Ready to give up on organic gardening!

liselotteAugust 24, 2010

When we bought this house seven years ago, I was determined to garden organically. I have bought all the products from GardensAlive, invested a lot of money in draught tolerant plants, added organic compost, etc. etc. My yard is a total disaster! My neighbor's yard is beautiful--she uses all the chemicals on the market! My hydrangea's leaves are full of holes--several kinds of holes! My heleborus argifutolia leaves have black spots! The "Frenchies" are full of aphids. My roses' leaves are turning yellow, have black spots and are falling off! My bay laurel is going to pots--leaves are turning yellow, curling and are full of white stuff, sort of like powder. I've cut off all the affected branches as gently as I could, but scattering white dust was unavoidable--now I wonder how many of my other plnts will become infested. Moles and slugs are driving me mad. None of the organic products from GardensAlive are helping. I am ready to go to the nearest garden center and buy all the chemicals available to take care of these problems unless someone can tell me what is going on in my yard and what could possibly help. I do have a lot of birds, frogs, squirls, and bees and would hate to kill them all off, but I would really like to have a yard that shows off my intensive labor. Please help!

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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

What to do varies on a case by case basis. Try looking up individual plants in books and on the internet. seeing how to manage these in an organic way. Poring over periodicals such as Rodale's Organic Gardening could also help.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 8:48AM
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dottyinduncan(z8b coastal BC)

liselott, I feel your pain! It is so discouraging to work so hard and have Mother Nature not appreciate your efforts. I don't garden organically and I still have some of your problems. I have resorted to Round UP and chemical fertilizers. Could it be that with watering restrictions your plants are not getting enough water to grow well? I notice that when plants are thriving, they seem to be able to combat the bugs.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 11:54AM
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Liselotte, gardening is actually a pretty complicated endeavor. There are lots of variables that determine how plants grow, like soil type, drainage and fertility, water, air drainage, sun/shade, competition from trees, gardener's skill level, etc. That's why I think it's important to get help from a local expert, if at all possible. People that haven't seen your place, or who don't know you, can't do much more than guess.

Here is a list of chemicals which I find indispensable:
mouse pellets to kill voles,
insecticide to kill aphids in the greenhouse,
NPK fertilizer,
Roundup and Crossbow to kill weeds,
slug bait.

For moles, I use traps.

One reason I don't need more chemicals is because I take a Darwinian approach to my garden plants. If they don't do well and have lots of problems, they get the heave-ho.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 1:35PM
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grrrnthumb(z8 WA)

I think you might find that Darwinian approach the biggest part of organic gardening (and often most neglected)... learning to accept that not every plant was made to thrive in your particular garden (without chemicals), and finding the ones that will.
Also, plant placement (sun, water, air movement) is an art, and is another very key part of organic gardening that is often neglected. It can sometimes explain why a plant can grow perfectly for one person & not for their neighbor.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 2:13PM
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Liselotte, have you ever applied lime to your soil? If not, get a 40 pound bag of dolomite lime and sprinkle it around. Don't worry about acid-loving plants. A little sprinkle won't hurt them at all. Do some research and find out which of your plants likes lime. Give them extra. Water it in and wait a few weeks. You may be amazed at the results.

This is a classic situation in gardening, where the plant has symptoms, but you need some experience to figure out the cause of the problem. Attacking the symptoms directly usually doesn't work.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 5:04PM
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Like you I started out totally organic. I had virgin land that had never been cultivated and thought I could really do it right after some organic gardening college courses. In the 20 years since then, I've evolved into a "mixed" gardener. I don't use chemicals on the vegetable garden, but I do use bt for the cabbage worms, garden safe slug bait and liquid fertilizer. BUT on my flower beds, I use whatever works including systemic rose stuff, extra potent slug bait, liquid fence for the deer, a 22 pistol for the rabbits and whatever else is needed. We also trap moles and occasionally try to blow them away with the shotgun. It's a constant battle and one that I don't think it's possible to win, but for some reason (love of gardening, I suppose) we keep trying.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 6:58PM
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I'll second the Darwinian approach. If something has problems, throw it out and plant something else. Certain popular types of plants are very prone to problems in our climate and not as well suited here as commonly believed. Roses are notoriously disease susceptible - if the most disease resistant varieties don't work for you, it might be time to give up on roses. Hydrangeas are not drought tolerant, or least, they don't look that great without irrigation. There are so many plants that will thrive with little or no care, but it is often difficult to source them and to figure out which are best adapted to your particular situation. Tell us more about your garden. Is it dry/wet/sunny/shady? What's your soil like?

