Friday, February 26, 2021

Snow Moon Gardening

Full moon over a snowy river bank. Image from Pixabay.
This weekend we will be gifted with February’s full moon, known as the Snow Moon. For many of you out there, as you peer out the window at the snowscape that is your yard, the evocative nature of this name may not be all that appealing. But even for the snow-weary, this lunar event should produce some beautiful images and it gives us all an opportunity to consider gardening by the moon’s cycles.

It’s no secret that much of the US can expect snow in February, so the Snow Moon name is no surprise. It has been used by indigenous cultures for who-knows-how-many years. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, Captain Jonathan Carver visited the Naudowessie (Dakota) back in the 1760s and wrote that they called this time the Snow Moon, “because more snow commonly falls during this month than any other in the winter.” But other native peoples use different names. The Ojibe and Tlingit call it the Bear Moon and the Black Bear Moon respectively, because this is when bear cubs are born in their dens. Among the Mi’kmaq people in Eastern Canada, it is the Snow Blinding Moon due to the strong winds that accompany February snowstorms. Other tribes use names that speak for themselves: the Hunger Moon, the Little Famine Moon, and the Bony Moon. Here is a short video from the Old Father’s Almanac that tells you more about this cold moon and other moon lore.

Kalispel Indian people outside their teepee with tons of snow all around. Image credit to Yolanda Bowman of the tribe.
Indigenous peoples did more than just give moons cool names, as far back as we know agriculture-based societies around the world have followed the phases of the moon to guide their farming practices. For thousands of years, Mayans have used their calendar system to track the movement of the moon and to plan when to plant and when to harvest their crops. Planting by the moon has long been a common practice throughout North America. As European settlers colonized the land, many settlers brought these ideas from their own ancient past and adapted to and adopted ideas from the New World. These practices are part of what we have come to know as traditional or heirloom farming. 

Image of 2 hands holding a seedling in soil with a moon hovering over it.
Gardening by the moon is a fairly simple concept at its root. Simply put, the water in the soil is affected by the gravitational pull of the moon and plants respond to increased or decreased light of the moon. As the moon moves toward becoming a Full Moon, it is called a waxing moon. This phase brings the moisture in the soil closer to the surface. As it moves away from the Full Moon, it is in its waning phase, and soil moisture retreats from the surface. At the time of the Full Moon, the combination of the higher surface moisture in the soil and increased light from the moon makes it an optimal time to plant aboveground plants. As the light wanes and moisture moves down, the time is right to plant root crops. For more on this, check out this site. And the Old Father’s Almanac has a video on this as well

Full moon above a dark forest. Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash.
Many proponents of moon planting also take into consideration what sign of the zodiac the moon is moving through. The idea here is that since each sign of the zodiac is related to one of the four elements (Water, Air, Earth, and Fire), and these should be taken into consideration as well as the moon phase. According to this article, Air and Fire signs are barren and planting should never be done when the moon is in those signs (they also say never plant on Sundays, but I’m not clear where that comes from). Since each sign of the zodiac is also associated with a body part, some people may use terms related to said body parts when discussing this practice. Read this lady’s fun story for a better understanding of this.  

Moon gardening has become somewhat of a thing lately for cannabis growers. As more people get into the game and they are all striving for the biggest, brightest buds, “new” techniques are eagerly embraced. More on that here. I’m sure there is lots of back and forth on the cannabis forums on this; I will leave it to you, dear reader, to go down that rabbit hole.

A blue cannabis plant in the foreground with a full moon in the background.
It needs to be said that not everyone is buying all this. No matter how long people have been doing it. This man brings up some excellent points, including climate change, planting zones, and the lack of substantive scientific research on the topic. No matter how you feel regarding planting by the moon (and especially if you are undecided), his article is interesting, informative, and worth reading. 

Snow falling across a full moon.
We have an array of lunar events ahead of us in 2021. This article says that we'll have three supermoons (all in a row), a Blue Moon, and two lunar eclipses. But, before all that, we’ll have the Worm Moon in March. Which sounds way more unappetizing than a Snow Moon.

Stay warm and take care. 

Submitted by Pam


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Got Snow? Don’t Worry – Your Garden’s Okay

A garden and surrounding trees all covered in snow.
This past week has been full superlatives when describing the snow that has fallen – unprecedented and disastrous (Hello, Texas), unlike anything they’re used to (Hello, Seattle), etc. For millions of Americans, this is something they’re not accustomed to, and that alone can be scary. For others, snow is a regular visitor in the winter, but this year there’s been so much more of it than usual. The snowfall is unusual all over –Russia is staggering under their massive amounts (more here) and Saudi Arabia has been uncharacteristically hit (see some bewildered camels here ).  It’s enough to worry anyone who’s been looking forward to a spring garden.

