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All Past Questions and Answers Library   |   August 2009

This month's questions concern:

Growing Fruit Trees in Containers
Heliconias That Don't Flower
Cucumbers Are Turning Brown
Beans Don't Grow, Others Drop Flowers
Pruning Apple Trees
Leafminer on Vegetables
Compost Gone Bad
Saving Seeds From Spinach and Plants

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  Growing Fruit Trees in Containers

Question:  I rent my home so I was wondering if there are any fruit trees that do well in containers. I would like fruit trees but I would like to take them with me if I move.

 Russell Hazen, Stanley, WI, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Russell! In a word - Yes! There are dozens of dwarf, miniature, and even columnar fruit trees you can grow in containers.

Just be careful when you buy a dwarf or miniature because not everyone's nominclature is the same. Some nurseries call a tree "dwarf" and it can be three to four feet (1 to 1.2 m) tall, but another nursery may call a tree "dwarf" but it may really be a semi-dwarf that can get up to 18 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) tall.

So when making a purchase, be very clear that you want a smaller tree that stays three to four feet (1 to 1.2 m) tall.

The great thing about miniature or dwarf fruit trees is that they produce regular sized fruit on a three to four (1 to 1.2 m) foot tall tree. For instance, a dwarf apple tree might produce up to 45 regular-sized apples.

A two foot (.6 m) high peach tree in a pot can produce 25 to 30 fresh peaches.

Lastly, you can also try columnar apple trees, shown in the picture next to your question. Columnar apple trees have been created to allow them to grow in smaller growing areas. They grow straight up and have a very small branch length.

Mature columnar apple trees average eight to ten feet (2.5 to 3 m) tall and only about two feet (.6 m) wide. They can grow and produce healthy fruit for about twenty years.

At this time, only columnar apple trees exist, but growers are working on making columnar versions of several other types of fruit, including pears and peaches.

So go ahead and plant all the fruit trees you have room for, because you'll be able to take all of them with you if you need to move!

Question #2:  Heliconias That Don't Flower

Question:  Hi, I have a 3 foot (1 m) long planter of Heliconias. When we bought it, we had lovely orange flowers. It seemed to stop flowering. Have added fertlizer twice a month for the past months. It's disappointing...Thank you for any feedback.

 Adeline Ho, Singapore


ANSWER:  Hi Adeline! Heliconia, commonly known as False Bird-of-Paradise or Lobster-Claw, are gorgeous when in flower, so let's see what we can do to get them to flower again, so you can enjoy them.

Heliconia need certain conditions to flower. You didn't state in your question where you are growing your plants (i.e: full sun or shade), so let's go over what Heliconia need in order to thrive and produce flowers.

Heliconia need full sun or light shade. They like a nice rich soil that is kept moist, but not wet, and they are heavy feeders. You said you were feeding them twice a month, but what kind of fertilizer are you using?

Look at the fertilizer package and make sure the numbers on the front are showing a balanced fertilizer like a 10-10-10 or 15-15-15. If you are using a high nitrogen fertilizer like a 20-0-0, you won't be giving your plants the balanced nutrition they need to produce healthy roots and flowers. In addition, I would reduce fertilizing to about once a month.

Remove any spent flowers to keep the plant activly growing. Heliconias, especially those in containers, can flower anytime, but more likely you will see flowers in the spring and summer months.

So my advice would be to check your growing conditions to make sure they are getting enough sun, and change your fertilizer.

Good luck!

Question #3:  Cucumbers Are Turning Brown

Question:  My cucumbers in the hothouse are about 1 inch (2.5 cm) and are turning brown. I water them everyday. There has been around 10 that have grown very good, I took them out but the rest are turning brown. Could you tell me why this is happening? Thank you.

 Paulette Maconald, Meteghan River, Nova Scotia, Canada


ANSWER:  Hi Paulette! Well, it sounds to me like you have a fungus problem. Cucumbers (Cucurbits) are prone to many fungi.

My question is, why are you watering every day? Are you watering because the soil is dry and the plants need it, or are you watering because that's your daily routine?

Plants, and especially plants grown indoors like a greenhouse, are always going to be more susceptible to disease than those grown outdoors. In an enclosed environment you are concentrating heat, cold, insects, disease, and in many cases, not very good air circulation, which if not managed carefully, can add up to problems.

