Grass, grubs, animals, weeds, and planting: URI’s gardening hotline has the answers

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 24, 2000 — The University of Rhode Island’s gardening and food safety hotline receives 10,000 to 12,000 calls each year about everything from planting flowers and vegetables to lawn care, animal control, and canning. The following are the answers to the five most frequently asked questions during the spring and summer seasons: 1. How do I start (or repair) my lawn? “Start from scratch,” said Rosanne Sherry, coordinator of URI’s Master Gardener program. “Too many people just dump soil on top of their old lawn and seed it, but that seldom works. The first step is to remove all of the existing turf and weeds.” Once the area is cleared of old grass and plant material, till the soil and grade it. Then spread on lime at a rate of 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet (or more if a soil test indicates), add a slow-release, seed-starter fertilizer, and rake it into the soil. Using an empty roller, smooth out the surface without compacting it too tightly. “Once that’s done, you’re ready for seed,” said Sherry. “But don’t use a spreader, because that will crack and kill the seed. The preferred method is to cast it out by hand, just like you’re feeding chickens.” Sherry recommends a mix of blue grass, fescue and perennial rye if the lawn is in full sun, or a blend of shady seeds if the lawn is partially shaded. Grass seed needs light to germinate, so it should not be covered in soil. “Just rake it lightly so the seed is in contact with the soil but not buried.” The last step is to keep the seed watered every day for two to three weeks until grass starts to grow. Wait about five weeks before mowing. 2. When do I plant my flowers/vegetables/shrubs/bulbs? That depends on the plant. Cool weather vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes and onions can be planted in mid-April. Perennials, rose bushes, shrubs, trees and early annuals like pansies and snapdragons can also be planted in April. When evening temperatures remain above 50 degrees-usually about mid-May-tender flowers and vegetables can be planted. These include tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, impatiens, petunias and geraniums. “Most Rhode Islanders have a good idea about when the weather is right for these warm-season plants,” noted Sherry. “But people new to the area who are from different climate zones are sometimes shocked to realize that they have to wait so long.” Bulbs should by planted in September and October. “If they’re not in by Halloween, the weather won’t be mild enough for them to get established. And if the bulbs spend the winter in a bag in your garage, you might as well just throw them out,” said the gardening expert. 3. How do I control grubs in my lawn and garden? White grubs are the larval stage of five different kinds of non-native beetles (Japanese beetles, among them). Grub control methods vary from month to month, because different products are used in different seasons and are based on the life cycle of the insect. For a detailed explanatory fact sheet, call the URI hotline at 1-800-448-1011. 4. How do I kill weeds? According to Sherry, the best organic weed killer is “your thumb and forefinger.” “Except on the lawn, I encourage everyone to pull weeds by hand and mulch early in the season,” she notes. “That keeps most of the weeds down without the need for a weed killer that might also kill desirable plants. If weeds are in the lawn, a manual application of weed killer directly on the offending plant should do the trick. But if more than half the lawn is covered in weeds, it’s time to start the lawn all over again.” Sherry said that choosing the appropriate weed killer depends on identifying the weed. If it’s a broad-leafed weed, like dandelions, choose a broad-leafed weed killer. If it’s a grass-like weed, choose a grassy weed killer. Be sure to read the label carefully to make sure the appropriate product is selected. “Weeds are just plants growing in a place you don’t want them,” she said. “An oak tree growing in your vegetable garden is a weed, but an oak tree growing in your lawn is an oak tree.” 5. How do I stop animals from eating my plants? Among the many animals that cause problems in gardens are woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, deer and skunks. Keeping them away requires either a barrier or a repellent. “We do not recommend trapping, shooting or poisoning,” notes Sherry. “An electric fence around your vegetable garden often provides the best protection, and it won’t kill the animals. But it’s not practical around an entire yard.” Predator scents – usually urine – repel animals by convincing them that a predator is nearby. Depending on the product, one application is effective from two weeks to two months against deer, woodchucks and rabbits. For small animals like squirrels and chipmunks, dried blood or blood meal (available in five pound bags at garden supply stores) is useful, but it dissipates within a few days. And while it repels small animals efficiently, it may attract carnivores like raccoons and opossums. Sherry says that “people who call and say they have skunk problems, I tell them, ‘No, you’ve got grub problems,’ because that’s what the skunks are looking for.” The URI gardening and food safety hotline is staffed year round from Monday through Thursday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. by Master Gardeners trained by the University. The phone number is 1-800-448-1011. # # # For Information: Rosanne Sherry, 874-2929, Todd McLeish, 874-7892