The overnight frosts appear to be gone (knock on wood). The rains have returned. Gardening is finally in progress.
Now it’s time for problem-solving. That rain we’re so grateful for? Slugs are loving it too. In fact, all sorts of insects and critters are emerging from that extra warm winter slumber with their beady eyes on your hostas and tidy, corner salad-garden.
Add to that the time crunch of watering and planting while trying to hold on to a job, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Luckily, Kansas City is full of expert gardeners willing to help. Below, they’ve offered a few gardening hacks — tricks of the trade on some of the most common problems plaguing area gardeners.
Few pests come close to matching the senselessness of cutworm damage. Seedlings a gardener may have spent all afternoon transplanting will be lopped off the next day at soil level. To make it worse, the cutworms don’t even have the decency to eat the plants they’ve left to die.
Nicia Gdanski, an extension master gardener in Lenexa, improvises cutworm-preventing collars around each plant using the mouth of a plastic water bottle or even toilet paper tubes. The collars have to go down into the soil a little bit, she says, but they prevent the worms from getting a grip around the stems.
Pick and destroy is the method recommended for squash bugs by Ben Sharda, executive director of Kansas City Community Gardens. The bugs love the Kansas City area and can be a terrible scourge to all types of vining plants if they’re allowed to get established.
Sharda says it’s worth the effort to go out into the garden and carefully examine the underside of the leaves, looking for little rows of eggs in symmetrical pattern. Once found, they can be torn off and smashed with the fingers.
But don’t drop the smashed eggs back onto the dirt, he says. You’re never sure if they’re really dead. Better to put them in a plastic bag headed for the trash.
Mark Samborski, owner of Antioch Urban Growers, likes clove oil to get rid of squash bugs. He uses a specially made atomizer to spray the oil on them.
Copper tubing is one way to keep slugs at bay, according to Johnson County master gardeners. In their book, “Untangled: Straight Talk From Passionate Gardeners,” they note that the oozy mollusks cannot survive a trip across copper. They advise placing copper tubing around the borders of flower beds.
Slugs can be gotten rid of in a variety of interesting ways. The same book advises spraying hosta pips with a mixture of three parts water to one part ammonia. And then there’s the beer party method. Sink a small plastic container into the soil in the slug-prone area and pour in some beer. Slugs will be attracted to it, fall in and slime no more.
At Mitzvah Garden KC, a length of fishing line strung a few feet above 4-foot cattle fencing seems to do the trick against roving deer. The line is occasionally festooned with lengths of reflective tape that flutter in the wind, said Larry Lehman, one of the co-founders of the community garden. The line apparently confuses the deer as they try to judge the fence’s height.
The gardeners at Mitzvah used to hang pieces of Irish Spring soap along the fence because of its reputed repellant properties, but they haven’t since running out a while ago, he says.
“I don’t know whether it helped or it didn’t, but we’ve had no deer.”
In a similar vein, fencing has also been effective in keeping out rabbits, he says. A chicken wire enclosure about 2 feet high and with the bottom edge a few inches below ground has worked well, he says.
Online sources recommend plastic forks planted tines up to keep cats and other critters away from landscape plants.
Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a magic cure for squirrels.
“A good dog or a good cat goes a long way,” Sharda said.
Row covers, however, have been a favorite among gardeners for keeping all kinds of flying insects from coming in and laying their eggs. They also can provide a little protection from the sun in hot months and keep plants warmer during cool months. And they are one of the few things that provide any protection against squirrels.
Ania Wiatr, a senior gardener at Powell Gardens and an urban farmer, makes row cover using conduit pipe, which is usually cheap at a hardware store. She has fashioned a pipe bender out of plywood that shapes the hoops into a crescent. The cloth goes over the pipes and is anchored with rebar and landscape staples. During the heat, shade cloth over the hoops is a way to keep tender greens going longer, she said.
Sharda extolls the benefits of row covers. The right size cloth can be difficult to find in garden centers, so Kansas City Community Gardens sells it at their store by the foot.
During hot, dry Kansas City summers, getting enough water to plants can be a problem. Most area garden experts recommend water-efficient drip hoses. Rain barrels saving water off the roof are also popular. And there are no end of suggestions on the internet that involve poking small holes in the bottom of a container, filling it with water and setting it close to selected plants.
But the award for the most ingenious watering hack has to go to Mitzvah Garden, which is on a hill in Overland Park and does not have access to a water spigot.
Realizing their hilltop location would make digging a line impractical, Mitzvah Garden organizers went to work on a catchment building, which is basically a 40-by-30-foot roof that catches rainwater to fill 22 containers. The system has a 6,000-gallon capacity for the drip irrigation lines watering the garden, Lehman said.
Since there’s no electrical line either, the gardeners put up solar panels to power a pump to get all that water to the hoses.
The spells of extreme heat and drought make things difficult enough that some flower gardeners have taken a second look at native plants. Dee West, president of the Northland Garden Club, uses native plants in her garden.
“They don’t drive you nuts with constant watering,” she said.
Mulching is one solution that can help with both watering and weeding. A good layer of mulch will keep the soil from drying out too quickly, but it also can prevent weeds.
West has had success starting several gardens by layering compostable materials first. The layers block light for emerging weeds and later break down to provide food for garden plants. Wiatr has used landscape fabric to keep out weeds. Others recommend layers of newsprint or cardboard and grass clippings.
Gdanski has found all kinds of garden uses for things that might normally go in the trash.
▪ Plastic newspaper sleeves can become real sleeves protecting your arms if you have to remove poison ivy, she says.
▪ Empty grated Parmesan cheese containers and coffee cans make good shakers to do spot lawn seeding or fertilizing.
▪ Cheese containers also are good garden twine dispensers, she says. The roll of twine goes into the canister with the thread unspooling through one of the big holes in the lid.
▪ Gdanski also sets a timer on her water spigot to water the bird feeder once or twice a day.