Q & A WITH BOB POLOMSKI

Extension Consumer Hoeticulturist, Clemson University

I’ve heard about gardening by the moon. How does it work?

—P.D., Walnut Creek, CA

Answer: Those who garden according to the lunar phases believe that the moons gravitational pull affects not only the world’s oceans but the movements of water within plants, seed germination, and plant growth. Specific gardening tasks, from propagating and transplanting to fertilizing and weeding, are done in accordance with a particular phase of the moon.

Every 29.5 days, the moon goes through a complete cycle, which is divided into quarters. The first and second quarters occur during the waxing phase of the moon, when the new moon goes to half full, and the half-moon to full. The first quarter, it is said, is an ideal time for planting annuals that produce fruit aboveground and bear seeds “outside of their fruit,” such as lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower. In the second quarter, one should plant annuals that also bear fruit aboveground, but have their seeds inside the fruit, such as beans, melons, squash, and tomatoes. The third and fourth quarters occur in the waning phase of the moon, when moonlight decreases as the full moon changes to a new moon. In the third quarter, when the full moon goes to half full, plant root crops such as beets, carrots, potatoes, and peanuts. It’s also a favorable time for planting or transplanting bulbs, biennials, and perennials. The fourth quarter, when the half-moon goes to a new moon, is an ideal time for cultivating, harvesting, and controlling weeds, insects, and other pests.

In addition, some gardeners feel that gardening activities should be timed according to the moon’s location in the zodiac. There are 12 astrological signs in the zodiac, and every few days the moon moves into a new sign. There are fruitful signs, such as Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces, that are ideal signs for planting, especially during a waxing moon. When the moon is in a barren sign, such as Aries, Leo, or Virgo, and in its fourth quarter, it’s the best time for cultivating, pulling weeds, and controlling pests.

Although those who practice lunar gardening attest to its benefits, there is sparse scientific evidence to support their anecdotal experiences. That is not to say that the benefits may not exist. They just haven’t been substantiated in controlled experiments.

I collected a handful of fruit from a palm tree growing in a highway median in Tampa, Florida. The blue-green leaves and yellow fruit were irresistible. I was told that if s a jelly palm. How can I start it from seed?

—L.M., by e-mail

Answer: Jelly, or pindo, palm (Butia capitata) is native to South America and hardy in USDA Zones 8b—11. This relatively low-growing palm matures to a height of 15 feet. It’s known for its distinctive blue-green to bluish gray feathery fronds.

In early summer, it produces a three- to four-foot-long inflorescence of flowers enclosed in a yellow to reddish spathe. The ripe apricot-shaped yellow fruits are edible, with a flavor that’s reminiscent of bananas and pineapples. They can be eaten fresh or processed into jams and jellies or fermented to make wine.

Each fruit contains a single seed. For the highest germination rate, select fruits that have matured to a deep yellow. Remove the seed from the fruit and let it air dry. Seeds should not be sown immediately after harvesting, because they require an after-ripening period. Store the dry seed in a polyethylene bag. The length of the storage period decreases with increasing temperatures; store them for about 125 days at 40°F, 100 days at 60°F, 90 days at 77°F.

When this period has passed, sow the seed in a mixture of equal parts peat moss and perlite. Cover the seed to a level equal to the diameter of the seed. Like that of most palms, jelly palm seed will germinate best at 85-95°F, although 70°F is adequate. Keep the medium moist and do not let it dry out. Germination can take up to six months or longer.

The seedlings can be transplanted when their first leaf appears. Do not replant them too deeply. The point on the seedling stem where the roots begin should be at the soil surface. Newly transplanted seedlings should be placed in partial shade until new growth begins.

We moved into a house that has a 10-foot-high hedgerow of red tips. Last summer this privacy screen was nearly defoliated. I tried to remove the sorriest looking branches and sprayed a fungicide, all to no avail. What can I do?

—A.A., Haleburg, AL

Answer: Named for the color of the new foliage, red tip (Photinia fraseri) is a tough broadleaf evergreen shrub that does well in both sun and shade in USDA Zones 7 to 9. The shrub’s Achilles’ heel, however, is its susceptibility to a fungal disease called entomosporium leaf spot (Entomosporium mespili).

This disease attacks newly expanding leaves, usually in spring and fall when the weather is cool and rainy. Mature leaves are resistant to infection. Initially this fungus produces small dark brown to black spots surrounded by a reddish or purplish halo on the upper or lower surfaces of young leaves.

These spots enlarge and take on raised dark purple margins with tan or ashen gray centers. Eventually the spots mature and develop small black specks in the middle, which are the spore-producing structures of the fungus. In severe cases, this leads to defoliation.

To reduce the incidence of infection, rake up and discard fallen leaves to lower the number of overwintering fungal spores. Avoid pruning during the growing season—it encourages flushes of new shoots, which are susceptible to infection. Prune only in the winter, before bud-break. Make selective thinning cuts, opening up the inner sections to improve sunlight penetration and air circulation, which will promote rapid drying of the leaves. Depending on their spacing, you may want to remove every other shrub to alleviate overcrowding. And avoid wetting the leaves when watering, since the fungus spreads by splashing water.

Use fungicides as a last resort. Because red tip produces several growth flushes a season, expect fungicide applications to be a regular chore. Use chlorothalonil (Daconil 2787), propiconazole (Banner Maxx), myclobutanil (Immunox), or thiophanate-methyl (Cleary’s 3336). These should be rotated to prevent the buildup of resistance.

I want to put plants around my swimming pool, but I’m worried about the chlorine and the bees that the plants might attract.

—I.C., Cincinnati, OH

Answer: The good news is that you don’t have to worry about the chlorine. Pool water splashed on nearby plants won’t harm them. The form of chlorine that is commonly added to pool water is not household bleach (which is toxic to plants) but instead solid calcium hypochlorite, which forms hypochlorous acid (HOC1) when placed in water. Established plants (and animals) can tolerate the concentrations found in pool water.

As far as protecting swimmers, you should choose plants that, first of all, don’t have spines or thorns. Likewise, avoid those that shed leaves, bark, seeds, fruits, and other assorted plant parts that could get underfoot.

To avoid confrontations with pollinating insects, select poolside plants that bloom in early spring and late fall when there will be less activity around the pool. You might begin the season with creeping phlox, dianthus, or blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii), and finish with assorted chrysanthemums and New England asters. Or choose plants like caladiums, elephant ears (Alocasia and Colocasia), New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), and ornamental grasses—foliage is their principal visual delight, not flowers.

In short, don’t hesitate to landscape your pool. Just as plants benefit from an abundance of water, so too does water benefit from an abundance of plants.

I have planted tuberoses for several years now, but I can’t seem to get them to flower. Sometimes, they don’t even survive the winter. Any suggestions?

—T.W., Dallas, TX

Answer: Native to Mexico, tuberoses (Polianthes tuberosa) are reliably cold hardy in Zones 8 to 10. Bulbs must be three-quarters of an inch in diameter to bloom. Plant them when the soil temperature is above 68°F (for you, March or April). Tuberoses do best under highly fertile conditions. Amend the soil with copious amounts of compost, or apply a slow-release fertilizer at the first sign of growth. Keep the grassy gray-green clumps of foliage well watered. Given these conditions, four months after planting a three-foot flower spike should appear, bearing tubular waxy white single flowers or creamy double flowers of intoxicating fragrance. H

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