Celebrate a Gardener’s Holiday

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.) is a pleasure to watch unfold.

Celebrate your green thumb this holiday season with everything from décor to gifts.

Bring the garden indoors with plants, plants, and more plants. Start some amaryllis bulbs or paperwhites. Bank poinsettias in a bay window. 

Top a delicate cyclamen with a gardening cloche or delight in the blooms of a Christmas cactus or orchid. These plants will add beauty and satisfy your need to play in the dirt.

Moth orchid (Phalaenopsis sp.). Photo: Pixabay

To keep your plants lush and lovely throughout the holiday season, check out the care tips in our Home and Garden Information Center fact sheets. Here are a few to get you started:

Go natural for decorations. Snip some holly or evergreen boughs and stuff them in baskets and pots. Add some winterberry or curly willow branches for flair. Fill a pottery bowl with pinecones.  

Native winterberry jazzes up holiday arrangements.
Photo: M. Talabac

Jazz up outside containers with evergreens and colorful branches for some welcoming eye candy.  

Weave yarrow, baby’s breath, statice, hydrangea blossoms, and other dried flowers into wreaths, swags, and arrangements. Stuff an antique pitcher with an armful of Lunaria’s silvery seed pods.  

Take a walk through a meadow with your clippers and a big basket and discover an abundance of interesting grasses, seed pods, and natural forms to enhance your holiday decorating.  

Leave them natural or dust them lightly with a bit of gold or silver spray paint for a bit of holiday sparkle.  

Next, add a few purchased decorations that mirror your passion for gardening. Tie tiny copper watering can ornaments onto your tree. Use zinc or copper plant markers as gift tags.  

And just for fun, decorate a child’s holiday tree with brightly colored kids’ gardening gloves and tools you can later donate to a school garden.

Gifts for gardeners are a breeze. Give hand-softening soaps and lotions. Wrap a bunch of fresh holly in festive tissue. Pot an amaryllis bulb or other plant in a handsome pot.  

Look for classic garden jewelry with blossoms cast in silver or gold. Or give a gift from your garden such as homemade pesto, a rooted houseplant cutting, or seeds collected from a favorite plant.   

Are you crafty? Indulge your artistic side to create homemade gifts with a gardener’s touch. 

Lavender sachets made from homegrown lavender make lovely gifts. 

I give friends tins filled with lavender cookies made with lavender from my garden. I delight in friends’ gifts of hand-stitched sachets, dried flower bunches, and potted herbs.  

I can hear the guys out there saying, “Enough with the girly stuff, whatcha got for me?” Tools, dudes.  And yes, we gals like tools, too. 

Check out your local garden centers, then hit the catalogs. Two of my favorites are Lee Valley and Gardener’s Supply. Both have quality tools and other garden gear.  

And in my book, you simply cannot go wrong with a gardening book. New or used, your favorite reads and references will help to grow your gardening friends’ libraries and know-how. 

Whether yours is a homemade or store-bought holiday, make your home and gifts a beautiful reflection of your passion for gardening.  

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.

A Forgetful Gardener Makes Notes for Next Year

I’m a forgetful gardener. I always think I’ll remember next year what I put where, what varieties of tomatoes I loved, and what plant needed extra water. But I don’t.  

I’ve reached that glorious age where I forget where my glasses are (on top of my head) or where I left my hand pruners. (God knows.) 

As Dr. Seuss’ Grinch said, “I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore.” 

So this year – right now – I’m making more than mental notes and investing in a few doodads to make next year’s gardening a bit easier. 

I’ve started by breaking out my garden maps. These rough pencil sketches on graph paper tell me what I planted in each garden bed.  

I start out with grand intentions in the spring, but end up adding things willy-nilly that I forget – or am too busy – to write down.  

Now’s the time to catch up. So, I’m updating my maps and making notes because I know I won’t remember everything by the time spring rolls around.  

For further motivation, I’m starting a brand-spanking new garden journal to note what worked and what didn’t.  

A garden journal lets you note what worked and didn’t.  

What are some of my notes for 2023?

My two butternut squash plants made a grand total of – drumroll, please – two squash, so I will try yellow summer squash instead next year. I missed the peak crop of persimmons, so I’ll check them more often and earlier.

Heirloom yellow pear tomatoes produce gangbusters and are very tasty.  

I loved the taste of my yellow pear tomatoes and they produced gangbusters, so I’ll plant them again. My zinnias bloomed their heads off and are still attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, so they are must-haves.

pink zinnia flower
Colorful zinnias bloom for a long time and attract pollinators. 

My bee balm got powdery mildew, so I’ll be more careful to water at the base of the plants only. One pot of annuals was always thirsty, so I’ll move that pot elsewhere. 

