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Tales From a Master Gardener

Maria is a master gardener and master of public health. She & her husband, known online as The Gardener & The Cook, live in coastal Alabama.

Bright pink mop head hydrangea

Bright pink mop head hydrangea

Master gardeners have some great stories to tell, mostly from visitors to plant clinics or from volunteering at other venues. Some are funny, some are sad, especially when the loss of a beautiful tree or plant is involved.

There Are Clinics for Plants?

In areas with a large influx of new residents, the local master gardeners, in conjunction with the county extension office, usually hold plant clinics once or twice per week. At these clinics, people new to the area can speak in person with a master gardener to get information on local plants. The residents (clients) can take a damaged leaf, flower, or clump of grass with roots attached to ask what is wrong, and what to do about the problem.

When I used to work the plant clinics, we received a lot of the same questions, and saw some of the same damage every week. We often had some of the same people come to the clinics. We also received some quite funny questions – but more about that later.

Typical Types of Questions

The most common questions were about palms, turf grass, and plant or insect identification. Most of the clients had moved there from hundreds of miles away, and didn’t know what to do with tropical and semi-tropical plants. Even warm-season grass befuddled them. When the grass began going dormant in the late fall (December) they thought it had a fungus or that it was dying from freeze damage. Below is a photo of grass in summer and the same grass going dormant.

Zoysia grass in warm weather

Zoysia grass in warm weather

Zoysia grass going dormant in winter. Bermuda grass going dormant looks the same.

Zoysia grass going dormant in winter. Bermuda grass going dormant looks the same.

Most Frequent Questions – Some Due to Local Scams

  1. Can I cut the top out of my palm tree to make it bush out, so it looks more like a normal tree?
  2. Why are some of the leaves on my palm tree turning yellow?
  3. What’s wrong with my grass?
  4. Why won’t this grass grow in the shade?
  5. My neighbor said I’m watering my grass too much. How much is too much?
  6. What’s wrong with my tomato plants? They looked great, and suddenly died.
  7. My yard man said I have chinch bugs in my grass. What do I do about them?
  8. A man stopped by my house and said my palm is not planted deep enough, and he will dig it up and replant it. Should I let him do that?
  9. What is this bug that’s killing my hibiscus?
  10. My friend said I don’t have to dig up my caladiums here. Is that true?
  11. What’s wrong with this plant?
  12. What is this bug?


Answers to Most Frequent Questions

1. Can I cut the top out of my palm tree to make it bush out, so it looks more like a normal tree?

First, palms are not trees. They are related to grasses, but are more closely related to corn. They grow only from a terminal bud at the top of the stem (not trunk). If you cut out that bud, the palm will die.

Below is my photo of the flowering of a Queen palm. The bees love these flowers. Soon they will drop off and hundreds of seeds will develop, and will become tiny Queen palms in the surrounding flower beds.

This is the inflorescence (flowering) of a Queen palm in the front yard of our former home.

This is the inflorescence (flowering) of a Queen palm in the front yard of our former home.

The newest leaves on palms emerge  as the one in the top center of this photo. They are called spear leaves until they open. Cut them out, and you have killed the palm.

The newest leaves on palms emerge as the one in the top center of this photo. They are called spear leaves until they open. Cut them out, and you have killed the palm.

2. Why are some of the leaves on my palm tree turning yellow?

No. Please don’t cut the top out of your palm. First, palms are not trees. They are related to grasses, but are more closely related to corn. They grow only from a terminal bud at the top of the stem (not trunk). If you cut out that bud, the palm will die.

3. What’s wrong with my grass?

Depending on the sample of grass brought in, or the photos shown to us, we tried to diagnose the problem. It could be insect infestation or a disease, often fungal. Depending on the season, rounded or oval patches of grass turning brown and appearing to die could be either large patch (spring and fall) or brown patch (summer).

If a plug of grass with soil and roots attached was brought in, we could see through a microscope or magnifying glass whether or not there were insects in the soil, and advise the client on the proper treatment.

4. Why won’t this grass grow in the shade?

The first question we asked is what type of grass they had. Grass that wouldn’t grow in the shade was usually a type of St. Augustine, or some types of centipede. My advice was usually to plant the shaded area with a shade-loving ground cover such as purple ajuga, or to create a raised bed with good quality soil, then to plant shade-loving plants such as impatiens, ferns, or caladiums.

5. My neighbor said I’m watering my grass too much. How much is too much?

Again, this depends on the type of grass, the weather, and whether or not the lawn has good drainage. I noticed many people ran their irrigation systems daily. A few where I live now do that, as well.

Watering daily keeps the grass roots shallow, which means if there is a drought which usually brings water use restrictions, the grass will suffer. By watering less often, you force the roots to grow deeper to reach moisture. One-half inch of water per week is plenty for turf grasses.

Save some cat food cans or tuna fish cans – any shallow container will do. Put them in various places in your yard, and run the sprinklers. Then measure the water in the cans. If they contain less than ½ inch, increase the watering time. If they contain more, reduce the watering time.

6. What’s wrong with my tomato plants? They looked great, and suddenly died.

The most likely problem is root knot nematodes. In the sandy soils of coastal areas such as south Alabama and much of Florida, nematodes are a huge problem for growing tomatoes. We recommended growing tomatoes in pots in those areas. Below is a photo of damage done by root knot nematodes to my tomatoes when I tried to grow them in the ground in a raised bed with excellent soil.

