Washington State University Extension

Garden Tips

Archive for December 2015


GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written December 6, 2015

There are two types of insects found in homes that I hate, flies and ants. Flies are my nemesis in the fall, entering the house when the door is open and then bothering me. While these flies look like houseflies, they are probably face flies, a pest of livestock. Adult face flies feed on the moisture around the eyes, noses, and mouth of livestock and reproduce in their manure. Yuck!

A couple of face flies inside the home are a nuisance, not a serious problem. Once cold weather prevails, their chance entrance into the house ceases. However, they can continue to be an annoyance if there is a significant outdoor population that overwinters within outside house walls or in attic voids. This more often happens in rural areas where there is livestock raised nearby.

If the flies do overwinter within the walls, some face flies may continue to appear indoors through the winter months when sunshine warms the house walls. The best management for a face fly problem is excluding them from the home with screening and by caulking any openings to the outdoors.

There are some other types of flies that may become a nuisance in homes. Fruit flies are one of the most common. Fruit flies are brownish in color with bright red eyes. These little flies are usually found flying around overripe or decaying fruit or veggies being stored inside the home and they are also attracted to wine, beer, and sugary drinks.

Fruit flies are easy to control by simply getting rid of overripe produce and storing ripe fruit in the refrigerator when possible. Also, rinse out any empty food and beverage containers being stored indoors for recycling. The liquids in these containers ferment and provide a great place for fruit flies to breed.

Moth flies, also known as drain flies, are often mistaken for fruit flies. A close reveals that they are tiny (1/5 inch long) hairy flies resembling moths. They can breed in the decaying organic matter and slime found in the drains of sinks and tubs, garbage disposals, and dishwasher food traps.

One step in control is to keep organic materials from getting into drains by using drain baskets or filters. Chemical drain cleaners may or may not remove the slime in a drain. If not, you will need to manually remove it using a brush or use a biological drain cleaner that contains enzymes that digest slime and organic debris. Also, clean your garbage disposals and dishwashers as recommended by the manufacturer.

Finally, fungus gnats are another nuisance fly found inside homes. These are minute (1/8 inch long) blackish flies. They breed in decaying plant matter and often arise from houseplant potting mixes that are kept overly moist. Potting mixes that contain undecayed organic materials from compost provide an excellent breeding ground for fungus gnats.

At this time of year holiday plants, such as poinsettias, may be a source of fungus gnats, especially if adequate drainage is not provided. The best bet for controlling the problem is to keep the potting mix of house plants slightly moist, not wet. Also, make sure your plants have good drainage and pots are not “sitting” in excess water.

All these flies can be a nuisance. Aerosol pesticide sprays labeled for indoor use will kill the ones flying about when you spray, but they can pose a health risk to you and your family. The real key to control is determining the type of fly and then using the right control measures to get rid of them.


GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written November 29, 2015

You probably have heard about the many trees that came down around our state in the windstorm last week, but you may not have heard about one tree in Spokane that snapped off and speared the house below. It entered the roof, went through the crib of a six-week old baby, and stopped only when it reached the basement floor. Thankfully, the baby was with his mother who was in the kitchen fixing dinner and the rest of the family was safe too. This hazardous tree story literally hit home for me because that little baby is my grandson.

I have talked often about not topping trees, but this story stresses why it is important to prune trees properly and to periodically assess large trees for the potential hazard that they may pose.
What qualifies a tree as “hazardous?” A tree is considered “hazardous” when all or part of the tree could “fail” and damage a “target,” such as a building, a vehicle, or people. Common failures are the breaking off of a tree limb, a tree splitting apart, or a tree uprooting and falling over.

There are a variety of reasons for failures including wood decay from past topping, other bad pruning cuts, or injuries to the bark and trunk; a lopsided crown; competing central leaders or main branches that are weakly attached at a less than 45 degree angle; the severing within the drip line of more than 50 per cent of a tree’s root system; and the development of significant girdling roots at the base of a tree.

The failure of a small tree is usually not significant, but the failure of a large tree can be catastrophic. When I first moved to this area in 1980 we didn’t have many large mature trees in our home landscapes, now there are many more. This is good, but it has also increased our potential for hazardous trees.

If you have a larger older tree, I urge you to check for any signs of potential failure in your shade trees and then consult an ISA certified arborist if you think there might be a problem. A certified ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) arborist can give you reliable advice regarding your tree and its health.

Signs of potential tree failure include:
– trees that have been topped in the past
– a tree that is leaning
– a tree with multiple trunks or with competing leaders
– trees with lopsided crowns
– trees with dead or broken branches
– trees with dead areas of trunk or signs of wood rot

If you have smaller tree that will grow into a big one, also consider having an arborist check it for any corrective pruning that is needed to avoid future problems. It is better and less expensive to take care of these problems when the tree is young.

