Don’t you just hate this? One day you have a perfectly healthy plant, and the next time you look, the leaves are riddled with holes, or completely gone! Just 2 days ago, I photographed a lovely stand of Nicotiana mutabilis (Flowering Tobacco). As I walked by this morning, I was stunned by totally denuded stalks. On closer inspection, there was a 4″ Tobacco Hornworm chomping away, leaving behind a trail of excrement. Not a pretty picture now.
The Tobacco Hornworm Manduca sexta is the caterpillar of a type of Sphinx Moth or Hawk Moth. It differs from the Tomato Hornworm by having a reddish instead of a black “horn”, and you can also tell the difference by its lateral markings. The Tobacco Hornworm has seven diagonal lines, while the Tomato Hornworm has eight v-shaped markings.
The adult female Sphinx Moth deposits her translucent green eggs on the undersides of leaves of plants in the Solanacea family, especially Nicotiana (Tobacco), and take 2-4 days to hatch. During their larval stage, these Hornworms feed on the foliage, flowers and fruit. They can ingest the toxin Nicotine without ill effects, and their voracious appetites allow them to strip even large plants overnight. Their green bodies camouflage well with the plants they feed on.
Control this pest by handpicking the caterpillars. If you have too large a crop for handpicking, you can use a product like Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis) or Monterey Garden Spray (Spinosad) on the young larvae. Be on the lookout for hornworms with little white “pills” attached. These white attachments are the eggs of the parasitic Braconid Wasp, which feed on and weaken/kill the unsuspecting hornworm. This biological control is a good example of nature keeping everything in balance.
Here in the northeast, mid spring teases us with periods of warm sunny days, tempting us to go out and buy the colorful annuals and tropical perennials stocked in local greenhouses. We forget that we may well get several more chilly nights. Perhaps frost is unlikely, but the soil temperature is going to remain too cold for the heat lovers until nights stay above 55 degrees F. If you plant these warm weather gems too soon, you will most assuredly stunt their growth.
The old timers always said to wait until Memorial Day to plant tomatoes and annuals, and for good reason. Only last year, many of us experienced a cool wet June, and many a northern gardener lamented how poorly Coleus, Colocasia and Cannas performed.
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ blooms on new growth
Even seasoned gardeners seem to be confused as to when to prune Hydrangea.
Begin by identifying which Hydrangea species you are growing, to determine whether it will bloom on new growth or on old wood (last year’s stalks). The species arborescens, paniculata and some newer forms of macrophylla bloom on new wood. All the Hydrangea macrophylla (Mophead and Lacecap types) and quercifolia (Oakleaf) bloom on old wood, as long as there isn’t winter damage. Next year?s blossoms are set on the upper portion of the woody stalks in late summer and fall. H. macrophylla selections should not be pruned until after the plants have leafed out. In late spring, prune out or tip back any dead wood for a clean appearance.
The hardiest and most foolproof of all the Hydrangea are the paniculata group (Pee Gee types) and the arborescens group (Smooth Hydrangea). Both of these species can be cut within inches of the ground each spring if you want to control the size of your plants. They stalks can always be thinned to improve plant shape, and there is no harm to next year’s display if you want to cut long stemmed bouquets in summer and fall.
There are a lot of new Hydrangea macrophylla selections on the market, including ‘Double Expressions’, ‘Red Sensation’, ‘Let’s Dance Starlight’, and ‘Endless Summer’ that bloom on old and new wood. The blossoms appearing on old growth will display in early summer, while the flowers that form on new growth will appear later in August and September, for a long continuous display. If you live in the colder parts of zone 6 or zone 5, you may get too much winterkill for blossoms on the old growth, but you will still be able to enjoy a late summer through fall display.
Should you lime your garden?
Here in the northeast, we seldom consider the effects of acid rain anymore. Since most public water departments deliver water with a neutral ph, the effects of acid rain have been largely neutralized in landscapes that use public water. Still, we cant be certain of the soil pH unless we periodically test it. it is a good idea to purchase soil pH testers, either online or at a local garden centers.
Be on the lookout…there may be treasure in your garden.
During your spring cleanup, you will no doubt uncover all kinds of delightful signs of life: the healthy shoots of perennials, dozens of tiny seedlings or wiggly earthworms under fallen leaves. One treasure you should be on the lookout for, and not mistake as something bad is the over wintering egg case of Praying Mantes (or Mantids). These pale tan Styrofoam looking sacs are attached in the crotches and on the undersides of bare branches. In late spring they will begin to split, upon which a hundred or more tiny translucent Praying Mantes will unfurl and march away to devour a wide variety of your most irritating garden pests. We were absolutely delighted to learn that they voraciously eat grasshoppers, which are a nuisance we’ve had difficulty with in the past.
The Praying Mantis is a most fascinating insect to observe in the garden. They sit motionless in the garden waiting for their prey to pass by. And yes, it is true that the females practice sexual cannibalism, (but not always, we’re told). Often the male is just not thinking straight when he has copulation on his mind and surprises the female as she sits motionless. Her first reaction is to grab hold and bite off his head (she needs the extra protein for pregnancy!). The male is able to fulfill his mission nonetheless and we hear he dies happily ever after.
Tending to Hellebores in March
One of the first things we tackle in the garden is raking up windblown leaves that have accumulated around the crowns of the early blooming Lenten Roses (Helleborus orientalis hybrids) and removing last year’s tarnished foliage, which may harbor pesky Botrytis spores.
As you cleanup that decaying growth, you may be fortunate to discover dozens of tiny seedlings at the plant’s base (of course that’s if the Hellebore bloomed well for you last year). These seedlings may be variable in color, especially if you’re growing a hybrid selection or have more than one variety. You can always leave them undisturbed, and a few will eventually establish in situ or you can very gently lift the delicate seedlings and transplant them into small pots using a well drained potting soil. After a few months they will have put on enough growth for transplanting to other spots in your garden.