Miss Floribunda: Crouching crawlers, hidden hand tools
Dear Miss Floribunda,
During the recent snow days, I went outside to make sure my shrubs weren’t damaged, and I noticed some little white oval-shaped things on the bark of my spindle tree, which has beautiful berries way into winter. There were no berries, and the growths appeared just before nodules on the twigs. I don’t know what the stuff is, but the last time I saw it was on my beloved winterberry tree, which died within two years. The same thing happened to my bittersweet. I’m still beyond upset about that, and am scared of losing the replacements I’ve planted. So what is going on, and what can I do about it? Is there anything else I should be doing now to help my garden?
Berry Bereft on Farragut Street
Dear Berry Bereft,
It sounds as if your little tree has euonymus scale, and the spindle tree (whose Latin name is euonymus), is susceptible to it. Scale is an insect that wears a sort of armor, and in this case, it’s non-native and very hard to control once it gets started. You noticed the male, who wears that white carapace, but probably overlooked the brown female. Her eggs will hatch in May, and the resulting crawlers will start sucking the sap out of your precious tree. While I do know how to control scale in houseplants — rubbing alcohol applied with a cotton swab is effective, as is neem oil — I haven’t encountered it in my own garden just yet. Your report makes me worry.
Recognizing an emergency, I called Dr. Honeywell, who is my consultant on all things related to plants favored by birds, bees and other beneficial insects. She tells me that if there is a real infestation, you really need to whack away most of it — if not so serious, just the affected areas. Don’t compost your clippings, but dispose of them in garbage bags. Dr. Honeywell told me that March is an excellent time to check all your shrubs and clip off broken branches and any areas that look as if they might have scale. Other plants that are susceptible to this plague are pachysandra, dogwood, lilacs, camellias, maples, and ash and willow trees. Before any of your deciduous plants leaf out, spray them with a light horticultural oil. Before spraying, be sure that the temperature has been above freezing for at least 24 hours. If you have evergreens with the blight, you must wait till the temperature has been above 40 F for an entire day. To be on the safe side, you can spray again in autumn, after it gets cool, but before freezing temperatures arrive.
Yes, there are a number of chores you can do in the garden as we transition from winter to spring. Of course, you want to check for disease on all your shrubs, but it’s also important to search for volunteer seedling trees. If they are still small enough, pull them out. If they’ve grown more than a few inches tall, you’ll need to dig them out with a spade. If you find one that defies your spade, cut its roots about six inches below ground. March is a good time to wake up your roses by pruning off dead wood and adding urea or another high-nitrogen nutrient to the soil. This will cause them to make green growth but won’t encourage bloom that might be blasted by a brief return to below-freezing temperatures.
When your bulbs begin to show green shoots above ground, take pictures or make sketches and write notes about where they are located. This will help you find an empty spot next fall where you can plant more bulbs. Late March is a good time to separate and move perennials such as daylilies, hostas and ornamental grasses. Wendy Wildflower cuts back tall grasses before they leaf, halves the height of her salvias and cuts back the leaves of her epimedium. Aunt Sioux, who for the benefit of birds and beneficial insects doesn’t cut away seeding flower heads or hollow stems in winter, will deadhead old growth as new growth peeks up.
It is not too early to turn your compost. You might even start spreading it. Think about putting down mulch too. Giorgic Vegeberghe recommends placing protective netting around any saplings planted in the last two or three years because a horde of 17-year cicadas is expected this coming May. Older trees will survive the onslaught easily, but young fruit trees are especially vulnerable.
Some people think March is a good time to organize tools, sterilizing them in bleach and sharpening them. You can also gather up all your pots and tidy up your yard. I always find a lot of surprises when I do — lost eyeglasses, gloves and earrings, as well as missing trowels, pruners, weeders, wrotters and soil knives.
I hope the pandemic will soon be under control and the Hyattsville Horticultural Society can resume meetings. Please check our website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, periodically for updates.