Gardening Tools

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January and February are great months to start thinking about gardening again, but don’t get too excited, there is plenty of winter left before we can go out and start cleaning up our gardens. However, we can start thinking about what we can do in our gardens this year and inventory garden tools to determine replacement and new pieces.

Garden Gloves are essential for any gardener. They help keep your hands from getting torn up when pruning roses or other plants with thorns. Garden gloves also keep you from getting dirt caked onto your hands. In my case, my gloves give the pruners something else to hit before cutting my finger, which is why there is a hole in my current pair. I have a very nice pair that are breathable and have a nitrile covering over the palm and fingers to keep my hands protected when working in the garden. I have to have a pair that fits tightly to my hand and that breathes or I will not wear them and then I will have very rough, callused hands with many scratches and wounds. My garden gloves are a must in my garden bag.

gardening-gloves

Every gardener needs a good selection of pruners. Hand pruners work best for pruning small branches on many of our shrubs and to cut back herbaceous perennials. Branches cut with hand pruners should be less than ½ inch or less in width. They also work well for deadheading during the summer months. Bypass pruners are preferred to the anvil type of pruners because they are less damaging to the plant stem when pruning. The anvil type of pruners crushes the stem as it cuts and can harm the plant.

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Photo of pruner types is from Michigan State University

Long-handled loppers are great for making pruning cuts on medium-sized branches, those that are ½ – 2 inches in width. There are many choices in your lopper purchases. Some have a standard length and some have telescoping handles, allowing them to be used higher into the tree or deeper into the shrub. Just like with the hand pruners, the bypass loppers are better than the anvil type.

For larger pruning jobs, a handsaw will be necessary. Again, there are many different types of handsaws you can purchase. I prefer the folding type which is safer and easier to transport because it fits nicely in my gardening bag.

A good spade is necessary for gardening. I prefer to keep a hand spade nearby for small jobs like planting vegetables and annuals and a long-handled spade for larger jobs such as planting trees and shrubs and to dig up large plants for removal or to divide. There are 2 main types of spades to use in the garden, the rounded spade and the flat spade. The flat spade is good for edging a garden and to get weedy growth off of bricks and edging each year. The rounded spade is good for digging into hard soil and for planting. I like some of the shorter handled rounded spades with a good point on the end. One particular model I like is the spade with an arrow-shaped head on it. This model moves through the soil much easier than some of the other spades.

One final tool that is very helpful for the avid gardener, would be a garden hoe. I have a hand-held Japanese sickle that I prefer to use. I can swipe it through the garden between my plants and it pulls up and cuts off all the weeds in your garden. You can even use this for weeds growing up through the mulch. You may have to move the mulch back a little after going through for weeds, but it is very quick and easy to use.

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Japanese Weeding Sickle

So get out your gardening books and find what works best for you and restock your garden tools.

What is crawling around in my house?

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The winter months can really drag out. You can’t go outside and garden and you are stuck indoors. It is at this time that you might start to notice some other critters coming into your home as well. There are a lot of home invading insects and arthropods that use our homes to stay warm through the winter.

One of my favorite non-insects from my childhood would be the roly-poly, which is officially called a pillbug. These arthropods are not harmful indoors and are often found in damp basements. They are also found in potting soil, so if you bring any outdoor plants inside for the winter, you may bring these inside with the plants. If pillbugs are found in your home, just pick them up to remove them from your home or vacuum them up.

Fruit flies are another problem in the winter months. They are tiny yellow flies with red eyes found around the kitchen. They are often found indoors attracted to fruits, vegetables, beer, sodas, and fermenting things in our garbage. These fruit flies are a real nuisance as they fly around us and our food in our homes. For management of fruit flies, it is best to eliminate their breeding locations and food sources. Throw out all fruits and vegetables past their prime for eating and make sure to rinse out all beer and soda cans and bottles before throwing them away. It might also be helpful to just keep your trash in the garage or other location near the house to avoid problems indoors. For those left in your home, you can make a fruit fly trap easily and cheaply. Take an empty container such as a jar or yogurt container and fill the container 1/4 of the way full with apple cider vinegar to attract the fruit flies. Put a few drops of dish soap in the vinegar to make the flies sink as they land on the vinegar and cover the container with a layer of plastic with a few holes poked in with a toothpick to allow the fruit flies in. This will bring the fruit flies in to die in the vinegar which attracts them to the trap in the first place.

