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By Betty Vanderwielen

Molly Hackett Shares Gardening Expertise


April 12, 2018

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Molly Hackett displays her favorite gardening tool, a garden knife. She said it is always in her hip pocket whenever she goes to work in her garden.

SEELEY LAKE – Despite a thick layer of snow still covering the ground in many yards, more than 50 Clearwater Valley residents, whose fingers were itching to get into the soil, gathered at the Seeley Lake Community Hall April 7 to hear newspaper columnist, author and gardening expert Molly Hackett speak. Clearwater Resource Council sponsored the event. Attendees came with a host of questions and Hackett answered them all.

Hackett began by naming a few of her favorite gardening implements. Absolutely indispensable in her opinion is a garden knife, a multipurpose tool similar to a trowel but with one serrated edge. She said it is a trowel, a transplanter, a digger, a weeder and a root cutter all in one.

Another item she particularly favors is compressed paper seed starter pots which are similar to, but an inch deeper than, egg cartons. By the time the germinated seed is ready for transplanting, the compressed paper has virtually dissolved into the soil. She also highly recommended transplanting into five-inch rather than three-inch plastic pots.

Another piece of preliminary advice Hackett offered was to never thin by pulling; use scissors instead. She said pulling always harms the plants on either side. Cutting allows the severed roots to turn into mulch.

The bulk of Hackett's talk focused on common problem garden pests, specifically voles, ground squirrels, pocket gophers and cabbage worms.

To distinguish between rodent pests, Hackett said pocket gophers have underground tunnels accessed through a central mound of dirt. Ground squirrels have three separate entrances leading to their interconnected tunnels.

Voles are short-tailed field mice that live and eat on the surface, not underground. Voles chew a path through the grass and then continue to use that trail. These trails are particularly obvious after the snow melts because voles do not hibernate and continue to eat all winter. Hackett said some people think voles live underground because they eat root vegetables such as carrots. She said they actually start about a quarter of an inch from the top of the carrot and eat down.

Though Hackett acknowledged there is no one single cure for vole problems, she said preventative measures can help. Because they are prey for many larger creatures, voles avoid open areas. So one way to protect plants is to mow a perimeter around the garden. She also advised to keep grass cut under hedge or shrubs because tall grass is perfect vole cover.

For cases where preventative measures do not work, Hackett offered several tips about trapping and about sprays and other commercial products but cautioned against using poisons.

"Please don't use poison for any mammal," she said. "You do so much damage. You kill so many good things trying to get the few bad ones."

In contrast to rodent pests, Hackett called cabbage worms an easily controllable problem. Cabbage worms come from small white butterflies that lay clusters of yellow eggs on the bottom of the leaves of plants in the cabbage family. Her advice was, as soon as the butterflies are seen flying around the plants, cover the crop with lightweight row cover material and do not uncover until the cabbage is ready for harvest. She said the same method could be used to prevent root maggot problems in radishes and turnips.

An alternate method Hackett discussed for dealing with caterpillar infestations is to use any commercial product containing Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt.

Hackett said, "[Bt] will kill any caterpillar. So don't spray your whole garden or you will be killing all the good butterflies. But if you spray only the cabbage family plants, you can be sure that you are only getting the cabbage worms." She added, "It's a bacterium. It's a natural product. You can use it in an organic garden. It's harmless to everything except caterpillars. You can drink it. Your grandkids can drink it. Your pets can drink it. The fish in the stream can drink it. All it will kill is caterpillars."

The one drawback to using Bt, according to Hackett, is that because it is an organic compound, it doesn't last long. Repeated sprayings are required.

Though Hackett was only scheduled to speak for an hour and a half, attendees had so many questions that she continued a half-hour longer. She talked about problems plaguing strawberries, raspberry and potatoes, about how to deal with slugs, flea beetles, aphids and grasshoppers. Hackett even had tips on how to get rid of ants: set a hose on their mound and allow water to trickle out. She said they will take their eggs and go elsewhere because they like dry, not moist, soil.

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Several garden enthusiasts bought Molly Hackett's book, "A Year in the Garden." Her earlier book, "The Compleat Gardener" is out of print but still available in some places. She is currently working on a third book.

Hackett fielded questions about soil testing, composting, gardening in straw, mulching with pine needles, using raised beds and cold frames and season extenders. For planting up to a month before the traditional start date, she highly recommended a product called Walls-of-Water, which she called "miraculous." A flexible plastic cylinder consisting of tubes open at the top, the structure fits around the plant and the tubes are initially filled two-thirds full of water. This creates a teepee-like shape, wide at the bottom with only a small exposed hole at the top. Hackett said it is like an individual greenhouse for each plant, protecting down to 15 degrees.

Hackett also took a few minutes to talk about "one of the things I get really hot under the collar about – insecticides. If you look at the insecticide displays that are for sale in any place you go, almost all say they will kill everything. Please don't ever use those," she said. "If you think about the insects in your garden, for every hundred kinds there are only six kinds that are damaging. The others are either neutral or good. Well, if every time you get out there with a spray you're doing 94 percent damage, that's lousy gardening. Don't ever buy any insecticide, don't ever spray any insect, until you know what you're trying to kill. Find something that's targeted just for them. Please. For the sake of your garden and everybody else's and the world we live in."


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