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Past Questions and Answers | July 2007

This month's questions concern:

Rose Bush Suckers
How Often To Water
Pruning Gardenias
Cat Eating Houseplants
Peonies Not Flowering
Blind Tomato Plants
Sick Water Lilies
Runner Bean Flowers Falling Off
Dying Watermelons
Harvesting Herbs

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  Rose Bush Suckers

Question:  Help. I live in Central Nebraska and have a fairly large shrub rose bush. I believe it is a Floribunda? My problem is that in the last 3 weeks or so, the bush has put out a rather fast growing "sucker" shoot from the root of the bush. Can I cut this shoot off now or should I wait until this fall when the bush goes dormant? Can I prevent this from happening again? Can I use this sucker shoot to start a new rose bush?

I am fairly new to growing rose bushes, but enjoy roses. I have not had the best of luck in getting my rose bushes to come back the second or third year after planting. Most of them have been of the tea rose variety or the miniature roses. What do I need to do with them to ensure re-growth the next season?

I would appreciate any help you can give me on these matters. Thank You.

 Vickie Johnson, Burwell, NE, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Vickie! Good question.

As to question number 1 about the sucker:

You will need to remove the sucker down under the soil where it is coming out from the root. Rootsuckers can be recognized by their smaller leaves and different-looking thorns. Follow the sucker all the way down to where it branches off. If this point is below the graft union, it is a rootsucker. Never cut a rootsucker off at ground level. This further stimulates its growth. Try to pull or twist the sucker off rather than cutting it, as cutting stimulates growth again. Pulling if off causes the wound to make a callous and heal over.

You'll want to do that now, and once it's removed, you can apply a product called "sucker stopper." Try and treat the sucker area before the suckers get 10 inches (25 cm) long. The earlier you treat them, the better.

Also, you can start a plant from a sucker, but you have to understand you will be growing a plant from the root stock. Roses are grafted onto a root stock for healthier plants, and to keep varieties pure. If you grew the sucker, you would be growing the root stock which was chosen for it's hardiness to root rot and other problems and not for its roses. You would have a plant, but it might not be anything special. You can always try it and see what you get.

As to question number 2 about getting them to come back:

In Nebraska you get some pretty cold weather and you will have to mulch heavily around your roses in the fall. A good mulch is shredded bark, or good composted material. You can buy good compost or mulch at any garden center. This will help the roots stay warm which will allow your plant to come back in the spring. When the weather starts to warm up, remove the mulch so the plant doesn't rot and start watering them again regularly.

You might also like to read the How To Prune Roses Tutorial in the "How To" section of the site.

I know if you do the above you'll overwinter your roses just fine. Good luck!

Question #2:  How Often To Water

Question:  Hello, I've been often should I be watering my garden? I just read in your past article that I should be watering in the mornings, but is that every day, every other day? I definitely don't want to overwater my plants, but I don't want to underwater them either. Thank you!

 Nicole Zielinski, Lisle, IL, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Nicole! How often depends on several things.

If you have just planted seeds, you will need to water every day, keeping the soil moist until germination, and then start watering as you would regular plants.

If you have plants growing, allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings. I water when the top portion soil is dry down to about 1-1/2 - 2 inches (3.5 - 5 cm). That said, you may have to spot water your garden and water certain plants as needed.

For instance, our tomatoes need to be watered just about every other day, while our onions need water only twice a week. Always water to the plant's needs.

In your area during the warm summer months, you may need to water every day. Just use your finger, and test the to see how dry or moist the soil is and make a judgment call. If your soil is drying out by the end of the day and your plants are wilting, you may need to water daily. If by the next morning there is still enough moisture to hold the plants all day, don't water. Overall, your goal is to keep plants moist without them sitting in wet or soggy soil all the time because they will rot.

This is why adding compost and organic matter in the fall and spring to your garden area is so important. It not only provides a better growing environment for your plants, but it helps with more even and better water retention.

I know after a bit of practice, you'll get the hang of it.

Question #3:  Pruning Gardenias

Question:  How and when to prune a gardenia? Mine has spawled out and is becoming very leggy.I had lot's of blossoms this year, but looks a bit raggety.

 Sharon Doyer, Summerville, SC, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Sharon! As you well know, pruning gardenias (G.augusta / jasminoides) helps keeps them shapely and in scale with the landscape.

With gardenias, pruning should be done just after the plant finishes blooming. Just keep in mind, any pruning done after October 1st can decrease next year's flowers.

