Weed Watch: Japanese stiltgrass

A grassy invader

Stiltgrass

Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is a non-native, invasive, annual grass. It has lance like leaves with a silvery stripe down the center, arranged alternately on a thin, wiry stem somewhat like a very miniature bamboo. It normally is 2-3 feet tall at maturity in late summer with seed heads at the top of each stem.  

Stiltgrass was probably introduced into this country as packing material in shipments of goods from China in the early 1900’s. Since then it has made itself at home in open woodlands, paths, roadsides and of course lawns and flowerbeds.

Stiltgrass has the ability to form dense stands that crowd out and smother native and desired plants. The stems root at the nodes, allowing a single plant to advance across the ground.  While stiltgrass is an annual and the parent plant dies in winter, it creates an enormous amount of seed and quickly builds up a bank of seeds in the soil. Each plant can produce up to 1000 seeds and they remain viable in the soil up to 5 years. The key to control is preventing new seed production and preventing germination of the existing bank of seeds.

Stiltgrass close

The plants are shallow rooted and can be pulled by hand. Plants should be removed before mid-August when the seed matures.  Cutting or breaking the plant stems earlier in the season may stimulate them to create and drop seed early, so try to remove each plant completely. The process of weeding may disturb soil and expose more seeds from the seed bank, encouraging new weeds. Mulching directly after weeding will help prevent germination of new seeds. Planting desirable plants densely to leave less open garden area may also help prevent stiltgrass germination.

Plants in a mowed lawn will still create seeds at the lower height. If possible, wait until just before the seed matures to cut large stands of stiltgrass so there is not enough time before winter cold for seed development.

There are some options for chemical control of stiltgrass.  This article from Penn State Extension describes those options.

Want a little more information? Here are some links:

Penn State Extension – Controlling Japanese Stiltgrass in Your Garden

PA Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources: Japanese Stilt Grass PDF

The Humane Gardener – How to Fight Plants with Plants

Plant Profile: Echinacea purpurea

a native pollinator favorite

Echinacea pupurea

Echinacea purpurea has the common name Purple cone flower.  It is a lovely herbaceous perennial that is native to eastern North America. Its showy blossoms usually appear in late June to early July and can rebloom through August. The blooms are very attractive to bees and butterflies making Echinacea a great addition to a pollinator friendly garden.  Gold finches will also visit the flower heads as they ripen to eat the seeds.

Echinacea grows best in full sun, but will take some shade. It requires well drained soil and is tolerant of drought and poor soil. It grows 2 to 5 feet tall depending on the cultivar and for the most part is self-supporting, but may need some support if grown in rich soil or too much shade.

Echinacea generally will continue to bloom whether spent blossoms are removed or not, but removing spent blossoms early in the season may make the plant look more tidy. Consider leaving some spent blossom seed heads over the winter as a food source for birds, but be prepared for some self-seeding around the base of the plant.  I consider this a bonus, and simply move the volunteer seedlings where I want them in the spring. Echinacea is also used as an herbal supplement to boost the immune system.

Echinacea flower

While called purple coneflower, the common version is more of a pinkish-purple and it has been hybridized into a variety of different colors including white, yellow, orange, red and even bi-colors. Some varieties are quite fragrant.

There are also coneflowers that have been hybridized with double or triple the petals to create a “pom-pom” effect, but note that these doubles and triples are not useful to pollinators because the hybridization process eliminates nectar sources.  These hybrids are also mainly sterile, so they do not provide seeds for birds.

Echinacea can be susceptible Aster Yellows. This is a disease caused by infection by a microorganism called a phytoplasma. The infected plant’s flowers will remain green and the cones will be distorted with leaf like projections.   The disease can be spread from an infected plant to a healthy one by leafhopper insects as they feed on different plants so it is important to remove any infected plants you find. There is no cure for Aster Yellows.

Echinacea are sometimes bothered by Japanese beetle which chew the flower petals but they usually out-grow “beetle season” and continue flowering.   

Want a little more information on Echinacea? Here are some links:

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center profile

Penn State Extension – Echinacea Diseases

Iowa State Extension: Yellows Disease of Purple Coneflower

National Institute of Health of Echinacea Herbal Properties

Master Gardener Annual Garden Contest 2019

Are you proud of your garden and believe it is worthy of notice?  Enter the Delaware County Master Gardener 2019 annual Garden Contest being held this summer.

