We have all become more familiar with pandemics than any of us would like to be, thanks to Covid-19.
Global agriculture or local gardens
Whether we are talking about pandemics in the global food supply or epidemics in neighborhood home gardens, the spread of disease affects everyone. Dealing with plant diseases takes time, costs money, and reduces crop size. Preventing these problems is a lot easier than dealing with the consequences. Plant pandemics are increasing in both frequency and effect because of rising temperatures, global trade, pathogen spillover, and evolution.
Cold weather slows viruses and kills off many vectors. As global temperatures continue to rise, viruses and other pathogens are finding life a lot easier in new regions. Along with changing temperatures, we are also seeing changes in storm patterns, drought occurrence, and other conditions that weaken plants and favor disease. Monitoring plants regularly for signs of trouble can help nip those problems in the bud.
Travel along the Silk Road 2,000 years ago brought untold wealth and riches to the far reaches of the globe. It also furthered the development of science, literature, and medicine. And it increased the spread of diseases, such as intestinal parasites, the Black Death (bubonic plague), smallpox, and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). Modern global trade has had similar effects on our gardens.
A single pest, virus, bacteria, or other plant problem can catch a ride on a shipment of produce, furniture, or dollar store doo-dad bound for your neighborhood. Before you know it, you’re up against something new. Some of those new problems can be devastating. And many countries are forced, through poverty, to ignore trade restrictions regarding pests, diseases, and chemical use. As a result, low price produce often comes at a higher long-term cost.
In some cases, the carriers of diseases develop a taste for something new. This is becoming more common as new varieties of plants are developed to tolerate non-traditional temperature ranges. As crops are grown in new areas, so, too, will the pests and diseases that favor those crops. Once established, those pests and diseases often develop a taste for the local flora, spilling over into these local crops. Also, where one disease may be tolerable, being put in combination with another disease can turn the tables for the worse.
One thing I learned while studying for the Master Gardener’s exam was that pathogens push plants to develop better defenses. It’s one of Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” situations. Plants that die are removed from the gene pool, leaving more resistant specimens to reproduce. Of course, we don’t want anything to kill our herbs, tomatoes, or fruit trees. We want them to grow and thrive and produce.
Like everything else, diseases evolve. A simple mutation can change everything. And microorganisms evolve a lot faster than plants (or us). In some cases, a disease can have a mild effect for several years and suddenly mutate and become devastating.
Common plant epidemics
Monoculture and the increasing demand for food have led to the rise of several plant pandemics. These are some of the most common:
These are only a few of the plant pandemics currently happening. Like Covid-19, many of the carriers of these diseases can be asymptomatic, which means they look perfectly healthy. But adding them to your landscape can cause years of headaches and work.
You can reduce the risk of plant diseases causing problems in your garden by monitoring insect movements in your region. Many insects carry diseases. If you know the insects are headed your way, you can be prepared. The Big Bug Hunt is a good tool I’ve used to see what’s coming. I’m sure there are others, but the Big Bug Hunt has the added benefit of providing photos and identification tools.
These other tips can help break the chain of plant epidemics and pandemics:
Finally, learn more about the relationships between the plants you are growing and the pests that threaten them. Did you know that green peach aphids hide out in winter on stone fruit trees and can then carry potato leafroll viruses to your potatoes in spring? Now you know.
Remember, the more you know, the better equipped you are to halt the spread of these and other plant diseases. We may not be able to vaccinate plants to protect them, but there are other things we can do.
There are many reasons to grow your own food: flavor and freshness usually top the list. Pesticides are another reason.
Pros and cons of pesticides
Pesticides can make quick work of pests that damage our plants or carry plant diseases. They can also spread to unintended locations, contaminate groundwater, and interfere with the delicate balance of countless, often beneficial, life forms. How much is too much? How can we know these chemicals were used responsibly by growers halfway around the world? It’s tricky.
