Q: I had three nice lupines for three or four years, but now they are gone. I see no sign of new leaves at all. Do you know what might have happened?
A: You are witnessing the nature of lupines. Although they are perennials, lupines are in the class of short-lived perennials. They put all their energy into those magnificent flower stalks and wear themselves out in the effort. Lupines live in the range of two to five years.
If you want to keep lupines blooming in your garden, you have two choices. If you watch their spots in spring and nothing appears by late May, you can simply buy new plants. The ones for sale in local nurseries should be plants starting their second year and should bloom this summer.
If you do not want to keep reinvesting in new plants, you can keep your own lupines growing from seed. There will be progeny every year to grow up and replace their dead ancestors. Presumably you care how the flower garden looks throughout the summer, and lupine seed pods do not contribute to its beauty. By all means cut off the old flower stalks whenever they reach a point where you do not want to look at them.
But leave a little for the future. Choose a few inches of developing seedpods on one stalk on each plant. Pick a group which will not be in your face whenever you look in their direction. Cut off all the other flower stalks, as well as the top of the one you choose to save.
That is the only effort you will need to make. By the end of the summer you will find those seedpods, now brown and twisted and empty. They have ripened their seeds and flung them around the area. Let nature be in control. The ripe seeds will winter on the ground, and some will sprout next spring. If you are not obsessive about cleaning up the garden this fall, enough lupine seeds will remain to start the next generation.
If new lupines come up in the wrong places, they are easy to move. Older plants whose taproots have developed usually die if dug. First year seedlings hardly notice their relocation.
Q: Are all gardeners having the terrible infestation of cutworms that we are experiencing this year? We are finding that a soil drench of Bt around the plants and on the plants themselves is our most effective weapon.
A: You may be among the unlucky few. If other gardeners are fighting cutworm armies, they have not told me. I saw only one cutworm, weeks ago. I discovered it accidentally and dispatched it immediately.
Had you been thinking about cutworms last summer, you might have seen a red flag warning. No one except an entomologist is thinking about cutworms in August, but the adults are flying around then. They are rather homely moths, gray or brownish-gray, with a wingspan perhaps an inch and a half across. If an unusual number of these moths are present in late summer, there may be an unusual number of their offspring eating garden plants the next spring. The cutworms-to-be have spent the winter underground as eggs or pupae, hatching just in time to eat young plants.
Seeing brownish moths need not strike terror into the hearts of vegetable gardeners, however. Cutworms have many natural enemies – ground beetles, spiders, parasitic wasps, birds, toads, and snakes. As long as gardeners do not spray poisons around, there will be cutworm fanciers dining among the vegetables.
That was good thinking on your part to try Bt as a cutworm control. Since it derives from natural bacteria, Bt is appropriate for problem caterpillars in gardens. Although it kills caterpillars, Bt will not harm other living creatures. It is a wonderful example of a targeted insecticide; it does not eliminate hosts of beneficial insects in the process of killing a few harmful ones. Unfortunately for gardeners who are cutworm victims, some species of these caterpillars are killed by Bt, while others are immune. Be happy that your cutworms were among the susceptible species.
One other trick is useful in eliminating cutworms: digging them up. Although it may seem as if a host of caterpillars are eating seedlings, usually there are three or fewer. A cutworm snacks on one plant and then crawls on to the next, feeding only at night. A gardener who finds the cut-off plants the next day can usually find the guilty cutworm.
With your fingers, prospect around in the top inch of soil, covering a six-inch circle around the plant victim. The fat cutworm is probably sleeping off its meal and waiting for nightfall to forage again. Shorten its lifespan. Since each cutworm feeds on a new plant every night for about a month, one caterpillar can wreak havoc in its lifetime, seeming like an enemy horde.
The only other useful trick I know to fend off cutworms is to be sure that summer’s end does not bring a bonus of weeds to the vegetable garden. Weeds that get ahead of the gardener are egg-laying territory for cutworm moths.
Bleeding heart flowers
Q: The flowers on my big bleeding heart are fading. Do I need to cut them off? If I do, will the plant bloom again this summer?
A: No, you can spend your gardening hours working elsewhere. One of the advantages of bleeding heart is that it does not require deadheading. Any gardener looking for low maintenance perennials should consider this one. The flowers drop off quietly, leaving no sloppy brown mess to clean up. Occasional seedlings may appear, but there will never be enough to cause problems.
Your big bleeding heart will not bloom again until next year. There are two small species which do bloom off and on for three months. Those other bleeding hearts are less than a foot tall. Their foliage is ferny. Their flowers never make a spectacular display like your big one. The flowers appear, one or two at a time, throughout the summer.
The big bleeding heart has the botanical name Dicentra spectabilis, which celebrates its flower display. Spectabilis is simply the Latin version of “spectacular.” All bleeding hearts have the first name of Dicentra. In Latin, that describes the two small spurs on the flower petals.
Vegetable gardeners in this country are in good company. Increasing numbers of households are growing vegetables, until last year there were 43 million of us. That amounts to one household in three, a truly amazing number since city dwellers make up most of the population. The vegetable growing movement is being led by young adults.