Peppers, Roses & Native Plants

Q. Can you tell me what has happened to my hot peppers? For the second year, they grow to about a foot tall no taller and the flowers that form drop off. I planted them in April and they’re in a location that gets lots of sun. What do I need to do to solve my dilemma?

A. Hot or Chili peppers fail to flourish and flowers because of temperature, poor pollination or air circulation, and excess nitrogen. Of these, temperature is the most likely cause. Chili Peppers are extremely sensitive to temperature. It’s the night time temperature that the most critical as they like warm days and nights. The plants stagnate when the temperatures dips below fifty-five degrees and the cool conditions prevent buds from forming. Once the plants stop growing, they are very slow to recover when the temperatures warm up. It’s more likely to be a problem with those plants planted in March/April than those planted in May. You avoid this problem by planting around Mother’s Day. By then, the rainy season should be over and the temperature should be on the rise. If we’re having a cool and wet early spring then delay the planting. Poor air circulation, and pollination is not usually a problem with the in ground plantings but with those in containers especially those growing next to a wall. You’ll find pepper blossoms are even more sensitive to temperature during pollination. You may need to entice pollinators to the area by adding some brightly colored flowers nearby, such as Marigolds. Excess nitrogen causes the plant to puts all of its energy into foliage growth. Low fertility and low moisture levels can also result in poor flowering, bud drop and stunted growth along with irregular watering. But I don’t believe that poor air circulation or excess nitrogen is you problem. Next year my suggestion is to stagger you’re planting to see the difference. I’d plant one plant in April, May and even June and evaluate the performance. The late season planting will be the better performers.

Q. My climbing roses have finished blooming for the year. They need to be pruned as they’re way too dense. Can I prune them way back now?

A. This is one of those yes, no, or depends on, answers. You’d do your heaviest pruning on all types of roses during the winter months. They’re also pruned after every flush of flowers to shape the plants and control their size. It’s not unusual for many varieties of roses to bloom year round although the foliage isn’t pristine. The exception is Lady Banksia and Cecil Brunner because their spring bloomers and should be sheared back after the blooming period. When their cut back during the winter, the spring flowers are not as dramatic. With older Hybrid Tea varieties such as Peace, Chrysler Imperial, or Queen Elizabeth, you need to be careful pruning them severely as they bloom on the second year wood. If you prune too heavy, you’ll get no flowers next year. If this is a variety introduced this century then these varieties for the most part bloom on both the new and old wood. So, it doesn’t matter what’s removed or left. The biggest concern with pruning all types of roses way back or severely during the summer months is sunburn. The green, exposed canes will be damaged from the mid to late afternoon sun. These canes turn black on those plants facing south, west or in the southwest direction. These damaged canes typically die. You protect the canes by leaving a fair amount of leaves. If you live inland where it gets hot, I’d wait till winter to prune while your odds for success is greater along the coast. Again, this applies to cutting them back severely. You can thin out some of the growth now as long as you don’t exposed to many of the green canes. I could be more specific if the variety was known. If it is, then I’d consult a nursery professional at your favorite garden center for his or her opinion. They’re the best resource for what would be best in your area.Q. I removed my lawn and replaced it with California Natives and other water-wise plants. They have been in for two years and are doing very well. I’m very pleased. Do you know if they have any special fertilizer requirements?

A. Native plants have no special fertilizer requirements as they’re not heavy feeders. True California Natives are best fed in November just before the rains while the rest are fed in early March before the flush of new growth. I’d take the plant list to your favorite garden center and have the nursery professional advice you as to which time period is best for each plant. I’d use a general organic fertilizer like EB Stone or Dr Earth Organic All Purpose Fertilizer. One application is all that’s necessary per year.


Lemons, Weeds & Palm Trees

Q. I’m curious as to why the leaves of large palm trees are tied up when they are being transported? Also, how long are they kept tied?

A. There are two reasons for this typical method of transporting palms. The horticultural reason is to protect the critical terminal bud from windburn and dehydration as palms have no lateral branches. The terminal bud is where the new leaves/fronds or growth originates. If this area is damage the mortality rate is huge. The second reason is to narrow the canopy so they can be transported on roads, highways and freeways without any special precautions. They are left tied up for several weeks to months depending on the time of the year, location and variety.

