Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Thaw... Plus Thunder!

One week ago today, here in Minneapolis, we woke up to temperatures of -20 F (-29 C), with wind chills around -35 F (-37 C).  And we had upwards of a foot of fluffy snow, which was blowing and drifting in the wind.  Now, lest you dismiss this as being normal for Minnesota, in the third week of December, you are mistaken; it is not!  This was the Polar Vortex, that shifting of super-cold air from around the north pole, pushed southward, with the jet-stream, by temperatures in the Arctic Circle, which have been hovering right around freezing for several weeks, a departure from normal polar temps of  -25 to -35 F. (-32 to -37 C).  In other words, as counterintuitive as it may seem, the shift of the polar vortex southward into North America and Siberia is the effect of global warming in the polar region.  See my December 2016 blog:

Now, on Christmas day (and for the last several days), with the Polar Vortex past, we are experiencing unusually warm temperatures for late-December and our once-fluffy snow is melting fast.  Right now, at noon, I am looking out my window at wind-blown steady rain, with the air temperature hovering just above freezing. Thunderstorms and temperatures in the 40s are predicted for later in the day, with upwards to an inch of rain, and it's likely that most of our snow cover will be gone by tomorrow.

Thunderstorms on Christmas Day in Minnesota?  No one can remember this happening before, but it serves as a very good example of what winter-protecting your roses is all about, if you live some place where winter (and especially the Polar Vortex these days) affects your garden.  Last week at this time, my roses were frozen solid, probably at least a foot or more below the surface (it doesn't take long for that to happen at -20 F (-29 C).  Now, with temperatures well above freezing and rain coming down, the ground surface will start to thaw after the snow melts, but I know my roses will stay frozen solid because they are mounded with dirt and insulated with leaves and/or marsh hay.  Likewise, tomorrow morning, when temperatures fall and the surface re-freezes, they will be unaffected, because they did not thaw.

Now, for example, if you live near St. Louis, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Boston or New York, and your ground and roses were certainly not frozen before the Polar Vortex came through last week, but you had at least mounded them and your bud unions are planted several inches below the ground, it is very unlikely that they froze from that short blast of polar temperatures (which we may see again in January or February). So, like mine, they are just fine for exactly the same reason: they were winter-protected from freezing and thawing.  The only difference is that mine didn't thaw and yours didn't freeze; so no problem either way.  If you haven't already seen it, please read my recent blog: "Five Important Steps to Winter-Protecting Your Roses".  Here is that address: .

As I have said repeatedly in the last few years, you can debate why global warming is happening but the facts clearly demonstrate that it is; the Polar Vortex notwithstanding.  As mentioned earlier, the Polar Vortex is caused by extreme warming of the polar regions pushing cold air southward into Siberia or North America (or both this year), via the jet-stream. And because it is still unusually warm in the Arctic, we can expect the Polar Vortex to re-emerge in any winter going forward, particularly in January or February (December was a surprise).  Please see my March 2014 blog "What the Heck Was Wrong with this Winter": ,
as well as my October 2014 blog: "Winter-Protecting Roses in a Climate-Change Environment".

Bottom line?  If you live in any zone where winter comes along at some point each year, do something to winter-protect your roses, even if it's only planting your bud unions several inches below ground and providing some mounding with mulch or dirt around your plants each fall, because we can now say, with a fairly high degree of certainty, that the Polar Vortex will strike again in North America, in any year going forward.

Jack Falker

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Here Comes the Polar Vortex... Again!

The last time the dreaded Polar Vortex invaded the lower 48 states was nearly three years ago, in January 2014, and it was pretty rough, especially for rosarians in parts of the country who aren't used to deep cold, as we are here in the Upper Midwest.  I remember writing back then that we would probably see a vortex invasion again, because it's something that's always circulating up there at the north pole, and it would be just a matter of time before it found its way south again, especially with the weather anomalies we are experiencing on a regular basis these days.  I also cautioned readers in my previous blog "Five Important Steps for Winterizing Your Roses": "Don't forget the Polar Vortex of a couple of years ago (and act accordingly)!"

