators to come in and spray the inside of the house (nursery included), as well as the trees outside.

Clearly these people have issues with bugs, including harmless species, and yet they are willing to subject their children and environment to toxic chemicals (or deforestation) to eradicate them – while killing off all the other beneficial insects in the area. It might be a good idea for bug-phobes to stop watching Hollywood b-movies with giant insects and schedule a family outing to the "Insect Zoo" at their local natural history museum or zoological park. After all, fear is mostly ignorance run amok.

The real question in dealing with pest control is “Is it worth it?” Is it worth exposing your family to toxic sprays every time you see a pesky fly? Is poisoning pets and toddlers an appropriate response to a innocent line of sugar ants on a kitchen counter? Using sprays to kill perceived pests may seem like a good idea – but at what cost? And what are you killing anyway? More than 99 percent of all insects are either beneficial or benign. Chances are you are killing off pollinators and not pests; poisoning the food chain and yourself, either directly or indirectly.

Time to think before you reach for -- or consider purchasing -- that spray can or lethal bug dust. Learn who the good bugs are before you try to kill off the bad ones -- and learn how to prevent pest problems first, and how to deal with them without toxic chemicals. Knowing the difference could save lives and an important part of your local environment.

Cleaner is greener

Of course, not every bug is wanted or desirable in our homes and gardens. Some are pests. Real pests. But there are a great many preventative measures which can make our homes, schools and workplaces naturally pest-free.
  • Good housekeeping - Keep tables, counters, cupboards, and floors clean, and immediately clean-up crumbs and spills, and put away leftover foods. In schools and offices, do not eat at your desk, if possible.
  • Storage - Store breads, pastas, sugar, starches and grains in tight-fitting containers. It is believed that a bay leaf placed in rice, flour, or grain containers will discourage varmints. Periodically check containers and discard any infested materials. Do not store food items in desks or lockers.
  • Disposal and recycling - Do not store garbage indoors. Wrap up or bag unwanted food materials and place in a tight-fitting trash receptacle. Keep the interior of garbage cans clean. Rinse recyclables before putting them in the bin (unrinsed bottles and cans are among the top five rodent attractants). Keep meat, fat, shortening, and dairy products out of compost bins. Recycle or dispose of papers and other clutter in basements, attics, and garages.
  • Pets - Clean up and properly dispose of dog and cat feces immediately (another top five rodent attractant). Store animal feed and birdseed in tightly-sealed containers. Regularly clean up under bird feeders (another top five item), and clean up spills of animal feed at once. Clean animal cages on a regular basis. Wash all pet bedding thoroughly with hot water. Vacuum all areas where pets sleep or “lounge.” Groom pets regularly outdoors – and keep them on a leash to avoid contact with flee-infected animals.
  • Moisture - Keep outdoor areas and basements free of standing or stagnant water. Remove and properly dispose of water-damaged materials, such as wood, wallboard, carpeting or carpet pads. Place a vapor barrier between basement floors and carpets to eliminate moisture in fibers and backing, and also cover the dirt "flooring" of crawl spaces under the house with a vapor barrier. These inexpensive barriers keep out moisture and control pest infiltration. Check for damp spots caused by leaking roofs or backed-up gutters. Ensure good ventilation in attics and crawl spaces.
  • Outdoors - Clean up and compost leaf litter and other garden trimmings laying around foundations, or in window and tree wells. Do not use wooden mulch directly against foundations. Prune trees and shrubs to provide aeration and ensure dryness around the sides and foundation of the house. Store firewood above ground and never next to the house or other wooden structures, like fences; do not store firewood indoors or in garages; check periodically and dispose of any pest-infested logs.
  • Barriers - Caulk around windows and install or replace the seals on doors and windows. Use removable caulking around window-mounted air conditioners.
  • Monitoring - If you live or work in a location that you suspects harbors pests, set up sticky traps or other monitoring devices to check on infestation. Check for insect infestations in containers when bringing potted plants indoors. Regularly inspect and repair any openings into your home, especially damaged screens, around pipes and utility lines, and around windows and door frames.
Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, June 08, 2009

Planting Fragrance in Your Garden

Gardens play many roles in our lives. They’re sanctuaries and playgrounds, habitat for wildlife and colorful backgrounds for entertaining. They can also be aromatic portals to our past.

Nothing conjures up long forgotten memories like our sense of smell. A whiff of lavender and we remember our father’s aftershave or a great-aunt’s parlor. And so, with just a shovel and a shrub, you can open a pathway to your past – or perhaps create some fragrant new experiences.

