Georgia Garden Girl

Garden Great in Zone 8!

Home & Garden Show This Weekend!

The Ledger Enquirer Home & Garden Show is this weekend! There will be lots to do, including a great lineup of speakers on the Columbus Botanical Garden Stage. The show is at the Columbus Trade & Convention Center from 9 to 6 Saturday, March 2 and 10 to 4 Sunday, March 3. Admission is $2. And guess what! I will be there to impart some knowledge about herb gardening — come see me at 3:00 on Sunday at the CBG stage for “Thyme in the Garden.” There will also be exciting presentations on organic gardening, moss gardening, landscape design, ornamental grasses, and tropicals (Saturday) and daylilies, mixed containers, and combination planting (Sunday). I hope to see you there!

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Seed Starting Update

Hello, friends.  I planted my tomato seeds in late January/early February, and I promised you an update.  I hope your own seedlings are doing well.  Here is how mine are doing:

Tomato Seedlings as of February 25, 2013

Tomato Seedlings as of February 25, 2013

As you can see, most of them sprouted and have developed at least one set of real leaves.  Unfortunately, no Green Zebras or Sweet Millions have emerged, so I have to decide whether to plant some late seeds.  If I do (and if they actually germinate this time), then the plants will not be ready to plant outside until April.

Here is my second flat, which has tomatoes and peppers and was planted a couple weeks after the first flat:

Jack "warms" the tomato and pepper seedlings.

Jack “warms” the tomato and pepper seedlings.

My cat Jack decided that bottom shelf under the shop light/on top of the seedlings would be a great place to nap.  Oh, well.  Most of the tomatoes had barely emerged, so I did not lose any.  I’ve yet to see a pepper, which concerns me a little.  Perhaps I need to bring out the heat mat.

By the way, the local big box stores already have tomatoes!  Right now, there are not too many varieties.  I’m fairly sure that the ground is too cold for tomatoes (they need a ground temperature of 60° F), plus the weather folks predict that we will have frost this weekend in some parts of Middle Georgia.  But if you just can’t resist buying a tomato plant, at least go ahead and replant it in a gallon pot and keep it watered.  If you don’t have a cold frame, bring that baby inside on Saturday.

Happy growing!

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Thou Shalt Not (Crape) Murder

Ladies and gentlemen, sharpen your clippers.  It’s time to prune in Zone 8.  Before you go to your yard and start whacking, make sure you know what needs to be pruned, what doesn’t need to be pruned, and the basics of how to prune.

The most common pruning question I get relates to the crape myrtle.  People ask, “I see that lots of people cut their crape myrtles way back.  Do I have to do that?”  I say, “Heck no!”  Horticultural experts and master gardeners refer to the practice of hacking off the top of a crape myrtle as “crape murder.”  Southern Living even has a contest to find the worst perpetrators because Steve Bender (aka SL’s Grumpy Gardener) reckons that the “best way to stop crepe murder is to humiliate the criminals by posting photos of their heinous acts on The Grumpy Gardener” website If you will promise to refrain from crape murder, I will promise not stop my car to take a picture of your landscaping and post it on the internet for all the world to ridicule.  Plus, you will not waste your valuable time on unnecessary work.

First things first, though.  I should start by explaining why to prune, when to prune, and how to prune.  Then I’ll address specific plants, including the crape myrtle.  Before I sat down to write this post, I thought it would be easy to condense this topic into an article of reasonable length.  Ha!  There are hundreds of books and articles about pruning.  I checked several books out of my local library and browsed a few others at a local bookstore, and I reviewed dozens of articles.  I was happy to discover that these sources are all very repetitive, which I suppose is good—everyone agrees on the basics.  I also realized that sometimes a drawing or picture really helps.  Given that I have removed most of the “pruning nightmare” plants from my yard, I don’t have many great examples that I can photograph, so I need to point you to someone else’s photos.  And if I tried to draw pictures it would take me so long that it would be autumn before I could publish the post, and autumn is generally not a good time to prune, so I need to point you to someone else’s drawings.  For these reasons, I decided to try to put together a clearinghouse of information, which is mostly from the following trusted sources: UGA Extension Service, Clemson Extension Service, Walter Reeves, Southern Living, Pruning Trees, Shrubs & Vines by Karan Davis Cutler (a publication of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden), Gardening in the South by Don Hastings, and Georgia Master Gardener Handbook.