For more than 20 years, the Delaware County Master Gardeners have been sponsoring a garden contest for Delco residents as a way to way to educate and empower gardeners to beautify their environment . 

The contest is open to individual gardeners as well as community gardens in both ornamental and vegetable categories.  We welcome all gardens that merit attention. 

Sub-categories for the contest include:

Ornamental Gardens:

  • Native/wildlife – use of native plants that attract and sustain wildlife
  • Pollinator Gardens – use of plants that attract bees, birds, and butterflies
  • Landscape Design

Vegetable Gardens:

  • Individual
  • Community Gardens
  • Youth Gardens
  • Novice Vegetable Gardens for first year gardeners

Garden judging takes place on June 14th for the ornamental garden categories and August 9th for the vegetable garden categories .

You can download a copy of the contest registration form here.

Winners will be notified by mail. First, second and third place winners in each category are invited to our Fall Fest in September 28th in Smedley Park to receive their ribbons.  

Weed Watch – Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine may have cheerful yellow flowers, but don’t let it fool you. This is an aggressive, non-native thug that is wreaking havoc in our natural landscapes (not to mention front yards, back yards, flowerbeds and lawns).

Lesser Celandine (known as Ficaria verna but sometimes still listed as Ranunculus ficaria ) was brought from Europe in the 1860’s as an ornamental plant and escaped cultivation. The plant has shiny, dark green, kidney shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. It typically emerges in late January to early February.

Because it emerges so early and creates a very dense mat of leaves, it smothers many of our native spring wild flowers by blocking out light, air and growing space before they can even get started. Our native insects are then deprived of the pollen and nectar they need early in the season.

Lesser Celandine is an ephemeral and is usually dormant by late June. This can cause problems in wetlands because other plants have been snuffed out so there is not as much vegetation left to prevent soil erosion in late season flood events.

Lesser Celandine is a very vigorous spreader, mainly through underground tubers and bulblets attached to the leaf stems. It prefers moist soil, but can survive in drier areas. It can colonize an area very quickly.

The tubers and bulblets can be spread by animals, by flooding and even by well meaning gardeners. It is often seen along stream banks where it has been spread by water flow.

Managing Lesser Celandine is very difficult. Small infestations can be weeded out, but you must remove all the tubers and bulblets. Weeding can actually spread the weed if you are not careful. To help contain the spread, keep in mind:

  • Never put removed Lesser Celandine in the compost.
  • Do not pile it on the ground or rake it up, put it directly in a disposal container. You may need to dispose of some soil along with the tubers to ensure you have removed it all.
  • Mowing Lesser Celandine can fling the small bulblets into other sections of the lawn.
  • When the plant is dormant, its easy to move the tubers from one part of the garden to another when transplanting other plants.

It is possible to eliminate Lesser Celandine with herbicides, but the window of opportunity is small. Here are a few references that discuss the use of herbicides.

Master Gardener Pollinator Display Garden

Learn about pollinators at the display garden in Smedley Park.

Article by Louise Sheehan and Heather Gray

One community educational endeavor in which Delaware County Master Gardeners are engaged is the creation and maintenance of various display gardens.

One such garden is the Pollinator Garden. Located on the Penn State extension grounds at Smedley Park, it was founded in 2002 and is replete with mostly native plants that sustain butterfly, bee, and bird pollinators. The purpose of the garden is to inform the public about native plants that attract pollinators.

These pollinators are essential in moving pollen from one plant to another in an effort to produce more plants.  Selecting native plants sustains the natural wildlife and beauty that is unique to our region.

Some plants in the garden are penstemon, bronze fennel, monarda, echinacea,and lobelia cardinalis. This variety of native plants has attracted a delightful diversity of butterflies, including monarchs, pearl crescents, silver spotted skippers, black swallowtails, to name a few.

Insects and animals are essential for pollination. The seeds produced through pollination are the basis of our ecosystems. These plants stabilize the soil and purify the air. Pollinators are also responsible for much of our nutrition; without them, we would not have an ample supply of fruits and vegetables.

Tending the garden begins in early spring with a general clean-up and deciding what additional plants should be purchased or replaced.  Each week throughout the summer, the Pollinator Garden Committee members, maintain the garden by weeding, watering, replanting, pruning, etc.