Well, I hope you did, because here it comes again!  However, for those in zones 6 and 7, If you didn't get all your winter work done, you may have a few more days to protect your roses from the effects of freezing and thawing.  See the animated map below to see when the vortex will strike your area.

The good news is that this particular polar vortex incursion isn't going to last too long.  Obviously, we can't know for sure, but there seems to be a pretty good chance that the vortex will not repeat itself in January, when the the polar air is considerably colder

This is all from my friend Paul Douglas' blog, which I read daily:

What Is The Polar Vortex? NOAA has a very good explainer, separating fact from hype: "...The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding both of the Earth’s poles. It ALWAYS exists near the poles, but weakens in summer and strengthens in winter. The term "vortex" refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air near the Poles. Many times during winter in the northern hemisphere, the polar vortex will expand, sending cold air southward with the jet stream (see graphic above). This occurs fairly regularly during wintertime and is often associated with large outbreaks of Arctic air in the United States. The one that occurred January 2014 is similar to many other cold outbreaks that have occurred in the past, including several notable colder outbreaks in 1977, 1982, 1985 and 1989. There are several things the polar vortex is NOT. Polar vortexes are not something new. The term “polar vortex” has only recently been popularized, bringing attention to a weather feature that has always been present..."

Here's the full description:

And here is an excellent,timely article from the New York Times: "Feeling a Chill? Blame the Polar Vortex. And Global Warming".

And here is Paul Douglas' take on the odds of this happening again this winter:

Late-Month Moderation. I want to see a few more model runs, but GFS 500 mb predicted winds looking out 2 weeks suggests a more zonal flow for the USA with temperatures at or above average for late December. The question is not: will we endure more arctic fronts. We will. The question is how pervasive will bitter air be east of the Rockies? Will the polar vortex weaken and break down, allowing subzero air to consistently flood south? I'm still not convinced it's going to be nearly as numbing as it was 3 years ago.

Thank Heaven! But it's better to be safe than sorry.

The map below tracks the polar vortex incursion through the end of December:

Monday, August 29, 2016

Five Important Steps to Winter-Protecting Your Roses

There is a continuing misconception among many folks who grow roses in the "cold zones" (i.e. USDA zones 3, 4, 5 and 6), that "winter protection" means protection against freezing.  That's not right in zones where the ground freezes solid.  No matter how much protection you add to your roses (and that includes the "Minnesota Tip"), it's impossible to stop them from freezing when the ground freezes down one or two feet (or sometimes more here in Minnesota).

So, it's not the freezing that kills roses, it's the repeated thawing and re-freezing at the surface, when temperatures go above freezing in the daytime and fall back below freezing at night.  So our winter-protection objective must be to stop repeated freezing and thawing.  By the way, this principle applies equally to more temperate zones where the ground doesn't consistently freeze, but winter temperatures hover around freezing for weeks at a time.  In a way, I think that the winter-cover methods described below, or some variant thereof, may be at least as important (or perhaps even more so) for gardeners in zones 6 and 7, where the ground often doesn't stay frozen and freezing and thawing is very fickle. Don't forget the "Polar Vortex" of a couple of years ago (and act accordingly)!

For example, here is a beautiful picture of Teresa and Greg Byington's home and garden at the height of the "Polar Vortex", near Indianapolis (zone 6, per National Arbor Day 2015 data), in January 2014.  The extreme minimum temperature (EMT) in Indianapolis was -15, i.e., right in the middle of zone 5 that year.  That means that the ground froze solid in Indiana, during that period, and likely thawed out and froze again, judging from the bright sunshine in this picture.  In St. Louis, zone 7, their EMT was -8, putting them in zone 6, so the ground froze solid, before thawing, there too.  That's why some form of aggressive winter protection is also important in both zones 6 and 7.

Here are my five important steps to stop the killing effects of freezing and thawing:

1.  Always plant the bud unions of your grafted roses, or the crowns of your own-root roses, at least three inches below the ground.  Not only does this help insulate the bud unions from freezing and thawing, but it's also good horticultural practice, no matter whether you garden in a cold zone or a warm zone.