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Another aggravating insect pest indoors in the winter would be the fungus gnat. Fruit flies and fungus gnats are often confused, but opposed to the bright colors of a fruit fly, fungus gnats are tiny black flies. Fungus gnats often get into our homes in houseplants or potting soils used indoors. They are not damaging flies, but they can be a real nuisance indoors. To rid a home of fungus gnats, there are many options. Try repotting the plants and allowing the soil to dry out more between waterings. You can also place a yellow sticky card next to the plants that will attract the gnats to kill them in the sticky glue on the card. Finally, you can treat the soil with insecticides labeled for use on indoor houseplants or use a mixture of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water and run that through the soil to kill any maggots left in the soil.

Soon we may begin to notice ants in the home or the winged reproductive stages of ants which are common in the spring months. If temperatures warm up for a few days at a time, some ants may even become active in the late winter months. Ants in the home are mostly a nuisance pest, but can sometimes be quite difficult to control. Liquid ant baits or bait stations are the best for control of these pests. Also, be sure to reduce overgrown landscaping outside the home around where the ants are coming in and use barrier insect sprays to reduce their movement into the home.

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Information regarding management of Fungus Gnats and Fruit Flies is from Jonathan Larson, Douglas-Sarpy County Extension, from the Acreage e-news Pest of the Month articles.

Ice Storm Damage to Plants

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Many people do not like winter due to cold weather and the bad driving conditions such as snow and ice. Our plants are not much different in this respect, snow and ice can cause problems to our plants. The recent ice storm we saw covered our trees and shrubs in a thick layer of ice.

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Lawn covered in ice from winter storm Jupiter

As trees become covered with ice, problems can occur. The best way to avoid any problems from a heavy layer of snow or ice would be to let it melt naturally. Heavy snow or ice loads look damaging to the tree which makes people want to knock the ice off of the trees to help the plant. However, it is really better to leave it alone. The snow and ice will eventually melt off of the plants and they will spring back up to their normal form after a while. If you try to break ice off of a tree or shrub, it can break the branches or crack them, leaving them vulnerable to other problems.  Again, the ice will eventually melt off of the tree or shrub and it will be fine.

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Shrub covered in ice by 2017 winter storm

Many tree branches broke after the weight of the ice from the last storm proved to be too much. The best management practice for helping a tree that has broken branches due to snow and ice would be to go out and trim those branches to make them a clean cut rather than a jagged cut. Leaving a break rather than having a clean cut will prevent the tree from naturally healing the wound and this opening will lead to decay in the tree. This is much more damaging to the tree so it is best to prune the tree between the break and the bark collar or hire a professional to do this for you. If your tree split down the middle or lost a great number of branches, it may be time to to think about replacing this tree. It would be best to call a Certified Arborist in this case to assess the damage and give recommendations on the next steps for your tree.

 

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Broken branches due to ice storm, photo by Karen Rahe

Deicers are another plant consideration in the winter. They can cause damage to concrete sidewalks and to plants growing beside them. Many deicing agents contain salt substances, such as sodium chloride and potassium chloride. Because of the salt content found in these products, it can cause severe damage to our plants if too much is piled on them too often. Typical plant symptoms of salt damage include:

  • Desiccation (drying out)
  • Stunting
  • Dieback
  • Leaf margin and tip damage similar to chemical burns on the leaves

To avoid damage to concrete, remove the salt as soon as you can. Deicers are meant to make shoveling easier, not to completely melt away snow and ice. As soon as the salt melts through the ice and snow enough that it can be removed, go out and shovel it off of the concrete. When removing the snow, do it in a manner that protects the landscape plants growing in the yard. Do not pile the snow onto trees, shrubs, or flower gardens. If it has to be piled onto your landscape, move the salt onto the grass and try to do it in a manner that makes it more uniform on the grass surface. If too much salt continually gets piled up on the grass in one location, the turf can be harmed. If you are very concerned with the effect the deicers have on your plants, you can use alternate products for melting the ice, such as calcium magnesium acetate which contains no salt.

