Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Tis The Most Wonderful Time Of Year!

Well, the holidays are over. There is not much that can be done in the yard right now. But as a gardener it is an exciting time!
As you can see by this picture, I get a bunch of them.

This is just what has come in so far, I am pretty sure there are still a few missing.
How many of you gardeners out there do not just sit and drool over the pictures of ripe tomatoes, pretty peppers, and golden ears of corn?
Granted, there is a bunch of crossover. Most of the catalogs sell the same varieties. I will go through them and order what I want from the one(s) that have what I want the cheapest.
WHY do I receive so many? Especially when they all pretty much sell the same things?
The wise crack answer is, “because I can”.
The true answer is, because each one will have a couple of “exclusive” or “unusual” varieties that the others don't.
However, today's article is not about what I am going to order (not sure yet anyway). No, today I am going to try to help some of the newbies to gardening. The ones that want to join us in the dark side and grow their own veggies.
All those catalogs look inviting. The pictures look great. The seeds are reasonably priced. It is almost too much to tolerate, I want to plant now!!
Wait a minute. I don't understand some of the terminology being used. Determinate/Indeterminate? Are they not sure of themselves?
Those letters after the name: VFFNTA. Are they trying to learn their alphabet?
Good questions. What in the world are these companies trying to tell you?
Most of this terminology is used for Tomatoes, though the letters can be also relate to Peppers. I will be sticking with Tomatoes today.
Determinate and Indeterminate first.
The majority of Tomatoes you will see, probably 90%, will be indeterminate. These are usually considered a vining type. They can reach lengths, or heights if staked up, of 6-10 feet. It also means, if they are well taken care of, they will continue to grow, flower and set fruit until the frost kills them. The fruit (yes, it is botanically a fruit) will ripen over a long period of time. If you LOVE a good old Tomato sandwich or like a little 'mater in your salad, these are the types you should look for.
Determinate Tomatoes are more commonly known as "bush" Tomatoes. These Tomato varieties are compact and generally grow to a height of about 3-4 feet. Determinate Tomatoes will actually stop growing when the top bud of the plant sets fruit. All of their crop will ripen near the same time over a period of 1-2 weeks and then the plant, having completed its life cycle, will begin to die. Determinate Tomatoes are good candidates for growing in a container. Those aluminum tomato cages you buy at the garden center are designed to support these kinds of plants. If you like to can your own Tomato sauce or make salsa, you need to grow these kinds.
Now for the alphabetically challenged ones.
All of those letters tell you that particular plant has been bred to resist some kind of disease or other problem.
Let's tackle a few of the big ones.
“V” Which is for Verticillium wilt. This is a disease caused by the fungus, Verticillium albo-atrum, which lives in the soil. It is often confused with fusarium wilt, bacterial canker, or early blight. Symptoms are similar in all these diseases. The fungus works its way up through the plant’s roots spreading a toxin that wilts and creates spots on the leaves. It prevents water from reaching the branches and leaves, thus starving the plant.

Courtesy of

Some things to look for include: Yellow spots appearing on the lower leaves, followed by brown veins. Leaves then turn brown and fall off. Plants may wilt during the day and recover at night. If you were to split the main stem it shows discolored streaks about 10-12 inches above the soil line. It can attack at any stage in a Tomato plant’s growth, but is most common when the plant is producing fruit. To date, there is no chemical treatment available. 

“F” This one stands for Fusarium wilt. This disease is caused by the fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Lycopersici, which also lives in the soil. It is often confused with Verticillium wilt because both produce similar symptoms in Tomatoes. One of the main differences of these two diseases is, the first signs are yellowing and wilting on only one side of the plant – a leaf, single shoot, branch, or several branches. Yellowing and wilting spread throughout the plant as the fungus spreads. There is no chemical control for this one either.

Fusarium Wilt Virus

If you see two FF's, that particular plant is resistant to two different strains of the Fusarium virus.

 “N” Nematodes. Better known as Root-knot nematodes, which are microscopic worms that live in the soil and in plant roots. In a resistant variety, Nematodes fail to develop and reproduce normally within the root tissues, allowing plants to grow and produce fruit even though nematode infection of the roots has occurred . Some crop yield loss may still happen however, even though the plants are damaged less and are significantly more tolerant than that of a susceptible variety.

Typical Nematode Damage

“T” This letter is for the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. This disease can be a problem when resistant varieties are not used and frequent handling of plants is involved. Many strains of the virus exist, affecting many unrelated plants in different families. Handling plants often such as transplanting, staking them up, and pruning can effectively spread the virus. Infected leaf and root debris as well as seeds are common sources of the virus The virus can survive in the plant debris for varying periods, up to 2 years under dry conditions. This is why it is important if you are a smoker to make sure you wash your hands very well before handling your Tomato plants, it can actually remain in your cigarettes and be transmitted that way.
Symptoms first appear about 10 days after plants become infected. Symptoms appear as light and dark green mottled areas on leaves. Leaves on infected plants are often small, curled, and puckered. Plants infected early in their development are stunted and have a yellowish cast. Symptoms may vary depending on virus strain, time of infection, variety, and environmental conditions. The virus can reduce size and number of fruit produced. The earlier a plant becomes infected, the greater the loss.

Typical Tobacco Mosaic Virus Damage (noticed the puckered leaves)

A” The last one I will cover today is Alternaria Leaf Spot also known as Early Blight. This is caused by various fungi in the Alternaria family. Lesions are round to irregular spots on older leaves. Spots enlarge and concentric rings in a bull's-eye pattern can be seen in the center of the diseased area. It is best to use a variety that has been bred to resist this disease, but if it is severe enough to warrant chemical control, select one of the following fungicides: maneb, mancozeb, chlorothalonil, or copper fungicides. Follow the directions on the label, this is the law!

