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Winterizing a Vacant Home

Whether you are shoring up a shore house for the winter, battening down the hatches at your summer cabin, or simply planning to leave your home for an extended period this winter, there are a few must-do steps to take that will help ensure your spring or summer return is not met with disaster.

Plumbing System
The single most important chore is to prepare your plumbing system for freezing conditions by thoroughly draining all pipes and tanks. First, locate and turn off the main water valve, usually located at the water meter. If you are unsure where the valve is, simply call your plumber or do a little internet research to find it. Next, working from the top floor down, open all sink faucets. When in the basement, open laundry tub faucet (where all upper faucets eventually drain) and empty hot water tank. Return to upper floors, open all tub and shower faucets and flush toilets. After just a few minutes, all pipes and drains should be fully cleared and ready for the winter freeze. An added measure for homes in climates with extended freezing periods, pouring a little antifreeze into the drains is a good idea. Some homeowners choose to be extra cautious and blow air through the plumbing systems with an air compressor, but this can be a somewhat involved process. Calling a professional for this task is usually the best way to go, and generally only costs a couple hundred dollars if the system is drained beforehand. Don't forget to shut off the valve for outdoor plumbing (if it is separate) and drain outdoor hoses.

Heating and Power
Even if you plan to visit the home periodically, it is best to disconnect any propane tanks and all natural gas in the home (must be done by the utility company). It is always a good idea to leave the electricity on with light timers and motion detectors, as this discourages potential burglars, but if you must turn off the electricity, be sure that battery operated smoke detectors are functioning properly.

Other Indoor Considerations
To avoid critters setting up shop, be sure to close and seal (with plastic and/or duct tape) all fireplace dampers, dryer vents and, of course, any pet doors. Stuffing spaces around plumbing pipes (especially under sinks) with steel wool is a great way to keep out rodents and scattering mothballs throughout helps to deter a variety of pests. Finally, unplugging and thoroughly cleaning the refrigerator (and leaving the doors open) will avoid molds and mildew from growing.

Outdoor Considerations
Locate and remove any overhanging branches to avoid potential roof damage and clean gutters/downspouts thoroughly. Removing fallen leaves from under or near the home and storing firewood a safe distance away helps to keep mildew, termites and other pests from getting too comfortable. Scheduling regular plowing or snowblowing is always a good idea, as it sends the message that the home is not vacant for an extended period. It also helps to avoid potential liability if there are shared sidewalks or if the home is being shown by realtors.

If money is no object and security is a looming concern, you can consider outfitting your home with smart technology. Remote surveillance and control can help ease your mind and also be very convenient if you're not doing a full-on shut down. You can raise the heat before a visit and operate lights and a security system from wherever you are. Whatever your plans, following the simple steps listed above will avoid a whole host of potentially costly problems and allow you to relax over the winter months.

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.

When the Deer are not So Dear: Lyme Disease Alert

Bambi is not your friend, and this column is no joke.

1. What wild animal kills the most people? Deer. Because of automobile accidents.

2. What wild animal spreads most disease to people? Deer. Lyme Disease and others.

3. If you find a tick attached to you, especially if blood filled, see your doctor for preventative antibiotic treatment. Ditto, if you develop a red circle that enlarges. This is important!

4. It is a serious disease. I know a man of 40 who died from a heart attack of undiagnosed Lyme Disease. If untreated, it can have bad long term chronic disability.

5. For more information see Mass. Dept. of Health fact sheets. (www.mass.gov/dph) or call (888) 658-2850.

Most everyone is aware of Lyme disease these days. When I wrote a book in 1995 (The Backyard Battle Plan) for keeping animals out of the garden, it was already endemic in some places. Today it has become a major public health issue, with an estimated 300,000 new cases each year (according to the CDC).

Everyone I know in the landscape business has had it, often many times. My husband also. I brushed ticks off my arm harvesting raspberries that grow against my house wall. Deer ticks are endemic, and everywhere. Not just in open space.

The deer that spread the disease are also everywhere. How many in our town is unclear. Someone suggested hundreds. (Seems high.) However, deer are recorded every night on the surveillance cameras outside the public buildings in my town Center. I have been told that a local Audubon preserve has its own resident herd.

Deer are in my backyard at dusk and dawn. Their damage to the garden is total. And if I yell or bang a shovel or run at them, they just look at me and keep eating. Humans are not their predators in the suburbs. Automobiles are.

Despite what you read and see advertised, no deer repellants work for very long, if at all. I've tried them all.

To ward off the disease carrying ticks, I can not even rake up the leaves or do any pruning, without suiting up. I put on shoes, tall stockings with light color tucked in, a jacket and gloves.... all sprayed with pyrethrum insecticide and pulled on top of my regular clothes. (Never get pyrethrum on skin.)

