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Growing pot plants indoors
Q: I've had a number of perennials planted in my flower beds for years. Recently, it has become quite warm and dry. This spring I found out that some of the plants I've had for years are sick. As far as I can tell, they had no problem with the cold, wet weather a few years ago. Now they are in bad shape. The leaves are withering, there are brown patches on the stems and I notice fewer and fewer new leaves coming in. I live in Mississippi and I've noticed that this is a common occurrence in some areas, but I was wondering if anyone can give me some suggestions on what to do?
A: You're right that this is a common problem. In many ways, your situation is similar to many growers who receive spring transplants of perennials that they think will thrive in the cool conditions of early spring, only to find that those same plants wither and die after one or two growing seasons.
I think that I can save your plants with a few simple tactics, but I'll start by pointing out that the conditions in which your plants are growing are not a disease, but more like a drought. A plant that is experiencing the so-called root rot is well on its way to dying, and a plant that looks healthy can actually be fighting a severe drought from the inside out. It could be that the roots are receiving adequate water, but the plant is experiencing the problem from the inside, as the plant's life support systems (in this case, the stem and leaves) are taking on the metabolic water, instead of absorbing it through the root system.
Actually, I like to use a simple drought test for these problems: Fill a few paper cups with water, place the cups on the ground and fill them up again with water. In most areas of the country, the ground water will not be frozen in the winter. In those locations, a plant that is not able to uptake water through its root system is going to drown in its own watered-up paper cups. If the plants do well, they will absorb water through their roots, and be able to use the water to support their lives. If the cups are left to dry out, that plant will die.
Another factor is that many growers feel that they need to "water their plants" regularly throughout the growing season. It is important to understand that a plant will use water to support its own life, it doesn't need to be watered throughout the entire growing season. What you want is a hydrated soil and air at the time you plant, and a healthy plant that absorbs water and nutrients through its roots. All that is provided in a healthy root zone. If you notice your soil at planting time to be bone dry, try raising your plants to the 8-10" to 12-15" deep that is typical of most plants, and see how they do. If your plants are fine after a good soaking, then you can reduce the water to two or three times a week. If they continue to do well, your plants are probably not in need of more than that. Remember that the plant will grow until the point where it has more than adequate water. After that point, it will die. As long as the water is not so close to its point of no return, it can still support the plant.
Since you have already been having problems, it might be an idea to first dig out the plants that are dying, and give them some food and water. If the roots are healthy, then you might try repotting the plant. These plants are probably more than two years old and may have had some problem with root rot in the first year or two. The repotting process will introduce all new root systems, and you will hopefully remove the root rot from the plant. I would not grow anything on the "rotten" roots. The repotting will also allow you to see the plant more easily, and allow you to pull out any unwanted seedlings from the new root system.
Finally, the planting you are doing may have been made during one of the most disease-prone times of the year, or in places where diseases thrive. I would be curious to find out where you are planting, and then do some reading on your local flora. Check the journal of the Southern IPM Center, or the University of Georgia's journal, or any of the Soil Conservation Service (S.C.S.) publications. The information on these sites can be very helpful. They should be able to tell you if certain problems are more prevalent during certain times of the year, and where to look.
Karen Gibson is a Extension entomologist in Athens, Ga., and has been with the Cooperative Extension Service for 21 years. She can be contacted at (706) 682-0379.
Saving gardens with sanitation
Q: My husband and I have an ornamental garden that has matured over the last few years. The ground is prepared the same way each year, with a three-foot layer of compost and annual raked. This year, however, I found several holes in the garden that were under the ornamental plantings. They had been there for a while. I looked for holes that might have had roots growing out of them, and found two. They were about a quarter of an inch wide and were sunken in about an inch. They were about 4 to 6 inches in length. They were just like tiny eye sockets into the earth. I don't think it was a gopher because I've never seen them in this area before. I also looked under the garden bed for rodents and found none. What might be causing these holes and how can I get rid of them?
A: I am sorry to hear that you found gopher holes in your garden. They are definitely in your area, so hopefully someone there can give you some more information. It is also possible that the holes are from digging by squirrels.
It is possible that these are gopher holes, but it is also possible that the hole is from a rodent. Actually, it is probable that your garden is being eroded by small rodents, which is typical of