Up until a few years ago, I couldn’t get sufficiently empathetic to other gardener’s Japanese beetle woes. That, despite the fact that Japanese beetles are not picky eaters and descend upon gardens almost everywhere. The problem – the empathy problem, that is – was that never more than a few beetles ever made their appearance in my garden.

That situation changed – bad for my garden, good for my empathy – around 2005, when beetle numbers started increasing. Nowadays my garden has annual, full-blown outbreaks of the beetles. Last summer’s rain was good for the beetles’ egg-laying, so problems may be severe this year.

Trapping, milky spore disease, walks over the lawn with spiked shoes, and hand-picking all do their part in limiting beetle numbers, but a recent report tells of another tack: geraniums! Botanically Pelargonium, and specifically zonal geraniums, the ones with the dark zones on their leaves. When Japanese beetles eat geranium flowers or leaves, they become paralyzed for about a day, during which time they’re susceptible to all sorts of predation.

I started thinking about the beetles now, well before they are due to arrive, so that I could start propagating dozens of geranium plants to set out all over my yard this spring. Before beginning, though, I decided to have a chat with Dr. Chris Ranger, the USDA entomologist in Ohio who has been watching beetles keel over following feasts on geranium. It’s a good thing I called because Dr. Ranger quickly pointed out that Japanese beetles won’t eat geraniums unless nothing else is available.

So planting geraniums will not control Japanese beetles. For me, come June, it will be back to hand-picking and traps. On the bright side, geraniums may become a source of a natural, botanical formulation for controlling the beetles. And the flowers are pretty.


The greenhouse is starting to fill up with vegetable seedlings for transplanting. Generally, plants to grow as transplants are tomatoes and others that that need a long season before harvest, and broccoli and others from which you pick a lot from each plant. Root vegetables generally don’t like to be transplanted because their roots want to go straight down deeply, deeper than your average seed flat, before they swell. Any disturbance and the plants die or yield deformed roots.

Beets, however, are one root vegetable that I have been transplanting successfully for a few years. One reason I start beets indoors is because their seeds don’t germinate well. Indoors, I can control moisture and temperature for best germination.

And each beet “seed” is actually a cluster of seeds in a dried fruit, so once they sprout, they come up in crowded clumps. From a seed flat, I can lift individual plants once they have seed leaves and transplant each into its own home in a compartmentalized seed tray.

And finally, some creature – a bird? – always seems to tug out small beet seedlings in the garden. Perhaps the red color in the leaves makes the bird — if the culprit is, in fact, some bird — mistake the seedlings for fruits. At any rate, larger seedlings that I transplant don’t suffer such affronts.


By the end of this week, I’m hoping to have almost all the blueberry bushes pruned, both highbush and lowbush.

On the highbush varieties, I cut a few of the oldest – and, hence, thickest — stems away or to low, vigorous branches using a saw or lopper. Then, using a hand shears and still crouched beneath a bush, I thin out some of the youngest stems wherever they are crowded. After standing back up and snipping back any straggly, gawky, or crowded branches,as well as any that are dead or broken, I’m finished with a bush.

The lowbush blueberries are easier to prune: I just lop all stems back to ground level. The best crops will be borne next year on new shoots that spring forth this year. Those stems yield a lesser crop the following year, and then I start the cycle again by lopping those lowbush blueberry stems way back again.

The problem, of course, is that there are no blueberries to eat each year their stems get lopped back. I’ve solved this problem by dividing the bed in thirds and lopping only a different third of the bed back each year.

(weeds from wet last summer)


As the writer of the book Weedless Gardening, I would have expected my own vegetable garden to be more weedless. I see weeds in my garden, more than in springs past.

Last summer’s wet weather has something to do with the present weed situation. In a normal summer, with its periods of dryness, drip irrigation (part of my “weedless” gardening system) pinpoints water to my garden plants without promoting weed growth in paths and between widely spaced plants. Incessant rain kept promoting lush growth everywhere.

