animals in compost heaps, slug control, rejuvenation pruning: q&a with ken druse

HOW TO KEEP ANIMALS out of the compost heap, or prune really overgrown shrubs back into scale, or deal with slugs: I call them Urgent Garden Questions, and apparently you’ve got plenty of them, which have been arriving in blog comments, on Facebook, in emails and during webinars I’ve been hosting, too.

I’ve rounded up some of the best to tackle in the monthly Q&A segment with help from my friend Ken Druse. Ken, an award-winning garden photographer and author of more books than I can count, including “The New Shade Garden” and “Making More Plants,” produced his own “Real Dirt” podcast for 10 years, all available on KenDruse dot com (and still available on iTunes, too).

Read along as you listen to the March 6, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Part 2 of the transcript of this month’s doubleheader is at this link (including native perennials from seed, woodchuck control, and hardening off seedlings).

Want to ask a question for a future show? Scroll down to the box on how to do that, at the bottom of the page.

the march q&a with ken druse



Q. There is no blizzard today, Ken.

Ken. It is cooler, though.

Q. But there is no blizzard so we are not hooked together with chewing gum and tin cans like last time. [Laughter.]

Ken. That was exciting.

Q. Speaking of insane weather: I’ve been 70F a couple of times, and am going down to the single digits in a night or two. You’ve been traveling; have you seen any wild weather?

Ken. Wild weather; yes. I was in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is right next to DC. It was 76 degrees. I spoke for Brookside Gardens at a sold-out event with 370 people, and several people came up to me and said that they were listening to us, which is very nice.

Q. Not while you were speaking. [Laughter.]

Ken. No, afterwards.

Q. No, what I meant was they weren’t listening to our podcast during your speech. [Laughter.]

Ken. On the way back to the airport, I noticed that some of the cherry trees were blooming and this was the 24th of February. It was 76 degrees and they couldn’t get the air conditioning on in a closed room with 370 people.

You know the cherry trees in Washington were a gift from the Japanese government 105 years ago, so I consider them flowering immigrants that we welcome. This is the 70th anniversary of the Cherry Blossom Festival and a lot of people will go down to Washington on April 4—the average date when the cherries have been in full bloom. [Photo from National Cherry Blossom Festival dot org.]

Q. Oh, my goodness.

Ken. But this year they think they will be between March 14 and 17.

Q. Wow; OK. So much for Cherry Blossom Festival timing. The thing I love about the Cherry Blossom Festival, with my being sort of all Eastern and woo-woo, is that it’s not about peak blossom, but about when the petals shatter and the pink and white snow starts to fall. It’s a carpe diem festival, to remind us if we sit on our picnic blankets under the falling petals, about the ephemeral nature of all living things, including ourselves. So I love that about the festival.

It doesn’t sound like people will even get the ephemeral “nothing lasts” festival—it will be too late even fir that. {Laughter.]

Ken. I always used to go to Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the pink snow, because it’s so beautiful fluttering down to the ground. The ground’s all pink. But I think most people go to see the peak bloom, as you say.

Q. Yes, peak peak peak.

I think I saw on your website, on KenDruse dot com, that you posted a list of recommended shade plants. Did this come out of the conference in Maryland?

Ken. I was speaking about climate change, and I think one of the best ways to deal with this warmer and warmer weather is to get out of the sun. So I am hoping people will plant more trees, and garden more in the shade, where it is 10 to 20 degrees cooler. I do.

Q. So you rounded up some of you treasures that you recommend that people plant? Want to tell us one or two that you are looking forward to coming up soon in your garden.

Ken. You say that and the first thing I think of is trillium. [Above, T. erectum.]

Q. Me, too. Yeah.

Ken. I just love them so much.

Q. Me, too; me, too.

Ken. I remember the peak trillium bloom here in northwestern New Jersey was May 10—it was lilacs and trillium. Now it’s April. [Laughter.]

discouraging animals in the compost heap

Q. Yes. Let’s see if there is a caller on the line. I think we have Kerry. Are you there?

Kerry. I am.

Q. We’re successful; a technological miracle. Where are you from?

Kerry. I am calling from Buffalo, New York.

Q. Buffalo: Is it crazy up there? Are you having 70 degrees or 7 today?

Kerry. A couple of days ago it was 70, and then the next day it snowed. [Laughter.]

Q. There you go.

Ken. Oh, good.

Kerry. And right now, the wind is howling.

Q. Yes, we are having some wind. I know. Assuming we don’t all blow away, let’s try to answer your question. What is it?

Kerry. I am a pretty committed composter, but recently my trusty old metal compost tumbler fell apart. I took that as a sign that maybe it’s time to stretch out a little. I was thinking of making an open compost pile. We have a pretty big piece of land and a lot of stuff to throw in.

