Questions and Answers from Past Seasons

If you have a gardening question, you are welcome to


Questions and Answers from Past Seasons

Q: Should I plant winter rye in my garden where I planted potatoes during the summer? I planted winter rye in a previous garden where I then planted potatoes and ended up with very scabby potatoes. It’s possible the soil in that garden was just too heavy and damp for potatoes.

A: Winter rye should not affect the quality of potatoes the following season, so feel free to plant it. Heavy, wet soils certainly can have a negative effect, so perhaps it is better to plant the rye and move the potato crop to better drained soil if possible.

Q: I’ve used winter rye before as a cover crop. I know there is an annual rye available as well. Can you explain the difference? Are they both good for winter cover? Also, what do you recommend for cover crop in my strawberry bed? What are the advantages, benefits of buckwheat?

A: The primary difference between winter and annual rye is that winter rye will survive the winter and start to grow again in the spring and annual won’t. Winter rye is a vigorous crop and generally requires a big tiller to turn it under. Buckwheat is a short-term cover crop that only grows during the warm months of the year — June – August. I don’t recommend a cover crop for a strawberry bed that is currently growing strawberries. Rather, wait until the bed is completely dormant and the ground is frozen and then mulch with straw, pine needles or other light mulch.

Q: Our garden seemed to struggle more this year than in the past. Leaves turned yellow. The majority of the plants did not seem to produce as much or as fully. We did get lots of vegetables, but not as full-sized or for as long as we believe we should have. Several people have suggested testing our soil to see if we need to put nutrients back in. I was wondering if cow mature would be good, if I can get some? Is there a soil kit you could send me? I would gladly return a soil sample for you to test.

A: It sounds as though a soil test would be a great place to start to try to determine what is happening in your garden. Go to the Maine Soil Testing Service website to order a box and form, and learn the correct way to take a soil sample. You will have to mail the sample to the Analytical Laboratory and Maine Soil Testing Service at 5722 Deering Hall, Orono, ME 04469-5722.

Q: Can I plant garlic where potatoes were this year? I’m looking at redesigning my garden for next year and am thinking of moving the bed to where the potatoes were. Do you know of any Maine farmers who sell garlic seed through the mail?

A: There isn’t any reason that I know if not to plant garlic in old potato ground, so that isn’t an issue. Garlic is so popular that many local farmers’ markets carry it, so you may be able to find some in your area. If not, Johnnys Selected Seeds in Maine carries it, and a quick Google search “garlic sources” shows a number of seed companies carrying garlic.

green tomatoes; photo by Edwin RemsbergQ: It’s September 19 and my tomatoes are still on the vine and green. I live on Trickey Pond, Naples, Maine. I am concerned that if I don’t pick them soon, I could lose them to frost. Should I wait a few more weeks or pick now and properly store them for ripening?

A: The forecast is calling for cold, but not freezing temperatures for tonight and then relatively mild temperatures for quite a few days afterwards. So, if it is possible to provide some protection tonight, I would do so, just to be on the safe side. However, if you are nervous about losing your whole crop, tomatoes will ripen as long as they have at least a bit of light green/yellow on them. Totally green tomatoes need to be used as green tomatoes. To learn more, see Ripen and Preserve End of Season Green Tomatoes in the September issue of Maine Home Garden News.

Q: I planted one cucumber plant that was given to me. It had large leaves and one very smooth cucumber. No bumps. I thought it may have been a squash. I picked it on September 2. None of the other many flowers show signs of a cucumber. Was I supposed to remove some of the vine or flowers as in some gourd and squash culture? I planted it on south side next to foundation, kept it well watered, and mulched after soil warmed. Soil is sandy fill but amended with soil from other parts of the property. It seems to have had plenty of bees and still does. Any chance of another cucumber? I am willing to cover it a few times to protect from frost. I have grown gardens for many years and never had a problem with cucumbers.

A: To begin, do you remember the variety of cucumber? If not, my guess is that it was a gynoecious type, which means only female flowers are produced. This type of plant typically produces many fruit, but is very dependent on pollen from a standard cucumber variety source nearby. Some seed companies put some standard seeds inside the specialty seed packets. With only one cucumber plant, it’s possible there wasn’t a pollinator close by and therefore almost no fruit. If you choose to plant only one plant in the future, you would have better luck with a standard type.

Q: I figured out what killed my pumpkin vines: Squash Vine Borers. I was able to salvage some of the fruit, but my question is: What do I do to prevent next years crop from being infested? I read something about putting a toilet paper roll (empty of course) over the base of the vine. Will this help?

