Got questions about growing vegetables and fruit in Maine?

Extension experts identifies a plant sample for a client; photo by Edwin Remsberg

Ask the UMaine Extension gardening experts!

With years of experience in home horticulture and commercial agriculture, our experts help beginning gardeners achieve successful harvests, encourage gardeners and commercial farmers to donate excess produce to those in need, and use gardening as a vehicle to develop communities.

If you have a question about growing vegetables and fruit in Maine, you are welcome to


2019 Q&A

Answers are provided by Donna Coffin, Extension Professor, Penobscot & Piscataquis Counties; Caragh Fitzgerald, Associate Extension Professor, Agriculture, UMaine Extension Kennebec County; Kate Garland, Horticultural Professional, UMaine Extension Penobscot County; Kathy Hopkins, Extension Educator, UMaine Extension Somerset County; Tori Jackson, Extension Educator: Agriculture and Natural Resources, UMaine Extension Androscoggin and Sagadahoc Counties; Kathleen McNerney, Home Horticultural Coordinator, UMaine Extension Cumberland County; Marjorie Peronto, Extension Educator, UMaine Extension Hancock and Washington Counties; Elizabeth Stanley, Horticulture Community Education Assistant, UMaine Extension Knox, Lincoln, and Waldo Counties; and Frank Wertheim, Extension Educator, Agriculture/Horticulture, UMaine Extension York County.

rhubarb growing in the gardenQ: What is the best way to harvest rhubarb? I have always cut it with a knife. I have recently heard that it is better to pull a leaf from the ground. Should rhubarb flower stalks be cut down?

A: You can harvest rhubarb either my cutting it right above the base or by pulling and twisting the stalk until it snaps off. Either option works just fine.

Q: I enjoy the fragrance of Stock, but the flowers go to seed so fast, the fragrance is lost in a couple of days after I cut some and bring them into the house. I use a raised garden in Gardiner, ME. Is there any trick to extend the life of Stock’s fragrance, or are there any fragrant flowers with a longer “shelf life” when blooming?

A: Unfortunately, stock doesn’t have a very long shelf life, but one thing you could try before putting the flowers in water is giving the stem one 1/2” vertical cut up the center of the stem. This cut should help the flower take up water more quickly, which will improve it’s shelf life and likely help prolong it’s fragrance.

I would also recommend planting Dianthus, Snapdragons, and Sweet Pea, if you prefer fragrant cut flowers.

Q: How do we keep the critters and birds from eating all the cherries on our tree without doing something toxic?

A: The best way to keep critters and birds from eating all of your cherries is to use bird netting. It can be a little time consuming setting up and breaking down, but it’ll ensure you’ll be able to enjoy some of those cherries.

Q: I have just planted some Ranunculus in a container, do these have to be dug up for the winter? I live in Winterport, Maine. I am not sure what zone I am in.

A: You are in zone 5B. Ranunculus is treated as an annual in Maine, so it would be dug in the fall and planted in spring. Lift the corm when the foliage yellows and begins to dry out. Allow the corm to dry off for several days before storing in a crate packed with peat moss in a cool, dry location until it’s time to replant next year.

Q: Can I use Hemlock shredded mulch on my perennial garden on Swan’s Island? Is it too acidic, or more acidic than a cedar mulch?

A: Shredded hemlock mulch is absolutely fine to use in your perennial gardens and will not result in a significant alternation of your soil pH.

Q: We have a nice wild cherry tree at our lot in Denmark. I was curious if we pruned and fed it would it produce larger cherries? There is another tree nearby for cross pollination.

A: Fruit size is more closely associated with the genetics of the plant and seasonal moisture conditions than fertility and pruning. Pruning the wild cherry is certainly not a bad idea, but won’t necessarily lead to larger fruit. It’s best to take care of that task in late winter/early spring before the buds begin to swell. Fertilizing native plants in their native soils is generally not necessary. You can always do a soil test to make sure there isn’t any nutrient limitations or pH adjustments that might be needed, but I wouldn’t add anything without that information first.

Q: What are some small compact flowering shrubs that grow no taller than two feet and like full sun about 3/4 of the day? I live in the Westbrook Maine area. My soil is mostly clay, but I have amended all my garden beds with compost, peat moss and bags of garden soil.

A: There are a lot of great options for your site. Some that quickly come to mind are:

  • Clethera alnifolia ‘Crystalina’ or ‘Sugartina’
  • Cotoneaster apiculatus
  • Deutzia gracilis (there are a few different low-growing varieties)
  • Fothergilla gardenii
  • Hydrangea paniculata (there are several low-growing options)
  • Iberis sempervivans
  • Spirea (numerous low-growing options)
  • Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’
  • Rhododendron ‘Purple Gem’

Q: I have bishops weed and snow on the mountain, is there any hope of getting rid of it?

A: There’s hope, but it’s important to be persistent and patient. It’s best to start by trying to remove as much of the root system as possible using a garden fork to loosen the soil deeply before weeding. Grab every single piece of root – each one has the potential to develop into a new plant. As you can imagine, getting every little bit is impossible. Therefore, the next step is to place a physical barrier, such as cardboard topped with bark mulch or wood chips, for a season before installing new plants in that area. If you’re in a hurry to replant, monitor the new planting on a very frequent basis for any strays that pop up. It’s reasonable to expect that strays will pop up for many years after initial eradication efforts. Be sure to your best to not let them get a foothold again!

Straw washing up on shoreQ: We live on a small cove on the Sheepscot River. There is a lot of what looks like straw that has washed up on shore, particularly after windy days. Can I clear this off? It seems to be killing the natural grass-like plants below it. Someone has told me that it is a good fertilizer which can be used around other garden plants, is this true?

A: I reached out to our friends at Maine Sea Grant and they suspect that it’s last years’ shoots of Phragmites, an invasive plant that’s spread over much of Maine and the northeast. It’s possible that the native vegetation will grow up through it eventually, but it doesn’t hurt to pull it away and use it as a mulch in your garden. I doubt that it will provide a significant amount of fertility, but it can serve as a good weed barrier and help keep moisture in the soil.

Q: My daughter’s garden in Portland is invaded with Artemesia vulgaris. I have tried to dig it up twice, but it has come back with a vengeance. How can I permanently remove it?

A: A. vulgaris is a very challenging invasive perennial to manage. In most home landscape situations, the best approach is to mow the patch very closely to the ground and cover with cardboard topped with some type of heavier mulch (bark mulch or wood chips both work well). You’ll want to wait at least a year or two before removing that barrier and planting something else in that area. If there are any perennials growing within that patch that you’d like to rescue, dig them up, carefully weed out any A. vulgaris roots, and temporarily transplant them into pots. I recommend potting them so you can monitor them for any A. vulgaris stowaways. If you’re looking for chemical control options, I’d like to talk with you on the phone first to gather more site details such as the size of the patch, proximity to surface water, other nearby plants and whether it’s near a well.

Plum tree, with dries leaves and new leavesQ: I have two plum trees that have bloomed beautifully since I planted them about eight or nine years ago. In the last few years I’ve gotten great, small plums. This year the blossoms dried up before opening and there are no leaves. Any ideas?

A: I noticed some new growth in the photo. Therefore, I’d give it some time to hopefully recover. I suspect that you’re dealing with some winter damage as well as new growth that was hit by the cold and wet weather we had this spring.

I recommend sending us a sample, here’s information on how to submit a plant sample to our Diagnostic Lab.

Q: Two dogwoods, 13 years and never a problem. Loaded with buds, but did not bloom this year. Are they possibly gone as a result of the Maine winter? Should I have them removed, or give them more time?

A: After talking with the client, we determined that the lack of growth is very likely due to winter injury. Many other well-established (previously healthy) woody plants in her windy site are also suddenly having a lot of dieback. The stems are green when they’re gently scratched, so there’s likely still plenty of life in the tissue to rebound. With the slow spring we’ve been having, it’s very understandable that the new growth hasn’t emerged just yet. A lot can happen when the weather warms in the coming weeks. She’s going to take the wait and see approach.

Q: Do the following need to be cut back in the fall? Also, when is the best time to trim and shape Arborvitae used for a screen?

  • Rudbeckia
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Phlox (full sized)
  • Bee Balm
  • Columbine
  • Hydrangea

A: You can cut back any herbaceous plant in the fall, which would be Rudbeckia, Shasta Daisy, Phlox, Bee Balm, and Columbine on your list. Hydrangea is a woody plant, so it shouldn’t be cut back in the fall, but you can prune it as needed.

The best time to trim and shape Arborvitae is in the early Spring when buds are swelling, but before they begin to elongate.

Q: I live in Bath, where we’ve had a long, cool/cold spring with plenty of moisture. I think one of my peonies may have Phytophthora Blight. Is this a known problem in Maine?

A: It is very unlikely Phytophthora Blight is the issue. Phytophthora Blight is generally an issue on woody plants with the exception of potatoes. There’s a good chance it could be Botrytis, which has been identified on similar plants this Spring throughout the state. The symptoms of Botrytis are dead or dying flower parts, stems, and/or leaves or the appearance of gray mold.

If you’d like to confirm Botrytis is the issue, you can send in a plant sample to our lab in Orono. You will also find instructions and the submission form for plant samples. It is best to send your sample early in the week (Monday or Tuesday), so that the lab receives the sample as soon as possible.

We can sometimes identify the problem via photos, so please feel free to email me a few photos of your peony and we’ll see if we can identify the issue.

Q: Can I transplant Lunaria plants from Connecticut to Boothbay Harbor successfully? Will it thrive?

A: What species of Lunaria are you trying to relocate? If it’s Lunaria annua, it will be hardy enough to overwinter in Boothbay Harbor and re-seed reliably. Since it’s a biennial, L. annua would be best to propagate from seed rather than transporting the actual parent plant. Plus, it’s best to avoid transporting home-grown field-dug plants as the soil surrounding the roots can possibly carry unwanted species into our state.

apple tree damaged by sapsuckersQ: What is doing this to our apple tree?

