Frequently Asked
Gardening Questions

Common Questions About:

* Gardening in general
* Flowers
* Vegetables
* Lawns
* Soils
* Pests and Diseases and Armyworms
* Trees and Shrubs
* Inside the House or Greenhouse
* The Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

Questions About Gardening in General

What Zone am I in?
Most of Western Massachusetts is in USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Some areas of Berkshire County are in Zone 4.

Do pine bark, sawdust or wood chips have any nutrient value when used as a mulch?
These materials do release nutrients to the soil as they decay but can cause a temporary nitrogen deficiency.  To prevent this, add a nitrogen fertilizer to your bark, sawdust and wood chips.

When should peonies be divided and transplanted? How deep should they be planted?
Transplant peonies from mid-September to mid-October.  If you transplant them in the spring, you may damage the feeding roots that peonies produce in the spring.  Plant the tubers 2 to 3 inches below the surface.

Why do my zucchini, melon and cucumber plants collapse in the summer heat? Is it lack of water?
It is probably caused by squash vine borer.  Look for a small hole in the stem near its base.  You will probably notice wet sawdust oozing from the stem.  Split the stem longitudinally with a sharp knife and remove the borer (a white grub with a dark head).  Then pile moist soil over the damaged stem and you may be able to save the crop.  You can also try covering the young plants with a floating row cover until the plants blossom.

Questions About Flowers

Could you tell me the difference between Annuals, Biennials, and Perennials?
  Annuals complete their lifecyle in one growing season, from seed to flower to seed production, and death.  Examples: cosmos, zinnias, marigolds.
  Biennials have a two-year lifecycle: seed germinates in summer and small plant overwinters; next season it reaches maturity, flowers, produces seed and dies.  May complete in one year if started early enough.  Examples: sweet william, money plant.
  Perennials are woody-types such as trees and shrubs, either evergreen or deciduous, remain year after year.  Herbaecous-types die back to ground in winter but produce new growth the following season.  Plant may be long-lived
ie, peonies-or short-lived such as delphinium.  Examples: phlox, bleeding heart, oriental poppy.

When is the best time to fertilizer Spring Bulbs?
  Feeding Spring Bulbs annually just before blooming with a slow-acting, general purpose fertilizer will bring best results.

Can you discuss Powdery Mildew on Phlox?
To discourage powdery mildew, plant two to three feet apart and thin clumps to four to five stocks.  
  Weekly sprayings with a solution of 1 tbsp. baking soda to one gallon of water has been shown effective if started before the problem is detected.

Questions About Vegetables

Why do my squash plants have flowers but no fruit?
Squash plants typically produce mostly male flowers first, which are on slender stems with no swelling at the base of the flower.  Female flowers are produced later.  They have swellings at the base of the flower which develop into the squash fruit.  Also, cool and rainy weather may delay pollination; bees don't like to work in the rain.  Remedy:  Wait!

Why do my tomatoes have these brown areas on the bottom of the fruit?
Blossom-end rot may be the reason.  A calcium deficiency in the fruit is the cause.  Calcium may be deficient in the soil, or other factors may be creating plant stress, inhibiting uptake and movement of calcium in the plant.  Stress factors contributing to this condition include cold, wet soil, or too dry soil, root damage from cultivating too close, or excessive nitrogen fertilizer.  Remedy:  make sure soil is well-drained; water deeply in dry spells and mulch to preserve moisture once the plants are growing strongly and soil is warm.  Avoid excessive nitrogen when fertilizing, and have soil tested to see if lime is needed.  Add gypsum if soil test indicates pH is satisfactory but Calcium is deficient.

Why are my pepper plants dropping their blossoms?
Peppers are temperature-sensitive plants which will drop their flowers if day temperatures are above 90 degrees, or night temperatures are above 83 degrees or in the 40-degree range.  Best night temperatures for fruit set are 60 to 68 degrees. Remedy: Late planting, when soil is well warmed up, to avoid exposure to cold temperatures.  

Questions about Lawns

Q. I think I have grubs in my lawn.What can I do about it? When should I apply grub controls?

Q. There are lots of beetles flying over my lawn. What’s happening?

A.First, make sure you have grubs.Here are the symptoms:

* Grass is brown in patches, especially during hot or dry weather

* Lawn feels soft or spongy when you walk on it

* Chunks of grass can easily be pulled up by hand

* Small sections of grass can easily be rolled back

* Raccoons, opossums, skunks, crows or moles are frequently digging into your lawn.

* You see lots of beetles flying over your lawn. This is what the grubs become when they grow up.

To confirm the extent of the problem and to identify the grubs, cut our a 4-inch by 4-inch patch of turf and look for grubs underneath it.  Then, put the cut out piece upside down on a hard surface and hit it with the back of a trowel.  If there are grubs in the turf, they will come out where you can see them.  You can replace the turf afterwards.

