This Is No Joke!

At my last garden club talk, (to the Branford Garden Club, apparently the largest Garden Club in Connecticut–who knew?) I happened to mention that I had found a dead Brown Marmorated stink bug while doing my spring cleaning and that I almost would have preferred finding a rat because I would have known how to deal with a pest like that.

Needless to say, that was a fairly shocking statement (but it really is how I felt!) and a lot of the women wanted to know what this ghastly pest was and how I could feel so strongly.

So despite the fact that I want to devote most of the rest of the month to herbs (a category that I think deserves more attention because everybody eats and these little “unassuming plants” can be grown just about anywhere and can make meals so much tastier), I thought I’d touch on this first.

For the most part, even thought the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB from now on) has been around since the mid to late 90s, we haven’t been too bothered by it here in New England they way the rest of the country has. I’m not sure if it’s our cold winters (that would be some solace) or their migration patterns, but they just haven’t been the huge pest that other nearby states like Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent, even New Jersey, has found them to be.

The problem with these invasive bugs (to be distinguished from our naturally occurring stink bugs) is that they are voracious eaters, they will eat almost anything, they have no natural enemies here because they’ve been imported and they are even resistant to most of our insecticides.

Organic gardeners like me don’t really stand a chance against a huge infestation. Against smaller infestations we might be able to hand pick them. But the usual weapons in the organic arsenal are useless. There are even reports–probably anecdotal–of Sevin being sprayed on these bugs and the bugs fall down, and then get up and resume eating. Nasty creatures!

Unlike with Japanese beetles there is some suggestion that a scent lure trap may work.

Until we know for sure, vigilence is going to be key!

Wordless Wednesday–Holiday Harvest?

These festive berries look pretty enough for a holiday centerpiece.  Unfortunately, they belong to a noxious invasive plant, oriental bittersweet, celastrus orbiculatus .  So as lovely as they are, resist the temptation to pick and transport them anywhere near your home (if you don’t already have it on your property–it’s known as the “kudzu of the north because it’s so rampant and pervasive).  While it’s banned for sale in my home state, Connecticut, the birds feast on these fruits and spread it around anyway–no one has to buy it.  The birds bring it to most of us!

Coincidentally, after this post was drafted & posted, the Connecticut Dept. of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) issued this press release about avoiding the use of bittersweet in holiday displays.  I was appalled to see several table decorations making use of it on  They don’t know what they’re messing with!

Wordless Wednesday–Role Reversal?

This is the seedhead of northern sea oats (chasmanthium latifolium), a type of grass that is native from the southeast to Pennsylvania.  It’s a lovely grass and one of the few that gets above 2′ tall that will grow in partial shade.  But the thing self-sows rampantly, making it a very aggressive spreader.  Were it not a native, I’d surely call it invasive!

This is the seed head of one of the miscanthus species.  It’s on just about every state’s invasive species list, including my own state, Connecticut.

I didn’t plant this grass.  And when I first moved to the property, I hated it because I was always pulling out little self-sown plants.  Then I started feeding the birds. And I’ve never found any more little miscanthus seedlings.

Obviously bird feeding cannot solve an invasive plant problem.  But it certainly has solved the problem of my miscanthus self-sowing.  Now if only they’d learn to eat northern sea oats!

Deer Ticks, The Hosts and Japanese Barberry

I’ve talked before about the connection between the cycles of deer tick populations (now correctly known as the black-legged tick) corresponding to rising and falling populations of some of their hosts.  I’ve talked about white footed mice being the primary vector–or host–of the tick.  And I’ve wondered about why no one studied the predator/prey relationship as having an effect on tick populations.  For my post about this in April, go here:

But basically I’m just a backyard gardener with no scientific training.  So it’s nice to see some scientific studies coming out to back me up on these musings.  The studies are still not quite the ones I’d design if I were running them–but heck, I can’t have everything.

In this post from the New York Times, this is as close as I think I’ll get to having the perfect answer to my predator/prey questions about the entire ecosystem and ticks answered.  It actually goes a little further than I would have gone–but of course it doesn’t address my time-honored question: What happens in winters where there is no snow and predators have better access?  And it also doesn’t take into account that raptors can be predators.  I wonder why that is?

But I digress.  This study (by my favorite folks at the Cary Institute again!) took into account white footed mice, coyotes and foxes.  It looked at 4 states, and places where they coyote population was displacing the fox population.  The basic finding was that since coyotes have a much broader territory than foxes, the mice population would grow larger in those states, and thus the tick population would also be greater.  A denser fox population would mean fewer mice and a lesser tick population.