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 9:32PM
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Thank you so much for all the info. The hydrangea was here when we bought the house--I would not have bought it. The soil is rather acidic--large fir tree. Yard is 50% shady, good drainage, on the dry side. I bought hellebores, because I thought they were easy. An off-shoot of the bay laurel was given to me by a friend about 15 years and is now in its third location--never did much before we moved here. It has grown beautifully, but now all these curled up leaves, turning yellow and full of white dust really worries me--again, i thought bay laurel was easy. the two rose bushes i have are climbing roses on a wooden swing set. one looks o.k., but the other has tons of problems. seems like i have a lot of tiny spiders. i think i will do what barb is doing, only, I thought it was illegal to trap moles in WA. right now, the bay laurel is my biggest concern. my fuchsias are doing fine and so are the tree peonies. the mountain laurel has problems too--just hacked it way back--don't really care whether it lives or dies at this point. my daphne, which was here and is probably about 15 years old, has massive problems too--it is leggy and way too big. should i hack it down too?
Again, thank you so much for all the imput.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2010 at 12:19AM
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reg_pnw7(WA 7, sunset 4)

There's a lot more to organic gardening than just buying the organic products. The Darwinian approach other posters mentioned is half of it, frankly, but the part no one talks about. the other half that no one talks about is accepting that plants get eaten by things - bugs, varmints, fungi, all eat plants, and that's part of life.

You're going to need in person help. Gardening, whether organic or not, is a complex field. No one ever knows everything or has seen everything, and you can't learn it from books or the internet, although those can be very good references. At seven years you'd be just a beginner. TYou can describe what you see til you're blue in the face (or fingers go numb from carpal tunnel) but if you don't know what to look for you won't be able to communicate that to us, and we can only guess at what to ask. Also there's always a transition stage when an established garden is switched from chemical to organic methods, and you're in the middle of it now. All heck breaks loose in that transition stage.

Hellebores and bay trees normally are very easy but if you're having serious problems with them then there's some systematic problem going on in your garden, like too much shade perhaps, or a problem with the soil. Although, black spots on hellebore leaves are pretty normal. You have to cut off the old leaves every year. And bay trees get aphids, that's normal. Roses get blackspot here. It's all part of life eating life. Plants are the primary producers of the food web after all.

Spiders are beneficial. Don't mess with them. That's the third half of organic gardening! you cannot have a bug-free garden because you NEED the beneficial bugs and spiders. And yes, trapping moles is illegal in WA, and unnecessary. Moles do not eat plants. They can be annoying but they are also beneficial so it's generally better to just adjust your attitude towards them, along with the spiders.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2010 at 12:40PM
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Reg, I disagree about the moles. If I left them alone, they would turn my yard into a wasteland. They ruin mulched beds, and push plants and bulbs out of the ground. I don't know what the laws are there. But I can buy mole traps at any of the big stores. I have about a 25% success rate with the traps. You can also use Talpirid "worms" to kill them. They are effective but expensive. You'll have to google this to find where to buy it. If you're brave and careful, you can also use a Molecat, which uses a blank cartridge to kill the moles by percussion. Purchase price is high, but cost per mole is less than $1. Google Molecat. I am using the Molecat almost exclusively now. If you can't keep your kids and pets away from it, or if you're a klutz, don't buy it. It's dangerous.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2010 at 3:28PM
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It's true that moles don't eat plants, but they tunnel underneath them leaving the roots without soil or water, and voles and field mice which do eat plants love to use the mole tunnels to reach the plants they like - mostly the ones you've fertilized and watered regularly so they're very tasty.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2010 at 7:53PM
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My approach to organic gardening is more focused on the soil. I use lots of pumice dug into the clay and then when I prepare the planting bed, I use 4-6 inches of compost to plant into for perennials. The shrubs and trees go right into the ground and are mulched with compost.