Alternaria Leaf Spot Damage

There are many other diseases that affect Tomatoes. This list is just some of the things that have been bred into them to help resist the problem. As you can see, finding one that has some resistance to a certain disease could be very useful.
There are also many cultural practices that you should be following already. Things such as rotating crops. I know this is difficult if you have a small area to garden in. Ideally you will want to plant things that have no relation to what you planted the previous year. Avoid planting Tomatoes in the same place as well as Potatoes and Peppers. Corn or Beans would be a good alternate crop.
Sanitation. This is a big one I have been harping on for a long time. Clean up any fallen leaves or fruit. Especially if you think you might have some kind of a disease problem. DO NOT compost. Destroy the debris completely or remove them from the area.
Plant in a well drained area. Make sure there is ample sunlight. Do not plant too close together so they can have good air circulation. Common sense is one of your biggest tools in your arsenal.
I hope this has cleared up much of the confusion when you open up a seed catalog. Once you know the lingo, it really is not hard to understand. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me. But for right now, I am going to take my leave of you, I think I just heard the mailman and he might have another catalog for me!
Happy Growing!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Just Trial It!!

In the about me section on the left hand side of my blog, I have the words “Hopefully Always Inspirational”. Well today, we are going to go for some of that.
Last night was the first time this season that my yard suffered through below freezing temperatures. We have had some frosts, but this was the first time it dropped below 32 degrees. It actually went all the way to 29. The extent of time at the below 32 mark was somewhere in the 5-6 hour range, that is important and I will delve into that here shortly.
Why do I bring this up?
Well, anybody that has been following me or knows me, knows that I grow many unusual, not from around here, type of plants. I live in a Zone 8 and probably half of my plants can barely survive a Zone 9 garden.
Yes, I have a greenhouse, but I still have been doing a lot of “trials” as it were this year. Okay, truth is, they didn't all fit into the greenhouse this year...amazing thing, the plants either grew or the greenhouse shrunk....The intelligence report is still forth coming on that.
Anyway, after the wicked cold we had, I was sure there was going to be a bunch of very unhappy plants. There are.  
There are also a bunch of them that, by all rights, should be dead as a doornail!
Here are a few examples of the ones that don't look so good:

 Black Leaf Elephant Ear

 Dwarf Banana
 African Blue Basil
Yellow Brugmansia

Not much of a surprise there huh?
Well, here are the ones that shook it off like it was nothing:

 Macadamia Nut Tree
 Peanut Butter Fruit Tree
 Mexican Petunia
 Surinam Cherry

There are a couple of things at play here, let's take a look at a few of them.
The plants themselves.
When we think of many “exotic” fruit trees, we think of the shores of Hawaii or maybe down in Brazil or even Southern most Florida. Let me use the Surinam Cherry as an example.
The plant is native to Surinam, Guyana and French Guiana to southern Brazil (especially the states of Rio de Janeiro, ParaƱa, Santa Catharina and Rio Grande do Sul), and to Northern, Eastern and central Uruguay. Sounds pretty mild, almost like a tropical oasis, right? They probably don't have too many ski slopes or uses for ice scrapers. Yet, through trial and error it has been discovered that young Surinam Cherries can be damaged by temperatures below 28 degrees, and well-established plants have suffered only superficial injury at 22 degrees. Do they actually get that cold there or can plants adapt to more than we give them credit for?
Duration. I mentioned above that the killer cold was here for maybe 5-6 hours. This can be critical. Plants have the uncanny ability to protect themselves for brief periods of time. After that time is up, then the plant will die. My Citrus is a good example of this. They will go semi dormant. They do not lose their leaves like, say a maple tree does, but it still hunkers down and gets ready for the cold. As long as a plant is well watered and healthy, it can possibly survive brief encounters into the very cold abyss.
There is also another reason for the “so far” good luck in the survival rates of my exotic plants, Microclimates.
A microclimate is the climate of a small area that is different from the area around it. It may be warmer or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less prone to frosts. Take another look at the Peanut Butter Fruit Tree. It is right NEXT to the house and tucked slightly under some other trees. Both of those things offer some protection from the cold and frost. There are other things that effect microclimates. On a large scale, bodies of water will keep surrounding areas warmer. As will roads, buildings, walls, even large rocks can absorb heat during the day and give off a couple of degrees of protection at night. Heavy clay soils can act much like paved surfaces, moderating the temperature near ground level.
If you live in a valley, you will be cooler than your neighbors up hill. Cold air is heavier than warm, so it settles down into that open area.
Long time gardeners in an area have learned to take advantage of these type of areas. If you are just moving into a place, it will be difficult to know where the micros are. A couple of pieces of advice, look at your neighbors, see what they are growing. Investigate the yard at different times of the day, month and year, it will consistently be changing. I understand, that one is time consuming, so don't be in a hurry to plant a whole bunch of stuff until you learn what you have. You can also ask around, check with your local extension agents.
If you don't feel like doing any of those things, or want to experiment with some plants that just don't sound like they will do well where you are and PLEASE, use some common sense here.....I promise, a coconut palm tree will NOT grow in Maine.....remember the title of this article...Just Trial It!!
Happy Growing!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Water Woes

The last article I wrote dealt with sunlight and what is considered “Full Sun”. It was inspired by questions that I get when someone has an issue with a fruiting plant that is not producing fruit. Today's article has also been inspired by questions that I get when a plant is not doing well. It is probably the number two most common problem I deal with as a Master Gardener.