It is possible that a consultation with an arborist prior to last week’s extraordinary wind event might have avoided the damage to my family’s home, the deaths of several people, and the property of many others, but there is no way to know for sure. Hindsight is always better than foresight.

Hiring an certified to take corrective action before a tree becomes a hazard is not inexpensive, but it is much less costly than having a tree come through the roof your house and potentially harming your family. A search of the yellow pages in the phone book or on-line will help you find a qualified ISA certified arborist. Please do this now before the next big windstorm.


GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written November 22, 2015

Over the last 30 years, area local gardeners have wisely planted trees for shade. This has yielded cooling shade around our homes, but has also resulted in areas of the yard and garden becoming shaded. Since most perennial flowers perform best with full sun, a shaded garden becomes a challenge.

Shade-challenged gardeners should consider planting hostas. Hostas, also known as plantain lilies, are perennial plants prized for their tolerance to shade. These plants are native to Japan, China, and Korea and were first introduced to US gardeners in the mid 1800s.

Today’s gardeners treasures hostas for their diversity of foliage colors from pretty dark greens, to bright greens, grayish blue-greens, and even golds, as well as their different shapes, sizes, textures, and variegation. With over 2,500 cultivated varieties, there is a hosta that will fit into almost any shady garden.

Just because they are prized for their foliage does not mean hostas lack pretty flowers. Hostas produce stalks of lavender, violet, pink or white lily-like flowers in summer, some cultivars with very showy flowers and some that are fragrant.

Most plants develop a mounded round form, but their size varies. Hosta growers classify hosta into categories based on mature plant height from the tiny minis (shorter than 8 inches tall) up to the big giants (taller than 30 inches).

Along with their beauty, hostas are prized by gardeners because they are easy to grow. Like so many plants, hostas grow best in a well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. If preparing a bed, it is advisable to incorporate some organic matter in the form of compost, coconut coir fiber, or peat moss. Because the plants spread horizontally, be sure to dig a generously wide hole when planting individual hostas.

Hostas grow from rhizomes that are planted in the spring, either from rhizomes or potted plants. The soil should be kept consistently moist, but not wet. As “light feeders,” they only require light fertilization.

Hostas are also very winter hardy and most can survive in zones as cold as USDA Hardiness Zones 3 or 4. The other great thing about hostas is that they have few pests, except for snails and slugs that love to gnosh on their leaves. Also, black vine weevils have a predilection for notching hosta leaf edges.

While often touted as “shade-loving” perennials, hostas actually grow best when they receive morning sun or only dappled shade. While some cultivars will tolerate full shade, they do not thrive in it. If hostas receive too much heat or too little water, the leaf edges will develop crispy brown edges. If subjected to the mid-Columbia’s intense summer sun, leaves will develop “sunburn” or the entire plant may turn brown and dry.

In a six-year hosta variety trial at the Texas A & M University, the cultivars rated the best overall were Royal Standard, Blue Cadet, So Sweet, Albo-Marginata, Sugar & Cream, and Blue Angel. You can find hostas for sale at local nurseries, but if you want to try some unusual specialty cultivars, check out on-line sources, like Sebright Gardens ( or Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. (

If you had told me thirty years ago that I would write a column about growing hostas in our area, I probably would have laughed because there was so little shade here then.


GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written November 15, 2015

This past weekend when employing an ordinary garden rake to clean up the deluge of leaves that fell from my shade trees, I started thinking that there must be a better way. There must be some tools or gadgets that would make leaf cleanup less onerous.

While my inexpensive garden rake was doing a pretty good job, I wondered if there was a rake that could make the job even easier. I did a little research and came across the “Lee Valley Power Rake.” While “power” is in its name, the power comes from the gardener. This rake is designed to “glide back and forth across the ground” and only infrequently needs to be lifted, decreasing the stress on your back. Lee Valley points out that it does an impressive job raking leaves, grass clippings and yard waste. It has a 5′ fiberglass handle and a 24″ wide head made of high strength plastic. It is available exclusively from Lee Valley ( I may give it a try.

If I was a little less energetic, I might be tempted to seek out the self-propelled Bosch ALR 900 Electric Lawnraker. This is machine looks like lawn mower and has a 900W electric powerdrive motor. It folds for storage. A review on a British website says it is “suitable for small, medium, and large gardens.” Beneath the raker is a rotating 32 cm wide plastic drum that holds replaceable metal tines. When set at the highest setting, the tines rake up lawn debris that gets sucked into the 50 liter collection box at the back of the raker, much like a bag on a mower. Set at lower settings, the raker will remove lawn moss and thatch.