Close-up of a snowflake. Photo by Zdenek Machacek on Unsplash.
The truth is that snow is not as disastrous for a garden as it may seem at first glance, although it does carry some risk. Let me lay it out in pros and cons:


Fresh snow works like a cozy blanket as it covers plants. Snowflakes contain tiny pockets full of air, and when they accumulate on the ground they heap together and form larger and warmer air pockets. This air can prevent the soil from freezing and allows roots to continue thriving and taking up water to supply the plant. This is especially true in those areas where sudden low temperatures are not expected to last a sustained amount of time.

Snow forms a barrier to keep drying and damaging winter wind from bark and delicate plant leaves. 

Green leaves popping up out of the snow.
A layer of snow can protect a plant from the worst effects of the freeze-thaw phenomenon. This is when ice causes the ground to expand when it freezes and constricts when it thaws. The end result of this can be favorable for the soil by creating a lighter, more friable soil that new plants in spring and overwintering bulbs will appreciate. In the worst case, freeze-thaw can turn bulbs into mush and uproot plants. A layer of warming snow can reduce this likelihood.

Snow holds water in the soil and, as it melts, it slowly waters the area. This is especially beneficial for emerging perennials. 

The sun shining though snow-covered tree branches. Photo by Kristjan Kotar.
There is an old saying that snow is “Poor Man’s Fertilizer”, and, like many old sayings, it turns out to be true. As snowflakes make their long fall down to earth they accumulate nitrogen and other micronutrients along the way. These elements are then slowly released into the soil as it melts. Even dormant plants can absorb nitrogen deposited in this way.

Snow can enhance the sunlight given to plants. The brightness of the snow causes light to shine all around and even down through it so that plants can continue to photosynthesis through the darkest months of winter. 

Snow cover can hide the egg cases and chrysalis of many beneficial insects and moths and protect them from predation.

Snow-covered trees with some branches that have broken off lying on the ground.

The weight of snow on branches and small trees can quickly become too much for them. Branches can split or break off entirely, and trees can collapse or uproot. To avoid this, clear snow off your growing things as soon and as often as possible. Don’t forget to clear it from the roofs of any structures that are next to your trees and plants. A mini-avalanche from your garage roof onto your landscaping along your house could be tragic. 

Close-up of ice melting off a branch. Photo by Damo T. on Unsplash.
As the snow melts, watch for ice pools that can form around trees and plants. If the temperature falls again, you can find yourself in that freeze/thaw cycle that many plants cannot recover from. If you see this happening, you’ll need to get out there and get some drainage going. If you have to make some furrows where there weren’t any before, don’t hesitate. As long as you keep your plants alive, you can tweak the aesthetics later. Now that you can see how winter affects your garden, this would also be a great opportunity to develop a better year-round garden plan, with plants’ placements that suit their needs all year round. 

Snow creates cover for hungry animals like voles, who work underground, but also serves as a step up for those that prey on bark, branches, and leaves. When the snow hides their close-to-the-ground food sources, those lighter creatures can easily scamper up it to feast on plants. Be watchful for tell-tale tracks and take gentle steps to keep them away from your plants.

Two squirrels playing with snowballs.
In areas where there was drought the previous summer (which is almost everywhere nowadays), trees and shrubs that go into winter drought-stressed may have little left to fight off the cold. While there is little that can be done once the cold has arrived and the snow has fallen, this should be a reminder to prepare your plants for tough winter weather by first preparing them to get through a tough summer. For more on this, check out this article.

Snow can provide a safe place for beneficial insects but is also works to protect less desirable entities like snails, slugs, overwintering insects, and molds. Keep a careful eye on what emerges not just after the snow, but as everything truly warms up in spring. Remember that early and pro-active treatment of pests and pathogens is the most effective treatment overall, so an early problem does not have to develop into a mid-season infestation. 

The effects of a snowstorm are considerably different than an ice storm. There is not a whole lot of positive to be found after one of those (read more here). So, as much as you are able, if you’re only dealing with snow try to enjoy it while it lasts. And if you want to keep the kids busy, send them out to knock some snow off the trees.

The Simpsons standing at their front door shocked by the snowfall.
Stay Warm.