2.  In the six weeks prior to the first hard freeze in your area (25 degrees f. or below), harden off the canes of your roses by giving them a weekly potassium feast.  See my blog:

3.  A couple of weeks before the first hard freeze, mound your roses, up ten inches or so, with several shovels of compost or black dirt.  This cone of soil, which should be frequently watered and is the first to freeze, further insulates the bud unions and crowns of your plants (which should already be below ground level).  In zones 6 and 7 (where I grew up), the extent of mounding might be reduced somewhat, perhaps to just a heavy mulching that stays put over the winter and is naturally worked into the soil in the spring.  Again, however, remember what happened with the "polar vortex" and act accordingly.  It can't hurt to use more mulch.

4.  Next, at about the time the soil freezes (late November or early December in Minneapolis) or, in the warmer zones, when you anticipate consistent night-time temperatures below 25 degrees (probably early January), put some leaf or hay cover over your mounded roses.  I like half-filled bags of mulched leaves, which I slit open on the bottom and push down over my plants.  At this point, the plants have been cut back to about 18 inches and bundled up with twine, so as not to hinder placement of the bags.  You can also use wire fence cylinders filled with leaves but I think the slitted leaf bags work better; a practice that has been used in the Chicago area for many years.  In Detroit (zone 6), where my parents grew roses, we simply raked leaves over our rose beds, without mounding, for winter cover.  I also remember that they replaced several roses each year, so it must have not been quite sufficient.  However, I believe that the combination of mounding and generally covering your beds with leaves or hay would probably work just fine in zone 6, as long as your bud unions are planted below ground level. For much greater detail, please see my blogs "Winter Protecting Your Roses" and "The Big Coverup":

5.  Finally, if this isn't already enough, you must now protect your roses from voles, those voracious rodent pests that are to winter gardening what japanese beetles are to summer gardening. This must be done just before you place leaf cover on your plants, i.e. just before they freeze.  Castor oil and rodent bait should be strategically applied, as described in these two Minnesota Rose Gardener blogs:

Here is a picture of my Earth Song bed, all put to bed on Christmas day 2013, with each of the five steps above performed, plus a natural eight inches of snow for added insulation.  The now-dreaded Polar Vortex would begin in the next month, with more than 50 nights below zero and a one-night EMT of -23 (zone 4), but I suffered no losses in 2014.

So now your fall work is cut out for you!  Please let me know if you have a question.

Jack Falker

Friday, August 19, 2016

Attacking Japanese Beetles -- Victory!

The JBs arrived early this year, on June 19th, and they have been the worst ever. Over the last two months, on many days I have drowned several hundred in soapy water, but today I drowned only one.  While I fully expect to see a few more in the next couple of weeks, I think we can now declare victory for 2016!

I calculate, roughly, that I killed upwards of 5,000 JBs, entirely organically, while preserving the lives and habitat of all pollinating insects, like the hundreds of varieties of bees, and the beneficial predatory insects in my garden, including lady beetles, predatory wasps, lace wings etc., by not spraying insecticides; and I am proud of that! Those 5,000 JBs will never find their way into my lawn to produce more JBs next year and that is better than all the grub control or milky spore treatments one could muster.

My rose gardens have been extensively dead-headed, chewed-up leaves removed, fertilized, and positioned to quickly outgrow and outbloom the effects of the JBs, over the next couple of months.  That's a pretty good result, I believe, and that's what organic gardening is all about.

If you haven't read my earlier posts on JBs this year, take a look at "Attacking Japanese Beetles--Know Your Enemy", which also includes the addresses of my several other blogs on JBs:

I would be interested in knowing how it has gone for my readers this year.  I know, for example that JBs made it further north in Minnesota than ever before; the result of changes in Minnesota's climate, which is warming faster than anywhere else in the country, other than Alaska.  Let me know how it has gone for you.  Have JBs made it to Europe or South America for example?  I look forward to hearing from you.

