Friday, July 31, 2009

Where The Heck Are You Gardening? Ask the Snarky Farmer!

      All gardening is local. The outdoor plants that grow for me, may not grow for you. And vice versa (especially vice versa!). With that, it's time to delve into the Ask the Snarky Farmer mailbag!

     Gramma Dori writes: "I received two small azalea trees, with one having green houseplants planted with it. Could you tell me if I should keep them in the house or put them outside? And, when should I plant them in outdoor pots or in the ground?"

   You don't say where you live, and that can have a big bearing on where and when to plant azaleas. In the Central Valley area and foothills of California, they are best planted where they can get some filtered shade, such as the east side of the house. For those areas of coastal influence, they can be planted in full sun. Why the difference? Because the sun seldom shines along the Northern California coast in the summertime! And it drizzles! And it's cold! When I lived in Fort Bragg, I would drive inland two hours to Ukiah...just to get warm! But I digress...

      Wherever azaleas are planted, they need acidic soil and good drainage. You could plant them now, just be sure to mulch the area thoroughly to preserve soil moisture. azalea AND houseplants, together, in the same pot? Sure would help to know about those "houseplants"!  Depending on your climate, they may also survive outdoors. Are you sure that it isn't a bonsai specimen? Perhaps someone is trying to hook you into another time-consuming, expensive hobby!

     "Ortho's Complete Guide to Successful Houseplants" says this about growing azaleas indoors: "After flowering, many are simply used as indoor foliage plants. Most azaleas sold as houseplants are not hardy enough for northern gardens. To encourage an azalea to bloom again inside the home, put the plant outside in early summer. Bring it back inside in early winter, after the cool days of fall, and put it in a cool place until it blooms again. After flowering, provide at least four hours of curtain-filtered sunlight from a bright south, east or west window. Keep evenly moist. Discard drainage."


     Wendy asks: "Please tell me what you think of a product called Liquid Aerify, which is supposed to condition clay soil. Is it safe and effective?"

     Despite having acres of heavy clay soil, I have never tried Aerify. When examining an unfamiliar garden chemical, read the "Active Ingredients" or "Analysis" portion of the label, and then do your homework. Fortunately, the manufacturer of Aerify, Nature's Lawn and Garden, provides a link to that label

 You can read what Wikipedia says about that 60% active ingredient, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. My big question is, what is in the other 40%?

Perhaps further clues are here at  their link to Aerify's Material Safety Data Sheet, which reads in part:

 If you are trying to improve clay soil, here is more info from the "UC Guide to Healthy Lawns":

"Organic material improves soil structure. Although often not necessary, organic material can be added to sandy soils to increase nutrient and moisture retention. Clay soils can also be amended with organic material to help loosen the soil and provide better aeration and drainage. Compost is the easiest organic material to use. It can be purchased at garden supply stores or can be ordered by the truckload. A rotary tiller works best to incorporate the organic material to your soil. A layer of 1 - 2 inches spread over your site should be tilled to a depth of 3 - 6 inches. Even though some fertilizers are from organic sources, organic amendments are not necessarily fertilizers and should not be substituted for them."

     There are those in organic gardening circles who maintain that all you need to do is place several inches of compost on the top of the existing soil; rototilling, they say, is harmful to the beneficial soil microbes. But that story is for another mailbag!


Saturday, August 1
Harvest Day at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center
Where:  Fair Oaks Park 11549 Fair Oaks Blvd. Fair Oaks, CA 95628
Time:   8:00 a.m to 2:00 p.m.
Cost:   Free admission
Information:  (916) 875-6913 

or visit
Victory Gardens are as relevant today as they were during WWI and WWII.  Then they were about reducing food costs and ensuring fresh, health and tasty home-grown food.  Today, factor in concern about the environment, need to reduce the amount of chemicals in the local water supply, necessity to use water wisely&emdash;all with smaller gardening areas and competing priorities for your time and energy.  Learn to be a Victory Gardener at Harvest Day 2009.  Discover how to plant and care for ornamental and edible plants in an environmentally friendly way, and yes, savor home grown produce.

Harvest Day is considered the Sacramento area's "premier gardening event."  It is truly a celebration for all the senses:

• Taste amazing varieties of tomatoes, grapes, and fruits
• Brush leaves and flowers and immerse yourself in the aromatic bouquet
• Listen and marvel at the activity of the beneficials (bees, birds, good bugs)
• See how to water your plants and not the street, sidewalk, or weeds (prepare for water meters)
• 30 booths dedicated to garden education (water organizations, honey , garden clubs, college horticulture departments)
• Explore the Fair Oaks Community Garden, a cornucopia of styles and crops.
• Visit the silent auction.
• Purchase:  2010 Master Gardener Calendar, grape plants


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thursday Garden Grappler: Name That Product!

Technically, it's neither a fungicide or insecticide. But, this is the active ingredient label to a product that does get rid of unwanted garden inhabitants. What is this product, from a Fresno, California-based company?

The first correct answer receives a copy of the garden literary magazine, "GreenPrints - The Weeder's Digest". Good luck!

 The correct answer:
Good going, Jeannie of Sacramento!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Container Planting Tips

By having plants in containers, everyone can be a gardener! Even if all you have is a shady six foot slab of concrete for a balcony, you can spruce it up with all sorts of color throughout the year.

Cold winters where you live? With containers, you can grow plants outdoors in the summer, and move them indoors in the winter.

The keys to successful container gardening:

• Combine plants with the same sun and watering requirements.

• Make sure the pot you choose has drain holes, and plenty of them, and that they aren't blocked. Otherwise, the plants will croak from their number one enemy: wet feet. Muddy soil at the bottom of the pot usually leads to yellowing leaves on top. 

• Match up a plant to a similiar sized container. Too much soil in too big a pot surrounding a little plant retains too much water, leading to wet feet. Increase the size of the pot for the plant gradually, as it grows.

• Pamper your container plants with special soil, such as potting soil or potting mix. Don't use your backyard dirt: it might contain pathogens such as weed seeds, disease spores and bad bugs, such as nematodes. Plus, it's way too heavy!  (demo potting soil versus planting mix)

• When filling the pot, leave room at the top, about an inch, to allow more water to get to the plant roots. Otherwise, it just spills over the top way too quickly.

• When choosing annuals for containers, try to choose those that have not yet bloomed. Plants that are in a blooming stage are too busy producing flowers instead of roots. A plant that hasn't yet bloomed has a better chance of getting its roots established.

• When you remove the annuals from their small nursery six pack, be sure to lightly scrape your nails along the root ball, to free up the roots. 

