Is it possible to rescue a tree that was planted with its roots all wrapped up? Mike McGrath will bravely battle on behalf of the balled and burlaped. Plus: Mike examines a brand new variety of strawberry that has been developed at Rutgers University. And your fabulous phone calls!
Questions of the Week:
“Mike, the ‘proper tree planting’ portion of your recent conversation with plant scientist Linda Chalker-Scott scared the heck out of me. About three years ago, we bought a fringe tree, a crabapple, and an evergreen from a local nursery and paid them to plant all three. The crew dug the holes wide but not deep, as you always instruct; but they left the burlap and wire cages around the root balls. I ran outside yelling, “no, no, no!”, fought with them for a while, and then called the owner. I told him I wanted the wrapping off and the roots spread out, citing my previous success planting trees that way. He refused, saying it would harm the roots to unwrap them, that he always planted trees this way, and that they would be fine.”
— Lisa in Jenkintown, PA
Highlights from show for July 3, 2015:
Fruit Trees for Fall
Reid from St. Paul recently bought a house and wants to know what to do this July to get ready to plant some fruit trees this fall. Mike says that his job right now is primarily to research what sort of trees would do well up there in Minnesota. He especially recommends talking to local nurseries to find plants that thrive in the cold climate up there, plants that either originate in that area, or were bred to thrive there. Mike says that there are a few major concerns that Reid needs to take into account when looking for trees. These plants need to be cold-hardy, disease resistant, and won’t get too tall to manage. He recommends dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties, and pruning any growth that shoots directly up, high in the tree. “You want the growth to look like a pair of hands stretched sideways.” Then, once you’ve found these trees, make sure that they’ll be available in the fall. If they won’t be, don’t be afraid to take them home in their planters, and then keep them out of the hot sun all summer. Planting is easy: if they’re balled and burlapped, make sure the roots are completely uncovered once you go to plant, and spread those roots out so that they have an easier time acclimating to their new environment, and if they’re in a container, knock some of the soil off in order to, once again, spread out the roots. Dig a hole that is wide, but not deep, in order to keep the root flare aboveground. When you’re done planting, mulch the top with two inches of the highest quality compost available. There are also some great articles on fruit trees on the Gardens Alive website in the Gardens A to Z section. “With apple trees, be prepared that they’re gonna take up a lot of your time in the spring, but the rewards will be great.”
Pat in South Brunswick, NJ has a plethora of ants invading her garden, and she doesn’t want to use pesticide on them. She thinks they might be eating her plants, but Mike corrects her: “Ants aerate the soil and they keep termite colonies away from your house, but they don’t eat little holes in your plants.” They are likely to run off with seeds, but they won’t do any damage to already-growing plants. Pat amends her question. She wants to know what could possibly be eating her plants, and how to deal with them! Mike says that since it’s been a very wet season, so it could be slugs, but Pat says that she has already ruled out plants. According to Mike, this means that she probably has caterpillars, as most of her plants being devoured are cruciferous. He recommends that, going forward, she should grow these cruciferous plants under row covers, but to get rid of the pests now, she should go out and get a compound known as BT, mix it and spray it on the plants so that when the caterpillars go in for a little snack, they die. It persists for up to two weeks on the leaves and can be sprayed at any time, day or night. BT is a naturally occurring soil organism that’s been on the market for more than fifty years. “The nice thing about BT is it can only harm caterpillars that are eating the sprayed plants, so you don’t harm birds, or toads, or even butterflies! “
Featured Interview: Peter Nitzsche and Bill Hlubik
Mike speaks with Peter Nitzsche, New Jersey extension agent out of Rutgers University and Bill Hlubik, a professor and agricultural agent also out of Rutgers. They are developing a new variety of strawberry called Rutgers Scarlett, that claims to balance acidy and sweetness perfectly. Much like a tomato, there must be a certain level of acidity to make the fruit flavorful. Without acidity it could seem bland. According to Bill and Peter, this variety can be used in not only commercial settings, but home gardens. If you continually think strawberries just don’t taste like they used to, that might be because you are not consuming local varieties grown near you. You won’t get the same sweetness with strawberries that have been shipped a long distance. Check out Rutger’s Garden Field Day/Open House and sample locally grown produce.