A: Squash vine borers are tricky to control. I had them in a winter squash crop years ago, and fortunately they never returned. So, that may also happen to you! If not, there are a few cultural controls to try to keep the borer out of the pumpkin patch. Minnesota Cooperative Extension summarizes all of the options well; see Squash Vine Borer Management in Home Gardens.

Q: Is there anything I can plant in my garden here in Fryeburg, Maine after August 23?

A: Not ready to throw in the gardening trowel yet? Well then, there are crops that can still be planted, some a bit more easily than others…

  • radishes — 25 days to harvest
  • greens — lettuce, spinach, chard, etc. You will need to get them growing rapidly by planting in a cold frame, using floating row cover. There are many types to choose from, so do a bit of reading beforehand.
  • Scallions — 50 days, but they can withstand early cold weather
  • Crops to start now but to overwinter and harvest early next year. Many people start carrots, onions, spinach, and more now, letting them size up a bit, stop growing over the winter, and then resume growing when warm weather returns next spring. There is some risk — rodents eating everything, rot, and poor quality. But if you are game for a bit of a challenge, by all means give it a go. These crops would also benefit from a push to get going quickly.

Q: When is the best time to harvest acorn squash?

A: Acorn squash are ready to pick when two things happen: 1) the stem is completely dried down — it will be quite hard and not at all fleshy; and 2) there is a bright yellow or orange spot on the squash as well.

blossom end rot on tomatoes
Blossom end rot on tomatoes.

Q: What do you suggest for a fast remedy for blossom end rot on tomatoes?

A: There really isn’t a quick remedy for blossom end rot — it is caused by a calcium shortage that is exacerbated by uneven watering. BUT, there is good news! Blossom end rot is most severe on early fruit (the small root mass of plants at the time of first bloom don’t take up calcium efficiently), but usually rectifies itself in later fruit. So, I think you are all set, but you can use a liquid fertilizer that contains calcium if you choose to.

Q: I have planted 24 tomato plants in composted soil that was brought in from a neighboring town. My plants took off and were growing nicely when I noticed there were brown spots and yellowing occurring rapidly. I bought Neem oil, an organic fungicide, insecticide, and miticide. I used it once and then used it again. It is not working and the fungus is still spreading. Do you have any recommendations that will stop this before it spreads through my whole tomato crop? I am trying not to use chemical pesticides.

A: There are many tomato diseases that express themselves as yellowing leaves with brown spots. Your best bet is to do two things: 1) remove all spotted leaves as they occur (this will reduce the spread of the disease) and do not compost them; and 2) send a plant sample to UMaine Extension’s Insect & Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab, so our experts can identify which specific disease(s) are problematic in your garden. Click here to download a plant submission form and for instructions on how to send a good plant sample. E-mail me when you get your results and we will go from there.

Q: Our zucchini plants look great, but we have no fruit. Lots of flowers. Very few bees. How can I get our plants to bear fruit?

A: If both male and female flowers are present, you have two choices: you can act like a bee by using a paintbrush or Q-tip to move pollen from male to female flowers, or you can just wait a few more days; it’s possible your squash are just running a bit late. Check the base of your squash blossoms where the flower meets the stem. If there is a small fruit present, your blossoms are female. If not, blossoms are male.

Q: I have a 12-inch-high, 8′ by 4′ raised bed garden in our backyard. It is filled with various composts and is growing nicely. This week, I’ve found my dog’s poop as near as one foot from the garden. Previously, she had a distant, isolated area where she did her business. I cleaned the area as well as I could, but there must be residue. Will it be safe to eat our vegetables this year?

A: As long as the residue was not left to decompose for the season, and you cleaned it up, you are fine. Hopefully you can train your dog to use another spot in the yard in the future!

Q: My cucumber plants have blight, but are still producing cukes. Is it okay to eat the cucumbers?

A: Yes, it is fine to eat the cucumbers as long as they are relatively blemish free and firm. Now is a great time to plant more seeds if you want cucumbers for the rest of the season.

Q: Can I freeze my spinach without parboiling, just washing, spinning, and piling on a cookie sheet like berries?

A: It’s recommended that spinach be blanched before freezing. For more information, see our video “Preserving Fresh Greens” below or Bulletin #4384, Freezing Vegetables, which includes the necessary steps for safely freezing spinach.

Q: Every year there is a light frost followed by many days, if not weeks, of great growing weather. What can I do to protect them from early light frosts?

spun row cover over squash plantsA: With a bit of protection, many crops can continue to grow well into late September and October. The goal is to trap the heat that is absorbed by the soil during the day and have it keep the plants from freezing at night. So, keep old sheets, light weight blankets, floating row-cover, and the like handy, so that when a frost is predicted, you can cover your garden (or the most important plants only) toward the end of the afternoon, before the air temperature drops significantly.