Why to Prune
Safety First.
  Let’s say you’ve got a tree whose branches are unhealthy and loom precariously over your neighbor’s garage.  Prune!  Or a tree whose branches are tied up in the power lines.  Call the power company and ask it to prune (then call a line-certified tree guy when the power company says “that’s not our line”)!  Or a bush that blocks your view of the road from your driveway.  Prune!  Or a bush that invades your neighbor’s property year after year (yes, neighbor, I’m talking about that cherry laurel and privet you let creep under the fence into my vegetable garden).  Prune!

Prune for Health.  For any woody plant from a tree to a shrub, you need to get rid of damaged and dead wood.  Leaving it may promote disease.  If you do have a plant with a disease problem, make sure you sterilize your pruning tools between cuts.  Just dip the blades in rubbing alcohol or a weak bleach solution (one part bleach, ten parts water).  Remove suckers, which are sprouts that come up from the base of the tree or shrub.  Suckers only take nutrients and water away from your plant.  For trees, there are a few other guidelines for good health.  Remove branches that grow inward, branches that grow straight down, branches that cross each other, and branches that rub other branches.  Over time, branches that are permitted to rub together will wound each other and may even affect the trunk of your tree.

Keep Plants In Their Place.  I’m going to preface this one by stating what should be obvious.  If you want a small bush, plant a bush that stays small.  Why plant a Natchez crape myrtle, which will grow 20-30 feet tall, when what you really want is a bush that tops out at six feet?  Plant a Dwarf Snow instead.  And why plant a Burford holly that really wants to be 15 feet tall in front of your windows that are three feet off the ground?  If you want to be able to see out of your windows, plant a dwarf cultivar instead.  You can save a lot of time and energy by simply choosing the right plant for the site.

That said, if you’ve made some bad plant decisions or inherited some plants need to be constrained and you are reluctant to remove them, Prune!  You might even get to prune monthly!  (See above regarding Burford holly vs. windows.)  Remember, if you’re trying to constrain a plant, it’s best not to wait until the plant is already tremendous.  If you have a plant that has outgrown its space and you don’t want to do a single “ground level prune,” then you may need to work in phases so the plant will have a chance to recover—never remove more than 1/3 of the healthy growth during a growing season.  And you should know that some plants won’t recover from a severe pruning (sometimes euphemistically called “renewal pruning”)—don’t try this with boxwoods, junipers, pines, cedar, arborvitae, or yews.

Shape Up.
Whether you want a unicorn-shaped boxwood, an espaliered fig tree, or just a tidy looking row of dwarf yaupons, you’ll need to do some pruning.  I like a natural look, so I usually just try to follow the plant’s shape and take out any wacky rogue branches.  I don’t have a great spot for espaliering, so I’m not the best resource.  Visit to get started.  I haven’t got the patience for topiary, so you’ll need to do some independent research to achieve that unicorn.  Check out for some basic information and resources on topiary.

Get Productive.
You can affect the productivity of your plants by pruning.  With roses, for example, if you want a lot of smaller flowers, prune lightly.  If you want a few large flowers, prune heavily.  Remember, pruning promotes vegetative growth and may delay the production of flowers and fruits.

When to Prune
The “when” of pruning depends on your hardiness zone and on the plant.  Now, you can remove dead wood any time.  But for other types of pruning, there is a “best” time to prune.  Here in Zone 8, we try not to prune our shrubs and trees during the late fall or early winter because pruning promotes new growth that may be damaged by a freeze.  We prune non-flowering shrubs, including hedges, in late winter or early spring.  And we typically follow the “May Rule” of pruning for flowering shrubs.  Under the “May Rule,” we prune spring-flowering plants that bloom before May after they bloom, and we prune summer-flowering plants that bloom in May or later in late February or early March.  So prune your azaleas, dogwoods, flowering cherries, forsythia, and winter daphne after they bloom.  Also, if you have hydrangeas that bloom only on old growth, prune them after flowering (I realize that hydrangeas bloom during after May, but this is an exception to the rule; old-school hydrangeas only bloom on the previous season’s growth.  If you’ve got Endless Summer or another newer cultivar that blooms on new wood, prune away in February).  On the other hand, prune your roses, gardenias, crape myrtles, tea olives, and camellias in the late winter, before spring growth begins.

