unripe tomatoes, japanese beetles, late-start vegetable gardens and more: q&a with ken druse

TOMATOES NOT RIPENING, or your trilliums sulked? Japanese beetles arriving? Didn’t even plant any vegetables yet and wondering if there is still time? As the season heats up you may find parts of the garden overrun with weeds or perhaps an unwanted pest or two (or 20), and Ken Druse and I are likewise finding ourselves overrun—but with your Urgent Garden Questions like those, and many more.

This month on our Q&A segment we crammed in as many as we could by taking a shortcut, and instead of having live callers, we gathered more questions than ever and I just shouted them out. Call it our Lightning Round.

Important note: Got a question for a future show? Ask it in the comments or contact form on A Way to Garden dot com or KenDruse dot com, or on Facebook dot com/A Way to Garden and we’ll scoop them up as we plan for next time.

Read along as you listen to the June 12, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).



tomatoes not ripening

Q. Let’s start with a fast one about tomatoes, because I’m getting a lot of questions about tomatoes, Ken.

Ken. Don’t you always?

Q. [Laughter.] Yes, except in December. This one comes from Tricia on Facebook, writing from the Fort Worth area of Texas, Zone 8, so she’s farther along in the season:

“I have loads of green cherry tomatoes on three varieties. They are not ripening as expected. Production is less than 25% of the norm. Is there a problem with the grower I purchased the transplants from?”

Ken, do you grow tomatoes or any other edibles, by the way?

Ken. I don’t grow a lot of edibles because as you know my season is very short and it’s kind of shady here. But I do grow pots of tomatoes here on the driveway, where it’s sunny and hotter. But we have no way of knowing what happened to her grower. [Laughter.]

Q. No, but I lump this in a group of tomato issues that I call “mechanical failure.” So in other words, not pests, not disease, not genetic deficiency—that it wasn’t a good variety or whatever. In “mechanical failure” I lump everything from blossom end rot—where you have a healthy plant but get these shrunken ends on some fruits—or what she’s having, which is fruit set but not good ripening.

Or some people don’t get good fruit set during certain phases. All of these I call mechanical failures, not that I am some botanist expert but it’s just my made-up term. Just because it’s what happens when the weather is inhospitable to the biological functions happening properly

I bet she’s been having a heatwave, because if it’s too hot, fruit can’t ripen, and if it’s too cold, fruit can’t ripen.  If it’s too hot, or too cold, or too wet, or too dry—wow, that’s a lot of things [laughter]—for people who are getting low fruit set, the pollen sort of gets ruined. It gets made unviable—and that can be on a cucumber or a pepper, too.

So I think this is a mechanical failure kind of thing, and I think she will have more ripening later, if the weather is conducive. Like if it’s over 85 degrees, you can get lousy ripening. [More details on that from our friend Joe Lamp’l of Growing a Greener World public television show.]

[For help diagnosing other “Tomato Troubles” see this link.]

Ken. And sometimes you don’t even get pollination.

Q. She said she had fruit set, but was frustrated by low ripening. Of course you can always bring them in and ripen them on the kitchen counter—but that’s usually for the end of the season, when it’s getting cold. [How to ripen a tomato: tricks to try.]

Ken. Have you ever had fried green cherry tomatoes, with a toothpick—a little hors d’oeuvre?

Q. No, but it sounds good. You sauté them?

Ken. No, but it’s a long story.

Q. [Laughter.] OK, we’re moving along; I said it was a lightning round.

does picking trillium flowers cause harm?

Q. Kathy on Facebook wrote: “I have 2 trillium plants in my garden. One blooms profusely and I cut one flower to bring inside. I now know I hurt the plant and it won’t come back. What is your opinion? I’m heartbroken that I unknowingly killed my beautiful plant.” [Trillium grandiflorum, above, by Ken Druse.]

Apparently she did a Google search and it says “oh, no!” if you cut the flower. Remember when we first saw big stands of trilliums together, Ken?

Ken. At the late Evelyn Adams’s in Massachusetts. We learned a whole lot that day. She had about 1,000 trillium blooming, and they all started from one plant that she rescued from the foundation of a barn in New Hampshire, I think.

Q. Wow. And she didn’t treat them with too much TLC; she expected them to perform.

Ken. Things happen, and sometimes you break a plant by accident and I’m horrified. But often they take a year off; they just don’t bloom the next year at all, nothing comes up, and then the next year they come up. So she may not have killed it. But it’s certainly not a good idea.

