Archive for June, 2006

Protecting Trees from Caterpillars:

(For coming attractions, please scroll down)

The big three of forest consumption: gypsy moth larvae, Eastern tent caterpillars and forest tent caterpillars are again this year munching their way toward a tree near you, if they aren’t already in it. Some tips for taking action:

* All these caterpillars pupate into moths, which don’t feed, by around the end of June to the middle of July. The trees then make new leaves – or try to – and that’s where the trouble really starts because weak trees get exhausted and fall prey to other insects, diseases and climate stress. Thus the most important protection for   trees is simply to keep them strong: Water young and newly planted trees regularly; water older and established ones if there is a long dry spell. Mulch to prevent competition from weeds, keeping the mulch away from the trunks so it doesn’t rot bark or lead to insect infestation. And hold off on the strong fertilizer, especially if the trees have been attacked. Whether chemical or organic, food supplements encourage soft growth that’s especially vulnerable to bugs, diseases and (later on) freezes

* While they’re eating, spray with Bt — the younger the caterpillars, the more effective this is, because they have to eat it to die and they don’t die right away. It can also help to band the trees loosely with burlap and apply Tanglefoot or something else sticky. Idea is to keep them from climbing up and down and expanding their range.

* Remove the tents and destroy the occupants. A long stick will usually snag the tents, then you can smoosh them underfoot, drop them into pails of soapy water or – if you’re squeamish – leave them in the center of busy roads. Old timers used to burn ’em out and that’s still a tempting way to go, but it’s very easy to hurt the tree as much as you hurt the caterpillars.

* Later in the summer: Turn off porch lights and garden lights from mid-July to mid- August . Adult moths are attracted to lights from as much as several miles away, and once in your yard will look around for a good place to lay eggs.

* Even later ( next winter in February or March): Use dormant oil sprays in to kill egg masses.

Entomological note: The forest tent caterpillar actually makes resting mats, rather than true tents. Not a saving grace. Kill ’em.

Coming Attractions, in Maine

July 12: Benefit Luncheon Garden Party with Don and Patrisha McLean

At “Lakeview,” their Camden home. Starts at 12:30 with Champagne, appetizers and stroll through the organic gardens full of heirloom roses. Includes lunch and a talk by Eric Rector, former president of MOFGA, and ends with a 3 o’clock Q&A session presided over by yrs. truly.

$75.00 donation, for the Castine Historical Society. Space limited. (207) 326-4118 or on the net.

July 16: Georges River Land Trust Garden Tour

The 15th anniversary tour, 10 AM to 5 PM rain or shine. Eight gardens , including mine. Tickets $20.00 in advance, 22 bucks the day of the tour. Details through the Trust: (207) 594 – 5166 or on the net.

September 15-17: Maine Fare

A 3 day celebration of all things downeast and delicious , with a gala tasting, a food vendors’ marketplace, cooking demonstrations and assorted talks, including a panel discussion ( led by moi) on   Eating Local in a Cold Climate. Information at 207 236 8895 or on the net at


Funny word when you say it enough times, which is easy to do when they are defoliating large swaths of the Eastern forest. Tips for defending your own trees follow, as soon as I get the rest of the callas in and the tomatoes mulched.   But first,   a word about defending your dill, which can also be defoliated by a caterpillar.

Unlike the ones that are eating the forest, which grow up to be small, drab moths of no special aesthetic distinction, the caterpillars that eat dill, parsley, and fennel become black swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes).

Fortunately, there’s no need to kill them to preserve your   herbs – they like Queen Anne’s lace just as much as they like other umbellifers, so you can just gently pick them up and move them to wilder pastures. There are 3 generations a year, but unless you have acres and acres to tend, it doesn’t take long to relocate all threats to the tabbouli.

Peony Season

“In peaceful old gardens that remain unfretted by changing fashions and modern introductions we are apt to find huge bushes of the old May-flowering peony… ”

thus Louise Beebe Wilder, in Color in My Garden, published in 1918.

Still true in 1991, when we bought this house. Its peonies must have been planted by old Miss Wells, last of the line that built the place in the 1870’s and, by the evidence, a demon gardener. By the time we got here, she’d been gone for a dozen years and the gardens were pretty much rack and ruin, but the peonies were everywhere : lined up along the side of the barn, half-hidden under the overgrown hedges, buried in the weed-choked flowerbeds…

Survivors : Antique peonies and blue flag iris, undaunted by ladies bedstraw, milkweed, and rampant bittersweet.

There are some early magenta bombs and even earlier bright red fernleaf ones, but most of them are lactifloras, famously known as memorial day peonies because that’s when they start blooming.

After dividing and moving the ancient clumps, we wound up with – I just went out the other day and counted: 61plants, each of which is about 3 feet wide, covered with dozens of flowers and buds. But do we have single reds with twisted clusters of gold-tipped petaloids in the middle? silky white semi-doubles right out of Japanese prints? perfect apricot coral cups?

Nope. There are literally hundreds of possible peonies, but Ms. Wells was keen on repetition: we have one pink, one dark magenta and one white.

Can’t place the dark one, but I’m pretty sure the silvery pinks are Sarah Bernhardt , a fragrant double with ruffled center petals that made its debut in 1906. The white, a bomb with shell pink outer petals and red streaks at its heart is probably Queen Victoria, called the “Old Farmstead ” peony by Hollingsworth Nursery , which describes this flower’s extensive travels from the East into the Midwest in the early 20th century.

It’s clearly a child of Festiva Maxima, pretty much the same but with more fragrance and without the pink petals and the one peony to have if you’re having only one. Festiva Maxima was introduced in 1851 and I wouldn’t be surprised if the original plant were still alive somewhere.

Peonies are TOUGH, which is part of their charm. Also very handsome when not flowering; the leaves make a lovely hedge behind later blooming flowers and are also a good screen to mask the ripening foliage of spring bulbs. Deer and rabbits do not eat them. They do not need dividing

They are also a great comfort in a difficult world, a link with the past, a bet on the future and big huge silky fragrant luxurious joy in the morning – at least until it rains.

Peony Tips:

*They do need sun, but not that much; with most varieties, you can get decent flowers from a half day’s worth and the farther south you are, the more the peonies can use a break from broiling afternoons.

* Be sure to plant shallowly – those fat growth buds should be no more than an inch and a half below ground. The number one cause of bloom failure is over-deep planting… or, over time, the gradual movement of compost and mulch that buries those buds as effectively as if you had done it yourself.

* They don’t like acid soil; if your rhododendrons are doing great, it’s a sign you should add some lime to the peony bed before you start planting.
Now is a good time to do it, since fall is the best time to plant. Potted peonies can go in the ground now, but the bare root kind must be planted in fall … and the bare root kind is where all the goodies are.

* Never in the compost! The Botrytis blight that plagues them – their own personal fungus: Botrytis paeoniae – is ever present, even on apparently healthy growth, so everything that leaves the peony bed should stay gone: discarded bouquets , the fall cleanup pile, Everything. Burn it if you can, toss it deep into the woods where no peonies will ever grow, or be deeply retrogressive and send it to the landfill.

* Peonies last a long time as cut flowers and can be held in bud stage for a month or more – if you have the room in the refrigerator. For an exhaustive and very useful treatment of cut-flower choices and procedures, download this useful guide, from Kansas State University.