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Past Questions and Answers | September 2007

This month's questions concern:

Tomatoes Not Turning Red
Broccoli & Cauliflower Bolting
Camellia Buds Not Opening
Spathiphyllum Bracts Not White
Grow Pineapples From Tops
Japanese Maple Turning Green
Hydrangeas Not Flowering
Saving Sunflower Seeds
Compost Materials
Climate Zones
Black Spot Home Remedy
Raspberries In Containers
Compost Tea

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  Tomatoes Not Turning Red

Question:  All my tomatoes plants are no longer going red, they are staying green, they are flowering well and have lovely friut, any ideas why?

 Cheryl Smith, Eastbourne, UK


ANSWER:   Hi Cheryl! Don't worry, there is nothing wrong with your tomatoes that some light and heat won't fix. It always seems like it takes forever for a tomato to turn red, but once they show a little color, they can turn color very rapidly.

Tomatoes grown in cooler climates can take longer to produce red fruit. You can help your plants by putting down a plastic mulch (which will help warm the soil) or covering the plants with a floating row cover to help trap the heat around the plant.

It may take longer for you in your area, but eventually you will have red, edible tomatoes. Patience is the key at this point. Hang in there!

Question #2:  Broccoli & Cauliflower Bolting

Question:  What causes broccoli and cauliflower to bolt?

 Shirley Chmelyk, Cecil Lake, B.C.


ANSWER:   Hi Shirley! That's frustrating isn't it? Broccoli and cauliflower (both members of the genus Brassica) are cool-season plants that tend to bolt into flower anytime the temperatures get warm. They are very touchy about this. With the weird weather the world is having lately, areas that are normally cool are getting bursts of very warm temperatures, and it is throwing many plants way off.

Next time, try planting your broccoli and cauliflower earlier, as much as 2 to 4 weeks before the last frost in the spring, to miss any summer heat, or in late summer for a fall crop. Just do your best to avoid any warm temperatures and you will have much more success.

Question #3:  Camellia Buds Not Opening

Question:  I have a camellia bush that is loaded with buds every year, but the buds NEVER open into blooms. Is there anything I can do to get this lovely bush to bloom?

 Theresa Leyva, Carencro, LA, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Theresa! Yes there is, and it is quite simple. Some Camellia varieties produce too many flowers and the plant can't open them all. What you'll have to do is thin out the flower buds. Here's how:

From branch-end clusters, remove all but 1 or 2 round flower buds (leaf buds are more slender)

Along the stems, remove enough buds to leave only a single flower bud for each 2 to 4 inches (5-10 cm) of branch. Removing just the small buds will shorten the bloom season, so remove buds of different sizes.

Do this every year and you'll finally be able to enjoy the beautiful flowers!

Question #4:  Spathiphyllum Bracts Not White

Question:  The flowers of my Spathiphyllum and the spathe turn green after about an inch. How can I keep them white please?

 Trude Tales, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England


ANSWER:   Hi Trude! Actually what you have is very different and many people would love to have a green Spathiphyllum (Peace lily) rather than white!

That aside, Spathiphyllum can have white or green bracts and flowers. In fact, Spathiphyllum wallisii has flowers that start out green and slowly turn white as they open. There are also varities that start out white and turn green.

So there are 2 things you can do:

1. Enjoy the uniqueness of the plant you have

2. Go buy one that truly has white flowers

Too bad you're not closer... I have 2 friends that would love to take your plant off your hands!

Thanks for the question.

Question #5:  Grow Pineapples From Tops

Question:  I would like to know how to root (and grow!) a pineapple top. I've heard that some people have grown them into trees with fruit! I'd like to try that, because we have pineapple almost every night in our fruit salad. I hate to throw the top away if something can be done with it. Thanks.