Q. And it’s worse if you take the leaves, than if you take just the flower.

Ken. You said just the flower.

Q. I’m crossing my fingers that’s the situation. You know in that same project where we went to see Evelyn Adams and her 1,000 white trillium, we went to see Neil Diboll at Prairie Nursery outside Madison, Wisconsin, remember?

Ken. Yes.

Q. This was years ago, for one of your books, “The Natural Habitat Garden.” Prairie Nursery has advice about growing trilliums on its website:  

“Picking a trillium flower does not kill the plant but damage can result if the green leaves are taken as well. If the leaves are taken you won’t see renewed growth until the following year…” so what you were saying, Ken…”which may not happen at all depending on the size of the rhizome.” So like a baby plant will suffer more heavily. “This fact makes the colonies susceptible when they are heavily browsed by deer. Plants will die out after several years of repeated browsing,” it says. The deer eat the flowers and the leaves, and that has been a big problem with native plants in the wild. As deer populations have soared, the native plants in the woodlands have diminished. [More advice on growing trilliums.]

Ken. Or even disappeared. We’re talking about trillium as if it’s one thing, and I am sure she is probably referring to the white Trillium grandiflorum, but a lot of trillium don’t have stems below the flower. The flower comes right out of the leaves—so in that case, if she picked the flower she picked the plant. But it sounds like she just cut the flower, and if she did just cut the flower, she’s OK.

managing japanese beetles

Q. On to Japanese beetles: I think everyone is holding their breath, because depending on where you live, they may appear in June or around July 4. This question is from a blog comment from Wendy, a 7th grade science teacher in New Hampshire with 15 prized rose bushes in her home garden, and who asked what a lot of other people are asking about now, too:

“Is there any ‘new news’ out about the best way to keep Japanese beetles at bay?”

Wendy told me she isn’t using traps and hasn’t yet tried inoculating the lawn with substances like Milky Spore but would be into it.  [USDA map of Japanese beetle range, above.]

Did you ever have a Japanese beetle situation, Ken?

Ken. When I first came to this place the Japanese beetles—we didn’t have a single rose. This was about 20 years ago. We planted everything, but no roses. I don’t grow grapes, but I know people who end up with lace-leaf grapes.

Q. [Laughter.]

Ken. They’re so eaten. But early on we did Milky Spore on the grass areas. That’s a bacillus, I think, and it attacks the grubs of the Japanese beetles, and it stays in the soil for a really long time.

After we had one or two or three floods [Ken’s garden is on an island in a stream], we decided to inoculate the lawn areas again, and it didn’t work. There was a problem with the Milky Spore production and then they fixed that problem and we did it again, and I think it has been 10 years.

Probably I see five or six in the 2-acre garden, and I have to admit I hand-pick them. I wish the birds ate them; I wish the birds ate gypsy moths. It just tells you about co-evolution, that the birds won’t always eat things that are foreign.

Q. These alien creatures aren’t necessarily tasty morsels. So you’re talking about a biological control, and she is asking is there anything new—“new news” about keeping Japanese beetles at bay. I dig into the science literature from time to time about this, to see if there is anything new.

For a number of years I have been watching the work at Michigan State of Dr. David Smitley, who has introduced a natural pathogen of Japanese beetle—in other words, a pathogen or biological agent that comes from Asia, where they come from—to try to help the turfgrass industry especially. In fact it is showing improvement, and it is spreading like with your Milky Spore experience where it inoculated the area and has given you ongoing improvement.

I hate to even try to pronounce the Latin name, but it’s like Ovavesicula popilliae. [Laughter.]

Ken. That sounds right.

Q. Did I do good? So that’s the one if she wants to do some reading—she’s a science teacher and could glean more from the literature than I can. But that’s not a commercially available product for the homeowner. Nematodes are something I tried, and you inoculate the area. You add water to spread these microscopic creatures around where you have an infestation of grubs, and they multiply if all goes well. So that’s another thing to look into. 

It’s good she’s not using the traps—all the research said years ago those bag traps just attract more, especially in suburban neighborhoods. And that’s an important point—you don’t have neighbors, do you?

Ken. No, but there is lawn right across the street. So you’re saying give the traps to your neighbors?

