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Of Possums, Slugs and Corn for Suburbia


One important fact--at least to gardeners--was left out of the article on possums several weeks ago: Possums eat snails. In my garden they've eaten them all.

A number of years ago, through wide-open windows on a particularly warm night, an unfamiliar crunching sound was keeping me awake. Investigating with a flashlight, I found a possum munching snails, a sound that soon became music to this gardener's ears.

Dried food left out for the cats attracted the possums, but they stayed to eat every snail in the garden, though we still have slugs, which they don't seem to eat.

In my yard, they're perfectly behaved: They have never dug in the lawn or garden, ignore the fish in the lily ponds and get along just fine with the cats. They've never even knocked over a pot. Raccoons, on the other hand, do all of these things, and more.

Possums do set the neighbors' dogs to barking, but it's a small price to pay for no snails. People who ask the city to return them to the wild (where they are not native) are missing a bet: Cities ought to have a sign-up sheet for people who want possums.

Rose slugs

Gardeners are calling them rose slugs, though they are not related to the slimy slugs that possums don't eat. They are actually the larva of an insect called a sawfly, Endelomyia aethiops, and they are the latest rose plague, especially in coastal gardens.

They do look vaguely slug-like, but careful inspection will show that they have a distinct head and six short legs at one end of the plump green body, though you must look very closely because they are less than a quarter-inch long.

Their damage is much easier to spot: They make lots of little holes in the leaves so the bush looks like it was blasted by a shotgun, though at first the holes don't go clean through but are simply skeletonized, tan-colored spots. The larvae eventually drop off the leaves and pupate in the ground to become sawflies.

Controlling them is not difficult, though you need to get them early in the season, when first spotted or even suspected. They are seasonal pests, active in early spring, so by now they are gone, but the damage remains.

Orthene is one chemical control, but Beautrice Grow, who has a much admired organic garden in San Clemente, keeps them in check with such nonpoisonous light horticultural oils as SunSpray.

She starts in early spring, almost before she sees any damage, then sprays again about two weeks later, being sure to wet the undersides of leaves. Those two sprayings usually control them for the year.

A corn for suburbia

Corn must be planted in blocks of several rows if the wind is to pollinate every kernel. Otherwise you get gap-toothed corn.

With most corn varieties, this takes considerable space, but 'Early Sunglow' is a small variety that can be planted much closer. It's also a very decorative corn, with reddish foliage and stalks, growing only 4 to 5 feet tall. Shepherd's Garden Seeds (30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790, [860] 482-3638) is one source. In a recent article in Organic Gardening magazine, Mel Bartholomew, the inventor of the "square foot" gardening method, says you can harvest an amazing 128 ears of this variety from a 4-by-4-foot space!

He suggests growing four plants in every square foot, and though I've never tried planting that close, I do regularly space plants just one foot apart in the rows with the rows only a foot apart. I usually plant three rows, each about three feet long.

Since 'Early Sunglow' bears two ears per plant, this gives me more than enough corn, and since all the corn comes ripe at once, I tend to make several small plantings through the spring and summer, not just one. The first patch gets planted in March (and is ripe now), the second just went in, and I'll try another later in the summer.

I usually plant seeds directly in the ground, but I started to seed in small saved nursery packs, transplanting them it into the garden when about 4 to 6 inches tall.

'Early Sunglow' is not one of the new super-sweet varieties, but it is as sweet as I like my corn. The ears are small--about the size of the corn sold at the Colonel's--after you break off the end eaten by the corn earworms.

I find this easier than trying to keep the earworms out, though supposedly using a medicine dropper to apply 20 drops of mineral oil to the silks, three to seven days after the silks appear, keeps these fat larvae away.

Ask anyone who's grown corn and you will be told that it beats even vegetable-stand corn, especially if you have the water boiling when you pick the ears.

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