A: It looks like sapsucker damage. Sapsuckers and other woodpeckers can be tough to discourage once they get established in a certain area. Hardware cloth wrapped around damaged areas can help protect those spots from further damage, but won’t keep the birds from choosing another spot on the same tree to feed. Using protective measures along with scare tactics (hanging pie pans, reflective strips, fake owls, etc.) may enough deter the birds. See the fact sheet Woodpeckers and Sapsuckers from the University of Maryland Extension for more information.

Q: I just built some raised beds, but am not sure what type of soil to fill them with. I was thinking I should use a mixture of loam and compost. If that is a good choice, could you tell me what ratio of compost to loam I should use? If it’s not a good choice, could you suggest a better one? I will be hopefully be growing vegetables in the beds (tomatoes, kale, zucchini, cucumber, Brussels sprouts).

A: You are right, a mixture of loam and compost works well for raised bed gardens. We like to see at least 25% by volume as compost and 75% loam. If you mix it in a wheelbarrow, then you could add one 5-gallon bucket of compost to three 5-gallon buckets of loam. Our fact sheet, Gardening in Small Spaces, has some more information on raised bed gardens.

HorsetailQ: I began preparing a 50 x 100 foot area near our house three years ago and put in six large raised beds for growing vegetables for our family. When we prepared the area, we tilled it with a tractor to help level it and take out some of the brush and roots that were there. I’m afraid in doing so that we spread what may have been a small patch of horsetail into a much larger area. Since then it has grown up through the 2 feet of new soil in the raised beds and is peaking out of any area we have tried to cover with tarps or heavy landscape fabric. I’m afraid it is going to take over the whole garden we have been working so hard to establish. What is the best way to eradicate it? I don’t think digging it up is an option. Should we spray? Or till and tarp? So far, covering it with heavy duty tarps (not silage), it continues to grow. It is just so disheartening.

A: Horsetail is an ancient plant that can be hard to control. Our cranberry site has a page about controlling horsetail in cranberries that suggests lowering the pH and improving the drainage. If you haven’t already done so, you should do a soil test of your raised bed soils and adjust as needed. You could also do a separate soil test for the walkways and if the pH is near 6.0, you may want to think about using sulfur to lower the pH just in the walkways between the raised beds.

The University of Illinois Extension has a website on the control of horsetail. It is interesting that they suggest a slightly higher pH may help with control. They also suggest improved drainage and to reduce irrigation. They have a number of herbicide suggestions that can be tried too. Whenever using a pesticide be sure to read and follow label directions.

Q: For the last two years we have had trouble with Black Spot fungus on our tomatoes. How do we remedy this problem? We live in Brunswick, growing in organically enriched raised beds.

A: I suspect your tomatoes have Septoria Leaf Spot. We have a factsheet, Septoria Leaf Spot of Tomato, on the disease with suggested management actions you can take.

  • Be sure the tomatoes are spaced apart so there is good air movement. Staking or trellising can help.
  • Hand pick the lower leaves as they start to show symptoms.
  • Stay out of the area when leaves are wet.
  • Water early in the day so leaves won’t be wet in the evening.
  • Be sure plants get adequate nutrition.

You can use organic fungicides to prevent infection. Start with a copper based spray as soon as possible and repeat every  7 to 14 days. A list of fungicides is included in the fact sheet.

Of course, be sure to read and follow pesticide label directions.

You may want to send a picture of the leaves or send the leaves themselves into our Plant Disease Lab, to confirm Septoria Leaf Spot. Other tomato diseases such as early or late blight have disease resistant varieties that can be used in the garden.

Q: I have a large vegetable garden that I have been carefully tending for 30 years. I regularly add compost that my husband lovingly makes. In a few small areas there are liverworts and moss growing. I read online that this can be an issue of soil compaction and poor drainage, and that I should add compost. Is there likely to be a pH issue also? Do liverworts thrive on acid soils or basic soils?

A: You are right that mosses and liverworts prefer compacted, poorly drained soils. They also prefer shady areas.

Mosses do prefer acid soils, but before you start adding lime to sweeten the soil, you should do a soil test. Here is our information on soil testing.

In 2017 we had a similar question about liverworts. Here is the response we gave then.

What you have growing in your garden is a type of liverwort, a prehistoric plant that typically grows in a shady, moist environment. Liverwort is sometimes a serious problem for large-scale growers of container plants and greenhouse growers. Research showed that drying the surface, then mulching, limited it. Nowadays, that’s the reason many pots are mulched with gravel or filbert shells.

In your garden:

  • As much as possible, allow the soil surface to dry. Perhaps water less often, but longer for each session, so that your desirable plants continue to thrive.
  • Use fertilizer judiciously, reducing the amount you use and, when you do use it, place it around individual plants that need it, then lightly scratch it into the soil.
  • Because liverwort has shallow roots, it’s easily scraped off the soil surface; then add an inch or two depth of mulch of your choice.
  • Repeat the above as needed, while realizing you must be persistent. It’s important to know that most herbicides won’t work. The reason: liverwort isn’t a vascular “plant.” Then, too, no home-use products are labeled for liverwort.

Liverwort (PDF) from the Oregon State University Department of Horticulture was written for commercial operations, but is helpful information. For more general information, see liverworts, which are actually quite interesting plants!

Unhealthy leaves on peach treeQ: Our new peach tree has a brown crinkley situation throughout on its leaves. Also, one of our lupines looks wilted and has odd misshapen leaves. Any advice?

A: It looks like your peach has Peach Leaf Curl. Our Growing Fruit Trees in Maine website says the following:

Peach leaf curl causes leaves to become thickened and puckered. In some cases, the leaves develop an orange or red color. Infection occurs just as buds begin to swell in spring, but symptoms do not appear until a month after bloom. Wet weather favors infection. The varieties Avalon Pride, Betty, Elberta, Frost, Harken and Redhaven have some resistance.

A single fungicide spray before bud burst in spring will give nearly complete control. Effective fungicides include copper sulfate, Bordeaux mixture and chlorothalanil. When a high degree of control is desired, apply one of these before buds swell. Once infection occurs, this disease cannot be controlled.

Wilted lupineI’m not sure what is happening to your lupines. Have you sprayed anything near them? Used any lawn clippings that had been treated with a herbicide? Is there any feeding damage to the stem near the ground? Did you have a frost that may have affected part of the plant that was least protected by the house or other vegetation?

Sorry, I only have questions, not answers for your Lupine question.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads
Ostrich fern fiddleheads. Photo by David Fuller.

Q: Where can I find fiddlehead plants?

A: Fiddleheads or Ostrich ferns can be hard to grow. You need to have the right location. Ostrich ferns grow primarily along stream and river floodplains in part shade, under the canopy of trees such as red and silver maples and brown ash. Our bulletin, Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads includes information on ostrich fern biology, identification, season, sustainable harvesting guidelines, safe handling tips, and marketing considerations.

We do have a fact sheet, Native Plants: A Maine Source List, that a number of nurseries have indicated they carry native ferns. They may or may not be Ostrich or Fiddlehead ferns, but this is the best list we have for potential sources of plants or spores.

Q: I have been hesitant to plant my tomato seedlings outside, because the weather has been so cool. Do you think it is safe to plant them outside? I live in Brunswick.

A: May 30 in southern, coastal Maine, you should be fine planting your tomato seedlings in your vegetable garden. I still watch the evening weather report just to be sure a frost isn’t predicted. If there is a frost you can cover your plants to protect them.

We do have a planting chart for central Maine. You can plant a week ahead of these dates.  We also have a site that has suggestions for keeping your gardening growing from spring to fall.

Q: How do I get rid of Oriental Bittersweet? After I cut it out, how should I dispose of the cuttings?  Do I need to use a herbicide? Is there a safe brand?

A: Oriental Bittersweet is one of Maine’s invasive species. The Maine Department of Agriculture has a website devoted to Oriental & Asian Bittersweet.  That includes a lot of links for identification and control.

Cutting before they go to seed is best. If you had a small patch, you could try to dig up the roots too.

Once the stems are cut, you should bag the tops and take to the landfill as trash.
Immediately after cutting you could do a stem treatment with either triclopyr or glyphosate herbicides by a cut stem application. You can use a foam paint brush to brush the herbicide on the cut stems. See the label directions for mixing with water. Read and follow label directions. You can do the cut stem treatment anytime the plants are actively growing, but before cold weather.

potatoes; photo by Edwin RemsbergQ: I have some seed potatoes from my garden last season. The eyes have grown to skinny stalks, four to six inches long. Should I clip them back to an inch or so before planting?

A: Hopefully you have certified seed potato and not potatoes that you harvested last fall. Usually potatoes don’t last a year and a half. That being said, the four to six inch long stalks should be planted with the tuber. Just lay them down in the row and cover with soil. Potatoes stems will develop “adventitious” roots when in contact with the soil. I would not plan on a huge harvest and suggest purchasing some certified seed to round out your garden. Our factbsheet, Growing Potatoes in the Home Garden, has a list of suggested varieties.

Q: We live in Kennebunkport, Maine. Can we plant our vegetables outside at this time, Memorial Day?

A: May 27, in southern, coastal Maine, you should be fine planting your vegetable garden. I still watch the evening weather report just to be sure a frost isn’t predicted. If there is a frost you can cover your plants to protect them.

We do have a planting chart for central Maine. You can plant a week ahead of these dates.  We also have a site that has suggestions for keeping your gardening growing from spring to fall.

Q: When can I move my vegetables outside in Maine?

A: It depends where you live and what you are planning to plant. Cold tolerant crops (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) can be put in as soon as the garden soils are prepared. Cold sensitive crops (peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.) can be planted in southern Maine or along the coast May 25th. Central Maine gardeners should wait another week to June 1st. and Aroostook gardeners may want to wait a little longer. You should still check the weather in the evening to be sure no frost is expected. If frost is expected, cover cold sensitive crops. We have a website with a planting chart that can help determine when to plant in the garden.

Soils should be 55 degrees, 3 inches down before crops can be seeded. If you have a well drained garden you may have warm enough soils. Seeds treated with a fungicide can tolerate cooler soils.