New Year, New Master Gardener Schedule

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Winter is a great time to learn about gardening, since you can’t go outside and actually garden. A great way to learn more about gardening and meet other gardening enthusiasts would be to join the Extension Master Gardener Program.

The Nebraska Extension Master Gardener program is a horticulture related volunteer training program based in many counties throughout the state. It has been part of Nebraska Extension since 1976. Master Gardener volunteers are trained by UNL Extension faculty and staff and then volunteer in their community. They contribute time as volunteers working with their local Extension office to provide horticulture-related information to their community. Participants are required to complete 40 hours of training and 40 hours of volunteer service throughout the first two years of their involvement in the program. Master Gardener volunteers retain their certification through 10 hours of annual training and 20 hours of volunteering each year.

Each year the Master Gardener program is held throughout the state, including in Gage County. The programs are held from 6:30-9:00pm on Tuesday nights at the Gage County Extension Office. This year the programs run from January 31-March 21. The schedule for the classes is as follows:

January 31- Orientation– Nicole Stoner

February 7- Plant Diagnostics- Kelly Feehan

February 14- Turf Basics – Bill Kreuser

February 21- Small Fruit Production – Connie Fisk

February 28- Soils Basics – Brian Krienke

March 7- Landscape Design – Elizabeth Killinger

March 14- Shrubs-Nicole Stoner

March 21- Insect Physiology, Pesticides & Pollinators–Jonathan Larson & Natalia Bjorklund

This class will also be provided in Wilber following the same schedule on Wednesday afternoons from 1-3:30pm. It will run from February 8-March 29 at the Saline County Extension Office.

For volunteer service, most of the Master Gardeners in the area participate in management of many of the gardens in your community. Look around the landscapes in public areas the next time you drive around town, there are signs to show which landscapes the Gage or Saline County Master Gardeners help to manage. They do a great job and really help keep our communities looking nice.

The Gage County Master Gardeners have also spearheaded the Seed Library at the Beatrice Public Library which provides free seeds to members of the public as well as free programs throughout the year for education. They also plan the Tomato Tasting Event which has been a successful community event for 3 years.

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2016 Tomato Tasting Event at the Beatrice Public Library

The cost of the Master Gardener program is $160 for the first year, which includes a book, t-shirt, and nametag. For returning Master Gardeners the cost is just $10. Please contact me at the Gage County Extension office at 402-223-1384 to sign up for the program. The deadline for enrollment into the class is January 20, 2017.

Choosing Plants for Next Spring

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The winter months are sometimes very difficult for a horticulture enthusiast. There is nothing for us to grow and we can’t go outdoors and do much in our garden beds, so we start to get a bit of cabin fever. However, there is always something to do in January for our gardens because the plant catalogs have begun to arrive. Hooray! We can start planning our gardens for the next season. A great listing of plants to utilize in your garden would include the All American Selections and the Perennial Plant of the Year.

The All American Selection (AAS) group is “the only non-profit plant trialing organization in North America” according to their website. This is a selection organization that is unbiased because all proceeds go into the trials and promoting all AAS winners. Each year the group selects many different judges and judging sites. These judges are professional horticulturists who are volunteering their time to evaluate plants for their growth, flowering or fruiting, and how well they adapt to different environmental conditions. Often times, Universities and public gardens are potential judging sites to keep the results impartial. The AAS is a good way to test new cultivars throughout North America to help gardeners trust the plants they purchase.

Each year the group chooses multiple annuals, perennials, and vegetables to be All American Selections. For 2017, the group came up with a great group of annuals, vegetables, and perennials. The one perennial that was chosen for 2017 was Twizzle Purple Penstemon.

