As a new gardener, I was disappointed to see my containerized tomatoes starting to look more like apple dolls ~ those wrinkled faces made from withered apples. I thought I had given them plenty of water and nutrients, but the fruit looked awful.
When a plant is severely root-bound, it may be necessary to cut the circling roots to encourage outward growth. To do this, use a clean, sharp knife. Cut vertical lines up the side of the root ball in several places. You only need to go in an inch or so. Then tickle the bottom roots outward as you place the plant in new soil.
Be sure to water this traumatized plant well. Before long, these plants will grow new roots to support delicious above-ground growth!
Taproots tend to be straight, conical and tapered (think carrot).
Lateral roots sprout from the taproot. Many weeds, such as dandelions, have taproots, which is why it is so important to pull them as soon as they are seen. The longer they are in the ground, the longer the taproot can get.
Many plants begin with a taproot, right after germination, but most monocots replace the taproot with a fibrous root system.
Growing plants with taproots in containers is usually a bad idea. As soon as the taproot hits the bottom of the container, the plant will be stunted and may die.
Most trees do not have a taproot. Pine and other confers, walnut, and hickory are exceptions to this rule.
Tomato plants grown from seed will generally develop a taproot, while tomatoes grown from cuttings will not. Cool, huh?
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) refers to the recent general die-off of honey bees worldwide. The causes of CCD may surprise you.
Healthy beehives may contain 10,000 to 60,000 bees, depending on the season and environmental factors. Traditionally, beekeepers expect to lose 20-25% of their bees each year. Bees are, after all, short-lived insects, that generally survive for only 4 or 5 months. Colony collapse disorder has doubled those losses.
Mysterious bee deaths
Colony collapse disorder is characterized by the mysterious disappearance of entire colonies of honey bees from their hives. Where there are normally visibly dead bees around a hive, bees affected by CCD have simply disappeared.
Unlike the rabble rousers who point to specific chemicals (neonicotinoids), corporations (Monsanto) or technologies (cell phone towers), researchers have discovered that CCD is the result of many factors.
The truth about bee losses
According to Dr. May Berenbaum, scientific spokesperson on Colony Collapse Disorder and head of the University of Illinois Entomology Department, explains that there are several factors leading to colony collapse:
• Honey bees are not native to North America. They were brought here from Europe a few centuries ago
• As the practice of beekeeping expanded, common bee pathogens and pests, specifically foulbrood and the varroa mite, led to the use of antibiotics, fungicides and miticides that can negatively impact honey bees while losing their efficacy against pests and disease
• Honey bees naturally lack many of the immunity and detoxification genes that the rest of us have
Honey bees do have the advantage of eating foods that boost the power of the protective genes they do have. Pollen increases the production of proteins that defend against pathogens and metabolizes toxic compounds. Don’t assume that those benefits extend to other species, such as us, because there is no scientific proof to back up all those popular claims.
Because there are several causes of colony collapse disorder, there is no single solution.
So what can you do to help honey bees? Plant flowers that honey bees like, avoid using broad spectrum pesticides, use chemicals according to their directions, buy locally produced honey, start beekeeping in your own yard, and stay informed.
Over-watering container plants is a surprisingly common mistake. According to the University of California, improper irrigation is the #1 cause of plant problems.
Unfortunately, the signs of too much and not enough look almost identical: yellowing, wilted leaves, stunted growth, and leaf drop are symptoms of both problems.
Rather than drowning your plants, allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Don't guess. As critical as water is for good plant health, this is not a time to assume your plants are getting the water you give them. Soil structure can redirect water away from roots in surprising ways. When plants show water stress symptoms, gently dig down next to the root system to ensure the water goes where needed.
An inexpensive moisture meter is an excellent investment in your plants' health.
You may have recently spotted (or heard) a large metallic green bug buzzing around your yard. Green fruit beetles, or figeater beetles, are large, clumsy, metallic green pests.
My dogs and chickens love to chase green fruit beetles, and I am grateful. In the heat of summer, these pests fly in to lay eggs throughout my garden and landscape, taking a toll on my fig harvest. They also feed on apricots, nectarines, plums, grapes, pears, and tomatoes, as well as manure and compost. Generally, figeater beetles (Cotinis mutabilis), do not cause a lot of damage, but they can if enough of them converge on your garden.
