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How to avoid 'mulchrooms' and battling squirrels

Tuesday - 5/31/2011, 2:47pm  ET

mulchrooms
Decorative mulch breeds nuisance molds like these. (User submitted photo)

Battling squirrels

Mike McGrath offers his advice.

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Fighting moss

Mike McGrath, Garden Editor

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Tick tubes only hurt ticks

Our mentions of Tick Tubes last week brought an avalanche of e-mails. Among them, WTOP listener Patrick Young sounded a common concern: "We feed birds. Do birds also collect the cotton for their nests, and if so, does that cause any harm to adult or newly hatched birds?"

Some birds might pick up the little cotton balls to use as nest lining, Pat, but in my experience they'd be the exception. All my birds make their nests exclusively out of things like twigs and mud-although the jays will decorate their cribs with shiny things like tinsel when they find them. And the tick-preventing tubes are placed at ground level, where birds don't generally venture.

And if a bird did pick one or two up, my guess would be that the pesticide on the cotton balls would not harm the birds one bit, but it would definitely rid the nests of bird mites, an annoying parasite that can cross over to humans.

But I suggest you reconsider feeding seed. Birds don't need our artificial food in the summer (just fresh water, which can become scarce in July and August). And the spilled seed feeds mice, which as we have been stressing, are the prime No. 1 carrier of the tiny ticks that transmit Lyme and other nasty conditions. You may want to just feed birds, but you're also fattening up the mice who carry the deadliest of ticks around on them.

And seed feeders attract squirrels, whose evil army is the enemy of all things gardening.

Squirrels: The never-ending battle

Jeannette in Alexandria writes: "I just planted some geraniums and my window boxes are right next to a huge tree. Well, your favorite critters are jumping into my boxes and digging like crazy. Someone recommended cayenne pepper, but it's not working. I don't want to kill the squirrels, but I DO want them to stop...HELP!"

Well, Jeanette, as I've warning for over a decade, squirrels are servants of Satan, sent to earth to torment gardeners with their acrobatically evil, wicked ways. Try a heavier layer of hot pepper. Or remove the geraniums temporarily, cover the soil with hardware cloth (a heavy form of screening sold at hardware stores and home centers), staple the cloth to the sides of the box tightly and then use tin snips to make holes just big enough for the returned plants. Then hot pepper that area heavily.

Wood mulch breeds x-rated 'mulchrooms'

Mary Lou in Poolesville writes: "I thought you might be able to help me identify these very weird, colorful fungi that sprung up last week (see photo). I searched the web and can't seem to find anything that looks like them. Any thoughts as to what they are? Should I dig them up? Or turn over the mulch and try to eradicate them that way?"

Ah, just the word mulch reveals that Mary Lou has fallen for the great wood mulch scam, and her so-called decorative mulch has now begun to breed the nuisance molds that love to incubate in wood and bark mulches. The image she sent reveals her new friends to be the exceedingly pornographic stinkhorn fungus. Embarrassing, but harmless.

But take this a warning to get rid of all of your wood mulch before it breeds the notorious house-staining artillery fungi as well. The little tar ball-like spores shot by those 'shrooms permanently stain any light colored objects (such as cars and home siding) within 30 feet.

Providing calcium for your tomatoes without eggshells

Blair in Germantown writes: "I missed my opportunity to save eggshells this winter and so my tomatoes have been planted without them. I realize this is just begging for trouble, so is there anything I can do now other than just cross my fingers?"

You're cool, Blair. Although I've found that the calcium supplied by buried eggshells seems to be the best prevention against the blossom end rot that turns the heinies of tomatoes rotten and black just as the fruits ripen, calcium in any form can help.

Your two big choices now are to buy an organic plant food labeled specifically for tomatoes (it'll contain added calcium), or to water your plants once a month with about a dozen calcium carbonate supplements dissolved slowly in a regular watering can.

Marching orders for the middle of May

We're kicking into high garden gear now, kats and kittens.

  • If you planted garlic in the fall, be ready to trim off any scapes, little bulges that appear at the tops of the plant's stalks. (Stir-fry these delicious treats in a little olive oil and enjoy!)
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