Jack Falker

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Attacking Japanese Beetles -- Know Your Enemy

Author's note: If you haven't read my last post: "Attacking Japanese Beetles -- Organically", please take a look at it.  You will learn more from this post if you read my last one first:

JBs on Earth Song

To get to know the JB enemy, let's consider again where JBs originate.  The adult beetles mate in the process of feeding on their favorite foods (like roses, many trees and other flowers like zinnias) and you can see this happening if you observe them clustering.  The female JB then finds a lush bit of turf and deposits her eggs.  The eggs hatch as grubs and feed on the grass roots.  If enough JB grubs populate your lawn, you will develop areas of dead turf, which, when dug up, will have one-inch, white, JB grubs clustered in the roots.  That whole area of your lawn will die unless you apply grub control in the fall or early spring.  This is one of the things that golf course managers have learned and why they have been using huge amounts of imidacloprid, as the most effective grub control, over the last several years here in Minnesota.  I had this problem myself, several years ago, and applied granular imidacloprid to save my lawn.  You can bet that this is part of the reason that we have seen such an upswing in bee colony collapse disorder, which has been directly linked to imidacloprid.  One extreme example of this is Orem City, Utah, which applied imidacloprid across all neighborhoods of the city, several years ago, when JBs began to affect the floraculture and nursery industries. They even went so far as to warn homeowners not to eat any of the produce of their fruit trees, because of the systemic nature of imidacloprid. It worked, but I can't even contemplate the extent of the damage to honey bees and other beneficial insects, like lady beetles, in Utah, as the result of this extreme measure.  Here's the Utah story:

I also want to point out that as soon as we began to see JBs in the Twin Cities, I made the rather sizable investment in Milky Spore, with a special tubular applicator and all, and went all over my lawn and portions of my neighbors' lawns laboriously applying patches of it, exactly as specified (and I breathed-in a lot of it, as well).  I watched, hopefully, for the next few years to see what the milky spore infection would do to the JB population on my roses and I can say with certainty that it did virtually nothing to significantly reduce the population of beetles in my gardens! Oh, I'm sure that Milky Spore and a subsequent, equally expensive, application of nematodes knocked off a bunch of JB grubs in my lawn over the next few years, and they still may be doing so, but that's not where the great majority of JBs landing in my gardens are originating.

Please see quotes from the University of Minnesota about the ineffectiveness of Milky Spore here:

Fact: JBs travel amazing distances, from where they pupate, to find the plant foods they relish (like your roses).  There is evidence that they may fly as much as five miles to reach your plants, so unless all the turf within a five-mile radius of your garden is treated with Milky Spore or imidacloprid (like in Utah!) there is no way that what you alone do to your lawn will stop JBs from invading your gardens. Milky Spore and imidacloprid can protect your lawn from dying, but they can't stop the vast majority of JBs from flying your way each summer.  Save your money and concentrate on killing the JBs as they arrive, before they can lay eggs in your lawn.  As I point out in my earlier blog posts, pyrethroid insecticides, like Demand CS, work well, but they also kill beneficial insects such as lady beetles and pollinators. That is why I advocate the organic approach of manually drowning JBs. Either way you decide to go, it's far more important to concentrate on attacking and killing JBs than it is to try and prevent them from hatching on your property.

Fact: If you haven't already figured this out, JBs are amazingly canny critters. To effectively attack them, it's useful to observe what they do as they approach your garden.  When you have as many as I do, it's interesting to observe their behavior (just before drowning them!). When a JB arrives in one of my rose beds it hovers around the bed, like a helicopter, looking for a suitable place to land. Almost always, it will land on a flower or leaf that has one or more JBs already on it, or on a flower or leaf that has been previously chewed by other JBs. So, obviously, the JBs arriving in my garden, from some distance, perhaps miles away, are attracted to the scent of other JBs, presumably by the female sexual pheromone, which is all kind of amazing to me. So, it's important to get rid of tainted leafs and flowers, whenever possible.  I know how hard it is to pluck a brand new bud that has two JBs imbedded in it, but it's important to do that in order not to let it attract incoming beetles (I did it just a few minutes ago and it is painful).  Interesingly, when they can't find an old leaf or flower to land on, they seem momentarily confused and can be easily picked off. Also, believe it or not, while they are hovering around looking for a place to land, I have been quite successful in grabbing them in mid-air!  That actually makes the whole exercise kind of fun once in a while.

The good news is that JB season should soon be over.  They started early this year (June 19th) so they should soon be finished. Better days ahead.

Jack Falker
July 21, 2016

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Attacking Japanese Beetles--Organically

On the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, here's what organic JB control looks like:

That's one day's catch of JBs in my garden; a couple hundred of the monsters, now dead, organically.

