Ask Our Garden Experts: Questions and Answers from Winter/Spring 2020

If you have a gardening question, you are welcome to

Questions and Answers from Winter/Spring 2020

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; Pamela Hargest, Horticulture Professional, UMaine Etension Cumberland County; Kathy Hopkins, Extension Educator, UMaine Extension Somerset County; Tori Jackson, Extension Educator: Agriculture and Natural Resources, Rebecca Long, Agriculture and Food System Professional, Oxford County; UMaine Extension Androscoggin and Sagadahoc Counties; 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.

Q: I live in Falmouth and have been growing a few vegetables in my backyard just for about three years now and I am still learning. I have two questions.

  1. Each year I sow some spinach seeds around mid April, and it sprouts around the first week of May, and the growth is very slow. By the end of May, it starts to grow at a faster pace, but ends up bolting by mid June, and has few leaves for harvest. I have heard that spinach is easy to grow and can be harvested with 3-4 weeks. The raised bed gets sunlight between 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Can you tell me where am I going wrong?
  2. My pepper plants grow well and gets lots of flowers, but only ten percent of the flowers actually turn into peppers; the rest of them turn yellow and fall off when they are tiny. I get a good harvest of tomatoes and can guarantee that there are lots of bumblebees for pollination. The raised bed gets full sun for about 6-7 hours. Can you help me with this issue?

A: Gardening is certainly an ongoing learning process no matter how long you’ve been at it. Congratulations on getting started on this fun and rewarding journey.

Spinach typically grows best on either end of our growing season (spring and fall) and is less reliable in the summer, often bolting (going to seed) just as you described because of high temperatures and long day length. It’s a cool season crop with optimum growth between 55 and 60F. It will take temperatures down to 15 degrees so you can be thinking about still planting spinach in your garden in September and then covering it with a row cover. Some varieties are better midseason performers than others – that trait is usually listed in the description on the seed packet or in the seed catalog. I recommend planting spinach after you pull out one of your earlier crops (beans, peas, cucumbers, etc.) when they’re done producing. Be sure to keep spinach well watered (1″ a week). It does not do well in dry conditions. 

Many gardeners are surprised to find out that peppers are finicky when it comes to temperatures. This is especially true with bell peppers. Temperatures over 85F and below 55F can cause the plants to abort their flowers. Rootbound and overly mature transplants can also lead to poor fruit development. Avoid buying the most mature pepper seedlings or, if starting your own next spring, avoid starting them too early. Some varieties are much better performers in our climate than others. In general, hot peppers are easier to grow in Maine than bell peppers. Check out Vegetable Varieties for Maine Gardens for some suggestions.

Q: Where can we find a sulphur spray to treat our pink leaf curl on our peach tree? Also, we use organic practices so we wouldn’t want to spray anything chemical related.

A: Below is a helpful excerpt from our Peach Leaf Curl bulletin. The good news is that it’s manageable, but unfortunately you’ve missed the window to manage it this year. It’s good to plan ahead to treat this fall and possibly again next spring before bud swell. Organic fungicides can typically be found at local garden centers or hardware stores. You’ll also likely have luck with online vendors, such as Fedco, Johnny’s (no endorsement intended). Be sure to look on the label to make sure the crop you’re using it on (peaches, in this case) is listed and whether it mentions peach leaf curl as a disease that’s managed. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to read the label before applying any product. Peach leaf curl is readily controlled. There are no known sanitation or cultural practices that have been proven to be effective, and there are little to no peach or nectarine cultivars that are immune to the disease. Frost, Indian free, Muir, and Q-1-8 are some currently discovered resistant varieties. However, effective control can be achieved with one or at most two fungicide treatments. Spray either in the fall just before defoliation normally occurs or in the spring just before the buds begin to swell or at both times if the problem is severe. Some fungicides which are effective include: chlorothalonil, Bordeaux mixture, lime sulfur, and fixed coppers.

You should check your local town ordinance for any pesticide restrictions before application.

Q: I am concerned about three of my blueberry plants. Originally I started with nine but have only seven left. They are approximately seven years old and bear fruit quite well. We live in Baldwin, Maine. My concern is that they have unusual growth within the plant; it seems to be suckers growing in a very dense pattern. It only affects a small portion of plant but extremely dense growth.

A: It sounds like you are describing Witches’ Broom, Pucciniastrum goeppertianum. Here is more information about it, Witches’ Broom, including some photos that might help you to be sure.

SpruceQ: What is wrong with this pine tree? What should I do?

A: Thank you for your photo. This is a spruce.

I don’t have an overall view of the tree, but I’m guessing it was planted. Is it blue spruce, a popular ornamental landscape tree?

I can’t tell what the percentage of tip dieback is, but this is pretty common in blue spruce here in Maine. It’s native to drier areas of the Rocky Mountains and our wet, humid conditions and see-saw winter temperatures are not ideal for their overall health.

Here’s a good fact sheet from Michigan State about Spruce Decline.

If this is an important tree in your landscape, you may want to have a licensed Maine arborist to look at it.

Q: I am in Kennebunkport and want to transplant two hydrangeas. They have begun to show buds in the ground at the base of the plant but none yet on the branches. Can I transplant them now?

A: It sounds like it’s herbaceous and not one of the woody varieties. It’s not too late in the season for transplanting. Here are some quick guidelines, with more detail in this fact sheet: Selecting, Planting and Caring for Trees and Shrubs in the Maine Landscape.

  • Wait for a cool, overcast day to minimize transplant shock.
  • Dig the plant and evaluate its root system (health, width, height, etc.). Remove any dead tissue.
  • Dig a new hole that’s wider than the existing roots, but not deeper.
  • Add compost to the native soil if needed – no more than 25% by volume, mixed well. (No fertilizer.)
  • Tease the roots laterally into the hole, and gently pack the soil around the roots.
  • Be sure it’s not planted deeper than it was in the previous location.
  • Water deeply but don’t keep the roots continuously wet.
  • Mulch to keep roots cool and moist during dry periods.
  • Water once a week deeply if needed.
  • After Thanksgiving, protect the plant during its first winter with loosely placed balsam fir boughs.
  • Remove the boughs when spring bulbs start to emerge.

If the plant was healthy and is now in a good place with adequate sun, it should flower next year. I hope this is helpful. For more information, visit our Garden & Yard website.

viburnum beetle larvaeQ: My snowball bushes have been infested with what I have diagnosed as viburnum beetle. The larvae have completely eaten the leaves from one bush, and are starting on the other two. How do I treat this? Is there anything I can do to save the bush that is completely devastated? There are just some skeletal leaves left.

A: You correctly identified the culprit. If your snowball viburnum has been healthy up until this point, it should be just fine after even a pretty significant defoliation this season. Here are some next steps:

  • Do your best to minimize additional stress this season by providing supplemental water through dry spells and eliminating any weed competition directly around the base.
  • As soon as possible, apply tanglefoot lower on the stem to try to keep the larvae from reaching the soil to pupate into adults.
  • Minimize unnecessary pesticide use and offer a mix of host plants for beneficial insects in order to encourage natural predators of this pest.
  • Between October and April, prune out any egg-infested stems (this is the most important and effective management strategy with this pest).

Read more here.

Q: Is there a good way to prevent having squash bugs takeover squash and zucchini plants? We remove eggs and adult bugs when we see them, but they are such pests!

A: Removing the eggs from the underside of the leaves is a very important management step, so it’s great you’re already doing that. Additionally, I would set out small pieces of wood (shingles work well) or a few sections of wet newspaper around the plants to serve as traps for the adult and nymph squash beetle. They’ll congregate under the boards and newspapers at night. In the morning, you can simply scrape them off into a bucket of soapy water. Hand picking adults and nymphs is also helpful. At the end of the season, you’ll want to remove squash debris from the garden to minimize overwintering sites.

ImpatiensQ: I have a question about this plant that is suddenly all over the stones and banks of a small stream; this area is mostly just pine needles and moss. For current size, you can see the tip of my boot. Is this a non-native invasive?

A: It appears to be a type of Impatiens (touch-me-not). There are three types found in Maine, but it’s most likely I. capensis (jewelweed).

Q: How should seaweed be used in a vegetable garden? We collected some, but are unsure of its best use. If seaweed collected from a beach is spread around a vegetable garden this time of year, will it help the vegetables (tomatoes, broccoli, radishes, basil, and cauliflower) grow? Or, should the seaweed be composted first? Will it do plants any harm if spread now, while the plants are just beginning to grow? Will the salt affect the plants?

A: Seaweed is great as a mulch in the garden, straight from the beach it will help to keep weeds down and soil moist. It will dry out fairly quickly and become brittle, when it can be worked into the soil to add some nutrients. It can be added to the compost pile too. As with any mulch, don’t place it right up to the stems of your plants. There will be so little salt left on the seaweed that there should be no problem, if you prefer though, either rinse it with a hose or let some rain rinse it. It does get slippery when wet, and it will carry the aroma of the ocean.

Unhealthy peonyQ: I was wondering if you had any ideas as to what the problem is with my peony plant? It was planted in May and I dug a large hole and filled it with good garden soil.

A: I ran this by our plant disease diagnostician, Dr. Alicyn Smart, and she suspects it’s Peony Anthracnose. It’s pretty common. To minimize the spread of the disease, you’ll want to avoid getting the foliage wet. This fall, cut the plant back and remove all plant material from the area.

White wildflowerQ: We’re wondering if you can identify this pretty little flower. Located in the woods on Matinicus Island.

A: It looks like you have Orobanche uniflora, which is a fascinating native wildflower that contains no leaves for photosynthesis, instead it acquires all of its nutrients from the roots of its host. It looks like this plant is invading the roots of goldenrod (other host plants include sedum, sunflowers, etc).

Here is more information, Go Botany Native Plant Trust Orobanche uniflora.

Q: Can I do anything about leaf Curl on my peaches? It wasn’t a problem last year, but this is our second year here and the last owner might have treated for it. What should I do now that it’s here?

A: We are starting to get a lot of calls about peach leaf curl here in the midcoast. It’s very common where there’s wet weather during bud break and high humidity. Here are some fact sheets:

The good news: Trees often leaf out again and do OK. If you have a lot of fruit set, be sure to thin them as outlined in the 2nd fact sheet.

plum tree with black knotQ: I planted a plum tree in my yard a few years ago. Last winter, I noticed growths on two branches that surround the branch. A few days ago, I looked at it again, and discovered multiple similar growths throughout the tree. I also noticed some ants crawling on the branches. What is causing these growths? Are they harmful? What (if anything) should I do about them? And are the ants connected to the problem?

A: Your tree has black knot. A common disease of plum and cherry. Here’s information about the disease’s life cycle, how to prevent it, and how to treat it.
Black Knot of Plum and Cherry.

Q: I have a home garden in Friendship, zone 6a. I want to grow sweet corn in a 7×7 plot. What is the best way to seed it? Hills? Rows? How best to space?

A: In Maine, we usually need to plant an early variety. Some small organic growers and home gardeners actually start their corn indoors and set them out when the plants are 3-4″ high. This gives them a head start. It’s important that the soil is warm enough, which it finally is. If your patch is small, hand pollinating can help.

Below are some good articles and fact sheets about growing corn at home.

Cedar treeQ: I have had a cedar in my south-facing backyard for years and this spring I noticed that the east side of it has turned brown and died. The cedars around it are still healthy. Do you have an idea of what happened? Do you think it is salvageable?

A: The photo shows damage on one plant, and only on one side of that plant. That makes me think that the cause is environmental.

  • Is there a window that reflects intense light onto the plant in the winter when it could desiccate the needles?
  • Were the trees fertilized heavily? (Fertilizers are salts and can “burn” roots and upper tissue in dry weather.)
  • If fertilized, did you use a fertilizer for acid-loving plants? (Arborvitae do not like acid soil, even though they’re conifers.)
  • Have the trees had deep, weekly water during the fall and this last month of dry weather? (They need to go into winter with adequate moisture to avoid desiccation.)
  • Were the trees pruned (sheared) in the fall? (Best to do this in the spring when there’s new tip growth starting.)
  • Were there any herbicides used nearby? Weed and Feed on the lawn? Spot or granular herbicides on weeds?

Unlike other conifers, arborvitae can grow new branchlets and foliage from the trunk. Water the plant thoroughly and deeply, avoid fertilizer if you’ve already done it, and wait to see how it does. Later on, when you can tell what’s happening under the damaged foliage, you can carefully remove dead branches.

Here are some useful fact sheets.

Q: What potato variety will grow in partial sun? We have a fairly small backyard with lots of trees. The only space for a garden gets about 3 hours of full sun in the middle of the day, and dappled sun the rest of the day. We’re not picky about whether potatoes are big or small, good bakers, etc. What else might grow well in those conditions (besides leafy greens)?

A: I wish I had better news to offer, but potatoes will not thrive in only 3 hours of sun (any variety). Many aspiring vegetable gardeners struggle with insufficient sunlight. Here’s an article that outlines your options.

Not mentioned in the article is the suggestion to lease a plot in one of the many community gardens that can be found throughout the state or trade crops with a gardening friend who happens to have plentiful sun (i.e. you supply the lettuce and spinach and they supply the tomatoes and potatoes).

Q: I have been given some rhubarb to plant. The only available spot I have is a raised bed half filled with raspberry canes. Is it OK to plant rhubarb in the same bed? If it takes, I intend to make a bed specifically for the rhubarb, so this would be a temporary measure.

A: As a temporary measure (one season), you should be fine planting the rhubarb somewhat close to the raspberries. You may find yourself removing bramble roots from the rhubarb root mass when you transplant the rhubarb into it’s “forever home”, but it should do just fine. Here are some excellent resources for growing both crops: Growing
both crops.

Q: How can one identify photos A and B? Is poison ivy in one of the photos? Which is the worst? I am striving to use woodland natives but am having a hard time with invasives.

A: Photo A, looks like the leaves of Aralia nudicaulis (wild sarsparilla).
Photo B, is a sapling of Fraxinus americana (white ash).

Poison ivy is tricky. It looks different in color and texture, depending on the time of year and where it’s growing. I often rely on the stem, which is perennial and stout, often with hairs. Here’s a really good series of photos to help you with identifying (native) poison ivy.