Green fruit beetle identification
Green fruit beetles (Cotinis mutabilis) are members of the scarab family and easy to identify. They can reach 1-1/4 inch in length and have a shiny green exoskeleton. They also tend to bump into things as they fly. They are often mistaken for green June beetles (Cotinis nitida) and Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica), both of which are mostly found on the East Coast. Green fruit beetle larva, which are called ‘curly backs’ are large, up to 2 inches long, and a dirty white color, with a dark head. They get their name because they move by rolling over onto their back and using the stiff hairs to propel them forward. The larvae feed on mulch, manure, and compost. It is not uncommon to find figeater beetles and figeater beetle body parts nose down in garden soil. This is how they lay their eggs.
Green fruit beetle controls
Since these pests are attracted to the smell of ripe fruit, harvest frequently. Also, you can plant crops that ripen earlier in the season to avoid feeding green fruit beetles. Personally, I have trained my dogs to catch them and I use a butterfly net to pin them down, then I feed them to my chickens, but you may not have that option. Luckily, it is very easy to build a green fruit beetle trap. Simply mix 1 part water with 1 part grape or peach juice and put it in a one-gallon container. Then, create a funnel out of screen or hardware cloth and insert it into the container. The adult beetles will be attracted to the juice, climb down into the container, and then be unable to figure out how to escape. (I wonder how chickens feel about beetles drowned in juice…)
We’ve all seen then flitting about, but there is far more to dragonflies than you might expect.
Members of the Odonata order (“toothed ones”), dragonflies are an ancient breed. Over 300 million years ago, their ancestors had a wingspan of nearly THREE FEET!
Starting out as an egg, dragonfly larva molt 6-15 times, over 2-6 years, before gaining the ability to fly.
Their huge eyes are made up of over 27,000 optical units and over 80% of their brain function is dedicated to analyzing visual information. (How they manage 4 wings at the same time is beyond me!)
Voracious feeders, a dragonfly can eat up to 300 mosquitos and flies each day, but gardeners beware! Dragonflies also eat honey bees. It is up to you to decide if they are a beneficial or a pest!
No, this is not a ghoulish new smoothie flavor, but it is an excellent source of natural nitrogen. Nitrogen is the primary nutrient needed by plants and it is highly volatile, which means it disappears quickly.
Rather than inundating your plants with chemicals and nutrients they don’t need, blood meal is an excellent way to keep your plants well fed. Blood meal is collected at slaughter houses and dried. It can be added to container plants, spread on lawns, or added to established plants. You can find blood meal at your local nursery or big box store.
Be sure to water thoroughly after applying blood meal and you will probably be astounded at the results. Within just a couple of days, your plants will be stronger, healthier, greener, and more productive.
As an added benefit, blood meal repels such pests as raccoons and deer.
Have you noticed fine webbing on your tomato plants recently? Are your leaves looking stippled (spotted white or yellow)? If so, you are like the many other gardeners experiencing spider mites in their garden.
Spider mites are very tiny. The females are only 1/20” and the males are even smaller! However, as spider mites colonize on a plant, you will see webbing, especially on the underside of the leaves. Spider mites can suck the life juices right out of your favorite heirloom tomato and these little buggers can complete an entire generation in less than a week! Unfortunately, drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to spider mite infestations.
One of the most common causes of spider mite infestations is the use of broad spectrum insecticides, which kill off beneficial predators along with the pests. The easiest (and least destructive) way to get rid of spider mites is to move the infested plant to a clear area of the yard and spray it off with the hose. Insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils can also be used, but watch out for applying them on sunny days. I recently learned the hard way that leaves will burn if insecticidal soap is left on the leaves during the heat of the day.
If spraying your plants does not provide adequate control, you can purchase western predatory mites and Phytoseiulus (spider mite predators). Spider mites love dusty conditions, so you can make your yard less hospitable by giving plants an occasional light rinse.
Blossom end rot is the bane of tomato growers. It starts as small brown spots on the bottom of the fruit and expands to a large, sunken brown or black leathery area.
Contrary to popular belief, soil calcium deficiencies rarely cause blossom end rot.
Most soils contain plenty of calcium, but there are exceptions. An affordable, lab-based soil test is the only way to know what is in your soil. I urge everyone to get their soil tested every few years. The information is invaluable. But back to blossom end rot.
Blossom end rot occurs when calcium and irrigation are out of balance. Calcium is an “immobile” nutrient, which means it is difficult (i.e., uses a lot of water) to move around inside the plant after it is absorbed. Regular, frequent irrigation during the growing season provides plants with the water they need to get calcium where they need it.
