What’s digging holes in the lawn?

With the transition into the Fall season, I often find myself feeling a mixture of emotions; relief, that another growing season is coming to an end; sadness, that it went too fast; and excitement for what the next year will bring! I am sure that our animal friends also sense the need to prepare for the changing seasons and as such, over the last few days, I’ve been seeing some damage happening in my yard from an uninvited guest! 

holes and torn up grass in a lawn- skunk damage
Holes were dug in the lawn recently. Photo: A. Bodkins

Can you guess what caused this digging of the grass? This occurred in two different areas of my lawn over the course of a week. I also noticed the exact same digging at my parents’ house in this same time period.

Well, if you guessed a skunk, you are correct! An Eastern Striped Skunk to be exact, which you can learn more about by visiting the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. These native critters are fairly small with a lot of fluff and a long tail. Their most characteristic marking is their black body with a white stripe down the middle. They are also known for their smell! 

striped skunk lookin up from a lawn
Striped Skunk Photo: © Jen Brumfield, some rights reserved
holes dug in a lawn by a skunk
Holes in the lawn from a skunk digging and searching for food. Photo: A. Bodkins


As you can probably tell from the photos, my yard is not something that I manage too closely, with a  mixture of grass types and broadleaf plants, so I am not upset that the skunk was foraging for protein sources. I am hopeful that he/she is enjoying some insects, and hopefully consuming some pest larvae like Japanese beetle grubs and slugs. 

We often discuss the benefits of creating a landscape that is rich in biodiversity and habitat for all creatures. So what do we do when we find ourselves inviting a stinky guest to dine on insects and other soil-dwelling critters? Well, for me and my family, we will use this as a teachable moment with our children and be sure that we are not leaving anything outside that would be attractive to our new friends.  Things like pumpkins for fall decorating, pet foods (or livestock feed), bird seed/feeders, trash cans, or compost scraps can be unintended foods for skunks, which are in the weasel family. At this point, we do not need to take action as my husband has only seen our guest once and it was early in the morning, which is the normal time that he should be foraging. The skunk sighting was also what helped confirm my suspicion of what was digging in the lawn.  

Remember that the skunk’s main form of defense is to “spray” a very foul-smelling liquid (butyl mercaptan) from special scent glands. Once they release their “perfume” it leaves them vulnerable with no tools for defense for a few days so that is the last thing that they want to do. They will give you a warning sign of stamping or kneading the ground. If you spy a skunk doing a handstand, you best be on the retreat though, as that is the position they use for releasing their spray!  

Mole or vole tunnels may appear to look similar to this damage, as it’s hard to tell from the photo, but this damage was not raised as you see with mole and vole tunnels. Remember, moles eat insects only, but voles will eat plants. 

Be a careful detective and look for signs of problems in the landscape, whether that is a pest, plant disease, or mammal. In our instance, we saw skunk scat and then also the actual visitor to confirm what was causing the damage to the lawn. If you need guidance on the management of a nuisance skunk, please check out the University of Maryland Extension website on skunks and never try to capture, pick up, or relocate a skunk without help from a professional. 

Happy Autumn!

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.

Knowing when it’s time: Season’s end

The last Brandywine

I took out my tomato plants this week. It’s a lot earlier than I’d normally do it, but I had my reasons (which I will discuss below). Picking the last fruits and chopping down the stems made me think about all the decisions we make as gardeners, and how a lot of the questions we Master Gardeners get are about those choices. We might get asked at this time of year, “Am I supposed to take out my tomato plants now?” Maybe with an undercurrent of “Will I get in trouble with the garden police if I do it? Or don’t do it?” but in any case with uncertainty about doing the right thing. And the disappointing answer we long-experienced garden gurus usually give to questions like that?

“Well, it depends.”

Or, even more frustratingly: “It’s up to you.”

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How to adapt your garden to climate change

The news is filled with references to global warming and climate change. In fact, 99% of scientists agree that climate change is real with negative impacts on the environment, weather, human health, and agriculture. In Maryland, climate change is already causing higher average temperatures, more drought, longer heat waves, more intense storms, and flooding. 

So what can we do as gardeners to help the cause and help our gardens adapt to these changes?

Adopt sustainable practices. Environmentally smart practices build climate-resilient gardens and can slow future warming by reducing emissions and boosting carbon in soil and plants. Here are a few ways to get started:

Plant more trees

Trees filter air and water and are carbon sinks, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas. When placed well, trees can save up to 30 percent on heating and cooling costs.  