Q. No, I’m saying…

Ken. I know. [Laughter.]

Q. A couple of those things: You have to pick and drown them early, because they’re attracted to the pheromones or whatever on a chewed-on plant.

Ken. What do you drown them in?

Q. I just use a can of soapy water, and best to get them in the early morning when they are kind of sleepy.  So nematodes, the biologicals—but if your neighbors aren’t doing it and you’re in a suburban environment, and they’ve got them, you’ll just get them back. So you’ve got to buy enough Milky Spore or whatever you use for your neighbors, too. [Laughter.]

[A P.S. on Milky Spore: According to experts including Smitley at MSU, university research studies have not been able to confirm that it effectively reduces Japanese beetle grub populations. Various Extensions still recommend it, however; others do not.]

Ken. You think it’s a good thing to let those moles be that are in the lawn?

Q. I do; they mostly eat a lot of earthworms, and they eat white grubs as well. I would never trap moles or harm moles. They’re good soil aerators and do eat some pesky creatures underground.

I’m pro-mole, and anti-vole—as we’ve talked about.

Ken. Pro-mole, anti-vole. Got it.

is it too late to start a garden in mid-june?

Q. An interesting question we got from Diana on Facebook, who has had a lot going on and hasn’t planted her garden yet. I think she means the edibles, the vegetable garden. She says: “Is it too late in the season to have a decent garden? If not, what can I plant now?”

Ken. And “now,” we are talking about the second week in June.

Q. Yes, and of course it depends on where you are, but nevertheless there is still a lot of growing time left even in the North.

Ken. And this year in the North it has been quite cool, so things are late and people don’t seem to have raided the local stores. There are loads of tomato plants and things like that—so you can go shopping. And sometimes you can get a deal, although that might be in a couple of weeks.

I know that you plant seeds late, and sometimes you plant a second crop. [Margaret’s list of edibles to plan from June onward.]

Q. Definitely.

Ken. You probably do leaf lettuce into what—September? August?

'Rhubarb' chard seedlings int he gardenQ. All the greens, for cooking, like kale and chard; all your salad greens from arugula to lettuces to mustards, absolutely. But I love the “Jack in the Beanstalk” stuff, which only starts to come on when the heat comes anyway, so who cares?

Runner beans, and other pole beans, and vining crops along the ground like squash and pumpkins and gourds. Even starting from seed right now, I just planted more ‘Butternut’ seed, and ‘Scarlet Runner’ bean seed—and ‘Scarlet Runner’ is ornamental and edible; you can eat the beans.

Ken. And you can still do sunflowers.

Q. Especially the dwarf ones, and I think that’s the key, if you are going to do flowers like that: Look on the package and see the days to maturity and pick a 55- or 60-day and not a 70- or 80-day variety. A zinnia [with Brassica leaves in the vegetable beds, below], a marigold, a calendula. I think most of the cosmos are a little longer and might be slower.


Ken. Nasturtium, maybe?

Q. Great idea; totally nasturtium. You could make a gorgeous border from nasturtiums and dill or copper fennel seeds.

Ken. And eat those nasturtium flowers; I love those.

Q. They’re peppery. So I think it’s not too late, right?

Ken. Right.

Q. But the key is to look for the Jack in the Beanstalk kind of stuff, and the short season to maturity 50- to 60-day stuff. I said calendula…

Ken. Did you say marigold?

Q. And basil. It’s a heat-lover, but a lot of people say not to expect that first crop of basil to be in prime condition when your September tomatoes come in. So we should be sowing more basil now, anyway. And there are so many beautiful basils—again, you could make a whole border with those purple-leaved ones and the globular, mini or bush basils.

Ken. Delicious.

Q. So go for it Diana. Don’t be deterred by a late start.

photo from Missouri Botanical Garden

disfigured coneflower blooms

Q. A quickie from Cynthia on Facebook: “Why in the past have my Echinacea blooms looked malformed?” The plants had weak, floppy stems, she says, and the blooms were pale, but most of all the flowers were malformed, like something chewed on them or disfigured them. Do you know about this, Ken? It has come up before.

Ken. Are you going to say aster yellows? [Photo above from Missouri Botanical Garden factsheet.]

Q. I am. Aster yellows is the thing for Cynthia to  Google search on. That’s a virus-like thing that’s spend like a leafhopper—is that what I am trying to say?