Fresh produce is supposed to be good for us. We are urged to eat at least five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables each day. But can all the pesticides and other chemicals used in commercial agriculture be washed off? The answer is no. In many cases, pesticides are systemic, which means they are absorbed by plants. How many otherwise healthy fruits and veggies contain high levels of pesticides? The list may surprise you.
Environmental Working Group
Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list of the twelve U.S. crops most contaminated with pesticides. The ‘Dirty Dozen’ are often sprayed with chemicals banned in the European Union. Did you know that peppers are sprayed with 115 different pesticides? Or, that spinach often contains twice as much pesticide residue, by weight, than any other crop tested by the EWG? According to the EWG’s 2021 Dirty Dozen, these crops are the worst when it comes to pesticides:
Personally, I like using this annual list as a guide to what I will grow at home. Store-bought strawberries rarely taste as good as they look anyway, so homegrown or certified organic are the only ways to go for me. Spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens are easy to grow and can be allowed to go seed, providing years of edible good health.
While fruit trees take time to get started, they are a good investment in your landscape and many of them can be grown in large containers. Tomatoes and peppers are regulars on my list of plants to grow, though celery has given me some trouble.
I’m not completely opposed to pesticide use. It certainly has its place. There are billions of mouths to feed, and pests feel no remorse about wiping out crops. Instead of applying broad-spectrum pesticides, we can use hand-picking, sticky barriers, and other cultural practices to manage many pests.
The good news
On the flip side, the EWG also publishes a list of produce available in stores that score lowest on residual pesticides. This annual list is called the Green Fifteen, and here is the 2021 list:
My three most pest-free plants have been almonds, apples, and bush beans. My three most pest-prone plants have been Swiss chard, tomatoes, and pole beans, always with aphids. Which three plants cause you the most trouble, pest-wise? Which three need the least amount of help battling pests? Let us know in the comments.
Moving from a house in San Jose, California, to an apartment in downtown Seattle, Washington brought many changes to this gardener’s life. Raised beds, fruit and nut trees, and many of my larger plants had to be left behind. Potted herbs came along, and they seem to be enjoying balcony life. But temperatures are dropping. It was time to learn more about my new USDA Hardiness Zone. What I learned surprised me.
It’s not unusual to discover that a new location has a different set of conditions related to gardening. The weather is certainly different. I went from a scorching hot, drought-prone climate to cool, overcast skies and a lot more greenery. The soil situation is very different. My heavy clay made better with wood chips must now be replaced with bagged potting soil. Instead of a compost pile for plant food, I will be using store-bought fertilizers. I’m sure there will be new pests and diseases to contend with, but I haven’t run into them yet. The biggest surprise for me, and one that affects all gardeners, was the change in Hardiness Zone.
USDA Hardiness Zones
The USDA Hardiness Zone map divides the U.S. into zones based on average winter low temperatures. Understanding these zones helps gardeners select plants that will thrive. The 1990 map, which I have been using for years, told me that my San Jose garden was in zone 8. The more recent 2012 map says it’s in zone 9. The same shift is true of Seattle. The older map puts Seattle in zone 7, while the newer map says 8. More on that in a moment.
Each zone is divided into 10°F increments. That means temperatures, as far as gardening goes, have risen profoundly in recent years. Before you panic, you need to know that some of those changes are due to better science and improved measurements. But temperatures are changing. Temperatures are critical in determining what will grow well and what will struggle in your garden.
Global zone issues
Back to Seattle. This past summer, there was a week with temperatures around 110°F. For anyone familiar with Seattle weather, you will know that this is unheard of. As we drove along I-5 to our new home, we could see the damage caused by those temperatures. Trees exposed to the afternoon sun were badly bronzed. Extensive sunburn damage can be seen everywhere. These plants were not able to protect themselves against the unusual heat. Many trees will die as a result.
This type of damage is occurring in food production around the world, too. An article published by Science Daily tells us that fully one-third of the world’s food crops are at risk because of climate change. Master Gardeners, farmers, and researchers around the world are trying to find out what works and what doesn’t under these new conditions.
