Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Time to deal with plant damage from last winter

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I've been thinking a lot about winter lately. No, the heat of last weekend didn't fry my brain that happened long ago. Nevertheless, my thinking has focused on the unusual amount of damage to trees and shrubs, especially, but not exclusively evergreens, caused by the yo-yo weather conditions this past winter. As an example, if you'll recall (I know you would prefer to forget) back on Jan. 21, daytime temperatures in much of the area did not get above zero and the nighttime temperature dropped to as low as -18 F. Three days later, temperatures rose to the mid-50s, followed less than a week later by temperatures again well below zero. Similar events were repeated in February.

I'm sorry to bring up these chilly facts, but it does help explain why so many boxwoods, rhododendrons, yews, junipers and other evergreens experienced so much dieback of branches. Typically, I advise people to wait until the second week of June before declaring individual branches or entire plants to be dead. If by now, there are no signs of new growth, assume the worst. Either prune off the dead shoots or dig up entire plants showing no signs of life.

Keep in mind that pruning out dead portions of plants now does not end there. Removing the dead shoots will most likely leave a badly misshapen plant. As such, additional pruning this year and perhaps for a few years ahead will be needed in order to restore the natural shape of affected plan

WEEKLY TO-DO LIST

Enough reminiscing of weather I'd prefer to forget. Now, here are some tasks that should not be forgotten:

- Side dress sweet corn when plants have developed eight leaves and again when tassels appear. Side dressing is not some new sartorial fad. Rather it refers to the application of fertilizer in bands adjacent to plants, such as along rows of corn or in a circle around summer squash. Since sweet corn is what we call a heavy feeder, meaning it requires more fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, than other crops. While a side dressing of a general purpose garden fertilizer, such as one with an analysis of 10-10-10, will suffice, high-nitrogen fertilizers, including urea, blood meal, fish meal, alfalfa meal or liquid seaweed fertilizer, are preferred. Follow label directions for rates of application.

- Cultivate the soil between rows of potatoes and then draw the loose soil up and around the lower portions of the plants. "Hilling" potatoes in this manner keeps the tubers cool, promotes development of more potatoes along the plant stem, and prevents potatoes that might otherwise be near the soil surface from turning green. Hilling also reduces weed problems. Continue hilling whenever the plants reach a height of 8 to 12 inches.

- Don't worry about cupping or a little rolling of the lower leaves of tomato plants. This is a normal physiological response to abnormal weather conditions, e.g. cool nights or prolonged periods of rain. While it may occur at any time during the growing season, this type of leaf roll occurs most often the transition from spring to summer. However, leaf rolling accompanied by yellowing or spotting, especially later in the season, may indicate pest, disease or environmentally related problem.

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- Thin out some of the fruit if your apple, pear or peach trees are heavily laden with fruit. Leaving fruit on the trees will result in smaller fruit and may cause branches to break, especially if strong, windy storms occur — not an unusual event these days.

- Check for snail and slug activity in vegetable and flower gardens. These slimy critters thrive in the moist environment resulting from frequent rains. Slug baits, such as beer in shallow pans, set in the soil around slug susceptible plants should provide sufficient control.

- Prune off the lower branches from trees that are casting too much shade over vegetable and flower gardens. This will allow more light to penetrate. Just be sure that the trees are on your property or else your neighbor may cast some shade over you.

- Divide crowded clumps of bearded iris soon after the flowers have faded. Replant each clump so that the top of the rhizomes are just exposed above ground level.

- Hark, ye savers of poinsettias! Yes, there are many of us who save our Christmas poinsettias in hopes of getting them back in bloom again by Christmas. Begin the preservation process by cutting the plant(s) back to six inches in height and set the trimmed plants outdoors. Keep the potting soil moist, but not soggy wet, through the summer and apply a water-soluble plant fertilizer once per month. Also, pinch the tips every few weeks to promote bushy growth. Mark your calendar now to bring the plants back indoors by the first of September.

- Be aware that the plants in pots or hanging baskets are exposed on all sides to the drying effects of wind and sun. On hot, windy days, you may have to water them more than once. Darker colored containers will absorb more heat, which can get seeds and transplants off to a faster start, but these containers will need more watering if they are in direct sunlight. Lighter-colored containers might be a better choice for most people.

- Plant some tall zinnias and snapdragons if you only have space for a tiny cut-flower garden. In floral arrangements, the round form of zinnia flowers contrast nicely with the vertical lines of snapdragons. Both are long-lasting as cut flowers and the plants will continue to provide blooms until frost.                                                            

MORE STABILIZING PLANTS

My good friend and fellow plant enthusiast, Liz Stell, sent me a list of suggested plants other than the crown vetch I mentioned in last week's column for stabilizing steep banks. Among these are Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama), Elymus canadensis (Canada wildrye), Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) — my daughter's favorite — and Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed). The latter grass can be viewed heading west along Route 102 in Stockbridge at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, but do drive slowly or visit the garden.


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