I do live with slug damage but have avoided plants that are their favorites.

For roses, I have planted more rugosas as the foliage looks great.

My hellebores are in very light soil, prepped with pumice, topdressed with compost, and I give them a handful of lime each spring. They do not seem to like heavy acidic soil. And cutting back the leaves at bloom time is something that I have done for a few seasons and does not harm the plant.

And of course, some things just don't look good all season. My solomon's seal is looking skeletal right now, but it is great in spring and most of the summer. That is just part of the cycle. If you surround them with good looking plants the late season weary look will not stand out as much. My lilly of the valley plants are great in spring, but their less than fresh looking leaves are overgrown with a trailing hardy geranium which hides the late season shabiness.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2010 at 7:47PM
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bay laurel - looks like you got this new bug -bay sucker. Check this forum, it has some info on it.
i am fighting with this bug for couple years.
This year i try to remove all bad leaves, spray with neem oil, onion&garlic spray, maybe i'll go for something stronger now.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2010 at 12:41PM
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George Three LLC

i don't see why you feel obligated to go pure 100% organic. a little non organic problem solution here and there probably has a near zero negative impact on the environment over organic alone (obviously it depends, and organic does not automatically mean more earth friendly anyway).

just be careful, follow directions, etc.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2010 at 11:40AM
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schizac(z8 Edmonds WA)

"I do have a lot of birds, frogs, squirrels, and bees"

Isn't this reason enough to continue organically? A certain level of tolerance for holes in leaves, black spots and the like are a normal part of organic gardening. Same goes for weeds in lawns. I agree with the above comments regarding plant placement, its an art. After researching plant preferences, move things that aren't doing well and say goodbye if they still struggle. No shortage new of plants to try.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2010 at 1:23PM
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hemnancy(z8 PNW)

The mouse/rat poison seems tempting, but I was reading google on it, and the dying animal wanders around thirstily looking for water and easy to pick off by predators which are then also poisoned. Cats, dogs, and protected raptors can fall victim. Apparently in Mexico they used a lot of rat poison and killed off all the predators and were overrun by rats.

I found one article claiming feeding mice dry instant mashed potatoes would expand in their stomachs and kill them. Also a mixture of chocolate milk powder and plaster of paris would kill them. Peanut butter mixed with plaster of paris and hung from trees in bags has been recommended for squirrels.

I grow lots of plants to provide nectar for bees, and have great pollination of my fruit trees- mint beds (and great for tea), allow dandelions to bloom, then cut off seed heads, flowers in general.

As for the bay laurel, it is only hardy from zone 8-10 so the next bad winter will kill it. I try to grow stuff hardy to at least zone 7, preferably 6 or lower. Lots of herbs are extremely hardy and tough- oregano, marjoram, thyme, and upright rosemary.

The hellebores are really great when they bloom so early in spring, reserve judgment until you see them then. The last year's foliage is cut off around then.

Plants that do really well here are biennials like Lunaria- money plant and I won't mention Forget-Me-Nots, because they are so rampant and hard to control; and ephemeral plants that grow in the wet spring weather then disappear in the dry summer- Anemone nemorosa, daffodils, some tulips, Muscari, etc.

I find moles very damaging as well, I also have plants heaved out of the ground by them, buried under their mounds, or roots left hanging in the air underground. They make burrows that attract voles as well so the ground under some fruit trees or vegetables becomes more burrow than dirt. 3 winter squash were flourishing then suddenly began to wilt and die, I pulled one up out of the mole mound and it was eaten clean off. I actually have to plant pole beans by digging just a small hole for the bean, sprinkling on cayenne pepper, and putting a 4" galvanized nail into the ground by each bean (warning: danger!). Then after the beans are growing I wrap the bottom 9+" of stem with aluminum foil to keep them from being nipped off by voles, and still lose quite a few.

