hornwormFirst things first: the tomato worm, also known as the tomato hornworm, also know as Manduca quinquemaculata, isn’t a worm at all. It’s a caterpillar and a really BIG caterpillar at that. Think Alice in Wonderland caterpillar big, and you’ve got the idea. It’s no wonder, given its size (up to 4 inches long), that one or two of these “worms” on a tomato plant can wreak a lot of havoc really fast — defoliating leaves, eating new growth, and even eating young fruit, completely destroying a plant sometimes in the matter of a couple of days or even a night. For that reason, I advise to catch them early. Here’s what you should look for:

If you have them, you might start noticing leaf wilt or damage at the top of your tomato plant before you actually notice the tomato worm itself. They attach themselves to the undersides of leaves and tend to feed more at night to avoid the heat, which makes them difficult to spot. Plus they are green and will blend right in with the plant’s foliage, so that doesn’t do you any favors either. You also might start to notice dark green or black gross stuff on the lower leaves of the plant.  You guessed it — that’s their poop.

horw_worm_with_wasp_eggsThe nice thing about these “worms” is that they are big and you can catch them easily. If you have read past articles we’ve written here before, you can probably guess that I’m going to tell you to simply pick the caterpillar off of the plant and throw it into that ever reliable bucket of soapy water. In this case, vigilance is really your best weapon. Sometimes going out at night with a flashlight will make spotting them easier.

Now, this is where things really get interesting. If you see a tomato worm on your plant that has what appear to be little grains of white rice stuck to its back — leave it. It is doomed and it isn’t going to do any further damage to your plant. Those little white things are actually the cocoons of a type of parasitic wasp that are using the worm for food and eventually will kill it. You actually want all of those little cocoons to hatch and grow into wasps so that they will lay eggs on more tomato worms and help you with your problem. It’s even a good idea to plant companion plants such as Queen Anne’s lace, fennel, and dill around your vegetable garden to attract this type of wasp.

If your caterpillar doesn’t meet its doom via death by soapy water or wasp eggs and makes it to the pupae stage and forms a cocoon, don’t fret. This stage is spent in the top two inches of the soil. If you till your garden after your harvest, you should be able to kill almost all of them that made it into the ground. If they are fortunate enough to make it to adulthood, however, they will emerge in the late spring as a hummingbird moth (also known as the sphinx moth, also known as the hawk moth). To give them their due credit — these moths are great pollinators of night blooming plants.hummingbird_moth

Oh and that “horn” on it’s posterior is a total fake — perfectly harmless. It’s meant to fool predators but don’t fall for it.

RX-DK-GDN26605_deadhead-flowers_s3x4_lgIt happens every year and it goes way back to childhood; that stomach-turning moment when I see the first “Back to School” display at the store and realize that summer is flying by. How can this be? How can next week really be August? There must be some mistake. Aren’t we still in late spring? I’m just not quite ready to admit it, but I’m also that person that tells people I’m still in my early-mid-thirties so that’s not saying much.

Unfortunately, we cannot stop the momentum of time and summer will indeed be over before we know it. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to bring about summer’s demise prematurely in your garden.

When it comes to your flowering plants, they have one goal in mind and it’s not to impress you during evening cocktails. No, their job is to go to seed —  something that almost always happens once a plant has stopped flowering. If you interrupt that process, your plant will continue to grow and often, flower, because it hasn’t completed its task. Like when your boss walks in at 5 p.m. with a new job that still needs to be done — you keep working.

The maintenance practice of deadheading is how you redirect a plant’s energy from the goal of seed production to root and vegetation growth. Simply, it’s the removal of spent flowers from a plant. Whenever you have a flower on a plant that has started to decline in appearance, cut it off — usually at the next lateral bud, stem, or leaf. This is something that you can do all season long to extend the life of your plants and the overall appearance of your garden. Not only does deadheading encourage new growth, but it tidies the garden and rids it of spent materials. You don’t want to see decaying flowers mixed in with your fresh buds — it’s like having a cadaver at a beauty pageant. Frequent deadheading gives your beds a nice, fresh and clean look.

Of course, all plants are different and so are their blooms. For spear-shaped blooms like say, Delphiniums, flowers should be cut back when the flower stalk is about 70% spent. Other plants like Coleus and basil shouldn’t be allowed to flower at all. Pinch back the buds as soon as you see them start to appear on the plant to encourage thick, rich foliage.

