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Termites, ticks and last-minute tomato tips

Friday - 5/13/2011, 10:02am  ET

A foolproof tip for top tomatoes

Mike McGrath, WTOP's garden guru


Them Termites Just Love Wood Mulch

Julie in Jessup writes: "I love mulch, but my husband is not a fan -- he fears it might attract termites. Well, as luck would have it, after four years of being in our lovely home, we now have termites. It is not certain that these termites came from the "mulch." However, erring on the side of caution (and to save our marriage and our house), what can you recommend we use in lieu of mulch? I really like "the look" it gives our yard."

As I've been stressing for more than a decade, "mulch" does NOT mean "wood." In fact, wood is the second-worst mulch material you can use. And of course it attracted the termites -- stop sailing down De Nile, Julie!

The best mulches for preventing weeds and retaining moisture are pine straw, shredded fall leaves, dark black yard-waste compost or any of the numerous seed and hull mulches. (Or dried -- not fresh -- grass clippings, but ONLY from a lawn that hasn't been treated with chemical herbicides.)

And never run mulch right up to the side of the house -- it becomes a moist-soil-all-the-way Termite Expressway. Always leave a foot of open dirt around on all sides.

Rubber Mulch: As Good as a Rubber Chicken -- Oy!

Geri in Spotsylvania writes: "I have an influx of sprouting oak trees -- literally thousands of them -- and have to do something to smother them. A big box store in my area is selling bags of rubber mulch. What are your thoughts on using it for this job?"

Why, rubber mulch is great, Geri -- it leaches toxic chemicals and metals, stinks like mad in the summer heat and has a tendency to catch on fire. Great stuff!

Shredding old car tires into "mulch" is just the latest scam that induces gardeners to pay to receive someone else's toxic waste. Either cut the sprouts repeatedly at ground level with a mower or smother them with a non-dyed wood mulch. (As long as that wood won't be placed within 30 feet of a light-colored home or car.)

And next year, use a yard vac to suck up the acorns. Removing them promptly will also keep your tick problems low.

Use the Mouse Militia to Tackle your Ticks

In our last thrilling episode, I mentioned that cleaning up acorns in the fall could greatly reduce the number of ticks in your landscape. That's because those oak nuts are a prime food for deer and mice. Feed the acorn eaters and there's a lot more prey on your property for the ticks.

And despite the fact that we call them "deer ticks," they're really "mice ticks." Mice are the No. 1 prime vector for the tiny ticks that carry Lyme disease and other nasty, hard-to-treat conditions.

What can you do now? Spread Damminix Tick Tubes around your landscape. Mice go into the hollow cardboard tubes and then scurry back home with the cotton balls that were tucked inside -- cotton balls that have been treated with a potent tick killer. The mice line their nests with the treated cotton balls, killing every tick that comes in on any mouse the entire season, without you spraying anything nasty around. It's great common sense tick control.

Squash Borers & Stink Bugs and you ...

Kathy in Bladensburg writes: "I attended one of your recent lectures in the area and enjoyed it immensely! You recommended spraying squash vines with Bt to prevent borer infestations, and to spray neem on stinkbugs. I've also read about "spinosad" and that I can alternate it with Bt to combat the vine borers -- my primary garden pest! One source even suggested injecting spinosad directly into the vines to avoid any contact with beneficial insects."

Well, I really like the new spinosad products, Kath -- but the organic pesticide Bt (sold under brand names like Dipel, Thuracide and Green Step) is caterpillar specific. It can't harm any other type of insect (or anything else). Regular sprayings of Bt on your squash vines will kill the baby borers before they can harm those precious vines. Save the spinosad for stinkbug time.

Eggshells + Tamatas = NO Blossom End Rot

Gray (not Gary) in Springfield writes: "I have a lot of crushed eggshells saved up for my tomatoes. I assume they go in the hole that you dig for the plant and around the sides as well?"

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