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Storing Summer Gear for Winter

As most of us prepare to hibernate for the winter, so, too, should we prepare to put away our outdoor summer gear for the the cold days ahead. From furniture, to gardening tools to machinery, how we prep and store our seasonal items can make the difference between enjoying them for years to come and wasting money replacing them. Below are a few simple guidelines for maintaining and storing warm-weather items throughout the fall and winter.

Whether wicker, metal, plastic or cloth, it is critical that all outdoor furniture is clean and dry before being covered or stored. With upholstered cushions, we are all guilty of forgetting to put them away before they have been exposed to some measure of moisture. During the summer, this is generally not a problem because any mildew that may have grown will eventually be killed by exposure to direct sunlight. But, when storing your outdoor pillows and cushions for the winter, it is best that they are brought indoors instead of being covered - and it is very important that they are fully dried (especially when being stored in a dark basement or garage). Once dry, they should be beaten for dust, wrapped carefully and placed in the driest possible place.

Metal furniture should be cleaned with mild soapy water (Murphy's Oil Soap is a good choice) and be sure to drain any water trapped in the frames. Most metals can stay out with a secure cover, but it is recommended that steel furniture be brought in, if possible, because of the greater risk of oxidation and rust. Wicker furniture should also be cleaned, dried and stored inside and again, Murphy's Oil soap is a great option for keeping the wicker supple. Most wood can be left outside if properly sealed and cleaned, but leave some room for air circulation. Stone pieces - especially table tops exposed to repeated freezing - would fare best inside, but a sealant and a loose cover should do the trick in most cases.

Gardening tools:
While gardening tools are generally made to withstand all types of heavy use and the elements, if you wish to keep them at their best from year-to-year, they need to be cleaned and maintained at least once per year. Metal tools should be thoroughly cleaned with a wire brush, fully dried and hit with a quick shot of lubricant like WD-40 (paying special attention to hinges, bolts, screws and crevices). Wooden handles benefit greatly from a quick shot with low-grit sandpaper and a nice coating of neem or linseed oil. These simple steps will help to avoid cracking and splintering and will ensure you will have rust-free tools ready to go in the spring.

Landscaping machinery:
Since mowing is often a grueling chore for homeowners, it is tempting to roll the lawnmower right into the garage and not look back until the spring season. But, lawnmowers and other gas-powered machines benefit greatly from proper maintenance and this can save a lot of stress and money over the years. Here are a few recommendations from lawn mower experts, Briggs & Stratton:

1) Always remove the spark plug lead wire before performing any type of mower maintenance.

2) Remove, cover and store the battery. Starting with the negative terminal first, remove your mower's battery, clean any dirt, debris or corrosion, treat the terminals with a basic protectant and store in a clean, dry place.

3) Treat fuel tank. Gas-powered machines should never be left for months on end with partially full tanks (especially months with high precipitation). Moisture can gather in the tank causing rust that can clog the carburetor. It should either be run completely out of fuel or, better yet, filled to capacity and treated with a fuel stabilizer. If opting to fill and treat the fuel tank, be sure to run for a few minutes to allow the stabilizer to circulate throughout the carburetor. Store in a clean, dry place far away from furnaces or any other source of heat or flames.

Now that you've thoroughly cleaned and properly prepared your summer furniture, tools and machinery for winter storage, one final bit of advice is to park them behind not in front of your snowblower, shovels or generators as it won't be long before they'll need to come out to play.

Beware the Winter Moth Caterpillar

While the folks of Massachusetts and other areas of New England heartily welcome the spring season after a relentless winter, they are finding a very unwelcome problem emerging from the brutal snow: serious damage to trees and plants from the Winter Moth Caterpillar.

In an alert sent from Hyannis Country Garden to communities on Cape Cod, residents are urged to look closely at their Maple, Cherry, Willow, Apple, Pear and other deciduous trees for signs of damage. They warn that while leaves may look as if they are simply "breaking dormancy," they may be, in reality, being eaten by the Winter Moth Caterpillar. The damage looks quite like that which we see from household moths - pits, holes and large missing patches.

These moths are an invasive species found in parts of Europe, the near east and in North America. The first western infestation was recorded in Nova Scotia in the 1930's which perhaps explains why the majority of damage is being done in the northern states of New England as well as some Pacific Northwest states like Washington and Oregon. The northern midwestern states surrounding the Great Lakes are too cold for too long to allow even winter moths to propagate, but areas like Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine are perfectly suitable breeding grounds for these foliage-feeding insects to thrive.