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This photo of Twizzle Purple Penstemon is from the All American Selection website at: http://all-americaselections.org/product/penstemon-barbatus-twizzle-purple/

Penstemon plants are great for any garden as they grow tall and upright and have flowers similar to snapdragons because they are in the same plant family. Twizzle purple is a new penstemon with vibrant purple flowers. The judges liked the upright habit of the plant and the overall great flowering performance. This penstemon grows up to 35 inches high and is a great pollinator attracting plant.

Another great pollinator plant is the 2017 Perennial Plant of the year, Butterfly Milkweed. This is a plant honor that was chosen by the perennial plant association which is a trade association of growers, retailers, landscapers, educators and others in the herbaceous perennial industry. They choose a plant to showcase each year that is a standout plant. The perennials they choose are widely adaptive and have minimal insect and disease issues with low management inputs. Butterfly milkweed was chosen for the 2017 Perennial Plant of the year to “celebrate an excellent plant known for its ability to support insects and birds and serve as the primary caterpillar food for a beloved North American native butterfly”. That butterfly would be the Monarch butterfly. Monarchs have been decreasing in their population over the past few years due to many different factors, but lack of food is one. Milkweed is the primary source of food for Monarch butterflies and that plant is now reduced in our environment due to the way that we garden and the fact that people regard milkweeds as weeds. Planting pollinator plants will help with the populations.

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This photo of Butterfly Milkweed is courtesy of Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service (retired), Bugwood.org

Butterfly milkweed is a native plant with small, bright orange colored flowers that are held in bunches throughout the plant. This is not the common milkweed that most people find to be a weed, which is another great pollinator plant. This is a unique and interesting plant that will attract many pollinators to your garden. The plants grow 2-3 feet tall and wide. Butterfly milkweed plants are a great addition to any landscape, but especially in a prairie, native grass area, or naturalized planting.

Windbreaks

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Photo by Jan Hygnstrom, UNL Department of Agronomy & Horticulture

In the winter months you might begin to realize that your existing windbreak is not as efficient as it once was. This would be a good time to assess whether you need to replace some of these trees and start to think about planting new trees in the spring. Or maybe you just moved to a new home or are building a new home and this winter will help you assess the need for a windbreak at your new build.

A windbreak can be used for many different reasons. Obviously, the main purpose is to block wind, but it can provide many other benefits. Windbreaks can help protect a homestead from wind and snow, protect cattle from winter winds, reduce soil erosion on fields, provide food and habitat for wildlife and birds, reduce sound from busy highways to a home, and they can be planted for beautification of the landscape. The size and design of a windbreak depends on the purpose of the windbreak.

Most windbreaks should be at least two rows deep, but the number of rows depends on the purpose of the windbreak. For most acreages our windbreaks are only two rows, but they should be four to ten rows. According to the Nebraska Forest Service, a standard multiple-row windbreak should have windward rows of dense conifer trees or shrubs, interior rows of tall broadleaf trees and leeward rows of shrubs or conifers. The windward side is toward the wind, or on the outside of the windbreak and the leeward side would be on the inside of the windbreak.

Diversify the plant material in a windbreak. Many people are having to replace rows or entire windbreaks from where Pine Wilt came through and killed the scotch or Austrian pines in their windbreak. It is always best to use multiple species from multiple plant families within a windbreak so that you don’t lose the entire windbreak if something else comes in to kill a certain species of trees. Windbreaks don’t have to be made entirely out of conifers, shrubs and deciduous trees can be used in a windbreak to help increase diversity, help block wind, and increase food and habitat for wildlife. If using multiple types of plants and multiple rows, the typical windbreak should consist of a dense shrub in row one of the windward side, followed by two rows of dense conifers, two rows of tall broadleaves or conifers, and finally a dense shrub on the leeward side.

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Photo of a typical windbreak profile is from Windbreak Design NebGuide, Authors: Jon S. Wilson & Scott J. Josiah Extension Foresters with the Nebraska Forest Service.

