Ask Our Garden Experts: Questions and Answers from 2018

If you have a gardening question, you are welcome to

Questions and Answers from 2018

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.

InsectQ: I still have a row of collards in the garden that I can’t remove because of the frozen 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. Lightweight-looking mosquito-like insects. How could they possibly exist, considering the weeks and weeks of sub-freezing cold we’ve been experiencing?

A: After consulting with our Entomologist, I 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. This one is most likely a winter crane fly. Here is more information, Bug Guide.

Q: My green mountain potatoes have had scab for the past two years. Is there something I need to do to my soil?

A: Scab in potatoes is very common, but can be prevented primarily by planting seed that does not carry the disease. If you tend to save your own seed, you should purchase certified, scab-free next year rather than putting infected seed back into your soil. Being sure you pH is low enough by doing a soil test and amending if necessary and choosing resistant varieties will also go a long way to ensuring your spuds are scab free. There are some suggestions for resistant varieties in Bulletin #2440, Common Scab Disease of Potatoes, written by our own in-state researchers. For other best practices check out Bulletin #2077, Growing Potatoes in the Home Garden.

Killarney raspberriesQ: I would like to grow raspberries (red, yellow, black & purple). I have a sunny spot with very good drainage. I have a soil report on the area that I want to use. I saw the 2 videos that David Handley prepared in 2010. I thought they were very helpful. Since those videos were prepared, I would like to know if there are other cultivars that he would recommend and if there are any that he recommended then that have been supplanted by better ones. Since I live in coastal southern Maine, are there any cultivars that he could recommend for me that wouldn’t do well further north.

A: Hopefully this information will be helpful as you look through your nursery catalogs for raspberry plants this winter.

Some new varieties have recently been released out of Europe, but we don’t have enough data to show whether they’d be good performers in our region just yet. Here are reliable options for our area:

  • Early – ‘Prelude, Killarney
  • Mid – ‘Nova’
  • Late – ‘Encore’
  • Ever-bearing – ‘Polana’ (first choice because it’s earlier and more productive), ‘Polka’ (better fruit quality, but second choice)

BrambleQ: I found a very strange plant in East Blue Hill, on Sept 27. The weather was still quite warm. I’m sending a photo. The colors are a bit different because in my eye I saw something of a green color in between the bluer green and the yellowish-green. If anyone can ID this plant, I would be thrilled to hear its name.

A: It is difficult to tell from the photo, but I do believe that this is an extremely stunted bramble. Cultivated and wild brambles can suffer from a virus, which is caused by an aphid (Aphis rubicola), causing the disease leaf curl.

Here is a fact sheet from University of Illinois, Integrated Pest Management describing this disease and the life cycle of leaf curl. Disease of Brambles

Q: We have a six-foot-high deer fenced fruit garden. Something is breaking off newly planted this year blackberry branches and last year’s raspberry canes about two feet from the ground. No leaves are eaten just the stems broken off. No chewed debris on the ground. We don’t see footprints in the mud or wood chip paths. This happens at night. No problems with deer in the vegetable garden which is similarly fenced.

A: After conferring with UMaine Small Fruit Specialist David Handley and other colleagues, the consensus is that a porcupine is causing the damage. David Handley says the type of damage you describe is “the calling card” of porcupines and porcupines can climb. They spend much of their time in trees, so fences would not be much of a challenge for them. You may want to consider dropping hardware cloth around the perimeter of the garden, as an additional precaution. Repellents, such as capsicum sprays or coyote urine can be used as deterrents. These repellents are not considered to be all that effective and would need to be re-applied after rain.

For details about various control methods, see Porcupine Damage Management. For information on deterring woodchucks, including a very good diagram on hardware cloth installation, see Mass Audubon Situations and Solutions.

Rhododendrons in bloomQ: Last winter my rhododendrons dried out and the leaves turned brown from the harsh wind and cold conditions. I am writing to ask about the best anti-desiccant product. Is it possible to make a large batch with pine oil? If so, how? Where is the best place to purchase the oil, what ratio to water etc. I have many well-established bushes and would like to keep them healthy this winter. Most bounced back and put on new growth over the summer. However, some were damaged to the point of never coming back. They really are too large to wrap.

A: Winter injury of landscape shrubs is a reality to be dealt with in the Northeast. Keeping plants adequately watered throughout the fall is crucial to reduce winter injury. For the past two years, York County has had drought conditions. Many people do not water their large shrubs, but in the instance of drought, it is helpful to do so.

As the temperatures begin to drop in the late fall, shrubs will send water down from the leaves to the roots. If you use an anti-desiccant before this takes place, you can trap moisture in the leaves, which can cause cellular damage to the plants’ leaves. You must wait until very late fall or early winter to use an anti-desiccant product.

Although one could probably make their own variation on anti-desiccant using pine oil, it would most likely not be very effective without an ingredient that would prevent the pine oil from being washed off during winter storms. There would also be the concern of quantity and possible suffocation of the plant leaves if applied improperly.

Anti-Desiccants are variable in their performance. Read the label carefully before applying. Here are some tips for using anti-desiccants more safely from the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension:

  • Always follow the label instructions carefully!
  • Pick an appropriate time to spray: Anti-desiccants are best applied when temperatures are around 40-50 degrees F, with no rainfall in the immediate forecast. Foliage needs to be dry when applied, and the spray needs time to dry afterward.
  • Don’t spray too early: Wait until December to spray conifers, because these plants must be completely dormant (which involves moving water down to the roots) before applying, or else the spray will trap water in the leaves that will freeze and cause cellular rupturing.
  • Spray thoroughly: Plants lose water from both the upper side and under side of the leaves. Be sure to spray the entire plant!
  • Caution: Don’t spray waxy, blue conifers such as blue spruce – they already have a natural coating that you don’t want to damage.

Q: What is the best way and time to prune elderberries for long life of the plant and lots of flowers/fruits?

A: How you prune your elderberry will depend greatly on the species you have, how large you would like cyme (flower head) and fruit to be and when you would like to the fruit to develop. University of Missouri Cooperative Extension, did a fascinating seven-year study on pruning methods, to determine what effect four different pruning methods would have on crop yield. The one factor of pruning that remains true for all species of elderberry is; they must be pruned while dormant, either in the late fall or very early spring. American elderberries produce fruit on shoots older than one year and produce suckers from the crown, which will bear fruit the first year. Plants may be pruned selectively, leaving a mix of young and older shoots. Here is the fact sheet that details the study, UMass Extension Berry Notes (PDF). Each of the four pruning methods, from not pruning at all to mowing to the ground, produced different results.

Q: Many of my fingerling potatoes have one small neat hole that almost looks drilled it is so precise. It isn’t deep and when the potatoes are cut, I’ve seen nothing inside. Any ideas?

A: Without seeing a photo of the damage to your potato crop, I can only venture a guess from the description of the damage, that the culprit may be wireworms. Here is a fact sheet from the University of Virginia Cooperative Extension on Wireworm Pest Management in Potatoes.

Crop rotation is very important in managing this pest. If you do suspect wireworm infestation, monitoring and baiting in the affected area before planting should be undertaken. This fact sheet from PEI Department of Agriculture and Forestry provides information on how to do so, Wireworm Management (PDF).

Q: We just learned that the properties that we are interested in have well water that has high concentrations of arsenic. We are avid gardeners and grow tomatoes, radish, lettuce and a number of other varieties of plants. There are point-of-use remediation systems in place at the homes in question but I do not believe there is anything for watering gardens. Will the contaminated well water have an impact on both the plants and us as we consume a lot of what is grown? As part of our gardening, we also attract pollinators and raise Monarch butterflies and would also like to know if they would be impacted.

A: Depending on how high the arsenic level is you may see stunting of the plants. More stunting will occur if you have high arsenic in the soil also. The amount of arsenic that accumulates in plant tissues is determined by several factors, including the type of plant, the portion of the plant that is to be eaten and soil types. In general, if concentrations of arsenic in soil and water are high, plant growth and yield are likely to be reduced, especially for fruits and leaves.

A soil test will provide you with more information to know if you have high levels in both areas and what the concern level may be. If the soil is high too, then you could consider bringing soil in and doing raised bed gardening.

I also consulted with Dr. John Jemison, UMaine Cooperative Extension Educator and Specialist in Soil and Water Quality. Here is the advice Dr. Jemison’s supplied.

Back in the 1990s, Dr. Jemison did some research looking at this issue. There are a couple of things to consider. He did his research in a setting where all the water the plants received was arsenic water. That won’t be your situation unless you grow in a greenhouse setting.

Back then the arsenic standard was 0.05 ppm. Today the standard is 0.01 ppm. Dr. Jemison gave chard and beets water containing 0.0 0.005, 0.05, 0.5, and 5 ppm water. Only in the highest concentration was the uptake significant and only with the beet root, not the leaves.

His recommendation is to build up the phosphate levels in your soil. This will improve the situation. Arsenic and phosphate compete with each other. The recommendation is to treat the drinking water in the home but, unless the arsenic level in your soil is also high, your plants should be fine.

So, please get your soil tested as well. Here is a link to a UMaine Cooperative Extension fact sheet, Testing Your Soil.

Another solution, if you are still concerned is to devise a rainwater collection system. Here is a fact sheet from Oregon State University, Harvesting Rainwater (PDF).

Regarding your pollinators, I could find very little research-based information on the effects of arsenic on pollinators. If the levels in your well are indeed high, perhaps you could use your home treated water for the supply (birdbaths, butterfly ponds, etc.) you provide the pollinators. Here is a fact sheet from NCBI, National Center for Biotechnology Information: It seems that different organisms have varying levels of response to arsenic toxicity, Biologic Effect of Arsenic on Plants and Animals.

Q: I have three artichoke plants that are growing outdoors in buckets. What should I do with them? Two of them are in a smaller container. Could I plant them in the ground now and cover them with straw? Also, we are not having much luck with our fruit trees, pears, blueberries, fragrant cherries, and hazelnut trees. What can we do over the winter to shore them up?

A: Artichokes are hardy only to zone 6 or 7. In Maine, they should be treated as annuals. If you have a hoop house or greenhouse, you could try to overwinter the plants there. Here is a tip from Cornell on a possible way to over-winter artichokes in a mild winter, zone 5: Growing Guide — Artichokes

In regards to your fruit trees and other crops, did you get your soil tested prior to planting? This is a critical first step in preparing for a home orchard. Are the plants all in the same garden? The pH requirement for blueberries is radically different than for pear trees. Much of Maine has been in a moderate to sever drought for the past 3 years. If these were new plantings, did you water and fertilize at regular intervals?

Here are some fact sheets that will assist you as you prepare for growing these various crops, including care and culture and how to get your soil tested. Now is a great time to get your soil tested. If amendments are needed you can incorporate them into the garden now and be prepared to get off to a fresh start in the Spring. Soil test kits are available at your local UMaine Extension county office.

Q: I have prepared (bottom plowed, disc harrowed) a 1/2-acre raw ground plot to plant vegetables next spring. I want to plant “over winter rye ” now to keep the plot ready for spring. What’s the best rye seed (or something else) to use? Annual vs. perennial? How should it be planted and when? How much seed will I need? Where can I buy inexpensive but good quality seed? Is there anything else that I must do?

A: At this time of the year, the most successful cover crop will be a winter rye. The optimal planting time in Maine is mid-August to mid-October, so you will need to plant soon. There are several methods for planting. Broadcasting can be done by hand, with a chest-mounted broadcaster, a tractor-mounted broadcaster, or a drop spreader. It is critical to incorporate broadcasted seed into the soil. Grain drills are also recommended.

Two Maine companies sell cover crop seeds: Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Both will offer seeding rates in their catalogs.

Here are some very helpful UMaine Extension publications that can provide you with all the information you will need to be successful.

sedums in bootsQ: I took a pair of my son’s worn-out work boots and planted a variety of small sedums in them. I placed them on the front steps of our house. I’m wondering if I can leave them outside during Maine winters? Which varieties of sedum can survive a Maine winter?

A: There are some succulents that are listed as hardy varieties. Although they may be listed as hardy, these plants still thrive best indoors during Maine winters. A good snow pack will protect many species of sempervivums (Hens and Chicks) and sedums, but excessively cold temperatures without snow may cause them to succumb to these harsh conditions. The following website contains a listing of sedums and other succulent plants that have been used in green roofs in the state of Minnesota. It also lists further resources you can access.

General tips for indoor care of your succulents:

  • Bring your plants indoors and keep them in a south or east-facing window.
  • Use a very light potting mix such as a cactus mix.
  • Your containers should have drainage holes.
  • Water thoroughly, but allow them to dry out in between waterings.

Wouldn’t your boot display look so inviting inside and cheer a cold winter day?

Q: I am trying to grow an American Elm Bonsai. I planted the seeds this spring and have two seedlings. My question is how to winter them?

A: The American elm, Ulmus americana, is a deciduous tree. It will drop its leaves and go dormant naturally. It must be kept indoors and protected from strong light and drafts, but if your seedlings are healthy then they should overwinter just fine indoors. See Bonsai Culture from Cornell Cooperative Extension for information about the general requirements for care.

plants growing in a hoop houseQ: I have a hoop house. Yesterday it rained all day and I kept the hoop house sides down and vents closed at each end. Today it is cloudy and cool. We moved here from Florida and have no experience with a hoop house in Maine. How do I know when to open the sides or keep them closed with this type of weather?

A: It was very wise to keep your hoop house closed yesterday during the heavy rains. Rain splash is one of the contributing causes of many foliar diseases. When to keep it closed and when to open it depends greatly on what crops you are growing in your hoop house. As a general rule, it would be best to follow the temperature requirements for your selected crops when deciding how to manage the hoop house. Heat stress is a much more common problem for hoop house growers. If you are growing tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplants, then you will likely want to keep the sides closed much more frequently this time of year to retain the heat. Lettuces, kale, and other leafy greens will bolt in higher temperatures so opening the sides would be recommended. If you have not already done so, place a thermometer and hygrometer in the hoop house. Every growing season is different, but keeping a garden journal and recording the temperatures will give you a base of knowledge going forward as you adjust to your new home here in Maine. Here are some research-based sites to assist you.

