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Past Questions and Answers | August 2011

Question #1

Question:  I have been planting a few little plants in my front yard, mini Gerber daisies and geraniums. In the morning, I go out and something has ALMOST dug them up. I live in the city, so I doubt we're talking rabbits, but I was wondering if you had any ideas? I go ahead and replant the next day, but I am upset and puzzled. Upset, because whatever is doing this, I am thinking it will hurt the plants, and puzzled because it can't be cats can it?

  Linda Castillon, San Diego, California


ANSWER:   It sounds like armadillos. They do not eat the plants, but are digging for the grubs and other insects that live in the roots. Be careful when you replace the plants and wear gloves. Armadillos carry leprosy and there have been a few reports of gardeners digging in soil disturbed by armadillos who catch it. To stop the digging, place a three foot high fence of welded wire or wood around the beds for a few weeks, until the armadillos go elsewhere.

Question #2

Question:  I am growing several types of tomatoes in a new raised garden. I have started noticing that the tomatoes are splitting open, starting at the stem area. What is causing this?

  Barbara Goddard, Brunswick, Georgia


ANSWER:   It sounds like you have sour rot. This is caused by several varieties of fungi and may have a white scummy growth in the crack. The spores live in the dirt until they find a place to grow. Fruit should be kept off the ground by using mulch around the tomatoes. Drip irrigation will help as well. If you use an overhead sprinkler, make sure you water in the morning before 10 a.m., so the fruit dries off as quickly as possible. The water on the fruit makes it more vulnerable to the fungus. Avoid splashing dirt onto the tomatoes during watering, as this spreads the spores onto a wet host and increases the likelihood you will have splits in your tomatoes.

Question #3

Question:  How best to eliminate ivy that has overtaken area of front yard near the azaleas close to front of entrance. I think we have lost an azalea because it was choked by this nasty creeper

  Judith Harvey, Washington, DC


ANSWER:   Roundup™ will kill the ivy. It will also kill the azaleas, however, so you have to be careful. The best way to deal with the ivy is cut it back to the ground and paint the stems with Roundup™. If the ivy starts to grow again, paint that growth with Roundup™. You will have to repeat this several times until the roots of the ivy starve and it dies. By painting, I mean get something such as those mops used by people who are BBQing and dip it in the Roundup™. Then paint the stems and leaves as I mentioned. Be sure to label the mop with the words .Poison, Used to Apply Roundup™. on it so no one will use it for anything else.

Question #4

Question:  What is the best fertilizer for outdoor potted plants and how often should I do it?

  Autumn G, Colorado Springs, CO


ANSWER:   That depends on the plant. Generally, a balanced fertilizer -- one where all three numbers are the same -- is best. Water soluble fertilizer is easiest to use, as you can mix it and water the plants at the same time you fertilize them.

Depending on the fertilizer you choose, you would use it weekly or monthly. The label will tell you how often to use it, what strength to make the water/fertilizer mixture, and what plants you can use it on.

There are special fertilizers for acid loving plants that help keep the soil acidic for them. This is usually trumpeted on the front of the fertilizers container in big letters, so they are not hard to find. Again, follow the directions on the label for the best results.

Question #5

Question:  I just read a question about ants and peonies. You told the questioner to get some kind of insecticide to ride the peonies of the ants. NO! Ants are good for peonies and do no harm. My mother had peonies back in Maryland where I am from, and we have ants on the peonies where I live now in Washington State. Here is a link to verify the benefits of ants on peonies -

  David Ramer, Graham, Washington


ANSWER:   According to research done by Extension specialists, ants are not necessary to open peony buds. The ants are attracted to peonies because the sap they have is rich in nutrients. Ants like to eat any they encounter. They also like to find aphids on peonies because the honeydew they exude is richer than when they are on some other plants. So, ants are not necessary to grow peonies and may be poisoned out where they infect these plants.

Question #6

Question:  My straight neck squash bushes are huge and look so healthy. They have plenty of blooms but we have only picked 2 squash. It looks like the bloom disappears and nothing is left but a stem. What is going on and how can I "cure" this problem. Thank you.

