Home Gardener Headlines - Fall 2012
Dear Home Gardener,
This is the time of year we remember why we love living in southeast Pennsylvania! The air is cool and crisp, the skies true-blue. The grinding chores of summer are behind us, and it remains to harvest our last vegetables and fruits, and put our gardens to rest.
Much can be done in the fall to insure a healthy garden next season (see article on Fall is for Planning on page 3). And there's much in the natural world still to enjoy, now that we can step back from the trees and look around at our beautiful forest.
We hope the enclosed articles will be enjoyable as well as helpful. Though the season is winding down, we at Extension are available to you all through the fall and winter, for any help you and your plants may need.
Master Gardener Coordinator
The Green Tomato Blues
How did your tomatoes fare this year? Some gardeners had a good crop, some had problems, and most had a mixed bag. It seemed to depend on timing and where the plants were in their maturity when the worst of the weather cycles hit. Here are some of the problems encountered.
Blossom end rot: This is a condition, not a disease. It relates to calcium uptake by the plant but does not necessarily mean that calcium is lacking in the soil. It may be that the soil pH is too high or too low, or that oscillating moisture levels are interfering with plant absorption of calcium. The best strategy is to use a light mulch over the soil to prevent evaporation, and to use drip irrigation to keep soil moisture as even as possible. A soil test can tell you if you need to supply more calcium to your soil.
Early blight and Septoria blight: These fungal diseases are very common in our area, and may not be entirely preventable. The good news is that the affected plants, while their foliage may look awful, can usually survive the season and bring fruit to maturity. Some control may be achieved with a registered fungicide, but treatment must be early in the season, not after the fungus has established in the plant.
Failure to redden: We think of ripe red tomatoes in the full summer sun, but too much heat can actually prevent tomatoes from turning red. When temperatures reach 86 degrees or more, the plant stops producing carotene and lycopene, the chemicals responsible for producing color. When temperatures moderate, it may still take some time for the reddening process to pick up.
Here are some simple strategies for producing healthy tomatoes next year:
- Clean up all debris from your planting area this fall to reduce the likelihood of disease spores and insects overwintering in your garden.
- Rotate your tomatoes to a different part of the garden. The new location should not have grown eggplant or peppers or potatoes this year, as they are in the same broad family as tomatoes.
- Give your tomatoes some elbow room! Fungal diseases proliferate where plants are crowded. Leave room between plants for good air circulation and if you use cages make them wide enough that the foliage is not crammed tightly within.
- Think about a drip hose or irrigation system that will deliver moisture slowly and steadily to the soil without wetting the foliage. Use a light mulch like straw or grass clippings to help retain soil moisture.
- Mix varieties. Each kind of tomato has its virtues and limitations. Each has its own time frame for setting and maturing fruit. By intermixing hybrids, heirlooms, and types with different maturity dates, you’ll have a hedge against a weather event or disease that might do in all the plants of a single type.
Written by Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator
Fall Lawn Care and Winterizing
Your lawn’s favorite season of the year is late summer to late fall (from August 15 to Thanksgiving). Taking advantage of cool weather is an easy way to keep your lawn healthy all year long. Think about it as helping your lawn recover from the heat of summer and preparing for the cold winter.
First, let’s recover! You’ll want to repair any areas of dead grass or places that are full of weeds. This is the best time of year to plant seed or lay sod. Follow good establishment practices, such as soil testing and preparation, and choosing the best grass variety for your needs. New seed should be planted by mid-October for best results.
The next part of the summer recovery process is controlling weeds that have taken over areas where your lawn is weak. Before you run for a chemical, find out why your grass is weak in these areas and try to fix any problems related to shade, soil compaction, poor fertility, or low mowing height. Weeds usually take over because of poor management weakening the grass.
If you decide to use a herbicide for broadleaf weed control, the best time is after the first killing frost (mid-September to mid-October). Remember, proper weed identification is vital for successful control.
