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Monday, March 24, 2014

The Containment Corollary

I have a secret: I'm outrageously jealous of the rabbits living under my neighbors house. They have no deadlines, alarm clocks, or bureaucratic nutjobs to deal with. They spend their days eating, sleeping, and having sex. There are no bad hair days, wrinkles, or calories to worry about. They are always cute and I can't stand it.

But as envious as I am of their lustful, snack-filled lifestyle, my garden has become their favorite buffet. As they fuel up for round after round of naked bunny funtime, more and more of my plants begin to disappear. Last summer dwarf heliopsis, most of my asters, dalea, sedum, beans, annual vines, etc were all devoured. They need to start eating my neighbors landscaping instead of my garden. So while the bunnies are locked in their latest orgasmic frenzy creating hordes of babies to further decimate my garden, I'm battening the hatches and waiting for their Bacchanalian festivities to end. What the rabbits don't know is I've created a bunny blockade.

What people see

What female rabbits see

Knowing bunny proof plants exist as stalwarts of garden mythology only, I had to take a more drastic approach. Since my four well-rested dogs hadn't done much to reduce the local bunny population, I needed to figure out a way to keep the rabbits out of my garden so they could focus on eating everyone else's plants instead. To do this, I enclosed my entire garden in green plastic coated wire fencing and created barricades for my fence gates. 

I used whatever green plastic coated wire netting was available from my
 local hardware store.

Since eastern cottontail rabbits aren't known for their jumping abilities, I only used fencing that was 2 feet high.

I used cable zip ties to attach the fencing to the black wire pet fencing that already lines my wooden fence. I started with the little zip ties but they drove me crazy and I soon switched to much longer black ties. I used landscape staples to secure the fencing into the ground. 

Most of the fencing was attached from my neighbors side of the fence since I had too many woody plants in the way. My wonderful neighbors decided I was crazy a long time ago and don't mind the rabbits. They may change their mind when they have no plants left.

I rolled the fencing a bit at the bottom to help prevent the rabbits from digging underneath.

I used square dowels to reduce the space between my gate slats so the rabbits can't squeeze through the openings. It's possible they'll dig under the gate, but I'm hoping they're not that motivated.

 This was a really easy project!

I used a cheap piece of decorative molding to block the bottom of the fence. The pea gravel isn't part of the bunny blockade. This area stays wet after it rains and the gravel helps with drainage.

Even though I've fenced in the back garden, there's still plenty for the rabbits to eat along the front and sides of the house. Note to self: Encourage neighbors to plant lettuce. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Rose Rescue Plan

Last year was not a good year for roses in my garden. How bad was it? Apocalyptic, catastrophic, and all the other dramatic synonyms for 'horrible' you can dig out of a thesaurus. A cool, soaking wet spring soon turned my roses into festering cesspools of black spot fungus and I was helpless to stop the onslaught.

The Black Plague or Black Spot Fungus? 

Here's how it all went down: As soon as I realized what was happening, I identified the culprits, ripped them out, scraped away the mulch from under my heavily infected Graham Thomas rose, remulched, and hoped I had solved the problem. What had I accomplished? A big pile of nothing! Nada. Zilch. By the end of the summer my roses had very few leaves left and stood out like skeletons in an anatomy class. It was depressing, to say the least.

Here are the black spot fungus myths that fueled my actions:

  • MYTH: A hard, cold winter will kill black spot fungal spores 
    • REALITY: Unless you live in either the Arctic circle or the Sahara desert, if you have any moisture/humidity in the spring or summer, you will have blackspot. The spores overwinter in the soil and mulch.
  • MYTH: Roses in a healthy garden won't get black spot. 
    • REALITY: Healthy roses will bounce back faster than weak ones and may be able to resist the spores longer, but that's it.

  • MYTH: Roses marked 'disease resistant' are immune to disease. 
    • REALITY: I so wish this was true! It just means that it takes them longer to become infected.
  • MYTH: Just because you didn't have black spot last year, doesn't mean you won't have it this year. 
    • REALITY: Black spot fungus is a soil borne pathogen that occurs naturally in humid climates. It is impossible to remove from the soil. The fungal spores spread when they splash from the soil onto the leaves and canes.

From left to right are 'Westerland', a small 'Jude the Obscure' (David Austin) that's really hard to see, and a 'Night Owl' rose in August.

