Northeast Times

Will garden grow on you?

— The re­l­at­ively mild winter is giv­ing garden­ers an early start in the dirt. But it also has awakened some un­pleas­ant things that re­quire lots of tug­ging and pulling.

Ground Ivy

Start­Frag­ment

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

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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