  • Plant deciduous trees on the west, east or southwest side of your home to block summer sun then let it in to warm your home in winter. Site evergreens to the northwest to buffer winter winds. 
  • Lean toward native trees. They’re well-adapted and need less water and fertilizer, the manufacture of which can contribute to greenhouse gases.  

Add or nurture native plants

Don’t stop with trees. Native shrubs, perennials, grasses, and groundcovers also help build a climate-resilient landscape. Native plants, once established, require less water and fertilizer, help store carbon, and reduce soil erosion. Since they co-evolved, native plants best support native pollinators and beneficial insects which provide chemical-free pest control. 

HGIC Website: Native Plants and Climate Change

Keep it diverse

Plant diversity also boosts resistance to pests and disease, so add many different types of plants to your gardens. Yes, more is better. 

Save the soil

Washington County Master Gardener Gary Stallings turns compost, a tool in building soil health and climate resilience

Great gardens grow from the ground up. So protect and improve your soil which stores massive amounts of carbon as carbon dioxide and organic matter.  

  • Keep soil covered since bare soil invites problems. Soil covered with plants, mulch, or cover crops best stores carbon, resists erosion, holds moisture, and has more even temperatures. 
  • Minimize soil disturbance from digging and tilling which speeds up the loss of organic matter and disturbs the soil community.  
  • Recycle nutrients by making and using compost. Compost adds organic matter, helps soil hold water and nutrients, and reduces the need for fertilizers. 

HGIC Website: Improve Soil Health for a Climate-Resilient Garden

Water wisely

  • Save water to make your garden more climate-resilient. Use a rain barrel or create a rain garden to capture and filter rainwater.  
  • Water when plants need it, not on a fixed schedule. And plant in the spring or fall when plants need less water to become established.

A few more tips:

  • Limit the emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases. Use gas-powered mowers, trimmers, and other equipment less and opt for alternatives. 
  • Shrink your lawn and replace it with groundcovers and other alternatives which need less water, mowing, herbicides, and fertilizer. When you do fertilize, do it based on a soil test to use only what you need. 
  • Help more by growing some of your own food or supporting local growers to cut down on emissions from long-distance transportation. 

You can make your garden more climate-resilient. Start with a few steps and build on them to help your garden successfully adapt to climate change.   

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

What is so special about legumes? 

a collage of three photos shows alfalfa plants growing in a high tunnel
Alfalfa (a legume) with nasturtium growing at the edge of a high tunnel. Photo: A. Bodkins

There is a whole group of plants in the Leguminosae (a.k.a Fabaceae) plant family and are referred to as legumes, a word that many people may have heard but may not know the special details about. Have you ever heard that legumes make their own nitrogen or that they are plants that never need nitrogen fertilizer? Well, both those statements are true! 

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How can you improve your soil?

a sloping landscape partially planted with cover crops
A cover crop of spring seeded oats is included on this slope with grass and trees. Photo: A. Bodkins

Healthy soil can sustain plant growth, prevent environmental damage, mitigate stormwater runoff, and help recharge and clean groundwater. 

Soil type is probably not something that people consider when they move to a new property, so it reminds me of the statement “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit”. However, it is no secret that soils are not all created equally in their ability to grow plants. To make matters worse, the soil is constantly being manipulated to accommodate our needs. When infrastructure like roads and buildings are constructed soil is moved and in many instances, there may not be any native soil profiles still intact on the property. Often a small layer of topsoil is put back onto the landscape after construction and regrading of the land, but there is no guarantee that it was the topsoil found there before construction began. Once the excavation is completed there is no going back. This article from Penn State Extension, Can Disturbed Soils Grow Healthy Landscape? is a great read. If you suspect that the soil you are planting vegetables into has been hauled in from another location, it is wise to get the soil tested for lead content. Some labs also test for heavy metals like arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), and chromium (Cr), which can be found in soils on old industrial sites.

Soil is the gift that can keep giving, but there are some management practices that can help improve all soils. The physical, chemical and biological processes of soil are all interconnected. If you want to learn more about your own soil, I recommend the Kansas State publication that walks you through the steps to Estimate Soil Texture by Feel. Knowing the soil texture in your garden is one piece of the soil puzzle.