A very different study, by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, the invasive japanese barberry (berberis) was found to harbor both white footed mice and the stage of the ticks that transmit them (the link is to a whole publication by the Ag Station–the specific page is page 18 with the tick information–it’s midway through the article on barberry).

Because barberry is still sold in many states, homeowners in states with problematic populations of deer ticks may want to remove those plants from their years to avoid inviting these pesky creatures in–or sheltering them or their hosts.

You Know It’s Ugly When They Call In The Lawyers

There’s a saying that everybody talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.  A similar thing could be said about invasive plants–which are slightly harder to control (actually, the weather and invasive plants probably come in at about a draw when it comes to control measures).

The Spoiler deserves the credit for bringing this case to my attention–which technically is NOT about a plant on Connecticut’s invasive plant list.  Once I read the facts it seemed worthy of writing about.

The case, which is summarized in the above linked Connecticut Law Tribune editorial, has to do with yellow or golden bamboo (phyllostachus aurea), a running form of bamboo.  It seems that a misguided person in the Shelton area thought it would make a nice boundary plant so he planted 6 tiny clumps in 1997.  Fifteen years later it has run rampant over 4 properties and it shows no signs of stopping. It has broken up driveways. It is heading for a septic field.  It is apparently incapable of being stopped–the owner installed a barrier that it completely ignored.

Another homeowner in the New Haven area who has battled this plant has gotten estimates of “$18,000 to $22,000” from landscapers–that’s what it would cost for her to remove the encroaching bamboo from her property!

There are two problems with this plant (well, two that I will identify here).  Actually, the only problem with the plant is that it is such a successful grower in our climate–one plant can grow almost 10′ in a season–and that’s the rhizome!

The other problem is that it is being purchased and sold by those who are unaware of its capacity.  When I worked in retail gardening we had a stand of golden bamboo on the garden center property.  It was lovely–but the owner had sunk the appropriate barriers to ensure that its roots did not escape onto the neighboring properties.

When customers asked about it, I took great pains to describe the 6′ concrete barriers that were necessary to restrain the bamboo.  Needless to say, I don’t think I ever sold any of the plant. But far better to have that result than to let the plant go out into unsuspecting hands–and onto unsuspecting neighbors’ lands!

When the Spoiler showed me this editorial (where the homeowner lost her claims against  her neighbor and the marauding bamboo) I had to wonder why the homeowner lost and why the case hadn’t been brought under the more traditional causes of action such as trespass.

A little more research turned up the information that the homeowner was self-represented.  That seems a hard price to pay for not having chosen a lawyer, particularly when the homeowner may have been well acquainted with real estate.  Some Facebook pages claim she was a real estate appraiser.    Perhaps I impute too much knowledge to her as a result of that field.

She perhaps thought she knew enough to be self-represented. Or perhaps it was a question of finding a lawyer to take her case–or to take it seriously.  And of course there is always the cost involved–she may have thought she’d she’d already spent far too much on  the bamboo to begin with! But in any case, it seems obvious that when bringing a novel cause of action, particularly for this amount of damage, she probably should have had a lawyer.

Where The Wild Things Grow–Quickly!*

Several years ago we had a microburst come through our area.  For those of you not that familiar with weather terminology, a microburst (or downburst) is the energy released by a thunderstorm abruptly as it passed through or overhead.  You’ll often hear its damage referred to as “straight line winds,” whereas those who were in the area during the experience will often think they experienced a tornado.

Prior to that little incident, we had 3 fruit trees growing in these mostly manicured patches of daylilies.  Afterward, we had timber, and logs for the fireplace.  So on good years I take the time to manicure these patches, and every so often, they get away from me and I won’t weed for a year or so.

Apparently I didn’t weed, last year, although I thought I did, at least once.  As I was attempting to removed the invasives–yet again–I thought I’d take a photo to show how much can take over in such a short period of time.  There are 3 different invasives visible in this photo.  For those not quite as familiar with them as I am, I’ll describe in detail.

The delicate lacy white flower visible in the foreground is everyone’s nemesis, garlic mustard.  It’s actually a biennial, meaning the first year all there is is a delicate rosette of leaves. The flowers here are the second year’s growth when it sets seed and dies.  But boy does it set seed!  And because it can grow in shade, it has been very happy on my property for quite some time despite all my attempts at hand pulling.

But don’t compost!  It’s like the resurrection plant–it will just regrow.  Rather, leave it on asphalt or stone or something to thoroughly dry before composting.