Good luck with your landscape! Here are some nice lists of native plants.

GoutweedQ: What is the most efficient way to eradicate invasive Bishop’s Weed from the yard? It’s not the variegated variety. Family members are highly affected by contact dermatitis.

A: Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) is a very difficult invasive for gardeners. It out-competes everything else. Like other members of the carrot family, including giant hogweed and wild parsnip, its sap can be a skin irritant.

There is no silver bullet for this plant pest, but here are some options, depending on the size and nature of the area it’s growing in:

  • Small infestations can be dug up and the roots sifted out. Dispose of carefully and monitor the area closely for new shoots.
  • Some infestations can be mowed around to isolate them from adjacent areas.
  • Repeated mowing / weedwhacking can weaken the plant and gradually kill it. This can take two seasons.
  • Black plastic can smother smaller patches over a full season or two. Edges must be sealed tightly in early spring with the plastic in contact with the ground.
  • Chemical control is probably the most successful option, especially after the plant has been weakened by cutting, and has regrowned to provide surface area for the herbicide. (Glyphosate is non-selective and will kill any plant that it comes in contact with.)
  • If you choose to use pesticides, always follow label directions, or hire a licensed Maine pesticide applicator.

This fact sheet outlines the plant’s life cycle and has more detail about control methods, Goutweed. Plant Conservation Alliance (PDF).

Q: I have always watered my tomato plants from the top, but a friend of mine told me that I shouldn’t get the water on the leaves, but water close to the soil instead. Is this true, and if so, what is the reason?

A: Your friend is offering some excellent advice. Here’s an excerpt from Tips for Starting a Healthy Garden explaining why.

Wet leaves are more prone to foliar diseases. Improving air circulation will allow leaves to dry more quickly and can be accomplished by properly spacing plants, keeping weeds down, providing adequate support for taller and vining plants, and pruning woody plants according to their specific growth requirements.

Overhead irrigation can promote foliar diseases because the water lands primarily on the leaves, rather than the soil. Instead, apply water directly to the soil and limit water splashing from the soil onto the lower leaves. Remember that plants take water in through their roots, not their leaves. Mulches, such as straw and shredded leaves, can make a good barrier between the soil and foliage to block pathogens from moving onto the plant.

Be sure to not over water. If your irrigation turns on at a scheduled time, consider adding a rain sensor to override the timer when there is sufficient precipitation. Morning watering is preferred to evening because foliage that gets wet will be more likely to dry during the daylight hours.

Oak Gall on leafQ: We have a large oak tree we planted in our yard in 1994. Last summer I noticed some yellowing or browning of leaves. This year some limbs are completely void of growth, and these growths are on the leaves. What is this? Is it treatable?

A: It looks like you have an Oak Gall (also known as an Oak Apple Gall), which is caused by a small wasp. They are pretty common and wouldn’t cause the decline of your oak tree. Overall, your oak tree looks very healthy. Have you noticed anything at the base of those dead branches (e.g. cracking, cankers)? I’d recommend that you prune them off with clean pruning tools and just keep an eye on your tree to see if it progresses.

Q: I planted my bush beans after starting them in containers. I put down 6 mil black plastic for weed prevention and cut holes about 4×4 inches to plant my beans. The temp two nights after planting them got down to 37 degrees and the wind has not let up since planting them. They all look very healthy but are now laying flat on the ground. Could it be that their stems aren’t strong enough to handle this wind? Should I put poles up and tie them to it? Could the plastic be causing the roots to be to warm?

A: Beans are a warm season crop, meaning they should be planted after the threat of frost has passed. A good rule of thumb is to wait to plant them outside until the night temperatures are consistently at or above 50 degrees. If your beans still look healthy, I would give them a little more time, they may very well bounce back. High winds are always tough on young seedlings, but as the plant matures, it’ll be able to hold up to these wind conditions as long as it’s not constant. If you planted bush beans, you shouldn’t need to stake them. The black plastic will help warm up the soil, which is a good thing for a warm season crop like beans.

I find it helpful to have some row cover and wire hoops kicking around that I can use to cover my plants when the night temperatures drop unexpectedly early on in the season or the wind is supposed to pick up. Just be sure to secure that row cover well, especially in the case of high winds.

Q: What is the hardiest flowering tree to plant in Boothbay, Maine? It will be in front of the house, the rear of the house is on deep saltwater. We had a beautiful Japanese Silver Bell in the spot but it is dying. We had it for quite a few years. What can we replace it with?

A: There are some lovely flowering trees hardy to zone 5b, and do well if protected from harsh wind and saltwater. The key is to get them through the first growing season, then winter and early spring. Here are some resources and suggestions:

The Morton Arboretum has excellent cultural information on:

You’ll find more in this part of our Garden and Yard website: Plants for the Maine Landscape.

Important tips: When planting woody trees and shrubs, check the mature size of the tree and avoid areas under the drip line. At least 6′ from the foundation is advisable. Dig the hole wide but not deep, add no more than 10-20% organic matter mixed well into the native soil, remove the cage and burlap, spread the roots laterally, and avoid fertilizer in the planting hole. Water deeply, weekly, and use mulch to keep the roots cool and moist, keeping it from touching the root flare. Never fertilize after mid-summer (if at all).

Q: I have a small (8 x4) raised bed garden. I am a first time gardener. What is a good way to keep out the deer?

A: The best way to manage deer pressure in the garden is to establish a physical barrier, such as a fence. Scented deterrents, reflective materials, and similar “easy” fixes for deer are not reliably effective. As soon as one bold deer figures out there’s a tasty snack in your garden, the situation can go downhill rather quickly.

In a smaller setting, it can be pretty easy to set up a barrier using hoops or a frame covered in a plastic or wire mesh. The sturdier the material, the better. Here’s a nice video showing a hinged covering made of a wooden frame covered in netting from a gardener in Orono. Last year, I saw a slightly taller design using pvc where, instead of the entire structure hinging to one side, each of the sides hinged down. I’ve requested a photo from the homeowner so you can see what I mean. If that doesn’t come through, I’ll send a rough sketch in the next day or so. A third approach is to create hoops using ceiling hanger wire (or a thicker gauge), well pipe, pvc, or metal conduit (listed in order from least sturdy to most structurally sound). This video shows the basic idea on how to create the hoops using well pipe (the black hoop in the video) or pvc (the white option shown in the video). Cover the hoops with netting or a welded wire fencing or netting.

The small investment in materials to build these barriers is well worth it in the long run. Plus, these structures can also serve as a frame for plastic or row cover to create a microclimate to extend the growing season. The only downside to these options is that they don’t work well with taller crops, such as corn, pole beans, peas or indeterminate tomatoes, but there are countless other crops you can grow under cover instead.

Q: Soon the birds will going after my high bush blueberries. I’ve used netting in the past but it’s inconvenient. Got any other good ideas?

A: Netting is the most effective method for preventing birds from consuming your blueberry crop. I’m not sure how you set up your netting in the past, but typically a post and wire frame works well for supporting the netting over your blueberries. You’ll want to secure the netting over your plants just as the berries begin to turn blue. Here is more information, Growing Highbush Blueberries.

Q: I have sorrel infestation in beds with perennials and woody plants. I want the safest way to eradicate it beginning with mechanically pulling out young plants and root system. But it is gaining on me. Can I physically remove it in combination with chemical treatment to ultimately eradicate? Which chemical application is least harmful to plants, bees and water table? I live in Lovell surrounded by pines. Could lime help curtail it? Repeated sheering? Boiling water? It rode in with garden mulch. Can you suggest a reliable local source for safe compost and mulch?

A: Accidental introduction of weeds to your property is a frustrating situation. Unfortunately, there is no effective herbicide that will prevent sorrel from coming back in a perennial bed without harming your other plants. Even if you did spray it, there are likely many seeds and other plant parts in your mulch that would not be impacted by an herbicide. The best method of controlling it at this point is to do exactly what you are doing- pulling it out by the roots and preventing it from flowering. You may be aware, but sorrel is actually edible. Perhaps adding it to your salads could be a silver lining? We cannot recommend specific dealers for compost and mulch, but we do recommend doing some research from those you intend to purchase from, requesting the lab analysis from commercial composters, and asking for references from previous customers. If possible, you should inspect the mulch pile for any living weeds yourself before it is delivered.

Horse ChestnutQ: I live on Dunning Blvd in Bangor and have a chestnut tree growing in the boulevard. I would like to know what species it is. The flowers are like a horse chestnut, but yellow, and the nuts usually fall off during the summer. It’s not that tall, maybe 15 feet. The leaves are more pointed than a horse chestnut. Unfortunately it had a lot of damage during the last big snow storm.

A: This appears to be the horse chestnut, Aesculus x arnoldiana variety- ‘Autumn Splendor’. It is a popular ornamental cutivar with pretty yellow and pink flowers like yours. Young trees can usually bounce back from significant injury, though you may wish to make some strategic pruning cuts late next winter to manage the shape.

Q: I have invasive horsetail weed. What can I use to get rid of this thing? I have weeded until I can’t stand up straight. I am not going to plant this year because of it. Any help will be appreciated.

A: Horsetail (Equisetum) is an ancient native plant that many gardeners struggle to control due to its underground rhizome system. I’m afraid there is no easy answer for how to manage Horsetail. I think your decision to take a year off of planting will definitely make it much easier for you to dig up as much of the plant as possible. If the Horsetail is pretty established, it will take at least a few years of persistent removal before you can eradicate most of the plant. Horsetail does thrive in wet conditions, so if you are able to improve the drainage in your garden that can also help.

There are not many herbicide options for controlling Horsetail and the effectiveness of such an application is questionable. For more information, check out, The Ancient Horsetail (PDF) from Purdue University and Equisetum: Biology and Management from Iowa State University.

Double Flowered Japanese KerriaQ: I moved into a new place, and this plant caught my eye. It’s right along the property line. Some friends said it looked like Kerria japonica. I looked it up and it said this plant is considered invasive in some areas and I should check with my cooperative extension before I decide to spread it around. First, is this Kerria japonica? Second, is it invasive or can I spread it in my yard?

A: I believe your friends are correct. This beautiful shrub appears to be Double Flowered Japanese Kerria, or Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’. It is not considered invasive in Maine, but once established, will sucker and spread readily. Transplanting it to other areas of your yard  should not pose a problem, especially if you are careful about pruning it back so it does not escape it’s bounds.

Q: I have a few lilac trees that my grandmother planted long ago and I need help figuring out how to fix them. I have watched videos but I’m very nervous to do them myself. Do you know anyone who could come and do it for me that knows how too? Or anyone in my area, I’m in Bethel.

A: Right now during Covid-19 Extension and our Master Gardener Volunteers are not making any home garden calls. However, I’d be happy to talk with you over the phone about renovating your lilacs, if you’d respond to my email and give me your phone number, I will call. In the meantime, here is a link to a fact sheet on Pruning Woody Landscape Plants and yet another video on Pruning Lilacs.  Sorry for adding another video for you to watch, but I’d be happy to talk with you and go through the steps as now is the right time to prune them as soon as they are done flowering for this year.

Don’t be afraid to prune out the oldest biggest trunks/stems right to the ground after it flowers. Pruning out a few of the oldest each year after flowering will renew the entire shrub over 3 years or so.

Q: What organic combination product would you recommend for preventing both blight and potato beetles on a home potato crop of 24 plants?

A: It’s very wise of you to prepare ahead of time for these known challenges associated with growing potatoes. To my knowledge, there aren’t any organic pesticides registered in the state of Maine that cover both Colorado potato beetle (CPB) and blight. Therefore, I’ll summarize management strategies for each separately.

  • Blight
    “Late blight and early blight are two potato diseases that are common in home gardens. Of the two, late blight is the real threat” (excerpt from Growing Potatoes in the Home Garden). You’ll want to begin by planting certified seed potatoes (‘Kennebec’ and ‘Sebego’ are two varieties more tolerant of late blight) at the appropriate spacing in order to maintain good air flow around the plants. Watering the base of the plants instead of the foliage and using a mulch, such as straw, are also both important disease management steps. There’s no curative fungicide that will heal blighted tissue once it has been infected. Therefore, you’ll need to commit to repeated applications of a protectant fungicide product containing copper.
  • Potato Beetle
    The Colorado potato beetle is one of the toughest insects to manage because it has developed resistance to most registered pesticides. Products with the active ingredient azadirachtin or spinosad can be somewhat effective, but are best used in conjunction with hand-picking overwintered adults and egg masses (bright orange, found on underside of leaf) early in the season. Another approach to consider when growing potatoes on a relatively small scale is to exclude CPB by growing potatoes under row cover.

Q: I live in Wells, approximately two weeks ago I returned my hibiscus plant outside. Purchased last spring and wintered very well in a sunny window. Unfortunately, since putting outside, the plant’s leaves have developed a silver/white hue and fall off with just a touch. I have cut the plant back, removed all the affected leaves but the plant still is not doing well. Is it the intermittent cold nights causing the problem? Also, I sprayed with Neem oil in case it was a powdery mildew, did not help. Still having at least six new affected leaves daily.

A: I suspect your hibiscus is suffering from either sun scorch or cold injury because it was moved outside too quickly, without a hardening off period. Strong sun and heat can cause the breakdown of chlorophyll in leaves, and cold injury damage also appears as white, bleached areas. Once leaves are damaged, all you can do is support the plant until it manages to grow new, stronger leaves. For now, I suggest you place your hibiscus in a protected spot in light shade to reduce its exposure to UV light. Gradually increase the length of direct sun exposure until the new leaves are toughened up. Bring it indoors at night if unseasonably cold temperatures are predicted. This process of hardening off can take about two weeks. Make sure you properly water and feed your plant while it is recovering. Most plants outgrow this type of injury.

Q: I am planting a garden on a new property where we have lead in our well water and had to put in a filtration system. We would like to test our soil for lead before planting. Can you tell me where I can get the containers for collecting soil samples to submit to the state lab?

A: You can request a soil test kit on the Maine Soil Testing Service website. Here’s more information on lead in your soil.