I'm appreciating one bed by the driveway the PO filled with gravel- no voles! I've been putting quite a few of my seedling perennials in there and hope to raise them unmolested. I also pretty much ended having my daylily roots eaten off by putting lava rock in the bottom and sides of the planting holes. That would probably work for fruit trees if enough could be put in a big enough area- difficult.

I'm looking for more shrubs that have fruit. I already have an extensive blueberry collection, and really like the evergreen forms, and also like Aronia, available in tall or dwarf forms. I'm getting interested this year in barberries, Mahonia (Oregon Holly Leaf) which is tough as nails here and makes an attractive hedge, in various heights, and Berberis- the ornamental red import thunbergii you see everywhere is pretty but no edible fruit and potentially invasive in forests; preferably the native fendleri, green deciduous leaves, gets tall, and has fruit supposedly tasting like sour cherries. Also lots of non-native Berberis like darwinii, most have edible fruit, attractive foliage, some evergreen and some deciduous, and medicinal properties in the bark and roots.

Raspberries can be great if you have the room, since they spread. I also like mulberries, the lavender or white trees have non-staining fruit not noticed by birds, and the weeping form has small tasty fruit hidden by the weeping branches and leaves.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2010 at 6:49PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Laurus nobilis burns during sharp weather but does not die every time this happens. Supposedly such damage is even seen in its native area; another one that does this is the Pacific Coast native Garrya elliptica. I saw leaf damage to local salal and madrona during the 1990 winter.

Seattle has some old bay laurels that are pretty big. One of the comparatively recent buildings at the University of Washington has a whole grove of them.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2010 at 11:24PM
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I am learning so much so fast---seems like I just need to lern to relax about my yard and enjoy what is pretty. The bees love all my seedums. I could even like the moles if they were not so destructive--they do leave the roots of plants suspended without air and nourishment! Thanks to everyone who has contributed.

    Bookmark   September 3, 2010 at 1:28PM
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George Three LLC

large laurus nobilis in my hood survived this last winter, 12-14 degree nights, 32 degree days for 72 hours or so. didn't see any leaf damage at all.

there is a HUGE one near me. 3-5 foot trunk diameter. takes up half of my neighbors lot, planted on the south side of the house, great drainage (sandy soil, on a hill). i feel bad for them, as it blocks out the winter sun with some dense shade.

at least in portland, they seem pretty darn hardy.

    Bookmark   September 4, 2010 at 11:29AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

3'-5' thick would be big even for an Umbellularia, which I am thinking you might have confused with Laurus in this particular case.

Or maybe you meant 3'5' around. A Laurus with one trunk that big, in this area would be noteworthy. I'd like to see photos.

The big one at the UW measured 41' x 1'9" (largest of 5 trunks) in 1993.

An Umbellularia in Vancouver, WA was determined to be 53' x 15'7" (below forking) the same year. Depending on how uniform the outline of the trunk is, a tree 15' around is liable to be approximately 5' thick.

    Bookmark   September 5, 2010 at 9:16PM
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hemnancy(z8 PNW)

Lauris nobilis did not survive for me, I live at a higher altitude near Portland. Last winter was quirky in the low temps that hit without enough preceding cold to harden off the plants. I lost all my hydrangeas this time. Hydrangeas a few miles away are fine.

The voles are reaching new heights of plant destruction. They nipped off 2 large squash plants, just to chew through the stems at the base, not to consume them for food.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2010 at 6:16PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

I grew several bay laurels about 6'-8' tall on Camano Island only to have them burn during the right winter. Various other trees and shrubs that I could keep down here near Seattle have also been nailed up there. There's a big difference between whether it stays above, say, 10 degrees F. on a site or does not. Lots of things start to fail when you break into the single digits.

Extended cold only affects hardiness when it results in deep penetration of the soil. Otherwise all it takes is a short time below a plant's minimum temperature for it to freeze. Familiar example: unprotected warm season vegetables or flowering annuals after the first hard frost.

Hardier plants in an immature condition may be damaged above what would otherwise be their minimum temperature. 1955 was a real killer because it didn't warm up until fall, then suddenly went cold. And got real cold that winter.

30 years later there were some losses because some locally marginal plants still weren't hardened off when it went cold in November. This included long-established trees of some size.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2010 at 12:07AM
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