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After pruning back the pond plants, covering it with Dalen netting and turning off the pump, this pond is ready for fall – and winter.

The key to keeping a water garden’s ecosystem in good shape is to limit the amount of organic debris in the water. Keeping leaves out of the pond can be a challenge when autumn leaves start to fall.

Why is limiting organic debris in a water garden so important? During winter months, organic debris will rot and release harmful gases. (In natural earthen lined ponds, these gases can be released through the soil at the water surface, but lined ponds hold all the toxins under the ice, and can cause fish and frog fatalities).

1) Cut Back the Plants

I have tall marginal plants in the pond, so in order to put the netting over the pond, I have to cut the marginals back so only a few inches of stems are left sticking out of the pots. I feel ruthless doing this, but if I don’t cut them back now, the foliage dies back and ends up in the water. Then I have to remove slimy plant stalks when the water is really cold, or have a rotted mess to clean out of pots in the spring when the plants leaf out. I even trim back the lily leaves and stems to limit what will decay in the water over the winter.

If the pond water is already cold and you have to keep your hands in the water for any length of time, try Atlas Water garden gloves. These gloves are a little bulky – they come up your whole arm to your bicep! – but they make reaching into cold water tolerable. I put off getting pond gloves for years because I didn’t think they could make a difference. Then, a few years ago, it got cold fast and I had to reach down into deep, freezing cold water that felt like thousands of needles. In desperation to complete my tasks, I bought a pair of these Atlas water garden gloves and now I use them every fall and in the early spring too.

2) Net the Pond

I’ve found that it is best to put netting over the pond just when the leaves in your neighborhood start to drop. Even if you don’t have trees near your pond, or in your yard, the wind will blow them into the pond and they will sink to the bottom. I use Dalen pond netting because it’s economical and the holes of the netting are small. (If the holes in the netting are too big, the leaves fall right through the netting).

I also like using DeWitt’s Deluxe Bird Barricade Netting to cover ponds. It has a tight mesh too but is a higher quality netting, so it isn’t as stiff and wiry. This Dewitt netting has a knitted look to it, moves more like fabric, and can be reused for quite a few seasons, but is much more noticeable covering the pond.

If you already have leaves in the bottom of the pond, get a net, scoop out all the leaves you can, and put netting on. Trust me, even if most of the leaves already dropped off the trees, there will be more leaves that will continue to blow in and accumulate in the bottom of your pond.

3) Put the Fish on a Diet

Koi and goldfish can only digest a limited amount of protein when the water temperature is below 70° F. The remaining protein they are unable to digest is excreted as toxic amonia, decreasing water quality. To reduce pollution and amonia produced by fish waste as the temperature cools, you should have already switched to a fish food specially formulated for spring and autumn conditions based on your water temperature. I feed Pond Care Spring & Autumn Premium Pellets when the water temperature is cooler.

At 55°F, the fish’s metabolism starts to slow, reducing it’s food requirements. In fact, you can see the fish move slower in cold water. Do not feed fish if there is a chance of the water temperature dropping below 50°F within a few day period. Fish are not capable of proper digestion in cold water and food can actually decay in their system and even kill the fish!  In most zones of the USA, this means you will not have to (and should not) feed your fish all winter.

4) Turn off the Pump

While leaving the pond pump run throughout the winter can create beautiful ice formations on the falls, letting the pump run all winter involves more work. Ice dams can form in streams and waterfalls, which can divert the water out of the pond. If you leave the pump run all winter, you will have to regularly check the water level of the pond. Water still evaporates in the winter -the water level can drop under the ice so you don’t notice it. Also, the pump can still get clogged with debris in the winter, so it needs to be checked regularly too.

In my opinion, it’s just easier to turn off the pump. Connecting a hose to the outdoor faucet to top off the pond on a cold winter day is not for me, so I unplug my waterfall pump each fall, clean it off, let it dry out, and store it in a dry place. We also hose out our external waterfall filter box (and drain it) so it’s ready for spring.

Planting bulbs in the fall is not an instant gratification project. But once they bloom in the spring, all the work is worthwhile.

These beautiful fall days are perfect for being outside and I have a great reason to justify spending the day in the yard: it’s time to plant the promise of spring. Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocus need to be planted now before the ground freezes.

While I love to see the color of spring bulbs after the bleakness of winter, digging the holes to plant bulbs is always a chore to me, probably because I tend to put bulbs in places I don’t otherwise dig. Small hand held bulb planters are good for loose soil and smaller bulbs that do not get planted deeply.  However, for larger sized, deeply planted bulbs, consider a full sized bulb planter like the Radius Ergonomic Garden Pro Bulb Auger to make digging less of a chore.

A friend of mine also has wonderful results “digging” holes for bulbs using a cordless drill with a bulb auger, which looks like a large drill bit.  In fact, she also uses this auger with the drill to make holes for planting other things year round, like tomato plants and annuals. (She’s offered to let me try it, and I just might!)

