[ducks and plums, bug baffler, rethinking doyenne de juillet]

My ducks are as useful as they are humorous. I’ve always appreciated their fast-paced, duck walk patrol of the grounds for various insects on which to feast. But this year I’ve had a bumper crop of plums, and the ducks are being a big help with them also.

The thing about plums is that a lot of them drop to the ground. Some of them – not too many, I hope — drop because they ripened before I got to them. Some drop because they have an insect developing in them, such as larvae of the dreaded plum curculio. And some drop because some disease has taken hold. With all the rain this year, quite a few are gray and fuzzy with brown rot disease.

I merely bemoan the loss of plums that drop before I get to them; my loss is the duck’s gain. Fruits that dropped because of some insect or disease, however, could provide the beginnings of next year’s insect or disease problems. Plum curculio larvae exit dropped fruits, burrow into the soil, and emerge a month later as adults ready for some more feeding until they find some place to hibernate for winter. So you can imagine how glad I am to see the ducks gobbling up whatever they can get at beneath the plum tree.

Brown rot infected plum fruits shrivel up to become brown “mummies.” On the ground or stuck on the tree, these mummies provide spores for infections next spring. Again, thank you ducks for cleaning up fallen, infected plums.

The ducks make a beeline for the plum tree as soon as they’re let out each morning, their heads and necks racing so far forward that the birds look like they’re about to lose their balance. Go at it ducks. Enjoy and entertain.


What a joy it is to be out in the garden in the early morning. Humanity is quiet, the birds are singing, air is cool, and a mist softens the brightness of rising sun.

Then come the insects, which are especially bothersome this year because of incessant rain. After the 15 minutes or so it takes them to pick up my scents, the bugs are swarming all around my head. They can definitely take the fun out of early morning play.

No problem. I could just douse my skin with either 2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-piperidinecarboxylic acid 1-methylpropyl ester) or para-Menthane-3,8-diol. Despite their horrendous sounding names, both these chemicals are quite safe to use, much safer that the commonly used DEET, whose real name, N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide or N,N-diethly-3-methyl-benzamide, is equally horrendous. Those two products I mention are not, of course, sold under those names, but as Picaridin (in, for example, ‘Natrapel’ and ‘Cutter Advanced Insect Repellent’) and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (in, for example, ‘Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Lotion’). Both these products compare favorably with DEET in effectiveness and longevity.

Still, I’d rather not goop anything onto my skin, unless necessary, in the freshness of the morning air. So what I more frequently turn to, and also highly recommend, is Bug Baffler, a mesh suit you just slide on quickly over clothes. A cap keeps the soft mesh away from my face.

Bug Baffler does have two drawbacks. One is that when the mesh is used to cover your face, it slightly obscures vision, especially if bright sun is shining directly on it from the front. And second, Bug Baffler makes me look ridiculous.


I’m beginning to rethink the value of my Doyenné de Juillet pear tree, about which I wrote last week. The pears do not really taste good, although waiting for the first drop before harvesting any could have caught her when she was already over the hill. La Doyenné gets one more chance, next year, and then if she’s not up to snuff, off with her head, and onto the waiting stump I’ll graft a different variety.

As for the remainder of this year’s harvest, the ducks, to whom I throw a few pears every day, seem to enjoy them as much as the much more delectable – to me, at least – plums.

[hibiscus tree find, doyenne de juillet, MICROWAVE SOIL]

Smith & Hawkens’ loss is my gain. That’s Smith & Hawkens, the upscale gardening store that sells . . . actually, I’m not exactly sure just what they do sell. They used to sell some very high quality, or at least very expensive, gardening tools, such as stainless steel digging forks and spades that were very decorative on garage walls even if never used. They also used to publish some excellent gardening books, such as Carolyn Mayle’s 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden and Elvin McDonald’s 100 Orchids for the American Garden. And then they sold gardening clothes. And then they sold furniture for the garden. And then they sold “flaming pots” for decorating your terrace.

Which is why I ended up poking my head in at a Smith & Hawkens retail store last weekend. Smith & Hawkens is going out of business and signs proclaimed that everything was discounted by 25 to 30%. No, I didn’t return home with a fire pot for my terrace. My sole purchase was 4 packets of “Renées Garden” seeds for a total of $6.13.

The real find, though, was a tree-form hibiscus with a braided trunk, an almost leafless specimen spotted by my wife as it was being walked out to the dumpster by an S & H employee. I retrieved the plant, noted its dearth of leaves and thirsty state, and walked it to our car for the trip to its new home.

