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Garden Plot: Don't want to get stung? You won't!

Friday - 4/18/2014, 8:23pm  ET

Be nice to your bees. No bees -- no food. It's as simple as that. (AP)

Support your local bees -- even if they are in your lawn

John in Silver Spring writes: "Ground bees have taken over more than half of our lawn, and are really making our new next door neighbors panic. I do not want to kill the bees as I know that they are beneficial, but how do I resolve my neighbor's panic issues?"

Well you can start by having the neighbors watch as you walk into the middle of the bees while they're at their most active to show that these super-beneficial ground-nesting native bees don't sting. (The males don't have stingers and the females, being female, know better.)

Now, it would be different if this were late summer and they were yellowjackets. Those ground-nesting WASPS are dangerous to the max. But ground nesting creatures that look like bees in the spring are non-stinging, non-aggressive pollinators that are our best hope for human survival as imported honeybee colonies keep dying off. (No bees, no food — it really is as simple as that.)

Luckily, ground nesting native bees are also ephemeral. Just hold the neighbors off with some card tricks* for a week or two and the bees will disappear — leaving you with more flowers, fruits, and a safer more beautiful landscape.

There's still a little time left to prevent crabgrass

Carrie in Bethesda writes: "I've been battling strawberries and crabgrass in my lawn for years. I'd like to try corn gluten as a natural herbicide but am worried that I missed the window. Is it too late to apply it? And will it help with the strawberries taking over our side yard?"

Corn gluten meal is a natural lawn food and pre-emergent herbicide that prevents weed seeds from germinating. It has no effect on existing plants — or crabgrass seeds once they germinate and take root. And we are entering the period of germination right now, so you should apply it as soon as possible. Most folks still have plenty of crabgrass seeds to prevent, and at the very least, it'll give your grass a safe, natural feeding for the springtime.

The best way to control existing weeds like your wild strawberry (an escaped ornamental that was once a very popular ground cover sold at garden centers) is to care for the grass correctly: Cut at the right height with a super sharp blade, always return the nutrient-rich clippings to the lawn, and if you must water, do so deeply but INfrequently.

This "weed killer" is safe for children and other living things

Leslie in Frederick writes: "I tried to buy corn gluten to put down this past weekend, but the garden centers here only had bags of weed killer that also contained corn gluten. Is weed killer with corn gluten an adequate substitute?"

Well, I've never seen all-natural corn gluten meal combined with what most of us think of as ‘weed killer,' and I suggested to Leslie that she had maybe misread the packaging. Corn gluten meal — a by-product of corn starch manufacture that actually contains no gluten (a story for another day) — is an excellent fertilizer for lawns and prevents weed seeds like crabgrass from germinating. So it is a ‘weed killer' (actually a weed preventer) all by itself.

And the very best corn gluten products — the ones whose formulations and manufacture meet the original Iowa State University standards and specifications — have EPA approval to use the words herbicide or weed killer on the label. In fact, I'd steer clear of corn gluten meal products that don't mention those words. They could be cheap animal feed knockoffs that lack the protein power to prevent weed seed germination.

Final word: Leslie checked back with the stores and reports that the ‘weed killer' did indeed refer to the corn gluten itself. And that's an important lesson to remember: Anything that kills unwanted plants is going to be (correctly) labeled as an "herbicide" whether its 100 percent natural or a manmade toxin.

All three acres probably don't need weed prevention

Lee in Highland writes: "I over-seeded my three acre lawn/field last September. There was some germination last fall. Should/could I fertilize/weed prevent with corn gluten this spring?"

The basic answer is yes. Any viable seed sown before the end of September would have germinated before winter, so applying corn gluten meal now as a natural weed and feed won't affect that seed or limit the amount of grass you'll get from that activity last fall.

But three acres is a big area. My advice is to apply the corn gluten in the areas you really care about visually and let the outlying areas pretty much take care of themselves. If you cut at the recommended height (three inches for cool-season grasses) and always return the clippings to the turf, it should look fine from a distance — which is how you're supposed to look at lawns anyway. (Don't stare up close at your lawn or your spouse. No good can come from either activity.)

And, no offense, but it doesn't sound like you had very good seed or did a very good job. You should get superb germination from grass seed spread in the early fall because the soil is so much warmer than in spring. So if you choose to over- seed again, spread some compost first so there's a little bit of non-compacted soil to receive the seed. Start the project at the end of August instead of September and try to insure that rains will provide enough moisture soon afterward.

Corn gluten does prevent other weeds -- just not now

Beth in Columbia writes: Does corn gluten meal prevent chickweed and other invasive lawn weeds? Or just crabgrass?"

Great question, Beth. Applied in April, the natural pre-emergent properties of corn gluten meal will prevent warm-season weeds like crabgrass from sprouting. Corn gluten CAN also prevent cool-season weeds like chickweed, but those weeds germinate in late summer, not early spring, and pre-emergents need to be applied right before a seed's typical germination time.

Luckily, cool-season lawns like fescue and bluegrass should be fed in the fall as well as in the spring, and applying corn gluten between roughly Aug. 15 and Sept. 1 will deliver that feeding and greatly limit the germination of dandelion, clover, plantain, and henbit as well as common chickweed.

*Get an old deck of cards, walk up to the neighbor and say "Here, take a card." When they take one you say "Keep it. I got 51 more." Lather, rinse, repeat.

Thank you, thank you! I'm here all week! Try the Core Values! Don't forget to tip your anchors!

Meet Mike This Month

On Saturday, April 26, Mike will give a detailed home composting talk at 10:30 a.m. then host a brief compost Q & A at noon at the Balls Ford Road Compost Facility in Manassas, Va.

On April 26 and 27, Mike will discuss how to grow your best tomatoes in a pair of free talks. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, head to the Greenstreet Gardens in Alexandria. On Sunday, catch him at 1 p.m. at Greenstreet's Maryland location.

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