We have another interesting website that includes a chart so you can have vegetables coming all summer long with spring to fall plantings.

Unhealthy Raspberry CaneQ: Last year’s raspberry plants (purchased in 2016) grew well and then wilted and died in one area of one row. This year in the same row but not the same area, canes were growing well with lots of leaves and then yesterday I found some canes had rotted off at the base. What would be the treatment for this condition and treatment for the currently healthy plants? The ground is sloping and not heavy clay.

A: It is hard to tell from the picture, but if there is a small hole or black spot in the middle of the cane then you could have cane borers. They will affect the new growth and will cause a classic shepherds hook at the top of the cane where the female laid her egg and girdled the stem. If you see them this year, cut them off just below the two girdling rings, and throw away, do not compost. UNH has a nice factsheet on Raspberry Cane Borer (pdf).

If you don’t see any hole in the center of the cane, then you may have root rot. It is usually a problem in poorly drained soils. To be sure, you can dig up the plant that isn’t doing well. If it only has a few roots and if you strip the bark from the root and it looks reddish brown underneath, then you may have root rot. You can send a sample to our plant pathologist to be sure. Go to  UMaine Extension Insect Pests, Ticks and Plant Diseases to print a submission form. Complete the form and mail it along with the plant sample. Also, see Penn State’s factsheet on Phytophthora Root Rot.

Q: We have a very productive raised-bed garden outside of our office. This winter we had rats (woodrats, we were told) in our building. They were exterminated. Now there is concern that we should not grow vegetables because rats likely live nearby. Is there any reason to not have a garden because rats may live near by?

A: If there is no evidence of rats digging in your garden, I would think you should be fine. We do have guidelines for folks planning to use fresh manure in their garden to wait to harvest 90 days for vegetable harvested from the aerial parts of the plant (like peppers) and 120 days for root vegetables (like radishes).

unhealthy cotoneasterQ: My cotoneaster starts out fine in the spring but halfway through the last two summers they succumb to some sort of blight or fungus. The leaves begin to turn brown, dry out, and crumble. Is there anything I can spray on them? The plants cover a large area of my garden and are about 16 years old. Some branches are starting to die.

A: Cotoneaster can be susceptible to Fireblight, winter injury, or drought. I can’t tell from your picture what may be happening with your plants. To rule out Fireblight, you could send a sample that includes twigs with both diseased and healthy leaves to our plant disease diagnostic lab. The UMaine Extension: Insect Pests, Ticks and Plant Diseases web page will tell you how to collect, package, and send your sample along with the submission form to let them know more about the plant. They should be able to give you an idea of what is wrong with your plants.

Q: I live in the town of Penobscot in Hancock County. Quite a few years ago, I planted a peach tree and the last few years, it’s flowered (like right now), started growing many little peaches, and then, the peaches were covered in some bug/beetles that killed all of the peaches. It’s so discouraging. What are these bugs and what can I do to save my peaches? I haven’t even gotten one!

A: You are lucky to be in an area of Maine where peach trees can survive the winter. Have you been able to take any pictures of the bugs that are attaching to the baby peaches? Are you using any insecticide to manage insect pests on the peaches? Our website “Growing Peaches in Maine” provides some cultural suggestions to follow. This year, if the bugs attach, please try to take a picture or collect a few and get them to your local UMaine Extension Hancock County office.

Q: Does your organization sell saplings? In particular, I’m looking for six red maples. If you do not, could you recommend someone who does?

A: Many county Soil and Water Conservation Districts have plant sales that include trees and shrubs. They are usually by pre-order that occurs earlier in the year.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry maintains a list of licensed nurseries. You can search for location to see if there is someone near you.

apples on treeQ: We have a yellow transparent apple tree that produces apples that are attacked by birds, hornets, caterpillars, and ants, causing the fruit to get circled, eaten from within, and otherwise destroyed. Is there any product or practice that can help us avoid the problems?

A: As you have seen, apple trees can attract a variety of pests. The bird damage to the apples can attract hornets and ants to feed on the inside of the apples. There are caterpillars that feed on the fruit and also some that feed on leaves. Our web page Growing Fruit Trees in Maine: Insect Pests includes a number of organic and non-organic pesticides that can control insects that feed on the fruit or leaves.

Some of the leaf eater insects may also build a web or nest in the tree, like Eastern Tent Caterpillars. Our factsheet on this pest recommends removing the nest when you first see it to control them.

Applying netting to a tree can prevent bird damage, but any fruit next to the netting may be damaged. Some home gardeners build a frame around their tree (if it is a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree) and suspend nylon bird netting from the frame. Some home gardeners use scare devices like streamers, plastic owls, aluminum pie plates hung on the tree or balloons with large “eyes” on them.

peach shootQ: What should I spray my peach tree with?

A: This time of year we are thinking about controlling Brown Rot on the blossoms and twigs of peaches and other stone fruit. First be sure you remove any mummified fruit still on the tree or on the ground. These are a source of infection.

There are a number of fungicides that can be used by the home gardener and our factsheet Brown Rot of Stone Fruit lists both organic and non-organic fungicides. Be sure to read and follow label directions.

Timing is important. Fungicides should be sprayed just as the blossoms start to open and again when most blossoms are open, to protect for blossom and twig blight caused by brown rot.

Pruning will help increase air movement in the trees and is another cultural control.

raised bed gardenQ: My husband and I raise vegetables in the woods of western Maine using raised beds. For the past few years, we have been plagued with blight, which impacts our tomatoes and other nightshade plants. In the Fall, we clean up by placing all plants, stems, etc. in black plastic bags, which are placed in the trash. Yet, we continue to have blight issues. This year we have taken down the retaining walls for these raised beds, but have left the soil. I think we should scrape off the soil and remove it to the woods. My husband says that removing the soil and replacing it with clean soil from away will not work since the spores probably continue in the area. So, we are wondering what you might suggest at this point. We plan to leave our vegetable garden fallow this year and are willing to learn if there is anything we can do to remediate (eradicate) this problem. We use compost that we make from kitchen scraps, debris from flower gardens, and leaves. Could this also be an unwitting source of our problem?

A: It sounds like you have been doing a number of things to reduce the incidence of blight. Have you had the disease diagnosed to see if it is late blight or early blight?

You mentioned you are in the woods. Does your garden get at least 6 hours of unfiltered light?
Do you grow your tomatoes on trellis or poles to get them up away from the ground? When you do this, do you also thin the plants so plenty of air circulates around the leaves?

Are you using any of the disease resistant varieties of tomato? The New England Vegetable Management Guide lists a number of Early Blight and Late Blight disease resistant tomato varieties.

We do have a fact sheet on Early Blight of Tomato that has a number of cultural recommendations as well as fungicide options.

Q: What happened to my rhododendrons this winter? The leaves are all brown. Are the plants dead? Diseased?

Rhododendrons in bloomA: The answer to this question comes from Carol Yee, Carol’s Collectibles Nursery:

The wind was the worst in Maine since I’ve been here 10 years. I have never seen such desiccation on so many Rhodies. Ice instead of good snow cover didn’t help. I advise that you don’t panic and wait to see them come along with their new growth. You can clip off the dried leaves at any point and if the stems look dried scrape a tiny bit to see if green shows. If stems are brown cut them also until you come to green. Just in case, dispose of all this somewhere safely away from your plant.

Four years ago, the voles loved the freedom to tunnel under the huge snows of that year. When I uncovered the Rhodies there wasn’t a leaf or bud on any of the hundred or so. No sales that year but every one refoliated by Summer and bloomed the next year!

Keep the faith! I believe they will be okay.

Q: I have a question about trees. Between my house and my neighbor’s commercial building is a space of about 15-20 feet. Both structures are about 150 years old with granite foundations. I planted some trees, Blue spruce and fir, about 16 years ago between the properties. The neighbor is worried about their roots impacting his foundation. How can I find out if that is a risk? The trees are very tall now. There are four of them. No damage seen as yet.

A: Whether a tree will cause damage to foundations depends on the type of tree, growing conditions at the site, and how close to the building foundation. Pine family species (fir, spruce, pine) usually cause the least amount of damage to foundations and sidewalks, but if the distance between your two properties is only 20 feet that means there is only 10 feet between the tree and a foundation. If the roots don’t become a problem, the overhanging branches will be an issue in the future. A factsheet from Michigan State University, Reducing Damage Caused by Tree Roots, suggests some cultural practices of not watering or fertilizing the soil near the foundations to discourage root growth. Eventually the trees will need to be cut down and replaced since they will outgrow that space.

Q: I planted two three-foot-high Aronias about two weeks ago and now need to move them to another location. If I’m careful to get all of the roots, would that be a problem?

A: That should be fine. If we don’t get rain, be sure to water regularly until they get established.

Q: What “creature” turns my onion sets upside down and puts them in piles?

A: That is an interesting question. You could set out a game camera to try to catch the culprit. Do you leave a small bit of the set sticking up out of the soil after it is planted? Birds might mistake that for a worm and pull it up. I don’t know why they would put them all in one pile.

When you plant them again, be sure to cover the dried leaves of the end of the set with soil.

Q: I have established perennial gardens and the soil is not level in some places (after removing weeds), so I need to add some soil. I have been using Coast of Maine Dark Harbor blend each year. What should I use to add quality soil to areas of my garden. Also, I unfortunately have found some horsetail growing in my garden. I have cut it at the base and put in a ziploc bag and then placed some black tarp at the spot held in place with a rock. Will this do it?

horsetail, Equisetum arvense
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

A: Coast of Maine Dark Harbor Blend is meant to be a mulch, not a garden soil. If your plants are showing signs of nutrient deficiency, you should look for either a material that has the term “soil” or “”growing mix” on the label. You could also add soil nutrients by using compost or garden fertilizer such as 10-10-10.

Regarding the horsetail, if the infestation is small, continue cutting off the tops of the plants as they emerge. If a large infestation and a tarp is used, the tarp needs to be large enough to slow the plant emergence at the edges. Horsetail doesn’t do well in shade so encouraging other plants to grow and shade the soil is an option.