Q. I have a six-foot high Meyer lemon tree that is a wonderful producer. However, this past year some bug or animal has skinned the lemons even though they have remained attached to the tree. It is a very strange site to see a lemon with some or no white pith, exposed to the air. Have you ever heard of such of a thing happening before?A. Yes, I have. This is becoming more and more of an issue for gardeners as it’s happening to citrus, tomatoes and other edibles. It’s highly unlikely that a bug would be the cause of the problem. Their mouth parts are not large enough to due this type of damage. Also, it would take an army of insects to skin a lemon so you would see signs of their activity. It’s more likely a rodent or larger animal that feeds at night is the culprit. Raccoons, possums or roof rats are the primary suspects and roof rats would be my guess. A roof rat is dark brown to black and measures thirteen to eighteen inches in length including the tail. They weigh five to nine ounces, are slender, and their ears are large and nearly hairless. Although they will nest in structures, we do find outdoor nests in dense, thick, shrubby ground covers such as Cotoneasters, Junipers, Ceanothus, and Ivy. Roof rats are omnivorous. They feed on fresh fruit, plant material, nuts, seeds, vegetables and even tree bark. They can be a problem with birdseed, both in feeders and stored in bags along with dog and cat food. They love to eat citrus and tomatoes because it serves as both a food and water source, hence they visit vegetable gardens often during the summer. I’d look along the ground for droppings which are black, long and cylindrical. Controlling the problem outdoors is easier said than done. Your best options are trapping and habitat modification. Climbing vines or hedges on fences or buildings should be thinned as should overhanging tree limbs. Again this is easier said than done because they are so mobile and move effortlessly from yard to yard. I wouldn’t use poison baits because of the threat to domestic animals. Traps should be placed off the ground like on the fence runners as they are more likely to catch them there. Overall, your success rate will be low. Fortunately, they should leave your lemon alone once the rainy season starts.

Q. When is the best time to use a pre-emergent weed control?

A. Pre-emergent herbicides are those chemical weed killers that control seeds before they germinate in a landscape including turf. They can be applied year round but once the seeds develop roots they are ineffective. Hence, they can be applied over the top of existing plants without damaging them. Pre-emergent herbicides do not distinguish between good or unwanted seeds. When installing trees, shrubs, ground covers, seasonal color and perennials, pre-emergent herbicides are applied just before adding any mulch and watering. Moisture is the critical factor in activating the chemical barrier that kills the seeds. As long as you don’t break the barrier by cultivating, the pre-emergent herbicide should last a growing season. I’d double check the label for the specific time period of each product. With an established landscape, reapply pre-emergent herbicides annually in mid November to control the unwanted weed seeds that have blown in all summer long. In non-irrigated areas, it’s applied just before the first major rain of the season. Pre-emergent herbicides are only applied to an established turf, January through March. Bonide Crabgrass Preventer and Preen are two granular pre-emergent herbicides while Monterey Weed Impede is a liquid. Also, they cannot be used as a pre-plant before laying sod or sowing seed.  With all herbicides, get second opinion from a nursery professional at your favorite garden center, so, you don’t make a critical mistake.


Tomatoes, Roses & Clematis

Q. I have two tomato plants growing in large pots. They’re doing real well, in fact you can almost watch them grow. But, I’m a bit concerned because they are so very bushy. Should I strip some of the growth off or just let them continue on?

 A. It is important for tomatoes to be bushy with lots of leaves. The foliage protects the ripening tomatoes from sunburn so the leaves act as a type of sunblock. Sunburn is a tan/beige spot that forms on the south and southwest side of the fruits. But, you can have too much of a good thing, so I’d be thinning the growth throughout the season. Plants will become very crowded and dense as they mature, especially when you’re using a tomato cage. Thinning lets in more light and increases air circulation throughout the plant, keeping the inside foliage from turning brown. Also, the dense foliage is a perfect hiding plant for the Tomato Hornworm. Hornworms on tomatoes are a problem June through September. The Hornworm is the larva stage of a moth. The adult moth lays its eggs near the center of the plant. Its only purpose is to eat—which it does twenty/four seven until it gets very large and drops to the soil where it goes through another stage of the metamorphosis and emerges as an adult moth. Signs of Hornworms are holes in the leaves and black droppings on the ground. You control them with BT or Captain Jack Dead Bug Brew. Both of these insecticides are safe to use on edibles.

Q. I have removed the spent flowers on my roses, but, I’m concerned because there are absolutely no leaves on the branches. Looking at them, one would think it’s the middle of winter. What has happened and will the foliage return?