To get the best display from your spring bulbs fertilize with Espoma Bulb-Tone when planting your bulbs. Bulb-Tone is an organic fertilizer that boosts the growth of roots and blooms. If you have some left over after planting your fall bulbs, it can be applied in the spring to fertilize older, established bulbs too.

The crisp air of autumn is here, but it’s time to plant the signs of spring. (As if we needed an excuse to dig in the dirt this weekend!)

This Pileated Woodpecker was a surprise visitor at our picnic over the weekend.

As we graudually plant more shrubs and flowers in our yard, the wild birds are moving in and taking up residence. This spring as we hung wooden bird houses, I joked that real estate is all about “location, location” and that we are providing some great reasons for the birds to relocate: mature trees, good diversity of flowers and shrubs, bird feeders, and running water.

A few weeks later we watched from the window as a pair of finches inspected a birdhouse we had mounted on the trunk of the silver maple in the front yard. I could almost hear the bird saying to her mate, “Well, it’s NOT water front – the pond is on the other side of the yard and I’m not sure I like the distance the house is from the ground. But it IS a new house, we are a good ways from the street, and I like the way this thin, supple branch is near the entrance so I can perch before I go inside.” And her mate replied, “Then let’s get it, and before some other bird does!”

Bird-watching is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the United States and it’s an ideal family hobby because it can be enjoyed by all ages. Besides being entertaining to watch, birds are beneficial to a yard’s ecosystem because they eat insects, worms, snails and spiders, and can pollinate flowers too.

This weekend I saw a large, spectacular bird in our yard. Fortunately, I had the camera with me, as we were hosting a family picnic and I had been taking photos of everyone. I walked around the house to see how the kids’ chalk drawings on the driveway were coming along, and heard this odd scratching sound coming from the tree.

On the trunk, close to the ground, was a huge woodpecker! We’ve seen woodpeckers in our yard before, but not one that looked like this! I snapped a few photos, and some of our visitors even got to see it before it flew off. I looked it up, and identified it as a Pileated Woodpecker.

As the days get shorter and cooler, limiting our time outdoors, consider hanging a bird feeder or two near a living room, dining room, or kitchen window and make it a family project to watch the birds. It can be as simple as just watching the birds or as involved as naming which birds the family recognizes, identifying new birds, and keeping a list of birds seen at the feeder.

What is Spinosad?

It’s time to spray my cabbage plants with Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew to get the cabbage worms under control.

The cabbage worms have really started to damage the foliage on my fall cabbage and broccoli plants. Which means I need to do something about these cabbage worms now before all the leaves are completely gone.

Since we try to grow our vegetables and flowers organically, I had been removing the cabbage worms that I saw with gloved hands, but I admit, I haven’t kept up with it every day and the small ones are very hard to see. So now it’s time to use something more powerful.

Spinosad (spin-OH-sid) is actually an active ingredient in many garden insect sprays today. It was first isolated from a naturally occurring soil dwelling bacterium that was collected on a Caribbean island from an abandoned rum distillery in 1982. It was first registered as a pesticide in the United States for use on crops in 1997.

There is a lot of debate surrounding Spinosad – some think it’s a good alternative to regular pesticides, others have concerns that it is not 100% safe, even though it is approved for organic gardening.  (It is important to note that not all products that contain spinosad are labled organic).

Studies so far have shown that spinosad does not kill beneficial insects, although it can be highly toxic to bees. To limit bee exposure, do not apply dust to blooming plants as bees can get it on them while pollinating flowers. Spray spinosad liquid on blooming plants in the evening when bees are less active. (Once spinosad is dry, the toxicity level for bees is greatly reduced).

Spinosad works by contact and is actually more effective if the insect pest eats vegetation treated with spinosad. It causes insects to die within 1-2 days. Although it has a good residual on the foliage, spinosad residues on leaf surfaces are broken down by sunlight (so late-day applications also better expose the pests to the spinosad).

We carry several organic Spinosad products:

2 products by Green Light that are both OMRI listed.

2 products by Monterey that are that are OMRI/listed for organic gardening

and 7 Bonide spinosad products listed for organic gardening

The spinosad that I used last fall to control cabbage worms was Bonide’s Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew® and it worked really well. Since I have some leftover I will be spraying these pitiful looking cabbage and broccoli plants tonight.

The Mystery Melon

In addition to enhancing your soil, compost can also reward you with free, self-seeded surprises such as this sweet cantaloupe.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that another plant was growing intertwined with the cucumbers on our fence. The foliage and blossoms were almost identical to our cucumbers and the only way it was distinguishable was because it started to grow green golf ball shaped fruits.

We compost our fruit and vegetable scraps and we figured it must have self-seeded from the compost we used to amend the soil. So we decided to wait and see.

Those small golf balls became full sized cantaloupes! I’ve never grown cataloupes before, and didn’t know when to pick them. We also wondered if the stems would be able to support the weight of the hanging melons, but we couldn’t find an easy way to support the melons without chancing breaking the vines. So we left them hang, and I started to research so I would know when to pick them.

