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Spring brings flowers — and bugs

As April arrives, a vicious resentment of cold, wet and mostly grey challenges me to celebrate some extra days of cool weather where I can squeeze in late winter tasks that elude the to-do list in seasons where it is suddenly warm.

Visualizing manicured beds and fully fruited trees resultant of pruning on time and keeping ahead of weeds and pests keeps my eye on the payoff of spring tasks to benefit a beautiful garden in months to come.

What’s up? Tulips, muscari, crocus. Do not waste your time and money on fertilizing spring flowering bulbs. All they need is stored right in the bulb that gets planted in fall. A hefty dose of phosphorus when planting helps root development, but again, doesn’t make it down to the roots too efficiently if added to soil in the spring. Therefore, spend your time enjoying their upshoots while planning a summer bed where these tiny but mighty hardy bulbs reside.

Adding annuals that need to be watered often shorten the life of your perennial bulbs. Instead, choose drought resistant plants so that you can count on rain alone to water beds where bulbs overwinter. Zinnia, marigold, moss rose and cosmos are excellent choices for annuals that don’t require much attention. Silvermound artemisias has quickly become one of my favorite low maintenance perennials. A relative of the better known Dusty Miller type, this artemesias is a low growing mound of a 12- to 18-inch spread of feathery soft, fragrant growth filling in just as bulbs dwindle.

Pussy Willows: The silvery catkins of our pussy willows glimmer their magic across the gray horizon as I weed the perennial grass from our flower bed. Finally! I pruned them just in time, and quite carefully I might add. Pussy willows are in the category of woody shrubs that have this year’s growth in last year’s branches. Similar to forsythia and lilac, pruning for next year’s growth is done within a few weeks of blooming each spring. However, in the case of well established pussy willows, one can cut 1/3 of the branches even before blooms open so as to feature the prized arrangement of pussy willows in a dry vase for months to come. If you don’t mind the mess, adding water to your cuttings will have them continue their bloom cycle while putting on roots in case you want more shrubs in your landscape. This week, I pruned a handful of cuttings to keep for display and will go back after bloomtime to trim a bit more and shape next season’s growth.

What’s Coming? Bugs. Good, bad and ugly. And now is the time to have your arsenal of control ready to keep all critters in balance. Imagine being introduced to the destruction of a stink bug during a session named “New Exotic Insect Pests.” That was 2010 and I was picturing man-eating moths when Penn State offered emergency advise on an invasive species from eastern Asia that rapidly expanded since its 1998 invasion of U.S. crops.The U.S. Apple Association deemed $37 million destruction to loss of actual apples (not including labor or added pest control expenses) that year in four states alone due to an invasive species from eastern Asia, the brown marmorated stink bug. While the average gardener may not be financially devastated by an infestation, one cannot measure the mourning and grief of losing an entire crop, even if a single pumpkin or prize tomato, to pests.

Here are some interesting pest management facts to consider as you approach bug control duty this season. First, identify the bug and get to know their cravings and habits. Many bugs are isolated to a particular host plant, meaning the insect only eats or lays eggs on certain plants. Often, you can get rid of a pest by eliminating its host plant. In the case of the stink bug, however,three known species have made their way to the USA discovered on more than 300 crops in all growing zones. Hence, food elimination is not likely an effective method in this case.

Next, know their birthing cycle. Eliminating pests late in the season is a lot like herding cats. Early scouting can greatly deter an infestation of your garden. The brown marmorated stink bug enters diapause, a state similar to hibernation, in zones with cold winter months. It is not until night temperature are steadily 50 degrees that it begins to ‘wake up’. Pay attention in late March and early April at the base of your trees. If you spy five adults in the same hour, treat the entire area immediately.

In 2011, the EPA approved azadirachtin(derived from the Neem tree) and pyrethrin (derived from chrysanthemum) for use on stinkbugs. These and other neonicotinoids, carbamates, or pyrethroids may be somewhat effective, but please remember that these pesticides kill everything, not just the bad guys. Treatment should be limited to the infested area and only until the population is under control.

Stink bugs keep cycling pests through the garden with each adult female producing two generations of offspring. An adult female can lay eggs weekly, up to 400 in her five-month reproductive cycle. If you have an infestation, it means babies are born daily and become adults within five weeks.

Arguably just as effective as chemicals in suppressing stink bugs is edible kaolin clay. Fruits are whitewashed with a thin layer of this mineral making them incompatible with feeding and egg laying while also camouflaging the fruit tissue color making host seeking pests miss their target in your garden. For the pests you cannot outsmart, kaolin clay is an irritant that triggers an excessive grooming response, ultimately distracting the pest from ever landing on your fruit again.

Finally, consider beneficial insects, attracting birds and using the landscape to draw pests elsewhere. If you have space for a trap crop, plant a plot of wheat or alfalfa to keep stink bugs away from the garden. Corn, tomatoes and berries are their go-to meals in the garden, so pay special attention to scout those crops early. Attract parasitic wasps, parasitic flies and assassin bugs to prey on the stink bugs. Lady beetles, spiders and birds also eat these juicy morsels right up. Avoid leaving wood, stones or other ground harbor where adult pests can hide. Use these days that are too soon to plant to do another round of clean up and remove all debris where bugs have overwinters, dispose of dead woods and lightly turn top layers of mulch to expose the underlayers to the next week of freezing nights.

Share your spring fever questions with me at gardenmaiden.com.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing newsroom@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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