There is more to this than meets the eye.  When you attack JBs organically, rather than with pesticides, you not only spare all the important beneficial insects in your garden, especially lady beetles that do so much for us, but you also enhance the health of your garden.

Here's why.  When you knock JBs off your plants into soapy water, or pick them off with your fingers every day, you should naturally be dead-heading your roses at the same time. Any bloom that has more than one JB on it, or appears to have been previously chewed by multiple JBs, should be plucked off between your thumb and forefinger and thrown away (after you drown the JBs, of course).  That's because those blooms, no matter how nice they still might look, likely have the JB sexual pheromone on them and will attract male beetles from long distances away. Actually, the old-fashioned, thumb and forefinger method of dead-heading is very effective in encouraging rapid growth in your garden, so that's what you're accomplishing here.  Here is one of my early blogs about what my mother taught me about dead-heading:

The attraction of the JB female sexual pheromone is also the reason that JB traps are not a good idea.  They contain the JB sexual pheromone as an attractant and when they fill up with JBs that pheromone is multiplied hundreds, if not thousands, of times by the JBs themselves.  And it's important to understand that the JB is a very sophisticated organism (really all insects are, but we miss that with our kill, crush, destroy mentality). There is recent evidence showing that JBs actually travel as much as five miles, from the turf in which they pupate, to the foods they seek (especially roses).

That's also why I think it's fruitless to try and control JBs with organic Milky Spore on your lawn.  In deference to my compatriate rosarian friend, Paul Zimmerman, whom I quote below, It's no doubt  useful in killing off JB grubs, in your lawn, over time, but it really can't stop JBs from attacking your rose garden, simply because they come in hordes from up to five miles away.  So, unless everyone in a five mile radius uses Milky Spore (especially golf courses), it does not help and you have spent a lot of money (it's pretty expensive).  I used it extensively, years ago, when JBs first found their way to Minnesota, and it did not help.

Please read one of my most recent blogs on JBs which includes quotes from the University of Minnesota on both JB traps and Milky Spore:

Last week, I received a question from Michelle, in Virginia, who was at her wit's end with a huge infestation of JBs and was about to succomb to the use of the pyrethroid, Demand CS (Lambda Cyhalothrin), which, as I mention in my blog above, does a pretty good job of deterring JBs but also wipes out beneficials and pollinators in the garden.  Not having experienced her level of JB infestation in the middle-south, I referred Michelle to Paul Zimmerman, who is a dedicated organic gardener in South Carolina, for his advice.  Paul posted this response on his "Paul Zimmerman Roses" Facebook page.  While we don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on the use of milky spore and traps (but I know Paul will see my logic above), I really like his ideas on garden clean up, deadheading and the use of companion plantings for both insectary benefits and attracting JBs away from the roses.  This is really the essence organic gardening.  Here's Paul's answer:

"Regarding Japanese Beetles. Milky Spore bacteria has been proven to work so yes, use it. Takes about 2-3 years to become totally effective but it's a good first step. 

However, here is how I've dealt with the problem for the last 16 years. I'm an organic garden so I don't use insecticides of any kind. I build a host environment for beneficials and let them take care of it. That works great for all native pests but of course JBs are not native so they have no native enemy.

Around here the JBs appear in late early June and continue for around 4 weeks. For me this is after my spring flush. When I see the JBs out in full force I use that as an opportunity to clean up my garden from the spring flush and get it ready for the fall one. I go through the roses, trim them back, clean out dead wood, weak wood and do a thorough deadheading. Essentially I'm cleaning out a lot of the parts of the roses the JBs like during my normal maintenance.

As the beetles start to wind down the roses wake back up again. I'll go over them again to do another light clean up and that's that.

Another thing I've done over the last several years is adding lots of perennials to my gardens. In and amongst the roses. This was for aesthetics but more so to help create that host environment for beneficials. I've noticed the JBs seem to flock to the perennials and while there is some damage it's not as noticeable as on the roses.

Essentially I work with them that way. Use their arrival as part of normal summer cleanup and plant other plants they may find more attractive.

PS. Regarding traps. They do help but hang them away from the garden areas."