What changes, if any, have you seen in your garden over the past few years? Have temperature changes altered what and how you grow?
How does one go from an expansive suburban yard with raised beds, bees, and hens in California to a 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle?
It was difficult to walk away from an imminent harvest of almonds, apples, figs, squash, and tomatoes, but family is more important, and it was time. I did manage to can some tomatoes before packing day, however!
Sounds of nature
I do miss the sounds of the hens and the sight of bees busily going to and fro, but Seattle isn’t without its’ sights and sounds of nature. Instead of egg songs, I hear the cry of seagulls and cawing crows. Pigeons are common, but not on my 7th-floor balcony. I have seen various bees and mayflies. And I am not without a garden.
Choosing apartment plants
Choosing which plants to bring and which to leave behind took some thought. Aside from physically moving the plants, I had to decide how much space to dedicate to them. Herbs were my first choice. The chives, oregano, peppermint, stevia, summer savory, and thyme came with me. I transplanted all my saffron crocus bulbs into various pots of succulents. And I brought my strawberry pot planted with groundcherries. Next year, I may make room for some tomatoes or squash. I have to finish unpacking first.
Apartment gardening poses some unique challenges and opportunities. As always, light and temperature are critical factors. Living in a corner unit in a southwest-facing building, we get plenty of light. Since we have a balcony, I can give my plants access to pollinators.
Water conservation isn’t the same in Seattle as in California, but I still use the dregs from my dogs’ water bowl to water my plants. I figure the bits of dog food and who knows what else might help feed my apartment plants. Without a compost pile, I’ll have to rethink how I feed them. (The plants, not the dogs.)
If you’ve gardened in an apartment, what advice do you have for me, the New Kid on the block?
In the predawn light, through the glass of my 7th-floor apartment window, I saw the underside of a delicate mayfly. I tried to get a photograph, but the combination of glass, lighting, and reflection made my attempts unsuccessful. This was unfortunate because mayflies are quite lovely. And, while they do not have a direct impact on your garden, their presence says a lot about the health of an ecosystem.
Prehistoric mayflies had 18-inch wingspans. They are significantly smaller than that these days. My morning visitor was less than an inch long, tail included. Mayflies are members of the Ephemeroptera order, which includes dragonflies and damselflies. There are over 3,000 species of mayfly around the world and 630 in North America, though four North American species have become extinct. Mayflies are also known as fishflies and shadflies. Fly fishermen from around the world have used these long-tailed insects as models for lures.
Those long tails are often split into two fine hairs, much like the first flying insects. When at rest, as was my morning visitor, they hold their wings upright, similar to butterflies. Their relatively long wings are often mottled.
Life as a mayfly
Mayflies are aquatic insects. They spend most of their lives as nymphs, or naiads, in unpolluted freshwater. These naiads look something like a cross between an immature ladybug alligator and a leafhopper. Sort of. They may spend several years in this stage, molting through 10 to 50 instars. In some cases, they breathe using gills. Most species of mayfly get enough oxygen by absorbing it through their outer covering, or integument. Most mayfly nymphs feed on algae and debris, though a few are predators. In turn, most mayflies are eaten by fish and carnivorous insects. Eventually, surviving nymphs leave the water, and sometimes in astounding numbers. Contrary to their name, adult mayflies can appear spring through autumn and not just in May.
Unlike most other insects, most mayfly species have an aerial pre-adult stage, called the subimago or dun. The subimago looks similar to an adult but is sexually immature. These teenage mayflies don’t fly very well, are a duller color, have shorter appendages, and they lack the sexy wing coloration of mature adults. Some subimagos have forelegs that are accordion-folded, which don’t extend until they reach adulthood. How’s that for a growth stage?
The subimago stage lasts only a few minutes to a few days, depending on the species before they molt into sexually mature adults or imagos. This is where the ephemeral nature of the species becomes apparent. After swimming around for several years, adult mayflies have only one purpose, to mate, and they may have only minutes, hours, or days in which to succeed.