A. The rainy periods in March and April is the cause of your problem. Roses are susceptible to rust, Black Spot and mildew. Black Spot causes the leaves to have yellow spots with black blotches, and as the disease progresses, the foliage drops off. Rust gives you orange spots on the back of the leaves, and mildew forms a white film on the foliage, stems and buds. These are air-borne diseases that attack when moisture remains on the foliage after the sun has gone down. There are plenty of products available to control these diseases but they don’t eradicate the problem. The best solution is Bayer Advanced All in One Rose Care. It’s a systemic control applied to the roots before the diseases show up, so, it’s ideal to use in early March when the new growth is about an inch long. It gives six weeks of protection against rust, Black Spot and mildew, and this should keep the foliage pristine through the end of the rain season. A fourth disease called Downey Mildew can also be troublesome when cool, damp conditions are present for an extended period. Downy Mildew is usually limited to the coastal areas where there is a strong marine influence, but there can be years where it’s widespread. This disease is often confused with Black Spot because of the similar yellow spots with black leaf blotches. The most distinguishing characteristic of Downey Mildew is the plant’s extreme and rapid (overnight) defoliation. But from your question, Black Spot is more than likely your problem and not Downey Mildew. Your biggest concern right now should be températures over ninety degrees for those plants in the afternoon sun. Without any leaves, sunburn is a big concern for the stems. You protect these plants by draping shade cloth over them until the new growth returns. The new growth should return in four to six weeks.

Q. Why is my Clematis growing poorly? The lower leaves have turned brown and a few of the ends are shriveling up. Generally speaking, most of the leaves on one plant look very poor. The Clematis next to it is thriving and getting ready to bloom. I’d like its neighbor to do the same. What should I be doing?

A. In solving this mystery, I’d investigate the planting depth. I’d remove some of the soil to locate the top of the first root. Clematis, and plants in general, are buried too deep if the top of the first root is more than a half inch below the soil surface. It is very common to plant in a bowl shape hole.  Unfortunately, the sides collapse quickly inward, burying the plant. Instead, the root ball should be at or above the soil surface after planting. You correct this by digging the plant up and raising the top of the root ball to the soil surface using a shovel and filling in the void under the plant with soil to prevent it from re-sinking. Mulch is added later to insulate the roots and conserve moisture. I believe the number one non-pest reason for erratic plant behavior, stagnate growth, and then plants dying, is clay soil and plants being planted too

Butterflies, Christmas Trees & Wisteria

Q. I would like to attract more butterflies to our garden. What plants can I plant to encourage them into taking up residence in our neck of the woods?

A. Attracting butterflies to your garden can be a rewarding venture. A Butterfly Garden is a mixture of perennials and annuals plants along with some ornamentals. They can be rewarding as it can also attract hummingbirds and bees. But for all their benefits, it may not be ideal for everyone. The plants that attract butterflies are divided into two types, the host and nectar food plants. Host plants are used by the adult butterfly to lays its eggs on while the nectar plants attract the mature adult butterflies. The eggs hatch into caterpillars (ugh) that feeds on the host plant so be prepared for lots of leaves that have been chewed on. Baby caterpillars eat quite a lot and will make your plants look as if they are being destroyed, but don’t worry about that, this is necessary for their survival. The young caterpillars feed on the host plants until they form their cocoons and emerge later as an adult. If you don’t want to look at the eaten plants, simply plant them in the center or the back of your butterfly garden or in areas that are not highly visible. But, don’t plant your host plants too far away from the nectar plants. It’s best to plant them right next to each other or in close proximity, as the tiny caterpillars cannot travel far to find their own food. Most species of caterpillars are particular about the type of plants they eat. If the eggs are not laid on the correct plant(s), the new caterpillars will not survive. Hence it’s not advisable to plant a Butterfly Garden over a large area. If you choose not to provide any host plants, you will have fewer butterflies. Ceanothus, Penstemon and Aster are a few of the host plants while nectar plants include Toyon, Lantana, Marigolds Verbena, and Milkweed. For a more complete list, check your favorite garden centers for a handout. And finally, here is an online resource.

Q. We bought a five-gallon pine tree last Christmas. We now want to transplant it into a larger container or should we wait? Also, how might we keep it from getting too big?

A. There is no need to waiting as they can be transplanted now. You should select a large container, about the size of a half a wine barrel or twenty-four by eighteen inch lightweight plastic pot. Most of the pine trees used as living Christmas trees are not small trees by nature. When mature, these rapidly growing evergreen trees can reach a height of fifty to eighty feet with a wide spread. The young growth of the plant is groomed or sheared to have that “Christmas Tree” shape. However, they will lose this shape quickly as they mature. Their natural shape is more oval or round. You can control the size by trimming the new growth or “candle growth.” The candle growth is the long, very upright shoot that is visible in the spring. They will extend above the mature needles at the end of the branches. With a pair of hand shears, I’d cut the new growth off where the new growth meets the old. Eventually, your tree will need to be planted in the ground but it may be too big for most of today’s smaller yards.

Q. I have a Wisteria that’s fifteen years old. It grows by leaps and bounds every year but blooms only in the spring. My neighbor’s Wisteria blooms and re blooms for months every year. What do I need to do to get mine to bloom and bloom again?