Many of the websites and articles that I read have a sentence in there that drives me crazy! It goes something like this, “This plant needs one inch of water per week” or something along those lines.
WHY, does that sentence bother me so much?
Lets run a couple of scenarios.
You have your favorite plant, it doesn't matter what it is for this example, it has a tag or you have read that it requires one inch of water per week. Okay, fine. What if this plant is in a very sandy soil? Water drains exceptionally well in sand, because it has little to no water holding capabilities. That one inch of water will be gone in hours, the plant is not getting any water 3-4 days later.
Let's reverse it. The plant is in a very heavy peat based soil. Peat holds water very well. That one inch of water may still be around in a week. Then you water again. It continues to build up until the plant literally drowns. More on that in a minute.
So you need to be aware of the type of soil it is in. What about the pot itself? 

A terracotta or clay pot is very pretty. They are nice and heavy and help to stabilize the plant. That clay or terracotta actually wicks the water away from the soil. So here again, one inch of water will be gone in a shorter period of time than one week.
Plastic pots tend to retain the water better. You guessed it, one inch of water per week might be too much.

There are numerous other things that need to be taken into consideration. The type of plant is a big one. A Cactus will need MUCH less water than a Philodendron. I know, the Cactus label does not read one inch of water per week. I have actually met somebody that watered theirs every other day, their's a plant and they need water. Of course, there was also the case of a woman that literally...I can't make this stuff up...watered her large Cactus one tablespoon of water every 6 months and wondered why it was looking poorly.
Size of the plant is another good example. Which do you think will need more water in full sun, a four inch pot or something the size of a trash can?
How about the weather? Do you think a week of cloudy, overcast, cool weather will need more water or less water than 95 degrees, cloudless sky, and windy?
It will also matter greatly if it is in the ground or in a pot.
Hopefully that has given you some idea of why you need to know your plant and the situation it is trying to be grown in.
What is that you say? How do you know if you are over-water or under-watering?
EXCELLENT question!
Sometimes when plants start to show symptoms of stress, i.e. wilting, the first reaction is to water, but sometimes over-watering can be just as detrimental to a plant's health as under-watering. Symptoms of both over and under-watering can look very similar. Leaves turn brown and wilt. Often times, when this happens to under-watered plants, those dead leaves will be dry and crispy. While with over-watering, those leaves may still be soft and limp.

Here is a test: Is this from over-watering or under-watering?
Tough to tell huh?

With under-watering the plant tries to conserve what little water it has by keeping the stalk green and the roots moist, but the leaves will turn yellow and wilt and eventually dry up.
With over-watering, plants need to breath. They breath through their roots and when there is too much water, the roots cannot take in gases. It is actually slowly suffocating.
Both over and under-watering can lead to other things, such as stunted growth, and lack of fruit or flowers.
Many people like to use a water meter on their plants. If you are not familiar with these, it is usually a probe that you stick in the soil and it will tell you whether you need to water or not. One of the types looks like this:

 I don't like them because they are very unreliable. I tried one once, I stuck it into a pot of extremely dry soil, I know it was very dry because it fell out in one piece and was very light. The meter said it was fine, do not water.
You actually have a reliable water meter with you right now. Scientifically it is called “the index finger”. Stick that scientific device into the soil, about 1-2 inches....if it feels dry, water...if it is damp, don't and check again tomorrow. Pretty cool huh?!
For smaller plants there is another method. Water the plant very well, make sure there is water coming out of the drainage holes. Then, lift the pot up. Get that weight in your head. After a couple of days, lift the pot again. If it feels much lighter than the other day, water, if it still feels heavy, check again in a couple of days.
I have been known to use both methods. I will stick my finger in a pot, then lift it. I very seldom have a water issue problem.
Hopefully, this has shed some light on the subject of watering. If you MUST err one way or the other, do so on the under-watering side. Many plants are much more drought tolerant than we think and will recover from too little water. There are not many that will come back from a dip into the deep end of a pool, unable to swim, with no life preserver!    
Happy Growing!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Let the Sunshine in

My apologies for having been away from my blog for so long. This Fall has been brutal on me. Am I complaining? NOT A CHANCE! Matter of fact, I am sorry that many of the events that I was working came to an end. I use the word "events" because that is what I was doing, Home and Garden Shows, Lectures, and a slew of other Garden related events.
I started to see somewhat of a pattern working many of these things. The stories were slightly different, the plants were usually fairly close, but there was still a pattern.

Let me tell you one of them.
There was a gentleman that came to me with a Citrus question. It was a Meyer Lemon that he had, (my wife and mother just started chuckling....inside joke). He has had it for 4 or 5 years. When he first got it, there were tons of Lemons on it. The following year, it only had half of what it did the previous year. The next year was even worst. He wanted to know what was wrong. It was not even producing as many flowers.
I started with my usual questions:
Is it in the ground or container? 
How much water has it been getting?
"I water about every other to every third day."
Have you been feeding it?
"Yes, I feed it about every 6-8 weeks with Citrus-Tone."
How much sun is it getting?
"Full Sun"
I was getting frustrated. Usually a situation like this is easy to figure out. I started going for the off the wall stuff like insect pressure and dog watering it. Everything seemed fine.
I went back to what I was SURE was the problem. 
I asked, You say it is getting full sun, if you had to put a number on how many hours it was getting, what would you say?
Then, like a voice from the heavens, the answer came in one small word....."FOUR"
His idea of full sun was four measly hours. A live oak nearby had continued to grow and started to shade the Meyer Lemon more and more each year. I told him what he needed to do and he walked away satisfied.
This is the pattern I was describing, I have numerous stories, very similar to the one above. There is just a misunderstanding as to what exactly is considered "Full Sun".

