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All Past Questions and Answers Library   |   December 2009

This month's questions concern:

Black Mold on Onions
Earwigs in Pea Straw
Mushy Cooked Potatoes
Overwintering Container Grown Conifers
Overwintering Viola

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  Black Mold on Onions

Question:  You have answered questions regarding tomato blight, I have a problem with black mold on onions which must be in my raised bed soil. Can I get it out somehow?

 Judy Murray, Columbus, MT, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Judy! Bummer, sorry to hear about that.

For those not familiar with your problem, black mold is a fungus that occurs on both onions and garlic. It's usually first noticed at the top or sides of the onion bulb where an injury has caused an opening in the skin for the fungus to enter.

Black masses of spores then become visible between the outer scales thus term black mold. This fungus can start either while the onion is in the field, or during storage.

As to your question, here are a couple of things you can do:

1. This fungus does survive on old and decaying plant debris so the first thing you should do is clean up your raised bed soil very thoroughly every fall and spring because the onions can pick up the mold from dead matter in the soil.

2. Handle the bulbs very carefully to avoid bruising or causing any injury so there are fewer ways for the fungus to enter and get started.

3. There are no specific treatments for black mold, but a good fungicide like neem oil or Soap-Shield Liquid Copper Fungicide can be used. Spray the plants' foliage every few weeks during the growing season.

4. Store your onions below 55°F (12.8°C) and as low as 33°F (0.6°C) to help suppress any fungi development. Make sure it is a dry cold. High humidity can make the problem worse in storage.

5. The last resort is to replace the soil in your raised bed and start again, but I think if you follow the above steps, that won't be necessary.

If it were I, I would clean the bed really well, and in the spring a few weeks before I planted again, I would drench the soil with one of the fungicides mentioned above, and then I would treat the plants throughout the growing season. I think that will greatly reduce your problem. Good luck!

Question #2:  Earwigs in Pea Straw

Question:  Last year I bought a few bales of Lucerne and Pea Straw and used some of the product around my vegetables and trees but found out, much to my annoyance, that this mulch became the favourite resting/breeding "Hotel" for all the earwigs in creation! I am reluctant to invite the invasion these pests again among my vegetables. How can I use this mulch (of which I still have several bales) without incurring this problem?

 Sylvan Bonett, Adelaide, South Australia


ANSWER:   Hi Sylvan! This is a great question because it is a very common occurrence. That doesn't make it any better, I know, but here is what you can do.

First of all, you are on the right track using mulch. It's great stuff, but it can attract the pests. You can:

1. You can keep using the pea straw provided you use a couple of lures at the same time. Earwigs like to stay hidden in moist dark places during the day and only come out at night to feed, so give them a couple other places to hide besides your mulch. For instance:

Make a few traps by filling a flowerpot with damp crumpled paper; then turn it upside down, but keep it propped up with a stick. Place these traps in your mulched areas. The earwigs will crawl into the newspaper instead. Check your traps once a day to remove the insects you've caught and then get rid of them in the trash. In fact, you can put them in a plastic bag before you throw them out so you know they won't be back!

2. You can also use a beer trap because earwigs are attracted to beer. Place some stale beer in small jars and set the jars on their sides in your mulched areas. The earwigs will crawl right in. Empty the traps daily.

I know it's a lot of work, but in time, you can get the earwigs under control, and then you'll have the best of both worlds. No earwigs, and a healthy, mulched garden. Hang in there!

Question #3:  Mushy Cooked Potatoes

Question:  No matter what kind of potatoes my husband grows, when I cook them, they go to mush - but shop bought they cook lovely. P.S. Don't blame the cook!

 Ann Byrne, Dublin, Ireland


ANSWER:   Hi Ann! Actually this topic was one of our past monthly email tips. If you haven't signed up for these free tips, you can always go to the Quick Gardening Tip section of this site (just see the navigation bar to the left) and do so.

Anyway, your problem has to do with starch content and the fact that homegrown potatoes cook much faster than commercial or store bought ones.

There are some major differences between each potato variety and it's why garden centers and catalogs will mention that certain varieties of potatoes are good for baking, and others are good for mashing, while yet others are best for frying.

It's because the end texture of a potato really depends upon the amount of starch it has. The higher the starch content, the drier and flakier texture you'll have when it's cooked.

Take a Look:

New Potatoes: 7% starch

Baking Potatoes: 15% to 18% starch

Frying Potatoes (Potato chips and French fries): 22% starch

So before your husband plants again, think about how you will be using your potatoes because knowing that will really help you choose the right variety so they cook up properly and don't make you look bad!

Lastly, keep in mind - homegrown varieties do not need as much cooking time as most commercial varieties. When you cook them next time, cook them for only about half the time you normally would.

You know how, just stick a fork in them at half the time you cooked them last time and you will probably find they are firm, but soft, and ready to eat.

It's common and very easy to cook homegrown potatoes too long because they are kind of touchy - so no blame to the cook at all, you can hold your head high!

Question #4:  Overwintering Container Grown Conifers

Question:  I live in Zone 5 - can I overwinter container grown conifers outside in their containers?

  Rebecca Kelly, Shumway. IL, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Rebecca! Yes you can if you are super careful about it.

In very cold areas, container-grown plants need extra protection in the winter since their roots are less protected than they would be in the ground.

You will need to provide the container with as much insulation as possible. A good thing to do is to pile soil, and then several large garbage bags filled with leaves around the container to provide extra insulation.

Pack them in tight and make sure the bags don't get blown away, so you may need to put rocks or something heavy on them, or bungee cord them together.

It's a bit of extra work, but if you have very large containers and you can't move them easily, this will get them through.

Question #5:  Overwintering Viola

Question:  Should I take up my violas when they finish flowering or do they stay in for next year please?

  Margaret Kift, Weston super Mare, North Somerset, England


ANSWER:   Hi Margaret! I am assuming you are talking about Viola odorata also called Sweet Violet or English Violet.

If that is what you are referring to, then no, you don't have to do anything with them. Violets are perennials and hardy down to -34.4 °C (-30 °F).

In fact, once they get established some gardeners find them rather invasive because they can be aggressive growers.

Now, if you were referring to Viola tricolor or what is also called Johnny Jump-Up, those are annual flowers and will die back anyway, so again, you don't need to do anything.

Next year you will simply have to plant more again. The good news is many violas reseed themselves readily and so you don't necessarily have to replant, they just come up on their own.

Without more details, I hope I answered your question!

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When to Water

If you can, it is always best to water early in the morning. This allows the plant's leaves and flowers to dry off as the day warms up.

If you water at night, the plant stays wet for hours in the cool, which are prime conditions for fungi and other problems to set in.

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