A. The simple answer is that there is not a thing you can do to extend the blooming season. With Wisterias, Mother Nature is in control of the entire repeat blooming cycles. It’s more likely to happen when temperatures go from mild to hot then back to mild. This type of change is the trigger for a flowering cycle. This is more likely to occur where there is a strong marine influence and unlikely in the warmer, inland areas. On a personal note, my blue Wisteria is in bloom for Easter while the pink one blooms around Mother’s Day. Also, the blue Wisteria always has a repeat blooming cycle, while the pink one re-blooms periodically. However, this year, it has finished blooming.

Tomatoes, Peppers & Soil

Q. Could you explain the different between Determinate and Indeterminate tomatoes? Each year, I get so confused when I go to buy my tomato plants. In addition when is the ideal time to plant? 

A. Tomatoes are classified by their growth habit and are called determinate and indeterminate varieties. Determinate varieties do better in smaller spaces making them ideal for containers such as an Earth Box, while the Indeterminate tomatoes are rigorous growers; hence they require staking and/or a tomato cage as they get quite large. Determinate plants are short, bushy and grow to only a height of about four feet. They are often called bush tomatoes. The tomatoes form on the terminals ends of the plants: hence, they are self topping and seldom require support. They stop growing when the fruit sets on the terminal or top bud ripen their entire crop, usually over a two week period, and then die. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow indefinitely until killed by a frost. I like to refer to them as the Energizer Bunny of tomatoes. The plant is always producing stems and leaves as the lead or terminal buds does not set fruit. The fruit set on the laterals instead. In addition, the fruit ripens progressively as the vine grows, so there are tomatoes in all stages of development at any one time. Cherry tomatoes varieties along with Early Girl, Brandywine and Big Boy are examples of Indeterminate tomatoes. Gardeners often make the mistake of planting tomatoes too early. The key in growing tomatoes and setting fruit is not the daytime temperatures. Tomatoes are a warm season crop that struggles and/or fails to set fruit with nighttime temperatures below 55 degrees. Once the plants are slowed down, they never recover and fail to meet expectations. Personally, I’d plant tomatoes between April 15 and May 15 after the rainy season has concluded.

Q. This year, I’d like to plant my peppers in containers. How many can I plant and can I mix both hot and sweet peppers together in the same pot?

A. Peppers grow very nicely in containers and yes, you can mix the hot and sweet varieties in the same pot. With chili or hot pepper varieties, you are better off waiting until the end of the month to plant or whenever the rainy season has concluded. The number of plants is determined by the size of the pot. I’d allow each plant about eight to twelve inches of space. If your pot is large enough, you could mix in Alyssum and Marigolds as companion plants to deter insect problems. Because of the nutrient depletion with every watering, I’d fertilize them with a vegetable food every other month or with Osmocote at the time of planting and again in July. Osmocote is a time release fertilizer that releases a little bit of nutrients with every watering. Peppers have shallow roots so you need to be careful when you cultivate and mulching is recommended to conserve moisture.  Water conservation is enhanced by adding the plant polymer, Soil Moist, to the soil mix at planting. Soil Moist is a crystal that hydrates into a gel with water. The roots of plants use the gel as a back up réservoir extending the days between watering.  All the pepper varieties are compatible with each other so there isn’t a problem with whatever varieties you choose.

Q. Is there a way to sterilize soil other than baking it in an oven? When I recycle the old soil from containers, I first sift the soil and then store it in trash cans.  I find that the weed seeds are not killed when stored for a year or so.

A. Storing soil in a dark location isn’t an effective method of killing weed seeds. They can remain dormant for a long period and germinate when exposed to light and moisture. To effectively kill the weed seeds, soil insects and soil pathogens, the soil needs to be heated. For the home gardener, soil solarization is a simple non chemical technique that captures heat from the sun to sterilize soil. Commercial equipment is not cost effective while a household oven isn’t very practical. Soil sterilization is a sensible solution for large or small quantities of soil. You can tarp areas off an area or place small amounts of soil in plastic bags. It should be pre-moistened and then sealed or covered. The weeds seeds are killed as the temperature rises converting the moisture into steam. Depending on the quantity, it needs to bake in the sun for six to ten weeks. June through September is the primary period to sterilize soil using the sun. Once it’s been sterilized and aired out, you can store it in trash cans indefinitely. A back up plan is to control the weed seeds with pre-emergent herbicides. There are organic liquid as well as granular products available. 

Seed Germinating Time

Q. I saved the seeds from last year’s tomatoes and pepper plants. When would it be a good time to start the seeds, so I can transplant them into the garden in May?