Conventional thinking is 6+ hours of unfiltered sun is considered full. I tend to lean a little longer than that, I go for 7-8.  Four to six hours per day is considered partial sun. Many companies use partial shade. These two terms are often used interchangeably to mean the 4- 6 hours of sun each day, preferably in the morning and early afternoon. However, if a plant is listed as partial sun, greater emphasis is put on it needing the minimal sun requirements. Less than four hours is considered shade. Anything less than two is deep shade. This does not mean that it needs no sun at all, there aren't many plants, except mushrooms, that can survive in the dark. 
 Sunlight is a necessity for plants to perform photosynthesis which is how they make food. Photosynthesis means ''putting together with light.' They use light energy to change the materials - carbon dioxide and water into food substances (sugars).
 If a plant does not receive enough sunlight, it will not produce enough sugars and will not grow as much as it would otherwise. A fruiting plant needs a great deal of energy to produce that fruit, that is why you hardly ever see a fruit plant grown in shade.
All plants have a threshold of how much sunlight is too much and how much is too little. Too much sunlight can also harm plants. Try planting a Hosta in Full Sun!  Plants usually come labeled with their sun exposure requirements. Measuring that sun exposure is not an exact science. There will always be variables such as cloudy days and places where it gets to be 100 degrees in the shade. There are some plants that are listed as shade tolerant, but will grow in full sun, IF they have access to adequate moisture.
The intensity of sunlight varies depending on the time of day. A plant that gets sun all morning, but is shaded in the afternoon has a much different growing environment than one that does not get the morning sun, but is exposed to sun all afternoon.

There are many other variables to sunlight. A good gardener should know their yard and the side of the house that the sun comes up on. I have tried to explain many times to a gardener that a certain plant will do better if they plant it on the East side of their house. The immediate response is usually, "I don't know which way that is."
Simple answer, the side of the house the sun comes up on. Once you have that figured out, you can get the other directions. If you are facing the rising sun, North will be to your left, South to your right and West is on your back.
I usually tell people here in my Zone 8 that Citrus should be planted on the South or West side of the house. That way they have more heat directed to them.Citrus trees will do just fine in the morning, East sun, but they are usually a little more apt to get hurt in the Winter.
Now, just to muddy it up a little more. In the Winter time, as the sun settles down onto the southern horizon more, your intensity will tend to decrease here too. That 8 hours of sun you were getting a month ago will not be as strong. If you notice your plant starting to reach for sunlight, this could be the reason. Try to find an even brighter location until the sun starts coming back to the North in the Spring.
Latitude and elevation play a role too. Gardens in the South receive more intense sun than those in the North. And gardens at higher elevations are brighter than landscapes at sea level.

Sometimes trying to help people with their plant problems is like pulling teeth. You have to pull and yank to get all the pertinent information from them. Then if they are misinformed about a certain thing, it can make it even harder. I hope this brief description of what the sun does, how much is needed, and where you get the most was helpful. 
If you ever have a plant that is just not doing well, evaluate the environment you have it in, water, food, sunlight...the plant will tell you what it wants, that tag that came with it.....not so much. I can give you a list of plants that the tag says one thing, being sunlight amount or that it will grow in a certain Zone, and it is wrong.
If you get nothing from this blog but one thing, please remember this. ALL of this is academic, Mother Nature will do What she wants, How she wants and Why she quick case in point....Oleander is usually considered a Full Sun kind of plant that should not be grown in anything colder than a Zone 8. My mother has one in Zone 7, partial shade, that flowers.....just don't tell the Oleander that it's not suppose to do that, it hasn't read the book.
Happy Growing!

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Golden Native (I Almost Like)

I receive a lot of flack from many of my Master Gardener friends because of my feeling towards Native Plants. The majority of them are just not pretty in my eyes. I know, they are beneficial and are adapted to growing here. There are a few, very few, that I like. The one I am going to discuss today is my signal that Fall is here. For many, that signal is Football, or maybe the leaves changing color, mine is when the Solidago altissima starts to bloom. The common name? Goldenrod or Tall Goldenrod.

Solidago altissima is the official wildflower of South Carolina. It became that on May 14th, 2003. Nancy Odom, State Wildflower Chairman for the Garden Club of South Carolina spearheaded this effort. Garden clubs throughout the state where asked about the idea of a state wildflower, to spark interest in native plantings. Queen Anne's lace was the big winner with the clubs, but it was determined that this plant was not native to South Carolina. Goldenrod had come in second, so by disqualification, it became the winner. This particular species of Solidago is actually native to much of North America. It grows profusely in fields, on roadsides, and along fence lines. Its bright yellow blooms appear in the Fall and attracts a large array of birds, insects, butterflies, and bees.

There are many species of Goldenrod, which grows throughout North America. Tall Goldenrod, is the largest of all the species. It grows upright to a height of 3 to 5 feet. Leaves grow in an alternating pattern all the way up the stem with larger leaves at the base of the stem and smaller leaves at the top. The lowest leaves usually dry up and fall off by the time the flowers appear in the Fall. The bloom is a shaped similar to a pyramid with a cluster of many tiny flowers. It can be 2 to 12 inches long. The flower petals are notched at the end. The flower cluster weighs so much that it makes the stem curve downward. Once Goldenrod becomes established, it can quickly spread over a large area.