Make your journal your wish list, too. Jot down anything you want to add next year. I want to try strawberries, add more native plants and groundcovers, and plant a tree for privacy.

I finally got the zinc plant labels from last year’s wish list and I love them. You can write on them with a pencil and they last and last and blend well. I won’t mark everything, just key plants that help me find everything else. 

Also note in your journal any tools that would help you such as a garden kneeler, self-watering container, ratcheting pruners, or lightweight wheelbarrow. Christmas is coming, after all.  

Your journal also can be your rip-and-replace list. I’ve already banished non-native vinca from one bed and am putting together a list of native replacements. What do you want to change? 

I hope these ideas inspire you to make some notes, start a journal, and label some plants so you can start off your next garden season with less head-scratching and more action.  

Now where did I lay down my trowel?  

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.

September To-do Lists Nudge Gardeners

Winter squash is ready for harvest now.  Photo:  Home & Garden Information Center

I know. I know. You’re tired after a long season of gardening. Especially with all that heat we had. But there are still a few things to tick off your fall to-do list.

Have you planted your garlic yet? Now’s the time. Nestle cloves into the soil through the end of October for harvest next July. Get tips here: Growing Garlic in a Home Garden.

Even if your vegetable garden is looking ragged, keep harvesting. My cucumbers finally gave up the ghost, but I’m still getting enough tomatoes and basil for Caprese salads.

I just harvested butternut squash, too. The rind was finally hard enough not to dent with my fingernail, so they were ready. I’ll cure them for a week in a warmer room, then store them in my cooler basement. Learn more: Growing Winter Squash in a Home Garden.

And yes, I’ve started to remove spent and scruffy vegetable plants, clearing the bed of fallen fruits, leaves, and stems. And no, it’s not just because I’m a neatnik.

Soilborne diseases are the most common cause of vegetable problems. Those plant bits can harbor fungal spores which can reinfect plants year after year. 

So I’m ruthless in removing plant debris. I compost healthy plant parts, but bag and trash anything that has had disease issues.

After cleanup, I add compost. It feeds the soil, adds organic matter, improves drainage, holds nutrients, attracts earthworms, and suppresses disease. What’s not to love?

Buy compost or make your own. Mix leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and other organic materials into a pile. Stir it now and then, water it when it’s dry, and let it cook down into the best soil food ever. Learn: How to Make Compost at Home.

a gardener working on a compost bin
Master Gardener Gary Stallings turns compost in a teaching garden. Photo:  Shanon Wolf

This year I’ll top off my vegetable beds with an inch or two of compost to improve the soil and act as a winter mulch and weed blocker.  

Yes, weeds grow in winter. Winter annuals such as chickweed, henbit, and speedwell love bare soil, germinating in late summer and fall and returning vigorously in spring.

Don’t let them get a toehold. Cover bare soil with compost, mulch, or a cover crop.

Cover crops are all the rage, a classic farming technique that’s discovered new life in gardening circles. Sown from seed, they block weeds and slow erosion.

Best of all, cover crops feed and improve soil. Their deep roots mine nutrients and their leaves, stems and roots break down to add organic matter when they are turned into the soil in spring.

Many cover crops can be planted in the fall. Which is best for your garden? Find out here: Cover Crops for Gardens.

crimson clover
Crimson clover is an attractive cover crop that improves soil. Photo:  Home & Garden Information Center

After I tend to my vegetable beds, I dig and divide perennials. Most perennials should be divided every 3 years. Just lift a clump, cut it into sections, and transplant and water well.

Resist the urge to cut back your perennials in the fall. They provide crucial overwintering sites for pollinators and food for birds and other wildlife. Only cut back plants that had serious disease or insect issues.

Fall is a time to put a tidy bow on the gardening season, to lay to rest your beds after you squeeze out the last harvests. Feel the change in the air, breathe deeply, and enjoy the delicious ache of a job well done.

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.


Cicada Killer Wasps Are Scary But Good

a close-up view of a cicada killer wasp showing its light yellow and black striped abdomen
Cicada killer wasps are good pollinators who keep cicadas in check.
Photo: Dawn Dailey O’Brien, Cornell University

It’s big. It’s creepy. It’s the cicada killer wasp and it has some local folks worried. But it’s a good guy. Honest. 

Looking like yellowjackets on steroids, 2-inch-long cicada killer wasps are yellow and black and a bit intimidating. But it’s all a show. 

Unless you’re a cicada, you have no worries. These wasps help control the annual cicadas buzzing in our trees.

In fact, male cicada killer wasps don’t have stingers at all and females aren’t likely to sting unless you step or sit on one.