The prevention and control of Winter Moths is actually quite safe, simple and effective, but there are a few things to know before moving forward with treatment. The most important factor is the stage of metamorphosis.

The lifecycle of the Winter Moth can seem rather broad and imprecise, so it helps to follow these basic guidelines to help control active destruction and future infestations.

Adult moths emerge from the ground in late November/early December and go about the business of mating. Adult moths are not a threat to plants, so there is nothing that needs to be done during that period. Equally benign eggs are laid in short order (just a few weeks) and begin to hatch in March or April.

It is the little green caterpillar that hatches in the spring that causes all of the damage. They take a couple of weeks to find their legs, but begin spinning silk and spanning tree branches to prepare for their May/June feeding frenzy. It is at this point that one of two treatments can be applied safely and effectively.

Spinosad is the most recommended treatment (and one with a most interesting history). While it is an organic bacterium, it can be harmful to bees and other beneficial insects when it is wet. It is therefore recommended for use only at night - or in areas with no flowering foliage. An alternative popular and effective treatment is Bacillus Thuringieness (BT). This is another organic bacterium - but one which is not a threat to the bee population.

As with most problems, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While the eggs are harmless, the single best way to prevent moth damage is to apply a dormant oil spray over trees during the egg stage (Jan - March). Dormant oil spray will suffocate the eggs and give you a significant advantage come spring.

While the lifecycle stages may be somewhat broad, here are a few easy-to-remember dates to follow:

As you are trying to follow-through with your New Year's resolutions in January and February, add "Spray dormant oil" to your list of things to do.

If this plan goes out the window with the rest of your resolutions, be sure to spray the Spinosad or BT by Mother's Day at the latest ("Moth" of Mother's Day being a helpful pneumonic device).

Most garden experts agree that spraying once and watching, is the best treatment plan. Be sure to cover leaves carefully and always spray plants that grow beneath the trees (caterpillars often fall down and decide to stay put). The caterpillars generally die within 2-3 days after application, so reapply a week or so later if some remain.

If these simple tips are followed, New Englanders can enjoy the beautiful trees they've waited so long to see!

Can Ultrasonic Waves Keep the Pigeons at Bay?

Pigeons have long been a part of urban landscapes. Romanticized images of older folks feeding them from park benches and children chasing them into the air by the flock, will forever be icons of inner city living. But, pigeons live in many geographical areas and can put down roots on private patios, balconies and poolside areas creating not just a nuisance and an unsightly mess, but a public health hazard. Pigeon feces can carry over 60 diseases including E.coli, Salmonella and Histoplasmosis - a potentially fatal respiratory disease arising from breathing a fungus that thrives in dried bird droppings.

Hope is in the air, however, by way of ultrasonic repellant devices such as those made by Riddex. For less than $50 and a handful of AA batteries, the Riddex Silent Bird Repellant promises to keep pesky birds away by emitting a high-frequency sound heard only by birds. When an infrared motion detector picks up the presence of a pigeon or other bird, the ultrasonic noise is set-off causing the birds to flee from the irritating sound.

As with many products, silent bird repellants have been met with mixed reviews. Some consumers report total success while others experience no effect at all, but if you plan to give them a try, here are some helpful hints to maximize the efficacy of the product and increase your odds of success.

Understanding how ultrasonic waves work is a good place to start. Most importantly, they travel only in a straight line and do not penetrate solid objects. So, unless you have a straight and clear path to where the birds have set up shop, it is helpful to purchase several units - or units with mulitple speaker options - in order to create a "surround sound" type of effect. And, if you are living in a complex or multi-unit type of setting, getting neighbors together to make a concerted effort is a great way to go. Ultrasonic waves can only travel so far (most units covering only about 20 linear feet) and this can create a situation where the birds gather next door or a few doors away.

Perhaps the most common complaint with silent repellants is they work for a short time until the pests become accustomed to the noise. To combat this, experts recommend starting with the lowest frequency and gradually increasing if necessary. Also, occasionally moving the units to different parts of the battle zone helps to prevent the birds from finding a comfortable, noise-free spot.

