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THE LAZY BERKSHIRE GARDENER: Week of May 16, 2024

I mentioned spongy moth caterpillars briefly last week. I hear Columbia County in New York has a tremendous outbreak now.

Perennial flower borders have started to bloom; peas and lettuce sprout in the vegetable garden; and I have started thinking about filling annual containers with non-stop color. I will be pulling out my dahlias from storage finally. They could have been potted up to start in a window a few weeks ago. That didn’t happen. But it is not too late!

I might just put them in the pot outside right away. The dahlia tubers don’t need to adjust to the outdoors at this time of year. Once dahlia start blooming, they will keep going until a hard frost. While I would like to enjoy them sooner, I haven’t killed them by putting it off.

When you remove dahlias from storage, cut large clumps into groups of just three tubers that have a bit of stem attached. Plant the smaller clumps with the stem connection about one inch below the surface. The heat and light will trigger stem growth. If planted too deep, the stems take a long time to warm up and emerge.

I will shop for more flowering annuals to fill holes in the perennial gardens, but I won’t put those flowers in the garden just yet. That is a task for Memorial Day weekend after our average last frost date. I like shopping for annual plants and pondering color combinations without the pressure to get everything in the ground. I will keep the plants on a protected porch or pot up some containers and keep them warmer by moving into the garage overnight.

It may seem antique, but annual geraniums (Pelargonium) form the backbone of many a municipal window box or container. That is because annual geraniums can handle neglect. So many colors now available make this plant more desirable and a reliable addition to perennial borders and containers for sun or part sun.

I used to ignore zonal geranium (Pelargonium) because they seemed too smelly! However, these plants provide reliable color all summer, even if the plants get neglected and too dry. I don’t recommend letting them dry out, but it is nice to know they will survive!

Also, on my walk about the yard this weekend, flowers of Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), Viburnum x bodnantense “Dawn,” and shadbush (Amelanchier) have faded. It is time for structural pruning in the next few weeks! See last week’s column for tips on reducing branch length to spur fresh growth and shape. A few minutes pruning now will give you healthier (read “more pest-resilient”) plants later.

I mentioned spongy moth caterpillars briefly last week. I hear Columbia County in New York has a tremendous outbreak now. The caterpillars can seriously defoliate trees, especially young trees. Best controls include spraying the plant foliage with a biorational Bt bacteria for lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) when the insects are only a quarter inch long. If much larger, the Bt is less effective. Alternatively, you can wrap trunks of trees with duct tape (sticky side out) to prevent caterpillars from climbing trunks. Some caterpillars will “blow” in and land in the upper canopy. Those can’t be helped. Focus on controlling the pest around young susceptible plants. Unfortunately, this isn’t a task to put off. No lazing about! Look here to identify spongy moth caterpillars.

I have enjoyed the cool, moist weather as perfect for weeding, and that is my other big push now. Garlic mustard has been blooming this week; get it out before it sets seed. The tall stalks have a tuft of white flowers at the top that smell distinctly of garlic. The stem can be six inches to three feet tall with branches ending in more white tufts. Grasp the plant at the base and remove as much of the root as possible. Flowering garlic mustard will still set seed after removal from the soil. Bag it up and solarize it to kill the plant before seeds set.

At left, a garlic mustard “stand” of narrow stems with white tufts; in the center a pulled plant still reaches for the sun (zombie-like!); and to the right a native stand of foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia) with stems rising above leaves and panicles of white, fuzzy flowers. Bag up the garlic mustard for trash, and leave the foam flower to grow.

My shrub border has creeping cinquefoil and strawberry moving in as ground covers. I am accepting that. They stay low and shade the soil surface. I may regret letting the cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans) move in, but for now, I like the green cover and it provides pollinator habitat. This is a lazy gardener’s choice. Ground covers in general want to spread and fill the available space. I have chosen robust perennials and shrubs that I hope will outcompete the ground covers. As a result, I keep the mulch in this bed as a protective barrier around specific preferred plants. When I want to add something, I will weed out the cinquefoil or the strawberry as necessary.