  Robert Adams, Columbia, SC


ANSWER:   In squash, the male flowers bloom before the female flowers. Once the female flowers bloom and are pollinated, the male flowers fall of or wilt. It is only the female flowers that have squash. So the first thing is if the squash has just started to bloom, be patient and wait for the female flowers to develop.

The second thing that is probably going on is poor pollination. The pollen must be moved from the male flower to the female flower for pollination to occur and the fruit to set, or begin to develop/ If that doesn.t happen, the female flower drops just like the male ones do. Since honey bees are the principle pollinator, and honey bees are in trouble, many people are having pollination problems. You can pollinate the female flowers by hand. It isn.t difficult and works just as well as bees, but you have to do every day or two as new flowers bloom.

Question #7

Question:  My broccoli continues to blossom instead of forming a head... what do I do?

  Jedd Petraska, Andover, VT


ANSWER:   Your broccoli has bolted. That is, it has flowered and will not produce a head. This is generally caused by heat. A head of broccoli is really the immature flowers. If not cut soon enough, the flowers open and the broccoli becomes inedible. That is what people mean when they say it has bolted. Your only course of action now is pull it up and compost it. If it is time to plant a fall garden, you will probably have better luck with them then.

Question #8

Question:  my cauliflowers are turning a pinky purple color why??? Thank you

  Neil Bourne, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire


ANSWER:   Commercially grown cauliflower is blanched, or has the leaves tied over the head to keep it white. The color you see is the natural color of unblanched cauliflower. You can blanch your next one by tying the leaves over the head . You must readjust the tie every couple of days as the head grows. This labor intensive process is one reason cauliflower is more expensive than many other vegetables.

Question #9

Question:  How do you prevent squirrels from eating corn in a garden?

  Ronald Moulder, Monroe, Georgia


ANSWER:   That is a difficult thing to do. Squirrels are very mobile and are able to go over fences. No known substance repels them or causes them not to eat something. Poisoning them is illegal. You will have to consult with a pest control specialist and have them live trapped and removed. If you live in town, animal control may be able to assist you.

Question #10

Question:  I'm using clear plastic to get rid of the weeds in my vegetable garden. Will chemicals from the plastic leach into the soil and then into my vegetables when I plant next year? I'm concerned because we hear so much about certain plastic drinking cups and saran wrap on microwaved food being bad to consume.

  Beverly Pencek, Scranton, Pennsylvania


ANSWER:   There has been some fairly extensive research on the use of clear plastic to eliminate weeds. No one, to my knowledge, has detected any transfer of chemicals from the plastic to the soil. You should be safe from contamination.

Question #11

Question:  Weeds!!! Is there a product on the market that will get did rid of weeds without harming the rest of the flowering plants in the same bed? The weeds at times get very tall and they spread very quickly. I spent 3 hours yesterday cutting them back with my hedge trimmer? Short of digging up the complete bed and starting over, someone must have been faced with the same problem, Help, the WEEDS are over running everything.

  John Masse, Alexandria, Virginia


ANSWER:   Good news and bad news. There are things that will help without killing the flowers. You have to pull the existing weeds out for them to work.

If you get rid of the weeds by digging them up or pulling them up, then you can do a couple of things to help. You can put down a pre-emergent that will keep the weeds from germinating properly. This option is closed if you are growing anything in this bed from seed, such as vegetables, because it will kill those plants too. It will not hurt transplants, however, or plants that are already there, which is why you have to get every weed out by the roots.

Second, and more important, is mulch. Put down three inches of mulch over the whole bed, except do not cover the plants you want. The mulch holds in moisture and acts as a weed barrier. If you use both a pre-emergent and mulch, put the pre-emergent down first. Mulch can also hide irrigation hoses and a multitude of other sins.

Question #12

Question:  I have to transplant peonies now due to construction. Any tips would be appreciated.

  Leonard Ernst, Bellevue, Iowa


ANSWER:   Sometimes that happens. Dig as much of the roots up as possible. Make the hole for them in the new place larger than they are so you break up some of the dirt and make it easier for them to get established. Do not put rich soil in around them but use the soil that came out of the hole you made. Otherwise the roots become lazy and stay in the rich soil instead of gripping deep into the earth. You will have to water them more often than normal because the roots are not well established. Hold off on fertilizing them until they get established as the roots do not need any more foliage to support right now.

