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Garden Plot: Varmints! Gnats, rabbits and chipmunks

Friday - 7/4/2014, 9:19am  ET

bunny_1200 thinkstock
Bunny's in the garden? Deer repellent, hot pepper flakes and dog hair can take care of that. (Thinkstock)

Keeping Nasty Gnats Outta Your Face

Eric in Potomac, Maryland, wants help with his nasty gnats. He writes: "Whenever we use our backyard we are surrounded by gnats. They swarm around us, get into our eyes, ears and mouth, and drive us nuts!"

Yes, those little black gnats are one of the great nuisances of summer, and because they breed in water like mosquitoes, are especially problematic in wet seasons like this one. To limit their nasty numbers, do all the things you should already be doing to control mosquitoes: Inspect and clean out your gutters, dump any standing water on your property, and get a jug of BTI granules. Sold under brand names like Summit's "Mosquito Bits" and Gardens Alive's "No-Squito", this naturally occurring soil organism prevents gnats, mosquitoes and blackflies from breeding without harming anything else.

Shake the BTI granules into any water you can't drain, and areas of your landscape that stay damp -- and be sure to let your lawn dry out well between waterings.

More Ways to Knock Out Gnats!

Gnats are also very poor fliers, so having a big fan going behind you when you're outside will keep them away -- and keep you cool.

They'll dive to their doom if you leave little saucers of vinegar and red wine out in the areas they frequent (empty and replenish these "gnat traps" frequently to keep them fresh).

And some gardeners swear that garlic will keep them at bay. So tuck the stems from freshly cut garlic -- or garlic grass -- behind your ears to achieve a very non-gnatty fashion statement.

Is There a Good Grass that's Native to DC?

Adina in D.C. writes, "We have zoysia grass in the backyard and a lovely crabgrass blend in the front. I'd like to start the front yard over and seed it with a mow-able native grass. Supposedly they grow more slowly, stay green longer, dominate those pesky weeds and need relatively little water. What kind would work well in D.C.? And when should I plant it?"

Well Adina, I am sorry to have to tell you that no such grass exists; in fact, there are no turfgrasses native to North America.

Your zoysia -- originally from Asia -- is a great choice for our hot summers. It grows slowly, out-competes weeds, and needs little mowing. But it does go tan and dormant over the winter. If you can live with that annual lack of color, you'd install new plugs and sprigs next Spring, right after your existing zoysia lawn begins to green up.

And there are improved varieties of cool-season grasses like fescues and bluegrass that grow more slowly and need less water -- and these European natives stay green over winter. (They're just always going to struggle in the worst of the summer heat.)

If an improved cool-season grass is your choice, now's the time to plan for the planting. Have the area torn up, raked and leveled before the crabgrass can set seed. Then have a big load of topsoil or compost delivered, spread it an inch deep on top to create a nice rich seedbed, level it all again and sow a high-quality named variety of seed between Aug. 15 and Aug. 30.

Don't use cheap, generic seed; get a named, branded variety that you'll be able to match if you need to fill in bare spots in future seasons. And keep that crabgrass from returning by never mowing lower than three inches, keeping your blade sharp, and avoiding summer feedings and spot treatments for weeds.

"Wascally" Wabbits and Capricious Chipmunks

Fredrick in Annandale, Virginia, writes, "My flowers are under assault! I have chipmunks making holes in the beds, and rabbits eating them from above. I can't shoot them and don't want fences, so I need ideas for non-lethal means to deter them."

Well, a small, low fence is the best defense against rabbits, Fred, because the rabbits that live in this part of the country don't dig. So a fence that's just a foot or two high and buried an inch or two deep in the soil will keep them out. Easy peasy.

And the best way to deter chipmunks (and Evil Squirrels) from digging up your dirt is to soak the soil surface with deer repellent, "mulch" it with hot pepper powder or shake, or, best of all -- spread dog hair around. A nice layer of dog hair will keep all your little varmints at bay -- and as a bonus, will destroy any slugs that get tangled up in the hair.

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