Q: I had a terrible grub infestation in my lawn this year. I am planning on spraying with beneficial nematodes this week and replanting grass seed. What type of fertilizer should I be using: grass starter or winter fertilizer?

A: Unfortunately it is getting late in the year for grub treatment using nematodes. The best time to apply nematodes depends on the weather and grub species. Most summers mid to late August is about right. The grubs need to be actively feeding and in their second or third instar stage, for the release of the fungus which will then kill the grub. In 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. When using any pesticide make sure you read the label carefully before buying the product, follow all instructions and take appropriate precautions as listed.

Late summer to early fall (mid-August to mid or late September) is the best time for seeding cool-season turf grasses. If seeding in an area where autumn leaf drop is a concern you may want to wait until early March through April.

I also recommend against fertilizing this time of year. The best time of year to fertilize a lawn in Maine is around Labor Day. Winter fertilizer products are typically high in nitrogen. Nitrogen should be applied no later than 2 months before the average first frost date. This allows the turf to go dormant before cold weather can cause injury.

For more information, see Establishing a Home Lawn in Maine.

Q: How do I renew the life of a Cupid’s Curl Begonia given to our Community Center? About 3-4“ of the main tuber is exposed and there seems to be four other gnarly tubers. It has been losing leaves. First, they turn brown, dry, and crinkly around the edges. I am guessing it is pretty old. Also, what do you say about the lives of houseplants in plastic pots?

A: Houseplants can live happy and long lives given the correct care. Regular watering, fertilizing, and repotting are very essential to the well being of your begonias. I suspect that your Curly Cue begonia needs a boost, by simply re-potting.

Never use garden soil for begonias grown indoors. Always use a soil-less potting mix, which can be easily obtained at a garden center. Mixes for indoors are designed to hold moisture and food and to give the roots something to hold on to.

When re-potting your begonia, do not up-pot into a much larger pot. A pot one size up will be sufficient. If reusing a pot, clean it with an extremely mild bleach solution consisting of one part household bleach to 9 parts water for a minimum of 10. This will disinfect the pot. Prune off any foliage that is dead, browned or wilting. Place clean, fresh potting soil into the pot. The top of the root ball should sit about 1’ below to top rim of the pot. Fill the sides with more potting mix and press gently to firm the roots in place and remove any air pockets. Use a liquid soluble fertilizer when your replant and follow the instructions for timely reapplications of fertilizer. Keep your begonia in bright, but indirect light in a room that remains consistently above 60 degrees.

Visit the American Begonia Society for more information. Or see Clemson University Cooperative Extension — Begonias.

Q: I am in Oxford County and have three Stanley plum trees about five years old. This year they bloomed well and formed fruit, but during July and August all of the fruit dropped. I did not see any damage to the fruit. Also, should these trees be pruned to be open like apple trees?

A: Stanley plum is a European plum that does perform well in Maine. There could be a number of reasons that you had such a large loss of fruit. It is always best to thin fruit trees to prevent excessive weight on the branches, which can result in limb breakage. It also helps the remaining fruit grow larger, sweeter, and healthier. It is a normal occurrence for plums to drop some fruit in mid-summer. This self-thinning is done in order to preserve the integrity of the remaining fruit and the tree itself.

Much of Maine has been in a moderate to severe drought for the past three years. Have you watered during some of the dryer summer months? Especially during the first year, trees require weekly watering. After the first year, a tree will require less water but should get a good soaking every couple of weeks. Continue watering through October to eliminate the possibility of stress on the tree the following year.

Did you have the soil tested before you planted the trees? Even if you did, re-testing every 5 years is a helpful tool in managing soil fertility. A pH level of 6.5 is ideal for fruit tree growth, allowing the tree to take up nutrients from the soil. Higher or lower pH inhibits the uptake of nutrients. You can pick up a soil test kit at your local UMaine Extension county office.

Did you follow a regular fertilizer regiment? Spring is the best time to fertilize fruit trees when the tree is most rapidly growing. For healthy trees, nitrogen should be applied sparingly. Potassium and magnesium are generally in short supply in Maine soils and may need to be applied once yearly using potassium magnesium sulfate (sul-po-mag). Agricultural boron may be added every three years. A soil analysis can determine nutrients needed by fruit trees. For more information, see Growing Fruit Trees in Maine.

Pruning is recommended starting in the fifth year, so your timing for this is perfect. Plum trees, like apples, should be pruned in early spring, before bud break, and while the trees are still dormant. A multiple leader technique is recommended for plum trees. This UMaine publication explains the multiple leader system for plum trees: Plum Production in Maine.

Beech-dropsQ: I have a plant growing in my garden that looks like the attached photo. It also grows by roadsides. Can you tell me the name of it and how to get rid of it?

A: Those are Beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana). It’s a parasitic plant that feeds on beech trees, through the roots. It is a flowering plant, but it does not produce chlorophyll.

Maple branch and leaves Maple Tree TrunkQ: Would you please tell me if the maple in the attached photos is the invasive maple?

A: It looks like a sugar maple to me, but the easiest way to confirm is to tear off one of the leaves. If you see a milk sap, then it’s a Norway maple (the invasive type).

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: It looks as though I’ve had an infestation of grubs on my lawn. All summer, I’ve noticed holes, here and there, from critters digging for grubs and now I have a good portion of my backyard that has turned to dirt; a majority of the grass that used to be there is gone. The front yard has a few holes, here and there, but nothing as bad as the patch in my backyard. I’ve heard that fall/autumn is a good time to do something about getting rid of grubs and re-planting grass seed. Would it be of help to spread some sort of all-natural critter deterrent around the perimeter of my yard, maybe in the spring after going through this de-grubbing and grass seed planting process in the fall? Is there a step-by-step plan of attack and a timeline that I could follow?

A: Unfortunately it is getting late in the year for grub treatment to be effective. 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 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.

ornamental amaranthQ: In Camden, I saw a plant that really intrigued me. It is September and is still robust with color. I am thinking it might be a plant that would do well if planted in my Northeastern Pennsylvania hometown as our climates are similar. Can you help or recommend someone who could? Please see photo.

A: It looks as though it could be an Ornamental Amaranth. Here is an example: Veggie garden bloggers’ bloom day! You can find other examples with a web search to confirm this ID. Other varieties can have more drooping flowers. Ornamental Amaranths are warm-season annuals, and they would do well in Pennsylvania.

Japanese KnotweedQ: My question has to do with the removal of Japanese Knotweed, it’s invading my garden.
Most of the removal recommendations involve the spraying of some form of Glyphosate solution. The problem with these products is they come in many different percents of solution. Some are 18,43 or 50%. I would like the best-recommended solution for the killing of this invasive plant. I have bought a 50% solution but Japanese Knotweed is not listed in their guide for an ounce /gallon that would kill this plant. Have your gardening experts had any luck with the removal of this plant?

A: As you know, Japanese knotweed is a difficult weed to control. UMaine Extension’s Japanese Knotweed fact sheet and the Maine Natural Areas Program’s Japanese Knotweed fact sheet both include useful information about the weed’s biology and control methods.

If you are interested in non-chemical control methods, cutting the stalks to the ground at least three times a year will eventually kill an existing stand of Japanese knotweed. If you use this method, it is very important that you don’t let the plant set seed and that you are vigilant about this cutting for multiple years. If the stand is large, that may be difficult or impossible.

As for your herbicide question, yes, glyphosate is available in a number of different formulations and concentrations. That can make it difficult to choose the correct product in the store. As you know, you must read and follow all instructions on the pesticide label: the label is the law. The rate you use must not exceed the rate on the label. The site where you will be using the pesticide must be on the label, as must the pest. Since the label on your herbicide doesn’t specify a rate specifically for Japanese knotweed, look to see if it includes a broad, relevant category, such as “difficult-to-control perennial weeds.” Sometimes those broad categories are listed instead of specific weeds.

sunflowersQ: At the garden at Smiling Hill Farm, there are a couple of giant (8-10 foot-plus) yellow branching sunflowers. What variety is that and where can I find the seeds?

A: Giant sunflowers are very striking! There are quite a few varieties of sunflowers that have been bred to be tall. Without a photo, there’s no way to tell which it was. If you would like to grow this type of sunflower, choose a variety that is bred to be tall. Check your favorite garden center or seed catalog to see what options they have. Seed packets and catalogs will state the approximate plant height. You can also do an internet search for “giant sunflower varieties.” When growing for maximum size, proper site and soil conditions (full sun, adequate soil depth, good drainage, proper pH and fertility, adequate water, proper spacing) are also important.

Q: I am in Lincoln, Maine, zone 4. I have a backyard garden and I want to put two small (dwarf) fruit trees in it. I would prefer pear but would consider cherry or even apple if a good pear tree weren’t available. What variety would work, and where could I get it? Am I right in thinking I would need two for fertilization? How does that actually work? Are there male and female trees? When should they be planted? I have eight to ten inches of good loamy soil and a spot that gets sunlight most of the day. Plenty of room for dwarf trees but full-sized trees would be crowded. Any help will be appreciated.

A: The UMaine Extension publication Growing Fruit Trees in Maine covers all these issues well (varieties, pollination, planting time, site selection), so I will focus on the few that aren’t addressed there. These plants (pears, apples, cherries) do not have male and female plants, but some require pollen from a different variety in order to be pollinated. Pears and apples are not self-fertile, so you would need at least two trees of different varieties and with similar bloom times to ensure pollination. Most cherry varieties are self-fertile so trees of the same variety are fine, but confirm that is the case for your specific variety. Most local nurseries and landscapers will sell fruit trees. Many local Soil and Water Conservation Districts sell trees, including some fruit trees, as a fundraiser in the spring. Mail-order or pre-order companies are another option.

Verbascum thapsusQ: What is this flower? This volunteered itself in my lawn. Big fuzzy leaves, no flower yet. I put my foot beside it to show how big it is.

A: It appears to be common mullein, Verbascum thapsis. It is known for its wooly leaves. It is a biennial, meaning that it does not flower in the first year, but will flower, set seed, and die in the second year. This is its first year. If you don’t mow it, next year it will send up a tall spike with yellow flowers. Here is more information:

Q: I have two large fig trees which I cut to the ground last fall and this summer they grew very large. They bore no fruit. Someone suggested it was because I cut them down. How do I protect them from winter damage?

A: I wanted to check in with our tree fruit specialist. She says that figs will need three years of growth before they produce. Figs are subtropical plants, though, and both the leaves (they are evergreen in the proper climate) and wood may be damaged by cold temperatures. Rutgers University has a good fact sheet, Figs in the Home Garden, that provides good background and production information. As you review this fact sheet, keep in mind that our growing season is still much cooler and shorter than New Jersey’s. One thing to note is that figs will produce two crops of fruit. The first crop is borne on the previous year’s wood. If you cut the plant back to the ground, you will not have this crop, so that is likely why you did not see fruit earlier this season. The second fig crop is borne on the current year’s wood. In NJ, the growing season is often too short to get this crop, so we are unlikely to get it in Maine. The fact sheet also describes potential methods of protecting fig trees from cold winter weather. Our specialist says that it may also be possible to grow the plants in very large pots and then move them to a warmer, protected area for the winter. This is not something that we have researched here, but it may be successful if you are diligent.

Q: I am taking next season off from vegetable gardening and I am wondering what the best way to “put my beds to rest” is for the following year and a half. I have eight raised beds and an “in the ground” bed. I really don’t want a lot of work over next season but also want to keep the weeds at bay.

A: Smart of you to be thinking ahead. I did the same this year and wrote a piece about it in our Maine Home Garden News. Please take a look and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any follow up questions, Finding Gardening-Life Balance.

Black Rot of GrapeQ: I have several mature Concord grape vines. Each year, the vines are loaded with green grapes, and then they begin to turn purple, and either shrivel or fall off the vines. I never get any harvestable grapes. They get the usual attacks of Japanese Beetles but not a huge amount this year, the leaves are actually quite healthy. Can you suggest what might be wrong?

A: Here’s an excerpt from the bulletin, Black Rot of Grape regarding management strategies. In summary, fall clean up and pruning to thin the canopy for better air circulation are two very important steps. You’ll also want to be careful to follow the label instructions of any products you apply and adhere to the schedule recommended below for best protection.


1. Fall clean up may be the most important component of a control strategy because this can remove most of the inoculum (spores) source from the planting. Rake up all leaves and fallen mummies. Be especially careful to remove mummies that remain attached to the vine and, when pruning, preferentially prune out infected canes and be careful to remove infected tendrils.

2. Plant in locations that will provide plenty of sun and air circulation, and orient rows parallel to the prevailing winds (generally west-east). Provide for proper vine spacing when planting, try to maintain an open canopy, and maintain good weed control. These practices will allow for rapid drying of the plants.

3. Select resistant varieties when planting


There are two strategies for chemical control of black rot. The first strategy involves the use of protectant fungicides that must be present during infection periods to prevent infections from occurring. The second strategy relies on the ability of certain fungicides to eradicate early infections after they have occurred. All fungicides have protective action. Protectant only fungicides include Bordeaux mix (may cause phytotoxicity), mancozeb, and ferbam. Fungicides that will move into the plant tissues (systemic) providing kickback activity include the strobilurins and the sterol inhibitors (e.g. Abound, Flint, Pristine/ Elite, Rally, Rubigan) A good general protectant schedule would be to spray at 1/2-1 inch shoot growth, immediately pre-bloom, immediately post-bloom, and mid-season depending on the weather until the fruit starts to color. Care should be taken to rotate amongst chemical classes.

Giant ragweedCommon RagweedQ: I have two weeds growing near my bird feeders. One is now about 7′ tall, the other is maybe 3’5″. The leaves of the taller one do not look like poisonous hemlock, Poison Parsley or Hogweed. The stalk has whitish short hairs. I am sending photos of each plant, as I am unsure of how to safely dispose of them.

