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All Past Questions and Answers Library   |   April 2009

This month's questions concern:

Do Fruit Trees Need Cuts Painted After Pruning
When Is The Best Time To Aerate A Lawn
How To Remove Spent Orchid Flowers
Raising Soil Levels Around Tree Base
How to Grow a Larger Onion
When to Repot a Bonsai
Using Eucalyptus Wood Chips As Mulch
Sprouting Old Seeds
Stop Giant Pumpkins From Rotting
Bitter Rocket Leaves

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  Do Fruit Trees Need Cuts Painted After Pruning

Question:  Do fruit trees need to be treated when they are pruned to stop disease entering the cuts?

 Linda Rose, West Sussex, UK


ANSWER:  Hi Linda! I have been pruning fruit trees for years and I have never taken the time to paint or put wound dressings on when I was done.

That said, if you have had a problem with a cut becoming infected with a canker fungi or some other kind of infection, then go ahead and apply a dressing.

If you are talking about just preventing decay, the best protection against that is proper pruning technique. A good pruning cut leaves the branch bark ridge or collar intact. The ridge is the dark line you can see along side and over the top of the branch.

If you're not sure where that is on a tree or branch, just go to your local garden center and they'll point it out to you.

Keep your tools clean by dipping them in a 9 parts water to 1 part bleach solution between pruning each tree and you'll be just fine.

Good luck!

Question #2:  When Is The Best Time To Aerate A Lawn

Question:  My yard needs to be aerated very badly! Is it worth it to rent the equipment in the spring or is it best to just wait until the fall?

 Michelyn Baker, Northfield, MN, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Michelyn! This isn't always a straightforward question to answer! When you should aerate typically depends on the type of soil and grass you have.

A very simple way to make a determination if your soil needs aeration at all is to take a screwdriver and insert it into the soil. If insertion is fairly easy your soil should be just fine. If insertion is difficult, it is probably time to aerate.

If it turns out your soil needs some help, here are a few guidelines.

1. If you have warm season grasses, late-spring to early summer is in most cases the best time to aerate.

2. If you have cool season grasses, late summer or early fall is the best time.

Here are a few more suggestion that will help you to determine when is the best time to aerate:

1. If you have clay soil, it will typically compact easily and need to be aerated more often than other types of soil and should be aerated twice a year (Spring & Fall) if needed.

2. If you have sandy soil, it will typically not compact as easily as clay soils, therefore you should aerate your lawn, if needed, only once during the year (Spring or Fall).

3. If you are planning on fertilizing or reseeding your lawn, it is best to aerate just prior to doing so. This will help allow the fertilizer, seed, and other nutrients to penetrate your lawn and soil, thereby producing better results.

4. Try not to aerate during times of drought and high heat. Instead of helping your lawn, it may allow moisture to escape the soil more rapidly and remove small layers of thatch that can actually benefit your lawn. A moderate layer of thatch can help to insulate your soil from sunlight and excessive evaporation.

5. Avoid aerating your lawn during times of weed problems. Aerating may actually help spread weeds by causing weed infestation. Try to control your weeds prior to aerating.

6. Try to water or dampen your lawn one day prior to aerating. This will help soften the soil and allow for better penetration by the aerator, thereby providing better results.

7. If you just planted a new lawn or laid sod, it's best to wait until your grass roots are well established to begin aerating. Aerating sod before it has good established roots can actually pull-up the sod from the ground and create more problems then it's worth.

I know I couldn't give you a simple answer, but I hope this helps you figure out when aerating your soil would best for your particular situation and that your yard is breathing better soon!

Question #3:  How To Remove Spent Orchid Flowers

Question:  My grandchildren bought me two orchids for Christmas and they still have lovely flowers on the stems are about 18 inches (45 cm) high. When they die, do I cut the stem and by how much. Thank you.

 Kathleen Smith, Keighley, West Yorkshire, UK


ANSWER:  Hi Kathleen! What a wonderful gift. Your orchids will be with you for years.

To remove spent flowers, just follow the stem all the way down into the plant. Using scissors or hand pruners, cut it as close to the plant base as you can without injuring the live, growing portion of your orchid.

That's it. Enjoy your lovely gift.

