Friday, May 27, 2016

Easy Care Plants: Succulents

Looking for an easy-care plant? Try succulents. These low-water use plants can tolerate a range of conditions and are virtually pest-free.

Sedums, like the ones shown above, are just one of many plants in the succulent family. They're characterized by thick, fleshy leaves that hold moisture. Unlike cacti, succulents do not have thorns. They evolved in arid (desert) regions of the world and like hot, dry conditions. Sounds familiar? Sounds like Virginia in the summer!

Because they can tolerate a wide range of conditions, succulents are ideal for those areas in your yard or garden that get hot sunlight. Sedums and other succulents do well in rock gardens where shallow soil is often the norm, and they also do well in pots and containers.

There are so many varieties of succulents available at your favorite nursery and garden center that it would be difficult to list them all. Choose one to add to your garden, find a sunny spot with dry conditions, and you've got the makings of a lovely succulent garden.

Native Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)
One stonecrop native to Virginia is Sedum ternatum. This succulent actually prefers woodlands, where it grows in the quiet shade underneath trees. White flowers adorn the upright stems when the plant blooms in May or June. It's a lovely stonecrop that's worth investigating for your native plant garden.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Benefits of Native Plants

Cardinal flowers in the garden.

You may have heard the term "native plants." What is a native plant? It's a plant that's indigenous to the area in which you live. It evolved alongside other plants, animals, insects, birds and organisms in the local area. Because of this, it serves a unique purpose in the ecosystem. Many native plants, for example, provide food for local song birds, butterflies, insects and other wildlife, or provide nesting or hatching sites for others.

Native plants are also great for the garden. Because natives evolved in the local climate, they aren't as fussy about things as imported plants. Most natives come with a long list of wonderful attributes include natural disease resistance, less need for supplemental fertilizer and water than other plants, and more. Not only are they great to grow, but they're beautiful, too!

Anytime you can incorporate native plants into your garden, you're doing both your garden and the local environment a favor. Many animals, insects and birds are losing their natural habitat to development. Roads, parking lots, strip malls, houses...everywhere you see these signs of modern life, that's a little less ground available for native plants to live.

People have always brought plants with them wherever they went in this big world of ours. When the colonists came over from Europe, they took daylily tubers in their packs along with them. And while the ubiquitous ditch lily isn't harmful, some non-native species become invasive species if given the right conditions. Kudzu, anyone? Introduced as an ornamental vine, kudzu quickly became "the vine that ate the south" as it smothered entire fields and forests under its relentless march, all because someone thought it a good idea to import it into an environment in which it has no natural predators.

Nature has a unique way of making checks and balances part of her grand scheme throughout all aspects of life, plants include. Native plants have their own system of checks and balances in place so that they don't get out of hand. If you're looking for terrific native plants, look no further than your local nursery and garden center, which probably stocks some terrific natives now.

For lists of native plants to include in your ornamental plantings this year, see:

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Have you spotted this guy? He should be among America's Most Wanted. It's the Eastern tent caterpillar, or Malacosoma americanum. My entire garden is overrun with them. Here's how to control the Eastern tent caterpillar.

That's him. Sneaky little insect. This spring, we noticed the start of what turned out to be quite a swarm among our fruit trees. Normally, we see the sticky tents, or webs, of the tent caterpillar on the wild cherry trees along the forests and roads here in Prince Edward county. But I have never seen them marching across lawns, over piles of construction materials, and even into my garage!

The tent caterpillar is a native insect found throughout the entire Eastern region of the United States. It is most obvious when it's in the sticky tent, or web, that you're probably familiar with in the crotch of trees or on the forked branches of your favorite cherry tree.

The female moth lays a cluster of small, shiny black eggs in the fall or early spring. The young quickly hatch into larvae, and the larvae or caterpillars spin a sticky web around them. They cluster together in the middle for protection.

Three or four times a day, the young emerge from their nice snug little nest to feed on the leaves of the host tree. They can strip the tree of all of its leaves before they're done. It doesn't kill the trees outright, but it does stress them considerably, as you can imagine. The tree must grow an entire new set of leaves.

"Hello, there! Thanks for the peach tree leaves! They were delicious!"

The young expand their sack or tent until they are ready to pupate, or turn into moths. They emerge fro the sack and begin their migration. That's what I am seeing now all over my yard. The swarms of tent caterpillars are simply individuals looking for a nice spot to spin a cocoon and emerge in a few weeks, moths ready to fly away and continue the cycle.

I don't know if any other parts of Virginia or areas served by the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners are also seeing a surge in tent caterpillars. According to the Cooperative Extension website, there's a natural fluctuation from year to year in the population.

Natural predators include birds and predatory wasps, and in a quiet year, that's who keeps them in check. Some years, like this one, we just seem to have more.

To control tent caterpillars, you've got to be brave. Put on a pair of rubber gloves -- the kind you use to keep your hands clean while you scrub the toilet. You know the kind I'm talking about. Then grab a pail or bucket. Pick off the caterpillars and drop them into your bucket. The "squish" method works well. You can also use a trowel to chop them in half or squish them on the tree. It's gross, I know, but the most effective way to get rid of them while they are out of the tent.

If they're in the tent, take a garden rake or hoe and use it to reach into the branches of the trees to remove the nest or tent.

Sprays, according to the University of Kentucky and Missouri websites, have little effect upon these critters (lucky them.) If you'd like to learn more about what sprays do work, please review the information on their websites: