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Wonderful water features and bustin' some bugs

Friday - 7/15/2011, 3:25pm  ET

Don't let bugs invade

Mark McGrath

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Walk Around Wonderful Water Features Next Weekend

Ponds and other water features can make a dead landscape come alive with birds, butterflies, dragonflies, toads, frogs and other enjoyable forms of wildlife. And the annual Parade of Ponds organized by Premier Ponds of Burtonsville, Md. is a great way to see lots of examples of the different ways you can use water in the landscape.

This year's event, which takes place July 23 and 24, features more than 30 ponds, waterfalls, cascading streams, fountains and water gardens -- almost all in the Montgomery and Howard County area. It's self-guided, so you can visit as few or as many as you like. Technically free, a $15 donation is requested -- and donate you should, because as always, all proceeds benefit feeding the hungry via the Shepherd's Table in Silver Spring. Click here for more information.

Them's Not Spiders in Them Thar Trees!

Justin in Annapolis writes: "I have a problem in many of the small pine trees that are part of my landscaping: spider webs are starting to encase them. What pesticides are best used to exterminate the spiders?"

Whoa there, Justin. The cobweb spiders of haunted house fame don't do such decorating outdoors, and all spiders are carnivorous -- they eat plant pests, not plants!

Now, if the "spiders" and webs are really small, you might have spider mites -- just mist the trees with plain water a few mornings in a row and they'll disappear. (The little mites can't stand moisture.)

If the "webs" are big, you have tent-building caterpillars. A couple sprays of the organic caterpillar killer Bt(sold under brand names like Dipel, Thuracide and Green Step) will get rid of them without harming you or anything else.

Oh, and if you're feeding those trees chemical fertilizers, stop. Those chemical salts weaken trees and make them attractive to pests like these.

Attack of the Ants!

Eve in Dumfries writes: "I have an incredible outdoor infestation of ants. The local garden center recommended diatomaceous earth because I have two dogs and won't use any kind of poisons. But I just discovered a toad the size of a tea cup living in one of the infested areas and I'm concerned that it might also be harmed by the diatomaceous earth, which I don't want to do."

Your suspicions are correct, Eve; the diatomaceous earth -- a natural desiccating agent typically used to fight slugs -- could well dry out that cute little amphibian of yours. So give him a big birdbath saucer of water sunk flush to the ground to play in, and use boric acid bait traps for the ants -- if you must. Unless they're protecting aphids, outdoor ants aren't a problem, and they even help keep termites away! (And your toad is in their midst because he's dining on them. I'll bet you see fewer ants every day from here on out. Burp!)

Those Jumpy White Bugs Are All Over the Place!

Abby in Burtonsville writes: "My tomatoes and mint are infested with woolly white bugs that hop (or maybe they fly?). What do you recommend I use to eradicate them?"

These strange little creatures have popped up in a lot of gardens this season, Abby, including mine. They have a powdery white coating, cluster along plant stems and do an Olympic-level jump when you touch them. Nobody seems to know for sure if they're whiteflies, white wooly aphids or some form of jumping plant louse -- but identification doesn't really matter.

First, try spraying them off with sharp streams of water in the morning. If they're persistent, spray them with the organic insecticides neem or spinosad. Or smother them with insecticidal soap or oil. You can buy ready-made oil sprays labeled for summertime use, or just use a can of Pam!

Rotten Lawn!

Tryn in Frederick writes: "Every summer my grass turns brown and eventually dies. The roots are stunted and appear moldy when I pull up dead clumps."

Sounds like root rot, so I asked Tryn how he waters, and what kind of drainage he has. He replied, "I water deeply but infrequently, as you always suggest. We have OK drainage but heavy downpours do cause some standing water."

That's your problem Tryn -- poor drainage kills many a lawn. You have two choices. The gradual method is to start aerating the turf (with a real core aerator that pulls plugs out of the soil) every fall followed by top dressing with an inch of compost. Both the aeration and compost will improve the drainage and soil structure, and the lawn should do better every season.

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