Question #13

Question:  I planted cauliflower in late March, and my plant grew to about 2 1/2 feet tall, but did not form a head. Why?

  David Rickard Sokoloski, Jr, Jacksonville, FL


ANSWER:   How did you fertilize? Sometimes if you over fertilize, the plant concentrates on building foliage and never produces fruit, or a head. It just goes straight to flowering. Another factor is the weather. With the unusual weather this spring, many locations went from cold to hot, with no warm weather to speak of. Plants went ahead and bolted instead of produce a head because the temperature rapidly increased and they didn.t have a chance to head out before the heat hit them.

Question #14

Question:  Hi! I'm having trouble getting my tomato plants to produce blooms. I live in southwest Ohio. In the past, I've transplanted them at my fence, where they get an abundant amount of sunlight. Have never really had real "full" plants in terms of stems and leaves. Also, not tons of fruit, but, I did get enough. However, last season, I literally only got one tomato from 3 plants! I noticed that my neighbor had plants on the west-facing wall of their house and had abundant stems and fruit (also dark leaves). I thought I'd try that this year. I bought 4 plants, heirloom varieties, and put them in them ground on our west-facing side of the house at the beginning of June, due to the amount of rain we had this spring. It primarily gets only afternoon sun. I used the Miracle Grow fertilizer that you sprinkle on at planting time. I've only used it once. In the past, I used the Miracle Grow that you have to dilute with water and I applied it about once a month (last year included). We have fairly dense soil. I did not amend it, but, did till it pretty well before planting. I still don't have any blooms. They still look fairly spindly and the leaves are fairly light green and averaging about 1 to 2 feet tall. Can you give me any suggestions on how I can have healthier looking plants and ones that produce fruit?

  DARLENE CARNEY, Maineville, Ohio


ANSWER:   Tomatoes and most other vegetables need at least six hours of full sun to grow well and produce fruit. Afternoon sun only probably isn.t strong enough to do the trick.

Second, although I think heirloom tomatoes are great and I certainly encourage their use, I would plant one or two regular hybrid tomatoes in addition as a control until you get your problems solved. That way you know whether it is the cultivars you are using or the location and fertilization that is the problem. Once that is solved, then you can experiment with different heirloom tomatoes to see which ones grow best in your particular area. Heirlooms are more sensitive to changes in the type of soil, humidity, temperature, and other things and are more finicky. Hybrids are more able to tolerate marginal conditions and produce. So you may have to test several heirlooms until you find one that likes your microclimate well enough to produce for you.

Question #15

Question:  I read about growing potatoes in bins, so I bought 4 very large black garbage bins, drilled holes strategically for drainage, filled with good soil/straw alternately. Probably put too many seed potatoes in got lots of green shoots, too many, so I thinned them out. Kind of mistake, Kennebecs never really recovered. They were rotting at the base of the stalk. The others recovered better, I ripped everything save 3 plants out of the kennebecs, and I feel like a failure, any advice? To growing these tubers in this type of medium?

  Kellie Paige, Spokane, Washington


ANSWER:   I have read about growing potatoes in bins, as well. I have never met a non-commercial grower that did it successfully, though, so don.t feel bad. I suspect you over watered. You want things moist but not squishy. Too much water rots potatoes really fast.

First, you will have to throw out the stuff in the bins now before you replant. It has rot in it and would only reinfect your next crop. Wash the bins with a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water to kill the rot and sterilize them. Use only pasteurized or sterilized soil, not soil from outside, to make sure you do not introduce problems that way. There really isn.t any way to sterilize straw, so that will just have to do.

You do not mention the exact dimensions of your bins, but treat them like they are one row wide, and space the eyes as if you were planting them in a field. You do know that you cut the seed potatoes into pieces, each piece with an eye, and those are the seeds, right? Then plant them normally, and cover. Water in. Since you are using bins, you should probably use a water soluble fertilizer that is labeled for use on potatoes. Do not over fertilize as that is as bad as not fertilizing at all. Good luck, and I would be interested to know what happens.

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Rotate Certain Crops

Avoid planting potatoes and tomatoes where they grew last year. They carry the same diseases, so it's best to rotate them.

You'll have much healthier plants, and more successful crops.

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