Question #4:  Raising Soil Levels Around Tree Base

Question:  Is it all right to raise the ground around a mature tree to 2 feet (.61 m)? I want to plant flowering plants around the tree.

 Christina, Alpharetta, GA, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Christina! I want to be very careful how I answer this so I'm clear.

You never want to raise the ground around any plant, tree, or shrub because you will smother and rot the stem, or trunk.

The only thing you could do would be to go out to the dripline, and any area outside the dripline, you can add soil.

Here's how you determine a dripline:

1. Go out to the tips of farthest reaching branches

2. Draw an imaginary line downward

3. Use those points to draw an imaginary circle around your tree.

4. That circle represents the dripline, or where the farthest reaching branches would drip if they were wet.

The dripline is usually several feet away from the tree truck and you don't want to pile any soil inside a dripline or you will smother your tree.

I don't mean to be a party-pooper, but it sounds like your tree is beautiful and it would be a shame to lose it.

Thanks for the question.

Question #5:  How to Grow a Larger Onion

Question:  How can I grow a larger onion? We have year after year tried fertilizer, bone meal, etc. with no luck and still get at the largest 1-1 1/2 inch (2.5 to 3 cm) diameter big onions. We have tried planting red, yellow, and white onions all with the same result. Help!

 Jen Moore, Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada


ANSWER:  Hi Jen! Well there are a lot of variables involved in growing larger onions, but here are a few that should help you get started.

1. The size of the onion bulb is dependent upon the number and size of the green leaves or tops at the time of bulb maturity. For each leaf there will be a ring of onion; the larger the leaf, the larger the ring will be. The onion will first form a top and then, depending on the onion variety and length of daylight, start to form the bulb.

2. A general rule of thumb is that 'long-day' onions do better in northern states while "short-day" onions do better in southern states.

3.To get larger onions, the plants must be thinned until they are at least 2-3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm) apart to insure adequate bulb expansion. The removed plants can be used for scallions or for transplanting into another area of the garden so that these too will have adequate space in which to enlarge into large bulbs.

4. Fertilization is vital to success. Onion growth and yield can be greatly enhanced by banding phosphorus 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm) below the onion seed at planting time. This phosphorus acts as a starter solution which invigorates the growth of young seedlings.

Banding phosphorus, such as super phosphate (0-20-0), 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm) below the seed involves making a trench 3 inches (7.5 cm) deep, distributing a large handful of super phosphate along the trench, covering the fertilizer with soil, sowing the seed and covering lightly with one-half inch (1.25 cm) or less of soil.

Once established, onion plants should receive additional amounts of fertilizer (21-0-0) as a side-dress application every month.

5. Onions are best grown in raised beds at least four inches (10 cm) high and 20 inches (50 cm) wide.

You will never get large bulb size in compact or clay soil. So if you suspect you have poor soil, use raised beds, put in light, fluffy, organic matter and then fertilize and plant.

I wish you the best of luck and let me know if you have larger onions this year, I'd love to hear back.

Question #6:  When to Repot a Bonsai

Question:  I was given a present of a bonsai. I am wondering when to re-pot it?

 Colette Donnelly, Dublin, Ireland


ANSWER:  Hi Colette! I took a bonsai class in college and I ended up with a ton of them. They take a lot of care and work, but they are so beautiful!

To know when to repot is to watch the soil line. The plant's roots will start to push the entire root ball up out of the pot. When you see that soil line rising, that's when you need to repot.

They are usually tied down, so check the underside of the pot. Release the ties, lift the plant out, take your bonsai scissors and root prune your plant. When you're done, put it back in its pot, tie it back down, and you'll be good go.

Have fun with your miniature tree, they're really great.

Question #7:  Using Eucalyptus Wood Chips As Mulch

Question:  We are having a large gum tree felled. Would the wood chip from this tree be suitable for mulch immediately or should it be aged first? Could it attract white ants? Would it suit citrus fruit trees? Thank you.

 Patricia Staker, Dungog, NSW


ANSWER:  Hi Patricia! This is a very good question because often people associate blue gum eucalyptus as a growth inhibitor.

While some people feel that the leaves of blue gum eucalyptus release a number of terpenes and phenolic acids that inhibit the growth of annual grass seedlings, others feel it's more the volume of their leaf litter that smothers young plants growing beneath.