In 2013 the garden received the Community Greening award from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. It also earned a Penn State Pollinator Friendly Garden Certificate.

The public is invited to visit the garden to view the flowers and pollinators and to learn which plants to choose for their own gardens or to just sit and enjoy the beauty and richness of the garden. To aid gardeners in selecting plants, a brochure entitled How to Grow Your Own Pollinator Garden was designed and created by some of the committee members and is available at the garden. It provides the public with key information on the plants in the garden.  


Plant and seed sales and swaps – Spring 2019

Special thanks to Brenda Troutman for research

Delaware County and the surrounding area has many active gardening groups, gardening societies, arboretums, public gardens and historical sites that hold special plant and seed sales and swaps. We’ve collected descriptions of some of those sales below so you can plan your plant shopping adventures.

Many of these sales support various non-profit and charitable activities – so you can buy plants and do good at the same time. What could be better?

The Winters Heritage House Museum third annual Heirloom Seed Swap. Saturday, March 23, 2019 from 10am to noon at 47 East High Street in Elizabethtown, PA. More information here.

The Penn State Brandywine Sustainability committee plant/seed swap. Friday March 29th from noon to 1:00. Penn State Brandywine, Student Union Building , 25 Yearsley Mill Road, Media, PA 19063. For more information contact
Mary Fran. Email: Maryfran.mcl at gmail dot com

Providence Garden Club Annual Plant Sale. Friday, May 3rd, from 8 am to 1 pm and Saturday, May 4th,  from 8 am to 12:00 pm on the campus of Williamson College of the Trades, 106 S. New Middletown Road, Media Pa. More information here.

Tyler Arboretum Plant Sale. Saturday and Sunday, May 4 and 5, general public, 9am – 3pm both days. More information here.

Garden Club of Springfield 9th Annual Herb, Plant and Bake Sale. May 4, 9:00 am on Saxer Avenue on the grounds of the Old Schoolhouse. More information here.

Schuylkill Center Greenhouse and Native Plant Nursery Spring Plant Sale. Saturday May 4th & 11th 8:30 am to 4:00 pm, Sunday May 5th 9:00 am to 2:00 pm:  8480 Hagys Mill Road, Philadelphia, PA. Click here for more details.

Central Pennsylvania Native Plant Festival and Sale.  May 4, 2019,  10AM – 3PM,  Boal Mansion, Boalsburg, PA.   Click here for details.

Manada Conservancy’s 19th Annual Spring Native Plant Sale.  May 4, 2019, 10:00 am – 3:00 pm at Herbert A Schaffner Memorial Park, Parkside Ave, Hummelstown, PA 17036. Click here for details.

Scott Arboretum Selections: Spring Sale  Sat., May 11, 2019 – Member only shopping, 10 am – 12 pm,  free and open to the public, 12 – 3 pm. More information here.

The Brandywine Conservancy annual Wildflower, Native Plant and Seed Sale. Saturday, May 12–Sunday, May 13, 2018  – 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. More information here.

King’s Gap Plant Sale and Spring Garden Days.  10 am – 4 pm -May 11, 12 – 4pm May 12,   500 Kings Gap Rd, Carlisle, PA. More information here.

Delaware County Master Gardeners Home Garden School and Plant Sale. Saturday, June 1 form 10:00 to 3:00 at Smedley Park, 20 Paper Mill Rd, Springfield, PA. More information here.

Did we miss your favorite local plant sale? Include the information in the comments below and we will add it to the list.

Garden Chores for March

A month of managing mud

Weather wise, March can be a very unpredictable month. Sometimes you can tackle some early spring chores and sometimes you just need to sit on your hands and wait until the weather cooperates.

The biggest problem is wet, soggy soil. When doing garden work, avoid standing, walking or driving over wet soils as much as possible. Wet soils compact much more easily. It is extremely important not to till soggy soils, especially with a rotary tiller. Its not worth risking the soil structure of your planting bed just to try to gain a couple of weeks gardening time.

That said, here are some chores you might be able to tackle.