The cinquefoil and strawberry runners have spread into my shrub border. This Lazy Berkshire Gardener allows the invasion for now but will be ready to rip out these potentially invasive plants later. The groundcover hasn’t kept out other weeds but does provide a natural diversity and habitat for pollinators.

Cool, moist weather has been nice for gardening and perfect for developing fungus. Drat. Crabapples could be developing apple scab or rusts on the new leaves. Avoiding fungus is next to impossible, and the best strategy is to start using preventive fungicides, especially on young trees or shrubs with fewer leaves than mature plants.

If your plants had fungal diseases last year, start spraying the healthy leaves and stems now to prevent environmental infection. I even discovered the ever-present garden violets had rust forming! I won’t be spraying these strong little plants, but I am pulling the infected leaves and putting them in the trash to help prevent the fungus from spreading to other plants.

Whitish-yellow raised bumps on violet leaves attracted this gardener’s attention. Sure enough, fungal spores have developed on the leaf undersides. Weedy violets can spread fungus to other plants, so pull the leaves off and put in the trash. For apple trees and other valuable plants susceptible to fungus, start a preventive spraying of fungicide now. Always read and follow the product directions.

Perfect growing weather means lawn grasses have exploded! Keep grass height and mower blades at least three inches high. Mowing high encourages healthier grass growth and reduces weeds. A thick, healthy lawn means you don’t have to worry about the down from dandelion finding root in your lawn.

During May, mow pretty patterns and let some areas get long to help pollinators. Also avoid mowing the foliage of spring bulbs. Leave bulb foliage to support root and bulb development until the leaves turn yellow.

Sadly, tall grass can provide cover for field mice and their ticks. Be tick savvy. With tick activity high right now, always spray gardening clothes with deet spray and promptly shed those clothes when returning indoors. Then do a tick check. You don’t have to venture into tall grass for the ticks to find you. Snag ticks before they latch onto skin by tapping them with clear tape then fold the tape over to put in trash. Tick borne diseases can be deadly.

May is beautiful, but ticks still pose a threat. This tick just appeared crawling across a computer monitor. Catch elusive ticks with a piece of tape, then fold the tape over to completely immobilize them and throw in trash. They hitchhike far and wide. Be wary!

Continue planting your vegetable gardens. I will be sowing beet seeds among my Brussels sprouts this year. The sprout seedlings look great, but I still need to harden them off before planting them in the raised bed. They should be ready by Saturday, and I can get the beet seeds going too. The beets and sprouts will make fine garden companions because the beets expand under the soil surface and the sprouts will be developing above the soil surface.

If you want to try sweet corn, it is a good time to sow those seeds as well. Sweet corn is one of the three sisters of traditional companion planting. The corn stalk forms a trellis for pole beans to climb, and squash planted around the base will keep the soil shady and moist. I don’t usually grow corn, pole beans, and winter squash because I don’t have that much space in my raised beds for those vegetables. All three plant seeds can be sown directly into the garden around May 20.

I love the vibrant growth and promise of May, but I also develop a hurried sense of panic about all the gardening to do. Time to stop and breathe. Focus on the urgent, and if I can’t get all the other tasks done this weekend, I can do them the next or the next. Months of warm weather await. Be a bit lazy and enjoy!

Apple blossoms have exploded this year. Enjoy!

I call myself the Lazy Berkshire Gardener because I don’t want to work too hard in my gardens. I want to enjoy them. I find it easier to observe my landscape and let the compost happen, the water pool up, or daisies to self-sow. I look for ways to do the minimum task for the biggest impact. For example, mulching is better than spraying and much better than weeding all season. I look for beautiful, low-maintenance plants that thrive in or at least tolerate my garden conditions. Plus, I’m willing to live with the consequences if I miss something.

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But Not To Produce.

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THE LAZY BERKSHIRE GARDENER: Week of May 23, 2024

While we busily plant our annuals as a rite of the start of summer, just like Memorial Day, don’t neglect your perennial gardens.

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The time to prune any flowering shrubs is right after the bloom. Give yourself about two weeks to do that or be willing to sacrifice some blooms. Being a lazy gardener requires choices!

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The gardener at Hollister House Garden in Washington, Conn., approaches garden maintenance in a manner that is well worth considering.

The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.