Growing Shrubs From Cuttings: So Simple!

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Shrubs are not hard to grow from cuttings. Source: gorgeousshinythings.blogspot.com

Most gardeners buy the shrubs that decorate their gardens as established plants… and pay quite dearly for the service. But did you know that you can grow your own from cuttings … and that it’s surprisingly easy as well? And, of course, it costs almost nothing, other than a smidgen of rooting hormone and a bit of potting soil.

Here’s how:

A Midsummer Activity

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Boxwood cuttings. Source: gorgeousshinythings.blogspot.com

You can take cuttings from woody plants at different stages, but when the plant is at the softwood stage, that is, when the stem is neither soft and green nor hard and fully woody, is the best time for most. This will likely be in early to mid-summer in most climates. Usually, if you bend the stem and it snaps, it’s a sign it’s out of the green stage and is at the right stage for taking cuttings.

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Clip off softwood stems and remove the lower leaves. Source: robbinslist.com & http://www.vectorportal.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog

Use pruning shears to snip off a stem about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) long. It should have at least 3 or 4 nodes (points where leaves are joined to the stem). If possible, choose a stem with neither flower buds or flowers, but if there are any, remove them. The angle of the cut is not nearly as important as you may have been told: anywhere between 45 and 90 degrees is just fine.

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Apply a bit of rooting hormone to the lower extremity of the cutting. Source: robbinslist.com, http://www.deviantart.com,  montage: laidbackgardener.blog

Remove all leaves on the bottom 4 inches (10 cm) or so of the stem. Apply a rooting hormone to the lower end and slip the cutting into a small pot filled with slightly moist potting soil, making sure at least two nodes are covered with soil. Water lightly.

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Slip the cutting and its pot into a clear plastic bag. Source: robbinslist.com, design.tutsplus.com, http://www.royalbag.com

Cuttings root best under high humidity, so cover the pot and young cutting with a transparent bag or mini-greenhouse and set it in a warm, well-lit location, but free of direct sun (to avoid overheating). Because you’ll be likely doing this in summer, you can root the cutting indoors or out. After a few weeks, you’ll see new leaves appear and that’s a sign the cutting has rooted.

You can then remove the bag or mini-greenhouse and acclimatize it to outdoor conditions.

Growing On

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Let the cutting grow to a larger size before using it in the landscape. Source: hedgerowrose.com

Your young shrub is probably still too small for use in the landscape, so give it a year or two to put on a bit of height. Many gardeners keep a corner of the vegetable garden for just that purpose. You can either plant in the garden or keep it in a pot as it gains in height and number of branches.


Shrub cuttings: so easy to do and … so inexpensive! You’ll ask yourself later why you haven’t always been starting shrubs that way!20180812A gorgeousshinythings.blogspot.com

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Can Roof Runoff Be Used for Vegetables?

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Rainwater can generally be safely used to water vegetables. Source: www.pinterest.ca

Question: Can rainwater collected from an asphalt shingle roof be harmful to vegetables and other edible plants?

M-C Chevrette

Answer: The water flowing from a roof does pick up a small quantity of contaminants, including chemicals from shingles and gutters, possibly bird and animal waste, tannins and other compounds from leaves in the gutter, etc. Also, micro-organisms can proliferate in the reservoir itself. So, roof runoff is not considered safe for human consumption in most countries, at least not without filtration. (Curiously, in other countries, the inhabitants are not so squeamish and roof runoff water is their main source of drinking water!)

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Soil microbes and root hairs carefully filter materials entering the roots. Root membranes, for example, are selectively permeable, allowing only certain molecules to pass through. Source: www.sciencewithme.com

On the other hand, the water entering vegetables grown using roof water is filtered in various ways: by their roots, by soil microbes, etc. Plant roots, after all, are very selective about what they let in! And moreover, plants have the ability to use certain products that we consider pollutants by converting them into useful products.

Normally, therefore, the plants that use roof water are considered safe enough for human consumption … as long as certain precautions are followed.