I would get rid of any diseased plants or cucumbers. I would also only water when the plants actually need it, so allow the soil to dry out a bit in between waterings. I know cucumbers can get bitter with uneven watering, but I'm not suggesting letting them get so dry they wilt, just allow some air back into the soil, before you water again.

Also here are some steps to avoid disease in in the future:
  • Use clean, healthy, and when available, disease resistant varieties of seeds and plants

  • Use crop rotation. Whenever possible, do not plant cucurbits on or next to soil that had cucurbits in the last three years

  • Plant seed after soil temperatures are at least 65°F (18°: C)

  • Control all weeds near cucumbers. Weeds harbor many diseases of cucumbers

  • Control aphids and cucumber beetles since they can carry cucurbit viral diseases

  • Destroy volunteer cucumber plants. These can harbor cucumber disease organisms

  • Do not touch, cultivate or pick cucumbers while the the plants are wet. Water helps spread disease

  • Remove and destroy all diseased plants

  • Avoid poorly drained areas of soil or areas where water collects. Allow soil to dry out a bit between waterings

  • Remove and destroy all crop refuse in the fall

  • Use organic fungicides as needed or whenever wet humid conditions favors fungal diseases

If you follow the above, in time, you will solve your cucumbers from rotting. I hope this helps!

Question #4:  Beans Don't Grow, Others Drop Flowers

Question 1:  I have to plant my beans sometimes two or three times before any will come up whats my problem?

 Fred W Silkey, Granby, CT, USA

Question 2:  I planted Kentucky Wonder pole beans in a large container. I surrounded the container with concrete reinforcing wire. The beans grew right to the top of the wire and blossomed profusely, yet the blossoms never set any beans. They just dropped off. My question is what happened? I have beautiful plants and no beans. What do you suggest?

 Bill Brown, Macon, GA, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Fred and Bill! I hope you don't mind, but I combined your questions so I could talk about a couple of problems with beans.

Overall, beans are easy to grow, but as we all know, plants can be quirky sometimes!

Fred: There could be two reasons your beans are not germinating properly.

1. You don't have good seed

2. You soil just wasn't warm enough yet to germinate the seed

You can test how viable your seed is by taking 10 beans and placing them on a wetted paper towel. Fold the towel over and place it inside a ziplock bag in a warm place, but not in direct sun. After 3 days, start checking every day to see how many have germinated.

If you have poor germination, then you know it's your seed. Some people deliberately pre-sprout seeds as you would for a germination test, then very carefully transplant the sprouted seed when the roots are showing, and cover them with a thin layer of fine soil out in the garden.

Now, if it's a soil temperature problem, you can get a soil thermometer for cheap and simply don't plant until your soil is warm enough to germinate the seed, which for beans is at or above 60° F (16° C).

More about soil thermometers and soil temperature

Now to Bill: Normally the reason beans set flowers and then drop them is excessive temperature fluctuations.

If there is a great difference between day and night temperatures the flowers will drop off. They can also drop off if you get a sudden spike in heat which will kill the pollen.

Also, beans need to be watered evenly, but watering should always be at the roots, because overhead watering can cause flowers to drop.

Usually where temperature in concerned, there isn't a whole lot you can do about it, other than adding some additional mulch to try and keep the soil temperature and moisture even.

Overall, it sounds like you both are doing everything correctly, but you are having weather issues. Hang in there!

Question #5:  Pruning Apple Trees

Question:  I have been growing a Red Delicious apple tree for about 8 years. It is producing apples but I have never pruned it, I don't know how. Can you give me any info on how to care for my tree?

 Sandy Rosenzweig,Altamonte Springs, FL, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Sandy! Actually, we did an entire tutorial about how and when to prune apple trees last year. Visit our "How To Tutorials" Section.

Here is a direct link: How To Prune An Apple Tree

Question #6:  Leafminer on Vegetables

Question:  I have a small vegetable container garden, but before the seedlings can grow well, I am feeling leaf miner presence as most of the leaves are having zig zag white lines with a black thin line in them. On the back of leaves I find small injection points, often which are not through out the leaf but only in the back. How can I control these miners, I do remove and throw these leaves away far from my terrace but there's no use of same.

 Ragini Patel, Maharashtra, India


ANSWER:  Hi Ragini! Well, the good news is that leafminers are more of a visual problem, since they won't affect the taste of your produce.

They like to feed on bean, beet, cabbage, chard, lettuce, pepper, tomato, and other vegetables; also many ornamentals, especially chrysanthemum and nasturtium.