The review recommends the raker, indicating it has adequate torque to handle the tough jobs. However, I do not think it is for me because I suspect I would be emptying the relatively small collection box, a little under 2 cubic feet, every couple of minutes or less with all my leaves!

I will still need to rake my leaves the old-fashioned way. The real problem is picking them up after raking them into piles. My hands are pretty small, making each “pick-up” quite paltry. However, I do use two plastic dustpans to scoop up the leaves, making each scoopful more worthwhile. There are manufactured leaf scoops or claws designed specifically for picking up leaves. I like the looks of the Releaf Leaf Scoops that are ergonomically designed large plastic “claws” with large internal handholds and scoops at the tips. They tout that they turn little hands like mine into big bear paws. Super!

When cleaning up leaves or other yard waste, another great gadget is the Fiskars 30 Gallon (22-inch diameter) Hard Shell Bottom Kangaroo Garden Bag. This is a pop-up container made of canvas-like polyester. It has a hard plastic bottom and handles that make it easy to drag or haul around the yard. When picking up yard waste that is not going to be composted, I line the bag with a 30 gallon garbage bag. When its work is done, the garden bag easily collapses and stores flat. You can find a variety of leaf scoops and pop-up lawn bags, as well as the lawnraker at

Okay, I have procrastinated long enough. I must go tackle the rest of my leaves.


GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written November 8, 2015

Two weeks ago we talked about the fall garden chores that should be done once fall arrives and cool weather starts to prevail. Here are some tasks that are “good-to-do” but are not absolutely necessary.

CLEAN UP VEGETABLE GARDEN: In the fall, it is a good practice for vegetable gardeners to clean up the garden by removing plants that are done producing or killed by frost. Plants without any obvious disease problems may be chopped up and composted. However if the plants were diseased, do not use them in a compost pile. Once you have the plants removed, add organic matter to the soil by tilling in finished compost or chopped up leaves.

PRUNING BACK ROSES? If you originally come from a colder area of the country like I do, you are probably familiar with the process of severely cutting back roses in the fall and covering the bushes with soil or a loose mulch for protection from cold temperatures. Because winter temperatures here are usually not bitterly cold, severe fall pruning is not needed and can actually make the plants more vulnerable to cold temperature damage. However, after several hard frosts it is good to prune tall rose shrubs back to a height of about three feet to keep them from blowing about in gusty fall and winter winds and possibly uprooting the plants.

CLEAN-UP FLOWER PLANTERS: Spring is a busy time of year so the more cleanup you do now, the further you will be ahead of the game next season. Take advantage of mild fall days to tidy your flower container gardens. Remove all the plants, roots and all, by pulling or digging. Use a garden knife or a sharp trowel to dig and break up root masses and clumps of potting mix. (If you grew ornamental sweet potatoes, you may find a sizable tuber or “sweet potato” as part of the roots. These are edible, but are most likely not very tasty.)

GARDEN TOOLS: If you put your tools away clean and in good working condition, they will be ready for you next spring when you are anxious to get out and GARDEN! Use a wire brush to clean the soil off your digging tools and then use a flat mill file to sharpen their blades, if needed. Do this by filing away from you using long strokes. If you have not done this before, you can probably find a “how-to” video on-line. For tools with wooden handles, rub the wood with boiled linseed oil. This helps prevent the wood from drying and cracking. If the handle is rough, sand it before applying the oil.

YARD ART: If you have any pottery or concrete bird baths, take time to clean them off and store them in the garage or storage shed. If you leave them out in the yard, any water in them may freeze, causing cracks and chips. I winterize my bird bath by scrubbing out the bowl, wiping it off, and then placing it under the eaves (no room in the garage) with the basin upside down so it will not collect leaves, snow, or rain. If you have a bird bath or fountain that is too heavy to move, drain it, fill the bowl with burlap or blankets to absorb condensation, and then cover it with heavy plastic sheeting to prevent it from filling with moisture. Secure the plastic well to avoid problems with wind. If removable, take fountain pumps indoors for the winter. Also, clean off other types of garden art, like gazing balls and wind chimes, and store them away in the garage.


GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written October 25, 2015

I occasionally get asked to give a presentation on “putting the yard and garden to bed for the winter.” Fall garden chores are pretty simple and can be designated as “should-do” and “good-to-do”. I am not sure I could give a thirty minute or longer presentation, but here are the “should-do’s” for fall.