Do your pruning early enough to allow new growth to be at least 4 - 6 inches (10-15 cm) long by approximately October 1. Young plants, growing vigorously during their first year, may be pinched once in June and again in August to encourage heavy branching.

You can prune or pinch back your plants with either your fingers or some pruning shears. Always prune back to just above a leaf, or a node, a or growing portion of the plant. How much you take off is up to you.

Since I don't know how large your plant is, I would start by taking off just a few inches (2.5 cm), and see how it looks. You can always keep pruning it back inch by inch (2.5 cm) until it looks good to you, rather than risk taking too much off. As they say, you can always prune back a bit more, but you can't put back on what you have pruned off!

I'm glad your gardenia is doing so well. They certainly are wonderful plants when they are happy and doing well.

Question #4:  Cat Eating Houseplants

Question:  Just finished your tutorial on houseplants, great stuff. Quick question though, how to keep a hard-headed cat from nibbling on my foliage....any suggestions? Thanks and look forward to more.

 Kelly Carlson


ANSWER:  Hi Kelly! I'm glad you read, and got something out of the tutorial - that's great!

First of all, just be sure that none of your plants are toxic. Easter lilies, Oleander and Dieffenbachia, shouldn't be around pets - ever - they are very toxic.

In addition to that, however, here are two things you can do to keep your plants whole:
  1. Grow some cat grass or wheat grass to give them something else to eat. Most pet stores carry these products, and you can quickly grow something that your cat will like to eat besides your houseplants

  2. Add something on top of the plant's soil that cats don't like the smell of like mothballs, Citrus Magic, or citrus peel. Just do this long enough to get them out of the habit of eating your plants
Let me know how it goes.

Question #5:  Peonies Not Flowering

Question:  I would like some information on peonies. I have some planted in my garden for around three years and have yet to see a flower. What advice can you give me?

 Joan Mclean, Newfoundland, CA


ANSWER:  Hi Joan! Peony (Paeonia) plants need some basic conditions to flower. They should not be planted too deep, and they need plenty of sunshine. Make sure both of those requirements are met, and your plants should flower.

That, said, here are a few more details:

Fertilize them in the fall with a generous application of Milorganite or something similar.

Peony crowns have buds which we often call "eyes" and what can look like "pinkish roots" sticking straight up. When planting, be careful to not touch or bump them because they break or bruise easily. Set the roots so that the tips of those eyes are about 1 inch (2.5 cm) below the finished surface of the soil.

In your case, carefully check to see that the crown, where the "eyes" of the plant emerge from, is no more than 1.5 to 2 inches (2.5 - 5 cm) below the surrounding grade. If that is the case, pull the soil covering the crown back to that depth. The plant will not suddenly flower this year but should do so next season.

Hope this helps, and let me know how it goes.

Question #6:  Blind Tomato Plants

Question:  What causes blindness in tomato plants?

 John Learmonth, Catrine Ayrshire, Scotland


ANSWER:  Hi John! For those people that are not familiar with the term, a "blind" tomato plant is one that has a disorder concerning the growing point.

Blindness may occur early in development, resulting in a seedling with no true leaves up to just one, two or three leaves. It can also occur later in the plant development, after the 5th or 6th node has developed, but at this stage, this is mainly an effect of growing conditions.

Basically after quite a bit of research, it is still not known exactly what causes blindness in tomato plants!.

If, and to what extent this sensitivity of the growing point occurs, it can depend on several factors. Conditions during seed production, as well as during post-harvest processing of the seed can increase the sensitivity, and may eventually, when a "threshold" is passed, lead to an increase in blind plants. Furthermore, germination and growing conditions can have an effect on the occurrence of blind plants.

Now, keep in mind, tomato plants easily form and grow side shoots, so after a while the plant may recover, and when sown directly in the field, these plants may not be noticed.

Some seed breeders are now "Priming" their seed, which increases uniformity and speed of germination, and can have a dramatic effect on the occurrence of blind plants in sensitive cultivars. In fact increases of over 30% have been observed.

So while there may be no concrete answer at this time, some breeders are working on a solution to the probelm.

Interesting question!

Question #7:  Sick Water Lilies

Question:  Hi there. I have a query in relation to water lilies. I recently bought two and placed them in my pond as directed by the seller. They were thriving for the first week, but now some of the leaves have become discoloured. I checked these leaves today and it appears that there are numerous transperent leeche type creatures locked on the back face of the leaves, i.e. the side facing downward. Are these guys killing the lilies or is this normal, and if they are the enemy, how do I get rid of them?