Q: I am inundated with extra vegetables. Where can I find a list of food pantries in my area? I would hate for these wonderful, fresh veggies to go to waste.

A: The Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ County Search for Food Assistance Programs is a statewide listing of some of the larger food pantries in the state. Please note that this list is not comprehensive and may not list smaller, infrequently open pantries.

Q: I have already harvested a couple of crops from my garden. What can I plant now that I will be able to harvest before frost?

A: For the past couple of years we have had long, warm falls, which allowed us to get bonus time in the garden. Here’s hoping that continues!

Crops that will definitely ripen before frost without extra precautions: scallions, peas (don’t delay in planting), beets, chard, spinach, and hardy greens.

Crops that MIGHT make it (with some frost protection and encouragement by using something like “floating row cover” or sheets to protect against cold snaps): beans, summer squash, pickling cucumbers, and small carrots. You have nothing to loose but some seed.

If you don’t want to have more crops, but would like to have your soil covered, you can plant cover crops of oats, barley or buckwheat. All will die with a hard frost leaving a mat on the soil surface through the winter.

Q: While weeding in my garden, I uncovered a mass of copper colored beetles about the size and shape of a Japanese beetle. What are they and are they destructive?

Asiatic Garden Beetles
Asiatic Garden Beetles

A: The critters are Asiatic Garden Beetles, an introduced pest that can cause significant damage to the garden. The copper colored beetles overwinter as small grubs and emerge as adults in July. Adult beetles attack many different vegetable, herb, fruit, and ornamental plants, feeding mostly at night, chewing irregular holes in the blossoms and foliage of host plants. Treat these as you do Japanese beetles, knowing that hand-picking is quite effective and that due to their varied diet, no long-term solution is currently available.

Q: How can I keep my garden watered during a heat wave?

A: With temperatures soaring into the upper 80’s and 90’s, keeping the garden well watered is critical. Plants lose a lot of water through small openings on the undersides of their leaves. On hot, breezy days, water loss can exceed the water taken in by the plant’s roots, resulting in wilting. If the situation goes on uncorrected too long, the plant will die.

Here are some tips that will help you water effectively, while not wasting water.

  • Early morning and evening are the best times to water. Putting the sprinkler on a timer allows you to start and stop watering at optimum times.
  • Drip irrigation, sweat hoses (round hoses that leak water from all sides) and soaker hoses (flat hoses with holes on one side only) turned upside down will put water at the roots where it’s needed.
  • When using a sprinkler, turn it off as soon as the soil becomes saturated and begins to run off your garden. This can occur quite quickly, depending on how dry the soil is. Wait until the water seeps into the soil and then repeat if time allows. Otherwise water again the following day.
  • A covering of mulch will help reduce water loss from the soil through evaporation.
  • Use the milk jug system for watering individual plants. Punch a couple of pinholes in the lower sides of a plastic milk jug. Remove the cap and place the jug beside the plant. Fill the jug with water. This system will provide slow, thorough watering over the course of an hour or so.
hornworm
Hornworm; photo by J. Dill

Q: A large ugly green caterpillar ate my tomatoes. What is it?

A: You have tomato hornworms, the caterpillar stage of the tobacco moth, which look large enough to eat an entire garden overnight! Be on the lookout for the egg stage early on, before the worms appear. The moth lays single, small opalescent eggs on the top or bottom of tomato leaves. The eggs hatch in 6-10 days and a small caterpillar (about 1/8-inch initially) begins feeding almost immediately. They cause so much damage because the caterpillar eats almost continuously while it grows to over 3 inches. When caterpillars are small, the organic insecticide Bt is an effective killer. When larger, handpicking is the best way to control this pest.

Striped Cucumber Beetle
Striped Cucumber Beetle; photo by J. F. Dill

Squash Bug
Squash Bug; photo by J. F. Dill

Q: Yikes! My cucumber, summer squash, and melon plants have lacy holes in their leaves that turn brown. What is happening?

A: Gardens are full of insects. Fortunately 98% of them are good or benign; it is the remaining 2% that drive us crazy. The damage you are seeing is probably caused by either striped cucumber beetles or squash bugs. Striped cucumber beetle adults are small, yellow and black striped beetles and squash bugs are larger, brownish-gray bugs with a diamond shaped pattern on their back. Once you start to see damage to your plants, make it a point to inspect them daily for troublesome pests. In particular, look for their eggs. Get down on hands and knees and turn the leaves over. Look for tan to orange egg masses between the leaf veins. Simply pinch these between thumb and forefinger to get rid of them. Early morning is a great time to scout for pests because insects are cold blooded and sluggish in cool temperatures. They aren’t able to quickly fly away, so are easier catch and kill. Stay with it — most garden pest problems can be avoided with regular scouting.