Solidago has actually gotten a bad rap over the years. It is often blamed for allergies, hay-fever, and sneezing. This is not the case! The fact is, these problems are caused by ragweed, which looks similar and also blooms in the Fall. This is what the real culprit looks like:

It is a very small flower, but it produces huge amounts of very light weight pollen. Matter of fact, Goldenrod pollen is too heavy to be carried on the wind. I can not say it any better than a beekeeper in Hemingway, South Carolina explained it, "Goldenrod is NOT responsible for your allergies. The pollen is heavy and sticky, designed for insect pollination, not wind. The only way to get goldenrod pollen in your nasal passages is to stick the flower up your nose!"
And there it is.
Other than telling me it is almost Fall, there are many things that Solidago is good for or has been used for. The blooms provide food for bees, wasps, butterflies, and moths. Its long stems offer a nesting place for insects to lay their eggs. Birds and small field animals find homes and protection in masses of this pretty plant.
It even has some ancient uses.
The Native Americans that were indigenous to South Carolina called Goldenrod "Sun Medicine" because of its bright color. They would cook the leaves and flowers together and put the mixture directly on cuts and wounds to promote faster healing. They also made a tea from the leaves to ease stomach cramps. Because of its tradition as a healing plant, the scientific name for Goldenrod became Solidago which means "to make whole" in Latin.
Thomas Edison also had a liking to Goldenrod. He experimented with the plant to produce rubber, which it contains naturally. During WWI, the price of rubber rose from roughly 20 cents to more than two dollars a pound. It quickly became clear that depending on others for such an important commodity left the United States vulnerable – and we now needed more rubber than ever for the production of cars, trucks, and tanks. Henry Ford asked his good friend, Thomas Edison, to figure out how to make rubber domestically. After some years of experimenting, Edison found that the Goldenrod showed the greatest potential. Sadly, he died before he could bring his project into production, and soon afterward the government decided to invest in new German technology that made rubber synthetically from coal and petroleum products.
So as you can see, this native plant has had a great run so far. It has dabbled in medicine, history, and is a great friend to many different kinds of critters.
While I know I am going to get lots more flack for saying this, I think this is one of the few native plants that I can actually get to like.
Happy Growing!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

You Make The Call!

This article is going to anger a LOT of people, suffice it to say, that is okay.
I would like to start with a quote from that great philosopher "Popeye the Sailor Man",
He said, "That is all I can stands, cause me can't stands no more!"
I work very hard in my yard. There is more Blood, Sweat and Tears out there then I care to even imagine. I honestly do not mind sharing my harvest, but I have to have a harvest FIRST to share.
Take a look at these pictures:

Can you tell what this was at one time?
Probably not, because it was eaten to death! It was my Passion Vine. It actually had fruit on it at one time, until the deer got hold of it, that is a rant for another time.
The culprit?:

This is the larvae stage of the Agraulis vanillae, better known as the Gulf Fritillary Butterfly. The adult looks like this:

Pretty isn't it?
Let's set this one aside for the moment and focus on culprit number 2.
As you know, I am big into growing Citrus. Well, here is another enemy of mine:

Photo courtesy of Aggie Horticulture

This is the Orange Dog Caterpillar. A real nuisance to the Citrus Industry
They turn into these:

Again, pretty, right? These guys can do a number on Citrus trees. If you want to learn more about them, see one of my previous blogs here

Now, for our third and final culprit.
Meet, the Tobacco Hornworm:

This guy will put a Tomato plant down in no time flat, hurting your production.
I have previously written about these guys too, see it here
And its adult form:

I know, not as pretty as the previous culprits, but still interesting.
Why did I introduce you to these three thieving pests? Because that is exactly what they are, THIEVES!
All three of them will rob you of precious food. Now granted, Passion Fruit is not essential to life, nor is Citrus or Tomatoes for that matter. Then why do you grow them in your yard?
To eat, I would imagine. Homegrown is much better tasting, healthier and in the long run, cheaper.
Yet, I get chastised for wanting to rid my yard of the first two. The third one, Americans spend millions of dollars a year to get rid of these guys.
Because they devour our Tomato plants? What about the Gulf Fritillary, it devoured my Passion Vine, should I not get rid of it?
OH, I's too pretty.
The same goes for the Orange Dog, it eats my Citrus tree, but I should not get rid of it because the butterfly is attractive.
The Tobacco Hornworm, ugly, go ahead and get rid of it.
Does this not seem WRONG to you?
Well, I have a solution....They are all going to go!
I honestly tried relocating them. I actually took a dozen of the Gulf Fritillaries to my friend, who works at a local Garden Center, for their Butterfly House. Literally two days later there was almost twice as many again. I kept hoping maybe the birds would get into the act and help.
Maybe the Assassin Bugs would decide to wage war on them.
Again, nope.
So, I hoped and hoped, well now the plant is toast and I am fed up.
Next step in my war is Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. This insecticide is most commonly used against some leaf and needle feeding caterpillars. It is a naturally occurring bacterial disease of insects and is considered safe to people and nontarget species, such as wildlife. It can be used on essentially all food crops.
If that doesn't work, Sevin dust or better known chemically as Carbaryl will be brought out. If YOU decide to go this route, make sure, as I do, to follow the label directions.
Mother Nature has not been playing fair this year. I try to work with her. I offer non-human food for the insects and other critters to eat and enjoy. I am even willing to share, as I stated at the beginning, but if she is not going to meet me halfway, then I am going to declare war. I work WAY to hard in my yard not to get paid in some fashion. This is not Darren's never ending buffet, I will get my rewards.
I hope this article rant makes you think a little before bashing my opinion. Do you want to have food on the table or do you want to be hungry watching the "pretty butterflies" go by?
You Make The Call!
Personally, I like a good Tomato Sandwich, a glass of Orange Juice for dinner and maybe a Passion Fruit Smoothie for desert.
Happy Growing!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Doing the Citrus Split!