But we also border a woods, a nature preserve, that has a lot of critters, and I have made peace with most of them: the deer, the woodchucks, the rabbits. I’m going to live with them. But my husband recently read that coyotes are drawn to fruit, and we compost some of our fruit—we have a few apple trees. So I am a little bit concerned about having an open pile; am I going to be inviting the coyotes in?

Q. Since you say open pile, I’m going to go first—and then Ken, you can tell us about your composting operation. I am in a big state forest and park area, with a lot of farm fields, too, and I do have old apple trees and periodically have fruit that goes in it.

I have about a 40-foot-long open pile [above in winter; below in fall]—what’s called a windrow—as opposed to something in bins, or like your tumbler.

My theory—and I have lots of animals—is that I keep a long-handled shovel (an old one; not a brand-new favorite one) out in the heap. When I go to make a deposit of any food wastes or as you say fruit at apple time, anything tempting, I tend to open up (with the shovel or a hay fork) a pocket in the pile. I put some finished compost from the bottom, or soil if I have some nearby and then some debris on top of it. So I sort of camouflage it, and tuck it in. Ken, what do you think?

My compost heap in late fallKen. I thought coyotes only went after little dogs and house cats. [Laughter]

Kerry. [Laughter.] Well, I am not going to compost them.

Q. That’s a solution! I read this in a book a million years ago—I didn’t come up with the idea not to put tempting things all juicy and fresh on the top.

Ken. And of course no meat, ever.

Q. No meat or bones or dairy, no. Ken, is your bin a bin or heap or what?

Ken. I always love yours and think about it. How long did you say it is?

Q. It’s about 40 feet, and about 6 or 8 feet wide and in the peak of incoming debris after spring cleanup, it’s 7 or 8 feet tall.

Ken. Oh my gosh.

Q. It’s serious. [Laughter.]

Ken. I have three not-very-nicely contained piles, based on the age of the material. The oldest pile is just over a year old, and that’s where I might take some things from. My piles are not pretty like yours, Margaret. But I have some land across the river, and that’s where everything goes and gets dumped.

I don’t think the coyotes would go after rotted stuff, so I guess you could keep stuff in a container, like a galvanized container, and when it’s disgusting you could pour it on the heap. [Laughter.]

Q. And that is another good point that Ken’s bringing up, about segregating things. Some people do that with diseased things, or things with seedheads, that they don’t want to inoculate the pile with, so to speak. They use old heavy-duty Hefty bags, that they keep on the side in the sun, and tie up, and it is a little disgusting. [Laughter.]

Kerry. I’m OK with disgusting.

Q. [Laughter.] Then that’s good. But I do think it’s partly burying it; making it less attractive with a layer of compost or soil or shredded leaves or whatever you’ve go there, to make it less of an obvious buffet; I think that’s critically important.

I will say I have had much more problem with inquisitive nocturnal mammals—smaller ones. I have a little compost bucket with a lid that I keep right outside my kitchen door, and an even smaller one by my sink.

I put it in there, and once a week I walk the bucket over to the heap and bury it. Once in a while I come out in the morning and the one outside the door has been knocked over. [Laughter.] That’s more of a raccoon, probably; them I am able to deter in the big heap by burying the stuff. So that’s what I recommend.

Kerry. I feel encouraged now.

Ken. I had a container like that with a combination lock but the raccoons figured it out.

Kerry. [Laughter.]

Ken. You know how clever they are.

Q. Those little black-gloved hands. [Laughter.] It’s nice to speak to you from Buffalo, Kerry, and I hope we all don’t blow away—that it’s neither 70 nor snowing, but maybe something in the middle.

Ken. I kind of miss snow, now that you say that.

Q. I know.

Ken. Not just because it’s pretty, but because it insulates the ground. Last year we hardly had any snow, and even though it wasn’t that cold, I lost a lot of stuff.

Q. Yes.  Exposed stuff, without that insulation, is tricky, isn’t it? Even though it’s generally warmer, it’s unprotected—so it’s not really a net gain.

slugs eating seedlings

Q. A super-quick one, before we take our next caller: Mary on one of my webinars asked: “A lot of my seedlings seem to get eaten by slugs. Anything that helps that?” Do you still use non-toxic slug bait, Ken?

Ken. Yes, I actually have snails much more than slugs, because of the canal that cuts through the property and links the two rivers. You know my property is an island in a river, and there is a canal that connects the two parts of the river that splits around the island. So I just have tons of snails, but I do use Sluggo—like iron sulfate, I think. It doesn’t hurt the plants, and it doesn’t hang around. It doesn’t work nearly as well as the stuff that can kill pets and children, but I do not use that.

Some people use diatomaceous earth, which you really have to be careful not to breathe that is, so that’s a bit of a danger. But that works, too. Did you use copper, ever—copper foil?