First, it’s best to apply the water to the roots, not the foliage. By means of a soaker hose or drip irrigation, for example. And if runoff water is applied to the foliage, it would be wise to rinse the vegetables with clean water before consumption.

References:
A Green Light for Using Rain Barrel Water on Garden Edibles
Is It Safe to Use Roof Runoff for a Vegetable Garden?20180711A www.pinterest.ca

No Real Need to Blanch Leeks

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This is how we expect leeks to be: well blanched, with a white stalk at the base. Source: www.cityparkmarket.co.ke

Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) with a long white stalk have always been considered highly desirable by gardeners. To obtain such whiteness, the tradition has always been to either plant leeks in a trench that is then gradually filled in with soil (“trenching”) or to plant them at a normal planting depth, then to push up an increasingly high mound of soil in order to cover the stalks (“hilling”). In both cases, the stalk is deprived of sunlight and turns pale (blanches), giving the desired whiteness. Most leeks sold in markets and grocery stores are still blanched.

However, covering the stalk with soil is also what allows soil to work its way in among the leaves and down into the stalk. And finding grains of sand in their leek that has given many people a disdain of this otherwise wonderful vegetable.

Unblanched Leeks

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Unblanched leeks are perfectly tasty and better for your health than blanched ones. What’s so wrong with that? Source: www.pd4pic.com

But why not consider the alternative: growing your leeks without either trenching or hilling? After all, a white stalk is only aesthetic: blanching leeks is not at all necessary for their health or survival. Although gourmets may claim blanching improves their taste, that affirmation has been consistently refuted: in blindfolded taste tests, even the gourmets themselves were unable to distinguish between blanched and unblanched leeks! Also, when your guests bite into a leek that wasn’t blanched, they won’t risk breaking a tooth on a stone!

A unblanched leek still has a white base, but the upper part of the stalk will be pale green rather than white. Is that really the end of the world? I therefore suggest just letting leeks grow naturally: it’s certainly the most laidback method of growing them.

However, if you just can’t imagine a leek without a long white stalk, there are two other methods of reaching your goal: using self-blanching varieties and mulching.

Self-Blanching

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Self-blanching leeks have a pretty decent white stalk even without mulching. Source: www.territorialseed.com

Self-blanching leeks are just what the name suggests they are: they produce white stalks (or at least, nearly white stalks) even when exposed to the sun’s rays. So, no trenching or hilling is required. They’re better for your health than blanched leeks and far easier to grow. One cultivar you could try is ‘Takrima’.

Blanching Using Mulch

The other alternative is to blanch leeks, but with mulch rather than soil: straw, chopped leaves or whatever other organic mulch is available.

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Mulching—and, at the same time, blanching!—leeks with straw. Source: u.osu.edu

Simply transplant so your leeks into the garden as with any other vegetable, covering only the base of the stalk with soil (therefore, without trenching). Then cover their stalk with 4 inches (10 cm) of mulch. As the season progresses and the stalk lengthens, continue to add mulch, up to a depth of about 10 inches (25 cm). The mulch will prevent light from reaching the stalk, thus blanching it, giving you the whiteness your heart desires!

Mulching also cuts down on weeds and keeps the soil cooler and moister, much to the pleasure of leeks, which do best in cool, moist conditions.

The two other advantages of mulching leeks are that mulching requires far less effort than trenching or hilling with soil … and that mulch contains no soil particles that can work their way into your leek stalks. Therefore, your leeks will be snap to clean and there will be no sand particles to upset your guests when you serve them your homegrown leeks!


The only thing left to do is to learn how to protect leeks from their terrible enemy, the leek moth, now common in many areas. For that, I refer you to Leek Moth: Coming Soon to an Onion Near You.

