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  • How to Prune Rhododendrons

    July 18, 2014

    Need help learning how to prune rhododendrons & azaleas? We’ve got you covered! Fortunately, you can fine-prune these beautiful plants just about any time of year as long as you take care not to cut off all the flower buds.

    2014_07_GardenMentors_Rhododendron_11

    Need pruning tools? Courtesy of our friends at Fiskars, we’ll be giving away a pair of bypass pruners and a folding handsaw to one lucky reader. Read on for details…

    Rhododendron in need of pruning

    Before we began, this foundation evergreen rhodie was filled with dead material.

    The reality is, sometimes you get to pruning when you have the time. Not every plant can be pruned successfully at the same time as every other plant, but rhodies are quite forgiving on timing.

    Simple rules to follow: don’t prune them if they are flowering or about to flower or if it is frozen outside. And, if pruning in spring, summer or autumn, be sure to check for hornet nests. They love to build their summer homes in rhodies and other medium-sized shrubs — especially when they’re dense with dead wood! But remember: rules are made to be broken, and your garden and plants may require a bit of rule bending.

    In all honestly, we knew how to prune rhododendrons, but we just hadn’t gotten to cleaning this one up in a couple of years. Trees and shrubs grow just fine without us cutting, shaping and coiffing them all the time. But, the messy interior of this rhodie was an eye-sore we could no longer ignore. So, on a day that eventually topped 90F, we spent a couple of hours beautifying this blooming beauty. We got done well before temperatures soared. No sunburns here and by far the plant is in better shape than before.

    All we needed for the job: a pair of bypass pruners, a folding handsaw, and a tarp.

    Rhododendron needing pruning

    Before pruning, this rhodie had lots of interior dead wood. To make cleaning up all the detritus we would be cutting, we spread a sheet of plastic under the shrub before we began.
    A tarp works great too.


    Did you know that all azaleas are rhododendrons?
    Yep, Rhododendron is actually a genus of plants into which the azaleas are also classified! So, of course it makes sense that knowing how to prune rhododendrons would set you up for success in pruning your azaleas as well. Generally speaking, azaleas are twiggier, so you’ll just be in for making a lot more small cuts than you would on bigger rhodies.

    Pruned Rhododendron

    After the rhodie was cleaned of dead wood, we removed rubbing branches.

    Fine pruning is not shearing off the outside to “shape” a plant. Often the sign of a good pruner is you can hardly tell they’ve cut anything from your plants. Still, when we were done with interior cuts, sunlight & air could flow through the plant. This helps reduce pest and disease issues in many garden situations.

    Often the sign of a good pruner is you can hardly tell they've cut anything from your plants.

    After we finished pruning & deadheading this rhodie,
    it almost looks as though nothing was done from this side.

    Because the plant hides a foundation & utility area, we chose not to lift all the lower limbs, which would expose the ugly part of the house from a nearby patio. Eventually, we may decide to plant something under this rhodie at which time, we will limb it up. But no way was planting going to happen during a heatwave in July!

    Ready to dive in but still need the right tools for the job? In the comment section for this post, tell us about the most beautiful rhodie or azalea in your garden. Is it colorful, fragrant, filled with pollinators, or what makes it a plant you’d love to get cleaned up.

    One person will be chosen via random.org on Monday, July 28, 2014 to win a pair of Large Bypass Pruners and a 7″ PowerTooth Folding Handsaw to be shipped to them from our friends at Fiskars. Comment period to enter closes at midnight PDT on Sunday, July 27, 2014.

    (More details on our relationship as paid writer with Fiskars at the end of this post, but to be clear we have received no compensation for this post or tool giveaway. And, learn more about using random.org at the end of this article.)

    Next up: a Visual step-by-step guide to deadheading your rhododendrons.

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  • Why Grow Borage in Your Garden

    July 09, 2014

    Why grow borage in your garden?
    Top Reasons to Grow Borage in Your Garden
    We really can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t want to have this fantastic seasonal plant gracing your garden. It may be a little bit prickly-fuzzy, but that’s easy to get past when you consider everything else this wonderful, easy-to-grow plant has to offer. If you aren’t already convinced to grow borage in your food or ornamental garden, consider all this generous plant has to offer:

    honeybee on borage

    Borage is a magnet for the beloved honeybee, which hits the flowers from dawn ’til dusk.

    bumblebee on borage

    Borage lures in bumblebees, wasps, hover flies, hummingbirds & many other pollinators.

    tomato and borage flowers

    Planting borage near tomatoes can help with pollination.
    If tomato flowers are nearby, the bees will pollinate those too.

    Tomatoes

    Like the tomatoes they pollinate, borage itself is edible & tastes a bit like cucumber. Plus, the flowers make beautiful decorations. In fact, Robin’s wedding cake was covered in seasonal blue borage flowers. It’s the perfect “something blue” for the bride!