There are a couple of things to consider before installing silent repellants. One is to be sure to they are "ultrasonic" - not simply sonic. Sonic waves can be detected by the human ear causing a variety of symptoms including dizziness and headaches. It has been reported that some people - mostly women and children - are also able to detect ultrasonic waves. If any physical disturbances arise after installation, try disarming the devices and see if the symptoms go away. If they do, this method may not be the best way to go. Finally, while they are mammals, bats are susceptible to ultrasonic bird repellants. That may be an added bonus to many homeowners, but bats are a vital part of the ecosystem and are a protected species in many states. Simply call your local wildlife association before installation to be sure it is allowed by law.

Since there are many instances where silent bird repellants work very well, it is worth giving them a try. They are a humane, clean and low-maintenance way to rid your property of bird pests - and they are relatively affordable, especially if bought in bulk by your neighborhood association. Placing them strategically and observing the resulting patterns will dramatically increase your odds of success and keep the birds where they belong - in the park amusing the young and old.

Hardscape and Flower Fairies: Capturing the Eye and the Imagination

In winter, architectural design and its hard shapes, of stone, or concrete, are the things that capture oneís eye. Evergreens surround them with the only color of winter. But when everything else is dead or sleeping, it is those hard shapes that define the design.

They are called ďHardscape.Ē They are forms, individual things, like walls or walks or paved areas, or statuary. They survive the ice and snow of winter. They define the architectural design, which is basic to any good garden, park or open space.

Hardscape can be simple, like rustic stone walls. Old roads, pastures, farm areas, even parks are defined by these walls. Itís always interesting to discover an old farm wall in the middle of what is now a second generation forest.

These old authentic walls are quite fascinating. When the farmers cleared the land, they used the large rocks to build double sided walls which left a space in the middle. This they filled with the small stones. Even more interesting is that they tipped the large outer rocks so that their centers were lower than their outside edges. This allowed the walls to expand with frozen water, ice and snow, but then fall back into place (by gravity) as it melted.

A perfect 90 degree stone wall will expand outward and not fall back into place unless it is built with very special skill or the rocks are set in concrete. Most 90 degree walls eventually crack or the top falls off. The old farmers knew better.

Hardscape is made of many materials. Brick. Pavers, Bluestone. Slate. Concrete. Concrete blocks that look like all kinds of stone, and are much easier to build with than field stone. Hardscape is very fashionable these days because it is permanent and easy maintenance.

Landscape companies like it because it is expensive, and so more profitable than just an all green landscape. Well done stone walls and paving define a well designed garden.

Also necessary are visual points of interest. These may be interesting rocks (think Japanese gardens). Or they may be statues and artifacts (think Versailles). Of course they may be pink flamingos, if that is your preference. Mine is flower fairies.

It started when my first grandchild was 3 and afraid of the night. Thus the flower fairies were born. Flower fairies live underground with their grandmother. Each night at Eventide, when the church bells ring, they come out and dance. In summer, where their feet touch the ground, flowers open. After dancing, they go and sit on the bed of a scared child, to protect it with a big, long balloon.

But you can only see them with your eyes closed! Itís a grandmother story. Over the years a number of fairies were bought. Concrete perhaps, but once a fairy, always a fairy. Especially naughty fairy Mary.

My grandchildren are now all grown, but the little fairies are true. Awaiting the touch of a little hand, the smile of a little face. They are on the paths, at the door, protecting the birdfeeder. With happy memories. They have become part of my Hardscape for winter.

Ruth S. Foster is a landscape consultant and arborist. More gardening information can be found on her website, www.mothersgarden.net.

Lessons of Winter -- Just Look and Learn

Look about you. Winter gives us information in unexpected ways. For instance, you can tell the temperature outside just by looking at the rhododendrons.

At 32 degrees, they curl up. About like a cigar. If they curl even more tightly, like a cigarette, itís about 20 degrees. Some varieties curl up tighter, some not so tight. But always at 32 degrees. When warm sunshine hits a particular leaf, that leaf uncurls.

The varieties from colder ecosystems, curl more tightly than those that are not as hardy. Itís related to salt concentrations in the sap, and obviously, the freezing point of water.

Another piece of most useful information is to see whether oneís trees are well balanced, and whether certain branches are dead.

First look at the branch structure, which is best visible from a distance. If a huge wind blows up, will the tree waver too much in one direction or another because of uneven weight and possibly fall or crack?

If so, consider calling a certified arborist for an opinion about pruning. Pruning is expensive, but donít do it yourself because of the serious accidents and death rate.