The clear plastic tunnels that I put up to extend the harvest season of endive, lettuce, and other greens late into autumn also contributed to the present weed situation. Garden plants weren’t the only plants that thrived in those mini-greenhouses. Weeds also were able to sneak in and get some foothold.

In fact, the weed situation is not really that bad. The other day I cleared five beds, each about 3 feet wide and 20 feet long in less than an hour. I started at one end of each bed pulling out each weed along with any remains, now dead, of last autumn’s garden plants. One bed had a lot of little weeds that had sprouted. Rather than pull them individually, I decapitated them en masse by skimming just a half-inch or so beneath the surface of the ground with my sharp winged-weeder. Those small weeds are too small to re-sprout from root pieces.

Important in “weedless gardening” is not tilling the soil, which keeps weed seeds, inevitably present in any soil, from being exposed to the light that they need to sprout. By not having to till the soil and by thoroughly clearing beds of weeds and old plants, the beds are immediately ready for planting– as soon as the ground warms.

(rosemary and gardenia failures)

A reader, in telling me how much he enjoyed reading this “gardener’s notebook,” went on to say that he especially liked – perhaps he said “found interesting” – my failures. Well, here you are Alan: Looks like I’ve done in another rosemary plant. I went to water it and was presented with leaves that were a bit more needle-like than normal rosemary leaves, and drier. I soon realized I’d killed another rosemary plant.

Except for periodically dying, rosemaries generally have been ideal herbal houseplants for me. Each leaf packs a lot of flavor, so it’s a plant you can actually use freely in cooking without decimating it. It’s also decorative as well as culinary, whether grown as a sprawling bush or — my choice – as a miniature tree. And it tolerates the dry, low-light conditions of heated homes in winter.

This last point, I think, has been responsible for my “rosemary death syndrome.” Those narrow, waxy leaves tolerate dry air, but the plant as a whole, my guess, needs plenty of water. Rosemary is not difficult to root from cuttings, so I’ve always had plenty of new plants to replace those I lost; my tack with current replacements is to make sure the soil in their pots is constantly moist. Already I’m amazed at how thirsty these plants really are.


Gardenias are not as easy to root from cuttings as are rosemary plants, so the gardenia I lost a couple of months ago did not have a replacement waiting in the wings. Nonetheless, I’m taking up the challenge and am determined to grow gardenia successfully.

The more I mull over that loss, the more I believe water – or lack of water – was also the problem with the gardenia. As a matter of fact, too much water or too little water is probably the most common problem with growing plants generally. One of the challenges in growing gardenia is that it is particularly sensitive to either excess or insufficient water; I believe I erred in the direction of insufficiency.

Okay, so now I have purchased a new gardenia, a small plant in a 3” pot. My plan is to add some extra peat moss (to hold moisture) and some extra perlite (to drain off excess water) to the potting soil for this plant. I also plan to water more frequently – that perlite will help any excess water run down and out of the pot.

And then, just to make sure the plant doesn’t dry out, I’m going to hook up an automatic, capillary watering contraption that’s been sitting on a shelf in my garage for years. This contraption is basically a porous, hollow spike, the pointed end of which gets pushed into the soil while its opposite, open end fits to a plastic tube the end of which sits in a jar of water. As the soil dries out, it sucks moisture out of the porous spike which, in turn, draws it in from the reservoir via the plastic tube. The whole setup isn’t particularly attractive, but I’m growing gardenia mostly for the fragrance of its blossoms, which can make you giddy whether they’re on the plant or floating in a bowl of water.


That dead gardenia did present an opportunity for another visit to Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut. Why go all the way to Logee’s to replace a relatively common plant like a gardenia? Because they offer about a dozen varieties of gardenia, as well as quite a few jasmine varieties, oodles of begonias, and all sorts of other exotic and wondrous houseplants.

I opted for “Four Seasons” gardenia, which is said to bloom sporadically throughout the year. Each blossom packs a whollop of aroma so a constant supply of just a few blossoms is all I need.