Q: I have a large roll of landscaping felt that I want to use as weedblock in a garden of pumpkins, winter squash, and melons. Is fabric detrimental to vining plants that put down tap or supplemental root systems? Will it prevent the vines from getting enough nutrients?

melon patch; photo by Edwin Remsberg, USDAA: Growing vining crops on landscape fabric is a common method to help control weeds among the sprawling vines. Your pumpkins, winter squash, and melons shouldn’t have any trouble anchoring through the felt and taking in water and nutrients; since the vast majority of those will be taken in through the roots of the original plant. With that said, if the wind is whipping when the vines are trying to anchor, they may be less successful than on non-windy sites. But, if it were my squash patch, I would use the landscape felt!

Q: I put tomato and pepper plants in two weeks ago with composted manure; the foliage has lost its lush green look and is turning yellow. Is this a nutrient deficiency?

A: Planting into compost is always tricky since no one can ever be sure what exactly is in the compost in terms of nutrients. Try fertilizing with a liquid fertilizer such as Miracle Gro or an organic equivalent; be sure the first number on the label is 10 or more. If there is a nitrogen deficiency, the yellowing should clear up in 3-5 days.

Q: Is it all right to use purchased wood mulch in your garden when you don’t know what kind of wood it is? Will it hurt you or the plants?

A: Wood mulch (either nuggets or shredded) can be used in our gardens no matter what species, or mixture of species of trees were used. However, in the vegetable garden I would reserve their use to the paths because wood mulches will tie up nitrogen, which vegetables need to grow. Wood-based mulch can be used both around the plants and in the paths of ornamental gardens without worry.

Q: The leaves of my Empire and MacIntosh apple trees are being eaten. I don’t see any worms at all on them and wonder what can be doing this?

A: To be truthful, I cannot imagine what could be eating the apple leaves if you aren’t finding a caterpillar of some sort. Try looking at dusk and early morning in case this pest keeps odd hours. Otherwise, unless there is a threat that the tree will be defoliated, or the fruit is being attacked as well, you don’t have any need to worry; trees can withstand significant leaf loss without major damage.

Q: We planted 3 tomato plants last summer in our little plot. Two of them became infected with blight. Can we use that same plot of ground for tomatoes this year?

A: The good news is yes, you can use the same plot. The late blight organisms can only survive on live tissue; so as long as you do not have any “volunteer” plants growing from last year’s plants, you are all set. If you would like to learn more about late blight, see Bulletin #2427, Tomato and Potato Late Blight Information for the Upcoming Growing Season.

Q: I am replanting some raspberry canes in an “L” shaped border and want to introduce some companion plantings for both conservation of space and organic/pest/fungus control. Thus far tansy is recommended companion planting for pest/fungus control. What are your thoughts on using tansy in this respect (no livestock to worry about)? Any other suggestions?

A: Your suggestion to use tansy as a companion planting sends up a red flag for me. Tansy is truly a lovely plant that attracts many pollinators and its beautiful yellow button-like flowers are wonderful; however, it is a VERY aggressive plant that can easily take over a landscape. It is a significant nuisance plant in Maine.

The predominant fungal issue with raspberries is gray mold, which can be kept in check with adequate cane thinning every year; rows should be kept no more than 12-18” wide and leave no more than 4 to 5 of the sturdiest canes per foot of row. This will allow good air flow through the plantings and help keep the fruit dry and reduce the incidence of gray mold.

Japanese Beetle
Japanese beetle; photo by Charles Armstrong

The major pest to contend with is Japanese beetles. Unfortunately there isn’t a good, effective product (organic or otherwise) on the market, so the best practice is daily handpicking early in the morning before the beetles are warm enough to fly quickly. If the temperature is cool, just shaking the branch above a bucket of soapy water will be enough to dislodge the beetles and send them to their soapy death!

Finally, a mulch of bark, pine needles, leaves or other organic matter around the planting will help keep weeds out of the raspberries and may help to suppress fungal spores as well.

Q: As a first time gardener, I have been struggling with getting started. Could you give me some information about growing corn?