Q: I live in Kennebunkport and was wondering if I should cutback my phlox now?  Or when they get to a height of one ft. so they are sturdier when full grown.

A: Once they’re about 6″ tall, you’ll want to pinch off the uppermost growing point as well as the first set of leaves. Keep in mind that dense growth in phlox can create an environment that’s conducive to disease growth. Therefore, be sure to apply water to the base of the plants and not the foliage. While you’re pruning, you may also want to fully remove (at the ground level) a few of the stems in a healthy clump of phlox to improve air flow and overall structure of the plant.

Q: I’d appreciate your recommendation for a low-maintenance shrub (flowering would be nice) for full sunlight, so-so soil, perhaps 2 – 6′ for both height and width, in Turner, Maine. No berries! I’m looking to replace azaleas planted about 8′ apart outside a fence enclosing a pool. These plants are not coming back this year. Perhaps it was too much sun.

A: A dwarf Korean lilac would fit all the criteria quite well. See this Missouri Botanical Garden fact sheet. You may also want to consider some tall clump-forming ornamental grasses or ferns.

AphidQ: We have large oaks that have an aphid like insect on them that cause a coating of honeydew on everything. What is the best way to get rid of them?

A: Thanks for sending along the photo. It definitely looks like aphids. There’susually a certain number of aphids on trees during the warm months. The aphids really won’t do much harm to your tree, but if you’re just concerned about the honeydew, you could always hose down the tree periodically if the tree is short enough to reach most of the crown. It sounds like your tree is probably on the large size, making the hosing down method not very effective. I’d recommend just letting the natural process play out, it wouldn’t be worth it to use a different control method in this case.

Q: I am planning a small reforestation project on about one acre of land that has been clear cut following a construction project. How might I best prepare the soil in order to plant native pines and deciduous trees such as oak and maple?

A: Sounds like an exciting project! If the area was previously forested and no outside soil was brought in during the construction project, then you’ll probably have good success with reforesting the area.

You’ll want to do a pretty thorough site assessment to evaluate the soil moisture and pH, competing vegetation, topography, light conditions, etc. This site assessment will determine which tree species you should plant and where they should be planted on the site. For an example, Red Maple (Acer rubrum) thrives in wet soil conditions, while a Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) prefers a well drained soil.

As for soil preparations, you really shouldn’t need to do much, other than removing any invasive plants that might be present and keeping the weed pressure low. Native tree species are well adapted for Maine’s soils, it’s more about selecting the appropriate species for the site. Cornell University published this Northeastern Tree Planting and Reforestation (PDF) publication that I think you’ll find very helpful.

Q: Is Ginkgo biloba juglone-tolerant? We have a decent sized butternut on out property, and of course the squirrels bury the nuts all over the place, and we pull up seedlings often. We planted a Gingko three or four years ago near the boundary, a place where it can grow without limit. It’s now about ten feet tall. Because of the brushy nature of the spot, I didn’t notice a volunteer butternut until it became nearly as tall as the Ginkgo. They are only about ten feet apart. If the Gingko is juglone-tolerant we’re considering keeping both and pruning branches where they might overlap. If not, then we’ll get the butternut out ASAP. I spent an hour or so researching this question on the internet with no clear answer. If you have no clear idea either, then it’s bye-bye butternut! We don’t want to answer the question by conducting an experiment.

A: I would not consider Ginkgo as a highly juglone-tolerant plant. It would be best for the long-run to remove the young butternut.

Q: I have been reading about planting grasses with blueberries. I am planting a section of my front yard with blueberries (as groundcover, not in rows), how would you recommend I plant with grass? It is currently regular lawn grass. Would I sheet mulch, cover with topsoil, seed with a no-mow eco-grass, and then plant the blueberries in holes among the seeded topsoil?
Is it safe to plant berries in contaminated soil? I read there is a company in Falmouth that specializes in eco-grass, do you know the name? I am looking for both no-mow and self-fertilized traditional lawn with clover.

A: Lowbush blueberries make an excellent ground cover in sunny well-drained sites. Here are detailed planting and management guidelines for success, Home Garden Lowbush Blueberry Planting Guide.

Grass and other creeping plants commonly found in turf can become weeds in lowbush blueberries. Therefore, it’s best to keep a 12” blank buffer established around the planting to reduce competition.

Can you tell me more about the contamination issue and concentration of that contaminant, if known? I can’t say for sure without knowing more information, but would suggest waiting to plant until you know for sure.

Congratulations on leaning towards a low input lawn. I’m not familiar with the company you mentioned, but encourage you to check out our lawn resources for best practices.

Q: I am planting raspberries from pots. your video was excellent. I have some wild black raspberries growing about 35-40 feet from where I’m doing the planting. Do I need to remove them to prevent the spread of disease?

A: I’m glad to hear you found our video helpful! Yes, you should remove any wild brambles in the area, ideally within 600 ft if that’s possible. You are correct, it will help prevent the spread of disease. Here’s more information about growing raspberries.

Q: We just installed an ornamental garden next to our home in Kennebunk. It’s design and plant selection is based upon it needing next to no maintenance. It’s comprised of annuals and perennials. We’d like to add some mulch but do not know which type of wood mulch to use. We were thinking of hemlock or cedar but are open to any suggestions. What would you suggest and what are the pros and cons of each?

A: If you were to ask three different gardeners this same question, I wouldn’t be surprised if you got three different answers. Our friends at UNH Extension put together a nice overview of the benefits of various mulch options, Garden Mulches.

For beds with a mix of perennials and annuals, I highly recommend using compost mixed with a dark softwood mulch (50/50). The appearance of the natural dark mulch blends together well with the compost and the compost will help the mulch decompose faster. We want mulch to break down over time in order for it to not accumulate – especially important if you plan to freshen it up with new mulch every few years. Excessive mulching is a very common negative practice with perennial beds.

You could also use 100% compost for your mulch. In that case, you may need to freshen up the mulch more frequently because it will decompose faster than the mix with softwood mulch. Whichever product you use, aim for a layer of mulch of 2-3” deep.

Here’s a helpful resource for when you’re ready to calculate how much material you’ll need, Mulch, Soil and Compost.

Q: I have a couple of Lavender and Russian Sage plants that I planted last year. New growth is showing at the base of each plant. Should I cut off the brown and brittle stems from last year’s growth or is there any reason to keep them? What is the method for doing so? I don’t believe the new growth is growing on last year’s stalks.

A: Russian Sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia is a wonderful woody perennial that is marginally hardy to zone 5 which does include much of Maine. It will die back each year close to the crown of the plant. The new buds coming out of the base as you describe are from the part of the plant that survived the winter. The parts higher up which appear to be brown when you cut the stem have died back and can be pruned out to just above the highest breaking buds/leaves on the stalks. This will remove dead growth, give it a tighter fuller look. Each spring you should do the same as the tops frequently do die back close to the ground.

Q: Should I soak my peas to help germination?

A: Yes, soaking the amount of pea seed you wish to plant in your garden in a cup of lukewarm water overnight will help the seed to absorb water and shorten the amount of time they need to germinate. This time of year the soil has warmed up enough for peas and you should get good germination within a week to ten days, maybe even less. Keep them well watered until the seedlings emerge and then water as needed.

invasive bushesQ: We have an invasive bush honeysuckle and an invasive Japanese barberry very close to the house that we are trying to get rid of. We have cut the bush honeysuckle down to a small stump and have sprayed the stump with herbicide, haven’t started dealing with the barberry yet. I’m looking for advice about how regularly should we spray the stumps with herbicide and how long will it take to kill them? Is there any way to remove them more easily without risking damage to the foundation? I have two rhododendron that I’d like to put in the spots where the invasives used to be. I also would appreciate any advice about how soon we can plant the rhododendron in those spots while the stumps/roots from the invasives still are there. Should we plant the rhododendrons somewhere else now and then move them to the desired spots once the invasives are dead?

A: Invasive plants are a huge problem in Maine and around the country. Here you can get a list of our Invasive Plant Fact Sheet Series, which covers many species and the best methods of control. If you click on the pdf or html of each one of interest, you can download a free copy.

Looking at your photograph, the invasive honeysuckle and barberry are both relatively small and should not be too hard to mechanically control (removing with a shovel and gloves) without spraying an herbicide. If you remove the shrub and as much of the root system as you can, it will send up some new shoots. If you continue to pull the weaker new shoots as they emerge you will starve out the remaining root system over the season. In the meantime you could plant your Rhododendron in the bed if you try to not put it directly on top of where the invasive were, assuming that is a practical option for you.

Alternatively, if you do want to use an herbicide like glyphosate (RoundUp) to kill the root, you don’t need to spray the entire area of the stem. Rather you could use a small paint brush and apply just a drop of concentrate directly to the stem. This will limit the risk of spraying neighboring plants and only necessitate a very small amount of herbicide. The preferable method for home gardeners is to use mechanical removal methods. When using any pesticide organic or not, read the label thoroughly before you purchase it and before you use it, follow all directions and utilize the recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).

Q: If you plant hyacinth bulbs in outdoor containers can you leave the containers outside all winter or would they have to be moved inside?

A: You could leave the garden pots outside for the winter, BUT you would have to dig a hole and bury them up to the lip of the container, otherwise they plants would be winter killed due to the lack of insulation above ground. If you are going to leave them outside, why not just plant them in the ground?

Q: We live in Kittery. I am transforming approximately 1/2 acre of the yard back to supporting wildlife birds, bees, butterflies, etc. We have stopped mowing. We have ordered a large variety of wildflower seeds to spread. Can you provide either tree planting suggestions or conversion suggestions or any suggestions to help make it wildly beautiful as well as successfully.

A: Thank you for your commitment to supporting wildlife. It’s great to see so many landscapes shift in this direction. Here are some great resources that will be sure to inspire and help you develop a plan.

seckel pear treeQ: I’m wondering if I should prune one of the double leaders off my seckel pear tree. It’s about ten years old, and just fruited for the first time last year. It’s currently in bloom.

A: Yes, I suggest pruning out one of the two leaders, but not until next March. Keep the leader that will offer the most balanced branching structure in relation to the remainder of the canopy. In other words, leave the leader that offers branches that are not growing in the same direction as the branches in the other areas of the canopy.

Q: I have a two-pronged question. I have noticed what I think are fungal gnats around a potted poppy plant that I recently bought, and I am concerned that they may lay eggs in the other potted plants that I have. I have a number of containers (herbs and flowers) that I’ve been bringing in at night until it gets a bit warmer, along with a few trays of seedlings indoors. I brought the poppy in for a few nights at first but started leaving it outside as soon as I spotted the gnats. My first question is how do I manage the gnats and their eggs/larvae? I’ve read a number of things online, such as letting the top 1-2″ of soil dry out between waterings, watering with a hydrogen peroxide/water solution to kill the larvae on contact (which seems like it may damage certain plants), and using beneficial bacteria. I want to make sure I do what is healthiest and safest for my plants (preferably an organic solution). Next, do I need to worry about and treat all of my indoor plants and seedlings as a preventative measure?

A: I recommend the following strategy for dealing with fungus gnats:

1. Isolate the potted poppy plant.  You shouldn’t have to bring it indoors anymore, as it is a perennial plant that can withstand cold night time temperatures. (I assume it is an oriental poppy and not the annual California poppy).
2. Let the growing medium thoroughly dry out before you water it again.  When you water, do so thoroughly and deeply, but allow it to dry out in between waterings. Any fungus gnat larvae in the soil will hopefully perish.
3. I’m making the assumption that you will soon be planting this in your garden. I would normally suggest that you wash the potting soil off the plant roots before putting it in the ground (to eliminate any fungus gnat eggs or larvae), BUT perennial poppies do NOT like their roots disturbed. You may be able to gently shake some of the potting soil away before you put it in the ground, but don’t over handle the roots. Often when you transfer a potted perennial to the garden soil, the fungus gnat problem disappears, if your garden soil is well drained. Fungus gnats love wet soils that are high in organic matter.
4. Unless you see evidence that your other potted plants and seedlings are infested with fungus gnats, you shouldn’t have to treat them, if you’ve isolated them from the poppy. If they are infested, consider repotting them in sterile potting mix, or getting them into your garden as soon as weather permits.

Ohio State University Extension and the University of Maryland Extension have good bulletins on fungus gnats here:

Tomato seedlingsQ: This is the second year I have tried to start my tomato plants from seeds. They are all heirloom varieties. All but two seeds germinated. I have them under a grow light for 16 hours a day. About three weeks ago the first leave set turned yellow and the leaves are slowly falling off. Some have a real set of leaves but they seem to be growing very slowly, if at all. I fertilized them about a week ago with a very diluted solution of fish emulsion. Any thoughts on why they look so pathetic?

A: I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with your tomato seedlings. Here’s a quick list of some potential factors. You can read more about best practices related to each of these factors in our bulletin, Starting Seeds at Home.

  • Substrate – Seeds should be started in a well-drained substrate. Garden soil is not a good option when starting seeds indoors.
  • Container – The container should have drain holes.
  • Seed – Tomato seeds can remain viable for a long period of time, but germination rates will drop significantly after 4 years.
  • Temperature – Cold temperatures or inconsistent temperatures can inhibit germination.
  • Moisture – This is the factor that goes wrong for so many growers. Substrate should be kept moist for germination, but not too wet. Once seedlings germinate, the substrate should be allowed to dry between waterings. Over watering can lead to yellowing leaves, stunted growth and seedling mortality.
  • Light – Since tomatoes are sown to a depth of 1/4″ below the substrate, they do not require light for germination. However, insufficient light can significantly reduce seedling success after germination.

If none of these options seem to jump out as potential reasons for your situation, please let me know and I can continue to brainstorm what might be causing the problem.

Q: I have moss in my gardens! I scraped (by desperate hand) all of it out last fall but it’s back with a vengeance. How can I get rid of it? Do I have to treat the lawn that abutts the garden?

A: Moss is not something that invades a lawn, rather it takes advantage of less than ideal conditions for turf growth including: Soil acidity, soil compaction, too much shade, and presence of ledge and/or poor draining. Killing it will not improve the conditions for turf growth unless you also address those conditions.