Several studies have shown that eucalyptus chips do not contain any toxins. So to answer to your question, yes they can be used, but I would age your mulch before using. Any freshly made wood chips, no matter what kind of tree they are from should be aged first.

The mulch won't attract white ants and you can use it around citrus trees.

Thanks for the question.

Question #8:  Sprouting Old Seeds

Question:  I have old veggie seeds. How do I test them for sprouting?

 Peggy Kensok, Martinez, CA, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Peggy! Here is the best way to test old seed:

1. Dampen a paper towel

2. Sprinkle some of your seeds evenly over the paper towel

3. Lightly roll the towel up

4. Put the rolled towel into a plastic bag

5. Put the bag somewhere warm without a lot of light like on top of your refrigerator

6. Check the bag every few days and if any of your seeds are germinating, they are still good.

Seeds are very susceptible to different levels of humidity and light, so it will be interesting to see if any of your seed germinates. Good luck!

Question #9:  Stop Giant Pumpkins From Rotting

Question:  Every year I try to grow a giant pumpkin. I use Atlantic Giant seeds. When my pumpkins get about as big as a beachball, they start to rot from the inside out. How can I stop this? Thanks?

 Steve Tonkovich, Chase, MI, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Steve! So you're one of those giant pumpkin people! (kidding). That's great, but boy you guys are competitive!

When a pumpkin is doing what you're describing, usually what has happened is that your pumpkin has grown too fast and a tear, or split has occurred along the stem or the flesh. If left alone, that tear will reach the seed cavity and your pumpkin will rot from the inside out.

To avoid splitting:

1. Try to grow your pumpkin at an even, moderate pace over the entire season

2. Try avoiding large doses of fertilizer and water at critical phases of the pumpkin growth cycle

3. Try having a high level of organic matter and an even, consistent moisture level to help moderate and buffer against growth spurts and stops

4. Most people will remove all fruits down to one or two per plant, but keeping multiple fruits (3 or 4) can act as shock absorbers, spreading a surge in uptake of water over two or three pumpkins.

5. Also applying a fungicide and reducing water and fertilizer to the plant can manage minor cracks.

6. Treat all wound sites with fungicide, allow for good circulation, and keep the area dry. Occasionally a stem split or a surface crack will continue to expand and deepen until the seed cavity is breached.

Once the seed cavity is exposed to the outside atmosphere, the pumpkin is no longer viable. No effort in plugging or patching the hole will help and the pumpkin will rot from the inside out.

If you want more growing guidelines that include specific information on how to grow giant pumpkins. You can read it at: Pumpkins

Meanwhile I hope this helps and I hope you get a huge, giant pumpkin this year!

Question #10:  Bitter Rocket Leaves

Question:  We have grown rocket in a pot from seedlings for sometime now. We find that the first leaves we harvest are very sweet and have a beautiful taste. As the plant replenishes its leaves and matures the new leaves we harvest become very bitter tasting. We have applied seasol and osmocote for potted plants as per directions but this has not reduced the bitter taste of the leaves. Can you suggest a remedy to ensure less bitter tasting leaves as the plant matures.

 Steve Bourke, Brisbane, QLD, AU


ANSWER:  Hi Steve! Just for those who aren't familiar with its other names, Rocket (Eruca vesicaria sativa) is also known as Salad Rocket, Arugula, Rugola, or Roquette. It is a member of the cabbage family brassicaceae (cruciferae).

Actually what you are describing is how the plant grows. Normally people harvest only the young and tender leaves because the older ones develop a taste that is too sharp. Many people like the sharper taste comparing it to spicy horseradish, but I also find them a bit overwhelming.

The older leaves are more appropriate for sautéing or steaming since that will reduce the bitter taste. The good news is the plants reseed readily and you can have more than one crop during the growing season.

Also, don't be afraid to let some of them bolt and go to seed. When the plant flowers, its tender buds and flowers are edible and have the sweet taste like the young leaves.

Sorry I can't fix your problem, but at least you know you aren't doing anything wrong! Take care.

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Keep that Parsley Coming

Parsley is a biennial, often grown as an annual. Plants prefer full sun, but will survive in partial shade.

Parsley can be picked fresh throughout the season, but for use in the winter, cut the leaves in the fall, and dry or freeze them.

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