• Position your plants so that the tallest plants will be in the back; or, in the middle, if the pot will be viewed from all sides.

• Water your containerized plants until you see water coming out the drain holes. Use a shower head setting, not a forceful jet of water.

• If water comes out the bottom immediately, the soil ball has retracted away from the sides of the pot, probably because it got too dry. Break up the sides of the soil ball with a trowel or small fork; add more soil around the side if necessary.

• Because fertilizer is being leached out of the soil during all those waterings, feed your plants every two weeks instead of monthly, but cut the dosage in half, so you don't burn your plants.

• Pots can act like ovens, if they are on hot concrete in the summer. Raise them off the ground with a plant stand or a board to allow more air circulation.

The right pot, the right plant in the right place, some water and fertilizer...anyone can have a colorful garden and a green thumb!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Your Garden Does Not Get a Vacation

You may be heading out for your summer vacation. But it doesn't look like the heat will be leaving town anytime soon. The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service is forecasting above average temperatures through the first week of September for Northern and Central California. If you plan on being out of town for an extended period during the next few weeks, a little garden labor now will insure a healthy yard when you return from your holiday.

Raise, group potted plants. Plants in containers can suffer if the soil is allowed to dry out; that can be as little as 24 hours during a heat wave. Raise the pots off of hot concrete surfaces with a plant stand or strips of wood. Outdoor potted plants and hanging plants should be moved to cooler, shaded areas, such as the north or east side of the house or beneath a patio cover. Place these plants close together to help keep their containers cooler. Hook up a water timer and sprinkler in the plants' vicinity.

• Be sure to water the soil around your in-ground plants deeply the day before you leave. If you don't have a drip system or soaker hose, let a garden hose slowly trickle water around your most prized plants for eight hours.

• Keep the soil cool and moist while your gone by adding mulch around the base of your trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and the vegetable garden. Make sure the mulch is applied at least four inches thick and extends to the dripline of each plant, keeping the mulch an inch or two away from the stem of the plant to prevent rot. Good choices for mulch include organic compost,  landscape bark or tree branches that have been chipped or shredded.

• Water all houseplants thoroughly before leaving, allowing the water to run out the bottom of the container. Place the well-watered potted plants out of direct sunlight; this will help the plants retain moisture while your away.

• For more blossoms when you get home, remove fading or dead rose blooms before going on vacation.

• Don't fertilize your lawn or garden before you leave. That sudden spurt of new growth will require more water to keep the plants from undergoing stress.

• You may be on holiday, but slugs and snails never take a vacation from nibbling on your plants. Apply a granular snail killer product that contains iron phosphate, a safer alternative to those that use metaldehyde as the active ingredient.

• Don't come home to a jungle. Have a neighbor mow your lawn once a week while you are away.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rose Care Heats Up

Your rose bushes are probably taking a little nap right now. After a couple of spectacular bloom periods in April and May, the onset of summer weather may have caused the blooms on your hybrid tea roses, shrub roses, grandifloras, floribundas and miniature roses to fade lately. Not to worry: most modern varieties of roses put on six or seven bloom cycles during our long growing season. Your plants are just gearing up for the next round of color. Here are some tips to keep them blooming through December (here in the milder areas of California, anyway!):

• Water, Water, Water. It's difficult to overwater roses, but beware: they do not like "wet feet", which are roots that stay immersed in muddy, slow-draining clay soils. Deep, slow, two or three times a week waterings are best for these thirsty plants. Plenty of water, in combination with fertilizer, gives roses a summertime boost to keep producing new wood, necessary for additional blooms. Drip irrigation, soaker hoses, low microsprayers or bubbler heads are preferable to overhead sprinklers. But in our hot, dry and windy climate, a once a week overhead sprinkling, in addition to regular irrigation, helps keep the dust off the leaves and washes away aphids and mites. Just be sure to apply this shower early in the day to avoid fungus growth.

• Feed roses once a month, from March through early October. Use a complete, balanced granular or liquid fertilizer. Don't feed roses after mid-October; a late fall feeding may stimulate too much growth at the time when roses should be slowing down in the cooler weather. Still, if the weather cooperates, harvesting blooms before Christmas is not uncommon here.

• Mulch and pinch. Adding several inches of organic compost around the base of rose plants helps conserve water and keep roots cooler. Deadheading old rose blooms and cutting off infected or broken branches after each bloom cycle will strengthen the plant for each future bloom cycle.

• Remove unwanted growth. Seek out and cut out any branches that appear to begin below ground level and are noticeably thornier. This rootstock growth robs the rest of the plant of energy to produce the desirable blooms.

• Note the poor performers. If a certain variety of rose bush hasn't bloomed strongly for two years in a row, label it now and dig it out of the ground in January or February when a new crop of bare root roses will be available at area nurseries.

• And this bloom tip from consulting rosarian Baldo Villegas: tip prune your roses six or seven weeks before a planned event at your house. This will help insure a sea of rose blooms when the guests arrive. For example, if you are planning a get together on Labor Day weekend, this would be the time to snip.

• The standard recommendation for summer pruning of a rose bush is to cut the flower stem back to an outward-facing bud above a five-leaflet leaf on a vigorously growing hybrid tea rose. For weaker plants, don't cut off as much.

• Despite the title, the book, "Roses for Dummies" is a great reference book for beginning and experiences rose gardeners.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Spa Water, Rabbit Poop & Jumping Beans: Ask the Snarky Farmer!

 Fridays, we dive into that digital cauldron of hot topics known as... Ask the Snarky Farmer!

     Bill asks: "Can I used the water I am draining from my hot tub to water plants? Of course it has chlorine or bromine in it, or perhaps some other pool treatment chemicals. Will these wreak havoc on plants? It seems a shame to just drain this water into the storm drain."

     Good question! I drain my hot tub onto my lawn and rose bushes; I've been doing that for over 10 years. No problem!* HOWEVER....I   do let the water cool before emptying the spa; and, I make sure there are no detectable traces of chlorine/bromine on the test strips. Here is some advice from the Association of Spa and Pool Professionals:

"Re-use. When you do drain your spa, let it sit open for 48 to 72 hours with no new chemicals added, and then use the water on garden plants, or ask your retailer about products that neutralize   chemicals. To prevent unsupervised use, remember to make sure that proper safety barriers are in place any time that the spa safety cover is removed.
Recycle. Use captured rainwater to replace water lost to evaporation  in spas and pools or to refill a spa.
Upgrade. Spas manufactured in the last five years have new technology cleaning systems that keep the water clean much longer – up to six  months without refilling. This new technology is also available for  some older models. Your spa dealer can advise you whether you can add  this technology to your spa."