A: My colleague Liz Stanley is to credit for the following information and ID.
When Oregon State researchers looked at 10 common brands of wild bird seed, they found their samples contained seeds from more than 50 weed species. While it’s tough to provide a 100% positive ID from these photos, our best guess for the two you have here are:

To learn more about how to minimize the spread of new or invasive weeds that may be in your bird seed please read: Is your Bird Feeder a Weed Seeder?

European BuckthornQ: This photo is of a tree in my yard. I did not see any flowers on this tree this spring or summer. Can you please tell me what this is?

A: It looks like European Buckthorn. Here’s more information:

hostaQ: Can large potted hostas survive in their pots over the winter in coastal Maine, away from the water, in a wooded site? Former locations where we could dig them in, are no longer available and we are no longer able to do so.

A: Overwintering containerized perennials can be tricky business. When you can’t sink them into the ground, your next best bet is to keep the plants consistently cold while also staying protected from any periods of deep cold. After the nighttime temps dip into the 20s for a few nights, you’ll want to move the pots into a spot where they’ll be out of direct sunlight and give them a good dose of water before tucking them in. Then, bank around the pots with some type of insulating material, such as evergreen trimmings (readily available from Christmas tree vendors that time of year), straw, or bags of leaves. If possible, keep the pots covered with snow all winter long.

Keep in mind that ceramic pots will likely crack as the contents expand upon freezing.

Although the way you’ve overwintered them in the past is ideal (i.e. removing them from the pot, digging a temporary hole and loosely backfilling with soil or some type of organic material), this approach should also help minimize the plants exposure to freeze/thaw cycles that commonly occur throughout the winter. It’s not as reliable, but it’s worth trying.

ripe peaches on treeQ: I was hoping to plant fruit trees soon, and then saw on your website, that perhaps I should not plant so late here. I am located in Steuben, and wondering if there is anything (trees, vines, perennials) I can safely plant here within the next month?

A: While spring is the ideal time to plant perennials (trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants), they can also be planted in the fall. The sooner you can get them in the ground, the more likely they’ll have a chance to establish themselves a bit before the winter ahead. With that said, fall-planted trees will not likely have a significant advantage over those planted the following spring. In fact, they sometimes lag behind those planted the following spring – especially if the plants happen to be lower quality.

If you go ahead and plant this fall, please note that fruit trees should not be pruned upon planting this time of year. Here is more information on Planting and Early Care of fruit trees. For information on plants that enhance habitat, please consider checking out Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape.

Q: How can a stand of bamboo be eradicated? Is there a harmless solution that can be sprayed? Someone suggested a mixture of Dawn dish soap, white vinegar, and water. Is there a plant that would be competitive enough to take over the area? It seems to avoid an area where mint grows.

A: I’m assuming you’re talking about Japanese Knotweed, commonly referred to as bamboo in this region. Here is a helpful fact sheet, Japanese Knotweed/Mexican Bamboo that outlines some management strategies. Home recipes for weed control such as vinegar or dish soap are not effective on established stands. In summary, the best non-chemical strategy is to do your best to keep it from photosynthesizing through repeated mowing (weekly) and persistence over a number of years. It’s essential to not let it get ahead of you. If you anticipate being away for a week or two during the mowing season, cover the area with a tarp or some other physical barrier to prevent it from photosynthesizing. It is possible to eradicate it from an area, but it takes time and commitment.

Q: I planted white clover seeds on an area that I use as a short walking path. I read that I have to wait for them to flower before cutting or mowing them in order for them to continue to grow and flower in the future. That makes sense. But, I planted them in June and they are all growing very well but where there could or should be hundreds of flowers there are only three to five flowering. What can I do to get them to flower?

A: I assume you planted the low-growing species common in lawns and that spreads by runners, Trifolium repens (white clover). There are a number of different varieties that grow to different heights. Those sold for lawn use typically don’t grow very tall.

If that is true, it is a perennial plant, meaning that it comes back year after year. It also will spread by its runners. It’s a good choice for well-traveled areas, such as a walking path. A few reasons why it may not yet be flowering could be: it may not be quite time for it to start blooming; it may not be in full sun; pH and/or potassium may be lower than ideal; it may be getting enough traffic that the buds are getting damaged and the plants are stressed; lack of rain may be delaying development. At any rate, if it’s growing well, I would expect it to thrive; it’s a tough plant. If it’s tall enough that you feel the need to mow it, go ahead, making sure the mower is set at least 2-3 inches above the soil surface. I’d err on the taller side at this point in time. (Going into the winter, you can leave the plants taller, too.)

japanese-maple-1Q: I have planted several varieties of fruit and ornamental trees on our property over the last two years. Last year our goats got out and ate all of the leaves off of the trees. They repeated the performance this spring with the new trees we planted. Last year’s trees never developed new leaves or buds this year. I examined the branches and most of them are pliable when bent, and have what appears to be healthy bark coloring. The varieties affected are apple trees, Japanese maple trees, and a forsythia (I am aware its not a tree, but it was also stripped of leaves and flowers this year). I have attached pictures of our Japanese maple trees, which were the ones affected last year. Is there any hope of saving these trees?

A: At this point, you will need to wait to see what happens with those trees and shrubs. If you are in one of the many parts of Maine that have been dealing with dry weather, it would be helpful to be sure the plants stay well-watered, although not over-watered. Other than that, though, I would just see what happens. You may want to consider putting some fencing around the trees themselves so the goats’ next escapades are more difficult.

apple treeQ: My parents have four apple trees in their backyard. Last year the two oldest produced a large amount of medium to large apples. This year, there are only two apples growing between the four trees (two are only a few years old). I have attached a picture of the leaves on the two largest trees. There have been Japanese beetles on the trees over the last month.

A: The two trees that bore a large crop last year are likely in the recovery year of a biennial bearing cycle. For some tree fruit, including apples, a large crop one year is typically followed by a small crop or no crop the following year. However, some other factors, including winter injury or lack of pollination, could be a problem. You can review these and other factors in this section, Lack of Fruitfulness in UMaine Extension’s Growing Tree Fruits in Maine. As for the other two trees, they may simply not be old enough to start bearing. When they start bearing will depend on the variety and rootstock. However, review the material indicated above in case it is something else.

Q: How can I get rid of Black Locust seedings, small trees, suckers, etc., without using herbicides? I have been reading on line that basically only roundup or other horrid products are necessary.

A: Unfortunately, if you’re dealing with suckers (saplings that originate directly from the roots of the parent tree), then the only way to fully address the issue is to remove the parent tree(s). Even after removing the parent tree, suckers can still crop up for years. Persistence will eventually pay off if you continue to keep the suckers cut for several years after the parent tree is gone.

Seedlings, on the other hand, are best managed through raking and pulling. Start by gently raking up the seed pods multiple times throughout the end of the season. Many seeds might still drop out of the pods, but any you can remove from the site will be ones that won’t haunt you as seedlings in the future. Hand pull young seedlings as early as possible. The younger they are, the more easily they are to remove from the site.

Drexel's Datana
Drexel’s Datana

Q: Saw this caterpillar on our blueberry bush. We have a lot of low bush and about 8 high bush, but this is the first time we have seen them. Must have been about 50 of them. They were grouped together and had already stripped one section of the bush.

A: I forwarded your question to our entomologist and he said that it looks like Drexel’s Datana (very similar to the yellow-necked caterpillar). Here is some information, Drexel’s Datana. In this situation, the most practical approach to management is to hand-pick them (wearing gloves) into a container of soapy water.

Q: Last year I placed clover vines and leaves around fruit bushes and trees. This year, there was no fruit on any plants. I also placed fresh seaweed around the plants last year. What could be going on? Also, I have been chopping up food scraps in a blender and putting the “soup” in a leaf pile. I have been mixing it up. In the spring I will use this as compost. We have had plastic composters for several years and keep on adding new food waste. But nothing seems to happen so it just sits there year-in and year-out. I felt that this was a good solution.

A: It’s a bit difficult to know what could be happening without knowing more about your garden. Some possible causes of lack of fruit could be late frosts killing buds (depends on type of plant), plants in the wrong place (they will do best in full sun), age of the plants (tree fruit typically won’t set fruit for a couple of years after planting), disease (what type depends on the plant type), improper soil type, inadequate watering, improper pruning, inadequate soil management (such as pH too high for blueberries). If you would like to send more information about your planting–types of plants, how long they have been in that area, amount of sun/shade they receive, soil conditions, overall appearance, I may be able to provide more specific advice. You may also be interested in searching the UMaine Extension publications catalog for publications related to the specific type of plants you have.

You might find some helpful information on composting in one of these two videos. Shredding your leaves and making sure there’s good air flow through the pile might be two factors that could enhance the rate of decomposition. Also, be sure to balance out your food scraps with a lot of shredded leaves or other “brown” materials. I find that it’s often challenging to get adequate air flow using the traditional plastic compost bins. Bins constructed of pallets, snow fencing, or lobster trap wires are excellent options.

HornwormQ: Can you help identify a new appearance in my vegetable garden? I first saw a few of these, appearing dark brown and approximately 1/4″ diameter, deposited on large potato leaves. This morning I found a few more on winter squash leaves and also the ones in the photo (smaller, greener) on the ground near the plants. They seem to have an affinity for these two crops, but I think I also saw a few near some herbs and flowers. In case it’s a clue, I’ve been very scanty watering the garden.

A: That looks like the droppings from hornworms, a common garden problem. They typically are found on tomatoes, but can also feed on other plants in that group, such as peppers, eggplants, and potatoes. Hornworms don’t typically feed on squash. Are there other host plants nearby? Here is a fact sheet, UMaine Cooperative Extension Insect Pests. Penn State also has a good fact sheet with additional photos, Keep an Eye Out for Tomato Hornworm. If you have only a few tomato plants, you can probably stay ahead of them by hand-picking. They are well-camouflaged, so hand-picking can take some patience.

Q: I have a 6-acre property with about 3 acres used as pasture for 2 horses. The back section of the pasture is mostly wild blueberry bushes and I want to rototill it and plant grass. Here are my questions:

  1. Do I need to put down herbicide after I rototill to keep the blueberries from coming back?
  2. Do you recommend liming the soil before I plant the grass seed?
  3. Should I use cow manure for fertilizer or something else?
  4. I was thinking about planting Kentucky Blue Grass. Will that do well in Maine?
  5. How do I get a soil test done?

A: I would suggest you begin by taking a soil sample, Testing Your Soil. Adjusting pH is the first step to improving pastures. Since blueberries are currently growing there, it is likely that you will need to raise the pH by adding lime. Give your local UMaine Extension county office a call, and they can send you a box and form. Sampling instructions are included on the form. When you collect the soil sample, get a sense of soil texture (amount of clay, silt, sand) and soil depth, since these will influence the success of any new planting. You may also want to consult NRCS’ Web Soil Survey since that can give you an idea of the soil’s inherent physical properties. A herbicide may be useful to help kill the blueberries prior to rototilling. Some of those materials have restrictions on when you can re-plant, so it would be best to discuss the specifics of your timing with someone in your local Extension office. As for fertilizer, you can use cow manure, but you may want to consider commercial fertilizer as well, depending on the amount you need. The soil test results will recommend nutrient amounts. It sounds as though this area is likely to be grazed continuously. Bluegrass is a good choice for pasture grass under those circumstances. UMaine Cooperative Extension’s equine web page contains links to horse and pasture management publications that may be useful to you. Most can be downloaded for free.

Stinging nettle Urtica dioica
Stinging nettle Urtica dioica

Q: Can you tell me what this weed is? All I can tell you about it is that if you handle (without gloves) the foliage or stems anywhere along the plant, the skin that came in contact will start to burn, as though the plant were covered in acid. Even had three puffy spots on the underside of my wrist, just above the end of the gloves. The spots are still sore, three hours after contact, even after having washed the areas with soap & water three times. I thought it could be hogweed, but a web search shows hogweed leaves to be severely notched, even more so than oak leaves. These leaves are more finely notched, like the teeth on a plywood-cutting saw blade (i.e., shallow, evenly spaced teeth). Also, this plant doesn’t seem to have a flower. It just grows and puts out seed pods.

A: It looks as though you have encountered stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. More pictures and information can be found here, Urtica dioica.

Q: The leaves of my beet plants are turning brown and dying. It seems to start on the edges and move towards the veins. I don’t see insects on the plants. We did a second planting of beets on the other end of the garden and they are developing the same problem. The plants are watered by a soaker hose from below. It has been suggested this might be boron deficiency, but I’ve seen photos of verticillium wilt that looks similar. What treatment would you suggest? This is a mixed garden with eggplant, green beans (currently harvesting) and carrots nearby. Would it be better to cull and replant? Do we need to treat the soil prior to replant?

A: The best way for us to tell what is ailing your beets is for you to submit a plant sample to our disease diagnostician. We should then be able to tell if a plant pathogen or an environmental factor is causing the problem. Here are instructions on how to submit a plant sample.

I also suggest you have your soil tested if you haven’t already done so. You would need baseline information about your soil before we could make accurate recommendations for soil amendments. If you would like to use the analytical lab at the University of Maine in Orono, here are the instructions, Testing Your Soil. The fee for a basic soil test is $18.00

Q: Our pole beans routinely grow taller than their 8′ supports. I suspect they’d do the same no matter how much height we gave them! Can they be pinched back without harm to the plants?

A: You can pinch back your pole beans and it may temporarily reduce their height, but it will also reduce your yield. A better strategy would be to connect the tips of your bean pole structures together with string or bamboo, allowing the bean plants to continue twining laterally, forming an archway over your head. You can even train them to grow back down on another pole.

Q: Is it safe to compost hay and rabbit manure and then use it in a vegetable garden? If it isn’t safe to use in a vegetable garden, can it be used on a flower bed? Is there a certain temperature that the compost needs to reach to kill any weed seeds from the hay?

A: Several factors contribute to weed seed mortality during composting. Generally, the higher the temperature and the longer the duration of the high- temperature exposure, the higher the weed seed mortality. In one study, researchers found that three of the six weed species they examined under controlled laboratory conditions were unaffected by temperatures of 108 °F, but 90% of the seeds of all six species were killed after less than three hours at 140 °F. All six species suffered 100% mortality after less than an hour at 158 °F. You may achieve heat in the center of your pile, but temperatures at the edges and surface of your backyard compost pile may not be sufficient to kill weed seeds, so keep that in mind if you choose to compost the hay.