Soil organic matter increases water holding capacity, improves water infiltration, serves as a source of micro and macronutrients, and provides large particles for micro and macroorganisms to break down.  Soils that are high in clay or sand can benefit from the addition of organic matter, which comes from anything that was once alive. Macro and microorganisms help to break down organic matter and release nutrients into the soil. There are many forms of organic matter that include compost, plant material,  livestock waste, humus or leaf litter.  

dark soil is rich in organic matter
A cross-section of healthy soil. Photo: USDA

Cover crops are another way to improve your soil because they capture excess nutrients that are left over from the growing season and prevent the nutrients from becoming environmental pollutants. Cover crops also prevent soil erosion from wind and rain during the late fall, winter, and early spring seasons when weather is not appropriate for most vegetable or agricultural crops. Once cover crops are terminated they can be plowed into the soil and add organic matter. This is called green manure. I’ve found that in my own garden, cover crops can also help prevent weeds from growing. Some cover crops like forage radishes die and create natural pathways through the soil for water to flow.

buckwheat cover crop planted over a vegetable garden soil
Buckwheat that I planted as an early season spring crop to help reduce weed germination in my vegetable garden. I had planned to terminate it and plant a late crop of cucurbits, but changed my mind after it was growing so beautifully and I saw all the insects that were visiting it daily.

Other management practices to help your soil include regular soil testing to monitor any changes and keep the soil pH in the correct range for your desired plants. Limit soil compaction by keeping vehicles, equipment, and even people from walking through gardens, especially when the soil is wet. At the very least, I think the best practice for improving and keeping your soil healthy is to leave it alone as much as possible, keep it covered with plants that are not invasive, and let the natural processes of the Earth work together to benefit the soil.

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, MarylandRead more posts by Ashley.


This year, the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Grow It Eat It Program celebrates the resource that supports all life on earth – soil! Look for soil education programs offered by your local Master Gardener program, and visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information about soil health.

did you know soil is a natural resource and a living ecosystem

Growing wheat in Gaithersburg

Wheat sheaves hanging up on a stick to dry
Wheat sheaves hanging to dry. Photo: L. Davis

Wheat is in the news this year (recall export restrictions from Ukraine and India). We don’t usually think of wheat as a home garden crop, but it does grow well in this area.

In 2017, 2019, and 2021 I planted wheat on a small section of my community garden plot in Gaithersburg. I planted hard red winter wheat in late October in a 5′ x 7′ plot in full sun. Winter wheat needs about 8-10 weeks of growth before the ground freezes, at which time it should be about 5-6″ tall. Rows can be 6″ apart, so it also serves as a cover crop over the winter. I surrounded it with a rabbit barrier of chicken wire.

Full grown wheat
Full-grown wheat. Photo: L. Davis

In spring, the wheat grew to about 4′ in height and began to form kernels in May, and I encountered my first challenge – birds. Sparrows swooped in and started eating the young seed heads. Recycling some cicada netting over the top and draping it over the chicken-wire fence surrounding the wheat was effective for a while, but when the stalks began to mature and dry, the pesky little sparrows found ways to get in. I had to use clothespins to secure the netting to the chicken wire.

Harvesting wheat with a scythe
Harvesting the wheat. Photo: L. Davis

Harvest time was in early June. I found an old scythe in my community garden toolshed, sharpened it in my kitchen, and cut the wheat stalks about 18″ long. After gathering them into sheaves and tying each bundle with a shoestring, I hung them to dry for a couple of weeks. The second challenge was threshing.

There are lots of ideas on the internet for threshing; that is, removing the grain from the stalks. An ancient no-machinery method is to walk on the wheat heads, or hitch your animals to a circular contraption and have them walk around and around over it. We preferred a more sanitary way. Other methods repurpose bicycles and other machinery to release the grains. Or you can beat the stalks against the inside of a bucket. In my case, I put my husband to work bashing a pillowcase of wheat heads against the floor and then stomping on the pillowcase.

Next comes winnowing. I set a simple household fan on the kitchen counter and poured the wheat berries into another bowl in front of the fan. The heavy kernels dropped into the new bowl and the chaff, which was much lighter, blew away. (This required a major cleanup of my kitchen. It could definitely be done outdoors!)

To preserve the wheat berries, I packed them into jars and plastic containers and stuffed what I could into the freezer. When we are ready to make bread, I thaw a jar of the wheat and grind it with a NutriMill electric grain grinder. That does an excellent job, and I make bread using half whole wheat and half good quality white bread flour. Pass the raspberry jam!

Linda Davis is a Master Gardener living in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She completed the Master Gardener course in Virginia in 1997.