See this Moss in the Lawn fact sheet from Penn State.I recommend that you do one of our university soil tests which you can have mailed to you through this form. The soil test will help you correct conditions such as nutrient deficiencies and pH imbalances that can contribute to moss.

Other solutions if the soil is compacted or too thin include aerating the soil and building it up 2-3 inches with a loam compost blend and then reseeding turf. The last solution is to learn to tolerate the moss as it is nature’s sign of what it wants to do under the environmental conditions present. It’s green and it is quite pretty in the eyes of some, and this would be the easiest and less disruptive solution.

Q: I own a Mountain Hydrangea. I’ve had it for three years. It hasn’t done well. I’ve given it time release fertilizer for flowing bushes. It’s sprouting now but the leaves have brown crinkly edges. Can you help?

A: Thank you for the photo and for filling out the submission form for our Plant Disease Expert Dr. Alicyn Smart.
As it ends up what is happening to you hydrangea is actually weather related.  It has been touched by cold damage which considering our crazy spring weather I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. This is something similar addressed by the University of Delaware recently and so I am sharing their answer with you.The good news is that the plant should produce some new leaves shortly and they should be fine. I believe we are past the worst of the really cold weather in Southern Maine where you are located.

Q: When can I safely plant seedlings and green bean seeds, in Saco this year?

Seedlings photo by Donna Coffin
Photo by Donna Coffin.

A: Warm weather seedlings (i.e. tomatoes, eggplant) can be planted outside when there is no chance of frost, which would typically be the end of May or beginning of June in your location. I usually keep an eye on the night temperatures, if the temperature is consistently at or above 50 degrees at night, then it is safe to place your warm weather seedlings outside. Cold tolerant seedlings (i.e. kale, cabbage) can be planted outside right around this time of the year and sometimes earlier.

Please keep in mind that you’ll want to acclimate your seedlings to the outdoor conditions through a “hardening off” period. It’s always a good idea to start your hardening off period in a more protected area outside (i.e. shady location), then over the course of a week, you can expose your seedlings to more sunlight and wind, while also reducing the amount of water you’re providing. For more information, check out this Hardening Transplants article by Penn State Extension.

As for your green beans, you’ll want to wait to plant them until the weather warms up – they also can be planted in late May or the beginning of June. If you have the space in your garden, you can continue to sow green beans throughout summer using a succession planting technique which will provide fresh green beans over a longer period of time.

Q: I am in Kennebunkport and would like to transplant two hydrangeas. They have begun to show buds in the ground at the base of the plant but none yet on the branches. Can I transplant them now?

A: You absolutely can plant the two hydrangeas now. Keep them well watered in the establishment year, making sure they get about an inch of water per week if it does not rain that much or more. You also could fertilize them with a transplant solution after planting. Transplant fertilizers come in many brands and formulations but all are relatively low in Nitrogen but higher in Phosphorus which helps them get off to a good start.

Q: I have some apple trees, they are about 10 feet tall, 3-5 inch diameter. I was planning to transplant until you all gave me the lovely advice to leave them in place. I wanted to move them because they are in really poor soil. Lots of clay and about eight inches to bedrock. As a result, the trees have sent roots out along the surface as far a 20 feet away. They are surviving and fruiting. My question is, given the soil conditions, is there anything I can do to improve things and support these trees?

A: If the trees are doing well and fruiting, there isn’t much you really need to do other than reduce weed competition and ensure adequate moisture throughout the growing season. Mulching will help you meet both of those goals.

If you currently have grass growing right up to the trunk, cover the area below the drip line with a thick layer of newspaper and top the newspaper with 2-3″ of an organic mulch, such as wood chips or bark. The paper will act as a physical barrier to help prevent the grass and other weeds from simply growing through the mulch. I like using a 50/50 mix of bark mulch and finished compost to mulch woody plants and ornamentals. The combination still has a dark appearance, but is more likely to break down and improve soil structure over the long run. Keep the mulch away from the trunk of the tree and avoid over mulching. If you’d like to have fresh mulch every year, be sure to keep the mulch depth to 2-3″ by taking off some of the old mulch before applying the new material.

In very dry years, you may also need to provide supplemental water – especially when you know the root system is shallow. Deep watering once a week will help reduce plant stress during dry spells.

Q: We are looking to enhance the woods behind our house. Suggestions for plantings for Wells, ME area. Will daffodils, rhododendrons, azaleas, forsythias, and dogwood grow?

A: There are many plants you can grow in your area. The plants you select for your site will depend on your soil and light conditions as well as the amount of space available. I’m going to assume your site is either part shade or shade and that your soil is (at least) slightly acidic as many Maine soils are.

You should be able to grow daffodils if your site has partial shade. Rhododendrons and Azaleas are shade tolerant and prefer acidic soils, both will grow well in Southern Maine. Forsythia prefers full sun, so it might not be suitable for your site. I’d recommend a native dogwood which will be more suitable to your Hardiness Zone, such as the Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) or Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), depending on how moist the soil conditions are. Always be sure to select plants that will grow well in your Hardiness Zone when visiting your local nursery.

If you provide more details about the site you’ll be planting, I’d be happy to provide specific recommendations. Otherwise, we have some wonderful resources in our Plants for the Maine Landscape Chapter of our Master Gardener Volunteers Manual to help guide you through the selection process.

BurdockQ: This weed has appeared in abundance on the northern edge of my lawn. I’m hoping it’s not burdock. Can you tell me what it is, and how noxious it might be?

A: The consensus among my colleagues is that we are ALMOST positive that it is burdock. It’s a little hard to confirm in its young stage. If it is burdock, the leaves will develop wavy edges as it ages. Burdock is a biennial that forms a basal rosette of foliage in its first year, then flowers and fruits (the burrs) in its second year.  It is much easier to remove in its first year of growth. By the second year, it develops a sizable taproot that is very hard to excavate.  Here is a website that gives you more details about burdock, Native Plant Trust Bo Botany.

Q: I live in Windham. Last summer we planted a flowering plum tree. We watered it all summer. This spring, it appears to be coming along fine, new leaves/ buds over most of the tree. However, there are small shoots growing out of the trunk of the tree (water sprouts?) What should I do to them?

A: The shoots coming out of the trunk are probably from the plant’s rootstock below the graft union. This is not uncommon and the best solution is to keep them pruned out. You may have to prune them out each spring and possibly do some occasional summer pruning if you see some that come back after pruning and grow aggressively. Prune them as close to the main trunk as possible being careful not to injure the trunk.

Q: I have a small vegetable garden in my back yard, located in Penobscot County. Last year, a woodchuck ate all of my radish, lettuce, and cabbage plants. I purchased some granules containing fox urine on line last year to deter the woodchuck from my garden. It did not work!! I have already seen the woodchuck in my back yard this spring. Do you know of any ingredient I can use in and around my garden that might discourage the woodchuck from visiting again this summer?

A: I too have a resident woodchuck near my garden, and successfully excluded him/her for years with fencing, which is my top recommendation. Fencing has the added benefit of keeping rabbits and deer from nibbling on your plants as well. For woodchucks, your fence will need to be at least 3′ tall. Having a family dog also helps! There are repellents on the market that you can try if fencing and dogs are not an option, though you’ve seen first hand that repellents don’t always work.  Go to the following link for a University of Vermont bulletin on Woodchucks in the Garden. It explains fencing in a little more detail, and also speaks of other options.

Q: I recently planted some butternut squash seeds that I got from a squash I bought. The seeds all germinated and the plants look strong and healthy. Will they produce squash?

A: It is highly likely that the squash you got at the grocery store was a hybrid variety. This means that it will not grow true to type. In other words what you will get is some combination of the crosses that were used to develop the hybrid, but will be unlikely to have the beneficial traits of taste, disease resistance etc. It is also likely it may not be a good variety for our climate. That said, they do make interesting experiments and you never know what you will get. It could end up as an ornamental gourd.

Q: During quarantine, I have been putting the end of any vegetables including cabbage, romaine etc… in water and I have been very surprised that leaves actually grow. When the weather is warmer, can I put the ‘sprouts’ in the soil? Would they grow?

A: It is likely that the crowns (where the stem meets the remains of the root system) of the cabbage and romaine plants left over from your home were still intact when you put it into your compost pile, or your garden might have overwintered and rooted and are sending out new leaves. You can let them grow but it will not likely produce anything viable.

First, cabbage is a biennial, meaning it would now think it is on year two and be programmed to flower and set seeds thereby rendering the flavor and quality of the head poor. It is also likely, assuming this came from a grocery store, that the variety will not be suitable for our northern climate. With romaine it is possible that some of the early leaves will be of good quality for eating, but it is also likely that this plant would begin to bolt (shoot up and produce flowers) fairly soon and when it does the flavor would not be the same quality. That said it would be a fun science experiment.

Q: Last September, I sent in a soil sample from my raised beds, because half way through the season all things just seemed to slow down and then stop. The sample analysis came back showing I needed more nitrogen, as the main thing, and also to a lesser extent more potassium. Applying 6-0-6 or 20-0-20 fertilizer was recommended. Now I’m looking for this to start off this growing season. Well, not so easy to find! I did find 6-0-6. However, it comes in 50lb bags (which I would go ahead and buy) but I was told my order is too small, and they won’t deal with me. Where can I get some of this fertilizer that you recommended? My three raised beds total 48 square feet and your recommendation, 40 lbs/1000 sq. ft. amounts to only 2 lbs total for my beds. Also, I have a high pH and you recommended adding elemental sulfur to lower it a bit.  I’m wondering where can I get 1.5 lb elemental sulfur?

A: You ask a great question that many gardeners ponder when searching for soil amendments after a soil test. It’s very common to not find the precise ratio of fertilizer that’s recommended on a report. The key is to find a product that has a similar ratio and adjust the amount based on the concentration of the nutrients OR purchase separate fertilizers and create a blend yourself. Here’s what to do:

1) Call around to your local suppliers* to find out whether they have granular fertilizers in the ratio you’re looking for (6-0-6) or something similar (12-0-12, 3-0-3, etc.). Increase or decrease the rate of application based on the relative concentration of the nutrients. In other words, if the report recommended 10lbs of 6-0-6, use 5lbs of 12-0-12 or 20lbs of 3-0-3.

2) If they don’t have a similar ratio, ask if they carry products with just N or just K in the three digit code and create the blend yourself. Here’s an excellent list of organic and natural nutrient resources (PDF) that contains the percentage of nutrients in each type. Two options that might be relatively easy to find would be blood meal (13-0-0) and langbeinite (0-0-22).

3) If you still can’t find what you need, there are a lot of vendors online selling small quantities of fertilizer.

Once you’ve researched what’s available, I’m happy to double check your purchasing plans and work out the math for your specific site. You can also find a lot of great fertilizer math tips in this bulletin, Know Your Soil: Applying Fertilizers on Your Home Garden.

*The two agriculture supply stores in Hancock County are Ellsworth Feed and Seed, and Salsbury Hardware and Organic Garden Center. You might have luck finding fertilizers at other hardware stores and garden centers. I do not know if they carry those particular fertilizers, or if they sell elemental sulfur in small quantities. Again, calling ahead will save you a lot of time in the long run.

White mold on plantQ: I’ve started several trays of seedlings indoors, under lights. Three are in plastic ganged trays, one is in some sort of biodegradable material. This biodegradable tray has edges of white, minusculely net-like mold, as show in photo. These are my pepper seedlings, which do not look damaged by the white fuzz. Is there anything I can do? Perhaps I should try to transplant these into different, individual pots? Leaves are still at the cotyledon stage, I think.

A: The bit of white mold you are seeing is normal fungal growth on decaying peat pots which probably resulted from a bit too much water and/or a lack of enough air circulation around the plants. This is quite common when using an organic peat pot type material and can also appear in plastic tray seedlings when over watered.

You do not need to do any treatment other than cutting back on the water a little bit and improving the air circulation. The mold won’t do any harm to your seedlings other than being an indicator of over watering and/or lack of air circulation. Once they dry out a bit the white fuzz (fungal growth) should disappear.

When starting new seedlings you might opt for the reusable plastic cell pack types which before reusing should be rinsed and then be sterilized with a one part bleach to nine parts water solution. Dip the trays and cell packs into the solution, allow to drain, air dry and reuse.

Q: The raspberries in my garden area were quite overgrown so we pruned them back extensively. I was going to save the prunings to place over my garlic that I plant in late fall to keep the critters out of our raised beds and compost the rest. But I read somewhere it’s best to “burn ‘em or bag ‘em” ie. dispose of the prunings in case of disease.

A: It’s wise to be careful about the type of garden debris you can keep in the garden and what to compost or remove. Without knowing whether your plants had insect or disease pressures last year, it’s tough to say for sure whether you should avoid having the raspberry prunings around your garden. Did you notice any signs of insects or disease last year? If so, do you have any photos? If you’re unsure, I’d avoid using them in your garden this season and send us photos or samples of any questionable plant tissue in the future.

Using brambles to protect garlic from wildlife damage might do the trick in certain situations, but is not necessarily the most reliable defense. Do you know what bird or mammal may have damaged your garlic? Does the damage happen in the winter to clove, or to the tops in the spring? Knowing these factors can help us determine the best approach to protecting your plants. I recently had several garlic plants pulled up and chewed off in my home garlic plot. I wish I had placed hoops and some type of physical barrier (wire mesh or row cover) over them. Lessons are learned every year in the garden!

Q: Is it time to prune my peach tree? There are buds happening, not sure if they are leaf, branch, or fruit buds at this point. It got a great pruning last year, but we have a lot of those shoots pointing to the sky and we need to thin them out! I live in Wells, but inland.

peach shootA: If your peach tree has not leafed out yet, then certainly you should prune it now, right away.  Looking at the buds on one year old growth, typically you’ll see clusters of 3 buds – two on the outer edges of the cluster are plump flower buds, and the narrow one in the center is a vegetative bud.  Pruning in late winter/early spring is important because it reduces the amount of fruiting wood so the tree doesn’t overbear, and it stimulates new shoot growth which will develop flower buds that will provide next year’s crop.  Peach trees are usually trained to an “open vase” shape, encouraging the development of lateral scaffold branches that are easy to reach, and allowing sunlight to penetrate into the center of the tree for good fruit development.  Here is a brief instructional video from Utah State University on How to Prune Peach Trees.