Q. I don’t have a slug problem. Now that I have said that, my entire garden in 2017 will completely covered in slugs. [Laughter.]

Ken. I don’t know, I think those froggies might be doing something.

Q. No, I have so many frogs and toads and snakes; it’s a reptile and amphibian adventure park or something. It definitely helps.

Ken. This is like don’t swallow the cat if you don’t want to eat the dog or something [laughter.] But you don’t have slugs because you have snakes and…

Q. I’ve got the food chain going. [Laughter.]

too-tall shrubs need rejuvenation

Q. So let’s take a call from Theresa. Are you there?

Theresa. Yes, and thank you for taking my question.

Q. And another miracle; sometimes I say the wrong name of a caller. Where are you located? I’m not going to guess.

Theresa. I live now in West Virginia. I’ve been all over the country with a military husband, but we finally put our own roots down in southeast West Virginia.

Q. Oh, wait; that’s hard: southeast West Virginia—what about north? [Laughter.]

Theresa. No north in it. [Laughter.] I’m in a house now that is between 25 and 30 years old, and it has good plants but they are kind of the age of the house. Some of the shrubs, of which there is a variety, are taller than me and they don’t look pretty any more, or they might be obscuring a window view or something. I wondered how severely can I trim them back? Can I cut them in half? If they are 5 feet tall, can I cut them down to 2 feet or 3 feet, without damaging them?

Q. And what are they?

Theresa. I have a holly that I don’t know the variety of; none of these are plants I ever saw any labels on. There is a burning bush (Euonymous alatus; image below from Wikipedia). Not sure if I know the pronunciation of this but I looked it up Enkianthus.

Q. Yes. Are the hollies evergreen, or do they lose their leaves?

Theresa. Evergreen.

Q. Ken do you want to start with this—this is one of the biggest challenges in pruning, when something’s too big and we wish it were half the size. Can we do that to it—can we hack it back?

Ken. I think the first thing is to decide which plants you want to keep. I would get rid of the burning bush, because it’s a hideous ugly thing that seeds all over the place.

Q. Now wait, it’s not hideous as in visually ugly; you’re talking about the fact that it’s an invasive plant that has been spreading itself around many areas.

Ken. I’m also making a judgment because it’s just too bright red…

Q. For you. [Laughter.]

Ken. …and I always see it in the meridian at gas stations and people still buy it because it should be banned, because as you said it spreads everywhere.

Q. So that’s one that you, Ken, personally would erase both for aesthetic and environmental reasons.

Theresa. I haven’t noticed it sprouting at all.

Ken. I think the berries are eaten by birds and taken elsewhere.

Q. That’s something where you could do a Google search and see if it looks like your plant and you’ll see the disclaimers about its negative environmental impact over the years, since it was imported.

Ken’s going to say erase that one [laughter], but we can get back to what to do if you want to prune it. But what about the evergreen holly and others?

Ken. I don’t think you want to cut anything in half, especially without researching it a bit. Some of the evergreens, for instance, if you cut them in half, they’ll die. A lot of evergreens, if you cut back into wood that doesn’t have any green, it will not sprout. On the other hand, a lot of them do—like boxwood, you can really renovate a boxwood y cutting it down even to 12 inches and it will sprout again.

Q. Or yews—old yews.

Ken. Exactly. And it will sprout—forever. We have seen 300-year-old yews that are pruned and pruned and pruned.

For the deciduous shrubs, I don’t like to cut them back like in half, because if they do sprout they sprout a whole lot of congested growth at the top that shades the bottom, and they get top-heavy, and if you get a snow they’ll split.

So I think with those, you want to thin them rather than cut them way back. What I usually do to renovate an old lilac or something is to remove a third of the stems the first year, a third the second year, and a third the third year—and you are left with all new growth, which will be healthier and bloom better.

You want to make an open shape—for example with that Enkianthus, which is a fantastic plant. If you have one that’s 25 years old, and it’s very bushy and you can’t see through it, you might want to just clean it up a bit—make it more into an open shrub that you can see through. You’ll still have beautiful fall color and beautiful leaves, and flowers.

wash pruning shears after useQ. Talking about that rejuvenation strategy Ken was saying, where rather than cut everyone in half and have everyone get what I call a bad hair day—which is everywhere you made a cut with hedge shears or pruners, it would them sprout 10 thing [laughter] and look like a complete mess.

And it would take away from the natural character of each plant—like that Enkianthus is a different shape and structure than like the holly, if you look at their “bones,” so to speak.

So I think what he’s saying—and the conventional wisdom for rejuvenation: As opposed to topping things in half, which is almost never a good idea, you either want to go all the way to a rejuvenation in one fell swoop. I have done that—have you Ken?—with things like Weigela and the dreaded forsythia, where you can almost cut them all the way down to the ground, and they start all over again (not halfway down).