They do not have mouths because they do not have time to eat. Some male mayflies have eyes on top of their heads, in addition to the front-facing variety, to help them find females during their short lives.
Male mayflies dance in an up-and-down pattern to attract females. After copulation, many female mayflies fly upstream to lay between 400 and 3,000 eggs. Female mayflies find water by detecting reflected light. In some cases, this means they are fooled into laying their eggs on other shiny surfaces.
When laid in water, these eggs sink to the bottom where they may take a few days or up to a year to hatch. After hatching, first-stage nymphs burrow into the sediment where they feed for a few years.
Mayflies are very sensitive to pollutants, making them something of a canary in a coal mine. They are also intermediary hosts to horsehair worms, which infect grasshoppers, causing them to commit suicide by drowning. I cannot make this stuff up. Finally, mayflies contain the most raw protein of any edible insect, in case you get hungry.
Have you seen mayflies in your garden? Are there any other insects you use as guides to your garden’s health? let us know in the comments!
I started raising bees in 2018 with a swarm I bought from a local beekeeper. The bees seemed to love my yard filled with borage, rosemary, and salvia flowers. In season, there were also tomato, squash, melon, and fruit and nut tree blossoms, along with the occasional flowering beets, cabbage, lettuce, and Swiss chard.
But then, in 2020, they all disappeared.
One day they were there, flying busily in and out of the hive, and the next day they were simply gone. It wasn’t a sickness, because there would have been dead bees in the bottom of the hive. There were no bees in the hive. And there had been no swarm leaving the hive. They left behind 40 pounds of honey and no explanation of why they didn’t return. This is colony collapse disorder and no one understands why it happens. My mentor lost half his hives the same season.
The only thing you can do in this case is to replace the bees. Since other beekeepers in my area had all lost bees, there were no swarms available. That meant buying bees from a breeder. It also means the bees get shipped to your house. In a box. They don’t like it and they are very verbal about their mood. The UPS guy was very happy to be rid of my box of angry bees.
Before I tell you about the adventure and errors of releasing those bees, let me tell you that there are several varieties of honey bees. Many of us remember the warnings of the 1970s about dangerous Africanized bees. Most, but not all, of those reports were exaggerated. That situation actually occurred because some scientists were purposely breeding more aggressive bees in Brazil and some of those hybrid bees escaped. Being more aggressive, they take over colonies they find, murdering the queen and setting up shop.
Here’s a brief summary of the major honey bee varieties:
My new bees are a relatively new variety. They are called Saskatraz bees and they are from Saskatchewan Canada. Saskatraz bees were bred to be tidy, gentle, and productive. Being tidy means their hive will be kept clean of varroa mites and tracheal mites. Being gentle makes them a lot easier to work with and being productive is kind of the whole point. Now back to my box of bees.
I had looked online, watched some how-to videos, and figured I had a good bead on how to do this. I was wrong.
My sources said to remove the plastic plate that covered the feeder jar, which was filled with a sugary gel. [Sort of like the bagged peanuts you get on an airplane.] Supposedly, the queen would be in a cage (she was) that I should remove carefully while quickly putting the plastic plate back in position. But I couldn’t find the queen or her cage. For some bizarre reason, my brain told me it was probably attached to the feeder jar. (It wasn’t) So, I dumped the bees into the hive, banging the box several times against the hive wall to knock most of them out of the box. They didn’t seem terribly upset, which was surprising. There was one bee who gave a few angry ZZZZZZZZs around my head but didn’t pursue the attack.
I was feeling stressed because I knew I needed to find the queen. Her cage wasn’t with the feeder jar. Her cage would either have a candy plug, which the bees could eat through, or a cork, which meant she would be trapped. I had to find her.
The reason queens are shipped in tiny cages is because they just met the other bees and they do not recognize her yet. If she was released into the colony right away, they would kill her. It takes a few days for her pheromones to work their way into the colony’s psyche. Once it has, they will sacrifice themselves without hesitation to protect her. For the time being, I needed to protect her from them. And I needed to find her.