    Borage flower & seeds

    Once pollinated, borage forms tiny thistle-like seeds, which feed finches & other wild birds. Some fall to the ground to reseed your garden with borage for the next year.

    black aphids on borage

    Borage makes a fantastic black aphid lure trap. Aphids seem to go after one borage plant at a time. Once they set up shop on a plant, let birds like wrens & chickadees or wasps eat the aphids or yank out infested lure plants as needed.

    So, to recap: Borage is bitchin’ because bees of all kinds can’t resist it. Borage is edible. Borage makes a great pest lure trap. Borage grows seeds that feeds wild birds.

    Other reasons to grow borage: Once you plant borage, you will always have it. This annual plant will self-seed itself and pop up in other parts of your garden. We don’t consider it invasive because it is far too beneficial to become problematic. Plus, when a plant pops up that you don’t want, it’s simple to pull and either eat or feed to your compost pile.

    If you dig up very young seedlings, it may be possible to transplant borage babies from one part of the garden to the others, but the big root on larger plants doesn’t forgive being dug up, and those plants may simply wilt to the ground if you try to move them around. If you buy a borage start of any size or that is already blooming, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t last long before giving up the ghost. It’s an annual after all. Really, growing it from seed is a great way to go! And, while its chunky root system may be simple, it is also powerful, which means borage will help break up soil creating more air and water pocket space.

    And, who doesn’t want a true blue flower in their garden? Blues aren’t just popular with pollinators; human eyeballs love them too. Many blue flowers are actually tinted purple, but not borage. It’s truly blue. Sometimes, under stress, it will flush pink, but that’s more rare than common. Its pretty flowers are fun to dry and mix into your homemade herbal tea blends too.

    Rumors (or are they truths?) about borage: You may have heard that borage deters tomato hornworm, and maybe it does. We’ve grown borage by our tomato plants for many years without a hornworm showing up once — but we have no proof that the borage is what kept the hornworm away. If you have experience with borage and hornworm, let us know! Also, Robin’s mom always says, “Borage for courage!” She claims this is based on the idea that borage was fed to Roman soldiers before battle to give them the guts to fight. Whether that’s true or not, we hope it doesn’t really require a lot of courage on your part to grow borage in your own garden. Try it from seed; it germinates readily and generously!

  • Asparagus Beetle ID & Control

    July 02, 2014

    If you have an asparagus patch, keep an eye out for the highly destructive asparagus beetle starting early in summer (if not sooner). Now that we have a thriving asparagus patch, our garden has exactly what this annoying pest most desires. The seed pods are beginning to ripen on the tall, feathery plant fronds. And, that’s exactly where these beetles prefer to lay their eggs.

    Adult Spotted Asparagus Beetle on Asparagus Frond

    Adult Spotted Asparagus Beetles are orange-red with black spots.
    They appear around the time asparagus seed pods begin to ripen.

    Fortunately, we haven’t had many of these pest insects yet this season. Still, we’re checking the plants carefully each day and squishing any adults chewing stems and looking for lovers. They’re tiny, but it’s hard to miss those bright orange-red forms against the green of the stems. They’ll be a little harder to spot when the seed pods ripen to orange-red, so watching early is key.

    If you’re on squishing patrol, take care to put one hand under the beetle and use the other one to squish with a quick pinch. Otherwise, these little critters will sense you coming, scurry to the underside of the branch, and then drop to the ground where you’ll never find them. If your hand is underneath, you’ll catch them before they fall.

    Adult Asparagus Beetle

    Adult Asparagus Beetle (Crioceris duodecimpunctata) chew on plant stems while they hang out looking for a mate. After mating, they will deposit eggs on or near Asparagus seed pods.

    Be sure you know what to look for. The Spotted Asparagus Beetle, which is what we have and is shown above, looks a lot like the beneficial Lady Beetle (aka LadyBug), which is shown below. How to tell them apart? The Lady Beetle is dome shaped and usually a deep, blood red. The Spotted Asparagus Beetle is more elongated than dome shaped, has a distinct set of dark antennae, and they’re more orange-red than blood red.

    Beneficial Lady Beetle

    The blood-red, dome-shaped Lady Beetle is a beneficial insect that will prey on Asparagus Beetle for you. Take care not to mistake them for the pests.

    We’ve noticed the Lady Beetles and their larvae are spending a lot of time cruising through the asparagus fronds as well. They’re known predators of this pest, so we’re hoping they’re getting a belly full and keeping our patch free and clear of any eggs the adults may lay. If the Lady Beetles and our squishing isn’t enough, hopefully the hovering parasitic wasps will inject their predatory eggs into any newly laid eggs Asparagus Beetle eggs that the rest of us miss. And, of course, our resident fledgling wrens and chickadees are also on patrol — hopefully eating more Asparagus Beetles than Lady Beetles!

