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In Good Thyme

"Q: We have tent caterpillars in the fir trees in our yard. This isn't supposed to happen in winter, is it? How do I get rid of them? - Gloria (via e-mail) A: I suspect that what you have are the larvae of the Silver Spotted Tiger Moth. Dark-bodied caterpillars with rusty gold bristles, they prefer to feed during the cool months of winter through early spring. These tent dwellers are especially active on the warmer days of winter, and we've had quite a few of them this season. The Silver Spotted Tiger Moth caterpillar dines only on conifer needles and seems particularly fond of Douglas fir. Fortunately, they don't eat the buds, so new growth will usually fill in. These particular caterpillars generally don't do much damage, but if they bother you, simply clip off the affected branches and dunk them in a bucket of water. Another option is to spray with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis). It's kind to the environment but not to caterpillars. Your best choice may be to do nothing at all. Many birds find caterpillars good eating, so let them have their silver-spotted smorgasbord. To have the caterpillars positively identified, put a few in a plastic baggy and take them to the Island County-WSU Extension Office on Haller Street (behind the courthouse) in Coupeville. WINTER PERFUME I've made lots of gardening errors in my lifetime, but one of the smartest things I ever did was to plant Sarcococca hookerana humilis just outside the front door. Sometimes called Vanilla Plant or Sweet Box, this shade-loving, low-growing broad-leafed evergreen blooms during the winter (mine is in bloom now). The tiny white flower is barely noticeable. But oh, the fragrance! When you approach the front door or walk out of the house into the cool air, a scent of the tropics confuses and delights the senses. Another bonus - it's an easy-going shrub that's fairly drought tolerant, so it works well under eaves and overhangs and beneath evergreen trees. It does well in soil that's been amended with lots of good organic stuff such as compost or peat moss. There are several varieties of Sarcococca; the one I have grows no more than 1-1/2 feet high and spreads by underground runners. I've had it for at least 10 years, and the runners haven't been a problem. It grows slowly and hasn't been at all invasive in my garden. When it isn't in bloom, it maintains a low profile with its narrow, pointed leaves of glossy green. After flowering, it produces shiny black berries, which seldom stay on the plant very long. The local birds think they're delectable. Another sweet-smelling winter bloomer is Clematis armandii, an evergreen vine that does extremely well on the island. Its dark green, leathery leaves are divided into three leaflets borne on fast-growing stems. Starting in February, it produces clusters of aromatic white flowers and continues to bloom through April or May. Its blossoms are smaller than those of spring and summer-blooming clematis, and the petals curve slightly inward. A Clematis armandii drapes an arbor in my garden. It's laden with chubby buds right now, and I'm looking forward to imminent bloom and perfume. In early spring, when it has finished flowering, I'll prune it back substantially. Otherwise, a tangled buildup of dead leaves and stems will accumulate beneath the new growth. I cut it back frequently throughout the year to keep it under control. It's worth the effort to see the arbor covered in polished green leaves and sweet, creamy flowers when most of the garden is bare and brown. A good example of a healthy-looking Clematis armandii can be seen covering the length and breadth of a porch on the dry side of Madrona Way in Coupeville. The people who live in that house must enjoy several months of delicious fragrance. In addition to training the vine along porch rails, arbors and fences, C. armandii can be used as an excellent year-round privacy screen. A WEBSITE OF NOTE The Internet has given winter-weary gardeners another respite from long, dirtless days. There's a plethora of excellent garden web sites. Among them is that of Spokane gardener extraordinaire Gerry Krueger (www.blossomsandbloomers.com). She will be keynote speaker at the annual Whidbey Gardening Workshop March 3 at Coupeville Middle School. Her theme will be No Wimpy Plants Allowed! Call the Island County WSU Cooperative Extension Office for registration (679-7327/321-5111, ext. 5527). Tickets are $25 in advance, $12 for seniors and $20 at the door. "

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