*(Mrs. Snarky Farmer adds this rejoinder: "No problem? What's that brown lawn area next to the hot tub? Why did two of the five Iceberg roses die, 15 feet away? And why are the star magnolia leaves July?!?")


     Wallace writes: "Mr. Fred, this might be a crazy question, but I am trying to get an answer. Sometimes, I get two or more fruits from the same tree and some of the fruit are not as sweet as the others from the same tree. What/why?"

     Who/Where? Without knowing the kind of fruit tree that is in question, or the location, I would suspect that the "not sweet" fruits are "not yet ripe".  It is not uncommon for fruit trees to stagger the ripening of the fruit, despite the fact that they look ripe. In the case of stone fruits, the softer fruits are usually riper, and probably sweeter, than the harder fruits. And in the case of all fruit trees, I certainly hope you are getting two or more pieces of fruit more often than "sometimes". Unless you have a kiwi, like me. Bad kiwi. (hmmm, maybe its the spa water???)


     Claudine inquires: "I  have a small front lawn where the rabbits seem to like to leave their droppings.  My lawn is turning brown where I notice the droppings,  whereas the other areas are very green.  Could this be due to their droppings or perhaps the urine or both?"

      Yes, both would be sources of "hot" nitrogen, which could burn your lawn in those spots,while greening up the surrounding area. Putting a little extra water on those hot spots might help...if you can get there in time! To give you an idea of how "hot" rabbit poop is, note its Nitrogen content compared to other animals in this chart:


Material        N%  P%   K%         Comments
Rabbit Manure (fresh)       2.4       1.4        0.6        Compost, or delay planting at least 3 wks.

Chicken Manure (fresh)    1.6       1.5        0.9        Compost, or delay planting at least 3 wks. 

Cow Manure (fresh)          0.3       0.2        0.1        Compost, or delay planting at least 3 wks. 
Horse Manure (fresh)       0.7       0.3         0.6       Compost, or delay planting at least 3 wks.              

Pig Manure (fresh)          0.5        0.3          0.5      Compost, or delay planting at least 3 wks.

Sheep Manure (fresh)      0.7        0.3         0.9      Compost, or delay planting at least 3 wks.          

Worm Castings                0.5        0.5          0.3     High in organic matter. Already Composted

Here is a link to more info about controlling 
wascally wabbits.


     Lynn in Chico writes: "Yesterday I noticed my sidewalk was dancing, sort of.  Looking closer I saw what looked like bird seed scattered, but the seeds were jumping!  I collected a few of the tiny eggs (?) and they are still jumping this morning. They can get about a half inch of air when they jump.  I assume they are some sort of bug getting ready to hatch. Most of them are on the ground under the oaks on my property.  Please let me know if they are good bugs or bad bugs."

     Those would be oak galls, not a probem. Here is more info:
Jumping Oak Galls Are Interesting and Harmless to Oak Trees

by Ed Perry,  U.C.  Farm Advisor

"If you have a Valley oak tree growing in your landscape, or if you visit one of our local parks where Valley oak trees are growing, you may notice a strange phenomenon occurring this year. The ground beneath many Valley oaks this year is covered with pinhead-sized yellow or brown seedlike objects, most of which are hopping around. The tiny things are called ìjumping oak gallsî, and are formed by a tiny, dark wasp. The wasp belongs to an interesting family of wasps called the cynipids.

"The galls are actually malformations of plant growth. The tiny gall-forming wasp lays an egg in an oak leaf at a precise moment in the treeís growth cycle, causing normal plant cells to multiply at an unusually high rate. As a result, the tiny egg becomes encased in the gall composed of oak leaf tissue.

"When the egg hatches, the gall provides both food and a living chamber for the larvae. In summer, the oak gall drops to the ground with the tiny wasp larvae inside. The insect moves in jerks, causing the entire gall to jump around on the ground. Itís believed that the larvae hop around in an attempt to find a crack in the soil to hide up in. At maturity it transforms into a pupae, and later into an adult which chews its way out of the gall. The wasps themselves are dark colored, so tiny that youíll probably never see them, and harmless to people.

"A few insect-formed plant galls are found on willow, poplar, rose and other plants, but more than 100 different kinds are found on oaks. The entire oak tree is fair game for the cynipid wasps, which form wasps on leaves, buds, twigs, branches, roots and even the acorns. Each cynipid wasp species forms a gall of particular size, shape and color; no other species forms one quite like it. Also, each one lays its eggs in a specific plant part.

"Besides the jumping oak gall, you be familiar with the common oak apple, a large gall up to three inches in diameter. These large galls are common on the deciduous Valley oaks, and contain one or more tiny cynipid wasp larva inside. You may also find a pink, star shaped gall on the undersides of Valley and blue oaks. Other galls are cone shaped, or round and fuzzy, or shped like tiny loaves of bread.

"In California, most insect caused galls are not harmful to the plant. In some cases the galls may damage leaves or even cause twigs to die. However, the insect galls cause no serious permanent injury. Because of their complex life cycle, it is very difficult to prevent cynipid wasps from forming galls; in most cases, it is unnecessary to do so."


     Keith wrote: "I am looking for a good source to identify bugs I find on my property. I would prefer pictures. Can you help?"

One of my favorite bug mugshot books is "Rodale's Color Handbook of Garden Insects." On line, try or

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Name that Plant, Win a Prize!

It's a Garden Grappler, blog-style...Name this plant!

 This roadside plant fills vacant lots and pastures throughout California and Oregon. It can grow to two feet tall, with rigid, erect stems. It blooms in the summer. Those small, linear-shaped leaves beneath the flower head remain after the larger leaves have fallen...and they hurt if they poke you!

And since this is an open book test, include the botanical name (genus and species) as well as the common name.

Be one of the first three correct responders and win a copy of the Dr. Earth Gardening Guide!

And for chrissakes, don't put the answer in the "comment" section! Snarky rejoinders are always welcome, there, though.

The mystery plant:
Fitch's Spikeweed (Hemizonia fitchii)

For more information: The Outdoor World of the Sacramento Region 
or, for you true plant nerds:
Hortus Third

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Foliar Feeding: A Waste of Time and Money?

      You know how it is: you hear something enough, you believe it's true. Look on the side of any box of water soluble fertilizer, or any organic gardening guide, and there will be instructions on foliar feeding: spraying a water soluble fertilizer onto the leaves of a plant, as an alternative source of nutrition for the plant.