RAKE LEAVES: On the should-should do list is raking leaves. If you have a number of trees like I do, the leaves can certainly pile up. They tend to blow around and pile up at my back door and elsewhere in the landscape. As we start to get more dew and moisture, these leaves can mat down and smother the grass and other plants. Get those leaves raked up and consider using them for making compost or tilling them into your vegetable garden soil where they will decompose over the winter and help improve the soil.

MOW THE GRASS: After the stress of a very hot summer, your lawn needs all the help it can get. You should keep mowing if the lawn is growing. Do not mow the grass extra short and then put the mower away. Also, do not leave it extra long, as this can lead to matted grass and favorable conditions for snow mold. (This past spring snow mold fungus showed up in many area lawns and caused significant damage.) Mow at the recommended height of about 2.5 inches until you no longer need to mow. The good news is that as the weather cools, you will not need to mow as often.

TREAT FOR BROADLEAF WEEDS: If broadleaf weeds, like dandelions or clover, have shown up all over your lawn, now is the time you should treat for these weeds with an herbicide spray. However, if you only have a few of these weeds here and there, dig them out by hand or pop them out with a “weed popper.”

Herbicide sprays for broadleaf weeds will not control grassy weeds. Annual grasses, such as crabgrass will die with a hard frost, and need to be controlled next spring with pre-emergent herbicides or “preventers” that will keep the seed from germinating and growing. Perennial grasses, such as Bermuda grass, are not controlled with fall chemical applications.

DIG TENDER BULBS: Many of the tender bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers that we plant in our gardens, including cannas, calla lilies, gladiolas, and dahlias, are tropical plants from warmer climates (Zones 7 to10) where they can stay in the ground over the winter. In cooler climates (Zones 6 and lower) like ours, they should be dug each fall and stored for the winter in a cool, dry protected location where they will not freeze. Some years in our area these tubers and bulbs may survive if left in the ground and heavily mulched. However, if winter brings severely cold temperatures, they will be killed.

To store them, wait about two weeks after frost kills their tops and then carefully lift the tubers, rhizomes or corms from the soil; shake off as much of the soil as possible; rinse them with clean water; and let them dry in a protected dry spot. Place them in cardboard boxes or paper bags using dry sawdust, wood shavings, or peat moss for packing.

You know, maybe I could give a talk on getting your yard and garden ready for winter. There seems to be a lot to do in the fall. More soon on the “good-to-do” fall garden tasks.


GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written October 18, 2015

I will be teaching a composting workshop at the end of this month. To be a successful backyard composter, I think it is important to learn a little of the science behind composting, not just the basics of “how to” make a compost pile.

Decomposition is Mother Nature’s way of recycling. Without decomposition we would all be buried in dead plant and animal matter. Technically, decomposition is the process by which organic materials, both plant and animal, are broken down into simpler compounds. A variety of “decomposer” organisms carry out the process by feeding on dead organic matter.

The most important primary decomposers of organic matter are bacteria. They are the “workhorses” of a compost pile. They predominate in the compost pile early in the process. Their feeding helps break organic matter down into compounds that other organisms can feed on. As the bacteria feed and multiply, they utilize the carbon in the organic matter for creating new cells. With their feeding and multiplication, energy is released in the form of heat. This results in the compost pile heating up.

There are millions of bacteria in the world so it is no surprise that there are a variety of different bacteria at work in a compost pile. The bacteria that get to work first are referred to psychrophilic bacteria, working best at temperatures of approximately 55 degrees. As these bacteria do their beginning work, the pile starts to heat up. When the temperature gets to about 70 degrees, mesophilic bacteria take over. The pile temperature continues to increase and thermophilic bacteria start to dominate once the pile temperature goes above 90 degrees. At temperatures above 160 degrees, all the bacteria start to die off because it becomes too hot.
Other primary decomposers are invertebrate organisms, like millepedes, sow bugs, and millepedes. They help speed the decay process along by tearing the materials into smaller and smaller pieces with their feeding. This exposes more surface area for the bacteria and other decay microorganisms, such as fungi and actinomycetes, to do their work.

As part of the cycle of life that happens in a compost pile or naturally on a forest floor, the primary decomposers are eaten by other organisms, such as springtails, mites, and beetles. These secondary organisms are in turn eaten by a third level of larger “consumers,” including ground beetles, centipedes, and ants.

When finished, a properly managed compost pile yields a dark, fairly stable mix of complex organic compounds. Quality finished compost is a dark uniform crumbly material with no sticks, twigs, or other distinguishable materials. When added to your garden soil, quality compost makes the soil more productive by improving soil structure, adding nutrients, and increasing nutrient retention. Some refer to it as “black gold” because it is a valuable component of healthy soil.



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