Garden Word of the Day
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Isn’t spittlebug a great name?
Spittlebugs (Philaenus spumarius) are easy to spot when in their immature phase because the nymphs surround themselves with a white froth when they feed, hence the name. In each foamy bit, there may be several spittlebug nymphs feeding on sap found in the plant’s xylem.
Adult spittlebugs are only 1/4” long, unremarkable and rarely seen. And, no, they won’t hawk a loogy at you in the garden. For the most part, adults look like leafhoppers and will hop away when disturbed, sometimes with an audible "thump" sound.
Damage caused by spittlebugs
Spittlebugs seem to prefer woody plants, such as rosemary and lavender. These pests are most commonly seen in spring. There is generally only one generation each year. While spittlebugs do suck the juices out of your plants, they rarely do any serious damage. Heavy infestations can cause some distortions and stunting.
If you see splotches of white foam on your plants, simply wash them off the plant with a garden hose. This interrupts the spittlebug lifecycle and protects your plants.
Harvesting the fruits of your gardening labor is an often forgotten yet critical aspect of the craft.
When you get down to it, everything plants do is directed towards reproduction. Creating flowers attracts pollinators, pollination creates seeds, and fruit provides seeds with food and protection. As soon as your plants start producing harvestable fruits and flowers, it is very important that you harvest frequently.
By putting your harvesting efforts off for another day, you are giving your plants the message that they have succeeded at reproduction and that no further effort is needed. This means less fruits and vegetables and flowers for you!
Bottom line - harvest every couple of days whenever your garden is producing to ensure maximum production.
According to Webster, a vector is “an organism, typically a biting insect or tick, that transmits a disease or parasite from one animal or plant to another.”
There are plenty of vector species in your garden already, but most of them can’t hurt you. Thanks to Chinese shipments of “Lucky Bamboo”, however, we are now facing a potentially dangerous vector species as we work in our gardens: Asian tiger mosquitos and yellow fever mosquitos.
It is a good idea to use outdoor pet watering bowls to water your plants or yard each day, and provide your pets with fresh water sans mosquito eggs. Also, make sure that lawn decorations, planter saucers, and even lawn furniture doesn’t provide these potentially deadly insects with a useful habitat.
Mosquito dunks and mosquitofish can be used in ponds, fountains, rain barrels, and bird baths to prevent the spread of these invasive insects.
Are the bottoms of your oranges staying green? If so, your tree (and citrus growers everywhere) are in big trouble.
Huanglongbing (HLB), or citrus greening, is a vascular disease of citrus trees that makes the fruit inedible.
The HLB story
In 1998, Florida citrus growers saw Asian (Diaphorina citri) and African citrus psyllids (Trioza erytreae), or two-spotted citrus psyllids, for the first time. Insects the size of aphids, these citrus psyllids can carry a bacteria (Liberibacter spp.) fatal to citrus trees.
American scientists didn't identify the disease until 2005. [China's first case occurred in 1943.] By 2014, HLB had caused $4.6 billion in damage to Florida's citrus crops. As of 2023, HLB has spread to 33 countries, plus California and Texas.
HLB: tree killer
HLB can kill a tree within five years of infection. Because this disease threatens the entire citrus industry, trees infected with HLB must be destroyed and removed by professional arborists. [You may be able to get assistance from your local Dept. of Agriculture on this.] To do your bit to save the world's oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits, start by learning what HLB looks like.
Symptoms of HLB
The obvious symptom of huanglongbing is the fruit remains green on the bottom. By this time, the disease may have spread far and wide. Watching for earlier signs of HLB can prevent that spread.
The first symptom of huanglongbing is yellowing veins. Neighboring tissues may also turn yellow. After that, leaf mottling, early leaf drop, and twig dieback occur. If you scrape away the soil, you will also see the feeder and lateral roots decomposing.
Other signs of HLB include:
HLB may be mistaken for a nutrient imbalance. But nutrient deficiencies create symmetrical symptoms, while HLB symptoms are asymmetrical.
Preventing the spread of HLB
Scientists are looking at oak leaf sprays, antibiotic and peptide injections, and other treatments, but there isn't a cure yet. So prevention is critical.