    Lady Beetle Aphid Lions

    Beneficial Lady Beetle Larvae, known as “Aphid Lions”, scurry among plants eating up unwanted pest insects like Asparagus Beetle. These “lions” may look scary, but don’t kill them. They’re good for your garden!

    No need for a spray bottle when your habitat is well balanced! Of course, we will be cleaning up the fronds and seeds at the end of the season just in case they harbor any eggs and larvae that slipped past our various Asparagus Beetle predators during the growing season.

    For more information on cultivating an asparagus patch of your own, ready our guide.

    Keep a gardening library? These titles are great garden insect reference manuals.

    For further reading on Asparagus Beetle check Mother Earth News here. They cover more than the Spotted Asparagus Beetle we’re battling.

  • How to Freeze Berries

    June 27, 2014

    Knowing how to freeze berries will mean you never lament another batch of fresh picked strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or other berries that turn from just-picked luscious to a moldy pile of muck in the kitchen.

    How to Freeze Berries

    Sadly, homegrown berries, which arrive during warm summery days, are fast to melt into fuzzy, grey piles of rot. And, refrigerating them isn’t a good solution either. Eating them fresh is ideal, but if we’re lucky, our harvest is more than we can consume fresh from the garden. Of course, making jams and jellies is an option, but if you’re short on time, simply freezing your fruits is a great way to go! (And you can still make jams out of them later if you want.)

    Blueberry, Raspberry, Strawberry

    Freshly picked berries will go bad fast. Don’t let your bounty go to waste!

    For the last week or so we’ve been culling through our berry patches daily for at least a pint of each kind of berry we grow — except for the Goji Berries and Blackberries. Those come in later in the season. But the raspberries and strawberries have been going gangbusters for a couple of weeks. And, as the June-bearing strawberry harvest begins to wane, the blueberries are rapidly picking up the pace, turning deeper shades of purple-blue day-by-day. And, we just can’t eat them all despite a steady handful thrown in each smoothie and salad we eat. So, into the freezer they go!

    Berries are super simple to freeze. Just wash them well. Pick over the harvest to remove stems, bad parts, and other detritus. Then, lay them out on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or waxed paper. The paper lining will keep moist berries from freezing to the cookie sheet, which makes it hard to take them off the sheet later. (You can freeze them without the paper lining, but get ready to use a spatula to scrape them off the sheet. And be warned that raspberries and other delicate fruits will crumble into tiny bits. They still work for a smoothie though.)

    Frozen Strawberries

    Line cookie sheets with wax or parchment paper so berries don’t freeze to the metal.

    Once your tray is filled with berries, slip it into the freezer, keeping the tray level so the berries don’t all fall together. Depending on the size of your fruit, it should just take a couple hours for them to freeze.

    While your berries are freezing, label a freezer-safe zipper bag or freezer-safe jar with the name of your fruit and the date. Once the fruit is frozen, slip it off the tray, into the storage container, and put that container in the freezer for the longer term.

    Strawberries ready for freezer

    Label freezer bags with date & name of the crop it will contain.

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  • A Dry Rain Garden Podcast

    June 23, 2014

    Looking for a great garden podcast that’s  free, informative, and fun? Sign up for A Dry Rain with Marty Wingate, Willi Galloway, Greg Rabourn, and Steve Scher. If you were a die-hard fan of the now cancelled KUOW weekly gardening show, you can enjoy the ideas, answers, guests, and inspiration from this same team. And, now you can get it anywhere, anytime online for free. You don’t have to wait for mid-morning once a week, and you don’t have to listen to it on a local radio station!

    Dandelion: featured on A Dry Rain Podcast

    Dandelion: Listen to A Dry Rain & you may start seeing this plant less as a weed and more as a true beneficial!

    For Episode #24 of A Dry Rain garden podcast, Marty visited with me in my garden to talk plants, songbirds, and in particular 5 simple steps to garden health. And, yes, I sang the praises of some plants we call tend to call “weeds” . No surprise there, right? Have a listen!

    - Robin

  • Pollination of a Corpse for Pollinator Week

    June 19, 2014

    We’re smack-dab in the middle of Pollinator Week, and right on cue our super sexy, terribly pungent Dracunculus flowers have opened.

    Dracunculus Flower

    Huge Dracunculus flower opens for just a day or two each spring.

    The nearby greenhouse and entire driveway smell like something died. Nothing did die, but that stink of death is what attracts the right pollinators to this big, beautiful blossom. Go ahead. It’s safe. Get up close & personal with the stinker! But, be glad there’s no scratch ‘n sniff to go along with this video. Seriously, can you guess what actually does the pollination of a plant commonly called a Corpse or Voodoo Lily? Before you watch, let’s just say I had to really stifle my gag reflex while the hungry pollinators swarmed my head while I had my camera (and face) up close and personal with this nose-high, terribly odoriferous (if sexy-beautiful) bloom.

    Consider this video my gift to all of you for Pollinator Week 2014! -Robin

     

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