Spacing is important to remember when planting your trees. The spacing requirements have changed quite a bit over time because many of the old windbreaks were planted too close together causing disease and shade issues to the plants. Plant your trees at least to the minimum requirements for within the row and between the rows.

  • Deciduous shrubs:4-6 feet between plants in a row and 15-20 feet between rows
  • Deciduous trees: 12-20 feet between trees in a row and 20-30 feet between rows
  • Conifer trees: 14-20 feet between trees in a row and 20-30 feet between rows

Now is a good time to begin thinking about your tree needs for your windbreak because the local NRD is selling trees from now until March 1. This is a good way to start a windbreak because you can get a large quantity of trees for a low cost. These trees will start small and are suited for Nebraska environmental conditions. They have a good selection of tree and shrub choices for your windbreak, but you do have to order in a quantity of 25. The local NRD’s vary in tree and shrub species available, but they have a good choice of many different species that will do well in Nebraska.

Be Thankful for…

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Be Thankful for…Tasty Treats from the Garden!

Thanksgiving is a time to be Thankful for everything that you have to enrich your life. One great thing about Thanksgiving is the wonderful meal that you can share with your loved ones and closest friends. Your Thanksgiving feast featured a great deal of products that you can grow from your garden in your own backyard.

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Green Snap Beans photo courtesy of Alice Henneman via Flickr Creative Commons License.

 

Green Bean casserole and sweet corn are staple side dishes to any Thanksgiving dinner. These vegetables could have been purchased at the store, or you may have grown them in your garden and preserved them to be used in this meal. Sweet potatoes can also be grown in Nebraska and stored in a cool location in your home to be enjoyed for the Holiday season. The cranberry sauce uses cranberries that may not have been grown in your garden, but could have come from the United States. Massachusetts is the leading producer of cranberries in the United States, followed by Wisconsin. There is also the delicious and healthy relish tray that is always present at these meals to snack on while waiting for the meal. The relish tray includes many vegetables grown in the United States, including carrots that could have been grown in a cold frame or fall garden that could be fresh from your Nebraska garden. Pumpkin pie is also a must for any Thanksgiving table, the pumpkin from the Famous ‘Libby’s Pumpkin Pie Mix’ is grown in Illinois, but you can make your own pumpkin pie filling using pumpkins grown in your own backyard. You can also use apples, cherries, and pecans from your trees for these pies.

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Gourd arrangement provided to Extension Office by a Master Gardener.

We also use plenty of horticulture products as decorations for the holidays. Often we use pumpkins and gourds to decorate for Thanksgiving. These can be grown in our own backyards. There is a nice basket arrangement of gourds that are sitting on the front counter of the Gage County Extension office that were graciously donated to us by a Master Gardener who grew them in her garden. We are very thankful to have this to enjoy throughout the season.

Also, many people use the long Thanksgiving weekend to decorate their homes for the Christmas season, mainly putting up their Christmas tree, which is a wonderful gift from nature. The most common tree species used for Christmas trees in Nebraska include: Balsam Fir, Blue Spruce, Concolor Fir, Douglas-Fir, Fraser Fir, Scotch Pine, or Eastern White Pine. The trunk needs a fresh cut before being placed in the stand. Cuts more than 4 hours old may not take up water. Avoid removing bark because the tissue that transports water is under the bark, removing it will prevent the tree from taking up water.

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Be thankful to the Tree and to the growers for this wonderful enjoyment for the season, it took about 7 years for a Christmas tree farmer to grow the trees from seedlings to retail sale height, which is about 6 feet, according to the Nebraska Christmas Tree Growers Association. They also say that for every live Christmas tree harvested, 2-3 seedlings are planted in its place. This helps to ensure future years of tree sales and tree replacement is always a good practice.

So this year, remember to be thankful for the wonderful growing opportunities we have in Nebraska. Be thankful for the soil, plentiful rain, and warm sunlight. Enjoy your horticulture commodities this Thanksgiving and throughout the winter months that you grew in your garden and were able to preserve for use throughout the year. And, next year plan to grow some of these products in your garden to enjoy for the next Thanksgiving gathering.