For lots more helpful information on growing peaches and other fruit trees, please check out UMaine Cooperative Extension’s website Growing Fruit Trees in Maine.

Q: We have bought some cherry trees and apple trees recently to plant in our yard. We’ve recently built this house and did a lot of ground work. The soil is not the best. There is a lot of hard clay in the soil. My question is, when we plant the trees, do we dig a large hole and amend the soil the tree will be planted in with manure, miracle grow soil and peat moss, or should we not amend the soil? On the arbor-day website, they say not to fertilize the soil. What is the best practice to have successful tree planting?

A: Thanks for your question.  I have a multifaceted answer!

  • Before planting your fruit trees, I recommend you have a soil test done.  Since your trees are going to live in their new location for decades, it is important to amend the soil properly prior to planting.  For example, fruit trees do best with a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0.  If your soil has a pH below 5.5 (which many Maine soils do), you will need to amend it with lime, or your trees will grow poorly.  You can have a soil test done through the University of Maine Soil Testing Lab.
  • Fruit trees should be planted in well-drained soil.  A heavy clay soil can be waterlogged for long periods of time. A frequently saturated soil leads to root rot, which can kill your trees.
  • It is best to amend the entire area where your fruit trees will be grown, according to your soil test, instead of trying to create a planting hole filled with rich soil, peat and manure.  Over time, your trees need to extend their roots out into the native soil.  They will have difficulty doing so if the soil in the planting hole is significantly different from the surrounding native soil.

More detailed information on planting fruit trees can be found here: Planting and Early Care of Fruit Trees in Maine.

Q: Last year I tried no till gardening in a overgrown back corner of my property, laying down cardboard and newspapers and covering it with some scratch up dirt plus leftover compost to a depth of about 3″. In this I planted some leftover seeds, potatoes covered them with hay and leaf mulch, from this I harvested some of the best potatoes ever, plus now have soil 4 to 6 inches deep. Is this new soil or compost? What can be grown in this, should I add anything to it? Is there any information as to the makeup of this “soil” ?

A: Congratulations on your success with no-till gardening and your potato crop! It sounds like you prepared your garden using what we call a “sheet mulching” method. Sheet mulching is a no-till technique that helps build organic matter in your garden by layering a variety of different nitrogen and carbon sources that will compost in place over time. You’ve created both new soil and compost by using this technique. You should be able to grow many different vegetables in this soil as long as this location receives enough sunlight. If you were to use this technique again in a new location, we typically recommend planting seedlings in the area that you sheet mulched the year before because those sheeting mulching materials are usually still breaking down.

I’d recommend having your new soil tested, if you want to find out the exact nutrient and pH level of your soil. The soil testing results will also give you specific recommendations for amending your soil based on the crop you plan on growing. You can submit a sample via mail to our UMaine Soil Testing Lab in Orono. Some soil testing kits are available for pick-up outside your local Extension office or you can request a soil test kit to be mailed to you by completing this online form.

Q: I just bought Robinson Crab apple trees in five gallon pots to plant in my yard. The recommended planting time is late winter early spring. The trees are still in the pots and have no buds yet. If I plant now will it disrupt the spring bloom? Is it safe to leave them in the pots until after they bloom and plant later?

A: The sooner you get your containerized trees in the ground, the better it will be for them in the long run. Since they are small, I would not expect a fabulous flower display this year. It is more important that these trees establish themselves in their new home by developing a healthy root system and anchoring themselves into the native soil. You can amend the back fill of the planting hole with up to 25% compost by volume. Do not add fertilizer to the planting hole, and do not fertilize your trees during the growing season. Once planted, put down 2″ – 3″ of mulch over the entire root system, starting 6″ away from the trunk. Do not pile mulch up against the trunk, as this causes bark decay. During this first growing season your newly planted trees should receive 1″-2″ of water a week over the entire rooting area. Trees eventually send their roots out two to three times wider than the drip line of the canopy. Providing them with TLC in their establishment year will get your trees off to a healthy start. As long as they are planted in full sun and a moderately fertile, well-drained soil, you should have years and years of stunning spring blooms.

Q: We have extensive grub damage, about two acres.. The property is a condominium in South Portland. The City is chemical free. Any thoughts on what we might treat with.

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.

A: You’ll want to take a multi pronged approach to addressing this situation (click on links for more details).

  • Have your soil tested now and follow the recommendations on the report as soon as possible. A soil test will help you determine important information on managing pH and fertility. A healthy lawn with a robust root system is more resilient when it’s under the stress of grub pressure. Request a soil test kit here.
  • Consider a new perspective on lawn “weeds”. Groundcovers such as clover, ground ivy and dandelions are not typically susceptible to grub feeding. Additionally, most broadleaf weeds stay green when many grasses go dormant in the late summer and many offer pollen and nectar resources for beneficial insects.
  • Introduce beneficial nematodes (PDF) to the area in late August. These worm-like grub parasites will feed on the next generation of white grubs and persist in the area as long as the environmental conditions are suitable. They are a much more reliable biological control option than milky spore in our climate. Timing and proper handling of beneficial nematodes is key to success.
  • Following the steps outlined in our bulletin on growing a healthy, low-input lawn will also help you develop a more resilient and sustainable lawn.

For more information about white grub biology and management.

Q: It’s been 7 years since my husband and I put in our raised beds. I am now finding what I believe to be tree roots in a few of the beds. Spanning the entire bed and going 6”-12” deep. There is a 20’+ tall Norway Maple tree about 20’-25’’ away in the adjacent neighbor’s yard. Could these roots be coming from this tree? I don’t till so I’m wondering your recommendations on removing these roots or should I leave them as-is?

A: This is a common problem with gardens being close to the woods, and one I am familiar with from first hand experience. Even though my garden beds get full sun they are constantly invaded by plant roots coming in 20 feet or so from the woods and finding the nice rich soil and nutrients in my garden bed. I have tried to turn them over and break them up only to find they just come back.

My solution has been to continually add organic matter in the form of 2-3 inches of leaves in the fall and a 1/2 inch of compost in the spring which has slowly raised the height of the beds overtime. This way I am co-existing with the trees rather than fighting them all the time. This approach seems to be enough for me to still have a healthy garden and be able to work the soil and get all my plants in.

That said, I have abandoned a bed that was closest to the woods (12-15 feet) and expanded my garden away from the woods where I still have some good southern exposure.

Q: I am in the process of digging a new garden bed in the backyard. I have brought up a lot of rocks and am planning a sort of rock garden around existing boulders. Here’s the problem, the area was a midden. I have dug up a rusted muffler and tailpipe, numerous iron spikes, nails and glass. Once removed, is it okay to plant there?

raised bed garden plotsA: I would think it would be OK to plant there if you do a soil test first and make sure there is no lead in the soil. A home garden soil test would test for that. This is especially important if you are growing to grow vegetables, fruits or herbs for consumption. To get yourself a university soil test box and form, you can then fill out the form to have one mailed to you.

Once you get the results feel free to share them with me and consult on the recommendations if you have any questions. Or if you have any questions on taking the soil samples after reading the instructions also please let me know and I will help you out

Q: I am moving into a new home as a caretaker with 11 raised beds on Diamond Island in Casco Bay. The beds are overgrown and I don’t believe were prepared correctly for the winter months. I have never had a garden before, I am working for a family that would like it planted. I don’t know what has previously been planted there. I would like to start from scratch. What would be the first few steps in preparing the gardens? I am planning on half vegetables and half flowers.

I have been reading a bit, but thought it would be a good idea to connect with someone. I would love to chat with someone that could give me a basic step by step.

A: Congratulations on what sounds like a fun a challenging summer you have ahead of you! You can find a treasure trove of information on all aspects of gardening on our Yard and Garden page. Your first step is to get the soil tested in these beds to see if they need any amendments prior to planting. You can request soil test kits from the Analytical lab in Orono. Each test is $18 and will give you recommendations on what each location needs. Once your samples have been processed, your local Extension office in Cumberland County will also receive the results and recommendations. This might be a good time to reach out to them directly to discuss specific questions. I also recommend taking advantage of some remote educational offerings we have going on this spring, including our Garden Chats and subscribing to the Maine Home Garden News. While you are waiting for your soil test results, you can clean out the beds, removing any dead plants and weeds that may be getting started.

I will also suggest our upcoming Victory Garden for ME video series, designed specifically for first time vegetable gardens. The first video should be available next week and will be posted on the Yard and Garden page.

Q: I will be getting seeds soon and will only plant a few of them, they are pepper plants. I would like to plant the leftover seeds next year. How should I store the seeds for that long?

A: Seeds are always going to be best the year following their harvest, but you may be able to get more than one season from a packet of seeds if they are high quality and are stored well. According to UMaine Extension Bulletin #2750, An Introduction to Seed Saving for the Home Gardener, you should store seeds in a cool, dry location with constant temperature and humidity. The longevity of seed in storage is dependent on storage conditions, the initial quality of the seed, and the seed species. In general, large seeds can be stored longer for longer periods of time than small seeds. I do recommend a germination test (instructions are in the above Bulletin) next spring so you know if they are still viable before you start them.

Q: I have a bag of several year old seed potatoes and was wondering if they will still grow?

A: Seed potatoes generally only last a few months between harvest and planting. It is not likely you would get any decent plants from seed that is several years old. For more information and best practices for saving potatoes for seed, I recommend UMaine Extension Bulletin #2412, Potato Facts: Selecting, Cutting and Handling Potato Seed.

Q: About two years ago, in a effort to make homemade fertilizer, I filled a blue five gallon bucket with rinsed seaweed from a local beach and covered it with water. It’s been tightly covered outside in a shady corner. I used it a couple times the first summer, then forgot about it. Is it still safe to use?

A: There’s no telling what might be growing in that bucket two years later. I recommend against using it on your garden. Fresh seaweed makes an excellent mulch or addition to your compost pile. Perhaps collecting a fresh batch is your best bet.

lindenQ: I have a Linden tree in my front yard (Yarmouth, ME) which came down with an aphid infestation last year. It took me a while to figure out what was causing the sticky dots all over everything; cars, front porch, siding, roof, everything. In doing some research some have recommended ladybugs as a solution to the infestation. Now my questions; do you recommend ladybugs as a solution. The tree is about 45 years old and 40 feet tall. If you recommend ladybugs, where would your recommend purchasing them and are there different types of ladybugs. Then what time of year would you purchase and release? Then what time of day is best to release.

A: This is a beautiful, mature Linden tree, so I can see why you’d want to find a solution to the aphid infestation. There are just a few predators and parasitoids that are legal to release in Maine and no lady beetle species are among them. Neither are another commonly recommended species, the aphid midge. The one option you do have is Aphidius colemani, a parasitic wasp, though it will likely be cost-prohibitive to continually release enough of these wasps to maintain a population high enough to keep the aphids in check. If the honeydew from these aphids is a big problem, the best long-term solution would be to replace the tree with another species.

red elderberryQ: What might this be? Photo taken in late April. Growing in a spruce tree line.

A: This appears to be red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), a native shrub.

Q: What hostas are sun tolerant? These would be planted in Jefferson, ME.

A: While the vast majority of hostas prefer full shade or morning sun, there are a few varieties that are sun-tolerant. This article from UVM Extension, Ten Top Hostas, lists ‘Fragrant Bouquet”, ‘Patriot’, and ‘Regal Splendor’ as sun-tolerant.

Q: I have had seeds stored in my garage all winter. The temperature gets to be about 0 degrees. Do you know if the seeds are still useable?

A: The ideal conditions for storing seeds is cool and dry. While your garage may have been too cool (and variable), some seeds may still be viable. I recommend a germination test before planting out in your garden. To read more about best practices for seed saving, check out Bulletin #2750, An Introduction to Seed Saving For The Home Gardener.

Q: I live in Washington County. I need a list of native plant nurseries. There is no list I can find that tells me who’s selling native plants, shrubs and trees. Do you have a list?

A: UMaine Extension Bulletin #2502, Native Plants: A Maine Source List includes a number of nurseries selling native plants in Maine, including several in nearby Hancock County.

Q: I have a question about False Indigo (Baptisia). Last year I asked you all about how to cut it back because it grew really tall and then started to bend over and cover other plants. I followed your instructions to cut back by 1/3, but now I am worried I may have cut back too much. Currently the dried hollow sticks of last year’s growth are still in the ground, but I can’t see any new shoots sprouting up yet. Is it still too early? Might they come up later in the spring? I really hope so. If I wanted to plant a new Baptisia plant in the same spot, when would be the best time to do so?

A: Give your Baptisia a bit more time to put up new shoots for this year. It’s too early to say whether it is damaged. This plant has a deep taproot, so unless the root system was also disturbed, I am guessing it will come back just fine. If it does not come back, you can replace it with a new plant. New plants that have been hardened off by the nursery (generally, if it is outside now) can be planted any time. A plant that has not been hardened off will need to be introduced to the outside gradually over a week or so, particularly if it is actively growing. Be sure to cover it if a frost is expected.

Q: I am fairly certain that tomato plants in last year’s garden had early blight. I am concerned about planting tomatoes in the same garden area again this year. The soil was not turned over in the fall and we just removed old stems and roots this spring (not the best choice, I know). From what I’ve read, it may take two to three years to rid the soil of the pathogen. The garden area is not extremely large, it’s about 150 sq. feet, and we’re planning on extending it another 100 sq feet. What is the best way to mitigate the [probable] blight spores in the soil from last year? Is it safe to plant tomatoes anywhere in this space again this year?

clematis and trellisA: Early blight is a very common disease and can be a frustrating one to deal with. Your best bet is to rotate away from that area for your tomatoes for the next few years and choose resistant varieties to plant this year. For more information on the life cycle of this fungus and some treatment options of infected plants, check out Pest Management Fact Sheet #5087, Early Blight Of Tomato.