Once I realized the black spot was spreading, I continued to unleash every weapon in my arsenal. Unfortunately, I wasn't as well stocked as I thought I was. I tried homemade anti-fungal sprays, commercial sprays, and misapplied a fungicide. I pulled off every leaf only to have the new leaves quickly develop more spots. I picked up as many leaves as possible from the mulch but nothing worked. Instead of being proactive, I stuck in a reactive loop going nowhere. So I just gave up.

Westerland and Night Owl roses in May

Graham Thomas (David Austin) in May

But I never really give up. I was just pulling back until I could figure out a better battle plan. I decided to let my roses put out as many new leaves as they could, knowing they needed them to photosynthesize. I continued to pick up all the dropped leaves from the garden and started researching. Convinced my own lack of knowledge had contributed to the disaster, I had to become smarter than my enemy. 

Here's My Plan:

November 2013 - I removed as much mulch as possible from around my roses and picked up every rose leaf out of the garden but probably missed a few. I remulched and also applied Organocide Systemic Fungicide as a drench around my roses. I'm hoping this helped reduce the pathogen load in my roses and the surrounding soil. 

This was the only systemic fungicide I could find that didn't also contain a pesticide. The name, however, does give me the creeps and makes me a bit protective of my kidneys and liver.

Mid-February 2014 - I pruned my roses, cutting off as many infected canes as I could. Several roses were reduced in size by about 75%. Cutting my roses back that severely was upsetting but necessary. Fungal spores overwinter on the canes as well as in the soil and mulch. The canes on the 'Night Owl' and 'Westerland' roses were covered in fungal lesions and were cut more severely than the rest. I cleaned my pruners after every cut with Lysol wipes.

My Night Owl canes were so covered with lesions, they looked like they had smallpox. I'd grown this rose for 6 years before having this problem. In 2012 I moved it to a much sunnier spot but didn't realize it wasn't as moist as its previous location. I think the stress of moving to a drier spot decreased its ability to fight off the fungus. I now have a thick soaker hose at its base and keep it very well watered. This entire cane was removed.

Mid-February 2014 - I applied Lime Sulfur spray to my dormant rose canes. Even though this is organic, the solution is highly caustic and I wore long sleeves,  gloves and safety goggles. I also sprayed the surrounding mulch and grass.

April 2014 - Once my roses begin putting out new growth, I will apply another fungicide drench. This will be my last application for the season. Overuse of fungicides kills the beneficial microbes and fungi needed for healthy soil. About a week after the fungicide has been applied, I will amended the soil with compost and an organic fertilizer. I don't use a rose fertilizer since my dogs will dig up the rose to eat the bone/bloodmeal they contain. I make my own fertilizer with homemade worm compost, ground alfalfa meal, bat guano, greensand, kelp, and dried ground up banana peels. I will also start spraying my roses weekly with the organic preventative fungicide sprays Serenade and Actinovate. I don't think spraying is a hassle, especially since it just takes a few minutes and I'm always out in the garden, anyway.

  • When spraying any fungicides, make sure you also spray the bottom of the leaf. That's where the spores usually land first. 

Here's what I won't do:

I do not use any Bayer or Bonide Rose Care products. I will pull every rose out of my garden before I apply these. 

Both of these products contain the pesticide imidicloprid, a neonicontinoid class pesticide responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees. Most fungicides contain imidicloprid or similar pesticides because a fungus is considered a pest. Chlorothalonil is another pesticide that is widely included in commercial fungicides, especially those by Ortho.

So, have I eliminated black spot for good? Doubtful, but I'm hoping to have knocked it back to the point that dealing with it can be classified as a minor scuffle instead of a war. I'll post updates this spring and summer to document the outcome.

My Sceptre d'Isle rose was isolated from the other roses by a patio and had been drastically pruned the previous fall when it was transplanted to a sunnier spot. It didn't develop black spot until late fall.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained: Adventures in Seed Sowing

Have you ever been asked that absurd question of if you had three wishes, what would you wish for? I can never answer because not only is the question ridiculous but the possibilities are too immense. World peace? Of course. A global commitment to protecting the Earth. Yes. Calorie free brownies that don't taste like cardboard. Definitely. But what I really want is a greenhouse. 

In the UK greenhouses seem as ubiquitous as giant, bloated cars are in the United States.  Here they are rare creatures, indeed. But lacking the boat load of money required to have one built or the handy skills to build one myself, I have to fall back on my main talents: absolute determination and a large supply of tin foil.

My Greenhouses

Under all this aluminum fabulousness, are several annuals and a tomato. T5 grow lights hang suspended from the green cords. These shelves in my basement hold my kids old toys and games.