In many ways, a fragrance garden is a unique place which is as much a part of the heart as the yard. In fact, you don’t even need a yard! A handy window box or balcony planter can become home to an unparalleled array of aromas, both floral and culinary.

Imagine reaching out your kitchen window and lightly brushing against the fuzzy foliage of scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), their leaves perfumed with rose and lime, appetizing pineapple, and spicy ginger and nutmeg. But don’t stop there, those fragrant leaves can also be used to flavor homemade jellies, create potpourris, or sachets for stale drawers and closets.

You might also choose to fill your window-hugging planters with other fragrant annuals, such as sweet alyssum or colorful petunias, peppery nasturtiums, and so many more, all of them readily spreading their scent into your home with each passing breeze.

Decorative planters used on patios or throughout your garden can also provide a home for perennial plants which are too tender to overwinter outdoors. These include the fragrant foliage of lemon verbena, and the intensely perfumed flowers of common gardenia, and both angelwing and Arabian jasmine (J. nitidum and J. sambac).

Container cultivation is also a wise choice for somewhat rambunctious plants, like lemon balm or most members of the mint family. Planted in a garden bed, these fragrant delights soon become horticultural hoodlums and crowd out any other plant not belonging to their gang.
And unless one is planning to build an “Orangery” or conservatory, containers are the best environment in which to enjoy the scented flowers, foliage, and fruit of the citrus family, including several species of dwarf orange, as well as Kaffir and Thai lime, and popular dwarf lemon varieties such as Lisbon, Eureka and Meyer.

Around your garden, it’s often handy to plant species with fragrant foliage around seating areas, where you can easily reach over and brush or bruise the leaves. For a classic touch, consider enclosing your garden seat with a variety of clean-smelling and colorful lavenders or warm-scented rosemary. And while some scents are subjective, I have loved the aroma of English boxwood since childhood, as well as juniper, although some people find both musty and even unpleasant.

Actually, culinary herbs like sage and thyme, in addition to rosemary and lavender, are wonderful and traditional additions to any fragrance garden. Plant them around a bench or use them as an edging plant along narrow pathways where you’re likely to brush against them. Paths can also be lined with aromatic herbs used as groundcovers, such as silver mound artemesia (wormwood), dusty miller, and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Of course, some garden scents will come to you without coaxing, such as the aroma of flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), vanilla-scented heliotrope, clove-scented stock (both the common and night-flowering varieties), and members of the Dianthus family, including the varied hues of carnation, sweet william, and cottage pinks.

And don’t forget to add color and fragrance to your spring garden, perhaps a time when you need it most! Some of the best spring bulbs include both hyacinth and grape hyacinth, narcissus, and an old-fashioned favorite, lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis).

The fragrance garden should also include a number of small trees and shrubs, such as mock orange (Philadelphus coronaries) or the petite daphne (D. mezereum), one of the earliest and sweetest-flowering shrubs available.

Of course, the cherished champions of fragrance are the lilacs: the Syringa species. Lilacs provide cascading blooms in creamy white, sky blue, pinks, yellow, and intense purple, among others. Be sure to look for mildew or fungal resistant varieties when making your selection.

There are two native species of note which combine hardiness with beautiful white flowers and a butterfly-entrancing fragrance: globe-flowered buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and sweet pepperbush or Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) whose creamy white buds seem synonymous with the gentle warmth of May. For variety, you might also seek out a newer cultivar C. Rosea which offers delicate pink blooms as well as fragrance. The above are all readily available in most nurseries and provide an environmentally-sound alternative to the overly popular butterfly bush or Buddleia, which is fast becoming an invasive species in our ecosystem, particularly the cultivars ‘Black Knight.’

You should consider using a trellis or arbor to support vines to entice and envelope you. Treat yourself to night-blooming moonflower, native wisteria, bright-colored sweet peas, or soft-scented and autumn-blooming virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana).

Naturally, we cannot talk about fragrance without mentioning roses. Unfortunately, 20th century hybridization has left the rose somewhat de-scented, especially among climbers and the popular hybrid teas. When searching for a rose, by any other name, it’s best to look for varieties known as “antique” or “old-fashioned.” Or you could just sniff your way to a winning selection by visiting a local rose garden.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Rethinking Lawns in the Commercial Landscape

Maintaining healthy turf areas around most commercial properties requires a considerable investment of time and resources. Moreover, those lawns also produce a prodigious amount of clippings that must be recycled, either through the preferable practice of grasscycling, or by transporting clippings to an appropriate recycling facility, which is also an expensive proposition.