In much of Delaware County, this month is the time to start seeds for warm season vegetables and flowers that need 8 weeks of growth inside – things like tomatoes and marigolds. You can also start cool season crops like lettuce and broccoli to give them a head start for planting out in mid-April.
Some cold season vegetables (like peas, potatoes, spinach, carrots, radish, onion sets and directly seeded lettuce) can be planted in the garden near the end of the month provided the soil is not too wet to work. The soil should crumble when handled.

You may be able to begin cleaning up some garden debris. It is beneficial to native insects if you can wait until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 F so they have time to emerge for the season.

Rake excess debris carefully off beds that hold earliest bloomers first – bulbs and spring ephemerals. It is OK (actually beneficial) to leave the leaves in place in a woodland garden as a natural mulch. Woodland plants will grow through the leaf cover and the leaves will decompose, enriching the soil.

Trim the old foliage from ornamental grasses before they start new growth.

Trim old foliage from very early spring blooming perennials like Hellabore and Epimedium in order to showcase their spring flowers.

Finish pruning fruit trees and some woody ornamentals. Rejuvenate some overgrown shrubs and hedges by cutting them back. This article provides guidance on what to prune when.

Ornamental shrubs can be transplanted while dormant provided – you guessed it – the soil is not too wet.

Plant pansies and violas in the garden.

Direct sow poppy seeds in the flower beds. Make sure to mark them so you don’t disturb them cleaning up beds later.

Carefully push any perennials that have heaved out of the soil due to freeze-thaw cycles back in place to avoid root damage. Take note of any perennials that will need to be divided next month.

Clean out any bird houses or nesting boxes to be ready for a new season.

Enjoy all the fresh air and sunshine that you can!

The weeds in my beds blues

Those wicked, winter weeds…

Spring is coming – honest, and with the change in the weather the cold season weeds are ready to explode. I usually have a very nice selection of early season weeds.  I thought I’d just share a few…

I’m not sure everyone calls them by the same common name, so I added botanical names – even though I hate giving them any sort of respectability.

Hairy Bittercress – looks innocent until the seeds start exploding

Right now I have tons of Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine Hirsute). This is a winter annual that gets little white flowers on pretty tall stems.  The flowers turn into these long seed pods.  When the seeds are ripe, the pods explode when disturbed – shooting the seeds all over.  Apparently, the seeds can fly up to 16 feet! The best way to manage them is to pull them before they make seeds, but in my garden they like to hide inside other plants.  I think I’ll have them forever.

Purple deadnettle

Another weed growing now is Purple Deadnettle (Lamium pupureum).  I get this all around the edges of my vegetable garden and flower beds. It has square stems – always a warning sign because square stems belong to the mint family, usually very hardy and fast growers.  It gets pretty blue flowers, but it’s dangerous to let it go too long.  I try to pull it out of my vegetable beds whenever I see it and I put it in my brush pile, not my compost so it does not re-root.

I think my most hateful weed (at least this time of the year) is Creeping Charlie (Glechoma Hedoracea), also known as ground ivy.  This weed is a bit of a thug.

Creeping Charlie overgrowing a perennial geranium

It continues to grow in cold weather while many other things are dormant – twining its way around, over and under all the other plants, smothering them.  It grows over and under barriers, through small cracks in raised beds, and roots all along its stem. 

Usually I can work this weed out from around other plants, but sometimes I have to dig up the desired plant, untangle the creeping charlie and then replant.

Some say a weed is just a plant out of place, and its true that some plants we call weeds are actually very valuable to native insects and pollinators (like common violets for instance).

My approach is to try to maintain a kind of peace between my desired plants and the weeds. I think its OK to have a few weeds here and there.

Potting up seedlings

Potting up seedlings – one person’s technique

So many baby plants…

I started these seedlings by sowing a bunch of seeds together – each type in one container.  At this stage its been about 3 weeks since the seeds were sown.

The seedlings have some true leaves now so its time to move them to individual cells to grow on.

To get this far, I just followed the directions on the seed packet. Pay attention to the timing when you start the seeds so the seedlings are the optimum size to plant out. Also, note whether the seeds need light to germinate and do not cover those types with seed starting mix, just surface sow them.

In the past, I would try to start seeds like these in individual cell packs because it seemed like more work to start them in one container and then transfer them.  But over time I discovered this method is actually easier for me for certain kinds of seeds.