 Charlotte Carroll, Kent, CT, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Charlotte! Yes this can be done, and I have done this several times. The pineapple is a member of the bromeliad family and is a shrub that can grow from 2 to 5 feet (.61-1.5 m) tall and 2 to 4 feet (.61-1.2 m) wide. Here is how you can grow a plant from the top:

Prepare The Top:
Grab hold of the entire top set of leaves. Twist hard and it will come out with a bit of stalk. (If you cut the top off you will need to remove all of the excess fruit flesh, otherwise it will only rot and may kill the whole plant). Any flesh still on the crown should be trimmed off its base to prevent rotting after planting. After trimming, carefully slice small, horizontal sections from the bottom of the crown until you see root buds that appear as small dots or circles on the flat, cut surface. Remove as little tissue as possible to avoid cutting into young stem tissue.

Next, strip off some of the lower leaves, exposing up to about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the base of the crown. Keep in mind, the stalk will root but the leaves will rot. They will come off in sort of a spiral fashion. The idea is to bare the stalk. The small brown-colored bumps below the leaf scars are immature roots waiting to grow and there may even be a few short roots at the base of the crown. Try not to damage these.

After trimming and stripping, let the crown dry out for a couple days. This will permit the cut end and the leaf scars to heal and prevent rot.

Rooting The Crown:
There are various ways to do this, but I like using the water method rather than the soil method because it is easier and works great. Place the crown in a clear glass of water and change out the water every few days. Place the crown away from any temperature extremes like heating or cooling vents or a hot south-facing window. On top of the refrigerator will work.

In 3 weeks you should see some healthy root growth. You're now ready to plant the crown.

Plant The Crown:
Once roots appear, plant the pineapple in a fast draining potting soil such as a Bromeliad or Cactus Potting Soil mixed with a third perlite. An 8-inch (20 cm) porous clay pot with bottom drainage is ideal.

Plant the crown and water it thoroughly before putting it in a window or some other sunny place.

When watering, the soil should always be slightly moist; not wet (which will promote rot) and not dry. It will take 6 to 7 weeks for the stalk to really start sending out strong roots. Do not rush this process or fertilize at this point.

After Care:
After about 2 months, the pineapple should be supporting itself as a new plant. Gently tug on the plant to see if new roots have formed. If they are present, they will resist your tug. If absent, the top of the pineapple will pull from the soil revealing the absence of new roots. If there are no new roots, replace the pineapple top in the soil and wait longer. If the base looks like it is rotting, start again with a new pineapple top, root it again as above and then use fresh potting soil. Repeat the process, but be sure not to over water.

At this point you should notice that the original leaves of the pineapple will begin to die and turn brown, with new leaves beginning to grow at the center. Over the course of the following year, remove the original leaves as they die.

If roots have developed with the new leaf growth, it is a sign that things are going well.

After one full year of growth, repot the plant.

Good luck, I hope you try this out, it's a fun project!

Question #6:  Japanese Maple Turning Green

Question:  I have a Japanese Maple and the leaves have started to turn a green colour as opposed to a plum colour and the edges of the leaves have started to go a beige colour, as if it is dying. Could you please tell what the cause of this is and what to do to put it right. Thanks Donna.

 Donna Hartley, York, North Yorkshire, UK


ANSWER:   Hi Donna! Well, the good news is that in time your plant will change back to red, but the dying leaves is something we need to be careful about. Let's take a look at this.

Keep in mind that there are hundreds of varieties of Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum). Now, regular Acer palmatum has red color in the spring, green foliage in the summer, and scarlet, orange, or yellow foliage in the fall, and that's just how it grows, and it will do that every year.

I don't know what you bought, but if you purchased a variety that was supposed to hold its red color all year long, again, keep in mind that many varieties, when experiencing a weather, climate, or location shift, will revert to the green leaves.

This is because some varieties are more sensitive to weather shifts than others, and that's why you can see similar looking red maples holding their color while the one right next to them will be turning green. The red gene that they bred into the more sensitive one just won't hold its color as well. The plant will eventually turn back to red in the fall or when the stress is removed.

The browning of the leaves to me, indicates that the plant is either getting a warm wind on it, or it isn't getting enough water. Either one would be enough to stress the plant and have it revert to green leaves. Keep your maple's soil moist, but not wet.

To recap, you may just be experiencing the regular foliage color shifts of Acer palmatum, or you could be causing it by the plant being too dry.

I hope this helps.