I plant my seeds directly into large plastic cups with holes burned into the bottom with a hot screwdriver tip that I've heated on the stove. This gives them plenty of room to develop strong root systems. It also makes it easy to write the name of the seeds on the cup to avoid confusion. Gomphrena need darkness to germinate so I experimented by covering one cup with newspaper and one cup with foil. The seeds in the newspaper covered cup germinated very quickly while the other cup only has a few seedlings. Bronze fennel grows next to the gomphrena.

I think the germination rate on the ammi and scarlet flax must be close to 100%. Both groups of seedlings have already been thinned heavily. I have the lights very low for the plants that like full sun and higher for those that need partial shade so I don't burn the seedlings.

Growing my seeds in large cups also reduces the need for repeated transplanting. I'll eventually separate this into two groups of seedlings and keep them in their cups until it's time to plant them outside. As the plants grow larger, I'll add a cheap plastic tray to the bottom to keep them watered. Right now, I just mist them with a spray bottle.

This seed starter is much lighter than regular potting soil.

I crimp the top to increase the heat and keep the light from diffusing into the basement. In late April, I'll be setting up more greenhouses to start the nine different types of zinnias I'm growing this year.

Ammi majus isn't commonly grown here but seeds are found at better garden centers. I planted a tiny seedling in too much shade last year and it died but not before being devoured by a fat happy caterpillar. I am absolutely determined to grow it again.

The Weirdness

Last year I grew my seeds on my kitchen counter in a makeshift greenhouse constructed from clamp lights attached to gravel filled wine bottles stuffed into sand filled containers. I shrouded the entire thing in foil and the plants thrived. But it took up a lot of space and worked best with seeds sown in tiny pots. With one light currently pressed into service to keep my basil alive all winter, I still had one light available.

So I made another tin foil greenhouse.

By wrapping three sides in foil, I can direct the light and heat onto the plants. By wrapping four sides in foil, I can burn the house down. 

I have two cups of Mortgage Lifter tomatoes under the clamp light and one cup under the other grow lights. Another experiment? But of course! I just can't resist.

Winter Sowing

I tried winter sowing last year and was only mildly successful. There were some complete disasters, but that's life. Of the plants that died, I think the main problem was a lack of drainage and not enough container depth to allow for strong root development. But some plants may have died from sheer spite. I never rule that out.

So this year I tried again with a different approach. Most winter sowing is done in large milk jugs or soda bottles. But since we don't drink much soda and only buy milk in small containers, I decided to use what I had: lots of empty pots. I also decided to only grow plants that tend to self-sow. Nothing makes you feel more successful than growing plants that don't need your help.

These pots are full of seeds! The pot in the front is full of ammi majus, which has a big taproot and dislikes being transplanted. I'm growing ammi under grow lights, too, but am hoping the winter sown ammi germinates so I have extras to give away to friends. By sowing the plants directly into the pots they'll grow in, I won't have to disturb their roots by transplanting them. These pots are full of ammi, parsley, and rudbeckia hirta (black eyed susans) 

The smaller pot is full of parsley seeds while the pot in the middle has linaria 'Fairy Bouquet'. It's already started to sprout! I grow a lot of parsley for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars native to this area.

I filled the pots with moist potting soil and then topped them with a few inches of extra seed starting soil. I added thin branches from a recently pruned shrub to hold up the plastic. This pot is full of more bronze fennel seeds. I'm hoping to have lots of plants to give away. Bronze fennel attracts many beneficial insects and is a main food source for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

I bought a super cheapo plastic drop cloth that I cut into pieces to cover my pots. I used the lighter to heat up the screwdriver tip so I could poke holes in the plastic. The tip is red from poking holes in all my red cups.

When I ran out of skinny branches, I used bamboo stakes.

I covered them with plastic, secured the plastic with a bungy cord and then poked holes to allow heat to escape and moisture to enter.

I tried the milk jug method one more time. In case you weren't sure, this jug contains malva 'Zebrina'. But considering the amazing camouflage provided by my duct tape, I'm surprised you can see this jug at all.

This picture was taken Nov. 1, 2013. By the end of the summer the malva was three feet tall. Even as the rest of the garden went dormant, it soldiered on.

It's also known as French hollyhock, although I'm not sure if the French are aware of that. 

Native American mason bee on the French hollyhocks. Apparently, this pollen is served on very small plates and pairs well with a crisp baguette and stinky cheese.