Q: We have purple clematis that grow on a trellis in our yard. I usually leave it alone even when it’s brown and ugly and don’t cut or prune. This year, I couldn’t help myself and I started cutting away the brown, dry vines. I did this in early April. As I was cutting, I realized that some of the stalks appeared brown, but were actually green inside and had buds on them. I accidentally cut away most of those, too. I cut everything down to about 6 inches from the stems in the ground. Did I kill them? Will they come back later in the spring/summer? These typically bloom in June with big purple flowers and remain green and lush throughout July and August.

A: By the description of when you see blooms and their size, I am guessing you have a clematis in the Jackmanii family.  These generally bloom on last year’s growth so unless you have some buds showing you will get very little or no blooms this year.

What you describe is a “hard prune” and generally not the ideal for this family of clematis. Here is some guidance from the University of Maryland, A Quick Guide to Pruning Clematis (PDF).  In short, the answer is “it depends”. Having stood in your shoes a time or two myself, I can say there is a good chance as long as you have stems or at least one set of buds, you have not killed it. This group of clematis like to have at least 24″ of growth left after the spring pruning. It has been given a bad haircut though and it will take a while for it to recover so you might see full but weak growth from these older shoots. New shoots are next year’s blooms, so make sure they are fed and supported through well this season. Do not fertilize after July 1, so the new growth can harden off. Next year don’t cut below the 2′ mark.

Q: I need to transplant a Snowmound Spirea, Smoke Bush, Butterfly Bush and a Weigela. Is it okay to do that now? Also, any tips on how to get my Montauk daisies to grow straight as opposed to flopping over?

A: Early spring is generally a good time to transplant your perennials. If your soil is thawed and your plants haven’t started actively growing, you can do it now. As for your Montauk daisies, because they are large-blossomed flowers, some “flopping” is inevitable. Be sure yours are located in full sun, aren’t over-fed (as too much nitrogen can lead to weak stem growth), and when you prune- only cut back stems that are not upright. Take out stems that are drooping.

Q: We love to garden (vegetable and oranamental) and in the process of checking out properties in the Brunswick area very close to the water and before buying, trying to find out what the soil would be like for gardening? If it would limit what we could plant; would need raised beds, or major amending, etc…? We’ve been looking on-line without much luck other than finding out what the soil is classified as from the UCDavis and NRCS Soil Classification maps. We’re seeing that the soil in the area we are looking at is BuB primarily Lamoine Series soil that is a silt loam with poorer drainage and possible a shallow water table. We were hoping someone there could help us understand this growing area/soil or help point us in the right direction.

A: You’re definitely on the right track by using the NRCS Soil Web Survey tool on properties you are considering. According to our Bulletin #2242, Plant Hardiness Zone Map of Maine, Brunswick is Zone 5b. Brunswick has numerous microclimates as some areas are directly coastal and others are more inland. There’s not much I can say that would hold true throughout the municipality, or even from one property to the next- there is significant variability. The only other recommendation I would make is to consider soil tests on any individual properties you are seriously interested in.

Q: During a recent wind storm a large branch was broken off our peach tree. It left a large open scar. Do we need to treat that opening in any way?

A: Nothing should be applied to the scar when a branch is removed. Depending on the size of the broken branch, the tree will heal itself in most cases. The only thing you might do, depending on how the break looks, is make an angled cut outside of the bark ridge and branch collar with a pruning saw to create an angle that sheds water. For additional information and images showing how to make proper pruning cuts, check out Bulletin #2169, Pruning Woody Landscape Plants.

Q: My baby spinach plants are disappearing overnight. They are on the ground in my small green house and there are holes in the ground. I have garden snakes that sleep on the bed and they used the holes, but how do I keep out whatever is eating the plants? It is not cut worms, maybe mice? The plants just disappear.

A: If you have a game camera, you could find out which rodent is enjoying your spinach. This sounds like chipmunks to me, but it could also be mice or voles. You can try blocking the holes with spare trays or cinder blocks, but lining the entire floor with a fine screen mesh may be your best bet. Check out Preventing Rodent Damage in Greenhouses from UMass Extension for more information.

Q: Looking for information on “lasagna” gardening. I’ve been reading about no till methods and it sounds very interesting.

A: Lasagna gardening is a great way to create a garden bed, particularly if your native soils are poor or you want to build something on a non-porous surface. Oregon State University Extension Service has a great publication on Sheet mulching or lasagna gardening. Keep in mind, newly constructed beds take about 6 months for the composting to happen before you can plant into the beds, so anything you do this spring would be for fall garlic planting or next summer’s vegetables.

Q: I live in Aroostook County, we would like to transplant strawberries to our house in raised beds. What is the best time to do this?

A: Transplanted strawberries generally do not do very well, as they are only productive for three to four years once initially established. However, in the summer, following “renovation”, strawberry plants do put out daughter (or new) plants on runners that could be “pinned” in trays as they are creating their new root systems, grown out that way, and then planted in a new location. Check out the Renewing The Planting section of Bulletin #2067, Growing Strawberries for instructions on how to prepare the existing planting for this process. You can renovate immediately after this year’s harvest, allow the daughter plants to root for a few months, and then plant in a new location by September.

cucumber seedling with damaged leavesQ: For young cucumbers and other leafy plants, I usually dust them with Sevin to keep the bugs from eating the leaves. Is there anything else I could mix up that would do the same thing? I am looking for something safer or more organic.

A: I applaud your decision to discontinue use of this broad-spectrum insecticide. As you likely know, Sevin® is very toxic to beneficial insects, including bees and other pollinators. An alternative product to consider would be Surround®, which is a kaolin clay product that is applied as a spray to prevent feeding injury. It must be reapplied after it rains, but it is a far less toxic alternative to you and the environment. Be sure to read the label thoroughly and note that you will likely need a new, brass nozzle on your sprayer, as the clay can be tougher on nozzles than other materials. Daily scouting of your plants and hand-picking of any insects is an additional tool that can be very effective in a home garden.

Q: We live on 0.83 of an Acre and we are looking to plant fruit bearing trees and shrubs as well as a vegetable garden, one large flower bed. I need some direction on where to start. I had signed up for a class, but it was canceled due to Covid-19.

A: That sounds like a very ambitious plan for a suburban sized lot but it is doable if you have a plan and lots of patience.

The first thing to do is to find out what you are working with. Draw a “stick drawing” overhead view of your yard. You need to note rough dimensions and the directions (N, S, E & W)  because that will let you know where the sun is going to be coming from. Plants that bear fruit and most vegetables need six to eight hours of full sun each day. That should be sun during the middle part of the day. That is usually on the sides of the yard that are roughly southeast and south and southwest. If you have a wide-open yard that can be almost anywhere but with less than an acre of land the chances are you will have shady spots. On the drawing note large trees and shrubs that already exist. Note buildings, driveways, and any “hardscape” areas. You can grow in containers or possibly raised beds on existing hardscape. Also note if there is a ditch, pond, wet areas or windy places as they all will factor into your decisions on where to put what.

Most fruit trees need good spacing as well to keep disease at bay as well as for fruit-bearing.  There is a whole chapter in our Master Gardener Volunteer manual just on Tree Fruits. Because these will likely take 3-7 years to bear fruit, depending on what you plant, these should be planted first.  The same can be said about fruit-bearing plants like blueberries, raspberries, etc.  They usually do not bear in any quantity until year three.

In addition, there is a chapter on Landscape Design and Maintenance.  On your drawing put in “bubble” drawings of the vegetable and perennial gardens. These are just rough squiggles of where you want them to be. Then on a nice afternoon head out to those spots with a garden hose and use the hose to roughly layout the garden shape and size.  Leave it there for a few days and look for things like how long the sun is there each day (the sunlight now is the same as it will be in late August). Are there low spots, slopes or dips that may make gardening tricky? Now take the time to do a soil test. You need to know about the soil before you add amendments or plants. When you have your results and are happy with the placement then it is time to start building the gardens. There are many ways to do this but removing or covering any lawn or other plants is the first step. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is cover it all with a tarp to kill the lawn and then go back in a few weeks and take up or turn over the dead grass. Lasagna gardening is another option. You have a little time to think about what that garden will look like but getting rid of what is there now should be done soon. Start small, you can always make it bigger later.

Take the time with the planning so that you don’t set yourself up with a too-large garden, in the wrong space that becomes a weedy mess. Be realistic about what you have time to maintain and manage as the trees get larger and the garden grows. Rome was not built in a day and a garden is not usually built in one season. Best of luck and please contact your local county office if you have any questions as the season progresses.

Seed headsQ: I have some seed heads, I harvested maybe two years ago. I labeled them “Cone”. I assume for coneflower. However, they don’t look like any I find online. Can you identify them for me? The seed heads are 1/2″ long.

A: My first thought is gomphrena.

Japenese Sweet ColtsfootQ: I would like to identify this plant that is spreading on the ground (and under the ground) in our garden. When we arrived in May its broad, umbrella like leaves were out and at first I thought it might turn out to be a leafy squash of some kind. Eventually the leaves got huge, and the thing spread all over on both sides of the path, but I let it go to see whether it would eventually produce something like squash, it didn’t. It never bloomed like squash either. And now this spring (this is April 15), it is putting up these weird buds and flowers, from roots that have spread and gotten a head start before everything else. I am attaching two photos. You can just begin to see the leaves come out next to the bloom. What could this be? Looks and acts very invasive, so that is why I am asking.

A: This plant is Japanese butterbur or Japanese Sweet Coltsfoot (Petasites japonicus) which is native to Japan and has escaped cultivation in some areas. This plant was likely planted in your yard as an ornamental. The photos you included show the plant in bloom, but the real show, as you note, is the impressively large leaf growth as the season goes on.

Q: Last year squash bugs devastated my entire crop of summer and winter squash. What can I do to prevent similar this? I rotate crops.

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

A: As you have experienced, squash bugs can be devastating. According to Pest Management Fact Sheet #5039 Sucking Insects That Affect Vegetable Plants: hand-picking may be effective. Leaving boards or shingles out overnight between the rows of cucurbits is a way to “harvest” squash bugs. The bugs tend to use the boards and shingles for cover. They can easily be gathered and disposed of early in the morning. Eggs can be scraped off the foliage with your thumbnail. Insecticidal soap may be effective if applied thoroughly. For more information, check out Got Pests? from The Maine Department of Agriculture and the Maine IPM Council.

Q: My downhill slope vegetable garden soil stays more moist than normal. I can’t change the location. It was former pasture land with plenty of rocks, any advice?

A: What works for you may depend on the cause of your garden being wet (or wetter than usual). If your soil has become compacted, you could incorporate more organic matter (compost or cover crop). Organic matter helps by increasing aggregation which increases drainage and aeration, but this process takes time. Cover crops, like tillage radishes, can also help to break up compaction. It is important to avoid future compaction by avoiding working and walking on wet soils and avoid excess tillage.

You mention your garden is on a downhill slope, if it is wet due to altered waterflow or a high water table, you could create raised beds to get the plant roots out of the saturated soil zone (the higher the better). More information can be found in Bulletin #2761, Gardening in Small Spaces.

Overgrown dogwoodQ: What kind of spray should I use to kill over grown dogwood in my backyard?

A: For an area this large, I do not recommend herbicides. If you bush hog these and then pull out the remaining stumps, it should effectively kill these shrubs.

Q: I am concerned about three of my blueberry plants. Originally I started with nine, I have seven left. They are approximately seven years old, and bear fruit quite well. My concern with three, is they have unusual growth within the plant. It seems to be suckers growing in a very dense pattern. It only affects a small portion of the plant, but extremely dense growth.

A: What you are describing sounds like a disease called Witches’ Broom.

Unfortunately, an alternate host of Witches’ Broom (Pucciniastrum goeppertianum) is balsam fir, which is ubiquitous in Maine. The only management strategies are maintaining a distance of at least 1,000 feet from balsam fir trees and pruning out the infected canes of your blueberry bushes as soon as they begin to emerge. It is a systemic disease and there is no recommended pesticide to manage it. Some varieties seem more or less resistant, but there have been no conclusive studies about this issue specifically. You could try a few different varieties and see which do best in your area.

Here is a Fact Sheet from UMass Extension with a bit more information, Blueberry IPM-Witches’ Broom.

soil/glauconite depositQ: I live in Gray, Maine and am in the process of establishing garden beds in our yard. This is our second year in our home and last year established 5 raised beds. As I was digging into the soil for the sixth bed I noticed a “patch” of yellow and green and slightly sandy dirt (the green looks almost as if when you find a penny in the dirt and the dirt around it can be greenish). I’m not sure how big the area is but so far its about the size of a soccer ball. I did some basic research online and my best guess is glauconite. Any idea what it could possibly be and if it could be something I should worry about growing vegetables in? We have not done a soil test and am not sure if the soil testing services are even available due to Covid-19.

A: You may be right about your assessment. It’s impossible to confirm with photos alone, but if you have found a little glauconite deposit, there is no cause for concern. Glauconite is often sold as a soil amendment known as green sand as it contains many minerals important for plant growth. The Maine Soil Testing Service is operating now, so I would encourage you to submit some samples from your new beds. Additionally, there will be a (free) Garden Chat all about soils tomorrow (April 15th) at noon via Zoom, featuring Bruce Hoskins from the soil testing lab. He may be able to give you some further advice during the Q&A session.

Q: We have a big raspberry patch on the corner of our property, that is fine with us. However, it is now popping up little 8”-12” shoots about 50’ away in a place where we don’t want them. How do we go about removing them? Will digging them up shoot out twice as many? Also, we are hoping to not use glyphosate.

A: Raspberries are notorious for escaping their intended boundaries. You can simply cut those shoots at the base and they will be gone for this year. (Not to say you won’t see more in the future.) It will be helpful to properly prune the existing canes each winter/early spring as well, which will keep them in the area you want them. UMaine Extension Bulletin #2066, Growing Raspberries and Blackberries has everything you need to know about pruning and bramble care in general.

Q: I have a small backyard garden. This year I would like to experiment with growing cucumbers and/or zucchini in hydroponic solution, just one or two buckets. What are the ingredients I need for this solution and can these ingredients be obtained in small quantities? Do you have literature on hydroponic gardening in Maine?

