Ask a Gardener: Night hunt necessary to kill voracious cutworms

Question: Last season I found several of my vegetable seedlings in the garden cut off from the stems, dead on the ground in the morning. What in the world could be doing this?

Answer: The invisible culprit, and one that can cause great damage to young seedlings, is a cutworm. It is the hairless caterpillar larvae of several species of night-flying moths. Up to 2 inches long, they come in varying colors. Though they feed only at night, they sometimes can be found on the ground during the daytime, curled into a “c” shape. Making hunting forays into your garden at night with a flashlight is a good way to find them. Take no pity, as they are voracious eaters and produce several generations in a season.

To protect your fledgling plants, encircle each one with a tube of cardboard, pushing it 1-2 inches into the soil, and extending it 3-4 inches above the ground. Paper towel and toilet tissue cardboard cores are perfect for this protection. Paper cups with the bottoms cut off also work.

Q: Several of my friends have suggested that I build raised beds for my vegetable gardening. I’m willing to do that, but because of the expense and the work involved, I want to be sure that it’s worth the time and money. What do you think?

A: There are certainly many advantages to raised beds, particularly in residential settings.

First, they are quick to warm up in the spring. They are a good fix for poor soils, or gardens that are in wet places or where the soil doesn’t drain well. They are easier to tend to, as they’re raised and will save wear on your back. And, for those of you who like their gardens to look good, they can give the garden a well-organized look.

Raised beds can be made from scrap lumber, logs, new lumber, plastic, stones or concrete. They can be works of art, but a functional raised bed can be built by most anyone.

They save money. Yep, you heard right. All the amendments and fertilizers you use stay right near the plants they’re intended to help. And raised beds may even keep out some nasty critters. If you have a problem I encountered a few years ago, with some furry brown thing burrowing under the ground and eating all my beets, you can stop the thieves dead in their tracks by putting down hardware cloth under the soil of the raised bed.

Raised beds can be the basis of multi-season gardening. You can put a hoop over the raised bed and protect plants early in the season, or those you want to last through fall and into winter.

Q: I don’t know how to pronounce it, but someone told me that mycorrhizae fungus would be good for my plants. True?

A: In a word, yes. mycorrhizae fungi colonize plant roots and provide a number of benefits to the plant. They can significantly reduce loss and decline due to poor soil conditions, and can increase plant vigor and their ability to take up nutrients and water.

They do this by physically wrapping soil particles together and by producing a sticky glue-like substance. This holds air and water near the plants, helping to keep organic matter and nutrients right where you want them (in your garden, not running off downstream).

You can buy packages of mycorrhizae fungi at most nurseries. It can be used in bed preparation, along rows of vegetables, for treating seeds, for transplanting, when seeding lawns, and with established plants.

As scientists learn more and more about soil, we gardeners are reaping the benefits. I’m waiting for the day when they come up with the perfect “recipe” for the perfect soil.

Q: Last year I saw that several friends had vases filled with flowering branches. How do I do that?

A: It’s the perfect time of year to bring some flowering inside. And it’s easy to do. Go out into your yard and find trees or bushes that have plumping buds. Fruit trees are the go-to here, and you can get some minor pruning done at the same time!

Cut branches that are full of buds, and trim them to fit your vase. This should all be done at one time, as you don’t want to dry anything out. Then mash the ends of the stems you’ll be immersing in water. You don’t want to make a paste out of the stems; only mash it enough to allow maximum intake of water.

Arrange the branches, and put them in a warmish, light place. The branches themselves, even lacking the flowers, are ornamental. But within a week or so, depending on how developed the flowers were when you brought them in, you should have colorful flowers popping out.

Just be thinking that pretty soon after all the flowers indoors are gone, the trees outside will be putting on their spring show. And all of us gardeners will be at the start line, raring to go.