There are three types of white grub that are common in our area.  It is important to know what kind of grub you have so you can apply the correct controls.  They are the Japanese beetle, the European chafer, and oriental beetles.  Identify grubs by looking at the tail end (anal slit or Raster pattern). In front of slit the spines' pattern gives the ID. The Japanese beetle has 5 white tufts along the body, curved slit and 2 rows where the spines point in a V pattern. The European Chafers are a  dull   brown, and their slit does not contour. Has 2 rows of spines (like a zipper). These appear mainly in the Shrewsbury area.

If you do have grubs, timing of control treatments is important, especially if you choose to use chemical controls.  Grubs overwinter deep under the lawn and cannot be effectively treated until they crawl back up to the root zone, around April.  At that time, they are quite large and difficult to kill, although some chemical controls may be effective.  You will have better success treating the second generation, which appears in June, July or August depending on the weather.  You can treat this generation while the grubs are still small and weak.

Apply chemical grub control during cool weather (less than 80 degrees and low humidity) and water in well or do it when rain is predicted. In 2002, if oriental beetles and/or European chafers are the primary species in your location, you should try to get product down by the end of the third week of July (19 July) if at all possible. However, it is absolutely essential to water the product in. If we do not get much rain, it is probably better to delay the application a little bit until there is adequate rainfall, but try and have the product in place no later than 26 July.

If the primary grub species is the Japanese beetle, your target dates for application should be about two weeks later .  Consult a garden center for specific product recommendations, and read the label carefully.

If you do not want to use chemical controls, there are biological controls available.  You can apply nematodes at a rate of 1-2 billion/acre. Do this annually for European Chafer/Japanese Beetles/Oriental Beetles at the same time that chemical controls would be applied, when grubs are small. These carry disease to the insects. Heterohohditis bacteriophora is the only effective nematode. It enters the grubs'  alimentary track and is very specific. You must water area after application.. Nematodes land on grass and water assists nematodes in moving down into the soil where the grubs are. 

Milky spore is often recommended as the best non-chemical option, but it is mostly effective against Japanese beetle grubs, and results with it in Western Massachusetts have been variable.  Our climate seems to reduce its effectiveness.

Grub-damaged areas of lawn should be re-seeded in the fall.  It is not necessary to remove the old turf first.

For identification of grubs, go to:

For timing of grub controls, check:

When should I fertilize my lawn?
If you choose to fertilize your lawn just once a year, the best time to do that is late August through early September. This helps prevent winter stress in cell walls. Use 3-1-3 NPK.

If you choose to apply fertilizer twice a year the second application should be late April through early May. Use 3-1-2 NPK.

If you do three applications a year, the third should be applied in mid to late November. This is late season, but the lawn is not yet dormant. The grass is still green, but not growing. Use 3-1-2 NPK.

If you do a fourth application that should be in late May through early June. This is to prepare for summer. Use 3-1-3 NPK.

(3-1-3 Represents the proportions for Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium)

When is the best time to water my lawn? And, how much water does it need?

Water is necessary for good plant growth, but too much water floods the air pores in the soil depriving the roots of oxygen. The roots will then rot. Disease-causing fungi reproduce by spores that, like seeds, need water to germinate. Dry leaf blades reduce disease by reducing spore germination and infection by fungi. Water infrequently but deeply, to a depth of 6". Water early in the day, so turfgrass will dry quickly.

3.Which type of grass is best for New England?
The best grass seed to use here in New England is a mixture of cool season grasses. The mixture includes Kentucky Blue Grass, Fine Fescues, Tall Fescues, and Perennial Ryegrass. The best time to plant is August when it is cooler, there is more moisture, and weed seeds are not germinating. The exception for the homeowner’s lawn would be if it is mostly shady, then a Fine Fescues mix would be a better choice. Look for seed that contains endophytes. It will provide resistance to the leaf feeding insects, which are chinch bugs, sod webworms, and pillbugs. Endophytes are a beneficial fungus in turfgrass. They do not travel from plant to plant, but should not be used where animals are grazing.

Questions about Soils

How do I take a soil sample for testing?
1. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep (3-4 inches deep for lawns) and set the soil aside
2. Using a clean trowel, take a thin vertical slice from the side of the hole and place in a clean container
3. Take at least 5 samples from the test area and mix them well in a clean container
4. Place 1/2 cup of this mixed soil in a small plastic bag, close tightly and label the outside of the bag
Avoid taking soil which has recently been limed or fertilized.

I have been adding coffee grounds to the soil around my flowers for several years now, if I continue will it hurt the flowers?  
Coffee grounds are a natural fertilizer, sometimes called a form of OM (organic matter) and provide low levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (2-0.3-0.3). You can use coffee grounds both as a one-inch mulch and in compost over a long period of time without harming the flowers if you add either lime or wood ashes to the soil to counteract the acidic nature of the coffee grounds.  

Can I add orange and banana peels, apple cores and other organic table scraps directly to the soil in my garden?
If you add table scraps directly to the soil eventually they will decompose and become organic matter which will benefit your soil.  However, while this process is taking place, it will drain the Nitrogen from the soil that your flowers and vegetables need in regular amounts all summer to grow leaves, stay green and grow at their proper rate.  It would be better to compost your table scraps and then add them to your garden to prevent continued Nitrogen loss.

