September 2014
How's Your Garden?

How's Your Garden?

Feathered Insect Control

In the ecology of a garden, birds can play a big role in keeping insects in check. Folks who grew up in the country know the value of purple martins, whose diet includes many flying insects such as flies, grasshoppers and mosquitoes. In any garden, city or country, chickadees and tufted titmice become summer pest-control champs because much of their summer diet consists of insects. They’ll eat moths, caterpillars, flies, beetles, aphids, leafhoppers and treehoppers, all of which can waste a garden. I don’t mind sacrificing a few tomatoes or blueberries to the birds in exchange for their helping me keep the pests under control. This spring I noticed very few cabbageworms in the garden, but did see cardinals flying in and out of the crop. The little green caterpillars they found must have been like sirloins to the baby robins in the nest. In the summer, nuthatches will feed on ants, beetles, insect eggs, caterpillars and cocoons. Watch the birds in and out of your summer garden patch and weigh their pecking of fruit against their potential pest control contributions. I’ve noticed that during times of drought, the tomatoes in our garden become a source of water for birds (and squirrels). If I run an oscillating sprinkler at a low height for a little while in the morning, they will get their water from that instead of the fruits.

Using bricks to create a giant house number within a stone wall could be useful on large and rural properties.  

You Can’t Miss This Number

Spotted in Austin, Texas, this stone wall is a base for a giant house number created with bricks. The 4-foot wall identifies the house very clearly and contributes to the larger landscape as you pull up to the house. Close to the curb, there is no missing this address! Even though this was spotted in an urban neighborhood, it’s an interesting treatment that could be useful on large and rural properties, especially at a distance from the road.

A Good Shovel is Worth Every Penny

Even though we may have a shed full of tools, it always helps to take inventory of what we’ve got, what’s really good and what’s not. One of my pet peeves is a cheaply constructed, poorly designed garden tools, especially shovels. A good tool does part of the work for you. A poor one just makes it harder. So, if you’re looking at your tool shed, or helping stock one for a loved one this Christmas, here are some pointers. A shovel needs a sharp edge and some weight so that it actually cuts into the ground. The shank should be bolted firmly to a fiberglass or hickory handle well up the length of the tool. (If you are prone to breaking handles, look for tools with steel handles, an outgrowth of the pro models.) Look for shovels with a solid shank for extra strength. Many older shovels were just simply molded around the base of the handle where they end up collecting soil and moisture that can cause a wooden handle to rot and or the spot breaks under pressure. Short-handled shovels with a T- or D-handle grip are great for moving small plants and digging holes. The T or D shape gives you a good place to grip when digging. A digging shovel needs a good shoulder for you to rest your foot while pushing the blade into the ground. When shopping, wear your digging shoes and test the various designs to find one that feels comfortable to you. Once you buy a good shovel, it will last for years, maybe even a lifetime of normal garden maintenance.

  Spider lilies, with their red blossoms on naked stems, seem to pop magically out of the ground this time of year, especially after rain showers.

Spider Lilies

Rain showers this month always bring out the old-fashioned spider lilies, Lycoris radiata, with their red blossoms on naked stems that magically pop out of the ground. I love the charm and surprise of these flowers. You never know if and when they will bloom. After the flowers fade, narrow, strap-like leaves also appear from underground in fall and remain through the winter. These leaves are what renew the plant’s energy to bloom again next year, so never mow or cut them back. Let the leaves grow until they yellow in the spring. In the right place, spider lilies live a long, long time. These are plants that get passed down through generations. If you don’t have a friend to dig and give you any, you can buy bulbs to plant now. The bulbs are generally only available at this time of year. If you buy bulbs, plant them in a sunny spot where there is moisture, but also good drainage.

Coffee Grounds Measure Up

We gardeners are always adding leaves and other organic matter to our soil, including kitchen scraps and the grounds from our coffee pot. Collecting coffee grounds from coffee shops has become a habit in some areas since Starbucks began advertising free grounds for gardeners several years ago. When Sunset magazine sent some Starbucks coffee grounds to a lab for analysis, they got some nutritional information to share with gardeners. The pH of the grounds was 6.2. NPK results were: nitrogen, 2.28 percent; phosphorous, 0.06 percent; and potassium, 0.6 percent. The grounds also contained trace amounts of magnesium and copper. The carbon nitrogen ratio is 24:1, so there is plenty of carbon available to feed the microorganisms as they break down the grounds. Amending soil with coffee grounds by up to 35-percent volume was found to improve soil structure over the short and long term. So there you have it, a little scientific measurement to quantify what you already knew! So go brew and strew.

Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.