      A few weeks ago on the radio show, a tempest in a teapot developed when Milo Shammas, the President of the Dr. Earth line of organic products, mentioned that the best way to apply a foliar fertilizer, which he endorses, is in as fine a spray as possible. In his corner, Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, which states: "Plants can absorb liquid fertilizers through both their roots and through their leaf pores. Foliar feeding can supply nutrients when they are lacking or unavailable in the soil, or when roots are stressed. It is especially effective for giving fast growing plants like vegetables an extra boost during the growing season...Any sprayer or mister will work, from hand trigger units to knapsack sprayers. Set your sprayer to emit as fine a spray as possible."

      Disagreeing with the "fine spray" approach is another organic advocate and frequent guest of the radio shows, Steve Zien of the Sacramento area-based organic consulting service, Living Resources Company
     Zien says, "Some time ago I read a few studies that indicated that most of that (spraying with a fine spray) was not necessary. The studies used radio isotopes to follow the nutrients in the foliar fertilizer. They found that it got into the plant even when the water droplets were large. Another study indicated that even with the best spray equipment making the smallest water droplets possible with today's technology, the water droplets were still too large to physically enter the plant. They concluded that water droplet size is not important when foliar feeding. Other studies have shown that foliar fertilizer can even be absorbed by branches and tree trunks.  These two facts indicate that where you spray is also not critical.  Numerous studies have shown that foliar feeding is much more efficient at getting the nutrients absorbed and to the entire plant and more rapidly as well. 
     I think all the studies emphasize that even with all the benefits of foliar feeding, it cannot be considered a substitute for proper soil nutrition, and I fully agree with that. You need to feed the soil foodweb for healthy, pest resistant plants.I no longer worry about where I apply the foliar fertilizer. I try to apply it to as many plant surfaces as possible but do not worry about paying attention to the undersides of the leaves."

     Throwing cold water on both those practices are a couple of college educators, Deborah Flower of the Horticulture Department of American River College in Sacramento; and, Linda Chalker-Scott of the Horticulture Department at Washington State University and author of the award-winning book, "The Informed Gardener", who says this about foliar feeding: 
     "The existing research does not justify foliar fertilization of landscape plants as a general method of mineral nutrition. It can be useful for diagnosing deficiencies; for instance, spraying leaves with iron chelate can help determine if interveinal chlorosis is from iron deficiency. It would obviously have a benefit for those landowners with landscape fruit trees that perpetually have flower or fruit disorders associated with micronutrient deficiencies. Applying fertilizers to leaves (or the soil) without regard to actual mineral needs wastes time and money, can injure plant roots and soil organisms, and contributes to the increasing problem of environmental pollution. The bottom line:
• Tree and shrub species differ dramatically in their ability to absorb foliar fertilizers.
• Proper plant selection relative to soil type is crucial to appropriate mineral nutrition.
• Foliar spraying is best accomplished on overcast, cool days to reduce leaf burn.
• In landscape plants, foliar spraying can test for nutrient deficiencies, but not solve them.
• Micronutrients are the only minerals that are effectively applied through foliar application.
• Foliar application will not alleviate mineral deficiencies in roots or subsequent crown growth.
• Foliar spraying is only a temporary solution to the larger problem of soil nutrient availability.
• Minerals (especially micronutrients) applied in amounts that exceed a plant’s needs can injure or kill the plant and contribute to environmental pollution.
• Any benefit from foliar spraying of landscape trees and shrubs is minor considering the cost and labor required."

     Chiming in is Deborah Flower of American River College: "I have been reading 'Plant Physiology, 3rd edition' by Taiz and Zeiger, and 'Mineral Nutrition of Higher Plants, 2nd edition' by Horst Marschner.  The latter discusses foliar feeding in chapter 4.  It says: there are small pores in the cuticle through which minerals can enter the plant.  These pores are in highest density near guard cells around stomata and at base of trichomes (hairs, scales, etc.).  They are tiny and lined with negative charges.  So, only very small (less than one nanometer in diameter) cations and uncharged molecules will enter these openings.
It says leaves do absorb ions, but (pages 123-125):
Rate of uptake is VERY low.
Rate of uptake varies between species and growing conditions.  Plants with thicker cuticle (due to species or growing conditions) absorb less.
Older leaves have lowest rate of uptake due to leaky plant cells that fill intercellular spaces, which is where ions travel in the leaf.
A very high concentration of ions is needed outside the leaf to get any into the leaf.
The supply of nutrients in the leaf from foliar feeding is temporary.
There is limited movement of nutrients from leaves to other plant parts.
Urea can enter leaves through these openings (ammonia and nitrate cannot), because it is an uncharged particle, but can cause damage in the leaf, due to nutrient imbalance in the leaf once it is absorbed.
Surfactants should be used with all foliar feeding to increase surface spread of spray.

      So, my opinion is that yes, plants do absorb nutrients through their leaves (neither book mentioned absorbtion through branches or trunks) but the amount is very small, nutrients do not travel far from point of entry, and there is lots of nutrient run-off during the process, which can lead to pollution.  Therefore, foliar feeding is not effective as the primary source of nutrients for plants. I disagree that foliar feeding gets nutrients to all parts of the plant. There is lots of evidence that fertilizer that gets into the leaf migrates little to other parts of the plant. It stays in the leaf or travels to a strong sink like a fruit.  Foliar feeding can correct micro-nutrient deficiencies in leaves and some fruit, but until the nutrition is balanced in the root zone, the symptom will continue to appear in new plant parts. Many of my students seem to believe foliar feeding is better for the plant than nutrient absorption by roots, and that concerns me.  Foliar feeding can be used to correct some nutritional problems, primarily in production situations, but should not be relied on as the primary source of nutrients for the plant. If people are foliar feeding I believe most of the nutrients being absorbed by the plant are entering the roots, probably after running off the plant onto the soil."

  Milo Shammas, of Dr. Earth, responds: "Fred, all very true and I agree with her, I do not recommend foliar feeding as the primary source of nutrients. Whatever runs off the foliage will ultimately be absorbed by the root system. Nothing can replace ion absorption through the root system.
 Foliar feeding as a supplement? Yes
Is it effective? Yes
Would I depend on it solely? No
Is there harm in using it? No
Do younger leaves absorb it better? Yes
 I own and manage 45 acres of organic walnuts and I personally spray my ranch with Dr. Earth liquid solution twice a year,  I do spend the money on it, I have conducted the efficacy and I know it works, I do believe in it, I do endorse it, I do not depend on it."