University of Illinois has an interesting factsheet on Field Horsetail: A Unique But Aggressive Plant.

Q: What is the best way to diagnose and then get rid of chinch bugs in a suburban lawn? Are there grasses that are resistant to them? Are there natural predators that can be introduced? Is it necessary to spray? How quickly can they spread to other lawns in the area?

A: We have a factsheet on Chinch Bugs that suggests using a coffee can with both ends cut off and pressed into the soil then filled with water to detect chinch bugs in your lawn. If you have any, they will float to the top. You can bring a sample into your local extension office for identification. Because the adult chinch bugs can fly, it is difficult to keep them out of your lawn. In the fall, sanitation may remove potential over-wintering sites. If you choose to use an insecticide, early June is the time to spray. See the factsheet for suggested insecticides.

A factsheet from Penn State University, Chinch Bugs in Home Lawns, includes some other non-chemical recommendations. They suggest using an endophyte enhanced fescue or ryegrass seed can  repel chinch bug. They also suggest that fertilization and irrigation can hide chinch bug infestations. Big eyed bugs are a primary predator of chinch bugs.

If you are willing to include clover in your lawn seeding mixture, it can fill in the areas where the grass is damaged by chinch bugs.

Q: I forced pots of tulips over the winter, they have bloomed nicely and have been on the deck now for two or three weeks. The foliage is ripening, still green, and I want to use some fertilizer to help the bulbs so that I can plant them in the ground in the fall. What do you recommend?

Secondly: I have vigorously raked the lawn at the edges of the walkway where snow banks, ice, and salt has badly damaged the grass. Two weeks ago I applied gypsum pellets, which I know will dissolve slowly. I will sow grass seed. What variety do you suggest and how do I prepare the area for maximum success?

tulipsA: Most tulips that have been forced usually will not bloom again when planted outdoors. That said, many gardeners like to try. Fertilizing at this late stage in their growth won’t make a difference. Keep them moist and in full sun until the leaves turn yellow and dry. Once the leaves are dried, remove the bulbs from the soil and keep in a dry location. Replant in the fall.

For reseeding the edges of your lawn by the walkways, remember the seed has to have good contact with the soil, so it will only work where there is bare soil. We have a factsheet on lawn maintenance that includes suggested grass varieties. Since this is like to occur every year, you may want to include annual rye in your grass seed, so it will come up quick.

To reduce salt damage in the future you could consider Alternative Ice Melters that are outlined in this UCONN factsheet.

Q: Are Forget-Me-Nots considered to be invasive? They are spreading in my garden, but are nice for early spring flowers.

Naturalized forget-me-nots
Naturalized Forget-Me-Nots, Saint Albans, Maine.

A: In other states Forget-Me-Nots are considered invasive since it is a non-native and spreads readily. But in Maine it is not on our official Maine invasive Plant List.

There are many types of Forget-Me-Nots:

  • Myosotis sylvatica or Annual Forget-Me-Not is listed as a plant that does well in dry, shady areas on our page Plants for Very Dry Soil Shady Locations.
  • Myosotis scorpioides L. or true Forget-Me-Not is a perennial that is listed as invasive in other states. The USDA Plants website lists its legal status.

For ideas on what to plant, see Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape: Plants to Use and Plants to Avoid.

Q: About 3 years ago I planted a bag of daffodil bulbs in two raised gardens approximately 15 feet apart. The first year they blossomed nicely. The second year there were much fewer flowers in the right-hand garden. This year the right-hand garden did not blossom at all, while the other garden again bloomed satisfactorily. I decided to dig the bulbs up that were not blooming and was quite surprised by what I found. All the bulbs were about the size of green onions and there were at least 50 of them. I’ve always let the foliage die back after blossoming even though I consider it unsightly! The small bulbs look healthy as does the foliage. Do you have any idea what might have happened here?

daffodilsA: I can see why this would bring out the curiosity. If the bulbs aren’t blossoming this spring that means they weren’t able to store enough energy last year. You said you wait till the leaves die back before you cut them off — good job. Also, I assume you planted all bulbs at 3 times the height of the bulb. Smaller bulbs would be shallower and bigger bulbs would be deeper. Planting too shallow or too deep can affect how the daffodils grow. I also assume to fertilized the beds the same amount.

Growing in shady conditions in May and June can reduce blossoms. Also, poor drainage will reduce plant vitality and so reduce blossoms.

The bulbs that didn’t flower this year can be dug, separated, and replanted as long as the location gets plenty of sun and is well drained.

Q: Winter moths have been unkind to my apple trees. I used nematodes in August for grub control, banded the trees in fall, and cut out the deadwood this spring. I’d like to fertilize them with holes around the drip line and I’m wondering if 4.1.1 is the best choice? Is there a formula that has less nitrogen and more of something more beneficial for their recovery? Not really concerned with fruit harvest and more interested in recovering from the shock of being defoliated.

A: Usually trees can take one year of defoliation with no ill affects. Multiple years of defoliation will set the tree back. You may want to remove the blossoms to reduce the stress on the tree.
A fertilizer with the ration 4-1-1 actually has 4% nitrogen, 1% phosphorous, and 1% potash. Nitrogen stimulates leaf growth, phosphorous stimulates root growth, and potash helps the whole plant. The amount of fertilizer you use is also important. Our website Growing Fruit Trees in Maine has a page on fertilizing fruit trees says that:

The amount of fertilizer to add will also vary with tree age and size. The recommended rate in the first few years after planting is ½ ounce nitrogen per tree. Fertilizer that contains 10% nitrogen (10-10-10) should be applied at a rate of five ounces of fertilizer to get ½ oz. of actual nitrogen. For mature semi-dwarf trees, apply 3 oz. of nitrogen in a three-foot diameter circle around the base of the tree. Fertilizer that contains 10% nitrogen (10-10-10) can be applied at a rate of 30 oz. of fertilizer per tree to get 3 oz. of nitrogen. Apply only 10 oz. of 10-10-10 to dwarf apple trees.

Whether you should drill holes and insert the fertilizer around the drip line, is a matter of how much time and energy you have. The nitrogen component of the fertilizer is water soluble and will move very quickly through the soil profile without the use of holes. The phosphorous and potash move very slowly and so would help roots access these nutrients quicker if put in holes. According to a UMass Amherst factsheet on Fertilizing Trees and Shrubs, holes should be 8 to 12 inches deep and spaced 2-3 feet apart in concentric rings around the tree, starting a third of the way out and extending 2 to 3 feet beyond the drip line.

Q: I have five 25-lb bags of an organic lawn booster (Organica, 8-1-1, contains Corn Gluten Meal) and two 20-lb (same company-Organica) of a Microbial Soil Conditioner. They have been stored for many years. I’ve learned that the corn gluten meal can enhance weed growth, depending on the time of application. My question is how would you recommend I dispose of these materials? I’d rather not apply them to my lawn.

A: Since your soil amendments are derived from organic sources, some of the nutritional value may be reduced due to long time storage, but would still be able to provide some nutrients to plants. The corn gluten meal will suppress seeds from germinating and can act as a fertilizer to plants (including weeds) that are actively growing.

If they are still dry and flowable and you don’t want to use them on your lawn or garden, you could give them away to a community garden or garden club in your area. If you need help finding them, you could contact your town or city hall.

apple trees in blossom
Lyle E. Littlefield Ornamentals Trial Garden, located at the University of Maine.

Q: I have seven old apple trees. I have never pruned them, they are too tall. I have every year given them a basic fertilizer, and mulched with mown leaves. The apples are small and sour and the trees have some dead branches that need removal. I would like to get someone to prune, fertilize, and look after them this year for me. I wondered if either a class learning tree care would want to help with this, or if you knew someone I could hire for this?

A: Pruning an old apple tree can improve the size of the fruit, but the variety impacts the flavor more. If the fruit tastes sour and they are ripe and that is a flavor you desire, then I would encourage you to prune and manage the trees. The State of Maine maintains a list of licensed arborists that that you can search by town.

But if you are looking for a sweeter apple, you may want to consider planting an improved variety. Our webpage Growing Fruit Trees in Maine has some suggested varieties that are disease resistant.

Q: My question is about the safety of home gardening with yards treated with pesticides for ticks and mosquitos. We currently live in a Hampden neighborhood on a 1.5 acre plot. The majority of our neighbors have their yards treated for ticks and mosquitos. We have had the exterior perimeter of our house treated for pests by a commercail pest company and my husband has treated the perimeter of our yard with an at-home insecticide for ticks. I’m a mom to an almost two year old and I try to be a conscientious by buying mostly organic produce and from our farmer’s market. I am hoping to do a couple of small raised garden beds with my son, but I’ve been hesitant about what the likelihood of contamination from pesticides from possibly our neighbors’ yards or our perimeter treatment and the safety of that.

Woman sprays insect repellent into her handA: Thank you for your questions. We are all concerned about being bitten by a tick and it sounds like you and your neighbors are being proactive about keeping ticks at bay. We do have a Tick Lab that has a web page with a lot of information, including a page on Landscape Management for Ticks.

It sounds like you have only treated the perimeter of your property with pesticides. We use a set-back recommendation of 25 feet from a well when spraying a pesticide, so if your garden spot is at least 25 feet away from where they sprayed, you should be fine.

You still should use something to deter ticks when you are outside (Personal Protection) and also be diligent about checking for ticks when you come in.

Q: I need to transplant some very well established high bush blueberries to a new home. What is the best way to do this? Should I remove buds before transfer, how much of the roots do I need, and when is the best time of year to transfer? Anything you can tell me to keep the bushes alive would be so helpful.

highbush blueberriesA: This is a good time of year to be planting shrubs, but digging up a large well established high bush blueberry plant will be very stressful on the plant. First you should do a heavy pruning of the branches leaving only 5 to 6 of the healthiest branches. The larger the root ball you can dig the better, but you will need to be able to move it out of the hole. Pruning the top and removing fruit buds will try to balance the amount of roots that will be pruned in the process of digging them up.