A. When germinating flower or vegetable seeds, I’d allow six to eight weeks between sowing the seed and planting in the open ground. Hence, I’d be sowing the seed in early March. However, if these were hybrid varieties, it’s not worth the effort and you’ll be disappointed. You only want to save and replant open-pollinated varieties. The seeds saved from hybrid flowers and vegetables varieties are unpredictable. The chances they are duplicates from last year’s varieties is not very good. It’s all about genetics, so I’d start with new plants. If not, the first thing to do is check to see if the seed is viable. Viable seed means it is capable of germinating. This is easily accomplished by pouring the seed into a glass of water or a larger receptacle. You discard the seed that floats on the surface and plant those that sink. The viable seed is dried out by spreading it over a paper towel and covering it with a second sheet. Next, sow the seed into a flat of pre-moistened potting soil, moist like a wrung-out sponge. With a pen or pencil, you make furrows in the soil, sowing the seeds in the rows and then cover the seeds. The flat is then covered with plastic to trap the moisture and heat. Once the seedlings start to emerge from the soil, remove the sheeting and place the flat in an area that gets morning sun. The seedlings are transferred to individual pots when they get two sets of true leaves. Some gardeners prefer to sow seed directly into individual pots and there is nothing wrong with that. But, I prefer the other method as it allows me to select and grow the most vigorous seedlings.

Note: May is an excellent time to plant vegetables, especially tomatoes and peppers. It’s not unusual for summer vegetables to struggle with cool and damp weather in March and April. So, there is a real advantage by waiting until May to plant.

Q. Last year, I planted cucumbers and was disappointed. They had a bitter, odd taste to them. A neighbor suggested that they were being pollinated by the squash plants growing near them? Will moving the squash to a different location solve this problem?

A. The problem will not be fixed by relocating the squash plants. Squash and cucumbers can’t cross pollinate as the genetic structure of the two plants are very different. Only members of the same species can interbreed. Squash will cross pollinate with other squashes, melons and pumpkins. This brings us to the next fallacy of this old-wives tale. If the two plants could cross breed, would it affect the current year’s fruits? The answer to this is also,” no.” When two plants cross pollinate, the results are unknown until the following year when you grow the saved, seed. Now this is a mute point if you plant new plants each year. Thus, cucumbers, squashes, melons and pumpkins can grow a side by side with no problems.                                                                  

The bitterness in cucumbers is due to a naturally occurring compound called cucurbitin. All cucumber plants contain varying amounts of this compound that is triggered by environmental stress. Environmental stress comes from high temperatures, heavy soil that is too wet, dry, and/or drains poorly, low fertility, insects and foliage diseases. Many times it is a combination of many of these factors. However in the Bay Area, I believe that uneven or irregular watering contributes to the problem. This is particularly a problem when the growing season has below-normal temperatures in the spring, coupled with rapid changes in temperatures from mild to hot during the summer months. This is what we saw last year as April was beautiful, May was below normal and then we hit triple digits on June sixth.  We then had triple digit heat spells in July, August and September. Bay Area gardeners tend to water with the same frequency regardless of the temperature. Yes, we water more when it’s hot but never less when the temperatures go below normal. The other factor is the soil preparation. Overall, it’s pretty minimal for our adobe, clay soil. Soil amendments must be added yearly in the spring to replenish what was lost last year. In addition, mulching is encouraged in vegetable gardens to even out the moisture and insulate the surface roots from the sun. Also, overly mature or improperly stored cucumbers may also develop a mild bitterness; however, it’s often not severe.

Note: The cucurbitin is often concentrated at the stem end of the vegetable and in the light green layer under the skin of the cucumber. You can limit the bitterness by peeling cucumbers from the blossom end toward the stem end and cutting off the last inch. It is best to rinse your peeling knife after each slice so as not to spread the bitter taste.

Azalea, Potato Vines and Bougainvillea

Q. My Potato Vine and Bougainvillea suffered from frost in the recent cold spells. Most of the leaves have fallen off, so they look terrible. Is there anything I can do now to help them grow back?                      

A. It’s not unusual for Potato Vines and Bougainvillea to be damaged from frost and freezing temperatures during the winter. The cold will burn the leaves and or kill the plants. Cold acts as a desiccant pulling moisture from the plant tissue while a freeze causes the cell walls to rupture. As a result of these damaged cell walls, the plant defrosts too quickly, killing leaves and stems. Cold injury is more likely to occur the longer the temperature stays below thirty-two degrees after the sun rises. Right now, the recommendation is to do nothing. There is the possibility of more cold temperatures going forward. Instead, I’d wait until the danger of frost is over which is around March 15. You could also scratch the bark to see if it’s green. This would indicate that the plant is still alive. Personally, I’d still wait longer until you see some new growth developing. At this time that I prune off all the dead growth and fertilizer with Dr Earth Organic all Purpose plant food to encourage the new growth.

