In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
August, 2006
Regional Report

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This root feeder can be used for watering large trees, but insert it just a couple of inches into the ground.

Bad or Good Advice?

Since this is high gardening season, many of us have lots and lots of questions we need to have answered about what to do in the landscape and garden. I've been watching question-answer columns in newspapers, listening to advice on television and radio, and making note of questions gardeners are asking me.

Now I need to sound off. I'm finding that there is a good bit of incorrect information floating around out there, some of which is actually abusive of the environment. I don't always have the right answer, but I want to make the point that when you ask for advice, it's your responsibility to think it through and if necessary, find a second source.

We certainly get second opinions whenever we have a medical procedure, and I realize that a garden decision is certainly not as critical as medical care. But when given advice, especially about getting out the big chemical guns, it's important to question the information, and perhaps most often overlooked, the geographic region from which it comes. There is a lot of advice out there being generated on the east and west coasts, much of which is inappropriate for our growing conditions.

Okay, I've said my piece. Now I'd like to share with you some of the incorrect information I've come across and hopefully put a few things right.

Deep watering trees. deep watering trees is absolutely necessary in dry times, but there is a right way to go about it and a wrong way. First of all, although the anchor roots go much deeper, a tree's feeder roots -- the ones that take up nutrients and water -- are only in the top foot of soil. These roots cover an area that usually extends to almost twice the diameter of the tree crown.

So, when watering, you need to cover this area. Using a tree root feeder, the spike with holes in it that attaches to the hose, is only useful if you stick it in about six inches. Plunging it to its full depth puts the water below the root zone where it simply moves downward.

A more efficient way of watering is to use a low sprinkler or soaker hose, moving it throughout the root zone. Water large trees long enough to wet the soil six inches down. You can take a trowel and dig a hole to see how far down the water has reached. When it hits six inches, move the hose.

Bugs. I see many, many recommendations to pick insects and caterpillars off by hand. This is a great, safe recommendation in most cases. But then comes the advice to destroy these pests with all sorts of poisons such as kerosene, serious insecticides and even fire.

In most cases, simply dropping the pest into a bucket of dish detergent and water will take care of the problem. The detergent in the water breaks down the bug's protective coating, killing it. No other poisons needed.

And for those bugs that it's hard to handpick -- such as aphids -- a strong spray from the garden hose will usually dislodge and drown most of them. A simple solution for a relatively simple bug.

Other bugs. In order to keep pests off garden and landscape plans, many recommendations state that plants should be sprayed preventively with an insecticide. This is a particular pet peeve of mine. Not only does this put unnecessary chemicals into the environment, but it usually does no good.

The two critical pieces of advice to remember are that you must first see a bug -- insecticides don't work preventively in most cases. If there's no bug there, there's nothing for the insecticide to do. Second -- you must identify the pest correctly. Using a chemical that won't kill the pest is a waste. If you don't recognize the insect or can't find a source to help you on the internet or at the library, you can always take a sample to the county extension office for help.


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