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GARDEN Q&A

Some Plants Do Well With Wet Soil

September 29, 1996|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

QUESTION: I have a brick planter in front of my house that is about a foot high and has concrete beneath it. It apparently has very poor drainage. Can you recommend any perennials that are hardy enough to withstand soil that does not drain well?

--W.M., Sherman Oaks

ANSWER: There are some plants that are not as fussy about drainage as others, but I suggest fixing the drainage problem. Remove the soil and break up the bottom of the planters with a 60-pound electric pavement breaker. This doesn't requires a compressor and can be rented at most rental yards. Or drill holes through the bottom and sides near the base, using a heavy-duty drill and large masonry bit. Refill the planter with good potting soil, mixed with about one-third garden soil.

If you would rather try planting things that don't need good drainage, here are a few. Many are grown for their foliage, not their flowers.

Elephant ears (Alocasia) and calla lilies take wet soils, as do many grasses, sedges and bamboos. The variegated acorus, which looks like stiff grass, is quite handsome and will grow in a bog.

Many ferns can tolerate wet soils, as can some species of iris, such as the Louisiana iris. Lobelia cardinalis and the mimulus sold as a summer bedding plant at nurseries can't be kept wet enough in the garden, so they are probably a good bet. Japanese anemones, which are blooming now, also have a chance.

Phil Chandler's book "Reference Lists of Ornamental Plants for Southern California Gardens" (Southern California Horticultural Society, P.O. Box 41080, Los Angeles, CA 90041-0080) also suggests good old agapanthus and daylilies, acanthus, ajuga, crinum lilies, geum, ligularia, Ranunculus repens and Viola odorata.

White Mildew Stalks the Squash Family Q: My squash and pumpkins start out just fine, but then white patches appear on the leaves and soon they are coated with a white kind of mildew. Also, I noted lots of small white insects that fly around when I water. Can you help?

--M.F., West Los Angeles

A: Powdery mildew is common on all cucurbits, including squash, pumpkins, cantaloupe and cucumbers.

Some varieties, like 'Early Pride Hybrid' cucumbers (Burpee Seed, Warminster, PA 18974) and 'Amber Hybrid' cantaloupes (Park Seed, Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, SC 29647-0001), have bred-in resistance, but I've run across only one squash that claims resistance: a new variety named 'Park's Crookneck PMR Hybrid' (Park Seed). It is a small, space-saving bush, 3 to 4 feet across. This built-in resistance is the first and best line of defense.

The University of California and Aziz Baameur, the vegetable crops advisor in Riverside County, also suggest growing plants in full sun, watering well but avoiding excess fertilizer, and watering from overhead to keep the spores from germinating.

You can also prevent powdery mildew by dusting or spraying with sulfur, but never apply sulfur when temperatures threaten to rise above 90 degrees: It will burn the foliage. Safer's makes an improved sulfur formulation that is reportedly more effective.

The little fluttering white insects are white flies. Pick off older, heavily infested leaves and put them in the trash, so natural enemies cannot gain the upper hand. Yellow sticky board traps (at nurseries or from Bountiful Gardens Seeds, 18001 Shafer Ranch Road, Willits, CA 95490; [707] 459-6410) can also help reduce their numbers. Never use chemical pesticides or you'll soon have a whitefly population explosion.

Insecticidal soap is effective if you soak the undersides of leaves, especially those near the ground, but don't use it in hot weather. You might also try a new product named Garlic Barrier that is said to repel whiteflies and other pests.

The University of California even recommends trying a small hand vacuum early in the morning to suck up insects. Freeze the fly-filled bag overnight, then empty.

Swiss Chard Is a Young Cousin of the Beet Q: Can you let me know about the history of Swiss chard? How old is it?

--W.G., San Francisco

A: Swiss chard is simply a variety of beet; beets are Beta vulgaris and chard is B. v. var. cicla. The wild beet originated in the Mediterranean area, where only the leaves were eaten. Red chard is mentioned as far back as the 4th century BC. Swiss chard is a more recent introduction. It's the kind with the thick midribs.

Beets as we know them--grown for their roots--were first described 1558; as late as the early 1800s, there were only two varieties.

Although you can eat the tops of beets and chard, chard is far tastier to most palettes and can be used just like spinach. Chard and beets are year-round crops in coastal areas; you can sow the seed in any season. Both are easy to grow, especially in sandy or loose soil or in raised beds. Inland, they are best planted February through April.

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Questions should be sent to "Garden Q&A" in care of the Real Estate section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include your address and telephone number. Questions cannot be answered individually.

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