We have a factsheet on selection, planting, and care of trees and shrubs in the Maine landscape that gives information about transplanting wild plants that may give you some ideas.

Once transplanted, be vigilant about watering.

If you have some plant mortality and want to replace with new plants, here is our factsheet on Growing Highbush Blueberries.

Q: My garden beds and compost piles have been taken over by the Asian snake or jumping worm. Has any progress been made in researching how to control these (I’ve read what I can find on the internet)? Is UMaine doing any research or tracking their progress in the state? I’m in southern York County and am concerned about how fast they spread and the damage they will do to my garden as well as the surrounding forests.

A: That is a tough question. No doubt you have already found the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry website on Crazy Worms in Maine that includes information on what you can do and how you can report the presence of them in your area. I don’t know of any active research being conducted here in Maine, but the University of Vermont Entomology Research Laboratory has a page devoted Invasive Worms.

Q: I’m new to starting tomatoes from seed. I’ve planted Early Girl and Jet Star varieties, and they germinated two days ago. They are in our basement over warming lights. Should I bring them to a small backyard greenhouse at this point so that they get enough light during the day now that they’ve poked out from the soil? Do I bring them in at night to make sure they stay warm since they just germinated?

A: Congratulations on starting seedlings! Tomatoes should get 14 to 16 hours of light either from the sun or lights that are 2 to 6 inches away from the leaves. Tomato plants that get chilled (below 55 degrees F) will slow their growth, so it is best to keep them above 65 degrees. For more information, see Bulletin #2752, Starting Seedlings at Home.

Q: We have a very productive raised-bed garden outside of our medical office. This winter we had rats (woods rats, we were told) in our building. They were exterminated. Now there is concern that we should not grow vegetables because rats likely live nearby. Is there any reason to not have a garden because rats may live nearby?

A: If there is no evidence of rats digging in your garden, you should be fine. We do have guidelines for folks planning to use fresh manure in their garden to wait to harvest 90 days for vegetables harvested from the aerial parts of the plant (like peppers) and 120 days for root vegetables (like radishes).

damaged spruce treesQ: I have a row of spruce trees separating my yard from the neighbor’s driveway. One in particular is turning brown all the way up against the trunk to about 2/3 of the way down the branches. The very top looks healthy but the bottom is almost all brown. It is also crowded up against the side of another, larger and more healthy looking tree (though an excavator did damage the bottom of this tree last fall). Help! I use organic practices in my yard.

A: Since the trees seem to be near the road / paved drive, my first thought is salt damage that happened a couple years ago. Spruce only keep their needles for about three years so the needles deep in the tree turn brown and drop off. Salt damage can cause needles to turn brown sooner and fall off. Another cause might be a needle fungus that was going around a couple years ago when we had a wet summer. This would also cause the needles to turn brown and drop prematurely. In either case, it looks like you have at least one year of good needle growth. This spring you should have another flush of needles coming in. You can prune off the worst looking branches if the needles don’t come back. Be careful that vehicles aren’t parked continuously near the roots of the trees.

Also see pages 5-6 of this Maine Forest Service Pest Report (PDF). Spruce needlecast diseases are quite common throughout Maine.

Q: We hired a company to build a 10×10 raised flower bed and had them fill it with topsoil. The soil is clay-like, solid, hard clumps. I am certain nothing could grow in it, if I could actually even dig a hole in it! What should we do to amend it?

A: Topsoil can come from any soil type and it sounds like you got topsoil from a site that had a lot of clay. The answer to a multitude of soil issues is to increase organic matter. There are a number of things you can use, but a good choice would be well rotted compost. Spreading 2 to 3 inches of compost over your bed and working into the top 4 inches of soil will help improve the condition of the soil in your raised bed. Every inch of compost spread on a 100-square-foot area would need 0.3 cubic yards of compost or 8.3 cubic feet of compost.

Our factsheet Home Composting explains how to make your own compost, but it is a long process.

Q: When can I put down Milorgainite on my lawn and plants? Also, when can I put down lime on my lawn?

A: As soon as your lawn is dry enough to walk on, you can apply lime and any other amendments according to your soil test results.

Q: This past weekend I bought a bag of topsoil from a big box store. As I was loading the bag into my vehicle I noticed that the dirt came from Georgia. Is there any harm to using an out of state soil in the yard /landscape around my home?

A: It’s hard to say whether the bagged topsoil you purchased contains anything potentially harmful to your landscape. Any time you bring plants, animals, or soil onto your property, you are introducing new microorganisms and (potentially) insects that weren’t there before. The label on the bag should tell you what is in it, and ideally provide an analysis of the soil’s nutrient levels. I’d recommend examining the product carefully before adding it to your garden to be sure you don’t see any insects. If you have concerns, contact the manufacturer. In the future, there are many Maine companies producing topsoil and other soil amendment and landscaping products that you may be more comfortable with.

Q: Last year I had what I believe to be wireworms in my potatoes. What is the best way to manage this pest?

Wireworm feeding on a potato. Photo by James Dill.

A: Wireworms are one of the trickiest pests for home gardeners to deal with because they have several alternate hosts, including sod, which is likely what is surrounding your vegetable garden. A Rutgers Cooperative Extension fact sheet, Wireworms (PDF), offers these seven steps to manage wireworms in your garden:

  1. Avoid planting vegetables in infested soils. If wireworms were previously a problem, plant as far away from that area as possible, or rotate to non-host crops.
  2. Avoid planting a garden in soil that was previously sod or out of production. Wireworms build up in sod, and when the sod is replaced by garden crops, the wireworms readily feed on the roots of the new crops.
  3. Plant baits of germinating peas, beans, corn, cull potatoes or stiff dough 2–4 inches deep in holes at 3–10 feet intervals, then cover with boards or tiles. Dig up every 3–5 days and destroy the wireworms that have been attracted to these baits. Another good bait is nearly full grown carrots, which can be planted every 3 feet apart in the garden. Pull the carrots up after 3–5 days and remove and kill the wireworms from the carrots, then replace the carrot.
  4. Several species of wireworms become abundant in poorly drained soils. The proper drainage of these soils will help reduce populations of these species.
  5. Ornamentals such as asters, phlox, gladioli, and dahlias are attractive to wireworms. Do not keep ornamentals near the vegetable crops to reduce wireworm problems.
  6. Fall plowing and disking will expose wireworms to predators such as birds and other predators.
  7. There are no effective insecticides labeled for use in the home garden for wireworm control. Once damage is detected crop rotation is the best management tool.

Q: I’ve been hearing that it’s best not to rototill a backyard garden plot every year because it destroys the worms and natural underground networks. Others say doing it at the beginning and end of the growing season is fine. I’ve done both ways and wonder what the experts say?

A: The answer is: it depends. In general, the less you till, the better off your soil structure, organic matter, soil microbiota, and air/water infiltration will be. Tilling can increase compaction, bring weed seeds to the surface, and, as you mention, damage beneficial organisms like earthworms and beetles that naturally aerate the soil and cycle nutrients.

Of course, there are sometimes really good reasons to till. If you need to quickly incorporate soil amendments like compost or lime, tilling them in gives those materials more contact with the soil more quickly and allows for faster changes. Also, if you are direct seeding small-seeded crops, a smooth seed bed is often called for.

The best thing for your garden is to get to know your soil with an annual or biannual soil test, keeping records of your planting maps and management activities (like tillage and application of amendments), and observing how these things change over time and in response to those activities. If you do not need to till, great! If you do, just be aware of all of the potential impacts and do your best to mitigate the negative ones by planting cover crops, rotating your crop families, and maintaining proper pH and organic matter.

All of that said, I almost never recommend tilling at the end of a growing season. The leftover roots from your vegetables can be very helpful in holding your topsoil in place over the winter when the risk of erosion by wind and water is highest. If you need till prior to establishing a cover crop, be sure to do so by early September so you’ve got enough time to establish a good stand before frost.

For further reading, we recommend Soil and Plant Nutrition: A Gardener’s Perspective.

To learn more about soil testing, check out Bulletin #2286, Testing Your Soil.

Trees in WatervilleQ: We need to remove a couple of older trees from the middle of Waterville that are dying. We would like to replace them with a smaller tree that will be attractive and be able to live in the city. The area is 75′ wide by 125′ long.

A: Here are some options for you:

Medium-sized trees:

  • Turkish Filbert, Corylus colurna. It’s hardy with interesting light-colored, rough bark and should grow to 30’.
  • Honeylocust, Gleditsia. “Tough” street tree. Thornless honeylocusts have small compound leaves that cast a light filtered shade. Honeylocusts are medium-sized trees in Maine and are able to grow in difficult sites. Some recommended varieties include ‘Skyline’ and ‘Halka.’ Honeylocusts, due to there branching habit, can often be planted under or closer to utility lines than most medium or large trees with necessary pruning.
  • Korean Mountainash, Sorbus alnifolia. This is a beautiful tree which has a different appearance than the common European Mountainash. The Korean Mountainash has beech-like foliage and bark, white flowers in June, and pinkish-red berries in fall and winter.

Large trees:

  • Ginkgo. Ginkgo biloba is a truly unique tree with fan-shaped leaves and an interesting history. Ginkgos are slow growing after transplanting, but grow well in difficult sites. Cultivars: ‘Autumn Gold’ has a broad, conical form with good Fall color; ‘Magyar’ has an upright form. Non Fruiting.
  • Oak, Quercus. (Street trees only where ample planting space exists). There are many varieties of native oak including the common Red Oak, Pin Oak, Chestnut Oak, White Oak, and Swamp White Oak. The Swamp White Oak has beautiful glossy foliage, exfoliating bark, and transplants well. Consider upright varieties for smaller narrow spaces.
  • Elm, Ulmus. American Elm, Chinese or Lacebark Elm, and cultivars. Once the most popular of all trees. Dutch Elm Disease (DED) has caused and continues to be a severe problem. New resistant varieties have shown promise in resistance to DED: ‘Patriot’, ‘Princeton’, ‘Pioneer’, and ‘Lacebark’ Ulmus parvifolia. Limited availability. All sorts of sizes and shapes. Fast growing.
  • Zelkova. Medium to large tree. A vase-shaped tree that was hoped to replace the American Elm. Zelkovas are vase-shaped but smaller than elms. Difficult branching angles can cause some problems later on if not pruned correctly. Many beautiful specimens exist in the West End near Danforth Street. (Recommend 1.75” to 2” caliper size for street tree use.)