Questions about Pests and Diseases

What can I do about armyworms?
Armyworm problems on lawns and hayfields are widespread throughout Massachusetts. The problem this year may be related to introductions of adult moths on the series of thunderstorms we had in late May after the earlier long dry spell.
Armyworms are moth larvae that are usually thought of as pests of grasses including lawns in the Midwest and southern states. They are called army worms because they 'march' in large groups over an area, feeding in large masses then moving to the next grassy area to continue feeding. They may march during the day but are thought to do most of their feeding at night. The female moths lay as many as 2000 eggs in lawns at a time. After 6-10 days of incubation, the eggs hatch into small caterpillars that feed on leaf blades. The larval stage lasts 3-4 weeks, when the larvae pupate in cocoons in the soil. Armyworms are thought not to over winter north of Tennessee and the second generation should not be a great problem as the adult moths will become more widely dispersed than the first introduced concentrated generation.
The best "control" option is to cut fields to avoid damage. However Armyworms will often move out of a cut field, and may cause damage to adjacent crops. There are also some natural parasites. Chemical controls for grass are limited, and only likely to be effective if the larvae are small 1/2" to 3//4". When larvae get beyond 1 1/2" most of the feeding damage has already occurred. For more information on chemical controls visit The University Of Massachusetts Extension Service or Rutgers Armyworm Page

What can I do about moles?
Mole-Med is sold for mole treatment. It's the one tested by the universities and supposedly works. The home made version contains 6 ounces of castor oil, 2 tablespoons of dishwashing liquid (one known for its degreasing capabilities) and one gallon water. This is the concentrate. Add one ounce of this to one gallon of water. Water the area to be treated and then apply.    Treats 300 square feet of lawn.   

What is the cottony stuff infesting my hemlocks? 
This could be signs of a relative newcomer to the Northeast called hemlock wooly adelgid.  This aphid-like insect has been spreading locally and can kill hemlocks if not treated.  Apply dormant oil according to container instructions in early spring before buds swell.  Really bad infestations can be treated systemically by a certified arborist.  

Why did my tomato plants start turning brown and wilting on one side?  
Most likely your tomato plants were infected with verticillium wilt, a very common fungus that attacks the tomato family.  Scrupulous fall cleanup of infected plants is very important as the spores will overwinter in fallen leaves.  Rotation of crops within the garden and use of verticillium-resistant hybrids will help eliminate recurrence.

Something is making tiny holes in my cabbage and brussels sprout plants.
Flea beetles are the most likely culprits.  They are  very small (hence the name) jumping beetles that chew many tiny holes in members of the cabbage family.  Most of the damage is done in early spring when the plants are small.  Floating row cover material is useful as a barrier until the plants grow large enough to withstand the chewing.  A spray of pyrethrum is also helpful.

Parts of my healthy-looking squash plants suddenly wilted and died.  What caused that?
A sudden wilting of squash-type vines is often caused by the larvae of the squash vine borer moth which bores into fleshy squash stems effectively killing that part of the vine.  Floating row cover is a good barrier method for early control.  This needs to be removed for pollinators once blooms open.  For chemical controls, check with your local garden center.

Questions about trees and shrubs

The leaves on my rhododendrons look dead, what should I do?
This was a tough winter on rhododendrons. Many plants have suffered some die-back due to lack of moisture. Continue to monitor affected plants and see if the branches recover. Once it is certain they are dead, prune and dispose of dead twigs or branches being careful to check for adventitious bud formation in the transition zone between the dead and healthy portions of the plant. Long-term management involves maintenance of 2-3 inches of composted pine bark or other organic mulch over as much of the root zone as possible. Also, water the rhododendrons once a week if there is no rainfall during the spring and summer and during dry autumns. Apply a soaking type of irrigation that wets the ground to a depth of 12-18 inches.

Why haven't my lilacs bloomed?
First of all, what is the age of the lilacs?  Newly planted specimens or older growth shrubs?  If it's a new shrub, it may simply be too young or if older it may need some pruning.  Pruning should only be done in late spring when the shrub is done blooming.  (This is the same for forsythias or other spring blooming shrubs.)  Lilacs prefer full sun and will        also benefit from the addition of lime.   

Questions about plants in the house or greenhouse

My amaryllis has little black flies flying out of its soil.  What are these creatures and what should I do about them?
They are either the Fungus Gnat or Shore Fly.  Try changing the soil using a sanitized media.  By all means, avoid overwatering.

The leaves are falling off my rubber tree from the bottom-up. What's happening here?
This is due to root-rot which is caused by over-watering. Slow down on the water!

My plant has cotton-like spots on the underside of leaves. What is causing this condition, and what should I do about it?
Mealybugs are the culprits. First try using a strong stream of water to wash off as many as possible. Then, if needed, apply pesticide and soil systemics.  Make pesticide applications at 7 to 10 day intervals.  Systemics 2 to 3 week intervals.

Questions about the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

How can I become a Master Gardener?
To become a Master Gardener, you must attend an intensive, multi-session training program and carry out 60 hours of volunteer activities. The next training program will begin in January, 2007. If you are interested in getting an application, please send an e-mail with your name and address to