Totally confused?  Walter Reeves developed a super helpful chart designed to help you decide when to prune each type of plant.  Check it out. or also  Another helpful resource: the Grumpy Gardener’s list of 10 Plants You Should Never Prune in Fall (Azalea; Flowering cherry, peach, plum, pear, crabapple; Forsythia; Lilac; Loropetalum; Oakleaf hydrangea; Rhododendron; Saucer or star magnolia; Spirea; Viburnum).

How to Prune
Mama had a professional horticulturist come out to her house to show her how to prune her shrubs.  He told her that she should “prune like a ballerina.”  I’m pretty sure he did not mean for her to put on a tutu and tiara.  What he meant is that for most plants, you need to follow the shape of the plant, and you should proceed gently.

First, make sure you have the equipment you will need.  Most of us need hand pruners and lopping shears.  Those of us who want to prune trees may also find it helpful to have a pole pruner.  And those of us who want to prune hedges will need some hedge shears.  For more information on pruning tools, see

Second, you might find it helpful to know some basic science behind pruning.  The extremely abridged CliffsNotes version is this: pruning promotes growth, and most regrowth occurs within six to eight inches of the cut.  For more information on the science of pruning woody plants, including an explanation of terminal buds, lateral buds, nodes, apical dominance, auxin, responses to pruning, etc., please see

There are two main types of pruning.  The first type is called “heading back” or “shearing.”  With heading back, you remove the ends of the twigs and branches.  This practice encourages thick growth near the site of the cut, and the most vigorous growth will be near the cut and toward the outside of the plant.  This may sound great, but as Walter Reeves says, if you head back to just one height (as you might with power hedge clippers), “you’ll end up with an eggshell of greenery covering an interior of brownery.”  That’s because you need light to reach the interior of your plant in order to have leaves grow there.  The solution?  If you want to head back your hollies or your boxwoods, try to head back to several different heights.  And make some thinning cuts (see below) so the light can get to the inside of your plant.  Caveat: this technique will result in a less formal look.  For information on pruning hedges, see the “Hedges” section of

For most plants, the preferred method of pruning is called “thinning.”  With this method, you remove the entire branch or shoot all the way back to the main trunk, limb, or branch.  This approach encourages new growth within interior portions of a shrub.  The best way to prune a tree is to cut back to the main trunk, a lateral branch, or a bud.  Never ever leave a stub!

For more information and to see some pictures of proper pruning techniques, see,, and

Pruning Trees
Improper pruning is the second leading cause of tree death (construction damage is the first).  The most important rule of tree pruning: do not top trees.  In other words, never cut branches back to stubs like the crape murderers do.

Crape Murder in Midtown Columbus

Crape Murder in Midtown Columbus

Not Crape Murder

Good job, Carmike! Thanks for not crape murdering!

Why not?  Topping produces a ton of new shoots just below each cut—the tree has to replace all the leaf area it just lost.  The shoots are not strong like the old branches, and they are prone to breaking.  Topping also destroys the natural branching structure of a tree, and it actually makes the tree more top-heavy and prone to wind damage.  And topping opens the tree to decay, infection and insect infestations.  For example, crape myrtles that are topped are far more susceptible to powdery mildew than crape myrtles that are properly pruned.  So what do you do if you think your tree is too tall for its space and you don’t want to take it down?  Thin the tree by removing branches back to their point of origin.  Cut branches back to a strong lateral branch, to the parent limb, or to the trunk itself.  If you’re in doubt about the best way to prune your tree to reduce its height, you may want to consult an arborist.