Part of my mind knew I had to stick my arm into the hive and fish around for the queen cage which, I assumed, had fallen to the bottom of the hive. I was hoping there was another solution, so I walked back to the garage, unzipped my bee suit hood, and called my mentor. He told me what I had to do, so I hung up and (mostly) zipped back up before returning to the hive.
At this point, the hive is uncovered, filled with travel-weary bees, and topped with the inverted shipping box. This is not going nearly as smoothly as I had hoped, but I was grateful the bees weren’t trying to kill me. I picked up the shipping crate and started to reach down when I noticed the queen cage right where everyone said it would be, tucked up under the top of the shipping box.
It was smaller than I had expected. I have no idea why I thought it would be larger or more obvious. Bees are pretty small. Even the queens. I brushed the bees off as well as I could, attached the queen cage to the hive, and replaced all but one of the frames. As I was putting the cover back on the hive, I felt something crawling around on the back of my neck. I hoped it was not a bee and walked back toward the garage.
As I walked across my lawn, there was one bee flying alongside, scolding me. And there was another bee, inside my bee suit, crawling around on the back of my neck. I hadn’t zipped my suit up as carefully as I should have after talking on the phone. Oops. Meanwhile, my escort had turned back to the hive.
When I was a little girl in Upstate New York, I had long hair. For some reason, bees always managed to get caught in my hair and sting the hell out of my neck. It was difficult to not tense up, knowing there was a bee inside my suit but she wasn’t being aggressive. In fact, it almost felt as though she was walking around, saying to herself that she must be in the wrong room, and wondering where she might fight a door, or someone to ask for directions.
Now, getting tense or scared are two of the worst things you can do around bees, next to flailing at them. So, I followed her non-aggressive lead, unzipped the hood of my bee suit, and flipped it back. It took her a moment to realize she could see the sky, she walked a few more steps and then flew off, hopefully back to the hive. That was it. My bees were installed. Of course, I would have to return a few days later to release the queen. I hoped I did a better job of that when the time came.
And come it did. Bees wait for no man (or beekeeper). When I opened the hive, suited up and smoker in hand, I was amazed at how much comb had already been put in place. There was so much comb that I had to squish some of it together to add the final frame.
My mentor had warned me about not letting the queen fly away when she is released. It happens. I arranged the covers over most of the hive to close it quickly once she was free. I gave the hive a puff of smoke, pointed the opening of her cage downward, and pulled the plug.
It is good to be a beekeeper. Long live the queen.
February always feels like a tipping point, a moment of transition in my California garden. It's too cold and wet to actually go outside and do very much. Walking around on my wet clay soil will only compound ongoing compacted soil problems. Working with wet leaves would only increase the chance of spreading the fungal diseases I know are lurking. So I must wait.
I have finished my dormant pruning and treated my trees with fixed copper. This week I will whitewash the trunks and exposed branches, replace sticky barriers, weed around my trees, and take some mostly aged compost from the chicken run to mulch around the trees. I won't need to do much else for the trees until it's time to feed them in March and thin fruit as it comes in. I want to make sure that this year I get the best crops possible.
Another aspect of my new beginnings in the garden will be making better choices based on what has worked in the past. It's too easy to get caught up in seed catalogs and marketing promises. Each yard is too unique for those generalized claims to be useful. On the contrary, they often make us feel dissatisfied and inadequate when our gardens don't turn out looking like images in magazines. For me, I know that the scorching summer heat of my fully exposed yard will make some plants very happy and others will bolt the moment they see daylight. There's no sense wasting water, time, and real estate on unsuitable plants.