The lovely low oval leaves behind the garlic mustard belong to oriental bittersweet, looking for something–anything–on which to get a leg up to vine onto the next layer of trees.  Fortunately (I guess) the next layer of branches is now 20′ in the air above it due to last October’s storm.   I keep cutting this out–because there’s no pulling it–and it branches and comes back double. Nasty stuff.

Above the bittersweet are, of course, the lovely leaves of the Norway maple.  I think if an asteroid wiped out the earth, Norway Maple would survive.  Here’s another one I keep cutting out and it somehow keeps coming back.  And remember, I am an organic gardener so there’s no painting the stems with Round-up or anything.  I’ll just keep cutting.

This property , on an adjoining street, has been unmaintained for less than a year and already there are 3 invasives growing here–the garlic mustard and Norway maple, very prominent in the front, and a bittersweet vine snaking up the trunk of the pine that’s not quite visible in the photo.  It doesn’t take long for invasives to sneak in and gain a foothold.  And all that garlic mustard going to seed will plague this homeowner for years to come–not to mention adjoining homeowners depending on wind direction and speed.

*Finally obviously the title of this post is a play on a Maurice Sendak title, Where The WIld Things Are.  Mr. Sendak passed away earlier this week.  Condolences to his family and friends. He will live on through his body of writing, of course.

Wordless Wednesday

The headless bug you see here on the backside of a coleus leaf is the invasive pest, the Western Sed Conifer Bug.  He’s not too much of an outdoor pest, but he and his brethern do overwinter indoors and about this time of year they wake up and start to emerge indoors.

I show this bug for two reasons (and there’s a better photo in a moment).  For all those who do have the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, these two look remarkably similar.  The BMSB is shorter and stouter, however, and doesn’t have the distinct “leaf feet” as its rear appendages.

For those of us in Connecticut, where the BMSB has yet to appear, do not be alarmed if you see one of these and think it is the BMSB.  These really are just harmless indoor pests.  In fact, I just picked up the plant, carried it outdoors, and flicked the little guy off.  Because although these guys can fly, they rarely do.

Here he is after he landed on my slate walk outside.  Since he is pointing away from us, you can clearly see the back legs with the “leaf footed” appendages, at least on the left side.

So if you have one of these things indoors–or even several–just carry them out.  It’s better to do so since they too are in the stink bug family and do have an odor when squashed.  On the rare occasion when I’ve had no choice but to kill them, I didn’t find the odor offensive–I thought it smelled like grass–but I may have gotten lucky.  I don’t push my luck–and I figure the birds are glad to have a find like this in the middle of winter.

What’s Bugging Me?

A few weeks ago, during our first cold snap, I was remarking that I had pulled down the storm windows on our double-hung windows.  My walking partner was absolutely appalled that I still had such an old-fashioned thing at my house–apparently she’s upgraded all her windows to newer thermopanes.

We’ve upgraded a lot of our windows too and you know what?  I’ll take my old-fashioned double hung windows with the storm windows any day of the week!  They keep a lot of the cold air that radiates off the glass from getting into the house.

Better yet, they seem to keep a lot of these Western Seed  Conifer Bugs out of the house.  I see a lot of them walking between the outside storm window and the inner screen–but they don’t get into the house.  That’s fine with me.

Interestingly enough, I wonder what this means.  Two year ago I had a lot of these in the house.  I was carrying them out on a regular basis.  Last year I had almost none–maybe one or two.  Was it too cold?  Was it too hot and dry in the summer?

This year looks like it will be another banner year for an “invasion.”  And that being the case, I thought I would post about it so folks could see what these bugs look like–and so that they would know that they don’t have the brown marmorated stink bug invading (which hasn’t yet made it to our region thankfully, and which is shorter, plumper and does a lot more damage).


Here is the Western Seed Conifer Bug, courtesy of Bugguide, whose images are better than mine.

Notice the lovely shields on either part of the body–this is the part of the bug that causes it to be confused with the brown marmorated stink bug.

Now this is the brown marmorated stink bug, again from Bugguide.  You’ll notice those same little shields at the bach of the body, but notice that the body is much plumper.

If you’re a true bug aficionado, you’ll notice that there are no protrusions on the hind legs–the Western seed conifer bug is a “leaf-footed” bug, meaning that it has protrusions that are shaped like little leaves on its rear legs.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, Connecticut has not yet felt the brunt of the invasion by these pests.  I hope it never does because they have been a scourge to farmers and home growers alike.  They are indiscriminate feeders that make Japanese beetles look finicky in their tastes.  Let’s hope we find some means of control before they head north!