    After standing back, listening to all this, I have come to the conclusion: although foliar feeding may have minimal value, it does have a bigger, positive effect: washing off bad bugs from the leaves. Of course, a spray of water can accomplish the same thing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Go, Go, Gophers!

     What can be found in every county in California and at any altitude from below sea level to the alpine zones?  Is it: a) smog; b) computer-controlled recorded phone calls from politicians; or, c) gophers? The answer, of course, is d), all of the above. But for the purposes of this discussion we'll limit this space to a subject where victory is possible, gopher control. 
    Botta's pocket gopher is the Central Valley's resident gopher, and has large incisor teeth projecting outside the mouth. It has a blunt head, long sharp claws, a tail with sparse hairs and relatively small eyes and ears, perfect for doing a lot of underground burrowing.

    While you're reading this, pocket gophers may be scurrying under your backyard, eating plant roots and stems while girdling or clipping tree roots. Their crescent-shaped mounds, usually found in clusters, create unsightly areas on lawns while their burrows can carry off irrigation water or dry out plant roots. (Mole mounds, by comparison, have dirt piled all around the entrance, looking sort of like a volcano). Gopher burrows are usually two to three inches in diameter and four to twelve inches below the surface, extending for hundreds of yards. (Mole burrows used for feeding are closer to the surface, usually forming a ridge on top of the soil).
   Because of their length and intricacy, flooding gopher burrows with a hose to flush out these little munchers is usually futile (unless a hunting dog or cat is waiting at a nearby burrow entrance). 

     What then, is a gardener to do? Local nurseries sell poison baits and gopher traps. Both have to be used with extreme caution because of their inherent hazards to domestic animals and small children. And to be effective, both have to be applied properly (and usually reapplied) in order to snare these small, clever creatures that are quite adept at sniffing out potential trouble (There's more below on these methods of gopher control).

     To keep gophers out of garden areas, raised flower and vegetable beds with an impenetrable screen at their base provide one solution. Build raised beds at least 15 inches high, installing sheets of hardware cloth (quarter-inch mesh wire) along the bottoms of the beds. The wire allows air and water to penetrate but keeps the gophers from munching on your summertime flowers and vegetables.
    Another effective gopher control can be cats. Some felines are natural gopher hunters, and can rid the backyard of the producers of those tell-tale mounds and will proudly show you their catches. The key, as any cat owner can tell you, is to have a strong stomach during the "presentation of the trophies". 

     In my experience, horses can provide another deterrence to gophers. The sound of galloping hooves over their heads can persuade gophers to take up residence in a quieter neighborhood. I know this because all my neighbors have horses, and we don't. We got the gophers instead.

The folks at the UC Integrated Pest Management program offer these tips for gopher control:

Trapping is a safe and effective method to control pocket gophers. Several types and brands of gopher traps are available. The most commonly used is a two-pronged pincher trap, such as the Macabee trap, which is triggered when the gopher pushes against a flat vertical pan. Another popular trap is the choker-style box trap.

To set traps, locate the main tunnel with a probe, as previously described. Use a shovel or garden trowel to open the tunnel wide enough to set traps in pairs facing opposite directions. By placing traps with their openings facing opposite directions, a gopher coming from either end of the burrow can be intercepted. The box trap is easier to use if you've never set gopher traps before, but setting it requires more excavation than if you are using the Macabee trap, an important consideration in lawns and some gardens. Box traps are especially useful when the diameter of the gopher's main burrow is small (less than 3 inches) because to use the Macabee-type wire traps, small burrows must be enlarged to accommodate them.

It is not necessary to bait a gopher trap, although some claim baiting gives better results. Lettuce, carrots, apples, or alfalfa greens can be used as bait. Place the bait at the back of a box trap behind the wire trigger or behind the flat pan of a Macabee-type trap. Wire your traps to stakes so they can be easily retrieved from the burrow. After setting the traps, exclude light from the burrow by covering the opening with dirt clods, sod, cardboard, or some other material. Fine soil can be sifted around the edges to ensure a light-tight seal. If too much light enters, the gopher may plug the burrow with soil, filling the traps and making them ineffective. Check traps often and reset them when necessary. If a gopher is not caught within 3 days, reset the traps in a different location.

Baiting with Toxic Baits
The key to an effective toxic baiting program is bait placement. Always place pocket gopher bait in the main underground tunnel, not the lateral tunnels. After locating the main gopher burrow with a probe, enlarge the opening by rotating the probe or inserting a larger rod or stick. Following label directions, place the bait carefully in the opening using a spoon or other suitable implement that is used only for that purpose, taking care not to spill any on the ground surface. A funnel is useful for preventing spillage.

Strychnine-treated grain bait is the most common type used for pocket gopher control. This bait generally contains 0.5% strychnine and is lethal with a single feeding. Baits containing anticoagulants are also available. When using anticoagulant baits, a large amount of bait (about 10 times the amount needed when using strychnine baits) is required so that it is available for multiple feedings. Although generally less effective than strychnine baits, anticoagulant baits are preferred for use in areas where children and pets may be present. When using either type of bait, be sure to follow all label directions and precautions.

After placing the bait in the main burrow, close the probe hole with sod, rocks, or some other material to exclude light and prevent dirt from falling on the bait. Several bait placements within a burrow system will increase success. Tamp down existing mounds so you can distinguish new activity. If new mounds appear for more than 2 days after strychnine baiting or 7 to 10 days after anticoagulant baits have been used, you will need to rebait or try trapping.

If a large area is infested with gophers, a hand-held bait applicator will speed treatment. Bait applicators are a combination probe and bait reservoir. Once a burrow is located using the probe, a trigger releases a measured amount of bait into the tunnel. Generally, strychnine bait is used with such a bait applicator because the applicator dispenses only a small quantity of bait at a time.

Underground fencing might be justified for valuable ornamental shrubs or landscape trees. To protect existing plantings, bury hardware cloth or 3/4-inch mesh poultry wire 2 feet deep and extended at least 1 foot aboveground to deter gophers moving overland. This method is less than perfect, however, because gophers may burrow below the wire; also, the wire may restrict and damage root growth of trees. Small areas such as flower beds may be protected by complete underground screening of sides and bottoms. When constructing raised vegetable or flower beds, underlay the soil with wire to exclude gophers. Wire baskets to protect individual plants can be made at home or are commercially available and should be installed at the time of planting. If you use wire, use light-gauge wire for shrubs and trees that will need protection only while young. Leave enough room to allow for the roots to grow. Galvanized wire provides the longest lasting protection.