To tell if a particular branch is dead or alive, look at the end. If there are small branchlets and twigs, itís probably alive. If there are no little twigs, check it out in spring to see if it leafs out. Dead branches eventually break off in storms and can cause damage. Consider having a professional tree company remove it. (A local Belmont boy was so killed not long ago.)

Winter is a good time to decide how to shape small trees and seedlings, because the branching structure is completely visible. Young trees put out too many small branches, all around, on the sides and top. To get a strong scaffold in the mature tree, itís necessary to shape it when young. It should have a main central trunk, and some well spaced branches that will grow to become a well balanced tree.

Does this all sound too technical? It is. However, anyone who looks carefully at a tree, slowly and thoughtfully, will learn lots of useful information.

And while you are looking around, see if you can glimpse a coyote pack, or even a wolf, if there are any in your town. Centuries ago, January was known as wolf-month in northern Europe. Itís the mating season and also food is scarce, hence the fairy tales The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. Fortunately the woodsman came, chopped open the wolfís stomach and rescued Little Red's grandmother (whole and intact). Today itís only free roaming cats and dogs near conservation lands that are at risk.

Winter Solstice -- and Why We Need the Twinkly Lights

December 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. And it is why we need the twinkling lights of Christmas.

The winter solstice brings depressing darkness to the northern hemisphere, and the farther north you go, the shorter the days become. Boston, at 42 degrees latitude, is closer to Rome and Madrid, than to London or Scandinavia where there may be only 2 to 4 hours of sun a day.

For early cultures it was a mystical time, for the earth was dark and barren. Plants and trees lost their leaves. The goddess of the harvest slept, or maybe even died. Very scary.

But some insolent plants held on to their green leaves, defying the evil spirits of the dark and cold. Druids, Greeks and especially Romans worshiped these brave evergreens. They cut them, decorated their houses with them, and also drank a lot of wine, presumably for warmth and reassurance.

And so, they became the brave evergreens of Christmas, holly and ivy and mistletoe.

Poisonous all, they were used medicinally by early priests and shamans. Mistletoe, a parasitic weed of trees, was sacred to the Druids. White-frocked priests plucked it with a golden sickle to cure illness, infertility and pacify oneís enemies. To kiss beneath it ended grievances, which by some mysterious convolution, became todayís romantic custom.

Pagan tribes in England and Germany kept holly to ward off evil spirits, bad weather, and to protect a maidenís virginity. (How does sex always end up in these folk tales?) These myths have evolved into our winter customs, continuing their reassurance that indeed spring would come again.

Before electricity those nights were long and dark. Very dark. (Try the inside of a closet.) Illuminating the darkness was reassuring and protective against irrational fears. It still is.

So at this winter solstice, the joyful holiday lights are most welcome Ė to reassure and comfort us Ė and make our towns a twinkling wonderland. And I do as much shopping as possible at our local stores. Their holiday lights cheer, for me, the depressing darkness of these shortest days of the year.

The Last Rose of Summer

"Tis the last rose of summer, left blooming all alone.
All her lovely companions have faded fast and gone."

So goes the romantic, nostalgic song from the 1920's. It's still true each year as we watch the damp, dark, cold winter approach.

This year we had snowflakes on the roses. A first in my garden. And the blood red leaves of the Japanese maple were flecked with white snowflakes. Beautiful. The first time I have seen this. For some fleeting moments it was Old Man Winter's fall pageant.

Fall's show is its blaze of colors that treat the eye. They slowly change over their several weeks, for those who take the time to notice and share their passing. It's human time, not the click-click-click-quick-click of our electronic time.

The old song's Snowflake Clown slowly flies from on high to kiss the apprehensive last rose of summer. She knows his kiss means death.

This is Nature's time frame. On it were created the myths and religious holidays of old. Would the goddess of the harvest return after the winter? Would the people who made these myths survive the cold and bleak and often hungry darkness? They used the rising sun after December 21, the shortest day of the year, to mark the season.

Today, our winter holidays are ones of hope. Christmas, Hanukkah, and many other religions, are also timed to celebrate the expectation of next year's spring.

For the past few years the climate has changed most significantly, and is especially visible in the garden. The plants feel it. Global warming is very, very real, even if certain huge, wealthy companies, and their political friends refuse to admit it.

As the season ends, and in accordance with Nature's time frame, it's our time to put the garden to bed. Closing down the garden always means a big list of things to do. To be honest, one can never get them all done. However, be content, to finish even a few. And never mind those chores unfinished. The goddess of spring will come, no matter.

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