Sometimes the seeds are so tiny it’s hard to get just a couple in each cell, so you end up with “clumps” you need to thin. (Not to mention wasted seed and the heartbreak of ruthlessly destroying all the extra baby seedlings.)  Some of the seeds germinate erratically (I find this more true with perennial flowers than annuals) so you end up with a bunch in one cell and none in another.  With this method I can grow on the strongest seedlings and have one in each cell.

To pot them up, first I fill a cell flat with sterile seed starting mix and make a hole in the center of each cell.  I want to have a new home ready for the seedlings before I remove them from their old one

Then I gently remove the soil and seedlings from the tray where they are growing by tipping it upside down into my hand and setting the soil clump down.  Break it apart gently to free the seedlings.

They’re OK… really
Cute little guy…

Then pluck out a seedling.  Make sure you handle it by a leaf – not by the stem.  If the leaf gets a little squished or torn, no big deal. But if the stem gets damaged it can be the demise of the seedling.

Then just tuck the little guy’s roots into the hole in the cell and gently push the soil in place.

In their new home

Once I have all the seedlings in the flat, I water them with a very gentle stream of plain water. I use a watering can but cover most of the hole with my finger to get a very small stream.  You could also use a spray bottle.  The water from the top helps settle the soil around the roots of the seedling.  Sometimes they tip a bit when you water, you can straighten them back up but they often straighten on their own.

The seed trays need to be placed back under good light to grow on, either grow lights or a very sunny window.

I like to use self-watering seed starting trays although other containers are fine, you just need to be more watchful. Self-watering trays make my life so much easier because I can go for a while between filling the water reservoir. As the plants get bigger, you may be surprised at how often you need to water them. They look small but are growing quickly and the grow lights or sun light can dry the soil quickly.

At this stage I start using some liquid fertilizer in the water because the seed starting mix does not have much nutrition for the plants. I mix it about one quarter strength.

Here is my set-up with self-watering trays and grow lights. You can see I still use recycled yogurt cups too! I try to get the seedlings as much light as possible by lowering the light close the to seedlings. I also have it on a timer to get 16 hours of light a day.

Starting the Seed Starting

Starting onions and cold season flowers

I start my first seeds about mid February.  I start onions and some of my flowers including some perennial flowers. I also gamble on an early crop of broccoli, cabbage and lettuce – always hopeful that we’ll have an early spring

For the onions, I start them in small pots or flats (recycled yogurt cups here).  I plant the seeds in moist seed starting mix and cover the container with Press-n-seal (I like that I can re-use it) until the seeds germinate.  Once they are up, I take off the cover and put them under grow lights or into the greenhouse window to grow on. Its important to use a sterile seed starting mix to avoid damping off disease.

If the onion little plants get a bit ungainly and start to tangle up, I just trim their tops.  They will be ready to go in the vegetable garden end of March (weather permitting).  I just break apart the clump and plant them individually. They go in as kind of wimpy little threads that you don’t think can survive.  But they do.  They’re tougher than they look!

Some flower seeds need a pretty long period of growth indoors (some 10 weeks). The more cold hardy ones (like snapdragons) can actually be planted out before the last frost date provided you harden them off first. So for some flowers its not so crazy to start them in February. Pay attention to the seed packet instructions though. Starting seeds too early can result in weak spindly seedlings by planting time. Bigger is not always better.

I start these kinds of flower seeds the much same way as the onions, but pay attention to the growing instructions because some flower seeds need light to germinate and should not be covered with the starter mix.  I also give the flower seeds some bottom heat with a seed starting heat pad to help them germinate.

Once they get a few true leaves I’ll transplant them into flats to grow on before going outside in April or May. 

I resisted this for a long time. It seemed like so much more work to do the transplanting instead of just starting the seeds right in the cells of the flats.  But it actually works so much better for me, especially for extremely small seeds or ones the germinate erratically.  I waste less seed and I can transplant the strongest seedlings – so I end up with a strong plant in every cell of the flat.

I start cabbage, broccoli and lettuce in mid February too.  It’s a bit early, but I want to be ready in case of an early spring.  These I seed directly into a self-watering flat with 2-3 seeds in each cell.  If more than one germinates, I’ll cut off the weaker ones and let the strongest seedling grow on.

After growing for a month and a half they will (hopefully) go into the garden in March.