Ask the Gardeners

Q We have just bought some property with a two-acre woodlot on it. There are some dead and hollow trees in among the others, and I feel they should be removed to keep the insects from spreading to the other trees. My wife says they should be left for the birds that nest in the tree cavities. Who's right? A healthy forest depends upon wildlife. Dead trees, as well as live ones, provide food and homes for animals and birds. Members of the woodpecker family, plus several other birds, use tree cavities for nesting. Dead trees are snack bars, with an abundance of insects that are not harmful to live trees. Many small animals also feed on grubs and eggs, including the eggs of the gypsy moth.

Most foresters approve of three or four dead or hollow trees per acre. Several bird species would be without homes otherwise.

Folks who don't have suitable cavity-nesting trees around their property can make nesting boxes. Most state colleges or your public library can provide information for making nesting boxes. The National Audubon Society has a wealth of such information.

Q In a visit to a public garden in the Eastern part of the country last fall, we saw a vine which bore a cloud of small white flowers, shaped something like large forsythia blooms. What impressed us was the delightful fragrance. It was identified as a clematis vine, but did not look like any clematis vine we had ever seen. Can you identify it more specifically and tell us if it is hardy in Michigan?

The clematis which resembles your description is sweet autumn clematis, sometimes listed as C. paniculata and at other times as C. maximowicziana.

It is hardy in Department of Agriculture Zones 5 through 9, which includes Michigan, and other areas that seldom fall below -20 degrees F. Also, it does not thrive well where the temperature stays above 90 degrees F. for any length of time.

Vines need good drainage, but respond to a bark mulch to cool the shallow roots. They do best in an alkaline soil and in a spot where they get some shade from the hot afternoon sun. Frequent watering is a must during hot dry weather.

Q I would like to start a vegetable garden in a 10-by-20-foot area where I now have lawn. It seems like a large area to spade up and remove the sod by hand. We're willing to try a tiller, but wonder if there is some easier way to do the job. Also, we're concerned that grass will still come up in the garden.

Using a black plastic mulch will inhibit grass and weed growth. A friend of ours has given us a great idea for preparing such an area. Last year, six weeks before she wanted to plant the garden, she measured and covered the area with black plastic and then laid a layer of clear plastic over the black. She pegged it all down and placed some heavy stones to further prevent the wind from blowing the plastic away.

After six weeks, she removed the plastic covers and found the heat had caused the grass and roots to decay completely. Using a spade fork, she hand tilled the area and planted her garden. The soil was so loose she actually enjoyed spading it by hand rather than using a power tool. During the summer she mulched with leaves and shredded paper and had the best garden ever.

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