Get into the habit of deadheading early on and you will be surprised at how much better your garden will look through the season. You’ll have more flowers, thicker foliage, and a fresh-looking garden that will look like it’s in late spring even if it’s not. Just like if I keep plucking grey hairs I will be in my early-late-thirties forever.

japanese_beetle_adultIt’s that time of year when Japanese beetles start coming out of the ground and our phone starts ringing off the hook with concerned gardeners asking for advice in how to deal with them. I wish I had a fool-proof, easy answer because, if I did, I would be a very rich man. The truth is that the Japanese beetle has long been a source of garden stress and there are a lot of different opinions on how to deal with them. Like most advice that we give, we try the most nontoxic approach and recommend using a combination of methods to tackle them.

Before we address their demise, for this pest, we need to focus for a minute on their life cycle. Japanese beetles start out as eggs and then hatch as grubs (the larval stage) that live just below the surface of your soil. That’s right, grubs — those disgusting, milky-white, wormy things (that’s the scientific description) that you find when planting in the spring, those are adolescent beetles on the brink of adulthood. Adult beetles emerge from the ground anywhere from mid-June through the end of summer — but grubs are really in the soil year-round and this is the best place to start addressing your problem. Not only do the grubs turn into beetles, but they will also eat the roots of your plants (especially grass) making the pest twice as destructive.grub

The best organic way to get rid of grubs is to use biological means. There are particular types of bacterial spores such as Paenibacillus popilliae that you can use which the grubs ingest and then become infected with a disease known as “Milky Spore” that will eventually kill the beetle larva. Over time the bacteria will build up in your soil and spread, reducing your grub count from year to year. Another biological weapon are beneficial nematodes. These are parasitic worms that will enter the grub through small body openings and then, basically eat the thing from the inside out. Unlike bacterial spores, however, beneficial nematodes need to be reapplied year after year.

The best time to do either of these tactics is in the spring and fall, when the larvae (grubs) are closest to the surface of the soil and feeding. But what can you do right now? Those grubs are all grown up and starting to pop out of the soil in droves, salivating for your garden.

beetle_life_cycleStart by picking them off and throwing them into a bucket of soapy water. Like me, Japanese beetles are sluggish in the morning, so if you get out early, you can usually just shake them off into the bucket and avoid touching them if you aren’t into the idea of picking them off by hand. The sooner you start getting rid of the beetles the better. They give off pheromones that attract other beetles, and then those beetles release more pheromones and attract even more beetles, etc. It is for this reason that you should avoid those unsightly, yellow beetle traps. Don’t let them fool you — yes, they are filled with dead beetles — but they use a very strong pheromone that attracts them to the trap, usually from miles around. The beetles you are catching are ones you are actually attracting to your yard, not deterring, making the problem that much worse.

If you want to use an organic pesticide, try a Neem-based solution or insecticidal soap. If your problem persists, you might want to try avoiding plants that the Japanese beetle prefers. This includes roses, Japanese maples, crab apples, and linden, birch, cherry, peach, and plum trees.

The chances of you completely eradicating your Japanese beetle problem are slim, however, with the right kind of care, you can significantly reduce their numbers and the amount of damage they do to your garden.

mowing-the-lawnWhen to mow the grass? If you’re me, the answer is always, “tomorrow.”  If you’re my neighbor, the answer is always, “Sunday at 8 a.m.”  For the most part, I mow the grass when it is convenient for me or, as of late, whenever it stops raining long enough to get outside and do it. However, it got me to thinking; When is the best time to mow that is actually the most convenient (and healthy) for my lawn?

In terms of time of day, the consensus is that mowing should be done in the late afternoon/early evening, and I’m not just making that up to say, “I told you so” to my neighbor. Early mowing is bad for a number of reasons: For starters, usually the ground is wet in the morning. You should always try to avoid mowing a wet lawn as it will result in uneven mowing, clumping of wet grass on your lawn, and is bad for your mowing deck. It also speeds up evaporation — when you mow, you are exposing more of the ground to the elements by removing the thicker foliage from the grass that shades the newer shoots and root system.  This exposure results in a loss of moisture, which can negatively affect your grass as moisture helps in the rejuvenating process. Grass usually needs 1-2 days to recover from the shock of mowing and moisture is key to getting that process started. Mowing early in the morning means you are exposing that grass to a full day of heat and sun, which is not good for a recovering plant. Remember, anytime you negatively affect the ability for your grass to grow, you are giving weeds an opportunity to do so. Mowing in the late afternoon when the grass is dry gives your lawn a solid 12 hours or so to recover when the sun is down and the evaporation of ground moisture isn’t an issue.Lawn-Mowing

The other thing that you want to take into consideration is the length of your grass. Most people make the mistake of keeping their lawn clipped way too short. Generally speaking, the optimal length of your grass should be kept at 2 ½  to 3 ½ inches. Again, this is primarily a moisture issue. You want to keep the grass longer to create shade on the ground to retain moisture — it drastically reduces the need for watering. It also helps to prevent weed growth by keeping the lawn long enough to shade them out.