Fortunately, a growing number of property managers are learning that selecting alternatives to landscaping with grass leads to both long-term savings and to exceptional aesthetic values — which can be seen as an investment in advertising: visually separating that colorful, creative site from the boring sea of grass around them.

Excellent examples of departures from lawn-only landscapes can be seen in the District of Columbia, where projects sponsored by the Federal Reserve and Pennsylvania Avenue Development Authority called in the landscape-pioneering firm of Oehme and Van Sweden to install traffic-stopping plantings of dramatic ornamental grasses, native wildflowers, colorful perennials, and assorted ground covers. There were even some spaces where small lawn areas were used to contrast with the bolder plant materials — but they were very small.

There are horticultural and environmental benefits to altering traditional landscape designs. From a tree-care perspective, it is important to realize that one of the most common causes for tree mortality is disease resulting from injuries to bark and shallow surface roots — almost universally inflicted by lawn mowers and trimming equipment. Replacing turf under trees with wood or leaf mulch, or replanting with low to no-maintenance ground covers, eliminates these injuries and the costly need to replace specimen trees — in addition to paying for the removal and recycling of a dead tree. Lawn care needs are also reduced, whether in terms of mowing, aerating, fertilizing, or irrigating.

Moreover, property managers have often commented on the difficulty of keeping grass growing vigorously under the shade of a mature tree. In fact, grass generally needs more light than is ordinarily found in full shade; turf plots under trees should be replaced with shade-loving ground covers or mulch. Consider also that grass roots aggressively and too-successfully compete with trees for moisture and nutrients. During drought periods, trees can suffer from this stress and decline in health or perhaps even die. Replacing grass with any of the scores of ground covers commonly available will eliminate trouble areas in the landscape, improve tree health, and add color and beauty to your site.

Replacing grass with mulch islands and perennial plantings or sun-loving ground covers is especially important along curbs, streets, streams, and other watershed areas. These alternate plantings can serve as valuable buffers to prevent erosion and the run-off of lawn fertilizers and other chemicals. Plantings along curbs or streets also serve to frame your landscape, present color to the eye immediately, and then draw the visitor's eye to your company's building. Again, nibbling away at turf areas will ultimately reduce the amount of lawn care required, while the "frame" effect will make remaining turf areas more attractive overall.

Combining plantings along pathways, site perimeters, and parking lots with ground cover plantings under trees, will add a level of sophistication and elegance to your landscape — and your corporate image — which is generally lacking in sites carpeted with grass from curb to foundation. And the new design will soon pay for itself as the more intensive needs of turf management and recycling grass clippings are diminished.

There are several other practical benefits which accrue from landscape alteration: expanding areas utilizing ground covers creates a "organic sink" which eliminates the need to recycle some of your yard trim materials. Leaves can be allowed to fall under trees in autumn and remain there: earthworms and bacteria will work year-round to convert those materials into organic nutrients which will themselves continue to nurture and enhance the health of trees and ground covers alike, without additional fertilizer applications!

Augmenting your need for mulches under trees and in mulch island plantings also provides a "sink" for leaves and brush which can be readily shred into mulch or composted on site, eliminating the need to transport those materials to an off-site recycling facility. Furthermore, your landscape will benefit as your management regimen shifts to incorporate as much organic material as possible, saving you the cost for expensive soil amendments and fertilizers, and naturally revitalizing the soil in lawn and garden areas.

Using grass in a landscape has its place, but consideration should be given to how much turf is really necessary — if any at all — and how much does it cost to maintain that lawn. Reducing lawn area reduces expense, reduces solid waste generation, increases natural beauty and thereby enhances corporate image.

Lastly, the transition away from turf need not take place overnight: a phase-in period can be developed which favorably balances plant and mulch installation costs against maintenance and recycling costs, leading to property management cost savings — and ultimately leading to a sustainable and healthy environment for employees, customers, and your surrounding community.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Hardy and Reliable Native Plants for Sunny Locations

Herbacious Perennials

Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
White wood aster (Aster divaricatus)
New England aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis)
Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)
Tickseed Sunflower (Coreopsis tinctoria)
Threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata)
Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Joe pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum)
Oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Grass-leaf blazing star (Liatris graminfolia)
Gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Horsemint (Monarda punctata)
Sundrops (Oenothera perennis)
Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Moss phlox (Phlox subulata)
Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)
Early coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Fire pink (Silene virginica)
Rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
Wrinkle-leaf goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata)

Native Grasses

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus)
Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis)
Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix)
Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus)
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)