Question #7:  Hydrangeas Not Flowering

Question:  We have a white hydrangea in the garden which is facing north and is shaded by a cement wall on the south. It did not produce blossoms this season and we would consider moving it to a more desirable sunny site if you think that would be more conducive to blooming.

 Beverley Ford, York, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, CA


ANSWER:   Hi Beverly! There are a couple things that could be happening here. I am assuming that since you know it is a white hydrangea that is has flowered in the past. Based on that here are a couple of things it could be:

1. Too much shade. This will give you gorgeous leaves but no flowers. If it has produced flowers in the past however, and you didn't get flowers just this year, it could be a couple of other things.

2. Too much fertilizer, particularly high nitrogen fertilizer, will result in beautiful leaves but few, if any, flowers. Bigleaf hydrangeas can tolerate very high levels of fertilizer without showing signs of fertilizer burn so be careful and practice moderation.

3. Too much water and dry soil can both cause a lack of flowers.

4. Fall, winter or spring pruning which removes flower buds. To avoid this, just prune your hydrangea back after flowering is done, so you don't accidentally sacrifice the next year's flowers.

5. Severe cold kills flower buds but often not leaf buds so you have a living plant with lush foliage but no flowers. This is particularly a problem in USDA hardiness zones 6 and warmer because many of these hydrangeas are listed as flower bud hardy to zone 5 or 6.

The problem is that flower bud hardiness refers to dormant buds. In areas with variable winter temperatures, warm late winter temperatures are often followed by temperatures cold enough to kill flower buds that are no longer dormant but starting to swell and grow.

With all the weird weather changes we have been having, if you think this may be the problem, protect your plants this winter by mounding soil or leaves over the base of the plants until springtime, and then uncover the base so you don't rot your plants out.

Go over the above, and see what fits into your climate and growing schedule. I know if you correct any one of the problems, you'l have your white flowers back the following season. Good luck!

Question #8:  Saving Sunflower Seeds

Question:  I have grown sunflowers this year for the first time and have many different types - some of the heads have now died - at what point do I collect the seeds to keep for next years crop? is there a special time to do this?

 Julie Rowley, Chirac, France


ANSWER:   Hi Julie! Sunflowers are ready to harvest when the sunflower heads start to hang towards the ground and the seeds look like they may fall off of the flower.

To harvest, you'll need to cut the sunflower heads off of the sunflower stalks.

When you get the sunflower head cut off of the stem you will need to dry it out. You can put the sunflowers in a warm, dry place and let the flowers dry until the seeds come out easily. Make sure you put the sunflowers in a place that is warm and dry and that mice or birds can't get to or they will eat your sunflower seeds.

To get the seeds out of the flowers you can shake the flowers upside down to get the seeds out or you can pick the seeds out with your fingers. Sunflowers can be rough on fingers so be careful.

Place the seeds in an envelope or a glass jar, and label with the name and date the seeds were saved.

Store seeds that you want to plant next spring in a place that will stay dry. For more read this article: How To Save Seeds

I hope you have tons of sunflowers next year, they are a kick to grow and such a cheerful flower to have in the yard.

Question #9:  Compost Materials

Question:  I have just invested in a compost bin and have now been told I can't put potato or vegetable peelings into it which defeats the purpose, is this true?

 Pamela Morris, Ireland

Question:  When making compost, I add wood ash which has had food bones burnt in it. Somone said that might not be a good idea, as heavy metals cuumulate in bones. What do you think?

 Marian, Auckland, AU


ANSWER:   Hi Pamela and Marian! Since you both had similar questions, I hope you don't mind that I combined them.

As to not using potato or vegetable peelings, I have never heard of that! I wonder who told you that? Here is a list of what is OK to add to your compost pile:

Tea leaves, potato and vegetable peelings of all types, melon rinds, carrot peelings, apple cores, banana peels - almost everything that cycles through your kitchen, grass clippings, chopped up leaves or pine needles, fruit peel and waste, crushed egg shells, and shredded paper in small quantities (well scattered through the heap).

However, meat, fat, grease, oils, bones, meat products, dairy products, and high-fat foods like salad dressings and peanut butter, can present problems and should not be added.

