Garden Notes

Latham Higgins is flanked by the blue Chapin on the left and the white Solo on the right. Photo by Susan Safford
Encouraging youngsters to help in the garden means eliminating poison sprays. Here Latham Higgins is flanked by the blue Chapin on the left and the white Solo on the right. Photo by Susan Safford

Sprays and late-garden maintenance

By Abigail Higgins - August 17, 2006

It has been a couple of weeks of mostly beautiful days and nights: high summer, to the tune of cicadas, katydids, and crickets. The kind of weather we call, not fair weather, but "Fair weather," because it is the meteorological beau ideal for the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society's annual Fair and Livestock show. The Fair opens today at the West Tisbury fairgrounds. Send the kids on the bus! See you at the Fair!

Spraying is one of those seemingly simple garden chores that I find myself dragging my feet over although, believe me, I know better. For blue ribbon-winning cabbage, cauliflower, or broccoli it is necessary to curb the cabbage caterpillars with a weekly spray of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt.) Sooty mold on yews and hollies means getting rid of the scale and whitefly whose secretions are causing it by spraying with insecticidal soap. New plantings of both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs need an anti-desiccant (which is also good for control of some foliar conditions like powdery mildew) to cut transpiration and help them establish as quickly as possible.

All of the above spray products are applied with a tank sprayer, not a hose-end device, so eventually most gardeners come in contact with this indispensable but irritating tool; hence the foot-dragging. Pictured are some of the sprayers I use in my garden; at any one time I usually have fish emulsion, anti-desiccant, and deer repellant going so I find it practical to own more than one sprayer.

The main criterion for sprayers is ease of clearing the hose and/or nozzle when clogging occurs. (Viscous deer and rabbit repellants are especially likely to cause frequent clogging). In that case the pressure will drop to a dribble and spraying will come to a halt. The Solo sprayer meets that criterion, as all that is needed is to remove the end of the spray nozzle, with its tiny interior screen filter, and scrape or wash away the matter clogging it. However, this sprayer also possesses an Achilles heel. The screw lid holds a large o-ring, which does not seat itself well up in the top. Unless one checks that it is firmly seated all the way around before screwing down the lid and pumping up the pressure, one is liable to find that it has cross-threaded and that there is no pressure, only a hissing noise.

The Champion sprayers take a little more trouble to clear, as the filter is down in the tank at the end of the uptake pipe; one loosens the hose and pulls out the pipe plus filter before washing out the filter. I put up with it because overall they are well made and solidly constructed. Although I have had many Gilmour "Spray Docs" (not pictured) over the years, they have a number of small parts that are hard to replace when needed, including a conical plastic filter bit that always tries to fly out with the gush of liquid from the hose, when one goes to clear it. They are less a precision tool than the Solos and Champions, but I will say this for them: they are more forgiving of the lumps in some of the deer repellant mixtures than the other sprayers.

Chemical cautions

While I am on the subject of sprayers and sprays, I would like to reiterate that what I consider the "nuclear weapons" of the garden (chemical poisons and pesticides) are very often not necessary. Good soil and excellent nutrition, adequate water, and vigilance are far more important to your end result than are most of the products that come to you courtesy of "Chemgarden Inc."

It is now known that pesticides and herbicides at low (i.e., correct) dosages are capable of lethal combinations that were not factored into the original product approval trials. Everyone who handles or applies these products is playing Russian roulette with his own body and health, or with that of his children or pets. At a time of unprecedented immune-system health problems, it behooves all of us to take a skeptical second look at practices we have all accepted as "normal." A perfect lawn is not worth a case of Parkinson's disease. There are a number of web sites that supply additional information, among them Google "Pesticide Action Network" for more links.

In the perennial garden deadhead lavender and prune it too. The mounds will become denser and harden off their new growth before winter. Cut back bearded iris leaves to low fans if they are tattered looking. Siberian iris clumps can be entirely cut back too, if they look unattractive. Deadhead buddleia to keep the flowers, and butterflies, coming. Feed roses and give them a side dressing of composted or bagged manure. 'The Fairy' rose especially will need an overhaul of complete deadheading, but check all rose bushes for deadheads that may have escaped notice. Prune back to the second five-leaf cluster. Deadhead, de-stem and de-leaf daylily clumps to improve their appearance. Side-dress those that re-bloom. Start applying mulch.

Crab grass patrol: lurking beneath perennials, around the edges of stepping stones and hardscape, crab grass is quite easy to spot and weed out while small. When it has attained a sizeable sprawl, rooted at every node, it is much harder, and by then probably the plant will have set seed. To those whose entire lawn is composed of crabgrass (myself included) I say, enjoy the raspberry-like smell of it after it has been mown.

My thanks go to Melinda Defeo of the Farm Institute for several bulletins on tomato culture. She sent them along to me in connection with the Tomato Tasting, to be held Sept. 2 at the Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA), sponsored jointly by the Community Solar Greenhouse of Martha's Vineyard, PHA, and Slow Food MV. One of these bulletins contained a tip I have never heard before: stripping off the lower leaves of tomato vines before they have had a chance to get early blight. From Your Guide to Gardening, by Marie Iannotti:

"Once the tomato plants are about three feet tall, remove the leaves from the bottom one foot of stem. These are usually the first leaves to develop fungus problems. They get the least amount of sun and soil born pathogens can be unintentionally splashed up onto them. Spraying weekly with compost tea also seems to be effective at warding off fungus diseases."

This sounds like something to try next season. If it is a good idea, it would eliminate one of the sprayings I perform with those pesky sprayers.