When I don't get suited up, I have to remember to spray with DEET mosquito repellant, especially shoes and pants or legs. And everyone who walks anywhere in the woods or conservation land, or in their own backyard (if they have seen deer) should take this precaution.

Audubon is very derelict in not having tick warning signs. They invite people and children to enjoy their beautiful garden and programs, as well as the woods and trails. And they should have lots of cans of DEET available for visitors.

As a public health measure, the entrance to all the trails and paths where people walk should have large signs reminding them to spray with DEET, and check for ticks when back home. Dogs and cats are very susceptible and can bring them into the house, so consider pet tick collars.

So Bambi, little romantic Disney creation, despite some folks passionate attachment to your myth, you are our main disease carrying animal. Yet some live in this make believe world and in so doing, put us all at health risk.

Ruth S. Foster is a landscape consultant from Belmont, MA

Mist those mosquitoes to death!

Mosquito Season

The eggs are hatching and the insects take wing. Their target: your blood.

With the warmer months come droves of blood-sucking mosquitos, relentless and fast-breeding. The pest prevention industry has always introduced new weapons in the war against this especially nasty enemy and this season is no exception.

The Terminix ALLCLEAR Mosquito Mister Lantern with Naturals is the latest repellant on the market. Sold as an all-natural solution, Terminix claims the lantern safely repels "95% of biting mosquitos from an area up to 300 square feet." That's about the size of an outdoor deck or patio, so if you're sold on this method you may consider buying more than one to cover an entire yard.

The Lantern uses Geraniol, which is the botanical extract of the lemongrass plant. According to the company it is safe to use around children, pets and food and contains no synthetic chemicals or residues.

The lantern itself costs &79.99 and the refills on the Naturals repellent are $7.99.

Would you use the Terminix ALLCLEAR Lantern?

An all-natural solution to kill bed bugs.

All Natural Bed Bug Solution

Since the Rapture didn't happen, I guess we can all go back to fighting the day-to-day battles that challenge us in this mortal life on Earth. Like the battle against bed bugs.

We've done our fair share of covering of this topic, including the EPA-issued report last August warning homeowners and renters against the use of pesticides labeled for outdoor use on the critters. The report gave some good advice on finding and eliminating bed bugs, but still the problem persisted.

Then there was the announcement about the moving company iMoveGREEN, which certified their moving fleet as being BED BUG FREE. Read up on how they do it.

The latest news in the Bed Bug War centers around a new all-natural pesticide by U.S. Hygiene called Bed Bug Fix. The non-toxic spray solution is derived from an all-purpose insecticide and just gained international distribution rights. Apparently the non-toxic nature of Bed Bug Fix precludes the need for EPA approval. I wonder how effective it is.

Where I am in Burlington, VT, we've seen some coverage over the rise in bed bug reports. An acquaintance of mine who is interviewed in the above article recently started a bed bug remediation company that uses specially-trained bed-bug-sniffing dogs to locate the biting buggers. It's a safer and healthier way to deal with the problem, as opposed to fumigating the entire home. The other method is heat treatment, in which the entire home gets heated to 140 degrees for a few hours. Heat treatment call run up to around $1000 per job.

Have you endured a bed bug infestation? How did you deal with it?

The Havahart Above Ground Electric Fence will keep your dog in and other dogs out.

Invisible Fence vs Visible Fence

My morning running route takes me along the sidewalk in front of a property that is home to a very territorial, very big dog. Despite the fact that I've been doing this run almost every day for the past couple years, the dog still charges in my direction, barking furiously.

Fortunately, they have an invisible fence.

Or so I assume. There aren't actually any signs or posting indicating that such a fence is present (as there should be), but the dog stops its advance at or near the same invisible line every time.

Today I saw an announcement that Woodstream Corporation has recently introduced the Havahart Above Ground Electric Fence Kit for dogs and small animals.

Neither above ground nor below ground fences are anything new. Both solutions have been around for some time, but I got to thinking about the merits of one over the other and wondered which I would choose if I owned a dog.

While the invisible fence is great aesthetically, the dog has to forever wear the special collar and the fence is only good for the dog that is wearing the collar. Other dogs and animals are not confined or kept out by the fence.

The above ground fence, on the other hand, will keep any dog in and any dog or animal out. It's not the most pleasing thing to look at and I don't think I'd want this thing lining the perimeter of my yard, but I can see its use in a garden setting to shock any would-be munchers of flowers and vegetables. It would also protect my dog from any aggressive neighborhood strays.

When my dad and his twin brother were toddlers, their mother used to leash them to a tree in the yard to keep them from wandering away and swatting the heads off of neighbors' flowers. True story. I can only imagine my grandmother would have installed the invisible fence and collared my poor dad and uncle had this technology been available back then.

I'm not advocating any parent adopt this method of child control, by the way. I think shocking a dog is already bordering on the cruel. Doing it to a small child is grounds for intervention by Child Services.

Which type of fence would you prefer?

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