So to the question about wood ashes having the bones in them, I would avoid that because of potential disease and other problems.

Good for both of you for composting, that is so awesome and really helps the overflowing landfill problem in so many areas.

Question #10:  Climate Zones

Question:  My hardness zone is 10. The vegiee I would like to grow are USDA zone 3 or warmer how to compare the hardness and climate zones? English is my 2nd language. Thank You.

 Livia Doda, Seal Beach, CA, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Livia! This is a very good question. Climate zones can be very confusing.

Probably the most important consideration in determining what garden and landscape plants you can grow in your garden is whether or not they will survive the climate in your area. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map factors in average winter minimum temperatures.

Therefore in Zone 10 you won't get winter temperatures any lower than 30-40° F (-1.1-4.4° C) which is quite warm.

In Zone 3, they will experience winter lows of -40 to -30° F (-39.9 to -34.5° C) which is quite cold.

Because most vegetables can be treated as summer annuals, in other words, they won't grow through the winter anyway, you can pretty much grow whatever you want.

When planning a garden, consider your local climate and the established 'hardiness rating' of various plants you have in mind. Some plants cannot handle severe winters so use the hardiness zone map to compare the plants zones to yours and see if they match. If they don't, you can try to grow that plant, but don't be surprised if it doesn't do well.

In Seal Beach, I don't see winter ever being a problem for you, and you'll be able to grow just about anything you want. If you're ever in doubt, go to your local garden center and ask, they will be very helpful in picking out the plants that will do best in your area.

Question #11:  Black Spot Home Remedy

Question:  Is there a home recipe to kill Black Spot on roses? Thank you so much.

  M. L. Tetzlaff, New Berlin, WI, USA


ANSWER:   Hi M.L.! Yes there is. Many gardeners have had success against fungal diseases, including black spot and powdery mildew, with a baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) spray. It can help prevent problems as well as kill some of the organisms that are infecting your roses and plants.

Here's the recipe:

Dissolve 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 1 quart (1 l) of warm water. If you want, you can also add up to 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap to help the solution cling to the foliage. Use a spray bottle and wet both the tops and undersides of leaves thoroughly.

I hope this helps!

Question #12:  Raspberries In Containers

Question:  Can I plant rasberries in a big plastic container or do they really need to be in the ground?

  Aviva Timonier, Maisons Laffitte, France


ANSWER:   Hi Aviva! You sure can plant them in a container provided that container has drainage holes in the bottom. Raspberries, like many plants need well drained soil and will simply rot if they are left sitting in soil that is too wet.

There are so many advantages to growing berries and fruit trees in containers including ease, space saving, and convenience. Many fruits, herbs, bulbs, perennials, vegetables and flowers do really well in containers, so if you want you can also try, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and any dwarf fruiting trees like apples, pears and peaches.

Go for it and let me know how you do.

Question #13:  Compost Tea

Question:  I keep hearing about compost tea. Can I make my own with the piles of amazingly rich compost I make each year?

  Pat Corbin, Anchorage, AK, USA


ANSWER:   Hi Pat! Compost tea is wonderful stuff! It has so many good things in it and you can use it to fertilize your plants and also as a drench for newly planted plants. In fact, using compost tea has even been shown to increase the nutritional quality and improve the flavor of vegetables.

If you've been applying compost to your soil only in the traditional way, you're missing out on a whole host of benefits by not using compost tea.

You can certainly make compost tea which is easy to do:
  1. You simply take some compost and put it in some kind of porous material like cheese cloth or an old section of pantyhose, just like you would a tea bag (see picture above)

  2. Then place the cheese cloth filled with compost and place it in a bucket full of water and allow it to steep for about eight hours. That allows a lot of the nutrients to leak out of it as well as many of the microbes

  3. Once it's steeped, take out the "tea bag" (your cheese cloth full of compost) and left behind is your compost tea. Water your plants with it for a great boost!
Rich compost is full of nutrients and microbes that really stimulate your soil and benefit your plants, and compost tea is just as good.

Thanks for the question!

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