A: Corn is almost as popular to grow as tomatoes for home gardeners. It is a bit tricky, so here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Corn is wind pollinated and needs to be planted in blocks (many short rows) rather than in few long rows for best results.
  2. If you want to harvest corn all season long, choose corn varieties by the days to harvest; one early variety, (requires fewer days to harvest) and a late season variety (more days to harvest). This number is on the package or listed in a seed catalog.
  3. Plant when the soil is good and warm (as early as mid-May this year) and follow the spacing directions on the package.
  4. Corn is a heavy feeder and will need adequate fertilizer, especially when it is about knee high. At that time, apply fertilizer high in nitrogen along the row, about 3″ from the stems.
  5. Corn is ready to harvest when the ears pull away from the stem and the corn silk on the ears turns a light brown

Q: What is the best way to lay out a garden?

A: There are as many ways to lay out a garden as there are gardeners. No one design works for everyone. Here are some things to think about as you figure out where the beans and tomatoes are going to go:

  • Slope: Placing rows crosswise to a slope will prevent seeds and soil from ending up at the bottom of the slope after heavy rains.
  • Watering: If you are thinking about using drip tape or sweat hoses to water your garden, place them in the garden at four-foot intervals (make sure to have the connector end of the hoses on the same side). Then, plant a row of vegetables 3 inches to 4 inches on either side of the hose. This will provide a two-foot path between rows of crops.
  • Wide beds: Rather than a single row of vegetables surrounded by two paths, you can create 4-foot-wide growing areas. These “beds” are wide enough to grow 4 rows of vegetables like carrots, beets, onions, and chard; or two rows of bush beans, broccoli, cabbage, and peppers.

Q: My newly planted seedlings are lying on the ground. It looks as though someone cut them off with scissors. What happened?

Cutworm. Photo by Charles Armstrong.
Cutworm. Photo by Charles Armstrong.

A: It sounds like your garden was visited by cutworms. These caterpillar-like worms are the juvenile stage of some moth species. Cutworms come out at night, encircle young plant stems, and chew through the stem. Sometimes the entire plant is left where it falls; other times part of the plant is eaten as well. These pests can do quite a bit of damage in a short time. If you notice damage in your garden you can:

  • Dig around the affected plant 2” – 3” from the stem and about 2” deep. The gray/brown cutworms are often found lurking not too far from the tasty crops. You can crush them or dispose of them in a container of soapy water.
  • For transplanted crops like peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, and cabbage, place a “collar” of tin foil or 1/2 of a small paper cup around the stem of the plant. These will act as a barrier, preventing the cutworm from reaching the stem.

Photos of other common vegetable pests.

Q: With an unusually early, warm spring, what can I safely plant?

A: As long as your garden soil is relatively dry (no standing water), it should be safe to plant

  • peas
  • spinach
  • lettuce
  • scallions
  • beets
  • Swiss chard
  • other greens

Remember though, the weather can change in a moment, so don’t plant anything you aren’t willing to loose.

Q: Is there any relationship between full moons and frosts?

A: While there is a wealth of gardening lore that claims you should wait until after the full moon to plant frost-sensitive crops such as tomatoes and beans, there is no scientific evidence tying full moons to frost. Frosts are caused when the air is still, cold, and the sky is clear. Perhaps the moon is noticed on cold, clear nights, when frosts are likely, causing people to ascribe any frosts to the phase of the moon. For more info, see “Full Moon You Say? Frost You Say?” at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association website.

Q: What should I pay more attention to: the temperature of the soil or the temperature of the air?

A: Both actually. The temperature of the soil will indicate how rapidly your newly planted seed or seedling will grow, while the air temperature (if it dips low enough) will tell you if your plant is likely to survive until morning.

Q: I’ve already harvested a couple of crops from my garden. What can be planted late in the season that I’ll be able to harvest before frost?

A: Crops that will definitely ripen before frost without extra precautions: scallions, peas (don’t delay in planting), beets, chard, spinach, and hardy greens.

Crops that MIGHT make it with some frost protection and encouragement by using something like “floating row cover” or sheets to protect against cold snaps: beans, summer squash, pickling cucumbers, and small carrots. You have nothing to loose but some seed.

If you don’t want to have more crops, but would like to have your soil covered, you can plant cover crops of oats, barley or buckwheat. All will die with a hard frost leaving a mat on the soil surface through the winter.

Q: I was weeding in my garden and uncovered a mass of copper colored beetles about the size and shape of a Japanese beetle. What are they and are they destructive?

A: The critters are Asiatic Garden Beetles, an introduced pest that can cause significant damage to the garden. The copper colored beetles overwinter as small grubs and emerge as adults in July.

Adult beetles attack many different vegetable, herb, fruit, and ornamental plants feeding mostly at night, chewing irregular holes in the blossoms and foliage of host plants. Treat these as you do Japanese beetles, knowing that hand-picking is quite effective and that due to their varied diet, no long-term solution is currently available.