Ken. I think so.

Q. It’s not a virus but it’s virus-like, and it moves from plant to plant thanks to this sucking insect, this leafhopper, that’s the vector that transmits it.  There is also now a mite that is causing something that looks like that. If she does a search for aster yellows and mite and Echinacea—Missouri Botanical’s fact sheet on this is very helpful, and it has great pictures, to compare the physical symptoms.

Ken. What do you do about it?

Q. You destroy the plants, I think?

Ken. And don’t put them on the compost. Get rid of them in the trash I suppose.

[A factsheet on Aster yellows and a mite causing similar symptoms, from Missouri Botanical Garden.]

when to cut back bulb foliage

Q. Another quick one from Lucy on Facebook: “What state of yellowing should the leaves of the tall alliums be in before it’s okay to cut them back to the ground? Fifty percent or more or what?”

Ken. Everybody complains about Allium foliage. I was looking at something that said, “How to hide Allium foliage.”

Q. I don’t get it.

Ken. It just sort of melts away, and it’s hidden by other plants, and I don’t really mind that little bit of yellow for like three days or a week at the most. But I would say when they are past yellow and starting to dry up you can cut them back, but you can live with them, too.

Q. Not 50 percent; that’s not good enough. A bulb needs to take all that good energy in from those fading leaves.

Ken. Right. And like I said, I don’t cut mine back at all.

Q. Ne meither. [Laughter.]

Ken. I have so many things to do and I’m going to be like cutting back my Allium foliage? Or planting things to hide my Allium foliage?

Q.  I don’t do that. I do my daffodils July 4th; I mow over the big islands of daffodil foliage, which by then are brown. And then I rake it up; I mow it and rake it up because it’s planted in the grass. So we agree on that one; I’m glad we agree on something. [Laughter.]

Ken. [Laughter.]

grafted peony plant reverting

Q. A quickie: From reader CJ, who posted in the blog comments: “I have a burgundy Itoh, but it is sending up a regular peony from the roots. Can I, should I, dig this regular peony up and plant it somewhere, without hurting the Itoh?” [Above, tree peonies at Swarthmore’s Scott Arboretum.]

I don’t think she knows it but this is probably a grafted plant. A lot of the Itohs are.

Ken. A lot of peonies. If you don’t pay a whole lot for a peony, chances are it’s grafted. [About grafted peonies.]

Q. The woody or semi-woody ones are.

Ken. If you get a tree peony, they’re often grafted to a herbaceous peony. The simplest thing to do is to break off the herbaceous peony. But if you really want to save [the herbaceous peony] it’s going to set back your tree peony [or Itoh] a bit, but you could try to see if it’s got roots on its own. But I would just let it go.

Q. Me, too. Or bury it a little deeper so the graft union is a little lower? And cut off the stuff that wants to overtake your desired variety?

Ken. It’s only going to take away from that more expensive variety.

Q. Maybe we’ll use the last minute to talk a little more about grafted plants, but I have witch-hazels and crabapples that are grafted, trees and shrubs, and the rootstock will come up and sprout if you don’t keep after it or if it’s not planted at the right level. It can be a maintenance problem.

Ken. You know I grow that red-leaf peach, I don’t know if you remember that. It was originally grown as the rootstock for grafted peach varieties. And when red leaves came up from the soil, the orchardist would know that was the graft-union understock…

Q. [Laughter.] That’s funny

Ken. …and cut it back. But I love the red leaves, and I don’t have peach curl here in the North a little bit, so I grow it for the red foliage, and it comes true from seed. But the fruits aren’t really edible, so why am I talking about it? [Laughter.]

Q. Shut up, will you please; just be quiet. [Laughter.]

Ken. I was just going to say, those Itoh peonies, aren’t they sort of interspecific between herbaceous and tree peonies? They can cost like $100.