Remember, you never want to cut more than a 1/3 of the length of your lawn at any given time. This rule is true for most any plant and applies to pruning as well. Cutting off too much growth reduces the plants ability to photosynthesize because you are removing its food factory — the foliage. It also deposits much more thatch as you mow, essentially mulching your lawn. If you have let your lawn get too long cut off a third and then go back in a few days and cut it back further. I know it seems like more work, but in the long run, your lawn will thank you.

Each week, we pick a question that we get through our Master Gardeners hotline and write an article for the popular, online magazine Rural Intelligence.  Below is this weeks article.

I am lucky enough to live in an area where blueberries thrive. They prefer soils with a lower ph, similar to Mountain Laurel, that we find in a lot of the hill towns here in the region. If you’ve tried to plant blueberries and have struggled, checking your soil would be the first place to look. (Read our article on testing your soil HERE.)

bird eating blueberryWe are nearing that time of year when fresh, ripe blueberries will be upon us. Last year I took my blueberries for granted and did nothing to protect them. One day I had almost ripe blueberries, the next all of them were gone. GONE!  All of those bowls of corn flakes I had planned to top with blueberries — lost forever. All of the pies and parfaits that were going to dot my summer — a dream unrealized. The speed at which the birds got my blueberries was shocking to me. It seemed to happen over night, and if a flock of birds is in the right place at the right time, that’s really all the time it takes. Well, it’s not going to happen this year. Here are some tactics you can use to protect your berry bushes from the birds:

String up something shiny
Birds tend to shy away from flashy moving objects. Use this to your advantage and tie foil tape, pie pans, or old CD’s to the branches of your bushes to scare off the birds.

PROS: This is a cheap, safe way to protect your bushes.
CONS: I don’t spend every spare minute in my garden trying to make it look beautiful just to go out and tie an old Milli Vanilli CD to flap in the wind and be the first and only thing people notice. This method is less than discreet and is fairly unattractive, so if your plants are highly visible, it might not be the best option.

Use netting
By tossing protective netting over your plants, you can prevent birds from getting any access to them, saving all those berries for yourself. An old mosquito net works great for this — anything that will still let sunlight through should do the trick.

netting on blueberry bushesPROS: This is probably the best method for saving the most fruit from birds.
CONS: Birds’ tiny feet can get tangled in the netting or they can get caught under the net if they come in underneath of it. Both will most likely result in a very injured or very dead bird.

Plant enough for everyone
At my last house, I had so many wild blueberry bushes growing in the field that even if the birds ate until they were too fat to fly and I picked until my fingers bled, there would still have been some left over.
PROS: Everyone is happy.
CONS: In less productive years, you might not get the harvest you want.

Set up birdfeeders
If you don’t want me raiding your refrigerator, put a pizza in the hallway on the way to the kitchen. That’s the idea here — if you keep feeders around your fruit, the birds will go for the bird seed instead of the berries.

PROS: You’ll attract birds to your garden and protect the berries at the same time.
CONS: Even if I eat the pizza, I will still probably hit the fridge to grab a Coke to wash it down. Likewise, the birds will still eat some of your berries and all of that pizza, I mean, birdseed can get expensive.

fake snakeUse fake owls, snakes, or scarecrows of other predators
This method is fairly old school and self-explanatory. If you go this route, it is important to move the dummy around, otherwise the birds will get wise.

PROS: After your berries are done you will have a fake snake around to scare your loved ones with.
CONS: You probably aren’t going to fake out all of the birds and will still suffer some loss.

Use a combination of techniques and vigilance for the most success in keeping the birds off of your berry bushes. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with sharing a little!

