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Dr. Dirt, Indianapolis’ head gardener, hangs up his lab coat

Dick Crum, aka Dr. Dirt (left), regularly teamed up with Pat Sullivan to dispense gardening advice. Crum, 82, retired from a nearly six-decades career in media and horticulture. Photo courtesy Ted Austin/SullivanHardware.com

In what seems a lifetime ago, I signed up for a landscaping class through IUPUI’s continuing studies program in the 1980s. At the front of the classroom on the 38th Street campus was Dr. Dirt himself, Dick Crum.

Of course, I’d heard of him as an extension educator. He had a weekly column in The Indianapolis News, dispensing prescriptions to control moles, peony planting and how to get rid of creeping Charlie in the lawn. Dick was a celebrity. He was funny and he was smart.

His enthusiasm and love of horticulture and gardening has done more to encourage us to take up the trowel than anyone in Indianapolis. After nearly six decades in radio, television, newspapers and lecture hall, Dick is retiring his Dr. Dirt lab coat.

When he started writing his column, he told editors that he wasn’t a writer. That’s all right, they said. You are a gardener, they said, and you are real and that’s what comes through for the reader.

He and Jody, his wife of 60 years, have lived on Indianapolis’ west side in the Chapel Hill area for more than 50 years, where they reared four sons and gardened on a typical suburban lot. In about every spare space, there are compost piles and mounds of chopped leaves, ingredients that come from nature and are returned to nature.

Dick Crum chops leaves for use around his west side home. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Always frugal, his landscape is ringed with stacks of firewood, mostly ash, he said, from trees felled by the emerald ash borer on his lot and neighbors. The firewood goes into a wood-burning stove to heat his home in winter. “The basement is 80 degrees, the first floor 70 degrees and the upstairs, 60 degrees,” he said.

When I first started writing about garden, Dick encouraged me to join Garden Writers Association. He was a member and had trialed dozens of plants and attended annual symposiums. It’s a great group, he said, and it was and it is. You should take the Master Gardener training, he told me. I did that, too.

Dick’s fame allowed him to partner with American Trans Air to fill planes headed to the Philadelphia Flower Show and many other horticulture events all over the country.

So, we bid adieu to Dr. Dirt and wish him good health, good travels and good gardening. Thank you for being Indianapolis’ head gardener.

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How to recycle your discarded fresh-cut Christmas tree

Coat a pinecone with peanut butter, then roll it in bird seed or nuts and hang in your discarded Christmas tree. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Coat a pinecone with peanut butter, then roll it in bird seed or nuts and hang in your discarded Christmas tree. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

 

This column originally appeared Dec. 26, 2016.

In the next few days, you’ll be hauling out your fresh-cut Christmas tree, and may wonder what to do next.

Between Monday Dec. 26 and Jan. 31, you can take your un-decorated, de-tinseled tree, free of fake snow and plastic bag, to one of nine Indy Parks. From there, it goes to GreenCycle for making mulch or other recycled, sustainable product. You can find a listing of where your can recycle or dispose of trees in other communities throughout Indiana at Pick Your Own Christmas Tree.

You can cut the tree and branches into 3-4 foot long bundles and leave for heavy trash pickup, if allowed by your municipality. Or, cut the tree and season the wood to burn in the fireplace.

Use the tree for soil erosion around lakes and ponds, or if privately owned, dump it into the water to create a fish habitat.

Move the tree to the backyard to make a seasonal feeder and shelter for birds. Decorate it with pine cones rolled in peanut butter, nuts or birdseed. Hang fresh fruit, such as oranges or apple, or strings of popcorn or dried fruit in the tree. Brace it against another tree, fence or post.

Also in the backyard, the tree can be used as a wind break for flowerbeds or tender shrubs. Cut the boughs and place them around small shrubs, perennials or other plants, especially those spending the winter in pots.

 

Winter safety for people, pets, plants

With the recent snow and icy weather, remember to use caution when applying de-icers on sidewalks, driveways, porch steps or other pavement adjacent to lawn or beds that have been planted with flowers, trees and shrubs.

Clearing the pavement of snow frequently eliminates or reduces the need for de-icers. Products containing sodium chloride, or salt, can be harmful to plants. I opt for de-icers labeled for use around plants and pets. Always apply according to label directions.

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Ice melts and other potential hazards in the landscape

One of the easiest ways to reduce the need for deicers and ice melts is to keep sidewalks and driveways clear of snow. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

As we head into winter, there are a few landscape safety tips to keep in mind.

Start with using caution with deicers or ice melts. Many of these products are salt-based, which is damaging to lawns, shrubs, perennials and trees.