Do I really need to rake?

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November means fall is in full swing. The leaves of our trees begin to turn color and then fall to the ground making the ground colorful and giving it that characteristic “crunch” when you walk on the lawn. Why do some trees take so long to drop their leaves in the fall? And why do some hold onto the leaves throughout the entire winter? Finally, what do you do with the leaves when they fall to the ground?

Leaves fall to the ground in the fall to remove living material for the winter months. During the winter evergreen trees continue to transpire which can sometimes cause winter desiccation and browning on the needles if they lose more water than they take in. Deciduous trees lose their leaves to reduce the amount of living material necessary to support during the winter months and to reduce winter desiccation.

Each tree differs on how fast they lose their leaves. This is dependent on both the genetics of the tree and the environmental conditions they have faced this year. Two trees of the same species can lose their leaves at different times of the year based on the environment that is specifically surrounding that tree, or the microclimate. The environmental factors that affect when trees lose their leaves include prolonged drought, disease and insect pests, sunlight exposure, day length, colder air temperatures, frost timing, winds, soil, and water differences, according to Ted Griess, UNL Extension Horticulture Assistant. On years with extraordinarily hot and dry summers, the leaves tend to turn to fall color and drop off the tree much earlier than years of normal or cooler and wetter conditions throughout the summer.

Some trees, especially pin oak trees, hold onto their dead leaves throughout the entire winter and don’t lose the leaves produced this year until new leaves begin next spring. There is nothing wrong with this, it is a natural occurrence for some tree species.

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Photo of Shagbark Hickory courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli, via Flickr creative commons license

Now that the leaves are falling, what do we do with them? It is not good for the lawn to leave the fallen leaves on the turf for the winter months. The leaves that fall can become matted on the grass and suffocate the lawn underneath. So, it is important to remove leaves from the lawn in the fall. This can be done with a rake or with a lawnmower. You can use the lawnmower to break up the leaves so that they go down into the turf and won’t suffocate it. You can also use the lawn mower to bag up all of the leaves as they fall. Mulching the leaves into the lawn will not add a thatch layer to your lawn. The leaves break down quickly and will not be a problem. Either way you do it, with a rake or a lawnmower, make sure that you get the leaves off of the lawn before winter.

After you have finished mowing the last time for the season, and have mowed up all your tree leaves, you should prepare your lawn mower for winter. Clean up the lawn mower and be sure to get all the grass off the blades and off of the underside of the deck. It may also be a good idea to sharpen the blades before you put it away for the winter so you don’t have to do that in the spring before you get started mowing.

Fall is a time for Apples and Garlic

Fall is a great time of the year. It can be bittersweet, though, because it often signals the end of our growing season. The good thing is that this is also the time of the year to go pick apples. It is apple month, for tips and recipes on apples, visit the Nebraska Extension October food calendar.

Each different variety of apple differs for their harvest time. To determine the harvest time for the apple, knowing the variety will help you. In fall, a common question from gardeners with a favorite apple or pear tree is for identification of the cultivar from the color and shape of the fruit. This almost impossible to do, in fact, it’s really only realistic to give a general idea of possible cultivars. So, if you don’t know the variety, you can look at the color, flavor, and texture of the apple.

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Flickr image courtesy of Alice Henneman per CC license

To know a mature apple, look at the “ground color”, which is the color of an apple’s skin disregarding any areas of red. You can also try one to ensure that it is the correct sweetness and make sure it is firm and not overripe and soft. Overripe apples will detach from the tree more easily than those that are at the correct stage of ripeness. If the apple is too ripe, it will break down in storage more quickly than those that are at the peak of their maturity.