Q: We recently purchased GrubEx because we have white grubs in the yard and moles tunneling after them, making quite a mess of our lawn. I was telling my fiancé today that I want to do a little more research (regarding toxitity levels and safety) before using the product. Then he told me he already put a little bit out! He put it out this afternoon on a patch of our front lawn, by the gate/door of our vegetable garden, and even in between two raised beds in the garden. I am horrified that it won’t be safe to plant anything in my garden this spring/summer! The only thing I have started outside is beet seeds. They are in the next bed over, about 4-6 feet away from where he applied the GrubEx. I also have onions that are about the same distance away. My strawberry bed is one of the beds right next to where the GrubEx was applied. Aside from the onions, strawberries, and the beet seeds, the garden is pretty much all dirt right now.

A: Based on your description of where the material was applied, I do not believe your actual garden beds were treated and should be safe to plant this spring. As with any pesticide, reading the label thoroughly prior to purchase and then again prior to application is very important for safety and to be sure it is applied correctly to control the target pest. In Maine, we generally do not recommend applying GrubEx until June or early July. You are not controlling the grubs present this spring, but the next generation that would be active later on in the fall and next spring. Applying too early is ineffective. White grubs are a common issue, but the safest thing to do it to just let the moles, voles and skunks eat them and tamp down the tunnels in your lawn as necessary. For now, feel free to plant your raised beds as planned.

Q: We are looking for a Maine Master Gardener to assist with the design, planting, and teaching of our new Community Center Sensory & Pollinator Gardener.

We also have a new playground going in this season, and may welcome some low-maintenance landscaping ideas (growing huts, sunflower huts with morning glories, bean poles or other), edibles or herbs around the playground).

We have a grant to get the garden project started, and would love a skilled Master Gardener to guide us on a knowledgeable design pathway for a perennial and annual constant-bloom and constant-aroma garden.

A: Thank you for your inquiry about a Master Gardener Volunteer to help you with your horticultural plans at the Islesboro Community Center. We have a lot of resources for pollinator gardens and kids gardens in general.

I’ll get this in our next MGV announcement early next week. I’ll also let our 4-H staff know, since they may be working on a project on the island as well. I’ll write a draft of the announcement for you to look at and edit soon.

Is this garden to be built this season or next? Much depends on your soil, whether there are weeds / turf currently present, how far down the ledge is, etc. Would you like some soil test kits mailed to you? If so, please send along your address and also the address of the Community Center so I can look at a satellite view of the site.

Q: I would like to know which is the best microclover mix for my area. I live in Jonesport, Maine.

A: The best seed mix for your lawn will depend on your soil conditions and how much shade you have. I recommend taking a look at the Maine Yardscaping Program’s list of grass seed sources to determine which grass species suit your needs, and then contacting a supplier to find the microclover mix that includes those grasses. Generally, locally-owned garden centers are a great bet for carrying species that will work well in your area.

Q: When can I apply milorganite to my lawn and plants? I am in Kennebunkport, Zone 5.

A: I recommend starting with a soil test to see if your lawn and other landscape plants require any additional fertility. If your pH is appropriate and lawn is healthy, you may not need to fertilize at all, particularly if your lawn is more than 10 years old. Well-established sod cycles nutrients efficiently on its own and generally does not require further inputs. Adding unnecessary fertilizers may just become pollution, regardless of the source. Please read Bulletin #2166, Steps to a Low-Input, Healthy Lawn for a more comprehensive look at sustainable lawn maintenance. If your soil test reveals a nutrient deficiency, follow the recommendations included with your results. Milorganite may or may not be appropriate for your yard.

Q: Zone 5, in Kennebunkport, I have afternoon sun on my front porch garden. What shrubs/plants can I put there that are low maintenance?

A: I recommend taking a look at native plants if you are interested in low-maintenance selections. Check out Bulletin #2500, Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape: Plants to Use and Plants to Avoid which includes a handy chart of suggested species with their preferred light and soil conditions. Once you have a list of possibilities, visit a locally-owned nursery to choose high-quality plants to install.

ripe peaches on treeQ: How do I prune my 10-year-old peach tree?

A: You can read all about care of peach trees in Maine in Extension Bulletin #2068, Growing Peaches in Maine. Here is an excerpt on pruning:

Peach trees are typically pruned to have a spreading or vase-shaped canopy, but can be trained in any shape or allowed to grow naturally. The vase-shaped training, also called “open center,” is preferred because is prevents the tree from growing upright and thus results in a shorter tree from which it is easier to pick fruit. To achieve the open center shape, prune the main branch at a point just above a side branch and keep four or five side branches. Prune off dead or broken branches. Prune the tree as little as possible in the next five years to encourage fruitfulness. Branches growing back into the center of the tree canopy should be removed each year. Peach trees are mature when they have full fruit production, which is usually 5 years after planting. Mature trees can be pruned annually, which will allow more sunlight to reach the lower branches and will lengthen their lifespan. Small branches on peaches frequently die in winter, and these should be pruned each year.

I also recommend the video The Peach Pruning Blueprint from PennState Extension that gives step by step instructions.

Holes dug in the lawn (left) and white grub (right) under the lawn.
Holes dug in the lawn (left) and white grub (right) under the lawn.

Q: My lawn has been invaded by moles or voles. They began in late summer and have made tunnels everywhere. My grass is dead. What can I do to get rid of these pests?

A: If you have critters digging in your lawn, it is because they are hunting for and eating grubs. The best time of year to treat a lawn for grubs is in August. The adults (Japanese Beetles, June Beetles, European Chafers and Asiatic Garden Beetles) lay their eggs in the lawn’s soil in late July and early August and the newly hatched grubs are relatively small and are pretty susceptible to treatment at that point in time. In later fall and in spring the grubs have dug down deeper and are larger and more resistant to pesticides, so therefore, treatment is less effective.

Here are links to a UMaine Cooperative Extension White Grub Fact Sheet and one from Cornell Extension,  Grubs in Your Lawn (PDF). The Cornell fact sheet mentions some treatments that can be used in September, though they note they are less effective than treating in August would have been.

When using any pesticide make sure you read the label carefully before buying the product, follow all instructions and take appropriate precautions as listed.

Q: I am putting together a raised bed garden, using standard cinder blocks. Initially I was going to use them for the walls of the raised bed. I plan on using plastic as a barrier to stop alkaline leaching from the blocks into the soil. As I look at the design, I have all these empty holes that are roughly 3.5×3.5×16. Can I line these, fill them with soil, and plant things like summer squash, swiss chard, bush beans, and green peppers? Am I correct in thinking the roots need a volume of soil in which to perform their functions, as long as none of the dimensions of the soil space are too extreme?

A: Cinder blocks are a great material for creating permanent raised beds, but preventing direct soil contact with the blocks may be wise. While I have no Maine-based research on this, the University of Maryland Home & Garden Information Center advises gardeners this way:

“Cement block, cinder block and concrete block, all are made with cement and fine aggregates such as sand or small stones. Fly ash is also often included. Fly ash is a byproduct of burning coal and so contains heavy metals and other hazardous waste. Labels do not give specific information on exactly what aggregate is used in the manufacture of the block. There is also little research data on this topic. Ultimately, this becomes a personal choice based on your comfort level. If you plan to use block as a raised bed material — and many people do – and you are concerned about potential risks, you could seal the blocks with polymer paint. Or you can choose to use another material you are more comfortable with.”

In lieu of planting food crops in those holes, you might consider planting flowers to deter pests and attract pollinators, such as marigolds and borage.

Pepper plant with yellowing leavesQ: For a couple years, my peppers have germinated and emerged properly but the first true leaves are very pale with discolored blotches and the cotyledons yellow from the edges inward; they tend to struggle after this point.

In the past I have tried epsom salts with no luck. I also tried switching from chlorinated tap to well water. I have considered light damage, salts, poorly mixed batch of soil, pH, Nitrogen, Potassium, Magnesium, and Iron as possible issues but cannot pinpoint what is wrong. In the same exact setup I have onions, lettuce, wildflowers, and herbs and they all look great!

A: It would be helpful to know what variety you are growing, as they vary in disease resistance. Also, did you save these seeds or purchase them? Peppers can be very finicky, so it is unsurprising that they are behaving a bit differently from the other seedlings you have started. The two things that stuck out to me when you described your setup were the distance of the lights to the plants and your media mix. Seeds should be started in a sterile, soilless media to prevent any disease organisms from attacking the young seedlings. They will not require any supplemental nutrition until after they have at least one set of true leaves. When they start to “look hungry” you can fertilize them with a weak, balanced soluble solution, but any nutrients applied before this can burn the plants. Also, your lights should be set up much more closely to the canopy, especially for the first few weeks. Once they get to be about as big as yours are now, you can transplant the healthiest looking seedlings into larger trays or pots. Check out Bulletin #2751, Starting Seeds at Home for some suggestions of how you might tweak your seed starting protocol.

Q: How do I germinate and grow white spruce tree seeds? I live in Woodstock, Maine.

A: White spruce cones should be collected in mid-August. You will know they are ripe when they have turned from green to pale brown. They will need to be well-dried, either air-dried for about two weeks, or you can use an oven or kiln at 100-120 degrees F for 6-24 hours. The best time to sow the seeds from these dried cones is late fall. They should be sown just 1/4″ deep in a well-prepared seed bed. They will need partial shade for their first year and should be ready for transplanting after two years. For more information, see Growing Conifers from Seed (PDF) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Growing Wisconsin Trees From Seed (PDF) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: I have a small hobby farm in Durham and would like to sell some of the excess produce from my garden, as well as eggs and honey at a small roadside farmstand (self-serve, honor system) on our property. Would I need any special licenses or permits to do this?

