Ten Questions: Ray Samulis
Everything you need to sharpen your green thumb
By Terri Akman

RaySamulis_1377Whether deer are eating your petunias, your tomatoes have spots or you want to know the best height to mow your lawn, Ray Samulis has the answers. As county agricultural agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington County, Samulis is the go-to gardening guy for your botanical troubles.

How can you keep deer and other animals out of your garden?
Smell repellents, including Hinder and Magic Circle, are offensive to animals, but they are also offensive smelling to people. One of the simplest things to use is sold as a biological fertilizer: dried blood. When you put dried blood around your plants and it gets wet, it triggers a distress signal in animals. They smell it and sense that something was killed, so they stay away. Put it down every three weeks or so. You can buy it anywhere that sells fertilizer.

We live in the blueberry capital of the world. What should people know about buying blueberries?
Look for a nice bloom on the outside, which is a white material that shows the berries haven’t been handled a lot. You want ones that have a good color to them and aren’t wrinkled. They’re only available for about four to six weeks, from mid-June through July. We do have a few later varieties, but they’re not as popular as the blue-crop variety, which are the large juicy berries. Some of the later ones are more tart and sour. Those are not as popular.

Blueberries have a short growing season, so freezing them has become very popular. What’s the best way to do that?
This is a misconception to a lot of people, but you shouldn’t wash them before freezing. Unless you get them perfectly dry again, they will all stick together. Shake the sand off if there is any, throw away any bad ones and take out any stems. Then pour them into a quart freezer bag and stick them in the freezer. You can rinse the berries when you bring them out. The beauty of that system is you can take out just what you need without having to defrost the whole bag. My wife and I have blueberry pancakes every Sunday, and we just take out a cup or two at a time. My granddaughters eat them in large amounts frozen. They’re like a bite-sized fruit pop. They’ll stay good in the freezer a whole year.

Is the same true for strawberries?
You have to handle strawberries more carefully than blueberries. They grow right on the ground, so they tend to have more dirt and you might have to rinse them a little bit. Make sure they are fully dry before you freeze them, so they aren’t sticking together and you can take out only what you need.

Are there plants that can grow on residential properties that pose a danger to people and pets?
The one I see most commonly in the area is called Star of Bethlehem. It’s a green plant that has little white flowers that look like stars. It’s poisonous and spreads pretty readily.

How often should you mow your lawn and to what height?
In the spring when rainfall has been good, you can mow it every four or five days to 1.5 or 2 inches. If we’re going into the dry temperatures and heat, it’s much less often because the lawn is starting to go dormant. When it gets drier, you can raise the height to about 2.5 inches. You may only need to mow it once every 10 days, but that will depend on how much you water it. If you have a sprinkler system and water it a lot, you may be on a weekly schedule. If you don’t do that, the frequency stretches to a wider interval.

How often should people water their lawns and flowers?
Many people have it in their minds that they should water frequently but for not that long. That’s exactly the opposite of what it should be. We recommend watering a good amount at one time, but only doing it every four or five days. Overwatering is the best way to get diseased plants, root rot and all kinds of problems.

What are the most important things to know before planting your first vegetable garden?
First, pick the right location. Most vegetables need full sunlight. A lot of people make the mistake of putting their garden along the garage or in a corner under trees. You’ll lose a significant amount of yield if you don’t have eight or 10 hours of sunlight. We also recommend getting a soil test. You can’t know how much fertilizer to add if you don’t know what you already have in your soil. All of the county extension offices sell a soil test kit.

How do you keep pests from harming your vegetables without using pesticides?
Some people don’t want to spray, but it’s very difficult to get pest-free fruit and vegetables without using pest control. People think organic means the fruit or vegetable is not sprayed, but that’s a misnomer. Organic produce is sprayed, but with materials that are natural in origin. Traditional pesticides are manufactured by a company. You have to use pest control whether it’s with organic or inorganic sprays.

How does the Rutgers Cooperative Extension help gardeners?
We have the master gardening program, which trains volunteers to help answer questions and do horticultural research for the general public. You can bring in a plant or soil or a pest, and we can give you advice. The history of the Rutgers Extension Service is that Rutgers is a land-grant college. The land-grant colleges were established in the mid-1800s to early 1900s to give information developed at the university level down to the people in the counties. We develop our own unbiased scientific information regarding pest control, fertilizers, lawn care; the list goes on and on.

August 2014
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