Has It Sprung?
The Vernal Equinox has come and gone. Snowdrops, Daffodils, and other perennials are blooming, or breaking ground here in the Southeast. Day by day, the blooms on the Bradford Pears are swelling. We have reports of Crocus flowers in the Northeast. Please send us a report of what is blooming in your area, so that we can share it with your fellow crew members. The chilly weather is still lingering in places, but it is time to get going on the garden. This is the time of year when gardeners flock to home and garden centers to spend money on preventative insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers with big dreams of their property looking like a country club by summer. Before you rush out and spend your hard-earned dollars, let’s discuss these products, and make sure that you’re not wasting your money.
Herbicides are a good place to begin. There are two basic families of herbicides (plant killers), pre-emergent and post-emergent. Pre-emergent herbicides, as the name implies, prevent weed seeds from germinating before the weed has a chance to grow. Two of the most common pre-emergent products at hardware stores that homeowners tend to use are Preen® and Scotts Crabgrass Preventer®. These are broad-spectrum herbicides. This means that they target many “weeds” not just one species. The Crabgrass prevention actually has a list of weeds, on the label, that it is supposed to subdue. What…you didn’t read the label?
Rule #1: Always read the label!
You have to read the label to know what sites you can use the product on, what personal protective equipment (PPE) is required, storage, disposal, and how much of the product you should be applying. This is no joke. There is a pervasive paradigm that these are “homeowner grade” products, and that they’re not really dangerous. This thought pattern is what is dangerous. Many of the products available come in concentrated forms, and ARE dangerous to you, your family, your pets, and the Earth. These are poisons that are meant to KILL living things like plants. Handle and mix them according to the directions and for goodness sake don’t think adding more product will give you better results. IT WILL NOT!!! It will simply add to the terrible pollution problem we are facing on earth right now.
We are more in the post-emergent camp of thinking. A post-emergent pesticide, as the name implies, treats a problem that is happening. In other words, you treat weeds after they have sprouted. These generally (not always…SO READ THE LABEL) have less of a residual effect. Wouldn’t it be better to prevent a problem, than wait for it to happen? This is a debatable question. The fact is, that many gardeners want their landscape to be much like a sterile environment. They want everything to be perfect with no weeds, no mosquitos or stinging insects, no creepy-crawly things, no snakes, no wild animals, or whatever else you can imagine. This is not how nature works. Your garden is part of a patchwork, that supports the life of our fellow Earth dwellers. We fully understand that no-one wants their house falling down from termites, but the fact is, that termites provide an important service in our forests. They consume dead wood, and convert it into valuable soil. Fungi also help with this process. Without nature’s little janitors, our world would be overrun with dead biomass, that would never decay. Plants would die because rain would not penetrate the soil. Without plants, life in general would cease. Okay…let’s not get too deep into the negative, and get back on topic. The point is, that you may be wasting money on preventive insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides for problems that would never happen. Not to mention that you’re negatively impacting the environment. You may be adding fertilizer to soil that does not need it. Soil test first…PLEASE! People apply super-high nitrogen fertilizer hoping to have green grass like a golf course. Often, nitrogen is not the reason turf looks crappy. Have you ever noticed what’s missing on a golf course? Trees! Grass likes full sun. Grass has certain requirements, and if you don’t provide the necessary sun and water, fertilizer will not help. Here’s another fact that many people are unaware of. Soil can only hold so much nitrogen. Some soils can hold more than others which means the nitrogen is held in place and therefore available to the grass over a longer period. All of that extra nitrogen (as well as phosphorous and potassium) that the soil can’t hold, washes away into ground water, storm drains, and waterways, creating pollution. Garden products are one of the worst causes of non-point source pollution and a leading cause of water degradation. Just try to be aware of these issues and be responsible. You might want to gently educate other folks too. Of course, you could suggest that they check out our website for more information (Thank You!) The ability for soil to hold water and nutrients is called the cation exchange capacity. We will discuss this subject in the future, but if you’re interested in learning more about it now, click here.
Broad Spectrum, pre-emergent pesticides tend to have a residual effect, meaning that they kill now and kill later. Here is an example. You treat your ornamental dwarf Cherry tree with a “does it all” preventative insecticide because you’re afraid of Aphids. There are plenty of these products on the shelves. Well, that insecticide will linger on the tree. The tree blooms, the blooms attract pollinators like wasps, the insecticide does not distinguish between aphids and wasps, hence the wasp dies. What is truly a shame, is that the wasp is parasitic with a voracious appetite for aphids. When we misuse chemicals in the landscape, we throw nature out of balance. This is why we would prefer to only use chemicals when necessary. When nature is out of balance, then it is sometimes necessary to judiciously use a pesticide. If you see five scale bugs on your shrub, you might just pick them off and squish them. If you are seeing them on multiple shrubs and the population is growing, then it might be time for a trip to your garden center. Pest professionals call this the ‘threshold’. The threshold is when some form of control, not eradication, becomes necessary.
Here’s a bit of advice about a residual lawn product that many people are dumping on their turf at this time of year. One popular Crabgrass preventer claims that it will prevent Crabgrass all season. Guess what else it will prevent from germinating…grass seed. If you plan on over-seeding your lawn, do not use weed preventative. There are many herbicides that claim to keep areas weed free for months. These particular chemicals are truly bothersome. Soil is not meant to be sterile! We fully understand wanting gardens to be aesthetically pleasing with a minimum of effort, but the environmental impact of these types of pesticides is devastating.
Once you identify a pest, you can use a product that will target the pest and not beneficial life forms, like pollinators. These are called narrow-spectrum or selective pesticides. Turf managers use selective herbicides to kill Dandelions, Clover, and other nutritious weeds, but will not harm graminoids (grass). I’m sure that many of you are still thinking that you would rather prevent problems. Okay, here are some non-chemical tools to help with pest prevention.
1.Use plants that are pest resistant or that do not attract pests. Euonymus kiautschovicus ‘Manhattan’ is notorious for scale bug problems. We actually call these shrubs, “scale magnets”, because you will almost always find scale on them. Remarkably, the shrubs don’t seem to suffer heavily from minor infestations of these life sucking parasites. However, they invite scale into your garden. Scale enjoys feasting on the life juices of many plants like Camellias, and Camellias do not stand up to Scale well.
2. Keep your plants healthy. Soil test often, to see which nutrients are deficient. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease. Plants that are placed in the proper light, with proper soil conditions, and that have their water requirements met will stand a much better chance of surviving.
3. Top dress your mulch in early spring. Make sure you have 2-3″ of shredded hardwood mulch in your beds to prevent weeds.
If any of you are having problems with a pest, feel free to send us a photo or write to us for advice.
-The HH Team
…Just as we are finishing this article, it’s snowing here. Strange weather for this time of year.