In addition to their ginormous size, cicada killer wasps worry folks because they do figure eights over lawns, looking like they are Up To No Good.

Nope. Those are just males establishing or defending territory. Boys will be boys. 

The dudes have been hanging out since July, scoping out territory while waiting for the ladies to arrive. Their manly posturing results in often spectacular wing-whirling combat, all bluster and bluff.  

Check out the video of a close encounter with University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp’s Bug of the Week feature.

Following a brief romantic interlude, the female cicada killer wasp digs a finger-sized nesting chamber in the ground, leaving telltale piles of excavated soil.

Then she climbs trees in search of the cicadas which she uses to feed her young. 

When she finds a cicada, she stings it to paralyze it, then flies the cicada down to the ground, dragging it to her nest. This is no mean feat since cicadas are much larger than she is. That’s one determined mama.

She stuffs the cicada into her nest, lays an egg on it, and seals the opening. When the egg hatches, the larva will chow down on the cicada which is, unfortunately, still quite alive. Ah, the circle of life.

Well fed, the larva will wrap itself in a case, pupate and stay underground before emerging as an adult next summer. 

Interestingly enough, female cicada killer wasps can choose the sex of their babies. If they give them one cicada as food, they turn out to be boys. Given two cicadas, they become larger females.

A female cicada killer wasp’s work is never done. As soon as she seals one nest, she makes a new one and goes cicada hunting again, helping to keep their population in check.  

See female cicada killer wasps in action in this Bug of the Week profile.

Cicada killer wasps also are good pollinators, moving pollen from plant to plant as they feed on nectar as adults.  

Cicada killer wasps congregate around some petunias.
Photo: John Lefebure

What should you do if you find cicada killer wasps in your yard? Not a thing. Tolerating them is best since they’re only around for a few weeks and are beneficial. Chemical controls are not necessary.

But if you’re bothered by the holes they make in your lawn, wet down the area with a sprinkler.  Cicada killer wasps don’t like to build nests in moist soil.

They also avoid nesting in dense lawns. So their nests are a clue that your lawn may need some beefing up.  

Cicada killer wasps may be big and a little scary looking. But I hope you’ve gained some appreciation for these fascinating insects and enjoy watching them dance over your lawn.  

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.


Are Baldfaced Hornets Friends or Foes?

Distinctive white marks on their heads give baldfaced hornets their name.
Photo:  Johnny N. Dell, Bugwood

It’s been a good year for baldfaced hornets. Many people have contacted me to report their grey papery nests in trees or hanging from the eaves of their homes.

So, are they good guys or bad guys? Do they need to be controlled? It’s a matter of making an informed choice. So here are the facts.

First, baldfaced hornets aren’t hornets at all. They’re black and white yellowjackets that nest in trees, shrubs, and on buildings. Since they kill many harmful pests, they are considered beneficial.

It’s only when their nests are nearby that they pose a potential threat from stinging. Left alone, they tend to be benign. They usually only sting to defend their nests. I’ve had several walk up and down my arm peaceably. 

The white marks on their head earn them their “baldfaced” moniker. Workers measure about three-quarters of an inch long and queens are slightly larger.

In the spring, overwintering queens emerge from tree bark, stumps, logs, rock piles, and other protected spots. Each queen builds a small nest with a few brood cells, lays eggs, and gathers insects to feed the growing workers.

When those workers become adults, they take over the housekeeping duties, building and taking care of the nest, foraging for food, and tending to the growing family from eggs laid by the queen.

Baldfaced hornets’ football-shaped nest is an engineering marvel. To that first handful of paper cells, workers add layer upon layer of hexagonal combs similar to those of the honey bee.

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Mosquitoes Take a Bite Out of Summer Fun

Asian Tiger Mosquito. Photo: Ary Farajollahi, Bugwood.jpg

Mosquito season is (slap) upon us. Fortunately, there are (slap) many things you can do to minimize their (slap) nuisance. 

Only females bite, so that’s the good news. Only half of them are out to get you.

Mosquitoes need water. They have four stages of development – egg, larva, pupa & adult – (complete metamorphosis for you geeks) and spend their larval and pupal stages in water.

Mosquito larvae hang upside down in the water and get air from a siphon tube. They wiggle when disturbed, mildly entertaining. Pupae look like commas and are called “tumblers” for the way they move.

After a snack (cue ominous Dracula music,) adult females lay their eggs on water. They can do this in as little as a teaspoon of water. Yes, a teaspoon. So eliminating standing water is crucial to control.

Water collects in obvious places like ponds and marshy areas. But it also pools in birdbaths, rain barrels, wading pools, pot saucers, gutters, and downspouts.