At the government level, quarantines are in place that prohibit moving citrus fruit trees, leaves, and stems out of affected areas. Contact your county officials to see if you are in a quarantine zone. Looking at the maps below, you can see how a quarantine zone can change in just one year. Since the information to create these maps takes time to assemble, you should assume if you live near a quarantine zone, you should act like you are in it.
Managing psyllids is one way to slow the spread of HLB. Psyllids are jumping plant lice. They feed on sap. You can control psyllid populations with sticky sheets and insecticidal soap. Do not use dish soap.
Like other psyllids, Asian citrus psyllids produce honeydew. Honeydew attracts ants and provides a growth medium for sooty mold. If you see ant trails around citrus trees, take a closer look. And block ant traffic with sticky barriers.
You can also help prevent the spread of this disease with these tips:
While commercial growers use pesticides to control HLB disease vectors, backyard growers are less likely to do so, creating a significant threat to citrus trees everywhere.
This threat is not to be taken lightly.
If you suspect or see signs of the Asian citrus psyllid or Huanglongbing disease, immediately contact the CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE HOTLINE: 1‐800‐491‐1899.
Bloomberg reports that Florida citrus growers are now using dogs trained to sniff out the disease to help with early detection and to reduce the spread of this disease.
According to Farm Week Now, half of all Florida citrus growers have failed because of this threat. They predicted that the 2018 Florida citrus crop would be one-fourth of what it was ten years ago.
According to Progressive Farmer, the annual production of oranges has dropped from 200 million boxes to 20 million boxes due to huanglongbing. All citrus crops are the smallest on record since 1929-1930.
The damage caused by too little (or too much) water is called water stress.
Water-stressed plants exhibit these symptoms:
- Wilting or drooping leaves that do not return to normal by evening
- Curled or chlorotic (yellow) leaves that may fold or drop
- Foliage that becomes grayish and loses its green luster
- New leaves that are smaller than normal
Water stress can be the result of extended drought, long, hot summers, and irrigation failures. Flooding, urban drool, and heavy rains can create a different type of water stress. In these cases, plant roots have a hard time breathing when the soil is saturated with water.
Water-stressed trees and plants are more susceptible to pests and disease. As trees die, erosion increases, causing more drying out. It's a tough cycle. Rather than letting water go down the drain, collect it in a tub or bucket and give it to your local trees. You'll be happy for the shade, come August!
Cucurbits are members of the squash family.
This family is a thick-skinned group that grows on vines and keeps its seeds in a line down the center of their fruit. The squash, or cucurbit, family is made up of cucumbers, gourds, luffas, melons, pumpkins, squash, watermelons, and the inevitable zucchini. These plants love hot weather and many of them have protective bristles.
Most of the 975 cucurbit species are susceptible to frost and many are trailing annual vines with tendrils. They tend to have large bristle-haired leaves and both male and female flowers (monoecious).
Cucurbits have relatively large seeds and they do not transplant well after the first 3 weeks. It is best to directly sow seeds in the ground. As a group, cucurbits grow fast. They need very little nitrogen, but they use a lot of potassium and phosphorus. Side dressing plants with aged compost goes a long way toward creating a big harvest.
Cucurbits prefer full sun and deep, infrequent watering. During the hottest days of summer, it is a good idea to keep an eye out for wilting leaves, a sure sign that you waited too long to water!
These semi-climbing plants benefit from the use of trellises, stock panels, or ladders. Heavier fruits can be supported using hammocks or net bags. This keeps the fruit off the ground, preventing fungal disease, rot, and pest damage.
Cucurbit pests and diseases
Regularly watering in the early morning allows cucurbit leaves to dry out before evening, preventing powdery mildew and other fungal diseases. Because of the wide leaf coverage of most cucurbits, weeds are seldom a problem. Cucurbits are frequently attacked by cucumber beetles, flea beetles, squash vine borers, and squash bugs, so squash those bugs whenever you see them!
Be sure to harvest fruits regularly, to ensure continuous production. Once plants believe they have completed their reproductive cycle, you generally won't get any more fruit.
A nub, or dog's ear, is the piece of a twig or branch that is left behind after a bad pruning job.