For storage it is best to pick apples when they are still hard but mature. Place the apples in a box or crate with a smooth lining so that staples don’t puncture or injure the apple. These boxes or crates should be lined with plastic or foil to retain humidity around the apples. Remove bruised and large apples that will break down more quickly than the rest of the apples. Apples produce ethylene gas, even after they are removed from the tree, which speeds up the ripening process in fruits. A damaged apple will produce more ethylene than other apples. Apples should be stored in the fridge or other location where they are kept at temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, an apple stored too warm will ripen faster.

Fall is also a great time to plant garlic. I love Italian food, so therefore I am a huge fan of fresh garlic. Garlic is best planted from mid-September through mid-October, one month before the soil freezes. The bulbs planted in the fall will root and begin to sprout before going dormant for the winter. Next spring, these bulbs will continue to grow until harvest in the summer months.

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Flickr image courtesy of Olga Filonenko per CC license.

To grow garlic, plant small cloves for each plant you want. The clove is obtained from the division of the large bulb. Planting larger cloves will lead to larger bulbs for harvest next year. Wait until just before you begin planting to divide the bulb into the individual cloves. Plant the cloves 3-5 inches apart, 1-2 inches deep with the point upward in the soil. If you are planting multiple rows, the rows need to be 18-30 inches apart. Before completing your gardening tasks this fall, remember to mulch the planted garlic with 8-12 inches of straw after the soil freezes.

The apple information from this article came from an article written by Mary Jane Frogge, Extension Associate from Lancaster County Extension. The garlic information from this article came from the e-Hort Update at hortupdate.unl.edu which is a newsletter you can sign up for to get more horticulture information throughout the year.

Pirate Bugs are Everywhere!

Fall is a great time of year, the weather is cooler, the trees are turning brilliant fall colors, and we can enjoy being outdoors. However, sometimes that enjoyment is smashed when insect invaders join our outdoor gatherings. The minute pirate bug is one that shows up this time of the year.

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Minute Pirate Bug photo courtesy of Kim Riggs, Richardson County Extension

Minute pirate bugs are the tiny, black insects that seem to fall out of the trees in the fall and bite us. The bug, which is a true bug, is 1/8 inch in length and black with white and black wings. The appearance of this bug is very similar to a chinch bug. The wings have an “X” on them which is typical for insects that are true bugs.

Minute pirate bugs are present throughout the summer but they are out in fields, woodlands, and gardens. During the summer they are feeding on other insects. They are actually a beneficial insect. Pirate bugs are predatory insects that feed on many insects that cause harm to our plants, such as thrips, aphids, mites, and small caterpillars as well as the eggs of other insects.

Most people wouldn’t notice these pirate bugs if they didn’t land on us and bite us. Pirate bugs bite with a pain that doesn’t seem possible from such a tiny insect. However, some people may not notice the sting at all because the reaction to the bite can differ from no reaction at all to having the area swell up like a mosquito bite. But, in the fall, these insects move into the areas where people are more often outside and they begin to bite us. When they bite us, they insert their piercing-sucking mouthpart into our skin, which can be painful. However, the good thing is that they do NOT feed on blood, inject a venom or transmit diseases.

Because of the painful reaction that most of us receive from this pest, we want to do something to control them, however, control is not practical. Minute pirate bugs are a temporary pest, they are beneficial insects, and most of our solutions would not harm them so there is no reason to try to control them with an insecticide. Using a bug spray will not deter them either because they are not attracted to us by carbon dioxide like most other blood-feeding insects such as mosquitos. So, the best control for these pests would be to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts and dark colored clothing or to wait patiently for cooler weather when they will no longer be a problem.

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Photo of Ground Beetle courtesy of Daniel R. Suiter, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

And just as a reminder, this is the time of the year when our insect invaders start to move into our homes. Many of the insects and other arthropods that we see every year are things like boxelder bugs, Asian multicolored ladybeetles, ground beetles, centipedes, millipedes, and spiders. All of these do not pose any physical harm to us, spiders can bite but it is rare and usually does not cause much harm. The best controls for these critters would be to use a home barrier spray, sticky traps and to vacuum them up as you see them. These insects and others are moving into our homes with the cooler temperatures to keep warm during the winter.