July Ramble: Return Of The Gypsy Moths

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The growing season of 2016 may not set any records, but it is turning out to be unusual. Some brutally cold days in March and April and climate change are making their marks in the orchard, the flower garden, the forest and the lawn. So let’s take a look at a few of the anomalies and changes in this edition of the July ramble.Fruit growers got very concerned in the first week of April when many of us experienced nighttime temperatures in the middle to lower teens. It’s an off year in our orchard, when we normally expect a small apple crop, but the buds showed up, pollination took place and for a while it all looked good. But we had a very hot, dry spell from late June into early July, and when I walked among the apple trees last week it was hard to find a single tree that was full of fruit—with a number being fruitless. Interestingly, though, the pear trees, which are sprinkled among the apples, were showing a half-decent yield, though the lack of serious rain has resulted in smaller fruit.

And that munching sound in the woods? That’s been the sound of gypsy moth caterpillars feeding on the oak tree foliage. If you haven’t noticed this, look on either side of the LIE at exit 66, where the oaks are nearly leafless. This is going to turn out to be the worst outbreak year for this insect since 1981, when over nine million acres of forest were defoliated along the East Coast. One arborist that I was discussing this with is so young he’s never seen a GM outbreak, and it’s all new to him.

For a number of years this pest has been kept in check by a naturally occurring fungus that kills the caterpillars in wet springs. But this spring has been pretty dry along the East Coast, allowing a large number of eggs to develop into feeding caterpillars that have thrived and stripped oak trees bare.

The damage is spotty on the East End, but in the mountains and hills of Dutchess and Westchester counties just east of the Hudson, the damage is striking, as once green mountains like Bear Mountain have been totally browned on their west sides. The mass feeding will translate into a huge number of caterpillars that survive and turn into flying moths that will spread north and west with the prevailing winds, laying the eggs for next year’s invasion. There’s a double whammy, though. With the dry weather, the oak trees are already stressed, and they are going to try to re-leaf this summer, stressing them even more. If the caterpillars are not held in check next spring by wet weather, a second year of leaf removal could be the death knell for many of these trees. More on this early next spring so you know what you can do.

Be ever so skeptical of the guy with the spray rig who tells you he can get rid of gypsy moths right now. The best time for control is while the feeding caterpillars are young and hungry—about two to three weeks ago. The moths do not feed on the foliage, and spraying them puts other, beneficial insects at jeopardy. At this point monitor the damage, and next spring if there is a serious outbreak sprays of the biological agent Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt will be very effective. For now, just read up on the gypsy moth life cycle and learn how to spot their egg cases on oak trees for the upcoming winter months. You can read more about this pest at http://goo.gl/cdD2It.

Keeping the compost pile “hot” has been a challenge for me in recent years. At least once a week we add kitchen scraps to our compost pile and at least once a week the raccoon from next door digs in to see what’s on the menu. I go with the flow, through, and even more so when I realized that the weekly digs are actually helping, as they seem to be turning and tumbling the pile quite nicely. One problem though: Up until this year the pile didn’t “cook” very well after the spring. I realized why and fixed the problem.

The pile stays warm through most of the winter, and then in the spring when I add both green and brown (carbon and nitrogen) from the garden clean-up, it heats up again. But once I finish with cleaning up there’s an imbalance of what goes into the pile and it gets too much carbon, or brown stuff. My remedy was simple and quick. I use a mulching blade on my mower so there are no grass clippings left over, but now I use the bag on the mower just to get one bag full of clippings—green and nitrogen—and mix it into the pile. Seems to be working, as now the pile stays pretty hot and the composting process appears to be dramatically faster.

Various critters are making life in the garden a bit more of a challenge this summer. There’s been an incredible outbreak of bunnies and you know what they say about rabbits multiplying like … well, rabbits. They’re tough to trap but at least my repellents seem to be working. Damage was done before I began to spray, however, and I swear they have ladders hidden somewhere. They can stand on their hind feet and reach a good 2 feet up from the ground.

Then there are the chipmunks. Cute little rodents, but enough is enough. I’ve heard that their population exploded this year due to the mild winter and heavy maple seed crop from last year that they stashed away. This year we’ve caught them climbing the pea vines, pulling the ripe pods down to the ground, opening them up and stripping out the peas. But as if that isn’t bad enough, they are climbing the 5- and 6-foot-tall budded lilies and eating the insides of the young buds. They leave the skeleton of the bud behind and just mine out the innards. Now not only do I have to spray the repellents at ground level, but all the lilies are getting a dose as well. If this is a problem in your garden you can also apply a small amount of Tanglefoot to the bottom foot of the lily stems. Tanglefoot is a gummy product that will, well, bog down pests.

Remember that big beautiful amaryllis you grew last winter. Now is the time to start planning for next winter so it’ll bloom again. If you’ve been growing the plant since then it should have four to eight long, sword-like leaves. It needs to be forced into dormancy in late July, so you need to stop watering it soon. That means if it’s outdoors, protect it from rain. Don’t feed it, either. The foliage will gradually brown at some point and that’s what we want. Once that happens and the foliage can be easily removed, the potted bulb should go into a dark spot at around 55 degrees for six to eight weeks.

After the dormant period is over, bring the plant back into a warmer room, begin to water and bring the bulb back to life (it never really died though). It will take another six to eight weeks to get it back into bloom once again, so the whole process can take up to 16 weeks. So if you want your amaryllis to bloom in January you have to have the plant in a dormant state in early September.

Lots to do, plenty to ponder—and no one ever told you that gardening was going to be easy. Always fun, though, and forever a challenge. Keep growing.

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