A mild winter, a warm March and some hot days in April haven’t made for tough times. Still, the weather has been odd enough, and there might be a price to be paid for the winter that wasn’t.
Gardeners already are finding things early, buggy and weedy.
Trees, bushes and plants seem to be a little too eager, going through their annual revivals about three weeks sooner than usual. Fruit trees started blossoming well ahead of time. Beautiful, yes, but not particularly welcomed by those who suffer with pollen allergies.
Insects have been making their numbers known earlier than in their regular seasonal debuts.
ldquo;When you don’t have much of a winter, everything gets out of synch,” said Sally McCabe of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Insects routinely killed off by the cold have survived this year, she said.
ldquo;With the warm weather, I’m looking forward to a devastating bug year,” McCabe said.
She saw cabbage moths in March. Some people think they’re small white butterflies, and they’re usually not around until May, McCabe said. The moths lay eggs in broccoli, collards and cabbage, and their larvae can do some damage.
On the plus side, McCabe said she got to put her garden in early. She even planted tomatoes in March. She’s trying a cold-tolerant variety called Siberia.
She saw plenty of earthworms while she was digging. The worms are not hibernators — they avoid the cold by moving lower underground. Anyone who has put a shovel into the ground in the past few weeks likely saw earthworms close to the surface.
SO WHAT’S BUGGING YOU?
Mosquitoes, harlequin beetles, stinkbugs and miner bees — if they’re not here yet, they’re coming soon.
Harlequin beetles like cabbage and broccoli, she said. They’ve been around for about 10 years. They’re due to show up this month.
That gray bug that sounds like a mini-helicopter as it flies around inside your house is a stinkbug. And, yes, stinkbugs stink. Crush one and you’ll probably grimace because of a very unpleasant odor.
Stinkbugs have been around for five years or so, McCabe said. They’re supposed to be devastating to orchards, she added. They’re from mountainous regions of China and they like to be cool. They get into houses on the north side as the weather gets cold, which is why you saw or heard them inside during the winter.
Miner bees dig in the mud, McCabe said, and leave little piles of dirt. You might be seeing a lot of them. They buzz about, but they don’t sting, she added.
Weeds, too, have been taking advantage of the unseasonable warmth. Hairy bittercress, chickweed, yellow rocket and dandelions have been making their presence known on lawns and beds.
Getting rid of them is “a never-ending battle,” said Dwight Lingenfelter, an agronomist with the Penn State Extension. And it’s a battle some backyard warriors might be waging the wrong way.
It’s true that getting at weed roots is key to chasing them out of your garden, but the way to do that is not by removing weed stems and leaves and spraying weed killer on the ground above the roots.
ldquo;I see people pull weed leaves and spray what’s left,” Lingenfelter said. “They’re wasting their time. The herbicide has to come to the roots through the foliage.”
Keep that in mind in the fall, when a weed’s sugars are returning to its roots. Fall is a good time to apply herbicides.
INVASION OF THE WEEDS
Right now, sugars are coming out of roots as plants awaken from dormancy. Folks of an anti-weed sentiment will want to use pre-emergent herbicides that stop the unwanted plants before they start, or, if they’re organic gardeners and don’t use chemicals, they should prepare to start yanking or digging them out as they emerge.
The weeds we’ve been noticing over the past few weeks are winter annuals, Lingenfelter said. They set seeds in the fall, live quietly through the winter and start growing into plain sight as the weather warms.
Chickweed, which has little white flowers, was one of the first to appear this year, McCabe said, although she saw weeds on her lawn as early as New Year’s Day.
Ground ivy, whose blue flowers have been decorating lawns for the past few weeks, is a perennial that seems to thrive throughout the seasons, Lingenfelter said, but also really takes off as temps rise. It’s a member of the mint family, he said, so anyone who has mowed over it has picked up a minty scent.
Hairy bittercress is an aggressive weed that is a member of the mustard family, Lingenfelter said. It has little fingerlike seedpods. Each of those pods bears several seeds, he said.
Garlic mustard, too, is making a bad name for itself. It too is extremely aggressive, Lingenfelter said, and has a rounded-off, toothed leaf, a white flower and small fingerlike seedpods. It can grow to 2 or 3 feet.
What slowed weeds down, Lingenfelter said, was the dryness we were experiencing until the weekend before Election Day last month. After all, a weed needs moisture, just like any other plant.
And that’s the real trouble.
ldquo;A weed is a competitor,” Lingenfelter said. “It’s stealing moisture, nutrients and light.”
A weed will thrive if it can get an advantage over another plant. If you don’t want to put herbicides down to control weeds, your alternatives are to pull them out of the ground or cover them with mulch to deny them light.
Composters might want to be wary of the weeds they toss in their piles. The heat generated by decomposing vegetation is sure to kill the seeds of grassy weeds, but some broadleaf weeds have hard coats on their seeds.
ldquo;They’re hard to kill in compost,” said Lingenfelter. Those seeds could survive, which means they ride along with your compost as you work it into the soil. They’ll rise again.
READY … SET … PLANT!
Around here, now is pretty much the normal time to put in transplants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Mother’s Day is the traditional date because plant-killing frosts are not expected after the holiday.
When you dig, you might want to keep an eye out for the early stages of some weeds that haven’t shown themselves above ground. Seeds that have just started to germinate, Lingenfelter said, appear as thin white threads in the ground. Lift them out and trash them.
ldquo;Anything a gardener does to disrupt their growth … will keep weeds under control,” he said.
Weed-war success, however, is tied to mixing up the tactics, Lingenfelter said. First, make sure your soil is suitable for the plants you want to grow. The right pH will give your plants a fighting advantage, he said.
Second, the physical disruption of a weed’s life mentioned above can be accomplished with mowing, pulling, clipping and hoeing.
Third, you can apply weed-killers. Organic gardeners shun herbicides. If you choose to put down weed-killers, read the labels and follow directions, Lingenfelter said.
Some weeds have practical uses — they can be eaten. A handful of weed species are very nutritious, he said. Dandelions, lambs quarters and purslane are good examples.
But anyone who decides to mix in some weed greens with the house salad should be certain those leaves have been identified correctly. A lot of people think that because something is natural, it has to be good, but that’s not true, Lingenfelter said. Pokeweed, for example, is poisonous.
ldquo;If you’re not sure, there’s no use trying it out,” he said.
Some gardeners have a live-and-let-live attitude about weeds. But farmers, who obviously are growing on a much grander scale, spend a lot of time and money fighting them, and that adds to the costs of just about everything you buy, said Lee Van Wychen, director of science policy for the Weed Science Society of America.
Weeds have been around as long as we’ve had agriculture, he said. Because they compete for water, light and soil nutrients, they cut down what farmers can produce. Controlling them is a constant and costly problem.
Some weeds have developed resistances to herbicides, Van Wychen said. One that grows around cotton must now be removed by hand, which adds to the cost of growing and eventually what we pay for our shirts and sheets.
Weeds are the bane of our existence, Van Wychen said.
Organic growers — who don’t use chemicals on their crops — report that a lot of their costs are associated with removing weeds.
ldquo;Many more would practice organic production if it weren’t for weeds,” he said. ••EndFragment