Q. I have an Azalea that has been in the ground for twelve years and it’s not growing. When I planted it originally, I didn’t disturb the roots. I’ve since learned I should have. Can I now dig it up, spread the roots and replant it in the same spot? It has tremendous sentimental value.

A. Yes, I would replant. Your Azalea is slowly strangling itself, so you need to break the circular pattern of the roots for the plant to survive. March is an excellent month to dig up plants, trim their roots and then transplant. Even, if you’re going to replant it in the same location. This technique is called “Root Pruning.” Root Pruning is also recommended for container plants such as citrus, Japanese Maples, roses and many other plants that have been in the same container for over twenty-four to thirty-six months. In your case, I’d dig around the plant with a round nose shovel until you gently lift the root ball out of the ground. It should come out quite easily as there is should be little rooting into the native soil. With a sharp knife or pruning saw, trim away two to three inches off the sides and remove three to four inches off the bottom of the root ball. Before replanting, soak the root ball in a bucket of water with Liquinox Starter with B1 or similar product. Liquinox Starter with Vitamin B-1 helps promote feeder root growth and reduces transplant shock. The root ball should be held down under the water until the water stops bubbling. This forces all the air out of the root ball ensuring that it’s saturated. The new planting hole should be two and half times as wide as the original root ball and six inch deeper. This is to accommodate the many surface roots. The native soil is amended with organic matter or you could use one of the prepared planting mixes for shade loving plants at a 50/50 ratio. Next, center the Azalea in the hole with the top of the root ball one half inch above the soil surface. This allows for settling and prevents the plant from being planted too deep which is a critical planting mistake made by many. Two week after transplanting, I’d begin fertilizing with an Azalea, Camellia and Rhododendron Food and continue feeding it monthly until October.

Q. Last November, I planted garlic for the first time. It is now almost twelve inches tall. When does it mature?

A. Garlic should not mature for another three to four months. As harvest time approaches, the plants will turn yellow and brown. When forty percent of the foliage has discolored, you stop watering the plants and bend the foliage over, parallel to the ground. Once the foliage turns completely brown, the garlic is manually removed. I’d loosen the soil with a spading fork first and be careful as garlic bruise easily.



Berries, Sage & Seeds

Q. I’m going to replace several struggling roses. Should I plant patent or non-patent varieties? I’ve been told that the patent varieties are better performers than the non-patent?

A. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 introduced intellectual property or patent rights for plants. It allows plant breeders to recover their development costs from “asexually propagated” plants, aka roots, divisions and cuttings and not seeds. This includes fruit trees, roses, and today ornamental trees and shrubs. Nearly half of the 3,010 plant patents issued between 1930 and 1970 were for roses. Jackson & Perkins, Armstrong Roses, Weeks, and Conard-Pyle contribute to a staggering share of U.S. plant patents. Anyone who wishes to propagate and distribute the variety must purchase a patent tag for each plant from the hybridizer. Although we see new varieties every year, they are not developed over night. A new introduction is the result of many, many years of trial and error. The patent tag cost varies greatly between varieties. It could be anywhere from a quarter to several dollars. After seventeen years, the patent expires and it becomes a non-patent variety. Now, anyone can reproduce it free of charge. The rose is the same whether it’s a non-patent or patent variety. Newer rose varieties are more resistant to diseases than the old timers. Today, hybridizers are cross breeding resistant varieties from previous years for the new varieties of the 21st century. I’m always curious as to the parentage of each years’ new introductions. It gives me a clue as to how a particular variety will perform in our varied microclimates. The rose care product of today will effectively control the rose diseases so I’d use some other characteristic as my primary focus in selecting varieties.

Q. I’m going to purchase several Blackberry and Raspberry plants to grow on a fence. How much sun do they require, do I feed them when they are transplanted and will they bear fruit this coming summer or next summer.

A. Blackberry and Raspberries are a wonderful addition as long as the plants are contained; hence, they are not advisable for every garden. They require six hours of sunlight per day, April through October. However, you do not want to plant any berry vines on a fence that is also the property line. It can be an expensive nightmare dealing with a neighbor(s) disputes as the vines will intrude next door. Berry vines are aggressive growers with above and below ground stems or rhizomes. Instead, grow the vines on a separate trellis structure that is four to six feet off any fence line. This way you can head off the problems before it’s too late. If possible, I would place the trellis in a north south direction. This will allow the berries to ripen on both sides of the vines. Blackberry and Raspberry vines should produce fruit next year as the berries are produced on the second year canes. The vines are best pruned after you finish harvesting all the berries. The fruiting canes are cut off at the ground. You replace them on the trellis with the best of the new shoots growing from the base.  All the other new growth is removed. You need to be diligent with pruning off the basal shoots otherwise the vines can get out of hand. Again, the berries will only develop on the second year canes. At the time of planting, I would add Starter Fertilizer along with amending the soil with homemade compost or soil conditioner.