There are several other important rules of thumb for tree pruning.
* Never remove more than 25% of the foliage in one year.
* Do not paint the pruned area of a tree.  Just do a good cut.  And do it in the spring if possible, when wound closure is fastest.
* How do I make a good cut, you ask?  Well, you want the cut to be as close to the trunk as possible.  Most tree folks recommend the “three-cut” approach.  First, you want to make a notch on the bottom of the branch—the notch should be several inches from where the branch meets the trunk.  Second, cut through the limb from the top, a little farther from the trunk than the notch you just made.  Third, remove the remaining stub by cutting just outside the branch collar.  For a picture of the proper three-cut technique, see (Figure 8(b)).  For more information on tree pruning in general, see

Crape Myrtle
With this information in mind, I can now explain how not to commit crape murder.  First of all, for a large old crape myrtles in tree form, there’s just no reason to do much pruning.  Just remove dead wood and suckers, and you should be good to go.

There are, however, times when you may need to prune a crape myrtle.  If you need to prune, do it in late winter (late February is a great time).  If you’ve got a baby crape myrtle and you want to make sure you are encouraging a tree shape, select between three and five nicely spaced shoots as the main trunks and cut out the rest.  Remove the side branches from the bottom half of the shoots.  And remove suckers.  As the crape myrtle continues to grow, you will want to continue to remove the lower branches so that your canopy starts between three and four feet above ground level.

Now, if your crape myrtle is growing up into the roof of your porch, I’m sad to say that it’s just plain in the wrong place—it should have been planted farther from the house.  Bless your pour little heart.  You can try to thin the tree.  Another option: you can try growing your crape myrtle as a shrub.  According to the UGA extension, a crape myrtle will grow as a compact shrub if you prune the stems back to approximately six inches above ground level each year.  For an “intermediate size” crape myrtle shrub, prune by removing growth smaller than a pencil.  Don’t cut large limbs or leave stubs!  For more information on pruning crape myrtles, please see and

Other Trees
Most trees, including ornamental flowering trees, hardly ever need pruning.  Just prune dead or diseased wood, and prune suckers.  You may also need to prune rubbing or crossing branches (for flowering trees, do this after flowering).  For more information, see (Sections on Deciduous Shade and Flowering Trees and Broadleaf Evergreen Trees).  For an article on general care of ornamental cherry, plum, apricot, and almond trees, see

Fruit trees are an exception to this general rule.  Pruning and training are especially important for young fruit trees.  For information on pruning fruit trees, see generally

See also:

Pruning Shrubs
In this section, I’ve listed some of the most common shrubs grown in Zone 8 and given a short explanation on when and how much to prune each plant.  If possible, I’ve included a link to a fact sheet on the shrub.  For more plants/information, see

.  Prune in the spring after the plant flowers, and only if necessary.  Do not prune if the azalea looks good.  See

Beautyberry.  Prune in late winter/early spring to thin out the plant prior to spring growth.  Avoid fall or winter pruning.  You can cut back pretty hard because beautyberry flowers and fruits on new growth.  See

Blackberries.  Make sure you know what kind of plant you have.  Most blackberries have a biennial cycle, and they fruit on last year’s growth.  So after the plant fruits, you should only cut out the canes that fruited this year (they’ll probably look dead, anyway).  But do not cut out the new vegetative growth.  Now, if you have “primocane” blackberries, they fruit on first-year growth, so in winter you can cut off all the canes.  For more information, see;

Blueberries.  If you’re growing rabbiteye blueberries (the kind that do best in Zone 8—they’re actually native to Georgia), you won’t need to prune much except when you plant the bushes.  When the bushes reach four to six feet in height, you’ll want to start a “cane renewal program” and prune between one and three of the largest canes back to 24 inches or less.  Prune in late winter.  See

Boxwood.  Prune in spring or summer.  Please don’t prune when it’s freezing.  Boxwood will not likely tolerate a severe prune, so don’t ever reduce by more than 25% at a time.  Remember to do some thinning cuts so that light and air can reach the interior of the plant.  See  Please note: Walter Reeves says that power hedge trimmers “are the devil’s tool when it comes to boxwoods.”  Also note: what you think is a boxwood may actually be a holly.  To tell for sure, pinch a small twig.  If the buds are directly opposite each other, then you’ve got a boxwood.  If the buds are not directly opposite but are, instead, “alternate,” you’ve got a holly.