The larvae tunnel through the leaf tissue making hollowed-out, winding mines. They can kill seedlings, but the good news is that on older plants, the larvae are more of a nuisance, and a cosmetic issue, than a serious problem.

There are a few things you can do:

1. Handpick and destroy mined leaves which you are doing, but is not working

2. Remove any egg clusters you may see on the undersides of the leafs as soon as they are visible in the spring.

3. You can also spray neem oil. Read more about neem oil.

Thanks for the question!

Question #7:  Compost Gone Bad

Question:  I have been composting my garden and kitchen waste for a couple of years; but the compost has been completely infested with ants - and now I find there are also mice in the bin. what should I do, I don't fancy using it on the garden any more. I can't think how to get rid of it. HELP!

 Carol Davies, London, England


ANSWER:  Hi Carol! I can appreciate your problem, but don't worry, we can fix it!

You have a couple of problems going on here and the ants and mice are just indicators.

1. Check what kind of kitchen waste you are putting into your compost.

You don't want to add any dairy products like butter, egg yolks, milk, sour cream, yogurt. You also don't want any animal products like meat, fish bones, food scraps, fats, grease, lard, or oils. All of those will attract both ants and mice.

2. Another problem: it doesn't sound as though you are maintaining your pile correctly and turning it often enough, and it doesn't sound as though it is getting hot enough to decompose properly. If your compost pile were hot enough, it would discourage mice and ants.

So,what you're going to want to do is heat up the compost pile to make the conditions unlivable for the ants and mice by doing the following:

1. The compost needs carbon, nitrogen, water and air. Start by using a pitch fork and start turning it every couple days.

2. How moist is your pile? If you were to pick up a bit of the compost and squeeze it, it should feel moist, but no water should be dripping through your fingers.

Frequent turning and ample amounts of water will deter mice and ants because they will not make nests in it if it is too wet.

3. Check your carbon and nitrogen ratio of the pile. The proper ratio that is generally recommended: 30 to 1 (carbon to nitrogen). Brown or dry materials provide carbon, such as hay, fall leaves, sawdust and wood chips. Nitrogen is contained in green materials such as grass clippings, weeds (be sure that they have not gone to seed), fruit and vegetables and used coffee grounds.

If you are composting primarily green materials, add a layer of brown each time you visit the compost pile to try and maintain the ratio.

If you follow all of these steps and have a large enough pile (at least 3 feet by 3 feet or 1 meter by 1 meter) the compost will heat up and you will not have any ants or mice.

Once your compost is done, then bag it up and store it in a trash can with a tight fitting lid for future use, or spread it around in your growing areas and containers.

Compost piles do take some effort and maintenance, and with a bit of correction, you compost pile will be working correctly again. Let me know how it goes.

Question #8:  Saving Seeds From Spinach and Plants

Question:  When spinich has bolted can I get seeds from the plant?

 Jessie Mckenzie, spirit lake, ID, USA

Question:  I'm looking for the best advice from start to finish regarding removing seeds from flowers in the fall and proper storage of same over the winter. I had a very successful summer this year with planting seeds in all my pots and would like to do the same again next year.

 Lynnie Cichon, Windsor, Ontario, Canada


ANSWER:  Hi Jessie and Lynnie! I since your questions are similar, I am going to answer them together.

Jessie: Yes, when spinach bolts, it is getting ready to flower and produce seed. Spinach flowers are inconspicuous, yellow-green, and about 1/8 of an inch (3-4 mm) in diameter.

The flowers mature into a small, hard, dry, lumpy fruit cluster that is about 1/4 of an inch (5-10 mm) across, containing several seeds.

When the fruit is dry, you can harvest the seed and store it.

For storage tips, see the link below.

Lynnie: I don't know exactly what kind of plants you want to save seeds from, but if the seeds are in a fleshy pulp, like tomatoes, melons, etc. read our feature story this month, we talk all about how do this: How To Save Tomato Seeds

If the plants you are collecting from have dried seed heads, then simply pick the flowers when almost dry and remove the seeds. If you don't want to miss some seeds, because some flowers tend to start dropping them when you're not around, just tie some cheese cloth or very fine netting around the flowers. That way if any seeds drop, you will catch them.

For storage, and steps on how to do it, read our past article: How To Save and Store Seeds

Thanks for the questions!

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