Six to 8 inches of coarse gravel 1 inch or more in diameter around underground sprinkler lines or utility cables may deter gophers.

Natural Controls
Because no population will increase indefinitely, one alternative to a gopher problem is to do nothing, letting the population limit itself. Experience has shown, however, that by the time gopher populations level off naturally, much damage has already been done around homes and gardens.

Predators, including owls, snakes, cats, dogs, and coyotes, eat pocket gophers. Predators rarely, however, remove every prey animal, but instead move on to hunt at more profitable locations. In addition, gophers have defenses against predators. For example, they can escape snakes in their burrows by rapidly pushing up an earthen plug to block the snake's advance.

The idea of attracting barn owls to an area for gopher control by installing nest boxes has been explored. Although barn owls prey on gophers, their habit of hunting over large areas, often far from their nest boxes, and their tendency to hunt areas with abundant prey, make them unreliable for gopher control. When a single gopher, which is capable of causing damage rapidly, invades a yard or garden, a gardener cannot afford to wait for an owl to arrive. Effective action, usually trapping or baiting, must be taken immediately.

Habitat Modification
Reduction of gopher food sources using either chemical or mechanical methods may decrease immigration of gophers. If feasible, remove weedy areas adjacent to yards and gardens to create a buffer strip of unsuitable habitat.

Other Control Methods
Pocket gophers can easily withstand normal garden or home landscape irrigation, but flooding can sometimes be used to force them from their burrows where they can be dispatched with a shovel or caught by a dog. Fumigation with smoke or gas cartridges is usually not effective because gophers quickly seal off their burrow when they detect smoke or gas. But if you are persistent with and use repeated treatments, some success may be achieved.

No repellents currently available will successfully protect gardens or other plantings from pocket gophers. Plants such as gopher purge (Euphorbia lathyrus), castor bean (Ricinus communis), and garlic have been suggested as repellents but these claims have not been substantiated by research. Although there are many frightening devices commercially available to use on pocket gophers (vibrating stakes, ultrasonic devices, wind-powered pinwheels, etc.), pocket gophers do not frighten easily, probably because of their repeated exposure to noise and vibrations from sprinklers, lawnmowers, vehicles, and people moving about. Consequently, frightening devices have not proven to be effective. Another ineffective control method is placing chewing gum or laxatives in burrows in hopes of killing gophers

Once pocket gophers have been controlled, monitor the area on a regular basis for reinfestation of the land. Level all existing mounds after the control program and clean away weeds and garden debris so fresh mounds can be seen easily. It is important to check regularly for reinfestation because pocket gophers may move in from other areas and damage can reoccur within a short time. If your property borders wildlands, vacant lots, or other areas that serve as a source of gophers, you can expect gophers to reinvade regularly. Be prepared to take immediate control action when they do; it is easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming to control one or two gophers than to wait until the population builds up to the point where the gophers are causing excessive damage."


Joe Connell, UC Farm Advisor in Butte County, offers this advice ("Gopher Control….Better Late Than Never!") in the Fruit and Nut Notes July 5, 2009 newsletter about gophers and fruit trees:

"If you have an orchard where individual trees are yellowing, have thin canopies with small leaves, or lack of new growth, gopher damage is a possible cause. On some rootstocks, root rot or oak root fungus could also be possibilities and this should be checked out. If it’s gophers, they can be the cause of significant ongoing tree losses. 

Gophers chew off roots and can chew off bark all the way around the trunk at the crown right down to the wood. If you dig around a sick tree and find the bark missing two or three inches below ground level, you can bet that a gopher is the culprit most of the time. 

If the orchard is weedy around the tree trunks, providing cover and protection, meadow voles can chew off bark at ground level girdling trees and causing a similar decline.

Gophers are active all year and this (summer) is still a good time to reduce their population. It’s easy to see new signs of their activity when weeds are being controlled for harvest and new fresh mounds are evident. 

Be persistent. Gophers eat year around. If you do a good job of weed control in your orchard and you have active gopher mounds you can be certain the gopher will be feeding on your trees as harvest approaches. 

Gophers can damage any age tree. The easiest trees for a gopher to kill are first through fourth leaf trees (1-4 yrs. old) because they can girdle them quickly. I’ve also seen 10 year old trees killed by gophers.

The longer gophers work on trees, the weaker the trees become. Oftentimes the damage doesn’t become apparent until the year after the injury has occurred since it may take awhile for the root system to starve and decline, especially on older trees. Remember, leaves manufacture sugars that are translocated down through the phloem to feed the root system. When gophers chew off the bark the phloem pipeline to the roots is missing and the root system gradually starves. If the gopher doesn’t kill the tree and it’s only partially girdled, it can be permanently weakened with the damaged roots or crown becoming avenues of entry for crown gall and wood rots. Wood rots weaken the structural strength of roots and the crown and contribute to tree losses in windstorms.
Gophers are a serious problem but they can be stopped."
Like this.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Saving Water, the CLCA Way

     Add these tips to your never-ending list, "How to Reduce Outdoor Water Use". These suggestions come from the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA), who are having a watershed year (pun intended) in assisting homeowners who are undergoing water meter sticker shock. This advice can also help your landscape survive a drought, especially if outdoor watering gets further restrictions. I've kicked in a few parenthetical thoughts of my own, as well. Naturally.

Water Trees First.  If trees are lost, it increases the surrounding temperature making everything hotter.  They are also expensive to replace.  Many surrounding plants depend on them, because trees offer shade and protection for some lawns and other plants that may not survive the hot sun without them.  In addition, they are often homes, shelter and/or food to birds and animals, which could possibly die if they perish. (Healthy trees make your home worth more, and sell faster. A survey of Realtors  showed that 56%  felt that the presence of healthy shade trees contribute to a large extent to a home's "sell-ability"; 60% indicated that they greatly add to the curb appeal, or first impression of a home; and 62% maintained that their presence has a strong impact on a potential buyer's impression of a block neighborhood.)

Some Ways to Maximize Water and Help Protect Your Trees

… Drill several 4" wide holes about 24"-30" deep around the base of the tree being careful not to damage large roots.  Fill the holes with compost, which will allow the water to reach the roots of the tree. (I wouldn't do this at the base of the tree; feeder roots are closer to the outer canopy of existing trees)

… Another option is to put your garden hose on a timed, low drip and get the water down deep.  You can also install a temporary drip system tied into a hose bib or use a soaker hose on the surface to slowly water the base of the tree. (again, the tree's feeder roots radiate out throughout the entire understory of the tree, and beyond. Position that drip or soaker hose in a concentric circle, winding further and further out as the tree grows.)