Thoroughly composted rabbit manure is safe to apply to your garden and is a good source for organic matter.

If you wish to apply fresh rabbit manure to your garden, you can safely do this in the fall after all vegetables have been harvested. To reduce the risk of disease transmission, raw animal manure should be applied at least 120 days before harvesting a crop that has the potential for soil contact (leafy greens, root crops, etc). More information can be found in out bulletin, Guidelines for Using Manure on Vegetable Gardens.

Here is a very good reference on backyard composting from the Illinois Extension Composting to Reduce the Waste Stream (PDF).

Yellownecked Caterpillars on BB Bushes
Yellownecked Caterpillars

Q: These were found on my blueberry bushes in Dixmont. Can you tell me what they are?

A: These look like Yellownecked Caterpillars or a closely related species. Hand removing the blueberry leaves with all these gregarious feeders (at this stage) goes a long way in management. Some songbirds will feed on these caterpillars.

Valeriana officinalisQ: Can you tell me what plant this is? Many have suddenly appeared.

A: I cannot tell for sure without seeing the flower, but my best guess from this photo of one leaf is that of common valerian, Valeriana officinalis. Valerian is a herbaceous perennial that spreads generously from seed. It can be pulled up using a little elbow grease, and the roots have a rather unpleasant odor reminiscent of dirty gym socks, especially as they dry and the smell becomes more concentrated.
The roots are used in herbal preparations and have a strong sedative effect.
Here is more information and photos of Valeriana officinalis.

If you think I’ve missed the mark, please send more photos showing the habit of the plant, its flowers if possible, and describe where it is growing.

Lamb's-quartersQ: I used to eat this plant. We called it pigweed and boiled it with butter, salt, and pepper. It had a mild flavor, similar to spinach. If this is not edible, please let me know and what the correct name is for this plant.

A: This is Lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album). It’s edible, but most enjoyable when harvested young. More information can be found in our bulletin, Facts on Edible Wild Greens in Maine. You’ll find some delicious recipes in the bulletin.

Q: I summer on a small island off the mid-coast near Friendship. The island is about 3 acres at high tide and has a mix of 40-50-year-old spruce trees on one side, some grass in the center of the island and then ringed by blackberry, raspberry, some low bush blueberry and a large percentage of bay berry. We bought the place about 4 years ago and since then I’ve noticed that there are sumac’s growing in many spots and seem to be spreading. Also, other then the spruce trees they are growing larger than most of the other plant life. While they’re attractive, the spread of them got me wondering if they would/could take over the bay berry and other plants or do they typically just fill in the gaps? I’m wondering if I should be trying to tame them or just let them go and let the island work out its own ecosystem? From what I read they spread via rhizomes so it may be hard/impossible to really control them as the island is mostly rocky with bits of soil here and there in areas.

A: Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, does spread by rhizomes and is an aggressively colonizing native plant. Northern Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, is also a native, colonizing plant that spreads by rhizomes.

They are both terrific plants for wildlife habitat. My suggestion is that you let them compete with each other on their own. Each will find its own niche depending on soil, sunlight, wind and salt exposure, and other environmental conditions.

Male Longhorn Bees 2Q: This is the second year we have been overrun by bees. We live near a commercial grower who uses a beekeeper on both sides of the road from us. Last year we asked him to come look at the bees and he said they are not his. They act frenzied and fly back and forth and into our house and deck and are all over everything with a flower, such as our hostas and vegetable blooms. With windows open in the early part of the day, you can hear them. They tend to calm down later in the day. Yesterday they actually swarmed around some artificial flowers that are nowhere near our garden. Last year we thought they were miner bees, as we could see them coming out of the ground. This year we have not noticed that. I am attaching photos of them on our squash flowers. Though they act frenzied, they are not aggressive. Can you tell if these are wild or domestic bees.

A: I’ve forwarded this to Dr. Frank Drummond, our bee expert.

From Dr. Drummond:

“Great photos! These bees appear to be male longhorn bees (as far as I can tell from the photo). They are soil nesting bees of the genus Melissodes, most likely Melissodes illatus. The males will form mating aggregations (leks) and sleep in flowers or on leaves overnight and then during the day search for females to mate with. They are not aggressive and rarely sting; when they do it is hard to feel the sting. They are very beneficial pollinators. Where are they nesting? Aggregations of males this size suggest that you will have many nest holes in bare soil that the females will have excavated.”

Q: Are there vegetables that should not be planted near onions or where onions were grown the year before? What vegetables are synergistic with onions? Also, I have Bearded Iris plants that grow well, but only one plant flowers. This year there are no blossoms on any of the plants. What is causing this? Do Iris need “wet” feet?

A: In general, its best to avoid planting crops within the same family in succession. For the onion example, you would want to avoid planting leeks, garlic, and shallots the following year. Here’s a nice fact sheet, Plant Rotation in the Garden Based on Plant Families from Penn State outlining what families common crops belong to and the reasons for rotating crops. The question of synergy is an interesting one. I don’t know of any research-based information that shows that onions benefit from being paired with another specific crop.

Bearded Iris often don’t bloom very well because they’re planted too deep, they’re in too much shade, over-fertilized, or over crowded. Can you see some of the rhizomes at the surface of the soil? Ideally, you should. Some iris prefer moist conditions, but I don’t think that would necessarily cause your plant to not flower if it seems to be growing well otherwise. If needed, now is a great time of year to lift and replant them. Here are some great instructions, Digging, Dividing and Replacing Bearded Irises (PDF).

Q: Over the weekend our neighbors large above ground pool split apart and dumped all the water into our yard and vegetable garden. Some of the plants have already died. If any plants survive is it safe to eat the food? It’s a small garden, I’ve watered the garden with fresh water, then used miracle grow liquid feed after, and spread and worked miracle grow soil conditioner around the roots and watered again. I lost the green beans, and my green pepper plants are losing its leaves. My tomato plant leaves are wilting. My cucumber plants seem to be holding there own, is there any hope?

A: Its always unfortunate to hear of potential contamination situations in the landscape. Homeowners who encounter similar situations should gather as much information about the specific products being discharged, application rate (ex: how many gallons per gallon of water), total volume, and how long ago the product was added to the pool. Additionally, information about the distance between the pool and garden, soil texture (sandy, clay, loam), and rate of discharge (gradual or sudden) is needed to assess the potential human and environmental impact. With that information, we will be happy to address these types of questions on a case by case basis.

garlic; photo by Edwin RemsbergQ: Would you please provide information on growing garlic?

A: We have an excellent bulletin on garlic for producers in our climate. Growing Hardneck Garlic in Your Maine Garden.

Q: I am looking at a list of 24 native trees and shrubs. Is this the entire list? Does this mean that all spirea, forsythia, spruce, fir, many of the lilacs, Eastern Hemlock, and Magnolia Royal Star are all non-native trees and shrubs?

A: The list I’m guessing you’re referring to is from Bulletin #2500, Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape: Plants to Use and Plants to Avoid. This is not a comprehensive list of all plants native to Maine but is a lengthy list of options that are typically more suitable for managed landscapes and are more readily available in nurseries. Spruce, fir, and Eastern Hemlock are on the list in the section for trees. Forsythia, lilac, and magnolia are not considered native to Maine. We have a few native spiraea, but they aren’t the ones you typically find in nurseries. Spiraea alba and Spiraea tomentosa are two options. Here is more information: A collection of native shrubs for Maine summer gardens.

lawn grassQ: How should I plant grass seed?

A: The answer is very well covered in our Bulletin #2367, Establishing a Home Lawn in Maine.

Araila hispida
Araila hispida

Q: Would you identify this plant? It grows in dry, poor soil near a roadside stone wall, has creamy white blossoms, and hairy stems at the bottom. Is it poisonous?

A: Thanks for sending the photo. It looks like Aralia hispida. In regards to your question about whether it’s poisonous — I called poison control, but they couldn’t find it in their database. I have never heard of anyone having a dermatological response to touching this plant.

American cow-parsnip
American cow-parsnip

Q: Would you please tell us what type of plant this is? We found it by a creek near Presque Isle?

A: It appears to be Heracleum maximum, American cow-parsnip. The sap from this plant can cause your skin to become very susceptible to sunburn and blistering.

Q: I have a 8′ x 4′ garden area in which I have planted corn, beans, and pumpkins. On June 23, I noticed a chipmunk hole in the right rear of the garden next to some corn. In a panic I placed a Victor Fast-Kill bait block without the plastic station next to the hole. I think the chipmunk took it down its hole. Did I contaminate my garden and soil? Active ingredient is bromethalin. Will my vegetables be okay to eat?

A: It is important, and also the law, not to use any pesticide (including rodenticides) in a manner that is inconsistent with its label. The label for this product indicates that it is not to be used outdoors or without the included plastic housing. The Safety Data Sheet does not include any information about risks to your health when used in the way you have described. There is a fact sheet from Oregon State Extension that discusses the active ingredient, bromethalin, in detail, Bromadiolone.

If it is possible to retrieve the wax block safely (using gloves), I recommend you do so as any animal that eats it may become ill or die, including an animal that ingests a poisoned animal. This product should not be used in homes with pets for this reason.

If you notice chipmunk damage in your garden, there are methods of excluding them (including live trapping) that do not put your vegetables at risk. You can read more about those options in this fact sheet from Purdue University Cooperative Extension, Chipmunks (PDF).

Q: I am concerned about winter moth. I want to downsize my gardens. Is there a time of year when the moths are out of the ground and I can share my plants?

A: Winter Moth is a relatively new pest for us here in Maine, but it is a serious one with potential impacts beyond home landscapes to our forests and commercial fruit production as well. You are correct to be cautious about potentially moving infested plants and soil into new areas. The pupae of winter moth are present in the soil of infested areas from June-November, so moving plant material during those times is highly discouraged. Adults are active in the late fall and early winter, from November-January, laying eggs in cracks and crevices of tree bark. Eggs hatch in the spring when air temperatures average 55 degrees. The “safest” time to move anything would probably be early April, but I do not recommend sending anything home with friends and family unless they know they also already have this insect.

vine ripening tomatoesQ: The new leaves on my tomato plant are yellow. It is growing in pure compost from our composted kitchen waste.

A: It sounds like your tomato plants are suffering from nitrogen deficiency. Compost is a wonderful soil amendment, but it does not contain enough nitrogen to support the high nutrient requirements of tomatoes. I recommend applying a high N fertilizer according to the product’s instructions.

Q: How soon can/should kaolin clay (Surround WP) be applied to cucumber plants once they’ve emerged in the garden? Cucumber beetles decimated all of our plants in 2017.

A: As with any pesticide (even though it’s only clay, it’s still a pesticide), the label tells you everything you need to know about how to use it safely for you and for your plants. You may apply surround as often as needed (usually about 7-10 days between applications) as soon as you are concerned about protecting your plants from striped cucumber beetle or other pests. Row covers are also a great way to prevent striped cucumber beetle from attacking your plants. You can put them on even before your seedlings emerge, just be sure to remove them once you have flowers so pollinators can access them.

ant on flower
Pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum). Photo by Joseph Berger,

Q: How do I get rid of ants in the lawn?

A: With thousands of ant species in the world, and more than a few here in Maine, it is not possible to make a blanket statement about whether the ants in your lawn are harmful. Many ant species are actually very beneficial, helping to aerate soil and cycle nutrients. Many species will also eat known lawn and garden pests. If you want to know exactly what these particular ants are, and if they are actually pests or beneficial, you should send a sample into the Insect and Plant Disease Lab for identification. Recommendations for management of them depends on the species.

Q: The leaves of my viburnum cranberry bush are being eaten by a leaf beetle. How should I successfully treat the shrub?

A: The treatment for viburnum leaf beetle depends on the life stage of an insect. Are you still seeing larvae? Or, have the adults emerged yet? It is likely that they are making their way down into the soil to pupate now, during which time (8-10 weeks) there is no effective treatment. The most effective treatment for viburnum leaf beetle is to remove the infested twigs full of eggs between October and April. This will greatly reduce the number that will hatch out and eat the leaves of your shrub next spring. When the adults emerge later in the summer, you may have some success treating with certain insecticides which you can read about in more detail on a great FAQ from Cornell University.

Q: How do I control raspberry cane borer? Soil drench, foliar spray, or what? I know they say to cut the cane an inch or two below damage, however, I do not want them to damage the raspberries in the first place. Also, snow damages my raspberries and they get pounded to the ground. What would happen if I shortened the plant to three or four feet in the fall?

A: Once a raspberry cane borer larvae has bored into a cane, it is going to die anyway. Cutting it out and destroying it prevents it from completing its life cycle and re-infesting your raspberries again next year. As described in a University of New Hampshire publication on raspberry cane borer (PDF), chemicals are not necessary to control this pest. We recommend cutting girdled canes an inch or so below the girdle and burning them soon after cane borer damage appears. Attacked canes wilt, making the damage easy to spot. Eliminating wild raspberries nearby will also reduce damage. Since the life cycle requires two years to complete, regular pruning usually keeps the population in check.

As for preventing snow injury, are your raspberries near a roof line where they might get more snow than usual? If so, you could create some protective structures out of plywood for the winter to angle the snow away from your plants. If not, there is a description of trellising raspberries in Bulletin #2066, Growing Raspberries and Blackberries that may be useful for you. You could also control their overall height with pruning, but depending on what varieties you have, you may be losing most of your fruit as well. Pruning is best done in late winter when the plants are still dormant. For a complete description and demonstration of proper pruning technique, check out our video How Do I Prune Raspberries?

Raised beds by Dennis ConnellyQ: I planted a new garden in two raised 4 x 8 beds a couple of weeks ago. I used a 50/50 mixture of peat moss and surf n’ turf compost to fill the beds. I water daily and the beds are in sun from dawn to about 5:00 p.m., but many of my plants don’t seem to be thriving. (For instance: The rosemary and swiss chard are limp, two basil plants have died, one of the tomato plants has curled leaves and the others just don’t seem to be growing.) Is my planting mix a problem? I’m wondering if I just need to wait longer, or start over now with a different soil mix.