A: There are no licenses or permits required to sell fresh, unprocessed vegetables. It would be a good idea to check in with your town office to see if they have any requirements or restrictions on setting up a roadside stand, particularly if you have a sign (every municipality treats signage differently). As far as your eggs go, as long as your flock is under 3,000 birds, there are no license or permits, but you do need to follow several rules about selling eggs in Maine including labeling your containers. Whether you need any licenses or permits for your honey depends on what form you are selling it in. If it is raw and in the comb, there are no requirements. Once you process it in any way (even if it’s just extracting it from the comb), you will need to check in with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry’s Quality Assurance folks to see if you need a licensed kitchen to make your product. You can find much more information about selling food products in Bulletin #3101, Recipe to Market: How to Start a Specialty Food Business in Maine. I would also recommend speaking with your local UMaine Extension educator about other considerations, like liability insurance and how likely an honor system farm stand is to work for you.

Q: Is there a difference in Zones 4a and Zone 4b for starting seeds/direct-sow and planting seedlings outdoors? I wish to consider the following plants: summer and winter squash, bok choy, artichokes, and both types of lettuces (head and salad greens).

In addition, is there a date range for each one’s growing season? Also, the date range for the harvesting time?

A: The hardiness zones are most useful for estimating whether your trees and shrubs will survive the winter, and not so much for determining when to start annual seeds. The number of frost-free days in your area is much more important for your vegetable garden. The Northeast Regional Climate Center has a map indicating the average frost-free dates in the region so you can get an idea of when your growing season is and sites like Weather Underground have historical weather data you can search for your town. Many farmers and gardeners keep their own records as well so they have access to hyper-local data when it’s time to make decisions such as these. Once you know your average frost-free date, you can take a look at your seed packets for information specific to the varieties you have chosen. They will always include a days to harvest number as well, so you can estimate when you will be picking your veggies, based on your seeding dates. For more general recommendations, there is a chart included in Maine Vegetable Gardening: Keep Your Garden Growing to give you an idea of when to sew and transplant and Johnny’s Selected Seeds Seed-Starting Date Calculator allows you to plug in your own dates and get a customized calendar based on your selections. Of course, other practices like whether you use mulch, row covers, low tunnels, or other frost-protection/season extending practices will have an impact as well. Oh, and be sure to check out Bulletin #2751, Starting Seeds at Home for all kinds of tips as you get your seeds started!

strawberriesQ: I live in Rockland and would like to grow strawberries in a raised bed. I was planning on a height of 2 – 2 1/2 feet. Will this height cause problems for the plants in the winter? Are they more apt to freeze in a higher bed?

A: It is possible that a very high raised bed like you’re proposing would make June-bearing strawberry plants more susceptible to winter injury. It may be worth a try with a section of your raised bed so you can compare it with an annual system. If you prefer to keep the very high bed, completely understandable for ease of maintenance, consider planting day neutral varieties. The plants will be more expensive, but you can harvest this season. These would be for an annual system, so you wouldn’t need to worry about over-wintering them. For more information, check out Bulletin #2067, Growing Strawberries.

Highbush Blueberries at the UMaine Gardens at Tidewater FarmQ: How do I trim my blueberries and when? What should I feed them?

A: Highbush blueberry bushes should be pruned every year to produce high yields of good quality fruit. Prune the plants when they are fully dormant during the late winter or early spring (January through March). For the first two years after planting, simply remove any dead branches and all weak, spindly growth. Check out our bulletin, Growing Highbush Blueberries, for a great how-to video and to learn more about how to prune plants that have been established for three years or more.

Three to four weeks after planting blueberries, apply two ounces of a balanced fertilizer (e.g. 10-10-10) or one ounce of ammonium sulfate around each plant. Organic equivalents, such as bloodmeal or composted manure, may also be used. Apply the fertilizer in a circle 15 to 18 inches from the base of the plant. Use the same amount the year after planting. Each year following, increase the amount of fertilizer according to the rates listed in table 2 here.

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata
Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, our native swamp milkweed. Photo by Reeser Manley.

Q: I would like to plant a simple Butterfly garden for monarchs — maybe even all milkweed — with students at my school in Freeport. Would starting with milkweed be a workable plan? If so, what kind and how much of it should we start with?

A: There are many resources for this. We suggest (like you seem to know!) to start simply.

There are a number of native milkweed species. I have seeds for three of them, so please let me know if you’d like me to send some for starting indoors and transplanting. Here are some good resources:

You may have a prepared site for your butterfly garden but if not, please let me know if you’d like a soil test kit for creating a new garden. For more information, Testing your soil.

If you’d like to do future work in the realm of horticulture with your students, feel free to book mark this part of our website, UMaine Cooperative Extension Garden & Yard.

Q: I live in Topsham and I have a very large holly bush (no berries). It is about 20 years old. For the first time ever, this winter the deer have eaten off every single leaf, leaving just the bare shape of the bush. Is there anything I can do to save it?

A: I’m sorry to hear about your holly bush. If there are no leaves left, there is little hope that this bush will survive as it has no way to photosynthesize. Late this winter, many deer resorted to eating species (like holly) that they usually are not interested in to avoid starvation. You can always wait and see if it tries to put out a new flush of leaves this spring, but you may want to begin thinking about what you want to replace it with.

Q: I am looking for an organic treatment to take care of cucumber beetles. Kaolin clay was mentioned, but I was concerned about the affects it would have on honey bees. Would the Kaolin clay mixture work on the cucumber beetles? If so, when and how should I apply it? Is it safe for humans, animals and honey bees?

A: Cucurbits are most sensitive to the feeding injury and potential disease the cucumber beetle can vector when they are very small. Transplanting rather than direct seeding is a good start to prevent the early loss of your plants to this pest. If possible, choose a new location for your cucurbits this year, as the beetles overwinter near where they fed last year. Once your transplants are in the ground, immediately cover them with floating row covers to guard against infestation until flowers bloom. Once you see flowers, be sure to take the row covers off to allow pollinators access. If you see beetles during this time, kaolin clay products (such as Surround) can be used to deter the beetles. This material is not toxic to bees, animals, or humans- it is actually often used in makeup, soaps, and some food products. Be sure to read the label for information on how and when to apply with your sprayer. The article Managing Cucumber Beetles in Organic Farming Systems from eXtension.org includes other tips as well, such as mulching under your cucurbits with straw to encourage natural predators of cucumber beetles.

Q: What is the best date to start tomato seeds for a Western Maine garden (New Portland)?

A: The trick with tomato seedlings is to not plant them too early so you end up with leggy, weak transplants when it’s time to move them outside. You generally only need to start those seeds 5-7 weeks before you expect to transplant them into your garden. In New Portland, I’d estimate that’s usually mid-June, so you could start those seeds around May 4. If you have historically been able to move them out earlier, you can back that seeding date up a bit. Your seed catalogs and packets have a lot of information specific to the varieties you have chosen, so be sure to pay attention to those recommendations as well. You can also check out Bulletin #2751, Starting Seeds at Home for a complete guide to starting your garden seedlings. Have a great growing season!

Q: My question relates to foundation shrubs, are there any that deer may stay away from? I also have a gambrel roof that sends a lot of snow onto the plants. I need to replace broke plants this spring and just don’t know what to put in this time having done this twice already. I live in Standish.

A: Foundations and under-eve areas are tough environments for woody plants. Especially those with brittle wood like rhododendron, or plants that don’t like growing in the dead-sand and curtain drains that surround most homes.

peonyHerbacious perennials would more likely survive your conditions. They look full, don’t interfere with windows and siding but die back in late fall. Examples: Peonies, actea, larger hostas, catmint, salvia, etc. For accent plants, try purple smoke bush, but cut it back in the spring for colorful new growth in the spring.

But it’s tricky to make recommendations without knowing your tastes and important site conditions like light, shade and moisture. There are wonderful design books available in larger libraries. This is a great time to look at photos and make a list of plants that would fit your needs.  Be sure to choose plants that are hardy to Standish. Plant Hardiness Zone for Maine.
And deer – These lists may help:

Feel free to book mark our Garden & Yard website where there are many other resources.

Q: I would like to know the secret to raising beets and chard. I never have any success with them. I live in Dresden and have a lot of hard clay. Do we need to test our soil?

A: Yes, a soil test is the first step towards determining what you may need to do to amend your soil. You can stop by the Knox-Lincoln County Extension office in Waldoboro during business hours to pick up your form and boxes, or request them or download them online directly from the Maine Soil Testing Service website.

Q: Where could I find a time chart about when to plant, grow, and harvest vegetables?

A: Here is a planting chart for common garden vegetables in Maine. Harvest dates will depend on which varieties you choose. You can use the seed catalog or seed packets to find the days to harvest to estimate your own harvest dates.

Q: I want to start a wild flower garden. I would like to know what plants are native to Maine and non-invasive. I would also like to plant some milkweed for Monarch butterflies. I live in Winterport, and the area I want the wild flower garden is under pine trees.

A: Native flowers that will grow under pine trees will be very different species than ones that will grow in full sun. There are many resources for choosing dry shade plants. To give them a more naturalistic look, plant them in drifts, or larger colonies, like they would grow in the wild. Here are some resources and quite a bit of reading to help you plan. From UMaine Extension’s Garden & Yard website:

From UMaine Extension’s Garden Pro Answer Book

If you’re interested in the subject of native plants, there are wonderful groups promoting their use. From the Wild Seed Project:

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens: Visit some of their woodland understory gardens with a notepad and camera to to get some great ideas. They have a great display of spring ephemerals.

The Knox-Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District has an excellent plant sale including native plants. If they are not close by, check out your other SWCDs to see if they have a sale this spring.
Where to buy native plants in Maine: Native plants, a source list.

In the first season, it will be important to water your new plants carefully at the root zone twice a week, depending on rainfall.

Let me know if you need basic information on how to plant perennials and if you’d like us to mail a soil test to you.

