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Answering questions from tormented Alaska gardeners

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Posted: Sunday, August 8, 2010 4:28 am | Updated: 1:25 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - This week, a few of the torments being experienced by local gardeners.

One reader wrote that the tomato plants growing in his greenhouse were listless and the leaves were yellowing.

A lone tomato plant in another area of his garden was doing fine. I was puzzled by the fact that all of the plants but one were being impacted — so it either had to be a soil condition particular to the affected area or a disease that was traveling among the closely situated plants.

The reader also contacted Michele Hebert, of Cooperative Extension, who said, “He actually just started using Miracle Gro and compost tea after the symptoms started and that has only been 2 weeks. I suggested that he stop by my office or local garden center and take a quick soil test… What I suspect, is that he is using old soil with too high P levels and it is tying up the zinc and iron. I have seen this after folks have used 8-32-16 or a soluble 15-30-15 for several years. My recommendation is a quick soil sample for pH and N,P,K and keep fertilizing with soluble fertilizer.”

The reader wrote back a few days later, saying, “Last Sunday I did the quickie soil test kit from Fred’s: pH = 6.0, nitrogen and potash = very low, phosphorus = low. Since then I have watered twice with Miracle Gro mixed in manure tea, and the plants are noticeably greener and more turgid. I now realize my mistake. Each spring I mix compost and wood ashes into my raised beds… This year I ran out of compost and ashes before getting to the greenhouse buckets, so I dumped the soil from the greenhouse buckets into a wheelbarrow and mixed in some other soil I had stored under a dark tarp... some of which was changed out in previous years from house plants or other planters. No wonder it was nutrient depleted! The tomatoes continue to develop in size and color and blossoms are fine, so hopefully it was corrected in time.”

Another reader wrote that her tuberous begonias are not doing well — rot and mildew have taken over the bottom of the plants. She isn’t the first person to complain about a less than stellar performance from tuberous begonias this year, but in all the cases the problems seem to be due to the same environmental conditions — poor circulation due to overcrowding of plants and no protection from the drenching rains we have been having. Also, we’ve had a few nights of lower temps (48 degrees at my house one day a few weeks ago), and begonias do not like high humidity combined with cool nights. My begonias are doing okay, but, unlike the folks who wrote in, they are on our porch and thus are protected from rain and wind. (Not that I can’t wreck things without any help from the weather. Begonias like to dry out a bit between watering and I am notorious for overwatering.) I advised her to cut out the damaged leaves, which will open up the clutter and give all the plants better circulation; some of her begonias were in pots, so I suggested she move them to a sheltered location. Finally, I advised her to find a copy of love Begonias, by Mike Stevens. It is a slender volume, but abounds with lush photos and easy to read advice.

Every year, including this summer, I hear from folks who cannot get their squash to produce any fruits — the miniature squash rot off before they are large enough to eat. The culprit is a lack of pollination and the miniature squash are not real fruit but are immature ovaries that die off if not fertilized. Luckily, the solution is simple: find the male stamens, which are in the flowers at the end of a long stem. Peel back the petals, leaving the pollen covered center intact. Put that exposed end into the female blossoms that sit atop the immature ovaries and gently move it around. You can use one male flower to pollinate all the female flowers you see. Early in the season you may notice that all the flowers are males, which can be pretty frustrating. This is normal because the female blossoms are far pickier about their surroundings. If it is too hot or two cold, they just delay their arrival.

If you have the opposite problem, meaning such an excess of zukes that you are transporting them from the garden directly to the compost heap, remember that summer squashes like scalloped and patty pan, as well as black, green, and yellow zucchini, can be grated, bagged and put in the freezer — no blanching required. Come November and beyond, you will be glad to pull out a sack to make zucchini bread, latkes or a stir fry. And speaking of the latke recipe, you can stir together the same combination of ingredients and spread the result on a lightly oiled cookie sheet; it should end up looking like a pizza crust. Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 15 minutes, pull the cookie sheet out of the oven and turn the oven down to 350 degrees. While the oven is cooling, put cheese and other toppings like shredded basil and chopped tomatoes on the zucchini crust (don’t use tomato sauce or any other liquid because the result will be mush). Bake for another 20 minutes or so and serve. Yum.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at


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