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Hamptons Life

May 20, 2019 11:39 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The May Ramble

A close-up of a lettuce aphid. STEPHEN AUSMUS/USDA
May 20, 2019 11:54 AM

It’s been a busy spring—as long as you’ve been able to dodge the raindrops and take advantage of the few sunny days that each week brings.

But the forecast for a “normal” spring seems to be more of a wish than a reality, as it’s been both wet and cold. It’s been great for planting, though, and outstanding for dividing many of the perennials. Seems the rain has also kept some of you at the keyboard instead of getting dirt under your nails as evidenced by your wonderful emails and notes. So, on with the May ramble and some responses.

The cool and wet weather made for some incredible displays of the spring flowering trees and shrubs. I can’t recall such a long blooming season for magnolias as some were able to keep their color and petals off the ground for as long as three and four weeks. It also reminded me that many have this ingrained image of the magnolia as a somewhat washed out billowing flower of pinks and white. That’s the older magnolias and you can find a few that are 30 and 40 feet tall and as wide. But the newer varieties, shorter in stature because they are younger plants, are showing up in deep purples with flowers that ever so slowly open instead of blasting out all at once. The yellow magnolias are a bit more uncommon and don’t fit into every landscape, but in the right setting these too can be pretty magnificent.

I’m training a new gardener to work in the formal gardens and vegetable garden at work, and it’s always an education to teach someone new, for both of us. In the vegetable garden she had her first near disaster as she noticed her seedling spinach was fine one day then clearly damaged the next. She got on the internet and quickly matched the symptoms to the leafy greens that were being infected and discovered that the problem was flea beetles.

These guys are usually very small but what she had found was the spinach flea beetle which was a metallic black and leaving behind tiny holes in the leaves. They also leave behind brown spots which appear to be dappled over the foliage somewhat like being pockmarked. Control this early in the season was pretty easy using a pyrethrin spray (organic) and a dusting of diatomaceous earth along the plant row. Within a few days her first veggie garden crisis was just about over.

But then it was an issue in the formal garden where I had warned her to keep an eye out for aphids on the new and tiny rose buds. Sure enough, they showed up on one plant and knowing to look at the bud tips, the tastiest part of the plant for aphids, she found a colony and easily got rid of them. Again, early season detection of this insect, like most others, can result in much fewer problems in the weeks to come if the first infestation is controlled. This time, again, pyrethrin was used, but I reminded her that you never use this botanical insecticide on hot days in full sun and that it will kill only those insects it comes into contact with. There are no residual effects which means you kill only what you hit and that a butterfly or beneficial that comes by a few minutes later isn’t harmed.

Just minutes later she summoned me to a peony bud. It was not even a quarter of an inch around but covered with what she described as “This fuzzy gray stuff.” And sure enough, it was fuzzy and gray but well known to peony lovers as Botrytis. This is a very common fungus, and it thrives in cool and damp conditions just like we’ve been having. We also found a few rose buds that were similarly infected but a quick snip of the bud and disposal outside of the garden and problem solved.

Botrytis is a very common fungus on both peonies and roses. It’s not necessary to spray for it but it is critical to remove infected buds quickly and get them into a bag or out of the garden. One thing that will encourage Botrytis on peonies is mulch or manure on the ground around them. If you do mulch these plants it’s imperative to remove the mulch before the new shoots emerge in early April. It’s really not necessary to mulch peonies, though it was a long-standing practice until it was realized that it was the mulch that was the storehouse of the Botrytis.

We also noticed small snails showing up on the foliage of a number of annuals and perennials. Slugs aren’t far behind, just waiting for a bit of warmth. It’s not too early to get out your beer pans and slug baits, and again, early control means fewer of these slimies come July and August.

A reader from Hampton Bays sent me a picture of an old tree, at least 100 years old, whose trunk had been bent to form a wide “U.” He noted that he thought that this was a practice of the Native Americans. I’d never heard of it, so I did some reading. What he had found was probably a living sign post, a bent trunk at an unnatural angle, that may have been a signal of a local trail or directions to a special hunting or gathering area. What a treat.

It turns out that these trail markers are well known to hikers and woodsmen and they are in essence one of the navigational aids that the Native Americans used to sign a trail or point a direction to a specific area. I was fascinated to read that they can be found not just in Hampton Bays but there are over 1,000 of these markers documented in 39 states. Maybe you’ve seen one, even out here, and not realized what it was. You can read more about them here: https://bit.ly/2HlTzTA.

A reader of The East Hampton Press sent a note asking what he could spray for boxwood blight. This disease is rapidly decimating boxwoods throughout the East Coast. While once found only in isolated areas, it has become quite rampant since last summer when it was warm, wet and humid—perfect conditions for the fungus Calonectria pseudonaviculata, the boxwood blight. The sad answer is that there really isn’t a spray that homeowners can use on this fungus and that only certified pesticide applicators can apply the sprays that are legal. That being said, the sprays simply mask the symptoms and don’t offer a cure. Stop the spraying and within weeks the fungus returns. The fungicides used are also pretty potent and not what I want on my property.

You may read or hear about resistant varieties of boxwood, but I think this is more a wish than a reality. Many nurseries have simply stopped selling this plant. If it does show up on your boxwoods and you don’t have them sprayed, the shrubs need to be dug, the soil removed down to six inches and the boxwoods taken off the property. Also keep in mind that this is a very large and “sticky” fungus that can easily be spread from on plant to the next by an unsuspecting gardener, deer or homeowner.

And lastly a note from Amagansett, where a reader who commented on my series on hellebores noted that she has a hellebore that always flowers at Christmas. She noted that Whitmore’s seems to have them for sale, in flower, at that time of the year. She also noted that the deer had seemed to browse on the foliage and that voles had eaten some of her hellebore crowns. So much for deer proof and rodent proof.

We continue to garden, take our chances and try new and wonderful plants. We just can’t help ourselves. Keep growing.

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