Sticky Trap Using a Real Apple

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A commercial sticky trap can be very effective … but so can a homemade one! Source: netreefruit.org

Many gardeners already know that a red ball covered with glue can be used as a trap for the apple maggot fly (Rhagoletis pomonella), whose maggot, the apple worm, digs tunnels in the fruit and makes it nearly useable. In fact, you’ll find such traps in just about any garden center! But did you know that you can use a real apple instead?

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Coat a red apple with sticky glue and it too will become an apple maggot trap. Source: www.vegetablegardener.com

Just coat a red apple (a Red Delicious’, for example) with a non-drying glue (you can find Tangle-Trap, for example, in many garden centers) and then hang it in your apple tree when its own fruits are still very small. Attracted by the redness of the apple, the female apple maggot fly will leave the insignificant little green apples alone and land instead on the bright red one, convinced she’s hit the gold mine: a particularly juicy apple on which to lay her eggs. Unfortunately for her, she’ll end up stuck and unable to reproduce … and your apples will be in perfect condition come fall!

Usually one apple per dwarf apple tree is enough, but four or five may be needed on large trees.20180708A www.vegetablegardener.com

Gardens Evolve and So Should You!

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As your garden becomes shadier, adapt by putting in shade-tolerant plants. Source: www.statelykitsch.com

Your garden is not stuck in a time warp; it is constantly evolving. Trees grow and create more shade … and also dry out the soil. Since you began mulching five years ago, the soil underneath has become richer and more water retentive. Your neighbor’s irrigation system that seems to go off every night and sprays water in all the wrong directions is making the part of your lot right next to the fence much moister than it used to be, etc.

The easiest thing to do is not to try to combat these changes (bringing your neighbors to court for “loss of use” of your property is not a good idea!), but instead to follow them. Move the vegetable garden that is becoming less and less productive because of the shade to a sunnier spot, remove the yarrow that prefers poor, dry soil and now flops because the mulch has enriched the soil and replace it with astilbes that will love the richer, moister conditions, put in plants that like boggy conditions near the now soggy property line, etc.

When conditions change, the plants have to change too: learn to accept this fact and gardening will be so much easier.

The Fly That Controls Japanese Beetles

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The Japanese beetle is universally detested by gardeners … but a small fly is now helping to control its population. Source: Judy Gallagher, Wikimedia Commons

Ever since the Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica) first showed up in New Jersey in 1912, apparently brought over from Japan in a shipment of bulbs, farmers and gardeners have been desperately seeking an easy way to control it. And it’s now made it to Europe as well, with outbreaks in Italy, Russia and, since 2017, Switzerland.

When you have Japanese beetles, you know it. The adults seem to make little effort to hide. The metallic green beetles with coppery wing cases gather by the thousands and munch their way through foliage and flowers alike, leaving devastation in their wake. The worst hit plants have no untouched leaves at all, just browning ones with intact veins. And this pest attacks a wide range of plants (read Japanese Beetle Host Plants). To make matters worse, Japanese beetles attack in mid-summer, just when your garden should be at its finest!

And it’s not just leaves and flowers! Underground, their larvae chomp away on grass roots: yes, they’re among the various scarabs whose larvae we call white grubs, so hated by lawn owners everywhere.

In other words, Japanese beetles piss pretty much everybody off!

An Attempt That Fails… Then Succeeds!

Back in Japan, the Japanese beetle has several predators to contend with and, as a result, the population generally remains low and damage is minor.

American researchers tried to capitalize on this by introducing, starting in 1927, a serious of insects that feed on Japanese beetles in its native habitat. However, the first trials seemed unsuccessful. But it turns out at least one insect, a tachinid fly called the winsome fly (Istocheta aldrichi), has adapted better than was thought at the time. (Another Japanese beetle predator, a parasitoid wasp known as Tiphia vernalis, is doing fairly well too, although its range today is less extensive.)

