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Beware of Boy Scouts bearing mulch!

Friday - 4/1/2011, 6:14pm  ET

Using mulch: Don't do it

Mike McGrath, WTOP's garden editor explains why you should avoid mulch.


Meet Mike at Homestead on Saturday, April 16. Mike will give a free kitchen garden talk ("Grow Twice as Much in Half the Space!") at 1 p.m. at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, MD (just outside of Annapolis).

Beware of Boy Scouts bearing Mulch!

Anh in Germantown writes: "Is Boy Scout mulch safe for my garden or home? I recently purchased a few bags of 'recycled hardwood mulch' from a boy scout whom I could not turn away. But I recall hearing on WTOP that such mulch is not safe. What are the negative effects of using this mulch?" Many and numerous are the negatives, Anh. Wood mulches breed nuisance molds that stain homes and cars with impossible-to-remove tar ball-like fungus spores (see an informative YouTube video about the problem here).

Wood mulches also provide cover for plant-eating voles, attract and feed termites and steal food from any plants they're near. And the phrase "recycled hardwood mulch" makes me worry that the mulch you bought might be made from chipped-up pallets and other wood trash -- the worst of the worst! Empty the bags into a big pile far away from your home and car, leave it alone and it will eventually become usable compost.

Grubs in the Lawn? Think Milky Spore for the Fall

Carl in Potomac writes: "I'm finding lots of grubs in my turf - what do I use to get rid of them and when do I apply it?"

Great timing, Carl! These grubs -- the immature stage of Japanese and other scarab beetles -- did all their feeding on the roots of your lawn in the fall, so you don't HAVE to do anything now; they won't do any more eating until they emerge from the soil as armored adults. If you want to prevent those adult beetles, you can wipe the grubs out naturally by applying beneficial nematodes to your lawn when the weather warms up a bit more. (Gardens Alive is one big supplier.) Don't use chemical grub killers; they're dangerous to you and a disaster for our water supplies.

Your big window of opportunity will open later this year -- late summer through early fall. That's when you should apply "milky spore" powder to your lawn. This all-natural grub control is deadly to any grubs that ingest even a single spore, but harmless to every other living creature on the planet. It's amazingly specific.

But that's not all. When an infected grub does die, its body becomes a little milky spore factory, spreading this natural control throughout your entire lawn. Apply the powder as directed to a lawn full of grubs while the grubs are feeding and your lawn will be made grub free for decades.

But you have to wait until fall. Milky spore doesn't work in the spring, because the grubs aren't feeding and therefore won't ingest any spores.

Figs need Winter Protection, NOT Pruning!

Alex in Columbia, Md. writes: "I planted a fig tree in my yard several years ago. It has grown nicely but bears its fruits so late in the summer they don't have enough time to mature into ripe figs. Can you provide advice on what I can do to help them mature, as well as some helpful tips on pruning it back for the winter months?"

You just answered your own question, Alex. Pruning a fig before cold weather hits ensures the highest amount of winter damage to the tree. The poor fig then has to spend so much time recovering and putting biomass back on that the fruits are doomed to arrive late. (NOTE: No plant should be pruned in the fall; fall pruning is always wrong.)

This fall, protect the tree from the worst of winter by wrapping it up in burlap or row cover (a sheer curtain-like material made specifically for plant protection). No pruning!

Prune away any winter killed portions of the plant when you unwrap the tree the following spring, and I suspect that you will enjoy some figs that summer.

Plastic Not the Best Material for Cold Weather Protection

Mike in Manassas has a real head start on some of you! He writes: "I installed some wire cages covered with clear plastic over my rows of early veggies (lettuce, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and broccoli) to protect them from last Sunday's snow. Should I keep this protection up while we still have a risk of unseasonably cold weather? Uncover the plants during the day, but put it back at night?"

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