Or as Ken said over two or three years, you’re taking out the oldest stems at the base, all the way down, so right away you’re getting more visual see-through to the plant, but it’s not technically getting lower till that third year, when you’ve got none of the oldest stems any more. Does that make sense?

Theresa. Yes.

Q. It’s a little more artistic and a little more thoughtful—and it sort of is looking at what the plant’s innate architecture is, and how it’s different from another’s, and trying to go with that. I think that was what you are saying Ken about the Enkianthus, which is shaped like a small tree, almost.

You’re telling Theresa to dip in there and look for strategic places where she can take a bit out throughout the plant.

Theresa. And the longterm plan is something I’ve never been able to do because we moved every few years.

Q. [Laughter.] I think each woody plant we want to rejuvenate, or change something about—create more sun, or feel less claustrophobic because they are out of scale—sometimes it’s a multiyear process. And I think it always starts with reading up about the plant, and looking at pictures of the ideal shape of that plant—so you know what you’re fighting against, and what it wants to be. [Laughter.] [Margaret’s FAQ page of basic pruning tactics.]

Ken. We didn’t really talk about the holly, but I was thinking: If you look at the shape it’s become over the years, if you wanted to reduce it in half—hollies you can prune hard—you could prune it to mimic that original shape only smaller. So rather than taking a shears and going straight across, you could trim it and get its sort of naturalistic shape again.

Q. Like two-thirds or half of its current self and shape—so if it’s a mound or an obelisk, stick with that shape but lower than shape.

Ken. And if it gets too much new growth, you could move.

Theresa. [Laughter.]

Q. She’s tired of moving. Thank you, Theresa. Another good question, right Ken? Are you pruning anything right now outside?

Ken. I have been, yes—I have been pruning a lot. I pruned an allegedly dwarf Taxodium that was getting bigger than dwarf. I pruned my beech tree that I prune into a shape [photo above of the pruned beech, by Ken Druse]. I pruned a double-flowered peach tree that has pink flowers are red leaves. I just got that back in shape.

how to ask a question

WANT TO ASK a question for a later show? You can do so in two ways: Ask on Facebook.com/awaytogarden, or use the little link at the bottom of any page on this website that says “contact,” which goes to a little contact form. Very easy. If your question is selected, we’ll email you to set up a taping time on the show.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 6, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Pam says:

    It is my duty to wage war against the slugs. Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest pride themselves on their baiting methods. My method is brutal. I grab my sharpest trowel, salt and a can of cheap beer. Finding a few bloated belly slugs I begin my assault. My eyes dilate as my primordial killer instinct clicks into place. While chanting, “Slug Killer. Slug, slug killer”, I chop them in half. Usually mild mannered, slugs bring out my inner wolf.

  2. laura taylor says:

    The Pacific NW is slug-land. I have taken to buying aluminum or thin steel collars, like the kind they use for chimneys and placing them around delicate plants. The slugs love to eat the early shoots and if I can get the plants past that stage and into a hardier stage, then the slugs don’t destroy them. Somehow these collars seem to do the trick. I also run around with a giant fork and pierce the slug then wing it into the woods. Nothing is more satisfying. I understand your murderous instincts!

    1. margaret says:

      I know you have BIG slugs out there, Laura. Have visited and seen them. Impressive! Ken suggested copper collars, but these ready-made ones you adapt for this use sound like a very clever solution for seedling protection.

  3. Betsy says:

    One summer there were cats in my compost and I wondered why they were there. Then I remembered I had cut back catnip and thrown the cuttings in the compost. I don’t grow catnip any more because, as soon as it starts growing, one of my cats chews it off at the ground and it dies.

  4. Sara says:

    Hi, I’d like to send an “urgent garden question” please. I have a large no-till veggie and flower cutting garden. It is virtually weed free by using masses of mulch. Unfortunately we have started seeing huge problems the past few years with earwigs living in the mulch and feasing on various fruits, flowers etc. Last year they nipped off all the zinnia seedlings and were detrimental climbing and biting the fruit on our fruit trees. Any thoughts? I’m wondering if putting out the slug remedy of saucers of beer down the garden rows might help and wrapping the tree trucks with something sticky? The garden remedy needs to be feasible, it is a pretty BIG garden. Thanks!

  5. Em says:

    You say your compost pile gets 7-8 feet tall in the spring but you’re still able to dig pockets for kitchen waste…do you chip all your garden trimmings so that’s it’s dig-able?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t chip them, Em, but there is always somewhere with a long-handled shovel or a fork that I can poke stuff in, or I put it on top of a lower area that isn’t yet that high, and scoop a shovelful of finished compost over it, or pull some undecomposed garden waster over it. Hide and go seek!

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