Seconding Paul's statements above, I have a lot of companion plantings in and around my rose gardens for both insectary and aesthetic purposes. For example, I have patches of dill, oregano and cilantro growing in every one of my rose gardens, which are inundated by beneficials.  I also have two beds of zinnias growing close-by and that's where the JBs really gather.  Believe it or not, I've actually found something (zinnia foliage) that JBs like more than roses and I'm actually drowning more JBs on the zinnias than on the roses!  Lots of chewed leaves, but these plants are fast-growing right now and can keep ahead of the JBs. I also have several big shrub roses planted in my vegetable/tomato/insectary garden, away from my main rose gardens, that attract clusters of JBs, which are very easy to drown, eight and ten at a time.  The shrub they really like is David Zlesak's "Above and Beyond" and, since it's done blooming for the year, I have fully dead-headed it and cut it back, which has made if far less attractive (exactly what Paul was talking about above).

So, as I point out in my recent blog post "The Pesticide-Free Rose Garden",, the key element in organic rose gardening is PATIENCE! Remember, as Paul points out above, JBs only last about four weeks and, if you work hard to deter them organically, they ultimately go away, leaving you with lots of beneficials and pollinators, as well as fully dead-headed and healthy roses for the rest of the growing season (also a great time to fertilize again).  My JBs started early this year, around the middle of June and, as we approach the middle of July, I think I can see them beginning to taper off. Remember that every JB you drown right now is a monster-bug that can't breed more monster-bugs for next year.  I particularly enjoy taking them down when they are atop one another, stopping the breeding cycle.  Tonight at dusk, I nailed two breeding pairs on my zinnias, with my bare right hand.  It felt good to feel the four of them wriggle before they hit the soapy water. Take that you monsters!

Jack Falker
July 9, 2016

Monday, June 20, 2016

Japanese Beetles 2016 - The Infestation Begins

I drowned my first JB yesterday, June 19th, and my second today, on June 20th. This is at least a week earlier than last year and a good two weeks earlier than previous years, when we anticipated their arrival around the 4th of July. This is likely the result of climate change and probably portends that JBs will find their way further north in Minnesota (and in states like Wisconsin and Michigan), compared with last year.

Here's an excerpt from my 2015 blog "The Beetles are Coming! The Beetles are Coming!" discussing that phenomenon:

It's interesting that there seems to be a north/south line of demarcation in the Twin Cities for JBs.  We live in the southwestern part of the metro area and have been seeing JBs for just the last six or seven years, peaking in 2012, as our winters have become less severe, statistically moving us into the range of USDA zone 5. Most gardeners in the northern suburbs, roughly 10 miles from us, as well as gardeners in St. Cloud, northwest of us, have never seen JBs. That would indicate that JBs are harbingers of climate change, as are many other insect species.  Since 2012, we have had lighter infestations, until this year, which is quite heavy, approaching the levels of 2012, at least here in Edina.

I'm virtually positive that folks will see them further north this year, given their earliest-ever arrival here.  I will be very interested in receiving confirmation of my prediction. (In the last few days, I have received reports from two rosarians, one in a northern suburb, Andover, and another way up north in Fergus Falls, of large black beetles that look a little like JBs, but are the wrong color and definitely not the monsters). Please don't be shy in reporting and send cell phone pictures, if you can, for confirmation.

The most important thing to know about controlling these monster buggers (which I hate so much) is that trying to use insecticides in the average rose garden is the wrong approach, because you will kill virtually all of the beneficial insects in the garden at the same time, including, most importantly, lady beetles and bees, while the JBs just keep on coming from several miles away.  The right way of controlling JBs is to patrol the garden each day (morning and evening are best because they're sluggish) and drown them in a can of soapy water.  It's a daily job, but it's effective because JBs have a dropping instinct that makes them vulnerable to falling into the water.

Here is my complete discussion from last year's blog, which tells you everything you need to know about JBs for 2016:

Here, also is my May 2016 presentation to the Minnesota Rose Society on pesticide-free rose gardening, which contains several useful slides about JB control:

I would say "enjoy" but this ain't enjoyable. Good JB Hunting and please keep me posted.

Jack Falker

June 20, 2016