High salt levels due to over-fertilizing increase the chance of blossom end rot. Lime amendments provide calcium when needed. And when watering, be sure that the roots are not dried out or saturated.
Blossom end rot can also affect summer squashes, such as zucchini. A similar problem, called bitter pit, affects apples. In either case, rotten bits can be removed and the rest of the fruit is fine for eating.
Now you know.
Each landscape is unique. Even within the same zip code, there can be many different microclimates that feature a variety of slopes, exposures, and soil types. Very often, the same yard can have several different microclimates.
Note to my southern hemisphere readers: all the directional comments in this post are egocentrically oriented toward the northern hemisphere. My apologies.
Microclimates are the localized conditions of temperature, moisture, sunlight, wind, soil, drainage patterns, and other factors that make one site more suitable to some plants than others. While some areas get more rain, others may be in wind-blocking pockets that are more prone to fungal disease, as others face the ravages of heavy traffic or scorching summer heat. The local news channel may never get your yard’s weather correct. But don’t let that stop you from learning more about the microclimates in your landscape. The more time you spend learning about your yard, the better you are able to judge what will work and what won’t.
For example, Silicon Valley is in plant hardiness zone 9b and it averages 17” of rainfall each year. The first and last frost dates are November 15 and March 15, respectively. The soil is a heavy, alkaline clay, which tends to get compacted into a material similar to concrete. The tap (irrigation) water also tends to be alkaline. These factors make growing acid-loving plants, such as blueberries, more difficult, but not impossible.
By figuring out the microclimates in your landscape, you can select and manage plants much better than by winging it with what looks good in a catalog or on a store shelf. Simply guessing about or ignoring these factors can mean increased pest and disease problems, more water consumption (and waste) and unproductive plants.
Map your yard
This may sound daunting, but modern technology makes it relatively painless. If you prefer, a rough sketch will also work. To create an accurate map of your landscape, use these steps:
This map will prove invaluable as you sort out your landscape’s microclimates and determine where plants will suffer or thrive. You can use color coding to document the various factors related to microclimate, or put each factor on a different sheet. It doesn’t matter, just do what works for you. [Or you can contact me for this handy landscape service!] Just be sure to update your landscape map as new trees and other large features are added.
But, before you start planting, you need to know your hardiness zone.
The first step in identifying microclimate is to determine your Hardiness Zone. A hardiness zone is a geographical region sorted by the lowest annual temperature. Recent scientific research has caused some changes to this map, so double-check yours. Simply find your location on the map above or use the USDA’s interactive map and note the number-letter combination on your landscape map. Use your Hardiness Zone to help you select plants best suited to your region. Next, take a look at sun exposure.
Sunlight and direction
How much sunlight a plant gets, and when it receives that sunlight, can have a huge impact on plant health. Without enough sunlight, plants die. You see words like “partial shade” or “full sun” on seed packets and plant labels, but what do those words actually mean? Here’s your answer:
One easy way to learn about sun exposure in your yard is to use your camera. Every few hours, take several photos of your property. This will show you sunlight exposure patterns, along with wind and dead air pocket trends, and problems you may not have suspected (such as a pesky squirrel).
It is a good idea to do this in June and again in December, to get an a sense of the seasonal changes. You may be surprised to see how trees create shady areas that feel wonderful in summer, but deprive sun-loving plants of the sunlight they need at other times of the year. Keep in mind, as trees grow, those sunlight exposures will change.
Which direction does your garden face?
When you head out to your garden, which cardinal direction are you facing? Is there a large tree that blocks afternoon sun in the west, or a northerly fence that slows evaporation? Generally speaking, north and east facing areas are cooler and more moist, while southern and western areas are sunnier and drier, though not always. Each cardinal direction has characteristics that impact your plants:
Ask for help
Next, contact your County Extension Office to learn your local frost dates. Keep in mind that these dates are statistical averages - your yard may be somewhat different. This information is important for protecting frost sensitive annuals and perennials, as well as in fruit and nut tree selection. Many trees will not produce fruit unless they receive a minimum number of chill hours.
Heat sinks, frost pockets, and anchors
Structures, paths, walls, and fences absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night. You can use these heat sinks to your plants’ advantage, helping them through a cold, dark winter night. Just the opposite, low-lying, northern facing areas can create pockets of cold, damp air that make life difficult for plants. These are the areas where frost first appears.
