Editor's Note: Meet Mike in Fredericksburg on Saturday, March 22, and Sunday, March 23, at the Home & Garden Show at the Fredericksburg, Va. Expo & Conference Center.
Growing hops: for beer, and they're pretty, too
Jameson in Centreville, Md., on the Eastern Shore writes: "Do you have any specific tips on growing hops in this area? I'm hoping to find plants that are local and adjusted to our unique climate."
A fellow Hop Head! I greatly prefer hoppy beers, and can tell you from experience - I helped a small brewery establish some plantings a few years back - that beer brewed with fresh hops is an ambrosial experience (although some people also grow the big plants strictly as ornamentals and summertime privacy screens).
Now, hops are big plants that need strong support, as the vines can reach 20 feet in a season, and they're not self-supporting - they need heavy-gauge string or wire to hold onto.
These plants are prone to mildew, and so they require lots of elbow room, great airflow, and watering only at the base. They are "herbaceous perennials" - their above-ground growth dies back over winter, but new growth appears as soon as the weather warms up again (just like with hostas). And they obviously grow fast to reach such a size so quickly.
There are a fairly large number of different varieties, including ones with different levels of "bitterness" for brewers.
There has been a huge resurgence in East Coast hop-growing. It used to be the center of the hop universe until mildew pressures moved all of the big commercial growing to the West Coast. But we have some great local resources for plants and advice, including the Maryland Hop Growers Association. Here's its Facebook page.
There' s also a University of Maryland experimental station in Upper Marlboro that focuses on hop-growing. Read this one right away and keep scrolling down: Cornell is selling a great number of different varieties this season, but the order deadline is March 15, and there's a priceless photo of old-school hop-growers using stilts to tend the tall plants.
And yes, I DO expect to get a beer out of this a few years down the line!
Last call for grape vine pruning
Malcolm in Kensington, Md., writes: "Our home came with a grape arbor. The first year we got lots of grapes - last year, not very much. I think the vines need to be pruned, but am clueless as to how."
You are correct, Malcolm. Whether the final intent is fresh eating or wine making, grape vines need to pruned back fairly severely every winter. Last month would have been ideal, but the extended winter means you can do it soon with just as positive an effect.
You'll find lots of articles online illustrating your pruning options, but they can be confusing. Instead, I strongly recommend you follow Lee Reich's advice in either "The Pruning Book" or "Grow Fruit Naturally." Both books are in print, easily available and detail the best way to prune neglected vines as well as new ones. They also illustrate the different methods of trellising in the easiest-to- understand style you're likely to get.
In addition to cutting the plants back, make sure there's an inch or two of compost underneath the growing vines to prevent disease - no wood mulch. And no actual feeding, either. Grapes are very light feeders, and chemical fertilizers dilute their flavor and make them much more susceptible to pests and disease.
Then, be sure to remove a good third of the leaves throughout the season to keep the air flowing freely (this is probably why there are so many Old World recipes involving grape leaves). Then remove some of the actual fruit clusters as well while they're still small. That's how you get the biggest, tastiest grapes at harvest time - if the birds don't get them first.
But that's a Garden Plot for another day.
Best to prune back oversized plants over several seasons
Michele, in Alexandria, Va., has a very common problem. She writes: "We have two beautiful holly bushes that anchor the beds on each side of the front of our home.
But they're now 12 feet tall and we can no longer manage trimming them without ladders. And they block the view from two of our windows. We'd like to trim them back to about 6 feet tall. Can they take it?"
Well, they might not die from that severe a pruning, but they'll certainly look like Hades afterwards. This happens more often than not: Homeowners don't plan for the final size of a plant, and then try to make up for 10 years of growth in one very-ugly round. Don't you do that.
Instead, the best way to reduce their size and keep their ornamental look is to cut them back by a few feet all around this winter - not just the tops but the sides as well, removing no more than 25 percent of each plant. Then you can do some gentle hand-pruning a month later to clean things up. But don't go nuts. Repeat this sequence every year for a few seasons and you'll get them back in proportion with the house, without it looking like a car hit them.
Antoinette, in Arlington, Va., writes: "The past few years our neighborhood has been invaded with voles and rabbits. The rabbits eat all my flowers and the voles have destroyed my grass. How can I control them without chemicals or poisons?"
Well, I'm not sure that even hardcore chemical people use poisons against those creatures. Rabbits are fairly easy to deter with spray-on repellents and/or fencing that's a foot or so high, as the rabbits that live in our part of the country don't dig or burrow.
Voles can be tough pests, but they tend to eat things such as tulip bulbs and the roots of tasty young trees and shrubs. If there are tunnels in your lawn, you have MOLES, but they don't eat plant—only worms and grubs.
Moles? Voles? Let's chase the darn things off
In the last thrilling episode, Antoinette, in Arlington, Va., complained that voles had "destroyed her grass." I wrote her back to explain that voles -- V-O-L-E-S -- eat bulbs and roots, but not grass. Grubs eat the roots of grass, but only in late summer. Could she mean moles -- M-O-L-E-S?
"I do have tunnels," she replied. Ding ding ding!
Raised tunnels are a sign that moles are eating grubs and earthworms underneath your lawn. Now, moles will not eat any kind of poison, so please don't try that route. You'll just risk poisoning cats, children, hawks and owls. Instead, get a mole repellent whose active ingredient is castor oil and spread or spray it heavily on your lawn as soon as the weather warms up.
Bonus: It'll chase away voles as well, as long as your yard isn't covered in wood mulch, which makes them untouchable.
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