A: Growing vegetables in raised beds is essentially container gardening. It sounds like your media mix is almost there, but perhaps lacking in fertility and soil. Compost is excellent for soil structure and adding organic matter, but it does not release enough nutrients to support growth of fast-growing annuals on its own. The yellowing leaves and dead plants are likely a symptom of nitrogen deficiency. You should fertilize your transplants very soon. Ideally, your mix would also contain some garden soil as well to add structure, nutrients, and naturally-occurring organisms. I recommend Bulletin #2761, Gardening in Small Spaces for comprehensive instructions.

Damaged leaf on oak tree

Q: The attached picture is of the oak tree in our yard. Can you advise what this is and best treatment to cure, if possible? We live in the woods in Milbridge, Maine and are very concerned that this problem could spread to other trees and garden vegetables.

A: The good news is it does not appear to be Browntail Moth. There are many other tree pests we start to see in the spring, including Forest and Eastern Tent Caterpillars, Gypsy Moth, and Winter Moth. Given the outbreak of Forest Tent Caterpillars we are seeing Downeast this year, I would highly suspect this one. Luckily, once caterpillars are large enough to do this type of damage, they are getting ready to pupate and will not be feeding any more this summer. Ideally, you would find one of the culprits and send us a photo of that for a positive identification. There are other incidental pests of oak that may be to blame, but I do not think your vegetable garden is at risk. Also, this is very light injury that your tree can easily withstand. It takes several years of complete defoliation before a tree is really in danger.

rhododendrons near foundationQ: I have a rhododendron growing about three feet from my foundation. I think it was planted about 14 years ago. Recently, someone told me rhododendrons are very invasive and can create havoc with a foundation. I’m concerned because the foundation of my house that’s close to the bush is beginning to leak. It is not a big problem right now, and the leak perhaps has nothing to do with the rhododendron, but I am wondering if it is wise to leave the Rhododendron where it is? It’s beautiful but if it is going to compromise my foundation, I don’t want to leave it where it is.

A: The root system of Rhododendrons are shallow and fibrous and not a threat to your foundation. Sometimes when these shrubs are planted too close to a foundation, under the eaves, it can cause problems for the Rhododendron.

It looks like you have planted your Rhododendrons far enough away from the foundation to give it good growing conditions.

The Ohio State University Extension has an interesting fact sheet on Rhododendrons.

Q: Last year I lost many of my snow peas, cucumber, and squash plants to a fungus causing yellow leaves with brown spots. What had been healthy, producing plants turned yellow and died within days. I destroyed all the plants and treated the soil in my raised beds with neem oil, as recommended. I was warned not to plant the same families of vegetables in the same spots. What can I grow safely this year? Although my beans weren’t effected last year, aren’t they related to snow peas, as legumes?

A: Sorry to hear that you had problems with leaf diseases last year. It would have been good if you could have sent a picture of the plants, since there may be several causes. One possible cause is Alternaria leaf blight on cucurbits, here is our fact sheet on this disease. Alternaria Leaf Blight of Cucurbits.

If you see any of these symptoms on your plants this year you can send in the leaves to our plant disease lab to find out what is causing the problem. Insect and Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab – How to send a plant sample.

You mentioned you treated the soil with neem oil, but that is usually used as an insecticide and would not have much of an effect on fungi or bacteria. Fungicides are usually used to protect plants from becoming infected, so they would need to be applied to the plant. Pesticides available to home gardeners to treat soil usually don’t have much affect on preventing the incidence of disease on the plants.

Some cultural steps that you can take to reduce the incidence of disease on plants are: selecting disease-resistant varieties of vegetables, removing crop refuse at the end of the season, provide adequate growing conditions to reduce stress on your plants (adequate nutrition, moisture, light & air movement.) Watering in the morning or during daytime allows plant leaves to dry before evening and can help slow the development of leaf diseases. Rotation of crop families will help, and yes beans and peas are in the same crop (legume) family. Cucumbers and squash are both in the vine crop (cucurbit) family.

horse tailQ: There are some spiky green plants taking over my hillside perennial beds. They have a root system that is nearly impossible to remove. I’ve tried everything to get rid of them (organically) but they keep coming back with a vengeance. Do you have any ideas?

A: You have one of the most interesting and ancient weeds we have here in Maine, Equisetum arvense or horsetail. This plant is very difficult to control with hand weeding as it spreads by underground rhizomes and when pulled sends up numerous new shoots and tubers. Here is a fact sheet on Horsetail from Rutgers Extension in New Jersey. If you choose to use a pesticide control be sure and follow label instructions carefully.

Q: I’m wondering why this year my rhubarb plant, which has produced big juicy stalks for many years, has put out zillions of shoots that are very crowded. The plant is very large as usual but these stalks are very thin and plentiful. The first stalks at the outset were large and I picked those. Then the plant seemed to explode with thin shoots. I was away for 9 days and when I returned I thinned them so that the stalks could get better light. They still seem thin and my instinct is to thin some more.

rhubarb growing in the gardenA: It sounds like your rhubarb could benefit both from being divided and from some additional fertility. Rhubarb is a heavy feeder, so despite being easy to grow, it does have high nutritional requirements. A University of Minnesota Extension article provides excellent information on growing rhubarb and sorrel. Essentially, plan to fertilize your rhubarb each spring with a balanced fertilizer and consider side-dressing with compost or composted manure for continued, strong growth for many years to come.

This excerpt from Renewing old rhubarb plants from Michigan State University Extension has a great description of how to divide your plants.

To renew your rhubarb, it will be necessary to divide the root. The root has become too old and tough to grow well. The time to divide the root will be as early in the spring as you can dig it up. Dig up the root, going about 6 inches deep. Try not to cut into the root at this time. Old roots can resemble a gnarled chunk of wood and are almost as dense. Lift the root out of the ground. Split the root into pieces with at least one bud in each piece. The more buds that are left on the root, the bigger the divided plant will be. You will be dividing your root with a sharp knife, hatchet or ax. You need a big tool for this tough job. Pull away any of the brown stems left from last year’s growing season. If you have several small chunks of root with only one bud on them, when replanting, put all the little parts in one hole together.

Your new divisions should be replanted immediately. The more they dry out, the worse the prognosis for the new plants. If this isn’t possible, put the pieces in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for a short time. Before replanting the refrigerated rhubarb, soak the root divisions in room temperature water for several hours or overnight. When planting the roots, cover the top of the root with no more than 1 or 2 inches of soil.

Q: I live on Mt. Desert Island where poison ivy is encroaching into our yard. I would like to kill it without doing any/too much damage to the world, including the frogs, etc., and replace it with a native ground covering plant that will keep the poison ivy away from the lawn (and humans), while providing berries for birds and/or flowers for pollinators. Is it true that poison ivy likes acidic soil with low calcium, low phosphorous, low selenium? From Bulletin #2500, Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape: Plants to Use and Plants to Avoid, it seems lowbush blueberry Vaccinium angustifolium would be a good choice. I have not tested the soil but if poison ivy likes acidic soil can I assume this plant would? Do you have other or better suggestions for native plants useful for birds and pollinators that would be a good barrier to keep the poison ivy at bay?

poison ivyA: Poison ivy is a fairly adaptable plant that will tolerate a range of soil conditions, so it’s not necessarily an indication that wild blueberries will also thrive. You’ve missed the early spring window to deal with poison ivy as it is emerging, but you might aim for early fall. Dave Fuller, Agriculture and Non-Timber Forest Products Professional, UMaine Extension Franklin County, suggests the following steps for the best control of poison ivy:

  • Spray with glyphosate just before poison ivy leaves start to change color — about September 1. Timing is everything. Why late summer? The plant is sending photosynthetic reserves down to the roots and a systemic herbicide will be better moved to the roots, as well. Don’t spray if rain is eminent.
  • Wear garbage bags over your boots and pants, taped around the legs to avoid contact with urushiol, the offending compound in poison ivy. Turn bags inside out when removing for disposal.
  • Follow the directions on the herbicide container. The label is the law.

I do think wild blueberry is a great idea to serve the purposes you mention. The first step is a soil test. You can pick up a soil testing kit at your local Extension office, located on Boggy Brook Road in Ellsworth. pH will be the first indicator of appropriate conditions. If your soil has not been amended in a while, I’d be willing to bet that your pH will be acidic enough to suit Vaccinium angustifolium.

Rhododendrons in bloomQ: Something ate just the leaves on some branches on my rhododendrons, leaving the buds. What animal could it be? Deer or turkeys?

A: Though rhododendrons are frequently considered deer-resistant, deer will happily browse on some varieties. Turkeys are generally looking for acorns, fruits, and other “mast” from trees, but they will eat some more tender greens as well. I doubt they were interested in the firm leaves of your rhododendrons. My money is on deer. I recommend taking a look at the article Deer in My Garden! by Extension Educator, Donna Coffin for some tips on deterring deer from feeding on your more valuable plants.

insect eaten leavesQ: We just arrived at our summer home on Mt. Desert Island and found that some insect has eaten the leaves and newly formed fruit on our cherry trees. Blueberry leaves have also been eaten. I don’t see any active insects now. What was it? What should have been done to protect them?

A: There are a number of caterpillars that could be feeding on your tree. If you look carefully you may see some on the underside of the leaves. Currently, there have been reports of large amounts of Forest Tent Caterpillars in the Blue Hill area. Here is our fact sheet on Forest Tent Caterpillars. Please note that trees can be completely defoliated and still survive. It looks like there is less than 25% defoliation, so your trees will survive. If you find the caterpillars and want to apply a control here is a link to our page with management suggestions.

Q: My question is about plants used to form a privacy barrier. I live down a rather long driveway with privacy from surrounding houses for most of the year. However in the winter, when the deciduous trees lose their leaves, I lose much of this privacy. Now I like, my neighbor just fine, but would like to supplement the tree growth there to maintain privacy year around. I know I could plant something like hemlock, but believe this to be more of a long term solution and I’d really rather have the growth up in the next couple of years. I suppose I could put in a privacy fence, but prefer the idea of foliage more. Is there something fast growing, perhaps even an evergreen vine of some sort that you would recommend for this purpose? Also, probably important, this is a fairly shady area, especially since I’d be looking to grow it right next to (or on?) many trees. The other trees there consist of a mix of mature hardwoods and spruce (black or red, possibly).

A: I don’t know of any evergreen vine, but we do have a fact sheet Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Landscape: Plants to Use and Plants to Avoid that lists several evergreen trees (spruce, pine, cedar, and hemlock) that would provide winter privacy, but they become very large trees as you probably know and require a large area to grow.
Although, regular planting of these evergreen trees at 10-year intervals might give you an opportunity to cut down the oldest ones and let them be replaced by the next generation on young trees.
In the short term, a privacy fence would give season-long privacy. You could consider planting vines to grow up the fence and provide some coverage during summer.

red lupineQ: I have a very wide container garden and need to step into it in order to reach plants in the center. Is it okay to lay a 12 x 12 ceramic tile to step on? I know it may attract critter underneath.

Also, I always try to avoid putting invasive plants in the ground. Someone gave me lupine plants and I would like to know how they can be contained or if they are quite invasive? I tend to see them in fields where they have a lot of room to spread and I don’t have that much space.

A: Yes, you can certainly put a 12′ X 12′ tile in the middle of your garden bed to give you a place to step into your garden. This will keep the compaction that occurs when you step in the garden to one area. It may be a place that some garden pests (slugs, earwigs, etc.) may accumulate, but there shouldn’t be too many. You can flip it over occasionally and squish the pests that you find, or drop them into soapy water.
About the lupines, they are weak perennials (may survive 3 years), so if you can prevent them from going to seed it will help prevent their spread. For more information, see the fact sheet on Bigleaf Lupine (pdf) posted on the USDA Plant Guide site.

raspberry plant damageQ: We discovered damage to our raspberry bushes on the edge of the lawn. We’re suspecting deer. We have lived here ten years, and this is the first time this has happened.

A: These actually just look like old canes and maybe some winter injury. How heavily do you prune them in the spring? I recommend this video with our Small Fruit and Vegetable Specialist, David Handley for tips on pruning brambles. You can read (and watch) more about bramble culture in Bulletin #2066, Growing Raspberries and Blackberries. If you pruned well and still found this injury after the plants leafed out, it is certainly possible deer were involved. For some strategies on managing deer in your garden, I recommend Extension Educator Donna Coffin’s Deer in My Garden! article from the Maine Home Garden News archives.

Q: A couple of years ago, I purchased some rugosa rose bushes. I planted them in my backyard and the first year, there were several rosebuds and then, flowers. However, in the years since: no buds, no flowers. The leaves still sprout on the branches. I’ve covered the base with seaweed in the fall, for the winter. Is there anything else I should be doing to help these bushes grow and flower? And what time of the year should I be taking measures to ensure growth and blossoms?

Also, what time of year is best for trimming/dead-heading lilac bushes to get a full crop the following spring?

Rugose roseA: Rugosa Rose is a very hardy species that in some areas of the state is actually considered invasive. Here is some culture advice from the University of Minnesota’s Hardy Roses publication by Beth R. Jarvis and Sam Brungardt:

Roses thrive in well-drained soil of any type with a pH of 6.0-7.0. For best results in poorly drained clay soils, make a raised planting area. Spread 2-4 inches of compost or peat over the area to be planted and mix it in well. Dig generous holes to accommodate the plants’ roots.

Hardy roses will grow and bloom well if you:

  • Provide a well-drained site with at least six hours of direct sun daily.
  • Use an organic mulch to eliminate weeds and conserve moisture.
  • Supply one inch of water weekly, from a combination of rainfall and irrigation.
  • Maintain adequate soil fertility, but don’t fertilize after August 1, to allow plants to harden off properly before winter.