You also find mosquito-attracting water in used tires, plastic toys, recycling bins, tarps, grill covers, tree stumps, wading pools, pet dishes, and more.

So, eliminate water traps such as used tires. Screen rain barrels. Twice a week add fresh water to birdbaths and pet dishes and remove any water you find any of the other hiding spots above.

Clear debris from gutters and downspouts and cover the opening to corrugated drain pipe on downspouts with pantyhose held with a rubber band. Very sexy.

If you have a pond or rain barrel, use mosquito dunks, donut-shaped disks containing Bti, an organic biological control. Getting goldfish or mosquito fish (Gambusia) that eat mosquito larvae also is helpful.

Part two of mosquito control – after managing standing water – is personal protection. Mosquitoes find us very tasty so we need to know how to keep them at bay. 

Most mosquitoes are active from dusk to dawn, so avoiding activity then is helpful. If you’re having a party or just want to sit on your deck, hook up a fan. The breeze is a serious deterrent.

For more protection, use repellants with DEET, picaridin, Icaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Wear long pants and sleeves since mosquitoes can bite through clothing. Clothing treated with the insecticide permethrin also deters mosquitoes.

Citronella candles, mosquito lamps, and butane-powered repellers aren’t very effective. Bug zappers kill few mosquitoes but many beneficial insects. And mosquito traps actually attract more mosquitoes. 

Everyone’s instinct is to spray, spray, spray, but sprays kill predators and pollinators. You’re killing the good guys that help control many harmful pests.

Birds, bats, frogs, lizards, and dragonflies eat mosquitoes. So create good habitat for them by planting native plants, adding birdhouses and birdbaths, and avoiding chemicals.

To keep mosquitoes from invading your home, use tight-fitting screens on windows and doors and replace tears quickly.

The newest bad actor is the tiger mosquito which is active throughout the day. Bigger, badder, and with striped legs, it is a brute.

Be a skeeter beater. Seek out and eliminate standing water. Dress for protection. And practice active avoidance. Combine multiple controls for less slapping and more smiling. 

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.

Be Proactive to Prevent Vegetable Diseases

When it comes to vegetable diseases, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Many diseases can be stopped before they start with smart garden practices.

Spring rains cause spots, dots, and fuzzy blots to pop up in everyone’s vegetable patch. That’s fungi having fun. But whether our weather is wet or dry, fungi, bacteria and viruses stand ready to harm plants. 

So, how do you keep them at bay? Be informed and watchful. Look at your plants often to spot small problems before they get big and use the following tips to prevent disease problems.

If you have repeat offenders – diseases that show up year after year – look for disease-resistant varieties. For example, there are varieties of tomatoes labeled as resistant to both verticillium and fusarium wilt. 

Early blight is a common disease of tomatoes. Photo:  J. Traunfeld, UME

Some plants are available in certified, disease-free starts. Choose potato tubers, garlic bulbs, and asparagus and rhubarb crowns that are certified and disease-free. 

Vegetables hate soggy soil. If your garden area is wet, consider creating a raised bed to improve drainage. Or, grow in containers or move the garden to an area that drains well.

You’ve heard me preach the gospel of compost time and again. But did you know that compost actually discourages some plant diseases? Garden smart by adding compost every year. 

Help prevent disease by spacing your plants properly to encourage good air circulation. Plant labels often give spacing tips as do garden books and websites.

Warm, humid weather invites powdery mildew on squash. 
Photo: UME Home & Garden Information Center

Rain can spread soil-borne diseases, splashing infected soil up on plants’ leaves. So keep your soil covered with an organic mulch such as untreated grass clippings or newspaper covered with straw.

Fungi love wet leaves, so water wisely. Water at the base of the plant using soaker hoses or drip irrigation. And water in the morning, not the evening, so leaves dry before nightfall. 

Practice tough love. Remove infected leaves or pull entire plants if they become badly infected. It’s better to lose one bad plant than the whole row. Don’t compost sick plants: bag and trash them.

Overripe vegetables invite disease organisms. So, harvest your vegetables before they get mushy. 

A thorough cleaning of your vegetable bed at the end of the season is crucial since many diseases can overwinter in the soil. Again, if anything had a serious disease issue, bag and trash it.

If you spot a problem, e-mail your local Extension horticulturist a photo or bring them a sample to identify. Here’s a list of our county offices. We can usually get back to you in a day or two with advice.

For other growing tips and diagnostic help, visit our Home & Garden Information Center website. It has photos, management tools, and a wealth of resources. There’s even an Ask Extension link to submit gardening questions to certified horticulturists.

Enjoy your vegetable garden this year. A few seeds and transplants, some rain, sun, and a watchful eye will have you enjoying fresh, healthy homegrown food all season long.

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.