Butterfly Bush.  Prune in late winter/early spring to thin out the plant prior to spring growth.  Avoid fall or winter pruning.  According to Clemson, “pruning butterfly bushes to within one foot of the ground annually enhances the flower display.”  See

Camellia.  Important note: Camellias require very little pruning.  They also grow very slowly, so they don’t recover quickly from pruning.  I don’t understand why folks waste time shearing them into orbs.  They have a round growth habit anyway.  That said, you can cut back the wild shoots to maintain shape.  You can also control the growth of camellias using thinning cuts.  For sasanquas, which bloom in the fall, wait until late winter/early spring to prune.  For japonicas, which bloom in the winter, wait until after they bloom to prune.  You can cut out dead or weak stems any time.

Elaeagnus.  Grumpy Gardener says that the best time to prune elaeagnus is “any time you have a chainsaw.”  I second that emotion.  I would also add that you may need a stump grinder in addition to your chainsaw.

Gardenia.  Prune in late winter/early spring to remove straggly branches.  You can also prune in the summer after the flowers turn brown and begin to drop.  Do not prune in late fall.  See

Holly.  Most evergreen hollies will tolerate a pretty severe prune, and they can be pruned most any time.  If you have a holly that produces berries that you like, prune in winter before spring flowering.  If you don’t care about the berries, you can prune just about any time during the growing season (late winter and early spring are always good times).  Remember—the holly will branch where you cut it.  Many of us use hollies in hedges.  For information on pruning hedges, see the “Hedges” section of

Hydrangea.  With hydrangeas, you need to know what kind you have.  Bigleaf, French, and Oakleaf hydrangeas bloom on old wood, which means that you should prune after flowering.  Peegee and smooth hydrangeas bloom on new wood and can be pruned back in late February or early March (if you prune back severely, you’ll get huge flowers but not a ton of them).  For information on hydrangea identification and pruning, see  You may also want to read “Why Your Hydrangea Didn’t Bloom.”

Loropetalum.  Prune in March after the plant flowers.  If your loropetalum is very overgrown, you may want to replace it with a smaller cultivar if you don’t want to prune several times a year. and

Muscadines.  Prune in February or early March.  See

Oleander.  Prune just prior to spring growth; oleander flowers on new growth.  In my experience, it’s best to wait until you’re pretty sure you will not have a frost.  So mid-March or so.  Always be careful with oleander.  It is one of the most toxic ornamental plants in the Southeast.

Pyracantha.  Grumpy Gardener says that pyracantha will eat your house if you don’t keep it pruned.  The best time to prune pyracantha is after flowering/fruit sets so you can make sure you’ll have berries in the fall (berries are only produced on old wood).  WEAR THICK GLOVES.  See

Roses.  Prune hybrid teas, grandifloras, and floribundas in early spring when new growth begins.  Prune climbing and old garden roses roses after flowering.  See

Knockout Roses.  Prune knockout roses in late February or early March.  See

Whew!  I know you’re tired if you’ve stuck with me to the bitter end here—thank you, thank you.   Now I will have a glass of wine, listen to the rain, and peruse the new issue of Southern Living that arrived today.  Have fun with your pruning projects, and be safe!

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Columbus Arbor Day Event Canceled

I just got word that due to the glorious rain, the Arbor Day celebration in Columbus will not be held tomorrow, February 23, as previously scheduled. I’ll let you know when I hear about a new date.

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An Apostrophe Epidemic

Please allow me to digress from the topic of gardening for one short article.  Aunt Emmie and Goggy, this one’s for you.

Is it just me, or are we in the middle of apostrophe epidemic?  Everywhere I look, someone misuses this punctuation mark, and it seems to me that apostrophe mistakes are reaching epidemic proportions.

There are plenty of other grammar and punctuation problems that occur with epidemic frequency, much to the horror of my grandmother and aunt.  There is the ending-sentences-with-prepositions epidemic; it is now apparently acceptable for college professors and newscasters to ask where something “is at.”  There is the use-of-the-wrong-pronoun epidemic; some folks don’t even blink when a college graduate says, “Her and I went to the store” or “George came to the community garden with Martha and I.”  Don’t get me wrong—I do find these slip-ups in the spoken word to be quite irritating.  But these days, it is glaringly obvious apostrophe mistakes that irk me most.  Aren’t we supposed to spend at least some time thinking about what to write and how to punctuate it?

