On the first day of June, it’s safe to say spring has nearly sprung into summertime, and that means it’s time to think about outdoor garden space for the upcoming warm months. We talked to Mike McGrath, host of WHYY’s You Bet Your Garden (who also lives in nearby Pennsylvania), about what to plant, where to go and how to enjoy the outdoors without those pesky mosquitoes.
What to plant
Now is prime time to grow your own produce, and McGrath’s favorite summer vegetables to plant are peppers—something he says he’s been doing for 40 years. “They’re much easier to grow than tomatoes,” he said, adding that they adapt well to containers. He recently planted Red Marconi bell peppers and a new kind of hot pepper called Medusa.
And flowers? McGrath said summer is the time to scale back on flowers, saying the best variety is springtime perennials. But for the Wilmington region, he’s a fan of sun-loving marigolds and ornamental sunflowers. “Not the big lanky ones… there are hundreds of varieties of smaller ornamental ones from six inches high to four feet high with flowers in every color of the rainbow,” he said of the sunflowers. “They are almost bulletproof.” The sunflowers will attract all kinds of wildlife, he said, and you don’t need to do more than stick the seeds in the ground with good soil and a little bit of compost and water.
Whatever you might add to your garden, he noted it’s best to plant in the evening when it’s cooler outside.
Where to go
Once you’ve decided to invest in some plants, McGrath stressed the importance of buying local and not from big-box retailers. “Everybody talks about saving family farms, but not enough people talk about saving family garden centers,” he said. “They’re valuable parts of our community, and when they’re gone, they’re not coming back.”
And saving a few bucks at a larger store isn’t worth it in the long run, McGrath said, comparing the quality to Folgers vs. Starbucks. “The person you’re buying plants from did not work in plumbing the day before. Plants (from a local nursery) are better quality, much better cared for and the people are more knowledgeable.”
If you’d rather enjoy the outdoors without doing the work in your own yard, McGrath has some favorites spots to visit. Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square is his ultimate locale – he recommends going on a weekday to avoid crowds – and Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington is a close second. “It comes close to out-Longwooding Longwood,” he joked. The formal gardens are replicas of the old gardens of Versailles, and the mansion is just as important to tour, he said.
Finally, McGrath recommends the Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden and historical preserve in Hockessin.
Enjoy it all without mosquitoes
It’s possible to enjoy the summer outdoors without dousing yourself in DEET, McGrath said. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, so he advised checking your gutters, because clogged gutters are a mosquito-breeding hotspot. Once gutters are cleaned, he recommended leaving out buckets of water with BTI (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) granules. BTI, a soil-borne organism, is a naturally-occurring larvaecide, McGrath said. Female mosquitoes will lay eggs in BTI-laced buckets of water without knowing their eggs won’t hatch.
Finally, McGrath recommended growing lemon-scented thyme. “If you crush up the leaves on your skin, it’s the best natural mosquito repellent,” he said. He advised buying 20 plants and growing them in a large pot. “Any lemon-scented herb will work, but lemon-scented thyme is the best.”