Cantaloupes with netted rinds have a “ground color” below the netting. This color underneath the netting should turn a golden color when it is ripe. Melons also ripen at the blossom end first, (opposite of the stem), so the blossom end should give a little when squeezed. And of course, a ripe melon, even before it’s cut, smells sweet.

When picking a ripe melon out of a home garden, the stem naturally separates from the melon, which is called “slipping”. A gentle tug or turn of the melon is all that is needed to separate the stem from the melon when it is ripe. (Since melons sold at grocery stores must be shipped, they are harvested at the “half slip stage”.) Melons that are harvested at “full slip” will be sweeter because unlike other types of fruit, once they are picked, cantaloupes do not become sweeter as they ripen. (But they can improve in color, texture and juiciness after picking).

Once our largest cantaloupe started taking on golden tones, I held it in my hands and as I barley turned it over to look at the opposite side, it detached from the stem. This meant it was ripe. Hours later we were enjoying the wonderful sweet flavor of a cantaloupe – grown on a fence.

I don’t know the variety, but that cantaloupe is the best tasting “compost” I’ve ever eaten! Best of all, there are other cantaloupes on the same vine, still hanging on the fence and slowly starting to ripen. I love the tastes of summer.

Tree Stump Removal

Getting rid of a tree stump can can be a back breaking job. But I’ve come across a product that makes it a lot easier. The solution is called Stump Out, made by Bonide.

It works by speeding up the decomposition process, making the wood soft and porous so it can then be either chopped apart easily, or burned efficiently. Stump Out destroys the lignin connective tissue in the wood

Here’s how it works.

Drill holes into the stump according to the instructions and fill with the Stump out and water.

Let the Stump Out do its work for 4-6 weeks, softening and decomposing the wood.

Now you have 3 choices.

  1. Let nature take its course, decomposing the stump more quickly than an untreated one.
  2. Chop up the now porous, softened wood.
  3. Burn the stump cleanly and efficiently, with no flame, and no billows of smoke.

To burn your stump:

  • Fill the holes with kerosene, and let that stand for several weeks to soak through the wood.
  • When ready to burn, put enough kerosene on the stump to ignite it.

The stump will burn with nothing but a red glow as it burns right down to the roots. It works so thoroughly, you’ll have nothing left but ash.

So if you have a stump you’ve been dodging with the mower, or disguising with flowerpots, try Bonide Stump Out this fall.

Bonide Stump Out

Sky High Tomatoes

These are the tallest tomatoes I have ever grown!

I’ve run up against an interesting problem with my tomato plants- they have grown so tall that they are now above the stakes! And these aren’t short stakes: about 6′ of the stake is above ground. Even my retired neighbors (that have gardened for years), as well as friends that have stopped in, raise their eyebrows and comment they have never seen such tall tomatoes.

While we’re thinking on how to engineer something to support the tops of the plants, I’ve been trying to determine what caused them to grow like this. Since we tried a lot of new things this spring, there are several variables I suspect contributed to our extra vigorous tomato plants.

The same view of the garden, showing the tomato plants in raised beds shortly after we planted them the beginning of May.

• Raised Beds. We built raised beds this year and filled them with Espoma soil amendments such as green sand, gypsum and rock phosphate, compost, vermiculite, peat moss and good garden dirt. I know this has helped everything grow supersized as a plant can only grow as much as the soil permits.

• Black Landscape Fabric. We used DeWitt’s heavy duty landscape fabric held in place with ground staples for permanent paths between the raised beds. We wonder if the black paths helped heat the ground up sooner in the season because the tomatoes grew rapidly as soon as we planted them.

Dynamite Mater Magic. It’s an organic fertilizer for tomatoes that we mixed in the hole when we planted each tomato plant.

• Drip Irrigation. You may notice the tops of plastic gallon bottles buried next to plants in the photos. The bottles have a small hole in the bottom so when it’s dry, we can water by filling the jugs to water slowly and deeply at the roots of the plants. I borrowed this idea from Patricia Lanza’s book Lasagna Gardening. This book is full of wonderful ideas for home gardeners.

Neptune’s Harvest Fertilizer. It’s an organic fertilizer I wanted to try because I’ve read impressive trial results on several of their products. In between rains when we needed to water, we added a small amount of Neptune’s Harvest Seaweed Fertilizer to water the tomatoes in the irrigation bottles. Neptune’s seaweed fertilizer is actually supposed to increase plant hardiness in adverse conditions such as extreme heat, early frost, and lack of moisture, among other benefits.

• Pruning. Since we staked the tomatoes and tied the new growth up about once a week, I pruned off extra side shoots so I could continue to tie it up more easily. So, the plant grew like a tall vine rather than a bush of shoots.

While I am unsure which specific thing set our tomato plants over the top – literally! – we picked our first red tomato out of the garden this year on the 4th of July and they are still going strong!

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