Growing Concerns 756: Fungus gnats, indoor watering, tomato from seed, cut down grass, mail order fun, snowy mulch

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In this issue: 

Fungus gnats or water?
                                    Page 1                                 
Overwatering is a plant killer -- learn its signs,
                                                                pages 1-2
Simple recipe to water any plant perfectly,
                                            pages 2-3
Grow tomatoes from last year's saved seed,
                                                  pages 3-4 (excerpt)
Sprout seeds with paper towel, plastic bag and 'fridge,
                                                                    pages 4-5 (excerpt)
Cut ornamental grass any time now, use for mulch,
                                                                          page 5
Have fun and also save shipping costs on plant orders,
                                                                               page 5
Be glad now for snow and warmth from the soil below,
                                                                                       page 6

Once it's filled with potting mix the four-cup orange pot will take 1 cup of water to be fully moist. The smaller pot requires just a half-shot.

Once it's filled with potting mix the four-cup orange pot will take 1 cup of water to be fully moist. The smaller pot requires just a half-shot.

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Other topics and keywords in this issue:
beef steak tomato
chilling requirement before sprouting
cold treatment for seed in moist paper towel
come true from seed
drainage holes
F1 hybrid
hybrid seed
Kevin Hurd
open-pollinated variety
plant breeders
refrigerator for seed chilling period
saving money on mail orders
seed comes true
seedling like parent
snapdragon from seed
test seed in moist paper towel
Walters Gardens

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Excerpt from this issue:

Gardener battles gnats but answer may be to correct watering

I have a problem with what I believe are fruit flies. I purchased a couple of small house trees -- a cane plant and a fig (Ficus) -- about 4 months ago. I repotted them. In my area many people I had talked to said they also were having problems with fruit flies.

My problem still exists and is driving me crazy!I ended up putting the Ficus in the garage -- dead. Now my cane leaves are turning brown and there are many, many fruit flies around it. I have tried apple cider vinegar, wine, dish soap bubbles and Ortho insect spray. I'm assuming the flies are laying eggs in the soil of this plant and that my next step is getting rid of all the soil and starting fresh? - B.K. -

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We think the real problem is water, not insects, B.K. It's rare that a gnat infestation kills any plant bigger than a seedling.

Furthermore, in your letter you write three things that point to overwatering:

Signs point to overwatering

  • One, plants can die relatively quickly from overwatering. Subjected to sogginess, even a tree-size plant can keel over in a month or so.
  • Two, it's all too easy to overwater plants that have been put into bigger pots during no-grow periods. That's because their roots are surrounded by sopping wet soil that can't be tapped by roots until the plant does resume growth. (Read about Jade tree as a specific example.)
  • Three, soil-breeding insects often proliferate in constantly moist or overly wet potting soil.

So check your watering. Most plants do well if they periodically receive just enough water to moisten the entire root zone and then are left alone until most of the moisture in the top inch of the potting soil is gone.

Water only when you feel nothing but dry, warm soil in the top inch-- that plant's ready for water. The speed with which this happens depends on how many leaves and how much light the plant has. With more leaves and more light, the plant pulls water up into its roots more quickly.

Roots die, then the tops fail

If you overwater by treating plants in low light or subdued winter growth as if they are in summer growth and high light, the lowest part of the plant's root ball will be constantly wet. That's where most of a potted plants' root tips congregate. That space may be so full of water that there is no room for air.

The problem and symptoms accelerate from there:

  • Without air, root tips die.
  • Then, rot invades that dead root tissue. If you happened to take the plant from its pot you would not see firm, white root tips but discolored, mushy tissue very like the celery, bean sprouts or other vegetable matter you throw away after too long in the refrigerator.
  • Now rot begins to spread from its toehold on the tips, infecting marginally healthy and damaged spots on the roots.
  • Next, upper parts of the plant wilt and die, usually tip-first. Ironically, that leaf loss and branch death is caused by lack of water, since dead roots can't take up water. With fewer leaves the plant needs even less water but the gardener may water even more in response to the wilted foliage. The problem escalates.

Avoid getting into that trouble. Water more carefully. As a bonus, the gnats will disppear, too, since they can thrive only in continually damp soil.

Excerpts from this issue: 

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Mouthwatering tomatoes from seeds saved last summer?

If you plan to collect seeds from your garden this year to grow more plants next year, read the label, seed package (below, left) or catalog description when you buy the original seeds or plants.

What kind of plants you can expect to have in future years depends on the terms "F1 hybrid" and "open pollinated" in those plants' descriptions.

For instance, there are many kinds of tomatoes grown for making paste, such as the luscious fruit shown here. Among them are F1 hybrids such as 'Franchi' and open-pollinated 'Roma.' While F1 'Franchi' fruits yield seeds that may not grow up to produce paste-type tomatoes, open-pollinated 'Roma' seeds will reliably produce 'Roma' bearing plants (below, right).

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Sprout seeds

Below: Spread seeds that need stratification (a moist chilling period) on moist paper towels, fold the toweling, slide it into a plastic bag, label the package and hold it in a refrigerator for a couple of months. The seeds will sprout more quickly and evenly when sown in a garden or pots in spring.

Some perennial seeds that need stratification in order to germinate are beardtongue (Penstemon), clematis, columbine (Aquilegia), globeflower (Trollius), tall phlox, and pasqueflower (Pulsatilla).

Some perennial seeds that need stratification in order to germinate are beardtongue (Penstemon), clematis, columbine (Aquilegia), globeflower (Trollius), tall phlox, and pasqueflower (Pulsatilla).

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Talk to friends about new plants

Below: There is no better way to make time fly by than to talk new plants with friends. We spent such a day one summer with plant breeding specialist Kevin Hurd (then hybridizing for Walters Gardens in Zeeland, Michigan).

Among other wonders he showed us were new plum-flowered, dark leaf and pest resistant hardy hibiscus varieties we couldn't wait to buy.

Yet wait we did! Walters Garden is a wholesale supplier so it took a year or so before its releases appeared in retail catalogs. You can now find them at retail outlets.

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