Although many hardy roses are quite disease resistant, you can minimize fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and blackspot if you water only at the base of the plants or wet their foliage early enough in the day so it dries by nightfall. Many rugosa cultivars should not be sprayed with fungicides because the chemicals will burn the foliage and possibly even defoliate them.

I recommend a soil test to see where you pH is. Is it in a consistently sunny location? Also, if your rose is on heavy, clay soil, it will need to be moved to a sandier bed.

For tips on pruning your lilac, I recommend Extension Educator Marjorie Peronto’s video How to Prune a Lilac Bush.

Q: Something has been eating my string bean bushes, as soon as they sprout out of the ground. I thought it might be crows, so I strung string and flagging above the rows as a deterrent with no success. Some research I’ve done suggests slugs but I don’t believe I have any slugs, any thoughts?

A: It’s frustrating when native fauna find the tender, young shoots in our gardens as appealing as we do. Unfortunately, there are many possibilities here: woodchucks, chipmunks, slugs or snails, crows, and my best guess: deer. I am battling deer in my garden right now as well, and it can be very frustrating. Here is a great article by Extension Educator Donna Coffin from a few years ago titled Deer In My Garden! that will give you some tips. Of course, the only way to know for sure who is eating your bean seedlings is to catch them in the act. I have a small, outdoor security camera trained on my vulnerable seedlings and when a lovely doe dipped her head down and came up chomping two nights ago, I knew which path to go down to deter her the next night. You might consider a small trail or game camera if you really want to get to the bottom of this.

Q: We grow tomatoes and peppers in plastic tubs next to the lake and would like to have a means of using water from the lake by siphoning it directly into the tub. So that they will have a constant supply of water. Are there ready-made units available to do this or do I need to make something?

A: I know you are talking about a very small amount of water, but I would advise you to check with your lake association and/or town office code enforcement officer, as there may be town or state regulations concerning drawing irrigation water from the lake. If you do get permission, I would advise you to research some of the drip irrigation and company supplies. I am sure they could set you up with a small pump, a filter, and drip irrigation tubing to supply your garden.

Q: Do you have information about keeping critters from a vegetable garden?

A: Fencing is the best way to exclude nuisance animals from the home garden. Here is a fact sheet from Maryland Extension, Dealing with Nuisance Wildlife. Also you may want to reach out to the Wildlife Services professionals at the USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Here’s their number 629.5181 and website for your specific question.

Q: I am seeking a plum tree to make jam from and would like recommendations on the best type to add to my orchard in the MidCoast. I’ve heard the best jam is from Damson plums. Are they suited to Maine’s evolving climate? Similarly, I’d like to plant a pear tree with firm pears that can be canned. Currently, I gather what I believe are Bosc pears from a tree on Orr’s Island that produces hundreds of pounds of very large pears given to neighbors. The tree is only about one hundred feet from open ocean. I would like a similar tree, what do you recommend?

A: I recommend Early Italian Plum for its disease resistance. Also, another one for cross-pollination such as Castleton, avoid Stanley. Check out the UMaine Plum Production Guide.

To get firm pears for canning, pick them when they are still green. Any variety will do but needs cross-pollination by another variety. Otherwise, plant Asian Pears which stay firm when ripe. Here is a link to Growing Fruit Trees in Maine.

rye grass/ MHGN/June 2018Q: What is the best and most environmentally friendly way to get rid of ryegrass?

A: There is no easy way to get rid of ryegrass other than tilling it under and replanting. Any weed killers for turf would also kill your other grasses as rye is often in turfgrass mixtures. Here are links to Establishing a Home Lawn in Maine and Steps to a Low Input, Healthy Lawn.

horsetail, Equisetum arvense MHGN/JuneQ: I have numerous green pine needle looking plants that has popped up mainly in my gardens and in the ditches. I have searched high and low and cannot find an identification.

A: The plant in your photos is horsetail, Equisetum arvense. This plant is very difficult to control with hand weeding as it spreads by underground rhizomes and when pulled sends up numerous new shoots and tubers. Here is a link to a fact sheet on horsetail biology and control from Rutgers Extension in New Jersey. If you choose to use a pesticide control be sure and follow label instructions carefully.

Q: Will using dry pitch-covered pine cones as fire starters creosote your chimney, as long as they are used as starters only and are burned with hardwood logs?

A: Pine cones would contribute a minor amount of creosote, however, using them as a fire starter would contribute only a small amount and would be safe. As long as you are getting your chimney inspected and cleaned annually you will be fine.

Q: I have zinnia plants that have grown four sets of true leaves and have a blossom forming at the top set. May I pinch out the blossom, and if so, will the plant branch at that point? Or will it encourage the plant to branch from below? Is it good practice to cut the plants off above the second set; will this encourage more flowering stems and flowers for later in the season? Also, I have 4” pots of Angelonia hybrid (purchased). One has a lovely flowering stalk. Will cutting it hold off flowering and encourage bushing out?

A: In general pinching off the terminal bud does stimulate the side branches to break. You are correct in that this would induce the plant to fill in, and while it will delay flowering a bit due to removing the current flower buds, it will stimulate more flowering later on as the plant becomes fuller. Here is a fact sheet link from a Pennsylvania Extension on Pruning Herbaceous Plants.

Q: We have a question about Beach Tree Scale Disease. There are a couple of infected trees that we want to take down. We are wondering what we should do with the wood from the trees. Can we save it and burn it in campfires over the summer? Please let us know how to proceed.

A: It is safe to burn the wood from Beach Tree Scale infested trees. Once you cut the tree the scale and the associated fungus die. As you probably know it is not recommended to transport firewood across state lines so burning it locally would be best.

Q: I’d like to plant a flowering dogwood outside my home in Naples. Can you recommend one the will survive the winter? I’d like to try an Appalachian Spring (anthracnose resistant), but I’m having trouble locating them in local nurseries.

A: The University of Connecticut Woody Plant Database lists several dogwood varieties and cultivars hardy to zone 4 or lower, which should be sufficient in Naples. I would like to suggest that you consider Pagoda Dogwood as it is native to Maine and, therefore, would be highly beneficial to our local pollinators and wildlife. Appalachian Spring, Cornus florida, is only hardy to zone 5, which may be why Maine Nurseries are not carrying it.

Q: I am looking for recommendations of vines that effectively drape down a stone retaining wall from above. All of those that I am looking at are strong climbers, but I do not see any described as able to grow or be trained down. The vines would receive full sunlight as the wall is south-facing. Soil is currently dry but can be amended with the necessary materials to meet the needs of the right plants. Planting can not take place at the base of the wall, as it is a permanent stream with running water. Preference is given to flowering vines or those with interesting vegetation. Support can be arranged for especially large vines, but my hope is to identify some that do not need additional support. The planting would be in Bangor, so zone 5a or 6b.

A: Here are a few suggestions. Some aren’t actually vines but trail nicely.

  • Aubrieta cultivars (aubrietia)
  • Euphorbia myrsinites (myrtle spurge)
  • Iberis sempervirens (candytuft)
  • Lysimachia nummularia (creeping jenny)
  • Ipomoea cultivars (sweet potato vine)
  • Thymus pseudolanuginosus (woolly thyme)

Q: Any suggestions for removal of a Dutchman’s Pipe Vine that has completely taken over our back yard? I have tried using Bonide Stump & Vine by cutting the mother plant (which is contained in a fenced garden) and painting it with this stuff. However, this plant is coming up everywhere, and I don’t want to use it outside the fence. Besides, cutting back every place it’s coming up would be nearly impossible. By using the vine killer on the mother plant, will that kill off all the offshoots?

A: While Dutchman’s Pipe Vine is an aggressive grower it is not considered an invasive plant. In fact, it is native to the Eastern U.S. and to Maine as well. It provides important habitat and food for the Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly. Having said that, it is your right to remove this plant if you don’t want it in your garden. With the Bonide Stump and Vine product that you used, did you follow the label (PDF)? It is important to follow directions as to the time of year to spray, how it is applied, the rate of application, etc. I noticed that Dutchman’s Pipe is not listed on the plant label which may be why it is ineffective for you. You could also try using Glyphosate which is sold under the trade name Roundup. Glyphosate is most effective later in the growing season (late summer into fall) then it would be this time of year. When using any pesticide be sure to follow the label directions carefully and take personal protective measures as listed.

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: South Portland requires the use of organic lawn grub control. What do you recommend?

A: There are currently two organic methods of grub control. Both are live biological control agents. One is called Milky Spore Disease, and although it is sold commercially in Maine, most experienced horticulturists report it does not work well in our northern climate. The other more effective organic control is using Beneficial Nematodes as a biological control of white grubs in lawns. They are sold commercially at some garden centers and may also be purchased through online garden outlets. Be sure and follow the product label carefully to be sure they are properly applied and work effectively. The best time of year to apply them would be mid July – early August when the adult beetles are laying their eggs in the soil of your lawn. At that time the newly hatched grub larvae are small, nearer the surface and more susceptible to the nematodes. Spring applied applications tend to be less effective as the grubs are deeper in the soil and much larger.

Here is a link to Beneficial Nematodes in the Home Garden (PDF).

Q: We just got a load of last winter’s sheep and hen manure. Is it okay to put this on a new garden? Also, is it okay to put around fruit trees, perennials, etc?

A: Due to the risk of E. coli, manure should be added to a garden and incorporated into the soil at least 120 days before harvest to make sure any pathogens have broken down. The easiest way to accomplish this would be to add manure in the fall and incorporate it into the soil. Even an older manure pile such as you describe is still considered “manure” unless it has been adequately composted to 140 degrees to kill any pathogens. This procedure is further explained in our bulletin, Guidelines for Using Manure on Vegetable Gardens.

Q: I discovered two trees on my property that have carpenter ants in them. Do you have any recommendations for destroying the colony? Both trees are dying, so I’m guessing it’s a decent-sized colony. I’m concerned that I might just drive them out and into another tree or to the house if I don’t know what I’m doing. And I’m curious if there’s a way to tell if the other trees are infested as well. I had no idea the second tree had a nest until a woodpecker removed half the bark and I could clearly see all the paths the ants had tunneled through the tree.

A: Carpenter ants do not attack and kill healthy trees. Rather they take advantage (are opportunistic) of wood that is already in some form of decay. So the more likely scenario is that the tree has either a physical wound or a disease that was the initial cause of decay. The carpenter ants come in later and take advantage of the opening and moist and rotting wood to nest in. So there is no need to treat for the carpenter ants as they were not the original cause of decline. In fact, in nature, they are one of our most beneficial decomposers of rotting wood and organic matter.

When carpenter ants come into homes it is usually also to an area that had been previously damaged by moisture and rot which is an attractive nesting site for them. Here is a link to our Fact Sheet on Carpenter Ants.

Q: How do I get rid of wire worm in a vegetable garden?

A: Wireworm populations in vegetable gardens is usually highest when a garden is new and has recently had a field or lawn turned under from sod. They thrive in grassy environment and in new gardens. They can often burrow into and damage root crops such as radishes, carrots, and potatoes. Avoid root crops the first couple of years after sod has been incorporated. The population will drop as the soil is cultivated a few times and you can go back to root crops then.

Please find these information sheets on wireworms from UMaine Cooperative Extension and the Missouri Botanical Garden .

Q: We have found round cylinder type holes in our yard. What makes these holes? How can we manage this?

A: Usually cylinder-shaped holes at this time of year are indicative of skunks or mole activity digging for white grubs in the lawn. What looks a bit like a war zone now will often in time green up and grow back over and fill in within a few weeks. It is only when grub populations get high and you see lawn dieback that you should consider control measures. For now, try tamping the holes down and see if they don’t fill back in quickly.

Here is a link to the fact sheet: Steps to a Low Input Healthy Lawn which may help you, as you manage your lawn for long term health with minimal or no need for pesticides.

gardeners planting seeds; photo by Edwin Remsberg, USDAQ: I live in Winslow and wonder how early I can plant my vegetable seeds in my garden?

A: Right now (May 11 as of this writing), you could be planting cool-season vegetables that are considered frost-tolerant vegetables. Now is a good time to plant cool-season vegetables that can be either direct seeded in the garden, transplanted from indoors or from a garden center purchase. This Watch Your Garden Grow fact sheet outlines categories of very hardy and frost tolerant vegetables that can be planted now, as well as tender and warm loving vegetables that should not be planted until the average last frost date (PDF) for your area of Maine has passed. Happy gardening!

Q: How long after raising pigs in an area can it safely be used for vegetable gardening? The area has been empty for over a year, and grass has not started to grow back but we were considering growing pumpkins, sunflowers or a ground cover crop like clover there. Is the ground safe to use for growing cover crops for our other animals (like our goats or chickens) this year?

A: A major concern with growing crops for human consumption on ground that’s been cleared by/occupied by hogs is the risk of contamination with the pig roundworm, Ascaris suis, which is quite capable of using people as a host. It is very long-lived in the environment, and not killed by composting to my knowledge. Human infections tend to be primarily in the intestines, so it is not as dangerous as some other parasites. However, it’s a big (several inches long) worm and when passed by people (or babies) in the stool, it’s pretty disturbing.

I would suggest using as a pasture for small ruminants, or haying, versus raising crops for human consumption there. I’ve attached an interesting article on this issue. Here is a brief CDC blurb on this issue Parasites-Ascariasis.

As far as cropping the area, I would recommend you start with a soil test.
You can pick up a soil test box and form at your local county office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension or request one be mailed to you via the Maine Soil Testing Kit Request.

There is a good chance that the area did not grow grass last year due to soil compaction caused by the pigs’ long term use of it.

I think that disking or tilling that area should loosen it up for a new crop. The crops you are interested in (sunflowers, pumpkins, and cover crops) should be fine as they usually aren’t for human consumption. I f you decide to cover crop the area this year using tillage radish in with the clover to start breaking up the deeper compaction.I’d throw a grass species like oats or even millet in there too.

