Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can I Compost those Diseased Tomato Plants?

Yes. That’s the short and simple answer to a question that is on many gardeners minds. The disease that concerns most gardeners this year is late blight, Phytophthora infestans, which plagued so many gardens and farms this year. I have spoken to too many gardeners who are wasting time solarizing tomato vines, planning elaborate crop rotations or sending tomato debris out with the trash. Compost them. It’s also good to know that most diseased plants can be composted without the fear of aggravating the disease situation next year.

Let’s take late blight first because it is easiest. The late blight organism requires a living host to survive. Since tomatoes cannot survive our winters, any late blight fungus will die along with the plant. May as well compost the diseased plants. Or you could simply turn them into the soil. For that matter you could let the dead tomato skeletons hang out all winter on their stakes. Dead tomatoes = dead late blight. Late blight does not form overwintering spores in Pennsylvania that could cause new infections next year.

Potatoes are another story. Late blight infected potato foliage can be treated like tomato foliage. But infected tubers should not be put into the compost pile. Tubers may survive the winter and start up new infections next spring.

Most other tomato diseases do have the ability to survive and infect tomato again next year. Early blight, Septoria leaf spot and anthracnose can survive either on plant debris, in special fungal survival structures, on other plants and even on pots and containers. Crop rotation provides some small measure of control but you can expect these diseases to return each year regardless of crop rotation. And let’s face it, we often have limited ability to rotate crops in our small vegetable gardens. Do it, as a good general pest management strategy, but realize it will not eliminate re-occurrence of disease.

Back to that compost pile… since the environment in the compost pile is much more competitive for fungal pathogens than soil, and these disease organisms will survive thru other means, why not compost those diseased plants?
There are a few garden diseases that surely should not go into the compost pile. Fusarium and Verticillium wilt come to mind, but they are relatively rare these days because of good plant breeding. If you suspect that these are involved then trash them. Otherwise… everything into the compost pile.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pretty Yellow Fall Flowers

Inquiring minds want to know…. What is that pretty, yellow, daisy-like flower that is blooming now? It’s commonly found in wet ditches. I’ve been asked that question many times in the last week or so. Several species in the genus Bidens, commonly called tickseed-sunflower are found in Pennsylvania. I am not sure exactly which species I’m seeing near Bedminster, probably Bidens aristosa. They are called “tick seed” because they produce seed bearing structures that stick to you like ticks (related species are called beggar’s ticks).
If you take autumn walks in the woods and fields you are probably familiar with these two-pronged plant parts.

The showy “ray” flowers look like their relatives the Sunflowers. You can see how the common names of plants are both useful and potentially confusing. It is worthwhile to learn the Latin names of plants if you are more than a casual observer. All plant identification books use the Latin names because it provides nomenclature (names) that are definitive. Plants belong to families that are composed of related genera and this can be helpful as you try to sort out plant names. Both Sunlfowers (Helianthus) and Tickseed Sunflowers (Bidens) are in the Aster Family (Asteraceae).

For that matter, Goldenrods (Solidago), Asters (Aster) White-snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) are also members of the Aster family that bloom in the fall. In addition to being pretty, they provide forage for bees of all sorts that are important pollinators.

When I want to sort out details about plants in Pennsylvania, I usually end up looking in... .The Plants Of Pennsylvania, an illustrated (line drawings only) manual written by Ann Rhoads and Timothy Block, botanists at the University of Pennsylvania. It is a fantastic reference.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fall is for Planting… Trees, Shrubs, Bulbs and Vegetables

Yea, I know. I blogged about this last year. But this message is worth repeating because fall is such an outstanding time to plant trees, shrubs, bulbs lawns and, as I wrote in mid August, many vegetable crops, too.

OK, the basics one more time, then some particulars… the reason fall is such a good time to plant: soil temperatures are warm which is good for root growth; air temperatures are cooling and rainfall is usually plentiful which reduces the need to do maintenance irrigation; deciduous plants are dropping leaves but roots remain active long afterwards which allows for establishment; winter dormancy is followed by Spring, another season of cool, moist weather that aids establishment before the stresses of summer; plant material at nursery/garden centers is plentiful and often a bargain as retailers try to shed inventory.

This was such an outstanding year for turfgrass growth that the number of people feeling the need to re-seed is probably lower than normal. However, if you want to re-seed a lawn, Penn State has outlined the steps is this publication. The key is to suppress the weeds, raise the fertility and then seed the correct species by lightly incorporating the seed into the soil. A “slit seeder” available at most good rental places is the ideal tool. It cuts a small groove into the soil and drops seed in one operation.

Penn State has dozens of publications on lawn management that deal with fall lawn care. Besides planting, there are other chores that are best performed in the fall such as broadleaf weed control, liming, fertilizing and aeration. Check it out.

Penn State Master Gardeners will be planting trees in our little Almshouse Arboretum at Neshaminy Manor Center in November. We’re hooked into the Tree Vitalize program that provides” bare root” trees to public areas in an effort to re-vitalize tree cover in Southeastern Pennsylvania. We’ve planted more than fifty trees, both spring and fall, with a one hundred percent success rate. Here’s a link to specifics on tree planting instructions. Buy good quality plants and you, too will have great success.

Finally, back to the vegetable garden. Last night I seeded spinach. I was waiting for soil temperatures to cool down a bit because spinach germination is adversely affected by high soil temperatures (above 85 degrees). Some of that spinach will be harvested this fall. Some of it I’ll allow to overwinter, providing an early harvest next spring.

There are still about 6 weeks until our first frost and we often experience a long warm period of growing weather after that first freeze. That’s what make the fall vegetable garden so nice and productive. The leafy vegetables, root crops and cole (cabbage family) crops all thrive in the cool fall air.

My first broccoli is ready for harvest and a bunch more is on the way. Brussels sprouts buds are beginning to swell, lettuce plantings are up and more are on the way. Broccoli rabe always germinates in about 3 days and I look forward to my own sausage sandwich, South Philly style in a few weeks with that rabe on top.