GreenhouseFitpatrick2Last Friday at the Garden was a big deal for us.  In 2012 the Fitzpatrick Family Trust gave the Berkshire Botanical Garden and amazing, incredible, awesome and very generous gift – money to refurbish and reopen the greenhouse located on the property.  Formerly the Rice Greenhouse, it was in some pretty serious disrepair and for the most part – unusable as a four season greenhouse.  Through their generosity, the Fitzpatrick Family changed all of that and we spent the majority of 2012 getting the greenhouse in tip-top shape.  Friday marked the grand re-opening and we were fortunate enough to have the Fitzpatricks on hand to take care of the official ribbon cutting.  Also on hand were the members of the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Fence Club, those who donate $1000 or more to the garden each year.  It was a great opportunity for everyone to see just how we use some of the donations that we receive – they really make a HUGE difference!  We cannot thank our donors, both big and small, enough.  If you are interested in donating to the Garden, click HERE.  From the bottom of our hears – THANK YOU.

If you’re visiting the Garden, make sure to stop by the Fitzpatrick Greenhouse and check it out.  Currently, Rob Gennari of Glendale Botanicals has displayed a fascinating collection of succulent and tropical plants in the Greenhouse as our 2013 Guest Gardener.  It isn’t to be missed!


cocktails 2Photo3

Another summer month, another amazing evening of our Cocktails in Great Gardens series.  June’s event was held at the home of Susan Rothschild and Don Freeman in Richmond, MA and it was phenomenal.  This garden was a testament to what can me accomplished when gardening on a slope.  Terraced gardens were connected with well executed stone pathways that all seemed to lead down to the picture perfect, small pond and water garden.  Accented with a pitched pergola, covered in pink roses and clematis (in peak bloom, no less) guests gravitated to the spot.  Just a up the hill, towards the house, another garden tucked into the woodland’s edge gave a completely different feel from the garden below and presented a breathtaking view of the not-so-distant hills.    A big BBG thank you to Susan and Don for sharing their home with us and inspiring the home gardener in us all!


Each week, we pick a question that we get through our Master Gardeners hotline and write an article for the popular, online magazine Rural Intelligence.  Below is this weeks article.

slug6Slugs. Slimy, boneless, legless, and, for the most part, disgusting. Slugs are a type of gastropod mollusk — they are basically a snail without a shell and, like snails, love damp, shaded areas. You know what else likes damp, shaded areas? Hostas! I’ll give you one guess as to who is defoliating and chewing those big holes in your hosta leaves (see example of one plant being terrorized below).

As we all know, this year has been soggy and although we might not like it, your garden slugs are loving life. If you have a slug problem and don’t do anything to get it under control, they can really wreak havoc on not just your hostas, but on the rest of your garden as well. Slugs also like lettuces, strawberries, corn, beans, your flower garden — you name it.

Fortunately, fighting slugs can be done with a number of non-toxic means. Chances are, you aren’t going to completely eradicate slugs, but you can win the war.

Search and Destroy
hostas being terrorized by slugsSlugs eat mostly at night so if you are using this method, get your flashlight and head out after dark. There are a couple of ways that you can do this. Bring a pail of saltwater with you and physically pick off the slugs you see on your plants, tossing them into the salt water to drown. If touching their slimy, cold, grey, freaky bodies grosses you out, mix one part ammonia to six parts water. Put it in a spray bottle, aim, and shoot. The solution will kill them in seconds. If you are going to hunt them, make it easier on yourself by setting out melon rinds or old vegetables and fruits. It will act as bait, luring the slugs out in greater numbers and into one location.

Booby Traps
This technique is a lot less hands-on. One of the tried and true methods of slug control is the beer trap. Take a pie plate or similar shallow dish and set it in a hole deep enough that the opening of the container is level with the soil surface.  Fill the dish up to about 80% full of beer. The slugs love the yeast and barley in the beer and, unable to resist, will go into the liquid and drown, unable to get out. Check the beer level day to day and add more as needed. Another good trap is to take an old jar (any old mayonnaise or peanut butter jar will do) and put in a couple of tablespoons of cornmeal. The jar keeps the cornmeal dry and the slugs will think it is a delicious treat. The corn meal will expand in their stomachs and kill them. You know what they say, “A moment on the lips…”

sand and copper around plantsThe Blockade
Creating a perimeter of unfavorable conditions around the slug infested plants is another effective method. Copper strips are one solution as the static electricity reacts with the slime the slug produces for locomotion, basically electrocuting them. If you’re looking for something less costly, sand works, too, as the tiny sharp edges of sand particles rip open the slugs’ bellies as they pass over the grains. Slugs also prefer alkalinity, so using things like coffee grinds and pine needles around your plants will help keep the slugs off.

If you are using the beer trap method consider this — do you have pets? If so, you might want to put up some type of cover around the trap so that your pets can’t get to it but the slugs can. I put out a beer trap with a generous pour a couple of years ago and my dog found it way before the slugs. It wasn’t long before he was drunk texting his ex, eating old take-out from the fridge, and passed out on the couch watching QVC. I learned my lesson.