I have one raised bed in the back corner of my yard that I have struggled with every year. The squirrels dig it up. I forget to water it. Life is hard for plants back there, so they don't thrive. Last year I moved my potato bed back there. I added aged compost, a few onion sets, and then covered the whole thing with netted panels. The squirrels were not pleased, but I wanted to give the whole thing some time to rest. Over the holidays, I received a lovely card that included some native flower seeds, so I sprinkled them over the potato bed. My hope is that the native flowers will reseed themselves each year, adding color that will remind me to water. And potatoes have a way of carrying on no matter what I do or don't do. And if you've never had fresh potatoes, you're really missing out.
By looking at each growing space as having a new beginning, I can do a better job of making sure it has everything it needs to grow well. I guess the same is true for us, eh? We all need the right amounts of food, plenty of water, enough sunlight, and a gentle environment in which to grow.
May you thrive in this new year.
Shorter days. Colder nights. Wet soil.
These are times of rest, for gardeners and their plants.
As our plants pull inward, shriveling their tops, harboring resources in roots, and producing little or nothing, it is easy to believe there isn't anything happening. But that wouldn’t be true.
Just as hens stop laying in winter, our plants are recovering from the demands of summer production. Our plants are collecting chill hours, orchestrating hormones, and ridding themselves of unwanted, outgrown bits. And they are resting.
Rest is just as valid as labor. Without rest, hens die, tempers flare, and plants falter. Taking cues from our garden, we are reminded that winter is a good time to curl up with a book, a seed catalog, or a pad of paper and a pencil. To think, rather than to do. By resting and thinking about what worked and what didn’t in the previous year, we can learn from our mistakes. We can do better next time.
Sometimes it is difficult to get rid of things we do not love or use. We have been conditioned by a multi-billion dollar marketing machine to buy and have as much as we can afford and more. But we don’t have to do that. We can look to our plants to see the ease with which deciduous trees drop last summer’s leaves. After putting every ounce of energy into producing fruit and nuts, our trees let the fruits of that labor fall to the ground (or our harvest baskets) without a second thought. Maybe we could learn something from that.
Last night, my husband and I watched AlphaGo, a documentary about a computer playing Go against world champions. Mostly, the computer won, which was a big deal. What we found most interesting was that the computer didn’t try to demolish its opponents. It simply strove to win by enough. Our plants live much the same way. They are greedy for sunlight and water and nutrients, but they rarely take more than they need. (There are exceptions.) How much stuff do we really need?
Winter is a good time to shed our own excesses. And there are plenty of people in need, who could really use what we have just laying around. Pull inward and reevaluate your own resources, rather than trying to force plants into unseasonable contortions.
Winter is a good time to note what you like about your garden or landscape, too. Is there a nice balance of colors or textures or shapes? Which crops or flowers seem to always do well in your yard? By noticing what you like, what does well, you will be more likely to build on those attributes come spring.
Our winter landscapes are good reminders that we need respite and quiet, too.
Stay on your path, give yourself time, and savor the season.
With the holiday season nearly upon us and shelter-in-place orders on the rise (with good reason), finding the right gifts for those nearest and dearest to our hearts can be difficult. For the gardeners on your list, this should help.
To a gardener, seeds present a world of opportunity. And you can create a custom seed collection that won’t break your bank and is sure to delight the gardener in your life. You can create a seed collection around any theme. Here are just a few ideas:
Trees and shrubs
Winter is a good time to order bare root trees and shrubs. Fruit and nut trees provide a bounty for many years and your gardener friend will be delighted at your thoughtfulness. Just be sure that the tree or shrub you select matches the number of chill hours your recipient’s garden gets before you buy.
A basket of bulbs
A nice basket filled with saffron crocus, tulip, garlic, and onion bulbs can add color and edibles to your friend's spring and autumn garden.
Work benches, knee pads, and tool belts
As we get older, all that bending and kneeling can get difficult. Portable benches and kneelers are available with handy pockets for tools, allowing gardeners to sit or kneel more comfortably as they work the soil. Knee pads can provide relief and allow your gardener friend to stay at their hobby longer.