Q. The cold has damaged my Mexican Sage plants. Is there a right or wrong time to prune them back? I’d like to maintain them year round as they provide a colorful, feeding environment for Hummingbirds

A. It’s not unusual for Mexican Sage to turn brown from the winter cold. I’d expect this to happen every year. My pruning preference is to wait until the end of February or the beginning of March to prune them; however, it can be done at any time weather permitting. Mexican Sage produces all of its new growth from the base of the plant. It produces no lateral branches and blooms on the terminal end of each shoot. It should be back in bloom around Memorial Day and continue through the first cold night. Thus, I’d prune it off at the ground with a pair of hand or electric hedge shears. You should also clean out all of the fallen debris that has gather during the past growing season.  And in March, feed them with Doctor Earth Organic All Purpose Plant Food to encourage the new growth. This feeding should be sufficient for the entire year.

Tomatoes, Pears and Grape Vines

Q. Every year, I harvest some of my green tomatoes from the frost hoping they’ll ripen indoors, but they never do. I usually place them in the sun on the window sill but eventually I end up throwing them out. How can I successfully ripen them this year?

A. Leaving tomatoes out to ripen in the open air doesn’t work as you’ve found out. You can ripen tomatoes off the vine in a shallow box with a lid to create a simple ripening chamber. The bottom of the box is lined with a one-inch layer of newspaper and you place the tomatoes next to one another but don’t let them touch each other. A second layer can be added, separated with another layer of newspaper, but no more. The box is then place in a cool out of the way location like the garage. Every five to seven days, you open the lid a remove those that have turned red. The chamber traps the ethylene gas which is given off by the tomatoes. You can hasten the ripening by adding an apple or other fruit that releases ethylene. I know an old school method would have you wrap each tomato separately in newspaper or other material and store them in a box. I think it’s tedious and the lid makes that unnecessary. You should select tomatoes that haven’t been damaged by the cold. So, it may be too late for this year but I’d still try few anyway to get a feel for the technique.

Q. I have two Flowering Pear trees planted on the same day exactly three years ago. One turns color in late October while the other is just turning color now. Why don’t they color up at the same time?

A. Flowering Pear, Pyrus calleryana, is a deciduous ornamental flowering pear. Bradford, Whitehouse, Aristocrat, Redspire, and Capital are some of the varieties available today. The Flowering Pear was first introduced and bred for the purposes of creating a fireblight resistant variety. Unfortunately, this never materialized as they are also susceptible to the disease. They’re typically a pyramidal trees with vertical branching and rapid growth that is both tolerant of dryness and pollution. They produce beautiful white flowers, deep green summer foliage, and red to purple fall color. The three inch white flowers cover the trees complete in late February or March so it resembles a huge powder puff.

There are two possible answers to your question.  One could be they’re different varieties which I don’t think is the case and the other is how they were propagated. Plant genetic dictates the timing as to when the leaves turn color along with many other characteristics. The green dominant pigment in growing plants is produced by chlorophyll. The other leaf colors are only apparent when plants stop growing. Those started from seeds are very unpredictable while cuttings mirror its mother plant. So, it’s very possible your trees came from trees with different coloring time periods although the same variety. The time period when the leaves turn color in the Chinese Pistache tree is between four to five weeks; however, it’s much broader with a Flowering Pear.  It’s not unusual to see an individual tree in a row of Flowering Pears to show color starting in late August with the rest progressing through mid December. Also, there is no way to tell for sure whether it will color up early mid season or late ahead of time.

Q. Will I harm next year’s crop of grapes by cutting back old, ugly branches now?  I did that last year and had very few grapes this year.                  

