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Watch veggie patch for pests, disease

By Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. My gardenias are so overgrown, and I cannot wait to prune them. Now that they are blooming, is it time?

    You can prune these plants partly by cutting stems of gardenias to bring indoors for the scent. Try not to choose ones that have unopened buds. Leave those for later. Once the plant has bloomed out, you can prune it. I don’t favor drastic pruning, but more gentle removal of branches that will bring down the height and narrow the width of the shrub. Make individual cuts of selected stems. Do not do this job with hedge clippers. You want to end up with graceful plants that seem billowy, not tight.


In early summer, with vegetable crops planted and growing, it is a good practice to look over them every day. By doing this, you can spot problems and deal with them easily.

Left to prosper, such problems typically get bigger and drive you crazy. This look-over, in the early morning or late afternoon should be seen as much a part of the practice of gardening as sowing seeds and setting out transplants. It takes little energy, and you often leave the vegetable bed thinking how good everything looks and that soon things will be ready to pick.

Problems may intrude, however. With an eagle eye ready to spot bean beetles, various caterpillars and the dreaded leaf spots, the gardener is ready for action. Little beetles are easy to spot and squash between your thumb and finger. Caterpillars feeding on foliage can be knocked off and killed with the edge of a trowel. Don’t be squeamish; this is real gardening.

It is the leaf spots that gardeners sometimes overlook. These tend to appear on the most cherished crop in the garden: tomatoes. They tend to first appear low on the plant while you are standing up admiring the new blooms and baby tomatoes beginning to emerge.

Some of the modern varieties of tomatoes are resistant to various wilts and blights, which is something to think about when you shop and before you plant. Moving the plants to a different spot in the bed is also valuable in reducing diseases, but that is something to remember at planting time.

The heirlooms tend not to be resistant and these valued ones need special looking after, especially since we’ve had quite a cool and damp spring. While rain falls from above, watering with a can, hose or other sprinkling device should be as low to the ground as you can make it work. The goal is to keep the leaves dry and avoid splashing airborne spores of leaf fungus from ground to leaves and leaf to leaf. Water early in the day so that leaves are dry when night falls. Cut off any bottom tomato branches that touch the soil.

As you inspect, look for emerging spots that indicate leaf disease. Take off those leaves and get them out of the garden. Since you know the problem is there, consider using one of the organic sprays that states on the label that it is legal to use on food crops and works against tomato diseases.

Perhaps the greatest tomato problem and disappointment in our area is one called blossom-end rot. This is a blackened spot on the base of the tomato, opposite the stem end. This is not a disease, but a physiological problem caused by calcium deficiency.

Uneven watering tends to be at the root of most cases, which is another reason to put down mulch that will keep the soil from drying out quickly. Tomato plants that wilt at a certain point in the development of the fruit tend to get this.

Calcium sprays can be applied once you see the problem exists. And using a fertilizer that contains calcium such as Tomato-Tone will help.

Watching, watering evenly and applying fertilizer at the rate directed on the package all contribute to the healthy tomato plants you want to tend all summer and into the fall.

Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

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