The winsome fly hadn’t done well in New Jersey tests, because in that climate, the life cycles of the two insects barely overlapped. The adult fly—the egg-laying phase—tended to emerge too early and was near the end of its cycle by the time the Japanese beetles emerged in their turn in July. Thus, few JBs were parasitized and it was thought the experiment had failed. However, several decades later, the winsome fly was found again. It had made it further north on its own, to New England, where the cooler springs delayed its emergence enough so the two life cycles overlapped much more effectively. In some areas, in some years, up to 80% of all Japanese beetles that emerge have been found parasitized.

Winsome flies are still on the move! Even as Japanese beetles continue to expand their range in North America (they’re now present in most US states and Canadian provinces), so do winsome flies. They’re now found in most of the Northeastern US states and recently reached Canada where they’re thriving and spreading in Ontario and Quebec.

The Life Cycle of a Beetle Predator

The winsome fly is a parasitoid: it doesn’t just live on its host, it kills it!

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Winsome fly (Istocheta aldrichi). Source: National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes

It’s a small grayish fly about 5 mm long, looking much like any other small true fly. It emerges just a short time before the Japanese beetles do and builds up its energy by feeding on flower nectar. When the Japanese beetles appear, the female fly starts laying white eggs on her host’s thorax, just behind its head. They are easily visible, at least if you have your glasses on.

The fly will lay a hundred eggs over the second two weeks of its 4-week emergent cycle. It tends to mostly parasitize female beetles, because they spend much of their time pinned under male beetles trying to mate with them and thus can’t readily escape the fly. Japanese beetles not mating react rapidly when winsome flies are around, quickly dropping to the ground.

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Eggs on the thorax of a few Japanese beetles. Source: blog.uvm.edu

The eggs hatch in about 24 hours. Even if the beetle carries several eggs, only one larva will actually penetrate the body of its victim where it will begin to digest it from the inside. First to go are its flight muscles, leaving the beetle unable to fly. The beetle then goes into protective mode, falls to the ground and buries itself.

The infested beetle dies only 5 to 6 days later, but the fly larva remains in the dead body of its host all winter as a pupa, then the cycle begins again the following summer. There is only one generation per year.

Note that this predation occurs as adult beetles are emerging, before they lay eggs. Since the female JB would have normally laid 40 to 60 eggs, that many fewer beetles will be born the following year!

Winsome flies will also predate, to a lesser extent, other white grub-producing scarabs, like European chafers.

Encouraging Winsome Flies

The winsome fly is not commercially available. You have to wait for it to show up in your area on its own.

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Umbellifers with their small, clustered flowers, are favorites of winsome flies. The blooms above are those of coriander (Coriandrum sativum). Source: H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Once they have reached your neighborhood, anything you do to attract a horde of winsome flies to your garden will help. For example, plant many small, shallow-flowered plants, such as umbellifers (coriander, dill, lovage, etc.), crucifers (sweet alyssum, mustard, etc.) and Asteraceae (chamomile, daisies, yarrows, etc.) to attract and feed the flies.

Also, avoid spraying insecticides. They usually affect the fly (our friend) more than the unwanted beetle… plus once you start seeing eggs on Japanese beetles, you need a new strategy: killing them all is no longer that useful.

Less squeamish gardeners—or those that most hate Japanese beetles!—can hand trap them and sort them, letting parasitized beetles go free (remember, they’ll be underground and out of sight in just a few days) and dropping unparasitized ones into a pot of soapy water. I don’t know how you’ll explain this to your neighbors, though!

The Result?

Winsome flies will never completely eradicate Japanese beetles. No wise parasite ever totally eliminates its host: that would be suicidal!

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With winsome flies in the area, you should no longer see such complete defoliation of your plants. Source: www.ontariohopgrowersassociation.ca

Where Japanese beetles occur, you’re unlikely ever to get rid of them entirely, so should choose plants accordingly (see Plants That Japanese Beetles Tend to Avoid). However, by eliminating the most beetle-susceptible plants from your garden, replacing them with ones they dislike and encouraging winsome flies and other predators by supplying nectar-rich flowers, you’ll find the number of beetles can drop significantly in just a few years. Many gardeners in areas where the winsome fly is well established say they can now garden much like they used to before JBs appeared, since the few remaining ones do little damage.

