Thursday, April 29, 2010

The fungus among us (or "Who Killed Cherry Sage?")

There is fungus among us, and I think it's killing my plants...along one side of my front path, anyway. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to have David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth (authors of What's Wrong With My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?) diagnose my garden malady in their three-part guest series on Garden Rant, so I had to do it myself. Luckily, I had help from their book, which I won in a contest on May Dreams Gardens. Garden bloggers helping other garden bloggers--isn't it great? I think so!

(Warning--this a long story, so if you're stopping by for a brief visit, you might want to bookmark this post and come back later.)

The whole sordid mess begins with this pretty little autumn sage (Salvia greggii) I posted about on March 30. It's easy to see why some call it 'Cherry Sage.' I was simply delighted to see it 'spring forward' so lushly after last summer's drought and winter's 17° F freezes.
Salvia greggii 'Autumn Sage'

Alas, my delight was short-lived. A week later, on April 7, I noticed the entire plant was drooping, and some of the stems on the north side of the plant had turned all brown and crunchy.
Dying autumn sage

Closeup of the brown crunchy bits, big noisy sigh.
Dying autumn sage

Ten days later, on Saturday, April 17, the autumn sage, S. greggii, a reliable and hardy native plant for Central Texas xeriscapes, was stone-cold dead. What on earth takes out an established salvia greggii in ten days?
Autumm sage collapse

I knew I had a big problem, but what? I saw no insects (other than bees and butterflies), no scale, no mold, no growths, no galls, no root nodes, no oozing, nothing obvious. And nothing I read on the Internet about S. greggii gave any clues. "[Salvia greggii] is disease and insect free and drought tolerant, and once established, should not be fertilized."
University of Florida IFAS Extension: "No pests or diseases are of major concern."
Jerry Parson's Plant Answers: "Most gardeners find Salvia to be relatively pest - and disease - free."

Two plants down from the dead salvia, a nearby white autumn sage testified to the hardiness of the species.
Autumn sage

So who killed Cherry Sage? I didn't know, and my Twitter garden buddies didn't, either. I decided to chalk it up to a mysterious, isolated incident. I dug up the dead salvia and threw it in the trash.

The following Saturday, April 24, I noticed the blossoms of the Bath's pink dianthus that looked so healthy on April 6 and April 17 had completely flopped over. Fearing the worst, I decided to try peeking underneath the plant. To my horror, I found I could lift the entire huge mound up off the ground, except for one small section that remained fully rooted. The bottom of the plant was brown and wilted, and a horde of pillbugs were having one heckuva party under there. I also noticed that some of the wood bits within the compost under the plant had white growth on them. Ohh, that can't be good, can it?
Fungus under Bath's dianthus
I'm no expert, but I figure rotten roots are a sign of root rot. Ya think?

Between the Bath's pinks and the spot where the autumn sage died, I realized the Mayfield Giant coreopsis was clearly drooping. Uh oh. I'd been thinking maybe the plant was just getting too big to hold itself up (it's huge); now I'm thinking, Oh nooo, not the coreopsis too!
Drooping coreopsis

I peered down into the center of the giant mound, and found telltale signs of fungus. Brownish-black shriveled stems and leaves at the base. Holes in the leaves with brown edges. And pillbugs, feeding on the dead bits.
Fungus on coreopsis

Looking closer, I noted mottling on the lower leaves. Mottled leaves are often seen with plant viruses, but according to "What's Wrong with My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?)", similar leaf patterns may also reflect a fungal attack. Fungus can also cause plant collapse; once one has ruled out insects, nematodes, drought, salt damage, transplant shock and mechanical damage, fungi remain the primary suspects.
SIck coreopsis

So far, all signs seem to point to a fungus. But what fungus (and does it matter)? I didn't think the fungus that took out my lawn 2 years ago, Take-All-Patch, could be attacking my disease-resistant native perennials. Take-All-Patch (Gaeumannomyces graminis var. graminis) is said to attack only turf grass, particularly St. Augustine. Nevertheless, if fungus killed my lawn, and if fungus is killing my garden plants, this certainly suggests that conditions are right in my front yard for fungus to flourish.

I kept reading, researching, and Googling, and eventually came across this document from Chase Horticultural Research which suggests that Rhizoctonia spp. enjoys attacking coreopsis, dianthus AND salvia. Chase Horticultural Research is a private research and diagnostic lab for the ornamental horticulture industry. Their article on Rhizoctonia states this soil-borne pathogen can cause root, stem and foliar diseases which can decimate entire beds in a few days in hot, wet conditions. Well now. It has been warming up, and we have had a lot of rain. So is this Rhizoctonia my culprit, or is it a garden-variety verticillium, fusarium or pythium? Unfortunately, it's hard to know without a $100 diagnostic culture, or at the very least, a sample of the affected plant, encased in a Ziploc bag and toted down to the local nursery for the staff to take a look-see. (Ever try to fit a 4-foot 'Mayfield Giant' coreopsis stem into a Ziploc bag?)