Squirrels and Solar Panels
Dana with the Academy of Natural Sciences has had problems with squirrels getting into the photovoltaic system on her barn. They found a nice warm place to overwinter: right under her solar panels. Now, we all know that squirrel incisors grow constantly, as this is a characteristic of all rodents, so one of the things they do best is chewing on things, including electrical wiring! This brought her system down over the winter, and much of that had to be replaced for a very hefty bill. Mike expounds upon this tendency among squirrels outlining their master plan: “At a given signal, squirrels will chew through the ignition wires of every car in America, then through the phone lines to the house, and then they would send suicide squirrels into the transformer to cut off electricity to the house. Then once you can’t get away, you’re cold, and you can’t call for help, that’s when you find that they’ve eaten all your stored food.” He had previously postulated that the only reason we were still around was because the squirrel overmind lacked the foresight to prepare for the advent of cell phones, but Mike finds this development disquieting: solar panels will not save you either. Dana has had to reinstall the entire system, so that the panels are closer together and walled-in underneath to keep the squirrels out. Mike recommends that she install some cameras in there and check in every once in a while to see if they’re getting back in. Down south there is a rodent known as the packrat, which loves to get under the hood of your car and chew into all of the wiring. They sell a type of packrat repellent that you can spray on your wires which may be effective against squirrels as well, and any other type of animal repellant would also be good to try. “There’s no one listening who hasn’t lost a fight to the evil squirrels, Dana.”
Laura in Bucks County, PA has planted tomatoes in quadrants for the past few years. Last year, they were thriving, but then began to grow limp and droopy later in the season. She wants to know what to do to prevent that from happening this season. Mike questions her on the term quadrants, and she specifies that they are six beds, outlined with wood not unlike raised beds, only flush with the ground. They are no wider than four feet. Mike asks if the tomatoes begin with yellowing leaves near the bottom of the plant, working upwards, and Laura says that she has observed yellow at the base, but the limpness is all over, and she doesn’t have any spots on them. Mike diagnoses verticillium wilt. “When you grow tomatoes in the same spot, year after year, this naturally occurring soil organism begins to build up in the soil. It makes its presence known by wilting and turning yellow the lowest leaves on the plant, and in the beginning, progressing upwards slowly.” If you plant tomatoes in the same spot next season, the wilting will begin earlier and progress more rapidly. The only solution is to rotate the tomatoes to other quadrants where tomatoes haven’t been growing in the past. Those tomatoes growing right now will not survive the season. Now, if that’s not an option, if, say, you don’t have enough room to rotate them, it might not be too late to go to your local garden center and find tomatoes that they’ve been nursing which have, after their variety name a V and an F (The V being Verticillium and the F being Fusarium, a similar ailment occurring down south) or even a tomato that’s been grafted on top of a Verticillium-resistant root stock. Just avoid planting tomatoes in those quadrants for the next three years, and just make sure that the plants get rotated. “As long as you keep moving them around and you don’t go back to the first spot for three years, you’ll never see this problem again.”
Henry in Lansdale, PA has been growing peach trees and they haven’t been doing so well lately. About five years ago, he accidentally dropped some peach pits onto his lawn and, quite unexpectedly, two peach trees sprouted up on that spot. Mike, being an expert on peaches, says that it’s important every winter and spring to prune back the branches heavily, especially the branches that are sticking straight up, in order to ensure that the tree branches get plenty of light and air, something that Henry has been doing, and as a result, his tree is flowering very nicely. However, he hasn’t been thinning out the little fruits that emerge. In growing apples and peaches, when those little bitty fruits emerge, you need to pull three quarters of them off the tree. “I have about five active trees right now, and I fill up multiple five-gallon buckets with tiny little fruits, but that’s the only way that you’re gonna get healthy fruit that gets to be big enough and tasty enough and avoids these kind of disease and pest issues.” One of the things to keep in mind when doing this is that in between each fruit you leave, there should be room for two full-size peaches, and on a young tree like Henry has, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to remove even more than three quarters of these baby fruits. The base of the tree should also be clear, meaning no wood mulch, no grass right up to the tree, and no fruit on the ground from last year. Leave a “clean orchard floor,” and composting the base is also a great idea, as it can also help protect against disease and pest issues going forward. “I’m so glad you called, because there’s still time for people who don’t know that to remove most of the baby apples and peaches and still get some good fruit at the end of the season.”