While folks out in the Midwest and other parts of the country are experiencing the worst drought in years, here in North Charleston, SC we are having LOTS of rain. Please do not get me wrong, I appreciate every drop we get and I hope and pray that the drought folks get some relieve SOON!
Unfortunately, it is causing a slightly different problem for me, Citrus Split.

This is a picture of one of the Republic of Texas Oranges that split and fell off.
Splitting is what is known as an Abiotic Disorder. That is a disorder that can not be attributed to any living organism, such as an insect or pathogen, but happens because of an environmental or cultural condition.
Splitting may start as early as July, with most occurring in late August and early September. It can be caused by a combination of factors including extreme fluctuations in temperature, humidity, soil moisture and fertilizer levels. I am pretty sure mine is happening because of extremes in my moisture level. Since the beginning of August, I have registered a little over 5 inches of rain in my yard. I usually try to keep a steady level, but it had been so hot just prior to this rain and I had gotten busy at work, so I was a little lax in my watering duties.

No variety of Citrus is immune to this, however, Navel Oranges are the worst, followed by Tangelos and other Oranges along with Mandarins. Grapefruit rarely split.
Usually the thinner skinned Citrus are more prone to this. Also, Citrus that have been sunburned or the skin has been damaged by some other means are very prone. I am not sure if you can tell from the pictures, but these particular fruit have major bird damage. The skin is all pecked and pitted.
This is the gist of what happens. If you allow the moisture level to drop too much, the tree starts to steal water from the fruit to survive. Splits occur when the excess water and sugars are transported from the roots of the tree to the ripening fruit, and the rind is unable to expand quickly enough to accommodate the added volume. It then bursts open under the pressure. The split usually starts at the blossom end of the fruit, which is the weakest point in the rind.
The split can be a shallow one or a deep one, exposing the juice vesicles, as seen here.

Fruit on young trees are more prone to fruit splitting than fruit on older trees, probably because there is more tree to absorb the excess water.
This situation is very disheartening, not only does it waste the fruit, it creates a good breeding ground for fruit flies and attracts other insect pests. The split fruit should be removed as soon as it is found and discarded as it may also harbor fungi or other bacteria.
The split fruit is edible, however most of the time it is not ripe enough to be usable.
I hope that you can learn something from my mistake this year. Had I been able to keep my moisture level at a more moderate level, I might not be losing as much fruit as I am. I am not at liberty to use a drip irrigation, I have way too many trees, all of which are in containers, but this could be an option for you.
There is a plus side to getting all this rain, my Banana is doing fantastic!

Happy Growing!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bad Mulch?

Mulch is one of those topics that everybody thinks it is a great thing. To a large extent that is true, however, there are bad things that can come from using Mulch that one should know about.
Let me start with the advantages of mulching your yard and plants.
Mulch conserves moisture and suppresses weeds. These two things alone one would consider a major bonus. With much of the country in a severe drought situation, conserving moisture would and should be the number one priority.
As for the suppression of weeds? I do actually know of a few people that enjoy pulling weeds. They tell me it is therapeutic. I sure do have a lot of therapy in my yard, but that is another story.
Soil temperature modification. It will keep your soil in a smaller range of temperatures without as many wild fluctuations.
Mulching can make a blah yard look a little more decorative and protect your plants from those evil lawnmowers and weedwhackers.

So you love the idea of the good things Mulch can do?
There are about as many different kinds of Mulch as there are personalities.
Let's touch on a few of the more common ones.
Pine Straw: Here in the Southeast and probably elsewhere, this is a biggie on the hit parade.

Some advantages to using Pine Straw are:
It doesn't float and wash away
Breaks down more slowly
It breathes better, doesn't compact as much as some, and allows for better water infiltration
It will also help your bird friends, because it is used frequently for bird nests and bird houses
I personally don't like it because it looks dull and faded very quickly. I also think it just looks messy, but that truly is just my opinion. I already know I will get letters saying things like, "you just need to see it applied correctly". I have, I still don't like it.

Tree Leaves: Tree leaves are Mother Nature's preferred mulch.

Leaves from trees such as Oak which have a thicker texture make a better mulch than the leaves of trees such as Maples which are thinner. The thin leaves can compact down together to form an impermeable layer. They will eventually break down, just as in the forest, but your plants may suffer. Again, not one I like, it looks as if you need to rake and the first good wind storm that comes through, your neighbors will just LOVE you.

Cedar Mulch: Cedar mulch is ground material derived from the wood and foliage of Cedar trees.

I actually like Cedar Mulch, it has two major advantages over other mulches. The oil in Cedar wood acts as a natural pest repellent, which, of course, also gives it that nice, evergreen smell that I adore. Of course, there are disadvantages. Being a hard wood mulch, cedar mulch, as well as the other hard woods, do break down over a long period of time. This decomposition can leach nitrogen from the soil and damage nitrogen-loving plants, which of course are pretty much ALL plants!
One other thing to consider about Cedar Mulch is, Cedar's positive qualities only remain active for as long as the mulch is relatively fresh. As the Cedar ages, the oil wears out, along with the scent and the pest-repelling quality.