                  Submitted by Pam                   

Friday, February 12, 2021

This Year President's Day Is About Flowers

Red tulips in the foreground, with the White House in the background
Considering the exhaustive political climate in this country, I have decided to take politics away from President’s Day this year and present something pretty instead – flowers. At first glance, it may not seem like these two things don’t go together, but there is actually quite a bit of interesting history that links the two. Most of that history centers on the heart of the presidency, the White House. 

GEORGE WASHINGTON (1st president) – Apparently Washington had a special fondness for yellow flowers like Brown-Eyed Susans and Aurinia saxatalis (Basket of Gold). According to this article, he planted so many roses at Mount Vernon that it took 12 days to pick the petals off them (which were then used to make rosewater). He also had a greenhouse there to grow exotic plants and flowers.

Small white flowers with deep green leaves growing in mulch - the Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)
THOMAS JEFFERSON (3rd president) – When Jefferson was president, the White House was newly built and this avid botanist wasted no time in planning the gardens and introducing new plants and flowers to them. Before he was president, in 1786, Jefferson had introduced geraniums to the US and was particularly fond of them – they were just one of the many flowers that came with him to the White House in 1801.  His love and knowledge of botany is still influential today and his gardens on his plantation in Virginia continue to be lovingly cared for and preserved. During his lifetime (in 1792), Jefferson had a whole genus of a rare and beautiful woodland perennial named for him – the Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

JAMES BUCHANAN (15th president) – Unfortunately for Buchanan, he carries a legacy of being one of America’s worst presidents (read more here). But, not everything he did was questionable: He had conservatories built to grow flowers, which in turn began the on-going practice of fresh floral arrangements in the White House. The credit for these actions should not all go to Buchanan. He undoubtedly acted at the behest of his niece Harriet Lane, who served as his surrogate First Lady (he was a lifelong bachelor) and loved flowers. 

An etching of the wedding of Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom on June 2, 1886.
(22nd and 24th president) – By all accounts, Grover Cleveland loved the conservatories that Buchanan had started. When he married Francis Folsom in the White House on June 2, 1886, he insisted on flamboyant floral displays that were the talk of the town. But, even before the wedding, he had showered Frances with flowers while he was wooing her in college. It seems the passion that the 49-year-old Cleveland had for his 21-year-old bride was as over the top as their decorations. Read more about their wedding here.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT ((26th president) – Teddy Roosevelt had the conservatories removed as part of a renovation that included the construction of the now-famous West Wing. It wasn’t that he disliked the plants, he just needed more room for his large family. Flowers for White House events began to be outsourced at this point. Perhaps to compensate for the removal of the conservatories, Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, was given space to create a garden. Her “colonial garden” was where today’s Rose Garden sits. It was filled with paisley-shaped flower beds, heirloom flowers, and wildflowers that she had collected herself from the surrounding countryside. See it here.

Close-up of a Blue Cornflower, aka Bachelor's Button
JOHN F. KENNEDY (35th president) – Blue Cornflowers seem to have been a particular favorite of JFK; he even wore one on his wedding day. During his tenure at the White House, what had been the colonial garden was renovated to create a space that would serve as both a place of beauty and an outdoor venue for up to 1,000 people. JFK had a vision inspired by French gardens and driven by his love of flowers. Here, in her own words, is how Rachel (“Bunny”) Mellon and JFK made this now-famous garden a reality. There’s a lot of really entertaining details in her story, including, “Why a rose garden?”

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON (36th president) - While LBJ made it a key point in his administration to clean up the environment (we’re still working on that), his wife “Lady Bird” believed in beautifying spaces to create a love and appreciation for where one lives. She appreciated all things floral and this showed in her work in everything from adding wildflowers to the pattern on the presidential china to planting flower beds all over DC and beyond. The work she did was fully supported by LBJ and had conservation benefits far beyond simple beautification. Here’s a short article that gives you the highlights of all that this flowery first lady accomplished. 

A close-up of a red rose with tints of pink - the Ronald Reagan rose
RONALD REAGAN (40th president) – In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed legislation that proclaimed the rose the national flower. It would seem like a slam-dunk decision (everyone likes roses, right?); but there was actually another candidate presented and fought over as the bill made its way through congress – the marigold. For more on this, go here.

Happy Presidents Day from the faces on Mt. Rushmore. The heads then fly off and we see them sitting in beach chairs.I’m going to end this here in the 80s. In the years since then, floral designs and the presidential brand they represent have been mostly handled by professional White House florists (with some input from some First Ladies). They do beautiful work, it’s just not as anecdotal. 

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

Friday, February 5, 2021

What’s This Bug? The Springtail.

