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Episode 95 – The Spiders + Snakes Show

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Few animals freak people out quite so much as spiders and snakes, and even though most of us in North America are unlikely to encounter aggressive or truly dangerous species of either one in our gardens, one can’t help but tap into the primal fear they evoke. But consider the reason that both spiders and snakes would visit your garden – it’s because they can find food there. And the simple fact is that what spiders and snakes both like to eat are animals that are harmful to plants: things like mice and voles for snakes and a whole host of insects for spiders (though, to be fair, spiders are indiscriminate predators and eat good insects as well as bad ones). So we see two solutions if you have spiders and/or snakes in your yard and don’t want them there. One, learn everything that you can about the species you encounter and use that knowledge to both better appreciate them and their role in the ecosystem so you can coexist. Two, modify the habitat so they’re less likely to take up residence. This could mean several things, like trapping mice and voles (no sticky traps, please!), increasing space between your plants so they have less space to hide, or for spiders, avoid areas where flowers are blooming and insects are active.

We share lots more tips that work – and call out those that don’t – in this episode, so please join us on your favorite podcast platform or at the YouTube link above to hear our whole conversation. And here’s this week’s Lim-A-Rick:

How do I proceed with a level of class?
With reptiles I’ll take a pass
I’m not much of snake charmer
As a matter of fact I wear armor
When faced with a snake in the grass.

Snakes aren’t for everyone
So not to be outdone
When faced with a slithering serpent
Or any other intruding insurgent
I’ve trained myself to run

There are lots of claims out there about plants and their ability to “repel spiders,” but the simple fact is that they’re all based in myth and superstition, not reality. A search of just .edu websites (in an attempt to limit results to just those from reputable sources) reveals not a single site backing up these claims. And while maybe, just maybe, using strongly-scented essential oils to repel insects and spiders could work short-term indoors, nothing is going to be effective outdoors. So if your goal truly is to reduce the number of spiders around your home, the best thing you can do is to reduce the food sources available to them. Spiders eat only one thing: insects. Of course, insects and plants go hand in hand, so it’s kind of easier said than done. But when it comes to plants, you can opt for those with flowers that are less likely to attract insects, like mophead hydrangeas.

Any hydrangea of any species can be mophead or lacecap – these are not types of hydrangeas but rather specific structures the flowers can take on. Lacecap hydrangeas are comprised primarily of small, star-like fertile florets, with a few showy sterile florets on the outside of the bloom to attract the attention of pollinators. Mophead hydrangeas, on the other hand, have been created by humans to be comprised primarily of those sterile florets. In many cases, these sterile florets are so numerous and so densely packed in the flower that they completely obscure the fertile florets. This makes mophead hydrangeas much less appealing to pollinating insects, and that’s why this episode’s plants on trial is Gatsby Moon oakleaf hydrangea.

Normally, oakleaf hydrangeas are pollinator magnets when they are blooming. And because they are native to North America, the pollen and nectar in their flowers serves as a food source for a huge array of pollinating insects. It’s one of the many reasons I love them. The majority of oakleaf hydrangeas out there are indeed the wilder lacecap form, but Gatsby Moon is an unusual mophead. And what a mophead it is! The sterile florets are so numerous and so densely packed together that the bloom is nearly impenetrable by insects. In fact, if you had a flower of Gatsby Moon hydrangea in front of you, you’d find it challenging to get through all the sterile florets to where the few inner fertile florets are located. And while it’s definitely a stretch to say that planting a Gatsby Moon hydrangea is going to repel spiders or reduce spiders in your yard, if it’s not being used by pollinating insects like bees, flies, moths, wasps, and the like, then that means less food for spiders. If you are afraid of or allergic to bees, mophead hydrangeas are also a good consideration for you.

Hardy and heat tolerant in USDA zones 5-9, 6-8’ tall and wide.

If you’d like to add Gatsby Moon oakleaf hydrangea – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

When we put “blue” in a hydrangea name, as in the case of Let’s Dance Blue Jangles hydrangea, it indicates that it will readily go blue if conditions are right for it to do so. But the thing that a lot of people don’t realize about hydrangea color change (aside from the fact that only big leaf and mountain hydrangeas are capable of it) is that two conditions need to be true for the change to take place: first, the soil must be acidic, which most people know. But second, the soil must also contain high amounts of aluminum. Aluminum is a naturally occurring element in the soil and plays a key role in affecting the color change, but not all soils have it in abundance. In fact, the acidic part of the color change equation here is simply because the aluminum ions become free from chemical bonds in acidic conditions so the plant is able to take them up and metabolize them. 

The majority of products sold in garden centers to make hydrangeas blue are merely soil acidifiers – most do not contain any aluminum. So if your plant is staying pink due to a lack of aluminum and you are applying these products, the flowers will never change color and you’ll just be repeatedly acidifying your soil without the results you seek. This can actually push the pH to an unhealthy level, even for the hydrangea itself. While a soil test is the best way to know what is needed and make an educated decision about what to do, we know most people aren’t going to do that, so the best thing is to carefully read the labels of the products in the garden center and be sure to choose one that contains aluminum. Once you have these conditions, Let’s Dance Blue Jangles – and indeed, nearly any hydrangea that’s capable of it – will indeed bloom blue.

One last quick note: the acidic/aluminum conditions need to be present when the plant sets its flower buds to actually see the color the following season, so normally you start applying in August and continue a couple of times. Exact timing varies by product, so be sure to carefully read the instructions and allow plenty of time. 

This looks like your plant is simply trying to adapt to the new conditions it has found itself in. Many people don’t realize that plants make different types of chlorophyll – and in fact, different kinds of leaves – based on growing conditions. Since this tree was just purchased this year, it emerged in a greenhouse or quonset hut somewhere under much lower light intensity, and shielded from the wind. Now, it’s out in the full sun and the leaves it created under those lower light conditions are struggling to adapt to the higher light conditions of the outdoors. This is not unusual, and the plant will manage to adapt. Overall, it looks healthy – if something was really wrong, things would be much worse, so continue to care for it as you have been, preventing water stress, and it will adapt in time. By the time it emerges next spring in its actual growing conditions, this won’t be an issue anymore. 

A young peach tree with bronzed foliage struggles after being recently planted.

Oh no! You’ve got one of the most difficult to manage (ahem) “groundcovers” known to humankind: Houttuynia cordata, aka chameleon plant or lizard’s tail. Normally, this plant is seen with splashy red and yellow variegation, which is what attracts people to it in the first place (though they soon regret planting it!). Whether you have an all-green variety here or it’s all green from a lack of light, I can’t say, but it doesn’t matter because they are equally difficult to manage. Even if you’re open to managing them with chemicals, their waxy coating makes it impossible for them to stick. Digging them multiplies their brittle stems and tubers, increasing their population even more. So you’re going to need to take a multi-year approach. I’d recommend mowing/cutting them down then immediately spraying the freshly cut stems with a non-glyphosate herbicide. Repeat as necessary. Next spring, when they begin to emerge, spray again – in spring, their waxy coating won’t be developed and spraying will be more effective. Finally, if you have irrigation going to this area, stop – they thrive in wet soil, so dry conditions will help mitigate their spread. Good luck, and don’t give up – it will take persistence, but you will get there!

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick

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A hydrangea in a low decorative container covered in pink and purple mophead flowers.

Episode 96 – Garden Regrets

Regrets? We’ve had a few, and maybe you have too, which is why we’re dedicating this episode to the things we wish we had – and hadn’t – done in the garden. Featured shrub: Let’s Dance Arriba reblooming hydrangea.

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