At times like these, when naturally hardy plants are dying, most gardeners will conclude that Something Has to Be Done, and that Something usually comes in a powder or liquid to be sprinkled or sprayed upon said plants. Because I use organic methods, I try to choose products that are effective, yet do no harm. Although the 'do no harm' part doesn't always work out, I try anyway. In this spirit, on Sunday, I treated the entire front garden with a 2 ounce, $23 packet of Actinovate. Actinovate is an organic, broad-spectrum fungicide made by Natural Industries in Houston, Texas, a hot and humid city where folks know about fungus. The ingredients in Actinovate are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) and are nontoxic to insects, fish, invertebrates, pets and people. It's reportedly effective in treating a wide variety of fungi including Brown Patch, Take-All Patch, Dollar Spot, Powdery Mildew, Black Spot, Downy Mildew, Botrytis, Pythium, Alternaria, Phytophthora, Fusarium, Rhizoctonia, Verticillium and other root decay fungi--so if Rhizoctonia is taking out my plants, Actinovate should handle it, and if some other fungus is the culprit, Actinovate should handle it.

The active ingredient in Actinovate is a beneficial microorganism, Streptomyces lydicus strain WYEC 108. According to the manufacturer's literature, when Actinovate is used as a drench, S. lydicus colonizes the root system, feeding off of the plant's waste materials and preying on pathogens while secreting beneficial and protective by-products. These by-products also aid plants in complexing minerals and micronutrients found in the soil, allowing easier uptake. Actinovate can also be used as a spray to combat foliar or surface fungi.

Other eco-friendly fungicides include Serenade and Exel LG. Serenade contains a different strain of 'good bug', Bacillus subtilis (QST 713 Strain). However, Serenade is a foliar treatment which, although effective on surface fungus like powdery mildew, may be of limited use in treating soil-borne fungi like Rhizoctonia. Exel LG is a systemic broad-spectrum fungicide containing mono- and di-potassium salts of phosphorous acid, which are considered environmentally safe but are not technically organic. Like Actinovate, Exel LG can be used as a foliar spray, soil drench, or incorporated into soil; unlike Actinovate, Exel LG is not OMRI-approved and does not specifically state effectiveness against Rhizoctonia on the label.

Two years ago, I'd used Actinovate on my dying lawn, on the recommendation of Dromgoole's Natural Gardener. Perhaps the turf was too far gone, or I didn't apply enough of it, but Actinovate didn't seem to help. Nevertheless, I decided to try Actinovate again. Although it was too late for Cherry, I hoped Mayfield and Bath would see a benefit. I drenched the coreopsis, dianthus and remaining salvia with Activovate, and sprayed the rest of the garden with the leftovers.

The result? Two days later, the Bath's pinks perked up, the white autumn sage remained unscathed, and the coreopsis? Still floppy, but stable, and look, skippers don't mind a little floppiness. They're happy to feed on the blossoms, even when they're practically laying on the ground.
Butterflies on coreopsis

Words and photos © 2009-2010 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

El Niño showers bring April flowers

OK, so I missed Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, during the most glorious month of the entire year, I missed Foliage Follow-Up, AND I missed my one-year blogiversary on April 17. But here's some photos of my garden anyway. For the perennials, biennials and the heavy reseeding annuals, I've identified whether it's year one ('sleep'), two ('creep') or three ('leap').

Cilantro, an annual cold-weather herb, gone to seed. If you look verrrrrry closely, you can see numerous little bugs feeding on its wittle white flowers.
Bolted cilantro

'La Marne' rose, an antique polyantha rose from 1915. (Sleep)
'La Marne' rose

Purple columbine, a non-native hybrid. Or is it blue? (Creep)
Purple columbine

'Mutabilis' rose, an Earthkind-designated China rose from the 1890's. (Leap)
Mutabilis rose

'Old Blush' rose, an antique China rose circa 1752. (Leap)
'Old Blush' rose

Old-fashioned single pink hollyhocks. (Creep)

'Blackhawk' black raspberry canes, covered with flowers and baby green raspberries. (Creep)
'Blackhawk' black raspberries

Kennebec seed potatoes, making flowers, which hopefully means the plants are making potatoes, too!