Q: We are planning to plant a tree in the spring with our daughter’s ashes. It was recommended we contact our local Cooperative Extension about what nutrients to add to the soil to counteract the toxicity of the ashes. Can you head me in the right direction?

A: Thank you for your question and so sorry for your loss.

It would be good to analyze your site and do a soil test before you add soil amendments for your memorial tree. If you send your mailing address, I’d be happy to send a soil test kit to you. It will give you information about your soil’s existing pH and nutrients.

Based on conversations with an Extension soil scientist, one urn of ashes should not impact a tree’s growth other than a slight chance they may raise the pH a point. A good way around that would be to dig a planting hole that’s quite a bit wider than the root ball. Place the ashes around the outside perimeter of the hole. This way, the roots won’t immediately touch the material until it’s had a few years to leach out.

Here’s a fact sheet with more detailed information: Selecting, Planting and Caring for Trees & Shrubs in the Maine Landscape.

For more information, feel free to book mark our website: Garden & Yard. Look for more ideas under Plants for the Maine Landscape.

Q: As a foundation plant, what is the best Oakleaf Hydrangea to plant under a window in Brunswick, Maine? When should it be put in?

A: Hydrangea quercifolia (Oak-leaf Hydrangea) ‘Sike’s Dwarf’  may be a good one for under a window. It only gets 2-3′ tall and also one of the hardier oak leaf hydrangeas. The Plant Finder at Missouri Botanical Garden has excellent information on many ornamentals, including other hydrangeas.

Brunwick is in zone 5a or 5b, so with protection from wind, ice and snow, it should be OK after getting established. Please read this information before you buy plants in the spring: Selecting, Planting, and Caring for Trees and Shrubs in the Maine Landscape.

Foundation plants: Keep plants at least 3-5′ away from the house so the plant does not interfere with siding and so roots are not in dead sand or interfering with curtain drains. Rain, ice and snow from the roof’s drip line can also be hard on plants. So in general, the foundation area is not always a great place to put woody trees and shrubs. Some herbaceous plants that are shrub-like but which die back every winter (like peonies) can sometimes be a better choice for a foundation area.

I hope this is helpful and feel free to bookmark our Garden & Yard website.

Q: One side of my house has a small garden area that is contaminated with lead. The previous owners of the house had a raised bed there. The site is very dry and hot and we do not want to continue to try to grow vegetables there. What might we do to improve the soil and is there a one-season ground cover that might capture some of the lead? The lead count was not extremely high.

A: Here’s information from the Maine Soil Testing Service about lead in the soil:

Lead is by far the most common contaminant of soils. Lead is very toxic to humans, and children are particularly likely to be affected by lead-contaminated soil by accidentally consuming soil as they play outside. Lead can also be taken up by plants and enter the human diet. We include lead screening in the routine soil fertility test for all soils from gardens, ornamental beds, and turf areas. You will be notified if we suspect your soil may be high in lead. For more detailed information: Lead in the Soil (PDF).

Q: In the past I have used a landscaping company to mulch my perennial garden. This year I need to try to do it myself. When is the optimal time to mulch in Spring?

A: The best time of year to mulch is when perennials are just emerging. Use a dark bark mulch from a reputable nursery. Mulch can be purchased in bags, but it’s probably best to have it delivered and dumped on a tarp, moving it to the garden with a wheel barrow or trug. To find out how much mulch you need at a 2.5″ depth, use a soil volume calculator.

Unless your soil test says otherwise, there’s no need to use bark mulch that’s pre-mixed with compost or other fertilizers. If you think you do need some added fertility or a soil conditioner for sand or clay, simply side dress each perennial with a few handfuls of bagged compost after cleaning up the area and before applying the mulch. Be sure you don’t bury the crowns of the plants. If you have any woody ornamentals in your garden, be sure you leave space between the trunk and the mulch to prevent rot.

For more information about gardening, feel free to bookmark our Garden & Yard website.

Q: I am trying a small crop of turmeric, as well as doing a larger crop plan for my course in Crop Production. I thought I would try turmeric as New England gardeners are having success growing ginger in hoop houses and turmeric seems like the logical next step. I am having a difficult time finding information on amendments, nutrients and micronutrients that is specific to turmeric. Do you have that information for turmeric, or can you recommend a resource for me? If not, since turmeric is part of the ginger family, and the information is abundant for ginger, would you recommend following that? There is a soil test for the larger crop plan, and I will be doing one at my home as soon as I can get to the soil, so I will know what my starting point is.

A: You are correct, there are not a lot of research-based cultivation recommendations yet for growing turmeric in high tunnels. As you noted, culture is very similar to ginger, so you are on the right track following those guidelines for now. There is a workshop coming up at Penn State on March 9th, Growing Turmeric and Ginger / High Tunnels that appears to be in-person only, but you might be able to register and even if you cannot attend, perhaps receive the handouts. For some basic culture information for Maine, check out MOFGA’s Growing Ginger in Maine and FedCo’s Growing Guide for Ginger & Turmeric.

Additionally, Ginger and Turmeric Production in High Tunnels (PDF), a presentation from Karen Scott at Oakwoods Farm in Granby, Missouri, includes photos and some of the tips and tricks they use.

Q: I’ve dried a variety of blue corn for cornmeal by hanging it in my cabin. Most all the kernels have become wrinkled, but a few are plump. There is no signs of discoloration. Are they safe to grind or should I pick them out and discard them?

Also in picking, drying, and using popcorn that I’ve grown, some of the kernels were hard and dry, but have a splotchy look, and most all one color. I do think those are spoiled kernels. What do you think?

A: Sorry both of your corn varieties did not cure well. It’s hard to know what conditions caused this, but probably a combination of too much moisture, not enough air flow, and fluctuations in temperature (causing condensation).

Most Extension publications on drying corn are for industrial scale production. I found this 1975 article in Mother Earth News that describes the process for home gardeners: How To Dry Corn and Grind it Into Corn Meal by Carol Suhr.

Here’s an article from Wisconsin Cooperative Extension about different varieties of corn for drying.

Based on your photos and descriptions, we would not recommend grinding and eating the dent corn or cooking and eating the popcorn because of possible pathogens.

flats of seedlingsQ: A friend who starts seedlings in his home are often leggy by the time he plants them. Do you know what he could do to prevent this or who he could contact for advice on starting seedlings indoors?

A: Leggy seedlings are often the result of insufficient light.  Seedlings need 14 – 16 hours of natural or artificial light per day. If using artificial light, the bulbs should be hung between 2″ and 4″ above the tops of the growing plants. Excessively warm room temperatures and over fertilization can also cause seedlings to put on fast, soft tissue. Lastly, if your friend starts his seedlings too early, or if they are crowded in their containers, this can also lead to legginess. I suggest you refer your friend to the following bulletin #2751, Starting Seeds at Home.

Q: I would like to buy and plant a couple of fruit trees. I do not want dwarf size. These are for birds, deer, and whatever other animals want to use the fruit or trees. I live in New Harbor. Where would you recommend I purchase fruit trees?

3 deer in fieldA: While we cannot recommend one private business over another, we do recommend using a local garden center to source your fruit trees. You can find one on the Plant Something! Plant Maine! website which lists independent garden centers. Dwarf trees have become very popular, so it may be a bit more difficult to find standard sized trees, but a local garden center will only carry varieties on rootstocks suited to your area and are likely to get you exactly what you need.

If you happen to have any wild trees on your property, you can learn to encourage them as well. Bulletin #7126, Wild Apple Trees for Wildlife has some tips.

In the spring, be sure to give your new trees a great start by following the best practices in Growing Fruit Trees in Maine.

Q: Will my plants get damaged if I thaw the ground 6 to 12 inches deep with a “ground thawing blanket”? We need to thaw a 3 x 4 foot area for a concrete pad. The plants are iris, tulips, mums, and pink flowers that look like mini carnations. We have the means to pot and protect them for the rest of the winter either indoors or in the garage, which has a 42-degree minimum temperature.

A: While I have never done quite what you are proposing, I do think that if you are able to quickly pot and hold these bulbs below 48 degrees until you want them to begin growing, they should make it through just fine.

Here are some tips on Growing Bulbs Indoors to help you plan for potting them up once the ground has thawed.

Please, let us know how it goes and send some photos along of the process!

Q: What species of milkweed should I plant to provide habitat for Monarch butterflies? I live in Machias, on the northern end of the coast. Will milkweed grow in my area/USDA plant zone?

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata
Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, our native swamp milkweed. Photo by Reeser Manley.

A: The species of milkweed that I recommend you plant in your home garden for Monarch butterflies is Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed. It is native to Maine, and unlike the rhizomatous common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed is a clump forming, self contained milkweed that stays put. Commonly found in swamps and wet meadows, it grows well in seasonally flooded sites and average garden soils. It is hardy to zone 3 (very northern Maine), grows to a height of 4′ – 5′ and a width of about 2′. It blooms in late summer/early fall, and comes in pink and white cultivars. It needs full sun. It might be hard to find in your area, but there are certainly larger nurseries around the state that sell it, and you can probably order it online. Also, on Saturday morning May 25, 2019, we will be having a perennial plant sale at the UMaine Extension Hancock County office in Ellsworth where we will have Asclepias incarnata for sale.

Q: I still have a row of collards in the garden that I can’t remove because they are frozen in the ground. Today I started pulling dead and gone-by leaves off the collards, thinking I could at least add some greens to my compost heap. As I pulled, I disturbed some kind of flying insects (at least a dozen) evidently living on the plants. They looked and flew like mosquitoes, but on closer inspection, their bodies were somewhat thinner (if that’s possible) and their legs were longer. How could they possibly exist, considering the weeks of sub-freezing cold we’ve been experiencing?

Crane fly
David Cappaert, Bugwood.org

A: After consulting with our Entomologist, we can offer you the following: There are many species in several families of flies that are cold hardy. Many resemble mosquitoes. There are many in the midge groups, including the Chironomids, which the hardcore fly fishers depend on to give them winter action. Your insect is most likely a winter crane fly. You can find more information at Bug Guide.


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