What Can I Do Now to Prepare for the Drought?

… Mulch heavily all flower and soil beds.  Mulch helps keep water in the soil.  Do not use rocks/gravel because they add heat to the soil and moisture evaporates faster. (Amen.)

… Mow grass (Fescue, Rye, Kentucky Blue Grass) higher,  3"-3.5" to promote deeper root growth and hold more moisture (I keep my mower on the highest blade setting year round for our fescue lawn).

… Aerate the lawn and fill the holes with compost so the water can infiltrate deeper. (This is best done in the Fall).

… If you intend to prune, do so before April or don't prune.  Pruning stimulates growth, which needs more water.  Existing growth will also provide additional shade to the soil, helping to retain moisture. (Pruning time depends on the existing plant's needs. For deciduous trees, fall and winter are OK times)

… Do not use high nitrogen fertilizers during a drought.  They encourage growth but the plants will need more water. (there are lots of reasons not to use high nitrogen fertilizer. Large amounts of N encourage weak, green growth...a buffet for bad bugs such as aphids and whiteflies).

… Fix or replace any broken sprinklers and repair leaks. (which is why I encourage people to water their lawn early in the morning, not in the middle of the night. If you see a problem, you are more apt to fix the problem).

… Keep your lawn as healthy as possible.  A healthy lawn will survive better.  Many lawns can go very dry and still come back. (how about reducing the size of your lawn and replacing it with plants that require less water, yet are still beautiful. Want a list? Go here.)

… Attach a water efficient spray nozzle to your hose and use it to mist your lawn to build up humidity for a few minutes at the end of the day. (Huh? I guess the CLCA didn't get the message that you are supposed to water only early in the day. And, the University of California Guide to Healthy Lawns advises against that practice, saying, "Do not water during the evening or pre-midnight hours because thatch and blades are susceptible to diseases if they are wet during cool nights").
… Check with your local water agency for possible rebates on low water usage irrigation products. (Good luck on that. Let me know what you find out. Good news in Roseville: that city found some money and is restarting its "Cash For Grass" program)

How to Maximize Landscape Watering During A Drought

… Start watering earlier and finish before 9:00 am. (yep. or 10 a.m., if you are a party animal.)

… Set your spray irrigation timer to run half the normal time and run a second cycle at least half an hour later.  This will dramatically reduce runoff.  Clay and other soils will only absorb so much water and anything beyond that point is wasted water.  Average time should be 5 minutes or less per cycle on a level site. (Be your own best timer. Turn on your sprinklers. When water starts running off the landscape, turn your sprinklers off. That's how long they should run during one cycle.)

… Consider a smart controller, which monitors the weather and adjusts watering accordingly.
(As long as you're an electrical genius, fully employed, not furloughed or in debt to your eyeballs, you might be able to afford and install one of these systems. The good news: they will be coming down in price and will be easier to install and maintain. In time.)

… Soil may look dry, but may still have plenty of moisture. If a 6" screwdriver goes easily into the soil then wait to water.  (Or, better yet, use a moisture meter).

What if I Can Only Water One or Two Days a Week?

… Program your sprinkler time for multiple start times with run cycles about 5 minutes each.  Repeat the cycles 3-4 times at least 30 minutes apart. If runoff occurs reduce minutes per cycle. (Those are ballpark figures. If you don't own a ballpark, then do the timing yourself, as explained above. For clay soils, you'll want to separate those start times by a couple of hours, not 30 minutes).

… Mow lawns higher and less frequently.  Do not take off more than 25% when mowing. (use a mulching mower, too!)

How Can I Maximize My Landscape Water Savings?

… Check regularly for leaks and then fix them immediately.

… Incorporate existing water saving technology into your irrigation system.  New sprinkler heads and smart controllers maximize water savings. (Check out these nifty new lower-water use sprinkler heads from Hunter).

… If you have a water meter, learn to read your meter.  It will help you determine if you have a leak.
… Turn on each sprinkler zone and see how much time it takes to start generating runoff for each zone. Round sprinkler time down to the nearest minute and set that time as your maximum run time for each station.  Program your controller for multiple run cycles. (Now, why didn't they just say this earlier?)

… Runoff means wasted water. No runoff means the water is being absorbed by the soil. (Or, the sprinklers are clogged)

How Can I Prepare for a Drier Future?

… Make sure your irrigation system is efficient, pressure regulated and consistently up to date with the latest water saving technology (CLCA sez: "Spend Money!" If you repair what you have, and perhaps swap out your really old, inefficient impulse and sprayer sprinkler heads for ones that are more efficient, you'll save water and have a healthier landscape)

… Study your landscape and the local community.  Examine the long-term survivability of your current landscape and consider incorporating climate appropriate plants. (Going to shop for plants at a big box store? Take a copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book with you to make sure the plant is right for your area. Big box stores tend to ship the same plants throughout the state. And very few plants will thrive in every area of California. Shop for plants at your local nursery instead.)

… If your area is at risk for fire, consider adding native fire retardant plants and learn how to protect your property. (And since they won't tell you how, I will. And. Las Palitas Nursery even went to the trouble of lighting a whole bunch of plants to see how long they would burn.)

… Study your environment, the animals that exist within the landscape and your long term needs to help you make good ecological choices. (anybody want my skunk and possum population?)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ask the Snarky Farmer/permanent turn signal edition

On Fridays, we throw open the e-mail bag and out spews...
Ask The Snarky Farmer!

     These are actual questions from actual people who probably are licensed to drive. You know that guy in front of you on the freeway who had his turn signal on for a half hour? Here they are, up close and personal:
     Robert and Lynn (from an undisclosed location) want to know: "Would you please suggest a retail nursery with a large selection of Japanese Maples?"
     Be glad to! Where the hell do you live?
     Beth writes: "I'm looking for a rose. Can you give me any information on a thornless, fragrant, yellow, disease-resistant perpetual blooming, non-climbing rose? Thank you very much."

     I am unfamiliar with any rose that might fit all those requirements. And, I do not know where you live, which can have some other limitations on rose growing. However, this may be a worthy substitute:

     Barbara hurriedly inquires: "I have lots of roses and want to fertilize them quickly. One rose expert told me to just pour the granular Miracle Gro around the roses and then water it in. How many times a week should I do that?"