Plan Now To Keep Critters Out Later

In the old days, I’d just do a simple post about going around the foundation of your house and making sure that there were no holes and checking your attics and basements (if you have  them) to make sure that they were sealed tight against entry from the usual critters: mice, squirrels and perhaps raccoons.

I’d make mention about getting a chimney cap if you didn’t already have one (having had the unpleasant experience of having a bird fly down my chimney but also knowing that there are worse things that can happen like raccoons nesting in your flue).

And that would be that.  I’d talk about the how mice can get in the tiniest holes–the diameter of a pencil, in fact.  Ours usually come in around the electrical box in our basement–in fact, they’ve often chewed the wiring while they’re at it, which can be a real fire hazard (and you though mice were just an issue under car hoods and in storage sheds that way, didn’t you?  Not so much!).  Then the creative little devils run up the copper tube from the basement to our refrigerator icemaker–and I swear that’s not even as wide as a pencil–and voila–they’re in the kitchen and ready to feast!

But that was the extent of “critter proofing” the home for the winter.

Nowadays it’s gotten a little more complicated with the invasion of insects that want to come inside and share our homes with us.  While they don’t harm our homes–I’m not talking termites or carpenter ants–there’s nothing more disconcerting than a swarm of flying somethings in the middle of the living room (or pick your room of choice).

So before that happens, here’s how to check to insure that your home is tight against invasive insects–especially if you have a light-colored home with a south-facing wall as I do.

As a general rule, there are a few things that will congregate and occasionally find their way indoors.  These are boxelder bugs, congregate ladybird beetles (also known as ladybugs) and western conifer seed bugs.  In our area we have not yet seen the brown marmorated stink bug, but they may soon show up.  They too fall into this class of “bugs that like to come indoors.”

These bugs usually congregate in great masses–hundreds if not thousands of them–on the south-facing side of light-colored homes.  No one is quite sure what the attraction of the light-colored home is–the south-facing appeal should be obvious–it’s warm!

Generally they are just looking to find a way under the shingles, shutters, siding or other eaves or trim to find a place to hang out and hibernate for the winter.  Occasionally they will manage to find their way indoors.  They’re not doing this deliberately but when it happens it can be very disconcerting to say the least.

Despite your instincts, don’t squash them!  Most, if not all, of this class of bugs either emit a foul odor or a slimy substance that will immediately make you regret your actions.

Your best course of actions is to vacuum them up and then empty the vacuum bag immediately (preferably out-of-doors).  If you, like me, have one of those new-fangled vacuums without the bag, empty the canister into a bag and tie it up–or just set the bugs free outside if your canister happens to be empty of anything but bugs.  The birds will enjoy the treat.

It can be a creepy thing if one of these swarms erupts in your house but it is easily managed with a cool head–and a trusty vacuum hose!

Gardening’s Best De-Bunker

Yesterday I mentioned at the end of my post the University of Minnesota and professor Jeff Gillman.  He is, without a doubt, gardening’s best de-bunker.  I have read and reviewed two of his books for the Connecticut Horticulture Society, The Truth about Garden Remedies and the The Truth About Organic Gardening Remedies.  

He has a new book out called How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies which he has co-written with Eric Heberlig.  I have not yet read it but I can’t wait to do so. It’s been reviewed on Garden Rant  and it sounds as if it is a fairly well written and once again thoughtfully devastating condemnation of the things we take for granted in gardening like invasive plants.

I’ve been gardening for almost 50 years (if you figure that my first gardening experience came at 3 years old) and I’ve been an organic gardener for almost 20 years and Gillman’s book on organics certainly opened my eyes.  It didn’t necessarily change too much about the way I do things because I’m not a big “sprayer” even with organic remedies.

But what Gillman does in that book was fairly revolutionary (I thought).  He assigned a rating to all garden remedies, organic and non-organic.  Then he used the same scientific method to rate all the different herbicides, fungicides and insecticides based upon how long they linger in air, soil, water–you get the idea.

As it turns out, some of the organics are far more “toxic”–or at least harder on the environment–than the synthetic pesticides–at least if the synthetics are used properly (and that, of course, is a big if!)

I’ve been reading that the same may be true of some of our “natural” cleaners–that some of the oils like lemon and orange may actually be toxic to us and the environment, may cause asthma attacks in certain individuals and the like.  Some days, you can’t win for trying.

But as gardening season winds down, if you want to read some well done, thoughtful and thought-provoking books, you’ll never go wrong with Jeff Gillman!