Moisture meters, soil tests, and other tech
I’d love to tell you that those bug hotels make great gifts, but they don’t. Not in the long run. As charming as they look online (and in the garden), they often end up harboring diseases and I do not recommend them. Instead, you can help your gardener friend attract beneficial insects with insectary plants or seeds.
Moisture meters are excellent garden tools and they aren’t expensive. Help the gardener in your life conserve water while ensuring that their plants get the moisture they need. [You may want to order one for yourself, while you’re at it!]
Soil tests are invaluable at helping gardeners provide for their plants, but those colorful little plastic tubes are not the way to go. Instead, reach out to a local (to your recipient) soil test lab and get a gift certificate for your loved one.
Solar lights add a nice touch to gardens, as do many types of garden art. Just make sure that you are not adding toxins to your loved one’s vegetable patch with your gift. Birdbaths and trellising make nice gifts, too.
Self-watering containers are great for areas with super hot summers, food-grade garden hoses and soaker hoses are always nice, and your gardener friend may even want to try their hand at raising worms! Or, honey bees!
For the children
Seeds and child-sized tools can be a great way to introduce gardening to the youngsters on your holiday shopping list. They will get a lot out of the experience (and your company!) as they plant their very own sunflowers, radishes, and peas, or create a storybook garden themed after their favorite bedtime story.
Shopping for gardeners is, in my opinion, a lot easier than shopping for tech enthusiasts. You don’t have to be knowledgeable about gardening to be able to pick great gifts.
What’s your favorite gardening gift?
Gone are the days of barn raisings and community grain harvests, which is unfortunate. But that doesn’t mean you have to do all your garden work by yourself.
Let’s face it - gardening is work. It’s work that we enjoy, certainly, but sometimes we need a little help. Knowing where to look and how to ask for help doesn’t come naturally to everyone. This should help.
For the big jobs, like irrigation systems and tree work, you are better off calling in the professionals. Tree work can be very dangerous. It requires special training and equipment. As a bonus, after an arborist works on your trees, be sure to ask them for a free load of wood chips. Arborist chips make an excellent mulch that retains moisture, reduces weeds, stabilizes soil temperatures, and ultimately feeds the soil and improves soil structure. Installing irrigation systems, ponds, and similar big projects require skills that many of us do not have. Ask friends and neighbors for local referrals.
If all you need is information, the Internet and your local library can be very helpful. Librarians are trained professionals who are very good at finding information and they can help you track down the books you need to become a better gardener. Most libraries currently offer drive-by book exchanges.
When conducting an online search for gardening assistance, it helps to be as specific as possible. “What’s wrong with my tomatoes” is too generic. Instead, try typing “tomato leaf black spots” and you are sure to get helpful information about the fungal disease, Septoria leaf spot, and its prevention: remove infected leaves, provide good air flow, and avoid overhead watering. Just be sure to avoid the sensationalists and track down science-based information.
Master Gardeners are another excellent resource. Many chapters offer helplines, by phone or online, to answer gardening questions. Master Gardeners are familiar with and knowledgeable about local plant pests, diseases, and other issues. Contact your local County Extension Office for more information.
When you need more than information and less than a project manager, don’t be afraid to reach out to family, friends, and neighbors for help. All too often, we convince ourselves that no one wants to help us when, in fact, no one knows we need help. Simply by asking for a hand moving a heavy stone, digging a hole for a bare root tree, or figuring out a better way to trellis a grape vine, we might discover that that casual [masked] neighbor has shared interests and provides good conversation, along with help in the garden. Scouts, 4H, and other organizations may be able to help, as well. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Finally, there are literally billions of helpers just waiting to be invited to your garden. They are ready, willing, and able to eat aphids, parasitize hornworms, and pollinate your crops. They are the insects. And you generally do not have to buy anything to coax these autonomous helpers to your garden.
Planting flowers, leaving wild spaces, and minimizing garden clean-up is all it takes. If your landscape provides pollen, nectar, prey, water, and shelter, beneficial insects will find your yard and get right to work, without any future effort on your part.
Who are you inviting to be part of your garden?