     One moment, if you will. I am having a Macallan minute...
Thank You, I feel better now. 
     Please, Barbara, don't do that. Read and follow all label directions for any fertilizer before applying. Water-soluble fertilizers, although they may look like crystals that you could scatter around the garden, are meant to be dissolved in water before applying. You are risking burning your plant roots by putting that fertilizer around your roses in a dry form. If you are in a hurry, there are hose-end fertilizer sprayer attachments that can ease your feeding chores. And that would be even quicker than spreading out the fertilizer and watering it in.


     LeeAnne of Rancho Cordova, CA (USDA Zone 9) asks: "What plants and flowers do well here?"

     LeeAnne: Pick a page, any page, of the 1,290 available:


     Doug of Sacramento has a pipe dream: "I was wondering if you could provide any tips on growing tobacco in this area."

     First, you need the right tobacco seed (sometimes heirloom seed catalogs sell it), and you need to live where the soil is crummy,  the humidity is high, and the area gets about 40 inches of rain during the summer...North Carolina!
And that's the extent of my tobacco knowledge.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tomato Late Blight: A Lesson Learned the Hard Way

     If you are from back East, or have been following this story via blog posts from here in the dry West, then you know the big tomato story of 2009. Tomato plants are being cleared from the shelves of the big box stores east of the Mississippi. 

     The culprit? A fungus, late blight (Phytophthora infestans). Infected tomato plants are dying by the thousands along the eastern seaboard as this fungus spreads from tomato plant to tomato plant, a condition that is brought on by the mild temperatures and high humidity that are part of this year's wet East Coast summer.
     According to news reports, many of the infected plants came from the same source, a wholesale nursery that grew tomato seedlings for vendors throughout the East.

     Late blight in tomatoes is summed up in this University of California webpage:

"Leaf symptoms of late blight first appear as small, water-soaked areas that rapidly enlarge to form purple-brown, oily-appearing blotches. On the lower side of leaves, rings of grayish white mycelium and spore-forming structures may appear around the blotches. Entire leaves die and infections quickly spread to petioles and young stems. Infected fruit turn brown but remain firm unless infected by secondary decay organisms; symptoms usually begin on the shoulders of the fruit because spores land on fruit from above.

Late blight is found when humid conditions coincide with mild temperatures for prolonged periods. When humidity is above 90% and the average temperature is in the range of 60° to 78°F, infection occurs in about 10 hours. If conditions are ideal for disease development, disease development is rapid and losses can be severe. The fungus overwinters in potatoes, tomatoes, hairy nightshade, and possibly in the soil. Spores of the fungus are easily spread by wind to other plants.

Tomato varieties resistant to certain races of the late blight fungus are grown where the disease occurs regularly. Remove any nearby volunteer tomato and potato plants and nightshades. Check transplants to ensure they are free of late blight before planting. Avoid sprinkler irrigation, if possible, because it favors the development of late blight."

     So, why is it happening here, in the dry Central Valley, in a garden bed with no overhead irrigation? To one of MY tomatoes, an heirloom Giant Belgium (rest in peace), started by me from seed? Being raised Catholic, I have to ask the question: How did I screw this up?

     First of all, the Central Valley ain't no hotbed of late blight. High humidity? Mild temperatures? Not here. Maybe along coastal California, but not here.

The plant was started, along with another 20 varieties, from fresh seed from commercial sources. In truth, the Giant Belgium plant, even when young, never looked great. It was scrawny and slow to develop. Even in July, it lagged behind the others, producing only three green tomatoes while most of the others had already been producing harvestable tomatoes for a few weeks.

     Like most gardeners, I let it ride. It wasn't in a serious decline, just slow with some browning branches. Anyone who grows lots of tomatoes can identify with that: give it a chance, maybe it will bounce back.

     As news of the late blight outbreak in the East spread, I decided to take a closer look:

Hmm...browning branches scattered throughout the plant.

 Uh, oh: purple spotted leaves!

      I charged back inside to find out more about late blight, and checked one of my favorite reference books, "IPM For Tomatoes".
I found out more than I really wanted to know about late blight:

"Late blight occurs in all tomato growing areas of California, in sprinkler irrigated fields... The fungus overwinters in commercial potatoes and in volunteer or abandoned potato and tomato plants in fields...and gardens. From these sources, spores are carried by wind to spring tomato plantings and to greenhouses where transplants are grown for commercial and home use. In each infected plant, the fungus produces new sprores, which again spread by wind to other plants. The disease develops most rapidly when humidity is near 100% and when the temperature is about 68-76 degrees (F). Development slows or stops in hot, dry weather, but may resume when favorable conditions return. All California varieties appear to be susceptible. Avoid sprinkler not use sprinklers on bush-type tomatoes that have developed a dense canopy."

      Another tomato disease that could be mistaken for late blight is an infection of powdery mildew. The "IPM for Tomatoes" book says how to spot the difference. In the case of powdery mildew: "...fold a yellowed leaf in half, keeping the lower surface toward the outside. With a hand lens, check along the edge of the fold for bunches of straight, hairlike structures slightly longer than normal leaf hairs; these are the spore bearing structures of the (powdery mildew) fungus."

According to the late blight experts at Cornell, late blight disease can spread fast, even in warmer weather: 
"It can develop in very warm daytime temperatures (95°F) if conditions are extremely wet, and night temperatures are moderate (60°-75°F). Epidemics can be rapid and devastating because of the high reproductive potential of this pathogen. Individual lesions can produce 100,000 to 300,000 sporangia per day." That Cornell site also has a link to great pictures of late blight of tomatoes.

 According to the University of Hawaii: "On tomato petioles and stems, (late blight) lesions begin as indefinite, water-soaked spots that enlarge rapidly into brown to black lesions that cover large areas of the petioles and stems."
Hey, I got that!

And since tomato late blight is a strain of Phytophthora, there may be some root discoloration, as well. 

After digging up the plant, well...what do you know!

So, where did I screw up? Was it the seeds? Probably not. Multiple university sources say  that late blight fungus is not known to infect tomato seeds. 

Did I plant this year's tomatoes in the same bed where tomatoes were planted last year? Ummm, yeah. I forgot to rotate my crops. The spores for late blight can survive in the soil.

But the plant didn't look too healthy since the time it started growing in late winter in the greenhouse. Every other variety looked fine. Why did this one, the Giant Belgium, get off to such a slow start?

Did I remember to thoroughly clean out the four inch pots that I reuse each year for those tomato seedlings? Ummm, I kinda skipped that step this year, instead just giving them a quick wipe with a rag instead of a thorough rinse in a  water and bleach solution. The spores could have overwintered in those pots.

And finally, Cornell University offered the best advice: "Remove diseased plants by digging them up." And, "Only plant healthy looking tomato transplants."

A lesson learned, the hard way.