Q: One of our properties has an enormous hedge of Rosa rugosa which has been overgrown quite a bit in recent years. About 2 years ago, I started seeing the first signs of gall-forming on the canes. I care for a few other plantings of rugosa at other properties and have always had success with a 3rd year shearing to regenerate the roses. This particular hedge has been the exception. The gall has now spread throughout the entire hedge and it looks awful. Once it leafs out and blooms, it’s not so bad but still needs some major attention to remedy the appearance. Last season I was able to begin the process of replacing one section of the hedge. The infected roses were removed and new perennials planted in its place. I’ve done some research on maintaining this issue but have not come to any certain solution. What do you suggest is the best way to manage the rose gall?

A: There are several different organisms that can cause gall formations on Roses. In order to best recommend a control, we would need to identify the causal organism. I would recommend you cut a sample of a branch with the gall attached and send it to our Pest Management Unit for identification and control recommendations. Please follow these instructions and mail a specimen to Pest Management Unit, 17 Godfrey Drive, Orono, Maine.

septic leach fieldQ: We are soon to move into a new home that is sited on a hill. The well is on the north side of the house, the septic and leach field on the south. On the downward slope from the leach field is an open field with plenty of sun that seems a good location for our vegetable garden. Two questions here: Are there concerns in locating a food garden downslope from a leach field? With a blueberry barren (high hill) sloping upward to the east of the open field, are there concerns related to common cultivation practices of commercially farmed blueberry barrens?

A: Regarding the septic system leach field, as long as there is an adequate buffer (the leach field does not come directly up to the garden (at 25-foot buffer should be adequate) and you monitor your leach field for seepage, there should not be any health issues with the vegetable garden. This fact sheet covers Vegetable Gardens and Leach Fields.

For your question on the blueberry barren, an adequate buffer should be 100 feet. The grower has to abide by any pesticide drift guidelines and you have a right to know what materials are being applied to the field. If you have a concern with the farmers practices you should ask them cordially about the buffer and the efforts they take to protect your property. You also have a right to ask what pesticide products they use. If you still have any concerns you can contact the regulatory agency the Maine Board of Pesticide Control.

a variety of seeds
© Lisa Looke, Photos courtesy of Wild Seed Project

Q: A group of community members in York want to start a seed swap library housed at our public library. We want to do our due diligence and check with the state about rules governing such a swap. At our site, community members would bring in their unused seeds and trade with others’ seeds. We also received donations of commercially packaged seeds from some local business owners that we intend on repackaging and giving out.

Do we need to register our intentions somewhere with the state?

A: The representative from Maine Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry said that as long as you are not selling the seed, then you don’t need a labeling license (swapping is okay). It would be a good idea to warn folks about the foibles of seed saving and the potential for virus and fungal transmission. I highly recommend reaching out to the Maine State Library to see if you can connect with other libraries already hosting a seed library. It’s always helpful to network and learn from others doing the same thing.

Cherry tree in blossomQ: Can you recommend a “safe” spray for sweet and cherry trees? We do have aphids as well as a few other pests in our trees.

A: Many times aphids can simply be displaced with a forceful spray of water. Here’s some additional information from our Growing Fruit Trees in Maine website about aphids:

“Different aphid species commonly occur on fruit trees but are usually insignificant or only aesthetically damaging. Aphid populations are usually reduced by their natural enemies later in the growing season, so insecticide sprays are not warranted. One exception to this is for very young trees where a heavy aphid population can stunt growth. There are many fruit tree spray products to control aphids if needed. However, on established trees, spray application is typically not needed.”

In regards to the other pests, we prefer to know what the pest is before recommending any pesticide. If you can share any photos of the damage or describe the symptoms, I can potentially identify the problem and recommend appropriate actions. Please take a moment to read this page on spraying fruit trees before applying any pesticides (even organic options).

ripe peaches on treeQ: Would compost from a horse farm be bad for peach trees? How about ashes from the woodstove (mostly pine and oak)?

A: Compost from horse manure is fine to top-dress the area around the drip-line of your peach tree. I would just caution you not to put on too much. One way to assess this is by how much growth you typically get out of your peach tree each year. If it grows aggressively as many peach trees do, you do want to be careful not to make the soil around it too rich which could result in too much nitrogen fertilizer causing too much leafy growth. Wood ash acts as a liming agent (raises your soil pH), so I would not recommend using them on the peach tree unless your soil’s pH is below 6.0. The best way to tell your fertility needs for the compost and your possible need to raise your soil’s pH using wood ash is to do a soil test.

You can pick up a soil test box and form at your local county office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension or request one be mailed to you via the Maine Soil Testing Kit Request.

Pumpkins for sale at farmers market
© Edwin RemsbergPhoto by Edwin Remsberg

Q: When is the best time to plant pumpkin seeds in the garden?

A: Pumpkins should and can be direct seeded in the home garden when the danger of the last frost has past and when soil temperatures have reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This would typically be in early June in most parts of Maine. To save time and get an earlier crop you could start seedlings indoors now or purchase seedlings from a nursery or garden center and transplant them into the garden in early June. Here is a link to a fact sheet on Growing Pumpkins in the Home Garden and another one on Vegetable Varieties for Maine. The other hint is to check the back of the seed packet to see how many days to maturity the pumpkin seeds you have will take. If you are direct seeding in June you may want to select varieties that will take 100 days or less to harvest to avoid running into an early fall frost before they mature.

Q: What vegetables can be planted in the soil right now?

A: Right now (May 2 as of this writing), you could be planting cool-season vegetables that are considered frost-tolerant vegetables. Now is a good time to plant cool season vegetables that can be either direct seeded in the garden, transplanted from indoors or from a garden center purchase. This Watch Your Garden Grow fact sheet outlines categories of very hardy and frost tolerant vegetables that can be planted now, as well as tender and warm loving vegetables that should not be planted until the average last frost date for your area of Maine has passed.

Check here for average last frost dates for Maine and happy gardening!

Q: We have a bank of Rosa rugosa on the west side of our house. They are very long and leggy and already have buds on them. Can I cut them back at this late date? I would love to have them get fuller for the summer. I did some minor cutting back in late October.

A: Rosa rugosa blooms June – August on this year’s growth, so it will tolerate being pruned now to get the shape that you would like. The buds you see on them now are likely to be leaf buds, as flower buds will develop later beginning in June. Here is a link to our Pruning Woody Landscape Plants fact sheet.

chipmonkQ: I have been “invaded” by chipmunks. They have become problematic. They have dug many holes around my house foundation, and also have stripped bare my fruit trees (cherry and plum). I’ve tried everything and have yet to find any solution. I wonder if you have any suggestions.

A: We encourage folks to reach out to the Wildlife Services professionals at the USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Here’s their number 629.5181 and website for your specific question.

Q: I want to put a few raised beds to grow vegetables in my yard beside my house. The area has good light, however, it is not a wide space so the raised beds would be within a few feet of the house. The house was built in 1900 and may have some lead paint on the exterior. Are there any recommendations for how far away from a garden should be in this situation?

A: I would highly encourage you not to plant the raised beds before doing a University of Maine Soil Test. All of the home garden university soil tests automatically do a lead scan. This will tell you whether the soil has any toxic levels of lead present, and if so, what precautions you need to take. If your soil lead level is high there is still a risk that some of the native soil will mix with the new soil you may bring in for your raised bed, and deeply rooted root crops such as carrots could penetrate down to the native soil below.

You can pick up a soil test box and form at your local county office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension or request one be mailed to you via the Maine Soil Testing Kit Request.

Here is a fact sheet link on Lead in the Soil.

Q: We are looking for a spray that will get rid of ticks in our field and garden area. We have read about Cedarcide and wonder what your views are about it?

A: The use of cedar oil as a tick control has shown some promise, though it depends heavily on the type of cedar that is used. Alaskan yellow cedar, in particular, may be relatively effective at controlling and repelling ticks, but other types of cedar have not been shown to be nearly as effective. It is important to determine exactly what type of cedar oil is in a specific product before use. Products containing Alaskan yellow cedar oil tend to be difficult to find and are generally rather expensive. The Cedarcide products use Texas cedarwood oil, which may provide minimal tick control, but will probably not be an effective option. Other common essential oils used for tick control include garlic oil, rosemary oil, and peppermint oil to name a few. Unfortunately, these products tend to be much less effective than conventional pesticide products at managing ticks.

big, empty lawn along a residential drivewayQ: We’d like to plant out the lawn along our driveway. There are two 2-year old lilacs near the tree line. The deer are destroying the forsythia closer to the house. Do you have any low-maintenance suggestions?

A: In general, woody plants (trees and shrubs) will be less maintenance than herbaceous perennials. You may also want to consider some pathways to welcome folks into the landscape and offer landscape maintenance professionals an easy way to access your plants to prune, weed, mulch, provide general clean up, etc. The final design will depend on a lot of factors we can not begin to touch on in this platform, so I highly recommend finding a designer to help you reach your goals. The up-front investment of hiring a design professional will likely be very well worth it in the long run. To make the most of meetings with landscape designers, it’s best to do your homework ahead of time. Have an idea on what plants you like, be prepared to share all of your goals (level of maintenance, wildlife habitat, aesthetics, privacy, etc.), and discuss all of the potential site challenges (deer pressure, salt from driveway, heavy soils, drainage/water flow, below-ground utilities, etc.). Here are some resources I think you’ll find helpful when doing your homework:

Q: About three weeks ago I purchased a bag of six Lily Tango Blend tubers. I put them in a cool and usually dark basement. Today I got them out and they are sprouting! Same with the bag of dahlias. Isn’t it too early to plant outside? What should I do?

A: It is not too soon to plant. I would let yesterday’s rain drain from your soaking wet soil today and plant them as soon as you can, tomorrow if possible. Take care not to injure the sprouting roots if you can make room for them in the planting hole and gently cover them with soil and tamp it firm.

Here is a link to a fact sheet on planting Asiatic Lilies.

Q: Can you offer resources or names of experienced people, books, organizations, trustworthy businesses to help me figure out how to landscape a new home (for me) surrounded by wetland?

A: I highly recommend checking out the following resources on our website as you begin your research. Your local Soil and Water Conservation District office is also a tremendous resource. Additionally, you are always welcome to call your local UMaine Cooperative Extension office for answers to specific questions. We are not allowed to endorse any for-profit professionals or businesses but do recommend reaching out to neighbors to see if they have had good experiences with professionals in your area.

tunnels through lawn caused by volesQ: How do I get rid of voles? They destroyed my lawn and ate my irisis and other perennial plants. I noticed all of this once the snow melted in my yard.

A: We currently refer our wildlife control questions to the Maine Office of USDA Wildlife Services. Here is their link: Maine Office of USDA Wildlife Services or call 207.629.5181 or 1.866.4US.DAWS .

Q: As new home buyers, we are trying to build our own home garden. Would you please provide your perspective/advice on 4-5 essential tools we will need to build a thriving garden? Should we rent, purchase or borrow and what benefits these tools will provide when used properly?

A: Here are my top 5 essential tools to build a thriving garden ($ symbols represent relative cost): Top-quality watering wand and user-friendly hose set-up ($$).

  1. Watering is a very important step in cultivating healthy plants. Make it an easy chore with the right implements. I prefer a long handle watering wand to reach hanging baskets and deep into wide beds. A small shut-off valve and quick-release for swapping out hose ends can be valuable, yet inexpensive additions if you are using your hose for other jobs (washing the car, kids’ sprinkler, etc.). If your hose set up is not working for you in any way, think of ways you can improve the situation at the beginning of the season instead of struggling with it daily. For example, if you find yourself dragging your hose over the prized iris on the corner of the garden bed, place a decorative post to guide the hose around the plants. Even better, consider installing drip irrigation.
  2. Rain gauge ($). We often overestimate how much water Mother Nature provides during weather events. This age-old gardening tool will give you more confidence in making watering decisions. Most newly installed plants need about 1″ of water a week for the first season.
  3. Soil test ($). This isn’t a tool in the traditional sense but is an important component of a gardener’s virtual tool kit. Contact your local Cooperative Extension to see where they recommend sending soil samples to gather information about soil nutrition, pH, organic matter content, and to rule out lead contamination.
  4. Tarp ($) Yes, I’m from Maine and Mainers love tarps. A simple tarp comes in handy in so many landscape situations. I use it to keep soil off my lawn when dividing perennial plants, it’s a great alternative to a wheelbarrow when I’m needing to haul a lot of lightweight debris to to the compost area, it’s very easy to clean and packable when the job is done.
  5. Bypass pruners, folding saw, loppers ($$$). If you have woody plants and a DIY spirit, these three tools will cover your bases for your residential pruning needs. Consider spending a few extra dollars on these items because they may last you a lifetime.

Q: I have read cornmeal works as birth control for weeds in the garden and stops the weed seeds from germinating. Another article claims cornmeal mixed in your soil will bring earthworms who eat it and grow huge which in turn helps irrigates plants. Do you have any knowledge or experience with cornmeal used in this manner? We do not plant a garden anymore but we do have lots of flowers and are very interested in finding a simple solution to control weeds.

A: Corn gluten meal (CGM), when applied properly, can be somewhat effective in managing certain types of weeds before they germinate (i.e. pre-emergent control). Here’s some good information from Iowa State about timing and application rates: “Proper timing of the application is critical for good weed control. Apply it in late March to mid-April [mid-late April in Maine], at least three to five weeks before the crabgrass seeds germinate. Spread it evenly over the lawn at a rate of 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet and water it lightly into the soil. After watering, let the soil dry out somewhat so that the sprouted weed seedlings dry up and die. CGM can also be applied in mid-August to control late-season annual weeds.” It’s important to note that corn gluten meal can also negatively impact seed germination rates of crops that are directly sown in the garden so caution should be used in vegetable gardening settings or where flowers are direct-sown in ornamental beds.

Some researchers suggest that the nitrogen supplied by corn gluten meal is playing a bigger role than the germination suppression characteristics because it enhances turf growth allowing it to outcompete young weed seedlings.