Consider where you’ll be using the ice melt. Is it in an area where there’s little runoff from hard surfaces to landscaped beds? Also don’t over apply either product. Smaller amounts of ice melt generally do as good of a job as a heavy application. It just might take a bit longer.

Water from snow or ice melted with deicers can kill grass. Use caution when shoveling snow that has been treated with ice melts onto the lawn or landscape plants. (C) Photo Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Be careful where you shovel snow that has been treated with ice melt. Throwing it onto landscaped beds runs the risk of exposing plants to the chemicals. These products can burn lawns, foliage, stems, branches and roots as well as contaminate the soil. Salt-based products also can be harmful to the paws of dogs.

There are deicers with different formulations labeled safe for pets and plants. These are usually a little more expensive than the salt-based products. Non-clumping, clay kitty litter also works well, as much to provide traction as to help melt ice. Keeping sidewalks and driveway free of snow goes a long way to reduce or eliminate ice build up.

Try to avoid walking on frosted or frozen grass. Foot traffic breaks grass blades and compacts the soil. There’s not much we can do about dog paws on the lawn. In spring, consider over seeding in those trekked on places.

Protect plants that are likely to get sprayed with slush from treated roads. A snow fence or burlap screen work well for this.

We don’t usually get the snow load that our neighbors in nearby states get. But if we do, pay attention to bending or bowed branches, especially evergreens like arborvitae. If you feel you must remove snow from an evergreen, use your hand and arm in an upward sweeping motion. A broom works well, too, but use it gently. Do not try to remove ice coatings from plants.

Branches weighed down by snow for several days may be damaged. Snow load on deciduous shrubs and trees may cause limbs and branches to break. It may be necessary to work with a certified arborist. If the limb tears bark from the tree, the injury could be fatal. Branches weakened by insects or disease are especially vulnerable in all kinds of storms. This is one reason it’s a good practice to have your trees inspected periodically by a certified arborist (treesaregood.org).

To the readers: Merry Christmas. Thank you for reading the column, sending questions and comments. Please keep it up. All the best for 2018.

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Birds flock to feeders year ’round

Red-bellied woodpecker at suet feeder. (C) Photo happy2be/Pixabay

I love feeding and watching the birds. It’s one of my year-round joys.

I’m not alone. Nearly half of all U.S. households, 52.5 million, buy wild bird seed, according to a 2015 report from the research foundation of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry, a trade association. That’s up from 34.3 percent in 2013, which is quite a jump.

Other sources estimate we spend about $3 billion a year on bird seed, feeders and accessories.

My interest in birds grew out of gardening. I feed and watch birds year-round. I have 11 feeders – two for finches, two for sunflower seeds, one for safflower seeds, one for peanuts in shells, one for shelled peanuts, two for suet and one platform feeder with mixed seeds. In summer, I have five bird baths. In winter, there are two, which are heated.

When starting out feeding the birds, a lot of us buy seed that is mixed. With experience, though, we learn that isn’t the best choice. Feeders with single seeds, such as one for sunflower and one for Niger thistle, reduce waste. I do use a mix for finches because they have not been eating the straight Niger thistle.

My feeders are in places where I can see them from windows in the living room, kitchen, home office and a bedroom. Two hang in a flowering dogwood in the front yard and the rest are in trees or on poles in the back.

Jim Carpenter, founder of Wild Birds Unlimited, celebrates the Joy of Birdfeeding. Photo courtesy wbu.com

This winter, my yard has been full of white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, and downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, the latter among my favorites. I credit new feeders for shelled peanuts and suet for these visits.

Once you start feeding the birds, you’ll notice more and more of them. You’ll recognize their calls or tweets. Nuthatches sound like a squeak toy, for instance, and chickadees have a plaintive call. Red-bellied woodpeckers sound like they are scolding, robins sound alarms if you walk too close to a fledgling, and lots of birds sound alarms when hawks are on the wing.

“I feed the birds because it brings me joy,” wrote Jim Carpenter, founder of the Indianapolis-based  Wild Birds Unlimited, in his book, The Joy of Bird Feeding (2017, Scott & Nix, Inc., publisher, paperback, $28). “Watching birds at your feeders fills the spaces in your day. Every time you glance out the window, you are blessed with a little bit of nature.”

Give it a try. Wonderful discoveries await you.

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Raccoons dig grubs

A high population of Japanese beetles resulted in lots of white grubs in lawns and gardens, soon followed by hungry raccoons. Photo courtesy Karen J. Kennedy

Three readers sent me photos of their lawns with gouged soil and I observed this condition in several landscapes when on my walks this fall. Blame raccoons. They dig up the turf looking for grubs.