 Mick Bermingham, Dublin 11, Ireland


ANSWER:  Hi Mick! Water lilies (Nymphaea) do have some insects that can damage them, but to me, it sounds like you may have a couple of problems going on. I think the transparent masses on the underside of the leaves are snail eggs. These can be a real problem if they get ahead of you and should be taken care of quickly.

Unfortunately with water plants, the chemical method is not the way to go. There are water snail killing chemicals available from aquarium stores which if used according to instructions will control or eradicate snails in a pond. However there are other methods of reduction which are more pond friendly.

Snails can be scooped out with a net, or leave a lettuce leaf in the pond over night which will attract the snails, then simply take out the leaf and snails together. Having large goldfish in your pond will also keep the snails to a managable level. You can also try wiping and removing the eggs off manually, etc.

As far as the discolored leaves, that could be a pH or salt imbalance with your water. You should take a cup of water back to you pond supplier and have him or her test your water for pH and salinity.

I find keeping a pond in balance is difficult. I have several friends that do have ponds that thrive, but my hat is always off to people who tackle them. Good luck!

Question #8:  Runner Bean Flowers Falling Off

Question:  My runnerbean flowers are falling off, what can I do to stop this?

 Valerie Gergory, Hamphire, England

Question:  I am growing runner beans on long sticks. The foliage is great but the flowers are dropping off at an early stage. Therefore no beans. Any ideas?

 Roger Jarman, Somerset, UK


ANSWER:  Hi Valerie and Roger! I hope you don't mind, but since you both had similar questions, I thought I would answer them together.

Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) also known as Scarlet Runner Beans, need abundant water during flowering and pod expansion; they don't like to dry out.

Your most likely culprit is lack of water, since the flowers need a high level of humidity to set seed. So keep an eye on your soil moisture.

Other factors that can cause loss of blossoms are high wind, heavy rain and some insects which bite into the tops of the flowers to get nectar but dont fertilize the flower.

Lastly, you may be short of insects to pollinate the flowers. next year plant a couple of multi head sunflowers nearby to attract the bees just to be on the safe side.

Question #9:  Dying Watermelons

Question:  I am a first time watermelon grower. My problem is I had 2 melons that were doing great until they got to be the size of a tennis ball. Now they are starting to get soft and shrivel up. Is it lack of water, too much water or what? I am at my wits end because I have one melon that is the size of a softball and doing great. Any suggestions on how to save them?

Question:  We are growing watermelons. Recently they have started to get a darkening soft spot on them and have started to turn yellow as they begin to grow. What causes this and what can I do about it?

 Randy & Donna Allange, Columbia, MS, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Randy and Donna! I hope you don't mind, but I combined your question with the other since they were similar.

It sounds to me, since the plants themselves are thriving, and just the fruit is being affected, that you have blossom end rot. Since it is affecting the entire fruit and not just a section, it doesn't sound like Bacterial Fruit Blotch. Most people associate blossom end rot with tomatoes, but it can also affect watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, chiles, squash, and many other fruits produced in the garden.

It is caused by calcium deficiency in the developing fruit which is caused by uneven watering. You need to keep even soil moisture to avoid blossom end rot, becuase if the water, which transports calcium and other minerals, doesn't reach the end of the fruit during the critical time when the fruit is developing, blossom end rot will develop.

The failure of water to reach the fruit can be due to hot, dry, windy days which evaporate water before it reaches the fruit, or perhaps due to waterlogged soil, which due to absence of adequate oxygen around the roots, prevents the absorption of water and minerals by the roots.

So I would try and even out the soil moisture in your garden and I think you'll see your problems go away.

Question #10:  Harvesting Herbs

Question:  When is the best time to pick herbs out of the garden? How do you know there ripe or ready to be picked?

 Rebecca Toth, Chardon, OH, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Rebecca! The best time to harvest herbs is first thing in the morning. We always harvested our lavender and tarragon for market before the sun was too high. This is because the oils have settled into the leaves and flowers overnight and are at their highest level. This is true of all herbs.

As for when to know they are ready to harvest, I don't know what kind of herbs you are growing, but if they are plants like rosemary, thyme, sage, etc. they are ready for harvest just about any time. Just take a leaf between your fingers and crush them. You will get a stong aroma.

As for flowers, like lavender or roses, always pick them right at peak of flowering. You don't want to pick them after they start to decline, because they won't have as much flavor or aroma.

Herbs are wonderful all year long, so I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

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