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Get to the Root of Eggplant Problem


QUESTION: The leaves of my otherwise healthy eggplants, Japanese and Italian, are shriveling and dying. I have grown them nicely for years but never had this blight. I've tried a variety of sprays but none work. What can I do?

J.L., West Los Angeles

ANSWER: You should never spray without identifying the problem. It's like shooting in the dark at an unknown sound.

In this case, it is not a bug causing the problem but probably a disease--verticillium wilt. Because it is a soil-borne fungus, the solution is to plant somewhere else every few years so it can't build up in the soil. Sprays don't help but may kill innocent bugs like bees and beneficial wasps or ladybugs.

To make sure you have verticillium, split the stem lengthwise after it dies and look for brown streaks caused by the fungus. You'll find these dark streaks inside the lower stem and in the root.

If you've already pulled the plants out and can't check, I'd still move them to another location the next time you plant, since it sounds like you've been growing eggplants in the same spot for too long. The same thing goes for tomatoes, which also get verticillium wilt in time, though there are somewhat resistant tomato varieties.

The Care and Cutting of Fountain Grass

Q: I planted a few fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) specimens in my frontyard. I was told that they are deciduous and need cutting, but they looked good all winter. Do I need to cut them down to keep them looking good?

E.M., Lakewood

A: In mild climates, fountain grass does not die back, but every now and then you may want to cut it completely to the ground to let it start fresh. Otherwise, dead leaves will build up inside the clump.

I know at least one gardener who cuts all his ornamental grasses right down to the ground each winter, usually around the holidays, but this isn't necessary with many in Southern California. Watch to see which go dormant and cut those down after they brown; otherwise wait until the clumps begin to look ratty and either thin out the dead leaves or cut to the ground in winter. Don't cut them now, as most grasses are beginning to make their often dramatic seed heads in late summer.

I hope you planted Pennisetum setaceum "Rubrum," the purple-leaved variety, since the plain P. setaceum seeds all over the place and has become a major pest in wild areas and along roadways.

Some Trees Aren't Appropriate Here

Q: I have a black cherry in my backyard and only once in 10 years it had five cherries. It blooms but no cherries. I also have a 10-year-old birch tree in the front lawn and the roots are surfacing through the grass. What's happening?

A.R., Redlands

A: Our winters are much too mild for cherries to fruit, which is why most good nurseries don't even sell them. I'd say you were very lucky to get even five cherries in the last 10 years because our winters are getting ever warmer. Even apricots are now marginal here, though some apples thrive, as do many peaches, plums and nectarines, and of course, citrus. Maybe it's time to take that cherry out and put in an orange.

Birch trees are notorious for their surface roots, and after 10 years they're bound to have many, especially in a lawn in which most of the moisture is near the surface because lawns are typically watered frequently and not very deeply. Roots tend to grow best where the moisture most often is.

Since birches aren't very big trees, you could probably remove some of these surface roots and then try watering the tree deeply, to encourage deep rooting. This irrigation (maybe once a week in your area) would be in addition to watering the lawn. Make sure the water soaks several feet into the ground. But the tree would probably make new surface roots in short order, so you might not want to bother with the expense of doing this.

I've never thought that birches were a good choice in West Coast lawns, though they are often planted there. In the East, frequent rainfall helps make the trees deeper rooted. They also get aphids and often have brown leaf tips because of the salts in our water.

Trees and lawns are seldom compatible, with the possible exception of the well-behaved mayten. It's healthier for tree and lawn to grow shrubs and ground covers under trees.

Identify Type of Wasp Before You Purge

Q: Every early spring, my yard is invaded by what I believe are some form of wasps. They make their nests in the dirt and grass. I see many little holes with mounds of dirt. I am afraid to go barefoot in my own yard. Is there any way to discourage them?

M.G., Downey

A: Many native bees and wasps make nests in the ground, but I wouldn't be afraid to go barefoot (though I might worry about stepping on other things, like nails or glass). Most are so-called solitary wasps and bees, and they rarely sting. Even when they do, it is often mild. There are exceptions, of course, but before you try to get rid of them (which will be very difficult in any case), see if you can't correctly identify them.

If they turn out to be the big, black tarantula hawk wasps (up to 2 inches long with orange wings) that feed on those furry spiders, you might want to be careful. The female's sting is painful. But if they are something like the inch-long, turquoise-striped sand wasps that eat house flies, you have little to worry about. You may even want to rejoice.

These have lived in my garden for years, and my barefoot wife has never stepped on one. I've actually watched them catch flies and carry them back to their burrows.

To identify insects in your garden (and learn more about them), get the excellent, amply illustrated "Insects of the Los Angeles Basin" by Charles Hogue (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, $28).


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