Now let’s think about preparing for the winter. Fertilization is the key! You’ll want to fertilize your lawn twice during this 2½ month period. For best results, take a soil test and follow the recommendations. Make the first fall application in early September. Then after you finish your last mowing, when it’s about 50ºF for two weeks (mid-November), make the second or late-fall fertilizer application. Lime can also be applied during the fall if a soil test shows the pH falling below 6.0. Lawns thrive in the pH range of 6.2 to 7.0. Adequate lime improves nutrient availability and encourages microbes in the soil that help break down clippings and thatch.
Another important fall practice is thatch removal. Thatch is a layer of dead plant material, mostly roots and stems (not clippings), that can build up on the soil surface. Specialized equipment can be rented, your mower could be fitted with a special blade, or a commercial lawn care firm can be hired to remove thatch. Thatch removal should occur when grass is actively growing.
Finally, continue to mow your lawn in fall until grass stops growing (sometime in November). This helps lawns thicken up for the winter. Maintain a 2½- to 3-inch mowing height. Allowing the lawn to get overly long so that it lays over and mats during the winter may cause problems with winter diseases such as snow mold and damaging rodents such as meadow mice.
A good way to handle tree leaves during the fall is with a mower. Either a mulching mower or a regular rotary mower can do the job. A moderate amount of leaves can be mowed over with the grass and just recycled to the lawn with the clippings. This provides nutrients as the grass and leaves compost right on the lawn. If leaf fall is excessive, you should spread them out or remove some to prevent leaves from matting and suffocating the grass underneath.
In summary, if you do nothing else with your lawn all year, take advantage of the 2½ months of late summer to late fall. Proper fertilization and mowing will make your lawn healthy all year.
Reviewed by Nancy Bosold, Penn State Extension Educator, Turfgrass Management
What Tree Is That?
Most of us drive past hundreds of trees in our daily travels about Berks County. Do you notice them at all? Can you name any of them? Knowing just a little about the differences in trees can add much enjoyment to our workaday rounds and can go a long way toward caring properly for trees on our own properties.
Here’s a beginner’s guide to identifying some common trees:
1. Evergreen trees are those which stay green all year, but not all are of the Christmas tree sort with needle-like leaves. There are broadleaf evergreens, too, like hollies and rhododendrons. This winter, scout the landscape for both kinds of evergreens.
2. Conifers are evergreen trees with cones. The most common are pines, firs, spruces, hemlocks, and arborvitae. At first glance these may look similar and are often lumped together by laymen as Christmas trees or pine trees, but they are quite distinct.
Pines have needles that are bound into packets at their base where the needles attach to the stem. A white pine has 5 needles in each packet. Other pines may have 2 or 3 needles per packet.
Spruce trees also have needles but they are individual on the stem. Spruce needles are sharp, square, and stiff, and consequently give a very prickly feel when you handle them. Norway spruce are among the most common in our area. Look for a large evergreen tree with major branches that dip and then swoop upward dramatically away from the trunk. On those lovely upward-swooping branches, you’ll notice smaller branchlets that hang vertically downward.
Fir trees have needles that are flat and “friendly.” Unlike prickly spruces, they are soft to the touch.
Hemlocks are also conifers with soft foliage. Unlike firs, their needles lie flat on either side of the stem. Hemlocks have tiny cones—only one-half to one-inch.
Arborvitae do not have individual needles but rather have scale-like flattened leaves.
3. Deciduous trees are those which drop their leaves annually, usually in the fall, and grow new ones each spring. Oaks, maples, ash, poplar, birch and dogwood are just a few examples of deciduous trees. They are most easily distinguished by their fruit. Oaks produce acorns, maples produce samaras or winged seeds that spiral and spin as they drop through the air.
Birches have long, yellow or tan catkins that hang vertically from the stems.
If you would like to learn more about tree identification, we recommend the following resources. This is a great activity for all ages and most fun with mixed generations!
· The Tree Identification Book, George W.D. Symonds
· The Sibley Guide to Trees, David Allen Sibley
A great online key to guide you through the ID process.
Written by Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator
Fall is for Planning
It’s not too early to dream of next year’s garden. Fall offers an opportunity to get a jump start on next season by planning and preparing ahead of time.