A close-up of a golden-colored Globular Springtail on a green stem.
This cute, almost cartoon-like, creature is a common bug you’ve probably never even noticed. They're known as springtails, are no more than 1/8” in size (which would be a big one), and live just about everywhere in the world in soil and in water. Springtails are not insects, they are classified as Collembola, which makes them arthropods. But, for the purposes of this blog, I am just going to call them “bugs”.

The number of species of springtails is upwards of 8,000 and they come in a huge variety of shapes and colors. The chubby-looking round one is the Globular Springtail and it has unmistakable charisma. Others are long and flattish and can easily be mistaken for less-benign bugs. But, all springtails have one thing in common - that which gives them their name, a v-shaped appendage on the rear end of their body that allows them to jump. This body part works just like one of those little toy frogs that you push down and then let go and it pops up in the air. Springtails usually only jump like this as an escape mechanism, otherwise they just scurry around (no flying-they’re wingless). The problem with the spring action is that the bug has no control over it, so their attempted escape can be rather chaotic, especially when there is a large group of them going off all at once. For more on how they do their jumping, check out this article and you can see them go off in this video.

Three different types of springtails.

Springtails are often misidentified as fleas. In fact, they’re sometimes called “snow fleas” because some species can and will live in snow. Although springtails are about the size of fleas and jump like them, they do not bite and pose no risk for humans. They are also not harmful to plants. In cases of extreme infestation in outdoor settings, they can begin to nibble on plant roots, but even that action may stimulate additional root branching and result in little to no damage. It is important to make sure that what you have are springtails; more damaging insects can be mistaken for springtails as easily as vice versa. 

A view of the anatomy of a springtail, with the furcula clearly shown in the bottom rear of the body.
Here at ARBICO, we often have customers sending pictures or calling and asking about the itty-bitty jumping bugs in their plants. Once we know they have springtails, many people are surprised when we tell them they’re beneficial. Often the first response people have to any bug is to wipe out the multi-legged invaders, but you should resist this response when it comes to springtails. They are a valuable member of the soil microfauna. They feed on decaying organic matter in the soil, which releases minerals that your plants will love. Their feeding action also keeps the soil and its microbial life healthy and thriving and the soil structure aerated, which provides pathways for water and nutrients to move through. All in all, these little guys are quietly doing a great deal of good for your plants. 

Blue springtails swarming on a grey board.
Even though soil springtails are considered beneficial, sometimes springtails in general can be a bit much. They can swarm in very high numbers in and around homes and throughout outdoor spaces. While the “yuck” factor is high when you see this, their presence in and near your home can actually alert you to problems you may not know you have. Springtails are damp-loving creatures and wherever they are gathering you can be assured that there is a consistent source of moisture there. If you see them in houseplants, you’ll know you’re overwatering and simply allowing the plants to dry out should solve the problem (for more on springtails in houseplants, go here. If you are seeing them inside areas with easy access to outside, follow the trail to find the moisture source. Damp landscaping material or soil beds along your outside wall could be sustaining the colony and the smallest of openings letting them in. If you find them deeper in the house under sinks, by floorboards, or in the basement, you could have a serious leakage problem in your walls or foundation. Once the dampness is removed from the equation, the springtails will quickly disappear as well. If you’ve tried all the cultural controls and still don’t have a handle on the infestation situation, you can try sprinkling some Diatomaceous Earth on top of the soil or go the fire-vs-fire route and introduce a predatory insect that will feed on springtails. We carry two very enthusiastic predators that will do the job – Rove Beetles and Stratiolaelaps scimitus (Hypoaspis miles).

A yellow springtail walking through tall fungi with black stems and white bulbous tops. .

Springtails are fascinating little creatures and there is a vibrant community of people out there who study and collect them. The variety of springtails is astonishing and some of them are quite beautiful. Check out this page full of some dazzling examples. And then there is this man who combines exquisitely detailed macro-photography with years of study to provide totally entertaining information on these little bugs. But, of all the neat stuff there is to learn about springtails, I have to admit that I found their mating practices the most intriguing. Creatures of the micro-world often have bizarre (at least to us) reproductive behavior, but I have not come across any others who do it like the Globular Springtails do. You can read about it here - there’s even a video which I promise isn’t pornographic.

A cartoon bug jumping in a yellow box.

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam   

Featured Post

Why Nematodes Can be “Good” or “Bad” for your Garden

Entomopathogenic Nematodes Ever heard of a NEMATODE?   You might be more familiar with their colloquial name, which is roundworm. For the p...