A precious mound of blackfoot daisies. (Creep)
Blackfoot daisies

Four-nerve daisies, going nuts as usual. They NEVER stop blooming. (Creep)
Four-nerve daisy

White autumn sage (salvia greggii) going gangbusters. (Creep. The cherry sage died of unknown causes a few weeks ago; an unsolved mystery.)
Autumn sage

Rock penstemon, rising from the blackened ashes of last year's drought. Hooray! (Creep)
Rock penstemon

Another surprising return is this cedar sage. I planted one sprig last spring, which quickly perished within a couple of months. Well, that's that, I thought; you win some, you lose some. Fast-forward to mid-March--I notice all these seedlings popping up with leaves that look oddly like cedar sage, within a 2-foot radius of the original sprig. Two weeks later, they start blooming. Crazy! (Creep)
Cedar sage

Spiderwort (another surprise return from a sprig planted last spring), with Bath's pink dianthus in the back, and coreopsis 'Mayfield Giant' behind it. The dianthus smells glorious. (Creep)
Bath's pink dianthus, spiderwort

On the other side of the Bath's pinks, a field of assorted sedums, which are just starting to bloom. Very exciting as I've never had sedums bloom before. (Sleep)
Bath's pink dianthus and sedums

Fresh strawberries out of the garden--Chandler and Sequoia varieties. At the suggestion of Diana from Sharing Nature's Garden, I'm going to keep them in the ground in this very spot and see if I get an even bigger crop next year. (Sleep)

'Dame du Coeur' rose, from 1958. The light scent of these roses is reminiscent of fresh apples. (Leap) 'Hot Lips' salvia is to the left.
'Dame du Coeur' rose

Bright and perky damianita, a Texas native. (Creep)

Oh--and I entered one of these shots into the Gardening Gone Wild photo contest for March. This month's theme is "Green World". Can you guess which photo I entered? Never mind, don't guess - go check out the contest page, and all the entries (including mine), then enter your own!

Happy April!

Words and photos © 2009-2010 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter

Some Easter egg radishes for you...
Easter egg radishes

...and a treat for the Easter bunny.
Danvers 126 carrots

Happy Easter!

Words and photos © 2009-2010 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spring harvest of fall crops

Farmer's market stand? Produce section at Whole Foods? No, just a small part of what I harvested out of my garden on Friday morning. Time to make way for the warm-weather crops!
Cool-weather-crop harvest
Left to right: Danvers 126 carrots, "baby" oakleaf lettuce, Easter egg radishes, late flat Dutch cabbage, the world's tiniest Brussels sprouts, Detroit Dark Red beet greens, and "baby" Catalina spinach. (I don't know why they call 'em "baby". They got plenty big, and still plenty tasty, too.)

This was my first effort at a fall vegetable garden, and I think it all went very well! Now, I didn't do it alone. Jack built the frames for the beds and hauled in tons of compost, but I planted the seeds, fertilized and mulched. With one hand, mind you.

All the various lettuces and greens I planted were very prolific producers, thanks to the rains and cool temperatures. This is the lettuce bed after harvesting and giving away 5 heads of lettuce this week, and eating salad 3-4 nights a week for a month.
I hope we'll be able to eat or give away the rest before it all bolts like the arugula and mache have. Yes, this is the same bed I blogged about in this post in January.

I harvested almost all the spinach on Friday--nearly 2 pounds worth--and there's still more out there. Luckily, we lurve spinach. I'm thinking spinach omelets for breakfast, spinach salad for lunch, and spinach enchiladas for dinner! Wonder what Jack will think?
Broccoli surrounded by spinach
That's a broccoli seedling in the middle. I'm not sure it's going to achieve much before it gets too hot. Oh well, it was worth a try.

But wait, there's more! I haven't even harvested the Fordhook Giant swiss chard yet. These three plants are holdovers from last spring, and they are still producing.
I guess they like the shady spot under the coral honeysuckle.

The Easter egg radishes did well. Most of them were nice and sweet, but a few were very peppery, especially the tiniest ones. Go figure.
Easter egg radishes

I was surprised at how well the carrots did. Mostly straight, crisp and sweet, with just a hint of an aromatic herbal note to the flavor. Wonderful!
Danvers 126 carrots

Of course, there's always a few oddballs, from seeds planted too close together or on top of a stray rock.
Oddball carrots

And it looks like a few stray seeds of other carrot varieties made their way into my seed packet.
The odd seeds in the Danvers 126 packet

Now for what didn't do so well, starting with the beets. Very odd, as they were planted in the same bed right next to the carrots. Lots of nice lush green tops (which I saved), but the beets themselves were no bigger than radishes. They were in the ground for plenty of time; if I'd left them alone any longer, they might have gotten a tiny bit bigger, but likely more woody as well, and I might have lost the greens, so I pulled them.
Baby beets

The Brussels sprouts also did not do well. I only planted one plant, because Jack doesn't like them and the plant gets very large. Alas, the sprouts on top of the stem went to seed this week, before the bottom sprouts matured.
Broccoli sprouts gone to seed
I harvested the tiny sprouts off the stem anyway; they were no bigger than a dime. I got about a cup--plenty for a serving for me.

What did well (or not so well) in your veggie garden this past season?

Words and photos © 2009-2010 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.