My writing is far from perfect.  I know that.  I am sure that I make my share of mistakes.  I usually experience a conjugation conundrum when it comes to the verbs “lay” and “lie.”  I overuse dashes, semicolons, parentheticals, and footnotes.  I have arguments with colleagues about the proper placement of commas.  I occasionally start sentences with “however.”  But I rarely misuse the apostrophe.

The rules of the apostrophe are simple and finite.  Why are so many people confused by this tiny speck of punctuation?  Maybe we text so much that we’ve forgotten how to write using real words and punctuation.  Or maybe we’ve seen so many examples of poor punctuation in websites, work documents, and (gasp) newspapers that we are desensitized to the problem. But we can still try to get the apostrophe right.  Friends, you don’t need to whip out The Elements of Style every time you want to use an apostrophe.  (But if you’re curious, the apostrophe is addressed on page 1.)  Just try to remember the basic rules.  And remind your friends!  Let’s review.

1. Do not use an apostrophe to make a plural.  This mistake the most common one, and it is on the rise.
Incorrect: “Elizabeth was upset that her neighbor’s trampled her zinnia’s.”
No, no, no!  No apostrophes are necessary in this sentence.
Correct: “Elizabeth was upset that her neighbors trampled her zinnias.”
Think back to elementary school, when you learned that plurals of nouns are typically formed by simply adding an s or, in some cases, by adding es.  I know your third grade teacher did not tell you to add an apostrophe.  Resist!
2. Do not use “it’s” when you mean “its” (and vice versa).  This is the first of what I call the homonym mistakes, and it is terribly common.
Incorrect: “Its a shame that the dog couldn’t find it’s bone.”
Correct: “It’s a shame that the dog couldn’t find its bone.”
Remember, “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.”  “Its” is a possessive pronoun for it.  While we do use apostrophes to create possessives, we do not use apostrophes to create possessive pronouns.  Just as you wouldn’t write “her’s” instead of “hers” or “your’s” instead of “yours,” you should be careful not to write “it’s” instead of “its.”  When in doubt, spell out “it is” and don’t use a contraction.
3. Do not use “your” when you mean “you’re” (and vice versa).  This mistake is similar to the “it’s” vs. “its” mistake.  For some reason, it is even more annoying.
Incorrect: “Your supposed get you’re trowel so that you can plant the pansies.”
Correct: “You’re supposed to get your trowel so that you can plant the pansies.”
“You’re” is a contraction of “you are.”  “Your” is the possessive of the pronoun you.  When in doubt, spell out “you are” and don’t use a contraction.
4. Punctuate the possessive plural properly.  We’re going to step away from the homonym mistakes for a moment.  Don’t worry.  We’ll get back to them soon.  But first, we are going to have a brief refresher course on the possessive plural.  Church bulletin editors and invitation issuers everywhere, please take note.  Let’s say the potluck supper is at the home of Mary and Joseph Gilbert.  If you want to make the plural possessive of “Gilbert,” just add s and an apostrophe.
Correct: “The potluck supper is at the Gilberts’ house.”
Incorrect: “The potluck supper is at the Gilbert’s house.”
On the other hand, if you want to use the couple’s first names, you would add ’s to the second name.  So, “The potluck supper is at Mary and Joseph’s house.”  Simple, right?
Now, let’s say that the Bible study is at the home of Naomi Jones and her daughter-in-law, Ruth.  If you want to make the plural possessive of “Jones,” add es and an apostrophe.
Correct: “The Bible study is at the Joneses’ house.”
Incorrect: “The Bible study is at the Jones’ house.”
Also Incorrect: “The Bible study is at the Jones’s house.”
Again, you could always say that the Bible study is at “Naomi and Ruth’s house.”
5. Punctuate the possessive singular properly.  If you have a friend or relative named James or Charles (or something else that ends in an s), listen up.  Form the possessive singular of a noun by adding ’s—no matter what the final consonant is.  It’s “James’s toy” and “witch’s broom.”  There are exceptions, of course, like the possessive of ancient proper names ending in –es and –is.  So it’s “Jesus’ prayer” or “Achilles’ heel.”  When in doubt, consult Messrs. Strunk and White.
6. Do not use “there” or “their” when you mean “they’re.”  Another common homonym mistake!
Clearly nonsensical: “Their going to plant there annuals over they’re.”
Correct: “They’re going to plant their annuals over there.”
“Their” is the possessive of the pronoun they.  “They’re” is a contraction of “they are.”  And “there” is a place that is not here.
7. Do not use “whose” when you mean “who’s” (and vice versa).  I think this is the last of the most common homonym mistakes.
Incorrect: “Who’s shovel is this, and whose the one who offered to sharpen it?”
Correct: “Whose shovel is this, and who’s the one who offered to sharpen it?”
“Whose” is the possessive of the pronoun who.  Who’s is a contraction of “who is” or “who has.”