Leaving a nub sticking out interferes with a plant's natural ability to heal a wound. It also creates a foundation that can catch leaves, providing the perfect shelter for problem bugs and fungi. The nubs themselves, being too far from the branch collar for proper healing, often take longer to heal or don't heal at all. This provides an easy entrance for fungi and borers.
To properly prune a twig or small branch, it is best to cut as close to the branch collar as you can. The branch collar is the ring from which a twig emerges. Do not cut the branch collar. There is no need to paint or treat a properly trimmed branch. Plants already know how to handle that on their own.
So, off with their nubs!
Soil pH can make or break your plants' ability to absorb nutrients and thrive.
What is pH?
Everything is existence is either acidic, alkaline, or somewhere in the middle. The pH scale is a simplified version of an algorithmic equation that measures the number of hydrogen ions in a specific quantity of a material in solution. The scale ranges from 0 to 14, with lower numbers indicating acidity and higher numbers indicating alkalinity. In the middle; 7.0 indicates neutral.
Testing soil pH
Soil pH can be tested with an over-the-counter product found at all garden supply stores. Testing the soil will tell you if your soil is neutral (7.0), alkaline (greater than 7.0) or acidic (less than 7.0). While over-the-counter pH tests are accurate enough, other soil tests available from retail outlets are not. To get your soil tested, and I urge you to do so, use a local, reputable soil test lab.
Nutrient availability and soil pH
Plants grow best when they have access to all of the nutrients they use to grow and reproduce. At certain pH levels, some nutrients become unavailable. At the same time, soil microbes, which help plants absorb nutrients, are also restricted by certain pH extremes. Also, some plants, such as blueberries, prefer more acidic soil. Using the chart below, you can see that more nutrients are available, and there is greater microbe activity, when soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.5. Most plants can survive in soil pH from 5.2 to 7.8, but the narrower range allows plants to thrive.
Altering soil pH
Soil pH is, for the most part, a function of your local bedrock material. This isn’t going to change any time soon. What you can do is integrate certain practices in to your normal gardening routine that will temporarily alter soil pH.
East of the Rocky Mountains, soil tends to be more acidic; west of the Rockies, soil is more alkaline. Traditionally, acidic soil is treated with lime, to bring is closer to a neutral pH. If your soil pH is too high, you can acidify your soil with sulfur. Some people claim that adding peat moss or pine needles to the soil can increase its acidity, but research has not shown this to be true. Unfortunately, altering pH takes time and repetition to see any results.
Also, it is more difficult to alter the pH of clay soils. Once you begin treating your soil, it is important to continue monitoring pH levels.
In the long run, a soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0 will help your plants become healthier and more productive.
No, hydrophobic does not refer to an unreasonable fear of water.
Instead, hydrophobic describes the point where soil becomes so dry that it actually repels water (read: bad for your plants). Much like a dried out sponge, when water is applied to overly dry soil, it simply rolls off and is lost.
If your potted plants become hydrophobic, simply pouring water on them is not enough. Instead, you can revive your plants and thoroughly hydrate the soil by forcibly submerging the pot in a bucket of water until the pot no longer floats. Until the soil is saturated with water, the air pockets in the soil will make the pot float. It's pretty cool, watching all the air bubbles percolate up from your submerged pot!
Another method of rehydrating hydrophobic soil is to place the pot in a large container and pour water over the top. The water will run out of the soil but, over time, the water will eventually be absorbed.
Larger planting areas can be relieved of their hydrophobic tendency with light sprinklings of water, followed by moderate watering. Just as a slightly damp sponge will hold on to the water it touches, so will your garden soil.
Patience is one of those things that tends to fall by the wayside as people rush around like headless chickens, trying to accomplish too much, too fast, without any thought to courtesy or physics.
In the garden, patience is a crucial ingredient of success.
Rather than flooding your plants, food, and soil with toxic chemicals, let the plants guide your efforts. If your trees and shrubs look green and healthy, don't give them precious water resources. They have found their own. Take the time to learn about your soil and observe which plants are thriving and which are struggling. Do you really need to grow plants that are not suited to your microclimate? Look closely at your plants. You may be surprised at the complexity and symmetry that occur naturally. It can also give you an early warning of potential problems.
Being patient in your garden allows you the opportunity to discover what is right and best for you and your yard. You may even be able to experience that natural calmness in other areas of your life.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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