Breaking News!

Shortly after this article was published (like, about 10 minutes later!), I received word that the Montreal Botanical Garden is undertaking a study to determine the extent of the distribution of this parasitoid fly in Canada and asks Canadian gardeners to participate. If you see a Japanese beetle bearing the telltale white egg(s) of the winsome fly, please take a photo and send the information, along with pertinent details (there’s a short form to fill out) to the Entomological Information Service at Space for Life.

Thanks to Sandrine for this information!


The expansion of the winsome fly is therefore very good news for many gardeners and farmers! If combining a choice of JB-resistant plants with a small parasitoid fly can make gardening easy again, who’s likely to complain?20180707C blog.uvm.edu

Milkweed Sap to Treat Poison Ivy? A Truly Bad Idea!

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The sticky white sap of milkweed is poisonous. Source: Emma Pelton/Xerces Society

Yes, I know you have read this in all sorts of blogs as well as in home remedy guides, but it’s very unwise to apply milkweed sap (Asclepias spp.) to rashes caused by poison ivy or oak (Toxicodendron radicans and related species). It’s claimed that the white, sticky milkweed sap reduces irritation and speeds up healing (although proof of such attributes seems entirely lacking), but applying milkweed sap to the skin is actually playing with fire!

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The bright colors of the monarch butterfly caterpillar warn potential predators that it is poisonous. It gets its poison from the milkweed leaves it eats. Source: Judy Gallagher, Wikimedia Commons

True enough, milkweed can be a charming wildflower or garden flower and yes, it certainly does feed monarch butterflies (indeed, their caterpillars can eat nothing else), but the sap of milkweed is toxic. The toxicity does vary by species, but is nevertheless always present. In fact, it’s because their caterpillars eat the leaves of this poisonous plant that adult monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) become poisonous themselves, thus making them unpalatable to predators.

But Native Peoples Used to Eat Milkweed!

Yes, they did. Well, not all milkweeds: some are just too toxic for that! But least some species, like common milkweed (A. syriacus). However, if they were able to eat milkweed without suffering dire consequences, it’s because they cooked it first and the heat destroyed the sap’s toxic properties.

Sensitive Skin

Of course, milkweed sap itself is not always thought of as a contact poison: usually it’s ingesting it that causes a toxic reaction. However, some people have very sensitive skin and do react to simple sap-to-skin contact. Therefore, by applying milkweed sap to rashes caused by poison ivy, it can make the situation worse, causing an even more severe irritation.

Don’t Get Sap in Your Eyes

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Getting milkweed sap into your eyes can cause severe irritation, much like that seen in this photo. Source: http://www.firmoo.com

But that’s not the main problem. The chief risk is that, by handling milkweed sap, you increase the risk of accidentally transferring it to your eyes afterwards. It only takes a tiny bit, much less than a drop, to cause severe irritation. Red eyes, tears and extreme pain are scary enough, but it’s blurry vision and blindness that send so many people to the hospital. The blindness is temporary and will clear up after two or three days, but it can be quite traumatic.

Take Precautions

Avoid handling milkweed if possible and when you have no choice, wear gloves, long sleeves and goggles or, at the very least, wash your hands and arms immediately afterwards. And never, ever brush a hand soiled with milkweed sap to your eyes!

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The sap of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is safe to use and can be effective in reducing the irritation caused by poison ivy. Source: Fritz Geller-Grimm, Wikimedia Commons

So, what can you do about the dermatitis caused by poison ivy? First, wash immediately with soapy water, then consult a pharmacist for reliable medical treatment if that proves ineffective. If you prefer a natural remedy, try applying the sap of Cape jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), a common annual of North American forests and wetlands, to the rash. It has a reputation for relieving irritation, one that has been tested and confirmed  effective … plus it isn’t toxic to humans!20180705A Emma Pelton:Xerces Society