There are, as I mentioned earlier, all kinds of mulches out there. Straw, Sawdust and Wood Shavings, Lava Rocks, Pebbles, Grass Clippings, the list seems almost endless. Each and every one of them has a list of Pro's and Con's, I just don't have the time or space to get into them all here.
There are two more mulches that I want to discuss however. They both are rather similar in appearance. They are made of two completely different materials, but I STRONGLY do not recommend using these when people ask.
They are Black Mulch and Rubber Mulch.

I will admit, the black looks really cool and it tends to set the color of the plants off, but there are many problems associated with them.
First off, I hear the recycling people now, "but Rubber Mulch is made from used tires, do you want them filling our landfills?"
There are other uses for them that will not effect my plants health and wallet.
Rubber mulches tend to be more expensive that traditional wood mulches; some cost even twice as much.
Rubber mulches have a very distinct odor that isn't pleasing to a lot of people. To be fair, it does disappear over time, how long depends on weather conditions.
Sometimes the steel wires are still contained inside the pieces. You need to wear heavy duty gloves to avoid being cut or stuck with possible protruding wires. I won't even get into the area of always needing to wear shoes around this stuff.
One other possible problem is, the chemicals that can leach from tires into your soil.
Rubber Mulch provide no nutrients to your soil, however, they also do not rob any either.
As for the dyed Black Mulch. The wood pieces are dyed using iron oxide or vegetable dyes. Just to be on the safe side, check the labels to see what they have been dyed with to make sure that it is safe for the type of plants you are using it around.
Another problem with Black Mulch is the issue of staining. Some dyes will come off during rain or snow, which will cause the dye to move from the mulch and into the ground. The mulch will appear ugly and dried out. During constant sun exposure, the black mulch will gradually fade to an unsightly gray.
One of the major things I point out to people when I am asked about Rubber or Black mulch is temperature. I stated earlier that mulches are used to moderate temperatures. If you use a black colored mulch, it absorbs sunlight and gets very hot. Think about walking outside onto a concrete path in the middle of the day barefoot. Hot, right? Now go walk out onto the asphalt street. Get my point?
The black colored mulch will have the same effect on the plants roots. It will become very hot underneath. This will cause the mulch to decay faster, the roots will actually use more water and the plant will generally not be happy. Let's say you use it up North. The middle of Winter, a nice sunny day, the ground would normally be frozen, but you have Black Mulch down. The soil is warming up, the plant thinks it's Spring and starts to grow. Then a blizzard hits and the plant gets killed because it broke dormancy due to the warm soil.
There are people that swear by this stuff, I say more power to them. This is just my two cents worth.
There are a few basics to keep in mind. Mulch should be 2 to 4 inches deep. Too deep and it will suffocate the roots. I know the "Fresh Look" is what people like, so they add layer on top of layer every year. If this is you, remember to remove the old mulch first.
Many mulches will float away in a heavy rainstorm, use some kind of edging if this is a problem.
Anyway, this article is not to persuade you not to use Mulch, it is a good thing to do. I just want you to think about your situation and use the correct material.
I will leave you with one last parting shot.
Beware of Volcanoes! In recent years, people have begun mounding mulch around the base of trees creating the 'Mulch Volcano'. Tree bark is meant to protect the trunk. It works best in the air and light. If you pile mulch onto the bark, it is now exposed to dark and moisture. Bark will begin to rot, and rotted bark cannot protect the tree from insects and diseases. In fact, diseases grow better in this type of environment. Keep the mulch at least a few inches away from the bottom of the tree.
Hopefully none of YOUR trees have this look about them:

Happy Growing!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

One of my favorite Citrus trees.....

I was working a Master Gardener event this past weekend at Magnolia Gardens. I love being out there.
While a few of us were sitting in the booth waiting for clients, the discussion of Citrus came up. This is NOT unusual when I am around, see the name of this blog if you are wondering why.
Carolyn was telling me about her trees and how well the one that I gave her a couple of years ago was doing. She actually won it by answering a question at one of my lectures. Anyway, she was telling me that one of our mutual friends and fellow Master Gardeners, Ted, has been trying to talk her into buying and planting a Kumquat.
I COMPLETELY agreed with him.
Kumquats are a group of small fruit-bearing trees in the flowering plant family Rutaceae, and are in the the genus Fortunella. They are known as "The little gold gem of the citrus family".


The plant is native to South Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. The earliest historical reference to Kumquats appear in literature of China around 1178 A.D. They have long been cultivated in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia. They were introduced to Europe in 1846 by Robert Fortune, collector for the London Horticultural Society, and shortly thereafter into North America. Today they are grown mainly in California, Florida and Texas on a commercial basis, but show up in backyards as homeowners discover the many uses of this tangy little fruit.
The Kumquat is slow-growing, shrubby, and compact, attaining heights of 8 to 15 feet tall. Like the majority of its other relatives, it is evergreen.
They prefer full sun, which translates to 8-10 hours. Moist soil, not wet. I like to use the analogy of the soil moisture needing to be the consistency of a wrung out dish sponge.
Kumquats, again like all Citrus, are heavy Nitrogen feeders. I use an organic product put out by Espoma called Citrus-Tone. For in ground trees in my Zone 8, I apply about every six weeks starting around Valentine's Day and stopping about Labor Day. This gives the new growth time to harden off before the cold weather hits. If you are growing them in containers, I will have more on this in a minute, you can feed year round, especially if they are going to be protected or are in no danger of cold weather. If you can not find Citrus-Tone, Holly-Tone is an acceptable substitution. If you can't find that either, any of the water soluable fertilizers for Acid Loving plants are good too. I mentioned they are heavy Nitrogen feeders, if you want to give your tree an extra treat, spray Fish Emulsion as a foliar feeding every couple of weeks. Remember that this does have a fairly bad odor and if you are bringing your plant inside, you may want to skip this step or stop using it WELL before bringing it in.