Anchors, such as large perennial plants, structures, hedges, fences and walls all impact light and rain exposure:
Frost pockets tend to occur in low areas behind northern facing structures. If you haven’t already, note these heat sinks, frost pockets, and anchor structures on your landscape map.
Soil is the bedrock of your landscape. Without healthy soil, you cannot have healthy plants. Unhealthy plants attract pests, succumb to disease, and generally create more work than they are worth. If you do nothing else for your garden, get your soil tested by a reputable lab. Soil structure can be sand, silt, or clay. Each has distinct characteristics that have huge impact on your plants. Clay retains more nutrients and moisture than sand, but it is more likely to be compacted. Get your soil tested and mulch everything that isn’t planted with a 4” layer of free arborist chips from your local tree trimmer. You’ll be glad you did.
While you are at it, conduct a perc test to see how good your soil’s permeability is. Poor drainage can kill plants.
Keep in mind, many of these factors are not written in stone. A northern-facing corner of the yard surrounded by trees does not necessarily have to result in dampness and drainage problems. You can always prune those trees to allow for more sun exposure and improved air flow.
Once you have a better idea of the microclimates in your landscape, you can group plants with similar sunlight and irrigation needs.
You might be surprised to learn that your plants can get sunburned just as you can. Well, it is a little different, but too much sun can be deadly either way.
Damaged bark blisters and cracks, exposing internal tissue to pests and disease.
You can prevent sunscald by painting tree trunks and exposed branches with a 1:1 dilution of water and white latex paint. Do not use enamel paint because the tree needs to breathe. This whitewashing will help prevent winter sunscald, as well.
Selecting plant varieties suited to your microclimate and placing them well are good ways to avoid sunburn and sunscald. Properly irrigated plants are less likely to be sunburned.
Be sure to water your plants thoroughly this summer (especially on July 4th) to help protect against sunburn, sunscald, and bottle rockets.
The first time I saw a lawn that had been aerated, I couldn’t help wondering how or why so many dogs had pooped on that particular yard.
Of course, what I had seen was the hundreds of plugs of soil that had been pulled from the ground. So why is aeration a good thing?
Aeration is a good way to reduce soil compaction. In compacted soil, the particles are too close together to allow water, air, nutrients, or roots to move through the soil. Here in San Jose, California, we have a lot of clay, which is prone to compaction.
Professional aeration removes hundreds of small plugs of soil and deposits them on the lawn surface. The plugs are generally 1/4-1/2” in diameter and 3-4” long. Ideally, a plug is taken every 6”, but this can be a bit much when doing the job by hand. Aeration machines are heavy, so the benefit is a mixed bag. Personally, I use my soil sampling tube, but that’s a very slow process. You should not use a screwdriver or aeration shoes as these simply poke a hole by compacting the surrounding soil even more. There are hand aerifiers that will make the job go much faster than my soil sampler but without the compaction of heavy machinery. Over time, these plugs break down into healthier soil. The holes also provide access for water and air to nearby roots.
When you aerate your soil, it is best done a few days after watering, so that the soil is easier to work. Spring is the best time to aerate your soil. Summer is not a good time to aerate because the soil can dry out too much and damage root systems.
Fire blight is a bacterial disease that frequently attacks trees in the pome family. Pomes include apples, pears, quince, and crabapple. Fire blight can also strike raspberries and blackberries.
The Erwinia amylovora bacterium is the cause of fire blight, but you’ll never see it without a microscope. The most common first sign of infection is the die-off of an entire twig. The dead leaves hold fast to the stem throughout the growing season as the infection spreads.
Fire blight can be fatal to fruit trees and is difficult to manage. Carefully monitoring your trees when they flower can provide early warning. Fire blight enters through the blossoms, carried in by bees and other pollinators from neighboring infected trees. As blossoms become infected, they wilt and turn dark brown. The infection then spreads down the twig. Very often, the tip of the diseased twig will curl into a shepherd’s crook shape.
Insects pick up the bacteria from small, insignificant-looking cankers that become active in spring. These cankers are dead tissue from the previous year’s infection. A clear, tan ooze may drip from these cankers. Each droplet can contain millions of bacteria. Prevent fire blight by applying a Bordeaux mixture in the fall and winter.
Inspect suspect twigs by scraping off the bark and cambium layer to see if pink or orangish-red streaks are visible. Once identified, the only treatment is the removal of the diseased tissue. The cut should be 8-12” below the infected area. Be sure to sanitize the pruners with a household cleaner after each cut to prevent infecting healthy tissue.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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