Repotting and timely watering will, I am confident, bring that hibiscus back to its former glory. As for S & H’s fate, perhaps it was the economy, perhaps they wandered too far afield.


She really is the doyen, or most respected member, the dean, of the group. I refer to Doyenné de Juillet pear, also known as Summer Doyonné, and the group of which she is dean is, of course, July (Juillet, in French) pears. I picked over my tree just after the middle of the July and the fruit should be ready to ripen when I get it out of the refrigerator, soon.

(European-type pears, such as Summer Doyonné, ripen from the inside out, so if picked when fully ripe, they taste “sleepy” inside; they taste best if picked fully mature then allowed to finally ripen off the tree, preferably at cool temperatures. A short cold period gets ripening started.)

As described in U. P. Hedrick’s 1921 classic The Pears of New York, Doyonné de Juillet pears are “extremely early and highly flavored . . . borne in prodigious quantities . . . small . . . unattractive . . . do not keep well . . . as free as most of its orchard associates from blight.” All of which makes it a good backyard variety but an awful commercial variety. Mr. Hedrick did go on to say that the quality is variable, which is why I picked all the fruits and whisked them into the refrigerator as soon as I saw the first one on the ground.

This pear is perhaps the Doyonné de Juillet because it’s the only pear that ripens in July. Mine haven’t been particularly tasty. I still grow it, in part, for its history: It represents the handiwork of Belgian plantsman Jean-Baptiste Van Mons, who lived 200 years ago and was the most prolific pear breeder known. Van Mons was responsible for the now familiar pear varieties Bosc and d’Anjou. Doyonné de Juillet originated around 1800.



[jap beetles, rains and weeds, paper and chips]

Friends have made sightings and I’m braced for an onslaught. I even saw a couple of Japanese beetles myself a few days ago but now they seem to have gone underground. (Figuratively, that is. They won’t be laying eggs in the soil and living underground as grubs for at least a month.) I’m sure I’ll be seeing the metallic green beetles again soon.

I’m at a loss for what to do. Spraying pesticides is out of the question. I have too many plants, too many of which are edible. Poisons on edibles sort of takes the enjoyment out of eating them. I guess if I had one or two prized plants struggling along under attack from Japanese beetles, I might resort to sprays. Then again, I could just wrap them in some fine mesh material such as Remay.

I’m not planning to put out the beetle traps I positioned around my yard for the past few years. Up until a few years ago, beetles were never a problem and when they became just a little problem, the traps captured what few beetles ventured here. But last year, the traps’ bags were bulging with masses of fidgeting beetles every day during beetle season. The traps probably attracted more beetles than would have made their way here in the absence of the alluring scent of the traps.

I am taking some action on some of the beetle’s favorite plants: grapes, hardy kiwifruit, and filberts. That action is a spray of kaolin clay, sold as the commercial insect repellent called Surround. Research suggests some effectiveness, hopefully enough for me to make it to the end of beetle season without doing anything else except tolerating some lacy leaves.


Each year’s garden has its themes, and this year – I hate to admit it – the theme is weeds. (I hate to admit it because I wrote a book entitled Weedless Gardening.)

Rain is the reason for all this weed growth. It’s like a rain forest here. Turn your back on the garden for a few minutes, or stand in place for a while, and the garden or you get are likely to be swallowed in vegetation.

In seasons past, especially dry seasons, drip irrigation would pinpoint water to quench the thirst of all my vegetable without coaxing weed growth where vegetables were not, such as paths. Mulch would seal moisture into the ground for my other plants, which I would coddle with supplemental water only their first season.

I’m not complaining, though, because all my vegetables and flowers and shrubs are also growing well. I finally have returned me garden to sufficient weedlessness. It just took more weeding and mulching to get it to that stage.


One savior in this war with weeds has been a building product variously known as red rosin paper or standard dry sheathing, perhaps other names also. It’s a thick, absorbent paper that comes in long rolls and is often used as underlayment for floors.

Not here, though. I’m using the paper as an underlayment for mulch. I’ve used newspaper the same way except this year I had 30 foot long paths to cover. Those paths have had year after year of wood chip mulch but the covering was getting thin and, with all the rain, too many weeds were beginning to appear.

So all I did was roll out the paper, then top it with just enough wood chips to hide the paper. Water can get through the chips and the paper but the combination smothers weeds for lack of light. Paper is an organic material so will eventually decompose. As long as the soil is not disturbed, which awakens seeds buried within, few weeds should appear especially as I replenish the chips every year or two. And if things get bad again, I’ll just re-paper the paths.