Q. It’s only money, honey. [More on growing tree peonies and Itoh peonies.]

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 12, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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  1. Nancy Schaefer says:

    I just seeded my pole beans and butternut squash today, the same date I plant them every year. I don’t like them to come on too early, as there are so many other crops to be eaten early in the season. Very interesting about milky spore and Japanese beetles, btw. I haven’t seen any yet, but I’m sure they’ll come up soon (so many roses, so little time)

  2. Tina says:

    I have had very good success using Neem oil sprayed on about 100′ (2″ apart) of pole beans (and any other crop the Japanese beetles eat). I tried the yellow sticky traps and when I found bird feathers on the traps, I stopped using them. I tried the hormone traps and hated them….when the wind direction was right, I could smell them (the traps) in my house about 200′ away. I am on a farm with lots of ‘wild’ vegetation just over the fence and noticed that both wild grape vines and Virginia Creeper were Japanese Beetle magnets, which helped keep them off my food crops. BTW, the Neem Oil doesn’t kill the beetles, it just makes them crazy and they go away. One caution is to NOT spray the oil on a sunny day.

  3. Bill Plummer says:

    If one has big, healthy, flowering Trilliums, how man years of deer pruning
    will it take to kill the plants?

  4. Rebecca Rose says:

    Re: Japanese beetles
    I had terrible problems with Japanese beetles destroying the leaves of my roses and crambe cordiofolia plants. Too many to pick off by hand, although I tried for years. I finally found a product by Bayer that solved the problem.

    I’m not sure how eco-friendly it is, but it really works and my roses are stronger and healthier too. It’s a granular systemic, so at least I’m not breathing in any spray products.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Rebecca. The bad news is that the Bayer chemical contains not one but two neonicotinoids, the kind of substance that kills a wide spectrum of insects (not just those beetles) including pollinators like bees–and that there has been much pressure by gardeners and environmentalists for nurseries etc. not to use. It also contains a serious fungicide that the National Institutes of Health lists as a possible carcinogen among other things. So I have to say I would highly recommend against it.

  5. Bonny says:

    You gave a brief mention to Prarie Nursery. I ordered so bellwort and trillium from them this Spring an was a little put out at the cost and the late shipping date until I saw the size of the roots. They were beautiful and the bellwort started growing and blooming immediately. Very impressed!!

    1. margaret says:

      SO glad to hear, Bonny. The founder is a longtime proponent of native plants and very expert, so I am not surprised they were high quality.

  6. Marian Whitcomb says:

    Margaret, Love the program, and wonder who took the lovely portrait of you? It is a fine photo, should be credited.

  7. Cene says:

    For the gal in Texas – tomatoes are heavy heavy feeders ! Fertilize !!! I use shake & feed. I tried the fish food, perfect soil to no avail. FERTILIZE. I literally have hundreds of ripening tomatoes of 7 varieties.
    Thanks, Margaret, for the topics. Never ever had rust on my hollyhocks, turk’s cap, ladies mantle until this year- nor have I seen Japanese beetles until this year and – the icing ? Mildew on my phlox & a little green worm eating all my rose mallow leaves. Squash bugs killing squash plants- ( gratefully not before getting at least 20 squashes) I just chock it up to entropy…. sigh. I ‘m holding my OCD at bay by not worrying about it. Just ripping out and destroying the casualties. Replanting something else. Guess an abundance of rain has its drawbacks:).

  8. Cene says:

    I’ll take the rain problems ANY DAY over drought- believe me- had not a drop of rain last year for 7 straight months – all the while being taunted by zone 5 & above gardens !!! It was emotionally disturbing- Gardening is about letting go. It’s a lifelong quest for stubborn folks :)

  9. Nickolas Paullus says:

    A little aside of that map about Japanese beetle distribution… seems to be a bit antiquated. We most definitely DO have Japanese beetles here in Colorado (have for probably 5+ years now), especially in my particular neighborhood of suburban Denver.

    I’m going to try my hand at a folk remedy for Japanese beetles this year (they just woke up… right around July 4th as predicted), and make some delphinium water to spray on my bean greens :)

  10. Susan says:

    Hi Margaret! I need some advice re cicada killers. I first noticed some about 5 years ago digging up piles of stone dust between some flagstone pavers around our pool. These guys look pretty fearsome, but in fact I find they are not aggressive and actually I begrudgingly admire their determination in hauling the relatively huge cicadas to their burrows. This year unfortunately, things have really gotten out of hand. I have many many piles of these sand hills around the pool and tons of these insects! It’s gotten to the point where I may need to relay quite a few of the stones once their season is over. How can I control them, or discourage them from the stone areas? I don’t think I would really mind them much in the gardens or other areas, but the current situation has to stop. Help!

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