Senior man pruning a wine grape vineyard in his garden

A. January/February is the traditional time of the year to prune grapes. However, they can be pruned earlier if you choose. Grapes are dormant once the leaves start to turn color and drop off. In the fall, the green leaves are storing energy and food for next year so you don’t want to remove them too early. Pruning grapes early does not affect the production. Improper pruning by cutting off the fruiting spurs is the primary cause for little to no grapes. Grape vines are a vigorous grower that produce lots of stems and leaves each year. For many, it’s a confusing mass to prune, especially if there are no defined vertical trunk and laterals. Grapes need to grow on a trellis structure with one main trunk and several lateral branches. A typical fence is not necessarily the ideal trellis for grapes. With time, the fence is damaged by the growth. Poor air circulation increases problems with diseases and the vines are difficult to maintain. Also, your neighbor may not appreciate the vegetation growing on his or her side.  A separate trellis structure off the fence improves the maintenance and disease issue besides avoiding a neighbor dispute. In preparation I’d watch several of the videos on You Tube. This should give you a good idea if you pruning technique needs to be modified. Google “spur and cane pruning grapes.” 

Note: There are two methods of pruning grapes, cane and spur pruning.   Here is a variety list as which pruning method is the best.

Compost and Crepe Myrtles

Q. My huge crepe myrtle tree used to bear beautiful, deep fuchsia flowers, but twelve years ago, the tree broke in half. Since then, it has never flowered again; instead, the leaves of the whole tree turn a bright red. What must I do to get it to flower again? What do you think happened to this tree?

A. Crape Myrtles do not stop blooming just because the structure of the tree has been damaged. They bloom only on the terminal ends of the new growth formed in the spring. This is why the trees are so colorful because all the color is at the end of the vegetation and in many cases covering the foliage. You’ll never find any flowers in the interior area of the canopy. Once it finishes flowering, the seed develop in the form of a green, round, structure that then turns brown when mature. The structure shatters, distributing the sterile seeds which are then pruned off in the winter. Thus, when a tree produces little to no growth you get little to no flowers. To stimulate the growth, fertilize in March and late May with 16-16-16. I’d apply a half a pound of fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter measured two feet off the ground. It should be applied around the drip line of the tree. The first application could be made earlier after the tree has been pruned. The red foliage indicates there other problems influencing growth, but I’m not sure what they might be. The red color should only be seen in the fall prior to leaf drop. I’d have an arborist evaluate the situation to determine what other problems are occurring. 

Q. I’m about to empty my compost bin as it’s nearly full. If I dig the compost into my garden now, will the winter rains leach out the valuable nutrients? In addition, should I mulch my roses now or wait until after they have been pruned?

A. The winter rains shouldn’t leach the nutrients from your compost. Compost is organic matter that is broken down by the soil microbes or organisms into nutrients that plants can use. The activity of the soil microbes is slowing down with the shorter days and the soil cooling off. Right now, you have several options. You could dig it in now or spread the compost over the top as mulch and dig it under in the spring. If you don’t have the time to do either, save the compost by storing it in plastic bags or large garbage can. With roses, I wouldn’t be inclined to spread it around until after they have been pruned at the earliest. You end up losing a portion of the material when you clean up the left over debris under the bushes. Mulching roses is usually done in May.

Q. I have been successful in growing papaya from seeds. One of these trees is now quite large and has fruit on it. When will the Papayas turn a yellow/orange color? Also, will the winter frost kill Papayas?

A. Yes, Papayas are damaged with our winter temperatures. They’re an evergreen, herbaceous plant, growing to twenty-five feet. Papayas are herbaceous because their trunks contain no woody tissue. The trunks are straight, hollow and rarely branched. This makes them more susceptible to freezing temperatures than other sub-tropical species like Citrus and Guavas. Often the foliage is just burnt by the winter cold. Eventually, we’ll have a very cold period that kills them. Our last killing frost was in 1990 so we’re due for one. For cold weather protection, I’d spray your Papayas with Bonide Wilt Stop or Cloud Cover. This also applies to Citrus, Hibiscus, Bougainvilleas, Mandevilleas and other cold sensitive plants. Wilt Stop and Cloud Cover puts a protective barrier on the leaf surface. I think of it as Chap Stick for plants. The next time freezing temperatures are forecast, cover them with a plant blanket at dinner time and remove it at breakfast. What happens next is up to Mother Nature. Papayas bear fruit at and early age. Flowering and fruiting occurs near the top of the plant in the leaf axils. The fruit turns a yellow/orange color in about eight months after pollination. Papayas are picked early because they bruise easily when ripe, much like pears. This is called the green mature stage. The fruit then has three additional ripening stages, evidenced by an increasing amount of yellow, beginning at the bottom of the fruit and working its way to the top. A ripe Papaya is predominantly yellow, has a light fragrance and yields slightly to pressure, much like an Avocado. A green papaya takes seven to ten days to ripen. You can increase the ripening time by putting them in a paper bag along with an ethylene-producing fruits such as apples or bananas. However, keep those fruits away when the papaya is fully ripe. Ripe papayas will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week but freezing them is not recommended as they lose their flavor when defrosted.