Glechoma hederacea

Each week, we pick a question that we get through our Master Gardeners hotline and write an article for the popular, online magazine Rural Intelligence.  Below is this weeks article.

How can I recognize weeds in my garden?
If you’re anything like me, you are really behind in your gardening this year. The rain has been unforgiving in its persistence and has set me back weeks in terms of what I would normally like to have done at this point. When we are lucky enough to get a few hours of sunshine, I find myself having to make tough decisions; Do I mow? Do I prune? Do I work on one of the two-dozen projects I’ve started but not had time to finish?



Last night (post cloud burst) I decided to do some much needed weeding. Let me tell you, no matter how many times I tackle this chore in the garden, I have to take a step back from time to time and contemplate what is a weed and what isn’t. There are some things like Glechoma hederacea (above left), Chenopodium album (at right), Rumex acetosella (my personal nemesis, below left), and Eleusine indica (at bottom) that I can spot a mile a way. Like anything else, spotting weeds gets easier the more you practice. I rip some stuff out by the handful without a second thought or remorse because I have been fighting those battles for a long time.

But weeds are tricky. Every now and then something new pops up that I don’t recognize and I have to ask myself a series of questions before I play God and pluck it from the garden forever. Here are some tips to help you decide what is and what is not a weed.

Look around
Do you see similar looking plants around it?  A lot of times your perennials will self-seed and spread. If you have like species around it, maybe its not a weed—or—maybe you have a lot of the same weed.



Tug on it – My grandma used this rule to identify weeds, “if it’s hard to get out, it probably shouldn’t be there.”  A lot of “weeds” have taproots deep in the ground and are hard to pull out, breaking off at the base.  Conversely, a lot of your perennials have shallow root systems and can be uprooted fairly easily.  This is not a universal rule, but hey—you try arguing with my grandma.

Do you want it there?
This is the most important thing to consider. A weed is any plant that is growing where it shouldn’t be. My Black-Eyed Susan spreads like crazy in my garden. I pull it up as if it were a weed because if I let it have its way, it would take over.  I’m constantly pulling or moving perennials that have become unruly and you shouldn’t be afraid to either – even if it isn’t what you would normally classify as a weed.


eleusine indica

Eleusine indica

Look it up
A good weed book is a great thing to have. Get one with a lot of pictures that show plants in both their infancy and maturity. For annual weeds, it helps to pull them up before they have a chance to seed so being able to recognize them when they are young is very beneficial. Personally, I like Weeds of the Northeast by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal, and Joseph DiTomaso.

Do you like it?
What one person may consider a weed another person may not. If you like it, then it is not a weed, no matter what the books tell you. You know what they say, “one person’s trash is another’s treasure.” It is your garden — grow what appeals to you.

Each week, we pick a question that we get through our Master Gardeners hotline and write an article for the popular, online magazine Rural Intelligence.  Below is this weeks article.
squash leaf with powdery mildewThis week we got a question from someone who can’t seem to keep powdery mildew out of their vegetable garden, particularly on their squash and cucumbers. When you think of garden pains, this is certainly one of the most common, and it doesn’t just impact veggies — in my garden I always seem to have a problem with it in regards to phlox and bee balm.

Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to tackle mildew. You should start by trying to avoid the problem altogether by taking preventative measures. If you are planting in the same spot as last year, remove all of the dead plant material instead of tilling it under the soil. Next, when purchasing your seeds or seedlings, try to pick a cultivar that is known to be resistant to disease and avoid planting in the shade.

Once you have seedlings in the ground, it is recommended that you mulch — mildew is a spore that comes from the soil, and mulch can often suppress its spread. You’ll also want to be careful as to how you water. Try not to splash the leaves; water at the base of the plant (as with drip irrigation), not from above, and avoid over-watering.

If you do notice powdery mildew forming on your plants, remove the affected areas immediately. You also might want to try thinning out the plants with selective pruning; often mildew can start forming when there isn’t adequate air flow through the plant. We also recommend a baking soda spray that you can make at home by mixing one gallon of water with one tablespoon of baking soda, two tablespoons of vegetable oil, and one tablespoon of liquid soap (such as hand soap). Use this spray every two weeks.powdery mildew spray

If the problem still persists, it might just be possible that it isn’t powdery mildew at all. There are some insects that can cause powdery mildew-like symptoms — take a close look at your plants and look for any signs that could indicate pests just to make sure.

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