“If you can imagine groups of raccoons foraging for patches of grubs hidden in clumps under the turf, you can understand why they tear up turf when they find their prey. It’s kind if like a cat and mouse game,” said Cliff Sadof, an entomology professor and extension educator at Purdue University.

Raccoons searched for grubs in an irrigated lawn with a lawn service on Indianapolis’ northwest side. Submitted photo

This past summer was really good for Japanese beetles, whose numbers were higher than they had been for several years, he said.

Japanese beetles lay their eggs in lawns and sometimes in garden beds in mid summer. The eggs hatch and by August and September, grubs are wriggling through the soil, munching on roots. Areas that are irrigated regularly are ideal for this task because the soil is soft and easier to wriggle through.

“The raccoons just took advantage of the situation,” Sadof said. “I would recommend inspecting the turf in early to mid August for grubs in the same area that was torn up this year.” Besides a lawn dug up by raccoons, another symptom of a grub infestation is grass that is brown and easily pulled from the ground.

White grubs look a lot alike. From left to right: Japanese beetle, European chafer and June bug. (C) David Cappaert/Bugwood.org

Next August, lift a 12-inch square of turf in areas where you suspect a grub infestation. If you count 10 grubs or more, Sadof recommends treatment. Another way to evaluation is to pull up a plug of grass that you cut with a one-pound coffee can. If there is more than one grub in each plug, treatment may be warranted.

Purdue does not recommend preventative grub treatment, but rather treatment only if grubs are present and only to the infested area. One biological control is beneficial nematodes, which sort of look like skinny worms. These products are approved for use organic gardeners and farmers. Arbico-Organics.com, PlanetNatural.com and GardensAlive.com are three sources. Treatment is done in August and September when the grubs are moving through the soil.

Another biologic, milky spore disease (Bacillus popilliae), was considered a good option for controlling Japanese beetle grubs, but recent research has cast doubt on that. It only is effective on Japanese beetle grubs. And, a lot of grubs look alike, so if your problem is a masked chafer, another root-munching white grub, using milky spore disease is a waste of money.

For more information, download Purdue’s pamphlet Managing White Grubs in Turfgrass.

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No space or time? Natural alternatives for holiday cheer

Red-blooming kalanchoe and green and white polka dot plant in red planters will look good on a table or as a spot-color holiday decoration . (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Sometimes, there’s no space for a Christmas tree, or no time to put one up and take one down. Or, maybe you’ll be away during the holidays and you just don’t want the bother.

What alternatives do you have to get some of those festive, traditional red and green colors in the home?

Plant marketers offer the perfect solutions: Natural holiday cheer that nearly eliminates any care requirements. Think plants for short-term decoration, just like a fresh-cut Christmas tree would be. When these plants start to look past their prime, toss them. I absolve you of any notion you have to try and keep them alive. Look for these living decorations in area garden centers and other retailers.

Frosty Fern decked out with red birds. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A personal favorite is Frosty Fern (Selaginella kraussiana), which hails from the Azores and Africa, so let’s just say it’s not all that frost tolerant. The tips of its green leaves have a natural frosty look, which gives it its holiday name.

Although marketed as Frosty Fern, it’s commonly referred to as a moss, which better describes its look and texture. Sometimes this houseplant is sold with a red bird nested at the top. Place in indirect light and try to keep the soil slightly moist.

Tack some tiny holiday-theme ribbons or balls ‘Goldcrest’ lemon cypress gives you a contemporary holiday tree. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

‘Goldcrest’ lemon cypress (Cypressus macrocarpa) is the perfect chartreuse, conical shape to serve as a contemporary homage to a traditional green tree. This dwarf evergreen with a slight lemony fragrance is not winter hardy here, but should serve its purpose through the holidays. Give it direct light and water when the top inch of soil feels dry. Don’t over water.

For a lot of whimsy and fun, look for a small specimen of Lawson false cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Ellwoodii’) fashioned into a Grinch hat, complete with a red ball ornament. Unlike these other plants, this evergreen is hardy to USDA Zone 5, so it should survive anywhere in the state. I make no promises that it will make the transition from holiday decoration to landscape shrub. You also may find dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) potted up in tabletop arrangements. This plant also is winter hardy throughout Indiana, but the same cautions apply.

Red-blooming kalanchoe in sparkly holiday-themed planters. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

For a tasteful and easy decoration, pick up a few ornament-like planters or cute pots stuffed with red-blooming kalanchoe, a succulent that just about takes care of itself. Kalanchoe also may be planted with green and white polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya), ferns or other companion plants.

Even Grinch will love these options.

 

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