Sicyos angulatusQ: Last season, we discovered a vine that crept along our entire fence (covering a perennial vine), wrapped around our veg bed trellises, and crawled up a few trees. I identified it as Sicyos angulatus, or onseed bur cucumber. We’ve been here 10 years and this is the first we’ve seen of Sicyos angulatus. Towards fall, we worked to detangle it away where we could, but after learning that it is an annual plant that drops seeds, we stopped due to fear that shaking it might actually cause more opportunities for it to come back. How do we eradicate this pesky and invasive vine? Is it best to pull off all the dried vines that are currently there? Find new ones and dig them up? I’ve been all over other forums and read some scholarly journals but advice seems pointed towards agricrops, or asks folks to use poisonous herbicides. Our organic raised beds are very close to the fence and this Sicyos angulatus problem, so we’re hoping for non-toxic solutions, or tips on when to pull them up.

A: Thank you for the terrific photos. Having a positive ID for the weed is our first step in determining best management strategies. Yes, Sicyos angulatus is an annual weed that reproduces by seed rather than coming back from it’s root system every season. It’s good that you haven’t noticed it in prior years. This means you are probably battling a small, more manageable, seed bank in the soil. The most important non-chemical management strategy is to remove the new seedlings as early as possible via hand-pulling or hoeing. You might also want to try to collect the burs before trying to pull the old plant debris from last season. This can be a pretty frustrating job because the burs are very clingy, but it may help reduce the weed seed rain that will eventually haunt you in the future. Early seedling management is much more important than managing them after mid-July because later emerging seedlings don’t typically mature to the point where they’ll produce seeds.

Q: What date should I start my flowering sweet pea seeds indoors?

A: Sweet pea seeds are usually sown directly into the garden, but if you wanted to get a jump start by growing indoors, the timing depends on your frost-free date. In central Maine, I typically use 5/30 as a pretty safe frost-free date (based on historical NOAA weather information). Sweet peas should be started 4-6 weeks before your frost-free date – here, sometime in early to mid-April. Learn more by checking out our Starting Seeds at Home bulletin.

black plastic mulch and cucumber plantsQ: We are hoping to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and a variety of hot peppers (cayenne, jalepeno, habanero) this summer and are interested in using black plastic mulch. Regarding the safety in using black plastic, is this product safe for gardening, or are there any concerns about chemicals leaching into the ground? Would cucumbers benefit from this practice, or would they prefer a cooler soil temp and be planted outside of the plastic covering? As far as adding compost to the garden, would it be beneficial to add enough to cover the entire ground beneath the plastic, or only in spots where plants will be placed through the plastic?

A: Plastic mulches have been used in farm and garden situations since the 1960s. I am not aware of any studies indicating any danger of leachates from the plastics causing health problems. The issue often cited is the disposable waste problem and the difficulty with recycling plastic mulches.

It is well established that using black plastic mulches can boost warm-season crops such as peppers and cucumbers to get both earlier and higher yields. They help warm the soil, keep down weeds and hold the moisture in the soil. Many farmers and gardeners run drip irrigation lines underneath the mulch to be able to water under the plastic when and if the soil does dry out.

If you have enough compost, cover the entire bed with a half an inch and lightly rake it into the top of the soil (do not deeply incorporate it). If you are limited with the amount of compost you have put a couple of trowels in with your transplants and mix it with the native soil around the transplant hole.

Here are some fact sheets on using plastic mulches in the home garden:

Here is one on using a variety of mulches including organic mulch:

mulched pathways in garden at Brae Maple FarmQ: I read that beets should be mulched with 2-3″. I’ve never done that and wonder if it’s a good idea?

A: I am not sure where you read that, however, I would think that 2-3 inches of an organic mulch here in Maine with our sometimes cool wet springs could keep the soil too wet and cool which could cause disease problems. I would recommend a light covering of mulch up to 1 inch be applied once the beets are established. Grass clippings make a nice light mulch, but be sure you do not get them from a lawn that had any weed and feed type products or any herbicide treatment.

Q: I have three acres of land in Vassalboro, and would like to rent it to a fellow who wants to grow corn for his cattle. I am interested in an estimate on how much that land is worth by assuming it had been used to grow corn before and is ready, any advice? I have no clue. Even a ballpark figure (per month) would be great!

A: A traditional starting point for negotiating leasing your land to be farmed by someone else is the value of the annual tax rate for the acreage in question. In that regard, you are at least recouping your annual tax rate on that acreage. You should always have such an agreement in writing with the terms clearly spelled out. You may want to require that the lessee make improvements on the land while farming such as soil testing, lime applications and management of soil organic matter. The Beginner Farmer Resource Network of Maine has a section dedicated to finding and accessing land that I think you will find very helpful. Scroll down to the section on Resources Related to Tenure Agreements.

Here is a Tutorial on Understanding and Negotiating Leases for New England Farms (PDF) which I think you will also find very helpful.

Q: What would be the correct row formation e.g., how many inches/feet apart to seed for growing beets in our Jefferson mid-coast region?

A: Sow beets 1 inch apart in the row. Each beet seed is actually a cluster of 4-5 seeds. The reason for the close spacing is beets are tough to germinate well in the garden without skips in the row. When they germinate the seed clusters that emerge successfully will have 3-4 seedlings tight together. Thin them to an ultimate spacing of 3-4 inches in the row to allow each plant enough sun, space, water, and nutrients. Check the seed packet for their final thinning recommendations as some varieties are larger than others.

Here is a link to a fact sheet on Growing Beets in the Home Garden.

daffodilsQ: Our septic system is surrounded by five large boulders so people would not drive over it. We would like to plant flowers on our Septic Tank & leach field. Which types of flowers? Can I do hydrangeas in this area? We live in Lewiston, which is Zone 4 – 5.

A: It might be best to avoid planting hydrangeas all together. Even herbaceous perennial varieties of hydrangeas can have fairly extensive and deep root systems that could cause problems with a septic field.

I would recommend you go with lawn grasses, annual flowers (as they die back each year) and herbaceous perennial flowers that are not deeply rooted such as asters, echinacea (coneflowers) or rudbeckia. Shallow rooted bulbs such as daffodils and crocuses would also be fine over a septic field. Avoid edible plants such as vegetables and herbs and please see this fact sheet: Vegetable Gardens and Septic Fields Don’t Mix.

strawberriesQ: Each spring I have near-complete loss of my strawberry and raspberry crop due to yankee clipper weevils. There is a perennial bed nearby which I think is where they come from. Any suggestions?

A: Strawberry Bud Weevil (SBW) or Strawberry Clipper Weevil have been known to reduce fruit set in a planting by up to 75%. Although this amount of loss is significant, strawberries can compensate somewhat by producing larger size of the remaining fruit. The SBW lays its eggs on the buds of immature fruit, which in Maine usually occurs in late May to early June. SBW damage to plants will often go unnoticed by the gardener as it occurs before the fruits ripen.

After laying an egg in the immature bud the SBW will chew through the pedicle attached to the bud. The clipped bud then drops to the ground and the larvae emerge from the egg and feed within the clipped bud for about three weeks, after which the larvae pupate either within the bud or in the soil below it. The adults then emerge from the pupae and find overwintering sites in the edges of fields in weedy sites. They emerge following spring and repeat the cycle. Cultural control options, therefore, include management of weedy areas at the edges of fields as well as good sanitation and bed renovation as described in this Growing Strawberries Fact Sheet.

Pesticides should only be used as a last resort and timing for an application would have to be done during bud development of the strawberries in the spring before you start to see damage and before the adults emerge and lay their eggs. Once the eggs are laid both the egg and emerging larvae would be protected from any sprays within the bud. When using pesticides follow the directions on the label carefully and make sure that the pest (SBW) is listed on the label.

Q: My lilacs all seem to be succumbing to root rot. Last year I put some fungicide in the soil. A week or two later, Ililac with stressed flowers and leaves saw two dead shrews and a dead chipmunk in the yard, which might have been coincidence. Is it likely the lilacs can be saved? If not, is there something that is pretty, flowering, hopefully native, not too tall that can be planted where they were? One lilac that completely died was next to a rhodo, which seems to be fine.

A: Lilacs are very durable, so we usually look for environmental problems first. If you think you have a diseased plant, we have free pest and disease testing available. UMaine Cooperative Extension Insect and Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab.

Drainage: Lilacs like full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Has the drainage changed around the house? Is there a new downspout near the root zone? Runoff from a new driveway or addition? If so, the roots may not be able to get enough air to function well.

Stress: For the last two seasons, we’ve had very wet springs and very dry summers/falls. This can also stress plants, even ones that are old and well-established. Fertilizers can also cause root stress because they are salts and draw water away from the roots.

Soil pH: Lilacs also like a higher pH (6.5 – 7.0) than Maine soils usually offer. If the rhododendron is nearby and doing well (4.5 – 6.0), the pH may be low. I would do a soil test, see what the pH is, and go from there with lime or sulfur, depending on the test results. It will also show what nutrients are in your soil.

Pruning: If the lilac has dead or broken trunks or spindly suckers, it may be good to prune it soon and select some of well-spaced and stronger growth to remain. Pruning is good for most multi-stemmed shrubs.

Here’s a video on how to do this: How to prune a lilac bush.

Other plants: If the lilac isn’t doing well by July, yes, it might be time to consider a different shrub in that location. We have a lot of resources on plants for different locations: Plants for the Maine Landscape.

For more information on gardening, feel free to bookmark this part of our website: UMaine Extension Garden & Yard.

apples on treeQ: Last year we began beekeeping and so far they have survived this tough winter. Last year was also the first year our apple tree produced fruit. However, it was infested by worms. Is there a product I can use on the tree that won’t harm the bees? I would rather have the bees healthy.

A: There are a number of insect pests that may be called worms in apples. For specific timing and control options, we’ll need to know which it is since those options vary by pest. Can you send us more information about the worms? If not, you’ll need to get a sample to the UMaine Extension Insect and Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab when you see the problem again. Here is information about sending samples. If you’re looking for good, general information about backyard apple production, take a look at UMaine Extension’s Growing Fruit Trees in Maine.

Q: I forgot to store my leftover 2017 seeds in my basement. They have been in my garage since October until now. I am wondering if they can be used for this upcoming season? They were in a lidded plastic container.

a variety of seeds
© Lisa Looke, Photos courtesy of Wild Seed Project

A: Your seeds should be fine. Although storing seeds at a constant cool temperature is ideal, they should have survived in your garage for the winter. Some seeds, like onions, have a very short shelf life, only a year or two. But other seeds could still be viable for up to several years. There is a chart about seed longevity at the bottom of this factsheet, An Introduction to Seed Saving for the Home Gardener that will tell you the average storage life under ideal conditions. You can test the germination rate of your seeds by choosing ten seeds and placing them between damp paper towels. Check your seed packet to see the expected days until germination and then check your seeds to see how many have sprouted. The number of sprouted seeds will tell you your expected germination rate of the seed stored in your garage. If it is low, you can either plant the seeds thicker than recommended and then thin, if necessary, or just buy new seeds.

Q: I am moving to a small island for the summer. Do you have recommendations as to what vegetables will grow best when surrounded by the sea and all the stressors this implies?

A: Gardening on an island can be as successful as gardening in other locations. If you are going to be a summer resident, then you may want to focus on short-season crops rather than planning on season extension. If you are in the shade, planting greens, which require less sun, will ensure greater success. If you have sun, then check out Vegetable Varieties for Maine Gardens to find the shortest season varieties that should do well in your location.

Q: What gardening zone is Searsport?

A: Searsport is most likely a Zone 5a or 5b depending on how close to the coast you are. Please see fact sheet, Plant Hardiness Zone Map of Maine.

The map and your own observations about exposure, wind strength, etc. may help you determine which zone is appropriate for your landscape.

Q: I noticed that the euonymous alatus (burningbush) is listed as a non-native invasive species. Does this include euonymous compacta? I love these bushes but I don’t want to perpetuate harmful species.

A: I believe you are referring to Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’. Yes, this is a non-native invasive species in Maine. Legislation that took effect on January 1, 2018, prohibits the sale of these plants in Maine. This does not mean that you cannot continue to grow them on your property. However, they do have an impact on the surrounding ecosystem. I have seen large stands of it take over the forest understory in Massachusetts and in Boothbay, Maine.

Quoting the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, “Euonymus alatus can invade not only a variety of disturbed habitats including forest edges, old fields, and roadsides but also in undisturbed forests. Birds and other wildlife eat and disperse the fruit. Once established, it can form dense thickets, displacing native vegetation. It is native to northeastern Asia and was first introduced into North America in the 1860s for ornamental purposes.”

Spotted Wing Drosophila Larvae in a rasberry
Spotted Wing Drosophila larvae in a raspberry. Photo by David Handley.

Q: I had small worms in my blueberry and raspberry fruit last year. I vaguely remember reading about a new fly pest. Can you give me some ways to prevent the recurrence? Do they also attack strawberries? The fruits softened as they ripened.

A: It sounds like you might have spotted wing drosophila. You can find out more information about them and how to make monitoring traps on this University of Maine Cooperative Extension web page Fact sheet — Insects (scroll down to the bottom). You can also read and sign up for the spotted wing drosophila blog that is available for free on the UMaine Extension Highmoor Farm website. It is a great resource for information and seeing the movement of the pest around the state next summer. If you are planting any new fruit crops, choose the earliest maturing variety you can choose for your area.

Q: Our birch tree is severely bent due to ice buildup and it doesn’t look like temperatures will warm up anytime soon. I am thinking of pruning it back because it is almost on a power line and is covering our walk. Is there anything I can put on the wounds to help it heal and not bleed out sap when it thaws?

birch tree bent under the weight of snow and ice
Photo by C. Eves-Thomas.

A: Don’t ever touch or work on a tree that’s near a power line. Any work that needs to be done near power lines or houses (or any complex work in general) should be done by a licensed Maine arborist. They’re trained to know the physiology of trees and also how to work safely. To find an arborist near you, see this list of arborists by town. Be sure to read “How to hire an arborist” fact sheet (PDF).

Once the ice is off of the tree, it may become upright again, though birches can remain bent permanently.

Regarding your question about applying tar on wounds: it is no longer recommended. Certain trees like sugar maples and birch should not be pruned in late winter or spring because of their sap flow. (Late summer into fall is best for these species, but most others are best pruned in late winter when dormant.)

Here’s more info about care and pruning of trees and shrubs:

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