A: There is not a big call for hydroponic growing in most Maine backyards, but there are some helpful resources available for folks who would like to give it a try. There are systems designed to operate outside, as well as indoors, and are definitely more complicated than a bucket, but there are a number of designs to consider for your space. Purdue University has put together a nice summary of Extension and other University publications that focus on home hydroponic growing. It includes a link to The High Tech Gardener’s Hydroponic System Basics: The Ultimate Guide for 2020, which links to some commercially available solutions and some recipes for mixing your own. One word of caution: while hydroponic growing has many upsides, it will be more expensive than traditional growing in soil.

Q: What is the best soil type, pH, and fertilizer for growing grapes in Sebago Lake are?

A: We have a publication Growing Grapes in Maine that should answer all those questions and more that you didn’t know you had. In addition there is a video about planting grapes and caring for young grapes that you may want to view. It can be found in the Small Fruits Chapter of the Master Gardener Volunteer Manual. Also in that chapter under Additional Resources is a link to a PDF of a bulletin Growing Grapes in Wisconsin (PDF).  You can view this very detailed bulletin online and the Wisconsin climate is very much like Southern Maine where you are located.

Q: When saving parsnip seeds (root to seed), at what temperature is the seed best stored? Will it be viable after freeze/thaw cycles? I forgot to bring the seed out of the garden shed till mid winter.

American cow-parsnip
American cow-parsnip

A: As hardy as parsnip is as a root, its seeds are among the wimps of the garden. They prefer to be stored just above freezing, but in a dry situation.  Dampness is their enemy (they can germinate as low as 46 degrees, then immediately rot.)

Parsnip is a biennial, so it sets its seed the second year of growth. That seed naturally would be frozen all winter and then sprout in the next season (year three), so leaving them out all winter is not ideal but a certain percentage would still survive.  Here is some information on parsnips from the University of Illinois on the holistic care of parsnips. The seeds you rescued mid-winter may still germinate, but it may try your patience waiting for that to happen. If the seeds have been kept cool and dry since the rescue you have a good chance.

If you are asking about the roots of first-year plants being replanted to force them to flower this year you are in luck if the root is still firm and intact. This Aggie bulletin talks about parsnips and their origin as being Mediterranean. What is significant about that is not so much the temperature (soil is a great insulator) but the wetness. Parsnips do not do well in soggy freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw situations. Ideally, the plants should be left where they are and then allowed to bolt the second year.

Q: How should I start using bales of straw for my vegetable garden?

A: Here is a great guide on Straw Bale Gardening from Clemson Cooperative Extension. Keep in mind that conditioning of the bales to prepare them for planting will take 2-3 weeks and there are multiple materials you will need to purchase from your garden center in addition to the straw to create an environment for plant growth. Setting the bales on a pallet (in full sun) will provide good drainage. This method is a great way to avoid most weeds and diseases, but it does require daily watering and regular fertilizer application.

Q: What is the best way to attract bats to the yard and bat houses, to control mosquitoes and other insects? We live on the Souadabscook Stream and have some low wet areas in the yard in the spring. We have a three acre lot surrounded by woods and a stream. There are lots of perennials in the yard as well.

A: Here are some tips from the Natural Resource Conservation Service:

  • “Houses should be placed at least 10 feet above the ground, 15 to 20 feet is better. Houses placed on poles or on buildings are preferable to those hung on trees.
  • Bat houses mounted on poles or sides of buildings provide the best protection against predators. Try to locate the house 20 to 25 feet from the nearest tree. Using three-quarter inch roosting spaces helps limit colonization by wasps.
  • Houses should be placed so they receive at least 6 hours of sun a day (more in northern climates), but are protected from bright lights at night.
  • Greatest success will be in areas where water is within a quarter of a mile and there is diverse habitat, including natural vegetation.
  • Bat houses will be most successfully colonized the first year if they are installed before migrating bats return in the spring.”

More information can be found on their page, Backyard Conservation-Beneficial Bats about backyard bats. Also see, Nest & Den Box Specifications and Designs (PDF), starting on page 14.

Q: I am wondering if there is any type of a planting timeline/guide for southern Maine? I know to follow the last frost date but I have trouble figuring out when to plant my cold weather crops like radishes, lettuce, peas etc.

A: There are several calculators available as well as charts. I am going to point you to the Propagation Chapter of the Maine Master Gardener Volunteer Manual. My personal favorite is the “Keep Your Garden Growing” bulletin because it addresses the whole season and succession planting.
All of the resources are hyperlinks so just click on the blue underlined text. It is the same in the Manual as well.

Q: About one cup of white vinegar spilled in my soil eight months ago. Do you think this soil is good to use again? This was in a pot I use for tomato plants.

A: If this pot is outdoors and snow and rain have been allowed to flush through the soil, it is probably fine. There are other concerns to consider when reusing potting media from one season to the next. The University of Illinois Extension’s publication, Using Soil and Soil Mixes advises that “if the plants in the containers were healthy during the growing season with no major disease issues, you could remove the plant material at the end of the season and reuse the media next season. You may have to add some additional new media to fill the container. There will come a time when the media in the container will need to be replaced. Over the course of time, the organic materials that the soilless media is made from break down and decompose to the point where you will lose the drainage and aeration properties that are inherent in soilless container media. When that happens, discard the media to the compost pile or to the garden and refill the container with fresh media.”

Q: I’m planning my vegetable garden for the year and trying to decide how much, and which type of compost to get. I’m looking at a mix of loam blended with surf n’ turf compost. I have a large yard and will be doing a mix of a couple raised beds and some open garden area in front of the deck (that currently have flowers in them) and a trellised row garden. The row garden area’s existing soil from last year’s garden had a lot of weeds from having used old weedy compost from the year before. The other areas have flowers in them. So, I’m wondering if I should just get the Super Soil which already has a good mix of soil and compost and use that, or if it makes more sense to just get straight compost and mix that into the existing soil. I’m hesitant about the latter because of the weeds and flowers from before, but it seems like I would need a lot less of it. Based on how they describe their “Super Soil”, I’m unclear if I would just fill the whole raised bed with that, or if it is still an amendment for existing soil but at a higher ration than straight compost would be. Any suggestions?

A: Ground level beds: Unless you plan to remove a significant layer of soil, adding more will not eliminate your weed problem (and this would not be economical). Your weed control strategy will depend partly on what type of weeds you have (annual vs. perennial). I would recommend trying to identify them. Reach out to your county Cooperative Extension office for help or use our online Plant Identification Submission Form. Once you have identified your weeds, some potential control strategies are:

1. Stale seed bed: Prepare your garden beds, allow weeds to germinate and then immediately kill them, repeat several times before planting (this exhausts the existing weed seed bank).

2. Mulch: use mulch to prevent weed germination.

3. Tarping: use black plastic tarps to create a stale seed bed. Weed seeds germinate but then die without light.

More information on weed control strategies (PDF).

In terms of amending the ground level beds, I would recommend first getting a soil test (kits can be ordered from the lab’s website, Analytical Lab and Maine Soil Testing Service). If you choose to add compost, you don’t need a lot! Aim for 6 cubic feet per 1,000 sq. ft. (the application rate should look like you’ve sprinkled pepper on mashed potatoes).

Raised beds: From Bulletin #2761,  Gardening in Small Spaces, “an ideal soil for raised beds would consist of equal volumes of garden soil, organic matter (compost, peat moss, composted manure), and porous material (vermiculite or perlite).” The most economical thing would be to mix a commercial product with your existing garden soil to fill the beds. Garden soil by itself is too heavy to fill a raised bed (unless it is very large).

Since I don’t see ingredients or percentages for the products you reference I can’t make a specific recommendation if they would be suitable. I would suggest contacting them for that information. Feel free to reach back out if you get that info and have more questions!

Q: I am the chair of a Community Garden. Now is the time when groups of volunteers prepare the entire garden so that we can be ready for the 55 individual renters and their families to use their plots at the end of April/beginning of May. Online, I’ve seen advice from other state extensions about covid safety for community gardens. I need to work with our committee to decide if we should entirely shut down for the year (everyone has already paid for their plots), or drastically modify our habits. In light of Gov. Mills’ proclamation, do you have specific advice for Maine community gardens?

A: Thanks for reaching out about this at such a critical time for both planning, planting, and safety. We are about to finalize our guiding language for projects like this, so I will hold off on answering in definitive terms for a few days. However, we are basically recommending that no one plan to garden communally for the time being. Gardening at home (when possible) is currently the safest thing to do, and it is what we are recommending. I will let you know when we have our final guidance ready to share.

Q: We border Maine, less than two minutes down the road. Last summer we had a garden, we purchased all our plants at a big box store and most came with a virus. Last summer we lost all of our plants to this stuff. We did not pull up the old plants and I am worried this virus got into the soil. I’ve already started growing from seeds all our plants. However, I am worried that the soil is contaminated and this virus will hit us again. Is there anyway to stop it?

A: It is unlikely that the same disease organism impacted all of your plants. I recommend a soil test for your garden area to see what else might be going on, and also that you source your seedlings locally (rather than from a big box store) so you know you are getting high-quality plants and varieties that do well in this climate. You can contact the soil lab directly to request soil test kits, or reach out to your local county extension office.

Q: We have a bunch of moss which covers most of our garden. The garden gets about 75% sun during the day and the soil seems to be at a ph of 7 from my own testing using our Rapitest meter (if that is accurate). Any suggestions on how to safely get rid of the moss? I’ve raked much of it out so far, but I know there’s probably a bunch of residual moss left which we’ll end up plowing under shortly. Our garden is about 30′ x 60′ in size.

A: Moss in a vegetable garden is not harming your vegetable plants as it does not take nutrients from the soil (it is anchored to your soil, but gets nutrients from the air and water), but it is telling you important things about your soil conditions. Moss is most common in soils that are compacted, poorly-drained, low in nutrients, too high or low in pH, and usually shaded as well- all symptoms of a soil that cannot support much else, and all of which are all problematic for vegetable gardening. You can simply rake off the moss that has anchored to your soil, but a soil test is in order to see precisely what the underlying conditions are in order to recommend the proper amendments.

Q: Is it safe to put organic debris from the beach in my organic vegetable garden? It is dark, fluffy material pushed on the shore by the tides. I assume dune grass, seaweed, clay I am but not sure. Also, is it safe to use cardboard and newspaper in my organic garden?

A: Various seaweed species that grow along Maine’s coast are considered edible sea vegetables and can be used in a similar way to other types of “green” food scraps in your garden. This Seaweed Guide from University of Maine’s Sea Grant can help you identify species you find on the beach. Maine regulations allow for harvest of up to 50 pounds per day where you have the beach owner’s permission. You can use washed up seaweed as mulch, add it to you compost pile, or add it directly to your garden soil as you might other organic materials. Cardboard (with labels and packing tape removed) and newspapers can be good tools for weed suppression or creating “lasagna” garden beds. For more information, see Sheet Mulch — Lasagna Composting (PDF) from Oregon State University.

Q: I have received bare root trees from the Arbor Day Foundation: American Redbud, White Flowering Dogwood, and Crape Myrtle. I live in Alfred (York County). The directions indicate to plant “from the time frost first leaves the ground.” It seems too early to plant them. How do I best store them? Need I wait to plant until we are past the frost-free date for my area?

A: Those are going to be some beautiful trees in your yard! Bare-root trees are dormant, so you don’t need to worry about the cooler temperatures as much as you would for an actively growing tree. Here are the recommendations for planting bare-root trees is the spring from UMaine Extension Bulletin #2366, Selecting, Planting, and Caring for Trees and Shrubs in the Maine Landscape:

Bare-root plants are typically available only in early spring before the buds begin to swell. Since these plants’ roots are bare, it is critical to keep them moist by packing their roots in moist material, such as sawdust, or covering their roots with wet burlap. Store the plants in a cool location (32 to 40 degrees F is best), and plant as soon as possible, before the roots and buds start to grow.

Plants available in nurseries in early spring with their roots wrapped in damp sphagnum and packed in cardboard or plastic containers are also bare-root. When planting, spread their roots out to a natural position.

It is important to plant bare-root trees and shrubs soon after you get them. Anticipate their arrival. Dig planting holes ahead of time. Keep roots moist but not wet by covering them with wet burlap, and do not hold them longer than a few days before planting. Just before planting, soak roots in water for six to 12 hours.

Q: Is there a list of sources of composted manure in Maine? I live in the Ellsworth area.

A: While we do not maintain a list specific to composted manure, we do have a list of commercial composters that folks have volunteered to be added to. You can download it, Commercial Compost Suppliers in Maine (PDF). If you are looking specifically for composted manure, I recommend calling local farms to see if they might sell you some from their pile and then hold it until Fall for application to your garden. If you don’t need a lot, you can buy it bagged from most garden centers. For more information about the safe application of manure on vegetable gardens, I recommend reading Bulletin #2510, Guidelines for Using Manure on Vegetable Gardens.

Q: I have an older shallow well on my property in Falmouth. Can I safely use this to irrigate a garden? Any concern to vegetable crops based on radon or arsenic for example?

A: All well water should be regularly tested as groundwater is changing all of the time. Any time you are putting a new water source into use, we recommend getting a water test first. Arsenic in groundwater is a concern for many people in Maine and testing for it as well as other potentially harmful materials is an important step to determining exactly what is in this water. You can order a test kit online from the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Lab in Augusta. If (when you receive your test results) everything looks fine, we recommend trickle or drip irrigation to conserve water, which might be particularly useful in a shallow well that may be more prone to running dry in the summer.

Q: I live in Mid-Coast Maine, in the town of Southport, and would like to plant a pollinator garden. I’m looking for a list of both annuals and perennials that would be best for my location. I buy my flowers in my area’s greenhouses/nurseries. I’ve read that some flowers have been so developed for appearance, etc. that their pollinator quality has been diminished. Even using your recommendations, how can I be sure the flowers I’m buying are good for pollinators and have not had this quality diminished?