It has been reported that the Kumquat can withstand temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees and frost without injury. It grows in the tea regions of China where the climate is too cold for other citrus fruits, even the Satsuma orange. I know I have seen them handle 18 degrees here in Charleston, SC without even blinking an eye.
This is completely a mute point if you can grow them in a container. Being that they attain heights of only 8-15 feet, they are very well adapted to being grown in a pot.
There are few things that you need to remember however. They still need the same amount of sunlight. With that many hours of sun, you will need to water much more frequently because the rootzone in a black container can easily reach 120 degrees, and that will dry it out much faster.
Any good potting mix will work. There are some labeled for Cactus and Citrus, I know, odd combination, but it does work. If I happen to be using one of the store bought soils I like to add a little bit more sand, more for weight and volume than any other purpose.
In container culture, you also need to be very aware of your plants fertilizer needs. I mentioned the Nitrogen. The Kumquat needs this is large amounts. I bet you can guess which nutrient leaches out of the soil the fastest? If you guessed Nitrogen, you would be correct! That is why I suggest feeding every 6 weeks or so.
Don't believe me that they can grow in a container? Check this out:

As you would imagine, there are different species of Kumquats and not really different cultivars.
The most common one is the 'Nagami', or Oval Kumquat (Fortunella margarita). I had a few pictures of these back towards the top of this article. This is the most often cultivated Kumquat in the United States and the one you usually see in the grocery store around Christmas. They are up to 1 and 3/4 inches long and 1 and 3/16 inches wide; the pulp is divided into 4 or 5 segments, containing 2 to 5 seeds. It is in season from October to January. A mature specimen at Oneco, Florida, in 1901, bore a crop of somewhere between 3,000 to 3,500 fruits.
The next most common one is the 'Meiwa', or Large Round Kumquat (Fortunella crassifolia). These are about 1 and 1/2 inches wide; the peel is orange-yellow and very thick. The sweet pulp is usually in 7 segments and are often seedless or with few seeds. This kumquat is the best for eating fresh.


The 'Marumi', or Round Kumquat (Fortunella japonica) is much less seen. The fruit is about 1 and 1/2 inches wide. The peel is golden-yellow, smooth, with large oil glands. It is very aromatic and has a spicy pulp with 4 to 7 segments.


When it comes to pests, in ground and container plants pretty much have the same pressures. Mealybugs, Aphids, Grasshoppers and Orange Dogs, just to name a few. Most of these can be handled with Insecticidal Soap or a light horticultural oil. The Orange Dogs can also have Bt used on them, they are caterpillars and if you have never seen one, take a look at this:

Yes, that really is a bug and not a bird that was taking aim.
Compared to other fruits like, Apples, Pears, Peaches, etc, Citrus are comparatively free of disease, but they have some doozies! I will not get into them here, you can check out my articles on one of the Citrus Diseases HERE and the Citrus Quaratines HERE .
Propagation of Kumquats can easily be done by planting the seeds from fresh fruit you obtain at the store. You will read some reports that they do not do well on their own roots, mine seem to do just fine and I have talked to others that say the same thing. I believe it is just how well you treat the tree as to how well it will grow.
First you will want to get the seed out of the fruit. If you are cutting the fruit, be careful not to cut the seed. Clean the seeds. Simple water and hand rubbing is all you will need. Kumquat seeds are polyembryonic, which means they have more than one embryo inside the seed. At least one of these will be identical to the mother tree! DO NOT DRY THE SEEDS! Sorry to yell, but drying out the seed can kill the seed embryo. Use moist potting soil in a small planting pot. Plant the seed about half again as long as the seed. Keep the pot covered in a warm spot. In 3-4 weeks they should germinate. After that you need to slowly get it use to more and more sunlight until it is getting the 8-10 hours. Within about 5-7 years you should start to get fruit, depending of course on how well you care for the tree.
You can also graft, but that is a topic for a whole other article.
While the most common use for the Kumquat fruit is to eat it whole, as is, peel and all, other popular uses for the fruit include adding pieces of it to fruit salads or to dessert recipes. Kumquats are also used to make jellies, jams and marmalades. I should mention here that I despise Marmalade, however, Kumquat Marmalade is amazing. Kumquats are also often pickled whole or preserved in syrups for future use. In recent years Kumquats have gained popularity as a garnish for cocktail beverages, including the martini, as a replacement for the more familiar olive. You might also even be able to purchase candied Kumquats at some ethnic grocery stores.
So as you can see, the Kumquat can be a very handy, decorative tree. It is easy to grow, produces a bountiful harvest and there are all kinds of things that can be done with the fruit. Why not make your next plant purchase a Kumquat tree?
If you are growing other Citrus, you could even possibly make a new hybrid. I only include this list as a parting shot because I get asked if they are at all related. Yes, these are TRUE plants out there and this will tell you who or what their parents were:

Limequat - key lime + kumquat
Orangequat - Satsuma mandarin + kumquat
Calamondin - tangerine + kumquat
Citrangequat - citrange + kumquat
Mandarinquat - mandarin + kumquat
Procimequat - limequat + kumquat
Sunquat - lemon + kumquat
Yuzuquat - yuzu + kumquat

Happy Growing!