Thank you for letting me ramble about the apostrophe.  I realize that the apostrophe epidemic is insignificant compared to all the other epidemics we face (obesity epidemic, flu epidemic, epidemic of incivility, etc.).  But the basic rules of the apostrophe are so easy that we need not suffer from an apostrophe epidemic!  Thank you for your attention to this matter.  And please don’t get me started on “alot” and split infinitives.  I’ll get back to gardening now.

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My Evil Nemesis: The Squash Vine Borer

I have an evil nemesis.  It is not the mean girl from church who told me during middle school that I must be stupid because I went to public school.  It is not the smokers who seem to view the sidewalk in front of my house as their drive-by ashtray.  It is not the folks who thought it was a good idea to let a chinaberry tree grow in my yard (this was not a good idea; chinaberries are quite invasive and should not be used in Southern yards on purpose).  It is not even a person.  My evil nemesis is an insect called the squash vine borer.  I’m not alone—several readers have expressed concern about the squash vine borer, and I will try to answer your questions in this post.

The squash vine borer (Melittia satyriniformis or Melittia cucurbitae) wreaks havoc on squash and gourd plants.  As Jessica Walliser notes in her excellent book entitled Good Bug, Bad Bug, “Unfortunately, most gardeners don’t notice borer damage until it’s too late.”  In other words, if a squash vine borer attacks your garden, you have a beautiful zucchini plant one day and a wilted mess of sadness the next.  To you, it may seem to happen overnight, but this horticultural murder is definitely premeditated.  What happens is this: one day in late May, a black and orange moth that looks kind of like a wasp emerges from her cocoon.  She meets a boy moth.  One thing leads to another, and the girl moth lays some eggs on the vine of your squash plant.  The eggs hatch, and some little white larvae emerge.  Don’t be fooled by their diminutive size; the larvae are killers, and your squash plant is their all-you-can-eat buffet.  The larvae bore their way into the stem and feast on the flesh, killing the plant from the inside.  Your plant dies, you cry, and then you notice the tell-tale sawdust-like residue at the base of the vine, and you clench your fists and yell to the heavens, “why, why, why?”  (At least that’s my reaction.)  Then the larvae, finally finished with their gluttonous rampage, settle down into the soil as pupae.  When spring arrives, they undergo a metamorphosis and turn into the aforementioned black and orange moth.  And so the cycle continues.

Clemson University - USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series,

Squash Vine Borer. Photo courtesy of Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series,

For more photos, see

How can you stop this evil insect?  Everyone from Walliser to Walter Reeves says that prevention is key.  Here are the universally acknowledged methods of preventing the heartbreak of a squash vine borer infestation.

* Get a Move On.
If it is possible, rotate your crops.  Don’t plant squash in the same place for three or so years.

* Keep it Clean.
Well before you plant your first squash of the spring, make sure you have removed all of the old squash vines from your garden.  That way, any larvae still in the vines will be removed from your garden.  In late winter, till the area to expose any larvae/pupae that have settled down into the soil.  Your friendly neighborhood birds should take it from there.

* Plant Early and Often.
Plant your squash as early as the weather allows (read: as soon as your soil hits 60° F and you think that frost is unlikely).  The adult moths don’t emerge until early summer, so if you plant early enough, it’s possible that you’ll be sick of squash before the larvae launch their attack.  And plant your squash throughout the season.  Late plants may also miss the attack.