This is a perfect time to do a soil test on your garden, lawn, or landscape plot. The test will tell you if critical nutrients have become depleted or if your soil pH (level of acidity) is too high or too low for optimal growth. Kits are available at the extension office for $9.00 This time of year, the Penn State Analytical Labs are less busy than in spring, and you will usually get results back within 10 days. Once you have Penn State’s analysis and the tailored “recipe” that comes with your report, you can add amendments to your soil to incorporate over the winter.
If you have a vegetable garden, make a map of your present layout with names of all the crops you grew this year. Then sit down in the comfort of your easy chair and map out your 2013 garden, rotating the crops of a given family (legumes, crucifers, nightshades) into parts of the garden that held a different family this year. Rotation evens out nutrient demands and reduces the likelihood of perpetuating disease and insect problems. Call the extension office for more information about vegetable families.
If you grow perennials, fall is a good time to divide most of them. Divide and replant into bare spots or share divisions with family and friends. If you are lifting irises or other plants with tubers or rhizomes, check them for rot before replanting, and remember to plant at the same depth that they enjoyed before.
Fall is also the time to create whole new planting beds for perennials or woody ornamentals. Do you have a section of lawn that needs a new career path? Try the lasagna technique to have a new bed ready for planting by spring: stake out the new bed with an old hose, stakes and string, or gardener’s spray paint. Edge along the markers to create a clean border, but otherwise leave the grass intact. Layer over it with thick sections of newspaper, soaking each layer thoroughly before adding the next. Layer a thickness of 30 sheets or more uniformly over the entire area. Then add quality topsoil, layered with compost, peat, manure or other organic amendment to a total depth of 12-16 inches on top of the soaked newsprint. This will settle over the winter and the paper will deteriorate–but not before killing the grass beneath. By the time you’re ready to plant in the spring, you should have a soil depth of several inches, and your plantings will be able to send down roots through the deteriorated paper into the soil below.
Helping Us To Help You
The majority of the homeowner calls coming into our hort hotline service here at extension concern woody ornamental plants, followed closely by questions to do with struggling lawns. Then we have forays into herbs, insect identification, vegetables, tree fruits, weeds, houseplants, spiders, bonsai, moss, wildlife and more.
Needless to say, diagnosis of plant ailments by phone is a daunting task so when our Master Gardeners pick up the phone, they are probably going to answer your question with a dozen more of their own:
· What plant are you concerned about?
· How old and how big is it?
· How was it planted?
· What symptoms do you see, and when did they appear?
· Have you treated this plant with any pesticides?
· Have you fertilized this plant?
· Is there mulch under or around the plant?
· Has there been construction in the area?
· Have you watered through the drought periods?
· Is the plant in sun or in shade?
· What is the pattern of damage: top? tips? windward side? bottom?
· Is the plant situated where it gets salt spray or runoff?
Only when we have a clear picture of the plant’s identity, history and situation can we begin to understand what might be ailing it, so please be patient with our questioning.
The surest route to a accurate diagnosis is to bring a plant sample to the Penn State Extension office here at the Berks County Ag Center. For a tree or shrub, it should be about 14” long, and should show the leafing and branching pattern along the stem. These patterns are unique to different species and will aid in identification. If the plant is showing symptoms, the sample should include representatives of that damage. Ideally, there should also be some healthy growth on the same branch, for comparison. Samples with no live tissue can only be diagnosed as DOA (dead on arrival). Cut a sample or two just before coming to the office, and pack them in a plastic bag with a dry paper towel. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but bagging a wet sample will produce fungal growth which may not be related to the original problem.
If you are concerned about a fruit or vegetable problem, pack up a sample of both fruit and foliage of the plant.
Alternatively, you can send digital photos to our hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org. They must be close-up, against a neutral background, and quite clear. It may help also to have a long shot or two showing the placement of the plant in its surroundings. Diagnosis by photo is far less reliable than with a live sample, but in some cases, photos can suffice.
Samples can be brought to the office weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. If it is impossible to come during those hours, please call for special arrangements.