Advanced Gardening & Your Golf Swing

Gardening is like golf. The first time you get out there, you may (like me) discover that the basic game isn't really all that hard. But then (like me) you play for a bit and discover that there's always something new to learn - some trick that might make your game better or some piece of knowledge that you didn't know the last ten times you played. And you realize that you're really not as good as you thought were were - and you may never actually master the game. That's the kick in the head, right there.

I'm not sure why I love gardening - the same way I'm not sure why some people torture themselves with golf year after year (I gave up the game) - because every year I find some new challenge that makes me wonder why I put so many hours into digging in the dirt.

A number of years ago a huge windstorm blew over my beloved lilac tree. The tree was very old - it was probably planted when the house was built in 1908 - and it had been badly pruned over the years, resulting in top-heaviness that didn't bode well. It was creaky and fragile but I loved it because it would bloom these huge, amazing flowers every spring and I could smell them through the kitchen window or when sitting on the back patio.

When the wind took down the tree, I thought that maybe I could salvage it by staking it back up and letting it re-root itself. But my wise gardening neighbor said that wouldn't work and offered to help remove it. He brought over his chain saw and I watched as my backyard companion was dismantled and hauled away.

Obviously, this left a gaping hole where the tree used to be. Suddenly, I could see WAY too much of my neighbor's yard and house. So I went on a hunt for a replacement.

In the end, I settled on a dwarf, grafted cherry tree as this was the best of both worlds - I'd get sweet smelling cherry blossoms in the spring and then I'd get sweet fruit to eat for a number of weeks in the summer. I found Raintree Nursery in Washington state that sold trees that, by grafting different cherry types to one common trunk, would produce multiple varieties of cherries on the same tree - in my case, two types of sweet cherries as well as montmorency pie cherries. Also, because it was grafted, it wasn't necessary to have two trees (a male and female) in order to produce fruit. The tree is, by definition, a hermaphrodite.

The tree came, tiny and sort of puny looking. I followed the enclosed planting instructions. I read multiple articles on caring for fruit trees. And I anxiously awaited my first year of fruit.

The third year the tree was in the ground, it started to fruit in earnest. I made a small pie with the sour cherries and would simply graze off the tree when I was working in the yard. The forth year, the birds and squirrels discovered the tree and I did battle for season to see who would actually get to enjoy the fruit. Year five brought a bumper crop - more cherries than I could eat! I was, literally, giving them away to neighbors. It was the sweet smell of gardening success. But with this success also came a new problem... some of the leaves on the tree were curling in a weird way.

One of the great benefits of living in a town that has an Agriculture school at the local college is that you can call them for advice. I called the botany department and happily discovered that there was actually an "arbor hotline" that I could call for tree emergencies. So, I called. I described the problem. I sent photos in. The entomology department was consulted because there was the possibility that it was a bug of some sort. In the end, I was told to wait a year and see what happened in the next season. That was very unsatisfying.

The following spring (last year) the leaf curling started again. However, I had bigger fish to fry - an infestation of Japanese beetles that were destroying the leaves. These things are relentless. Happily it turns out that they're very easy to eradicate. Early in the morning, while the beetles are still slow moving from the chill of the night, take a bowl of warm soapy water out to the infested plant and pick them off and drown them. It's a bit labor intensive but it works like a charm. As for the curling leaves, most of them were at the ends of branches so I just cut them off and hoped for the best.

Drown them in soapy water when they're sleepy. Bwahahaha!

This spring, like clockwork, my lovely cherry tree (now at full height) bloomed and made a mass of cherries. I didn't pay much attention to it because the weather's been odd and my garden attention as been elsewhere. Then one afternoon, my neighbor was visiting and she mentioned the payload of cherries waiting to ripen. For the first time this year I REALLY looked at my tree - and it looked like someone had taken a curling iron to all the branches. I grabbed a curled leaf and turned it over only to be horrified by the GIANT MASS OF APHIDS on its underside. GACK!  Those of you who know me well know that I don't do well with certain bugs and, folks let me tell you, these things are disgusting! They're small and black and sticky - and they were everywhere.

At least I finally discovered the cause of the problem.

So, in case you're interested in "what I learned about gardening this year"...

Cherry trees get these things called Black Cherry Aphids. They're insidious little buggers that are actually "ranched" by ants. In other words, the ants help the aphids in order to harvest the sweet, sticky stuff that the aphids secrete. The aphids mortal enemy is the ladybug, which is awesome because I love ladybugs and now I have another reason to encourage them in my garden. So, the reason the infestation has gotten worse each year is because the ants have increasingly helped the spread of the aphids and I've done nearly nothing to stop the spread.

And, what does one do to eradicate Black Cherry Aphids, you ask? Surprisingly, it's not all that complicated. First, you have to stop the ants from getting up into the tree by wrapping the trunk in this stuff called Tanglefoot or, if you're feeling particularly frugal, double-sided tape. Then you have to get rid of the aphids you do have. If you're like me and you don't want to use chemicals, you can spray the tree with soapy water. The soft-bodied aphids will suffocate and die. However, it's hard to reach the aphids once the leaves have curled around them so this tactic has mixed success. I also don't like the idea of possibly killing other, beneficial bugs that are on the tree. Alternately, you can buy lady bugs and release them on the tree. Of course, you run the risk that your newly purchased lady bugs will just fly off to some other tree or yard because, you know, they don't really have a contract with you or your particular job. I found a number of ladybugs already feasting on the aphids on my tree so I took extra special care to leave them to their task. This year, I decided to simply cut off as many of the infected leaves as possible and hope for the best. We'll see...

Chow down, little lady!

Next spring I'll have the knowledge I need in order to ensure an aphid-free cherry crop. Unlike my golf game, my garden game just keeps getting better. I think I found the right way to spend my warm-weather months.

- Alex

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