, Salem, MA

January 3, 2014

North Shore Gardener: Ice melters don’t have to be hard on plant beds

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — How can I kill a nest of paper wasps that have taken up residence in a dense evergreen very near the front doorway? You can hear them buzzing as you duck into the house. Luckily we have managed to keep them outside — almost! Two or three have snuck in every year. Help! I don’t want to call in a professional exterminator but I’m afraid I will have to!

A: Give it one more try, starting with a can of bug killer.

Locate the paper wasp nest during the day and determine the entry points in the nest. Entry points need the most attention during the pesticide application process.

Put on all your protective clothing, including pants, long-sleeve shirt, shoes, gloves, goggles and any other clothing item that protects your body. Even though paper wasps are relatively docile compared to other types of wasps, they can still become agitated and sting. Protect yourself from head to toe with full-body covering.

Spray the nest with aerosol pesticide at night. Paper wasps are calmer during the night and have poor vision. A nighttime extermination process reduces the chances of being stung. Use a ladder to reach the nest if necessary.

Place a plastic bag over the nest and slip it behind. Paper wasp nests are fragile and are cleaned off the structure to which they’re attached with little effort.

Tie the plastic bag tightly to prevent the escape of surviving wasps. Place that plastic bag in another and tie tightly for added protection. Discard the plastic bags in an outdoor trashcan (do not bring the bag into your home).

Repeat if necessary. Spray the nest location with the aerosol pesticide. Paper wasps not in the nest will return to the nest site and make contact with the pesticide, effectively killing the remaining members of the colony.

Sweep any dead paper wasps from the ground. Discard the wasps in a plastic bag.

What’s the difference between all of the ice melters? And why can’t I use a bag of rock salt? That seems to be the cheapest way to go.

A: Read the label on all of the ice melters — some are clearly marked that they “contain(s) rock salt and other elements” which you may not want to pour on plant material or walks made of concrete or specialty stonework — or track indoors, particularly onto polished wood floors.

Wipe your pet’s feet after spending time outdoors — driveway or road salt chemicals can crack foot pads.

If the icy area is very small or the temperature is close to freezing and snowfall is light, the quickest way to make the area safe for walking is a kettle of hot water, then a light application of a commercial melter. Don’t forget the use of clay kitty litter — not to melt, but to provide traction. It’s cheap and readily available. The only problem is that it sticks to shoes or animal paws and can leave a muddy puddle. So, what are you to do?

How about one of these?

Calcium chloride melts well to temperatures of 13 below zero, works fast, does not damage metal (think the underside of your car, porch railings) or concrete and does moderate damage to plant life.

Sodium chloride, or plain old rock salt, melts best at temperatures above 18 degrees. It works fast, damages concrete, metal and plants, but it’s cheap.

Potassium chloride melts well to 15 degrees but is slow to work. It won’t damage old concrete but does some damage to plants.

Choose carefully — there is a melter for you — and spring can’t be too far away, can it?

What am I going to do with the bittersweet on the table for decoration at Thanksgiving? Or with that wreath of bittersweet hanging on the door?

A: As beautiful as it is, bittersweet is an invasive species and must be treated carefully so you aren’t guilty of spreading the seeds around the neighborhood. When you are through with bittersweet, don’t throw it on the compost heap, where it will live and thrive forever — or could be eaten by the birds and carried far and wide. The best way to rid yourself of bittersweet is to burn the branches, or place them carefully in a dark-colored trash bag and leave in the sun until next summer. The dark bag will absorb the heat and kill the seeds. Heat kills the seeds — freezing weather won’t!

Should I be feeding birds all winter?

A: It’s the perfect time of year to open a new restaurant on the North Shore — a birdie restaurant, of course.

Please, feed the birds this winter, even if you’ve never done it before.

Why? Start feeding them now and the birds will be there for you to enjoy — and they’ll eat bugs in your garden all summer.

What kind of a birdie restaurant do you want?

Go to any hardware store or most garden centers. You’ll find a terrific array of feeders ranging from the simple to the sublime — and all the seed you’ll ever need.

There are feeders you can hang and feeders that attach to the window with a suction cup. There are sill feeders and flat, ground feeders that look like large trays. There are fancy, Victorian feeders and simple wooden Colonial feeders. Which is best? You decide — whatever you like. The birds don’t know the difference between Victorian and Colonial styles.

Now when it comes to food, that’s a different matter! Birds do know the difference, and some have definite preferences. Of course, there is always the exception — the bird that eats anything.

For starters: Sunflower seeds will attract a lot of different birds, and if you look closely you will see that these birds all have a powerful beak — all the better to crack the tough shells. Sunflower seeds have a high oil content which the birds need in cold weather. They’re attractive to cardinals, blue jays, nuthatches, and chickadees — and yes, squirrels too.

Corn attracts sparrows, pigeons and mourning doves — and turkeys!

Fruits attract finches and most other songbirds. Pieces of apple and oranges are much appreciated for their water content as well as their meal.

Millet attracts sparrows and doves.

What about all the shells that birds leave behind? If you are really fussy, you can make bird feeding very clean. Use hulled food, like hulled sunflower seeds, sometimes marketed as sunflower hearts, and shelled peanuts. It’s more expensive, but clean. Every bit will be eaten.

For gourmet feed, put out thistle. There’s also mixed seed by the pound — it’s not gourmet, but it feeds and nourishes the birds quite well and is available in sacks wherever seed is sold. It usually contains varying amounts of sunflower, corn, millet and other grain.

If you are buying in bulk, be sure the seed is clean and is not contaminated with moths or maggots. If you see them in your sack of seed, place the seed outdoors in a metal can and let them freeze for a few days.

Be sure to announce the arrival of your birdie restaurant with a scoop of seed — and stand back; they will be standing in line.

This week’s dirt: 12th Night: Jan. 6. According to legend, if there are any greens left in the house after that date, bad luck will follow the rest of the year.


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns are at