* Put Up Barriers.
There are lots and lots of recommendations, but the basic concept is the same: minimize how much space is available for the moth to lay her eggs.  Some options:

  • Mound soil over the vine to the lowest flower.
  • Wrap aluminum foil around the plant base where the stem meets the ground (note: I’ve tried this one, but perhaps I did it wrong.  Maybe I’ll try again this year.  Mama read somewhere that plastic cup “collars” would work, but they didn’t.  Perhaps the problem was in the execution.).
  • Cover plants with floating row covers when they start to vine, and remember to anchor the fabric to the ground.  Of course, you’ll have to remove the cover when the plants flower or you’ll have to hand pollinate.

* Search and Destroy.
Be on the lookout for the various stages of the squash vine borer.  Show no mercy.

  • If you see the orange and black moths flying around during the day, you’ll know it’s time to inspect the plants for eggs.
  • Whether or not you see the adults hovering in your garden, you should inspect the plants for eggs and destroy them (just wipe ’em off and crush ’em).  The eggs are, I’m told, reddish brown and are usually at the base of the stem.  Note: while you’re looking for squash vine borer eggs, you could also look for squash bug eggs and destroy them too.  You don’t want squash bugs, either—they are little squash vampires that suck the life right out of your squash plants.  Well, they suck the sap, anyway.  Squash bug eggs are usually on the underside of leaves.
  • Take a look at the stem of your plants to see if there is evidence of borers.  To me, it looks like sawdust on the vine.  This is your chance for revenge: cut open the stem, dig out the borer, and kill it.  Then cover your wounded squash vine with moist soil.

* Go Nuclear.
As a master gardener, I was taught to take an “integrated pest management” approach to insect control.  That is because 95% of bugs are good or at least benign.  We need bees and butterflies to pollinate our veggies.  We need ladybugs to kill aphids.  We need assassin bugs, praying mantises, and spiders to kill a whole mess of pests.  Most insecticides kill the good guys along with the bad guys.  And guess who bounces back first (hint: it’s not the good guys).  So I try to use insecticides as a last resort.  That said, if you can’t get the plants in early or if you always seem to be attacked by squash vine borers, you can try an insecticide.  Walter Reeves suggests either a weekly application of carbaryl powder to the base of the stems or spraying with acetamiprid.  Remember to read the directions!  And note: once the borer has entered the vine, it’s too late for the insecticide to work.  So take that into account when you’re devising your regimen.

Final Thoughts
One reader asked if she should consider removing an area of her soil and replacing it.  This proposal has some appeal—as discussed above, the pupae of squash vine borers settle down in our soil for a long winter nap.  In the spring, the pupae turn into adults and make their above-ground debut just in time for squash season.  That said, removing and replacing soil seems like an awful lot of work, particularly given that it would only stop the reader’s homegrown grubs.  In its adult form, a squash vine borer is a moth that could simply fly over to the reader’s yard and lay its eggs.  So I’m reluctant to suggest the removal/replacement approach until she has exhausted the other, less dramatic alternatives, starting with crop rotation, tilling, and preventive barriers.

Now that we’re all armed with this information, I feel much better about our chances against the squash vine borer this year.  I’ll keep you posted on my progress.  Please keep me posted on yours!


Celebrate Arbor Day in Columbus!

I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last post!  It’s been busy at work and with site visits.  Mama cashed in on her Christmas present (two days of yard work), so I had to do that. Plus, my sister had a new baby girl, so of course I had to go visit, and I am smitten.  Isn’t she the most precious thing?
EAM 20130201
Enough excuses!  It’s back to work with an important announcement. Next Saturday, Keep Columbus Beautiful and the Urban Forestry and Beautification Division will celebrate 35 years of Columbus Georgia as a Tree City USA.  There will be tree walks, bucket truck rides, free tree seedlings, interactive nature activities, environmental exhibits, and much more!  Country’s BBQ will be on site, and the The Girl Scouts of Historic Georgia will be selling Girl Scout cookies.  Don’t miss out on the fun and fellowship!
Where: Lakebottom Band Shelter, Cherokee Ave., Columbus GA
When: Saturday, February 23, 2013, 11:00 am-1:00 pm
Contact the Keep Columbus Beautiful Commission office for more details. 706-653-4008.

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