Monarch on goldenrod
Photo by C. Eves-Thomas

A: There is a lot of energy around planting pollinator gardens these days. In fact, UMaine Extension is launching a brand new pollinator garden certification program and website to help folks modify existing plantings to become more pollinator friendly, or create one from scratch with pollinators in mind. Until we are ready to launch (hopefully, in April 2020), I can direct you to our list of Plants for Pollinator Gardens to help you get started in choosing native plant species that will support your native pollinators. Our friends at the Wild Seed Project have a great blog post on native asters and goldenrod specifically. Whenever you prioritize native plants, pollinators will be supported.

Q: Do you have any advice on pruning for limiting the height of Norway spruce trees? Should I nip the leaders above a bud and should I do so well in advance of the trees reaching ideal height, or wait until they’re almost there, or is it something that should be done regularly, like every couple of years?

A: I’m afraid my response is not what you are looking for, but here goes. If height is an issue, it might be preferable for you to remove the tree and replace it with something that doesn’t get as tall. If you go to a reputable nursery you should be able to obtain a dwarf evergreen tree or shrub that better suits your needs. A mature Norway spruce can grow to a majestic 40′ – 60′ in height, with a spread of 25′ to 30′. They are stunning. Topping the tree will allow it to get fatter over time but not taller, destroying its natural habit. You will have to shear the top once or twice a year to keep the height where it is, and you may not get the results you are looking for. Here is a good bulletin on the drawbacks of topping trees to control height from Purdue University: What’s Wrong with Topping Trees? (PDF).

Q: I am trying to discover the best way to transplant a small but mature apple tree. I have a tree in my yard that I would like to move. It’s at least 10 years old, about 12 feet tall, with a trunk diameter of maybe 5 inches. I’m convinced it needs to move because it is in shallow soil (8 inches) over bedrock. Its root system is very close to the surface and reaches maybe 20 feet out from the trunk.

I’ve read that with regular landscaped trees that I should root prune in the previous growing season to encourage roots to develop close to the root ball and then transplant the following spring. Is this general advice applicable to apple trees? Should I also more heavily prune the canopy to reduce the nutrient and water need of the tree so root pruning doesn’t kill it and to reduce transplant shock next year? Is there any simple guidance you could offer me or a resource that might be useful?

A: After conferring with our tree fruit specialist, I have the following to offer. Moving a mature apple tree is a risky proposal, but it could work if the tree is moved in May. Root pruning one year prior to moving the tree would increase the chance of survival. However, if it has a taproot, the chance of success is not good. Understanding that the tree could die, you may want to leave it in place and start over by planting a new young tree in a better location. When the new tree begins bearing fruit, then you can remove the old one. The labor involved in moving a mature apple tree outweighs the expense of planting a new one.

There are no guidelines regarding size of root ball, because this has not been studied with mature apple trees. That said, the International Society of Arboriculture recommends the following for moving landscape trees: “When a tree is dug for transplanting, the size of the root ball is traditionally based on tree caliper. Measure tree caliper 12″ above the ground for trees more than 4″ in diameter. A rule of thumb for the width of the root ball is 10 to 12″ per inch of trunk diameter.” If your tree trunk has a 5″ diameter, the root ball should be at least 4′ to 5′ wide. In general, a root ball depth of 30 to 36″ is sufficient for most species. In your case, since your tree is growing in shallow soil over ledge, the ball will be much shallower.

Root pruning is the process of pre-digging a root ball to increase density of root development within the final ball. The digging process severs existing roots and stimulates root regeneration. Root pruning may be repeated multiple times before the tree is actually moved. Each successive cut is made several inches out from where the roots were previously severed.

You do not need to cut back the tree canopy to compensate for root pruning. Top growth will be temporarily reduced, but the tree needs as much photosynthetic tissue as possible to re-establish itself in a new location. Whenever you move a tree, you should make sure it receives 1″ of water per week during the growing season, until it is established. Establishment period recommended is 1 year per inch tree diameter, so in your case, it would be 5 years of regular watering for it to regain the proper root:shoot ratio.

Q: I live one hour north of Bangor. I’m starting seeds indoors. Some say start six or eight weeks before last expected frost. What is a general idea of when the last frost would be for my location?

A: Although the last frost date of the season changes each year, there is a calculator available for this in our Master Gardener Volunteer Manual based on your zip code.
According to that calculator (click on the blue type to see the calculator), it is unlikely that you will have a frost after May 14 or before September 29.

On the Johnny’s Seeds site there is a seed planting calculator that then shows by type of vegetable when to start the seeds and when to set them out.

It is important to realize that this information is based on data from the past and may not reflect the changing climate conditions we have had in the last few years. It is always a good idea to keep a journal of what happens in your garden and make a note each year what that frost date is for your garden.

Q: I’ve been searching the web for good step-by-step instructions for starting seeds using an LED array. I have a 600-watt array with toggles for blue and red wavelength light. My main question is how far the lights should be from the seeds trays and whether the distance should change as the seedlings develop true leaves. Can you recommend a helpful bulletin or other resource? (I’ve used fluorescent lights to start seeds for many years.)

A: LED lights sure are a more efficient way to provide the needed hours of light to your germinating plants.

The University of Mississippi has a short video that addresses this issue. In essence, there is little difference between using fluorescents and LEDs and no need to micromanage the light quality for small-scale production. However, there is some study in that area around large scale production done by the University of Michigan and in Japan. The report Growing Seedlings Under LEDs (PDF) might be helpful.

The distance issue can be addressed in our more traditional material as heat is not a factor with LED lamps. Seed starting and other propagation is addressed in our Master Gardener Volunteer Manual on Propagation and specifically in our Bulletin 2751, Starting Seeds at Home. In that bulletin, towards the bottom, is a video on building a seed starting stand and the height of the bulbs is addressed in there.  The most effective way to use any artificial light is to be able to keep it tight to the top of the plant (about 4″ above the plant) and then raise it as the seedlings grow. This way seedlings won’t stretch (and stress) during these vital first weeks of their life.

Q: I would like to plant sweet woodruff as a ground cover by broadcasting seeds. I understand the seeds need cold temperatures at the beginning stages of growth. What month should I attempt this here in Maine? Can there still be remnants of snow on the ground when I attempt this?

woodruff in blossomA: Sweet woodruff seeds require cold stratification for good germination success. Spring is not the best time to plant the seeds. You would have better success planting them in the late summer or early fall and allowing them to naturally stratify. If you wish to plant the seeds this spring, wait until there isn’t much snow cover, and try to get them on the ground as early as possible so they can get a period of cold. You will probably achieve very irregular germination, and it could take months for them to sprout. Sweet woodruff is more successfully propagated by plant division or by rooted cuttings.

Q: I’ve been growing raspberries for the past five years with much success until last year (2019). It was a wet and cold Spring and my raspberry bushes started later than has been normal. The plants themselves grew very nicely all summer, looked healthy and reached heights of 5-6 feet tall. The problem was there were no raspberries on any of the bushes so it leaves me wondering, what went wrong? I was speaking to a lady that owns an apple orchard last October and I noticed that four or five types of apples never came to fruition and when I asked her she told me that because of the cold and damp Spring some of her apple strains never got pollinated. Could this be what happened to my raspberries?

A: Raspberry canes are biennial.  Flowers and fruits are produced on canes that are in their 2nd year of growth (floricanes).

If climate conditions caused last year’s overwintering canes to die, the new vegetative growth you observed last summer were most likely 1st year canes (primocanes) growing up from the crown of the plant. These primocanes that grew last summer should produce fruit in the coming growing season.

I’m wondering if by chance someone mistakenly pruned out your floricanes before the growing season began last year?  It seems highly unlikely that they would all succumb to disease or winterkill. But if you saw no flowers, you did not have floricanes in your patch. Thus, no fruit.

See the following bulletin, Growing Raspberries and Blackberries for detailed information on how to grow your best raspberries in Maine.

Q: We are in the process of planning for a rain garden installation at our school. We would love some advice on how much soil to excavate and what to back fill with.

rain garden plants
Rain garden plants.

A: When digging your rain garden, loosen the soil at least two feet deep. Even though the garden will only be six inches deep in the center, loosening the soil will help your plants establish root systems in this new environment. For much more detailed instructions, including how to select a location and which plants to install, check out UMaine Extension Bulletin #2702, Landscapes for Maine: Adding a Rain Garden to Your Landscape.

Q: Do you measure lead levels in eggs? If so, how do I go about getting this done?

A: This page is for vegetable gardening questions, but you can contact the UMaine Extension Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for information about submitting eggs for lead testing. Be sure to call 581.3874 before preparing anything for submission to be sure you follow the instructions.

Q: How can I grow Ilex verticillata (winterberry) from the berry (seed)?

A: In answer to your question about growing Winterberry, Ilex vertillata, you can use the berries from current plants. If the berries are still firm enough, put them in a plastic bag and let them ferment. When soft enough (might take a week) to squish, separate the clean seed. Place the seeds in a pot, it is pretty tolerant of soils but it does grow in acidic soils in nature.  Sprinkle sand (builders sand is best) over the top to cover. Place the pot(s) outside, it will need about 6 weeks of cold temperatures, out of direct sun so it doesn’t dry out. This a very slow growing shrub, and it may take until the following Spring before a new shoot appears.

For more information to keep in mind about adding Winterberry to your landscape read, Native Trees and Shrubs for Maine Landscapes: Winterberry (Ilex vertillata).

Q: I have well established vegetable garden beds, but am planning an extended trip this summer. I would like to plant a cover crop that can be turned over for green manure. Which plant do you recommend?

A: If you are leaving over the summer you will want to plant a crop that does well in the heat. One that does well in summer, is suitable for a home gardener and is a great weed competitor is buckwheat. Buckwheat will flower in about 6-7 weeks after seeding. It should be plowed or tilled in while flowering and before setting seed, because then you would be fighting it as a weed species the following year. So if you are going to be gone longer than that you may want to have someone till it in and follow that with a crop of oats. The oats would winter kill and you will have a nice dead mass to work with the following spring.

This Home Garden Cover Crop fact sheet will give you a broad idea of strategy to plan to meet your needs for the length of time you will be gone.

Q: I live on about three acres and had a dog until about a year ago. There was a portion of the yard in the back that we let grow up into a field and when I would go about cleaning feces out of the yard I would throw it in that field off and on. This past year we mowed the entire area. We never cleaned the area, but kept it mowed and I didn’t throw any more dog feces in the area. At present there are no dog feces present (just the occasional deer/random wild animal feces). I was wondering if that spot would be okay to use for our garden this spring or if the soil is now contaminated and unusable?

A: Since it has been a year since you have placed any of the dog’s waste in the field you wish to establish a garden in, it would be completely safe. By now any feces remains and associated pathogens should be well decomposed. The soil and its associated microbial life are excellent filters and decomposers. Our general guidelines for when animal/dog waste is found in farm and garden fields is to remove the waste and not to harvest vegetables or fruit that were in contact with it. With establishing a new garden now there would not be any remaining risk.

Q: I am looking for a reliable source for Russian Comfrey. Do you have any suggestions?

A: While I am not familiar with herbalists in the Freeport area who may carry it, there are several very good nursery/greenhouses in your region that should carry Russian Comfrey, which you can find from this comprehensive list of Nurseries and Garden Centers in Maine.

Q: I am new to Maine and building a new home in Damariscotta. I am installing a septic tank and leach field. I know not to plant woody plants, trees or vegetables. But what should I plant? What grass types are best for this region? Are wildflowers okay?

A: As our UMaine Extension fact sheet on Gardens and Septic Systems states, turf grasses are best suited for planting over a septic field. Any of the cool season grass mixes you would find in local garden centers would be suitable.

While wildflower mixes would also be generally suitable, you should avoid deep-rooted woody perennials that could potentially clog up pipes, and also be aware that wildflower natural areas are not easy to establish. Check the Native Plant Trust (formerly New England Wildflower Society) for a list of suitable wildflowers for New England and planting instructions.

Q: My Winterberry bushes are getting leggy and tall. I would love to have them bush out more from the bottom, grow thicker. Can Winterberry be cut back hard? When is the best time to do it, if so?

Photo by Richard Webb,

A: The natural habit of our native winterberry when it grows in the wild is quite leggy and open. When pruning, the objective is to enhance its natural habit rather than try to force it to be more bushy. Remove crossing, rubbing branches, and growth that is directed inward across the center of the plant. The goal is to obtain good air circulation and sunlight penetration throughout the shrub so that you will minimize disease and maximize flowering and fruiting. In my own experience, when I have cut winterberry back HARD to stimulate new growth, it has been quite slow to recover. Winterberries do not send out copious amounts of new shoots each year. If the plants are in full sun, they tend to send out more new growth each year than if they are in the shade. Some cultivars have a rounded habit and others are more open and broadly spreading.

There are dwarf cultivars (Red Sprite (female) paired with Jim Dandy (male)) that are more dense in habit than the straight species. If you want more visual impact from your winterberry planting, consider planting a drift of several shrubs together.

Q: A neighbor just brought me a Magnolia branch that broke off his tree. We live in Cushing, Maine. Can you advise me on what I need to do with this clipping/branch in order to plant it in the Spring?

magnolia blossom
Magnolia blossom. Photo by C. Eves-Thomas.

A: It sounds like the branch which broke off would be considered a hardwood cutting (that is a dormant, mature stem). The best type of cutting for rooting a magnolia would be considered a semi-hardwood cutting (partially mature wood of the current season’s growth, just after a flush of growth).

Having said that you can certainly give it a try.

Where it has broken off cut it again with a pruning clipper to get a nice straight clean cut at the bottom. You should dip the end in a rooting hormone which can be purchased at a local garden center. Then place the cutting in a plastic bag with some moist (not soaking) sphagnum moss or wood chips and place it in your refrigerator for the winter. In spring bury the cutting in your garden such that only the top few inches of the growing point are exposed.

A second method would be to treat the cutting with a rooting hormone as suggested above, and place it in a flower pot with vermiculite as your rooting medium. Well-drained potting soil can also be tried if that is what you have on hand. Moisten the medium well and place the pot and cutting in a plastic bag. Keep it in bright light but try to avoid direct sun and make sure it stays moist until rooting has occurred.

A more detailed description can be found in this fact sheet from North Carolina State University on Plant Propagation by Stem Cuttings.

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