On the other hand, depending on the time of year, it may be too hot to grow tomatoes. In zones 8b and farther south, tomatoes do best in spring, early summer, and fall.

This is damage to one of my tomato plants caused by root knot nematodes. See how the roots have knots in them? The nematodes cannot be seen. They are microscopic. They should be long and slender. After this experience, I grew my tomatoes in pots.

This is damage to one of my tomato plants caused by root knot nematodes. See how the roots have knots in them? The nematodes cannot be seen. They are microscopic. They should be long and slender. After this experience, I grew my tomatoes in pots.

7. My yard man said I have chinch bugs in my grass. What do I do about them?

The first thing we asked the client was, “What type of grass do you have?” St. Augustine Is more likely to have chinch bugs. Zoysia and centipede are more likely to have mole crickets.

The next question we asked was, “Did the yard man or pest control man get down on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass? If not, he couldn’t possibly know whether you have chinch bugs or not. He is guessing, and could be wrong.”

8. A man stopped by my house and said my palm is not planted deeply enough, and he will dig it up and replant it. Should I let him do that?

No. Do not let him do that. He will take your money to do that, and then, in a few weeks when the palm dies, he will come back full of sympathy, and apologize for not doing it sooner, then offer to replace the tree for more of your money.

Your palm is planted properly. These roots you see are called adventitious roots. They are a sign of an aging palm, and are perfectly normal. Your palm is fine.

It turned out that some guys were running a scam in our neighborhood, and many others with lots of new residents. They would point out the adventitious roots, and say something like, "See those roots? They should be underground." Some residents wanted to put soil over the roots to cover them, and were told that wouldn't do at all. The "trees" had to be dug up and planted deeper.

These are adventitious roots on a Sylvester palm in the front yard of our former home. Some of them will grow long enough to grow into the soil. Some will not. As they grow and spread, they cause the boots above them to flare outward, & this is fine.

These are adventitious roots on a Sylvester palm in the front yard of our former home. Some of them will grow long enough to grow into the soil. Some will not. As they grow and spread, they cause the boots above them to flare outward, & this is fine.

9. What is this bug that’s killing my hibiscus?

Several clients brought insects in zip-close bags for us to identify. If a hibiscus was involved, the pest was usually mealy bugs. My experience with hibiscus is that mealy bugs love them, as well as the mandevilla vines. So do lady bug larvae which can easily be confused for mealy bugs at one stage of growth. At times, the plant’s stems and flower buds will appear to be swathed in a white powder, but it’s actually hundreds of mealy bugs.

In all but hot weather, we usually advised the use of neem oil, to be sprayed in either the early morning or in the evening. In extremely hot weather any oils will melt and slide off, so for that weather, we advised the use of insecticidal soaps. The downside of the soaps is that they are washed off with every rain, and when irrigation hits the plants. So, the soaps must be re-applied after every rain.

Below are photos of mealy bugs on one of my hibiscus flower buds, a white lady bug larva, and two of my favorite hibiscus flowers.

This a severe mealy bug infestation on a hibiscus flower bud. The whole shrub looked like this. After fighting them for several years, I finally gave up trying to grow those gorgeous hibiscus shrubs.

This a severe mealy bug infestation on a hibiscus flower bud. The whole shrub looked like this. After fighting them for several years, I finally gave up trying to grow those gorgeous hibiscus shrubs.

Lady bug larvae on one of my hibiscus flower buds. Many of these beneficial insects have been mistakenly killed by people thinking they were mealy bugs -- me included.

Lady bug larvae on one of my hibiscus flower buds. Many of these beneficial insects have been mistakenly killed by people thinking they were mealy bugs -- me included.

This is the only double hibiscus I had, and it was my absolute favorite. Sadly, it is the one that was devoured by mealy bugs in the worst way. The first photo in this group shows a bud of this shrub.

This is the only double hibiscus I had, and it was my absolute favorite. Sadly, it is the one that was devoured by mealy bugs in the worst way. The first photo in this group shows a bud of this shrub.

Fiesta Hybrid -- one of my favorites

Fiesta Hybrid -- one of my favorites

10. My friend said I don’t have to dig up my caladiums here? Is that true?

It is true for anyone south of the I-10 corridor, as long as you mulch them really well. By that, I mean cover them with about 6 inches of pine straw during the cold months. Do this and, unless you have an extremely hard freeze, they should be fine.

Red Flash has very large leaves, and can take more sun than many caladiums. My little 10-pound Maltese could almost sit underneath some of these leaves.

Red Flash has very large leaves, and can take more sun than many caladiums. My little 10-pound Maltese could almost sit underneath some of these leaves.

Florida Sunrise has nice-sized leaves, as well. It can take some sun, but not is not as long-lived as Red Flash.

Florida Sunrise has nice-sized leaves, as well. It can take some sun, but not is not as long-lived as Red Flash.

11. What’s wrong with this plant?

Many different plants were brought to the plant clinics. Usually we could identify the problem, and let the people know what to do. We did not recommend specific brand names of products. Instead, we recommended the use of products that contained particular active ingredients. There is usually more than one brand with the necessary ingredient.

12. What is this bug?

Insect identification is another question frequently asked of master gardeners. Most of them we knew right away. For the rare occasion there was a bug no one recognized, we had our trusty “bug books”.

Sometimes, a person would not come in with a bug or a photo of the bug. They just tried to describe it. Then we got out or bug book, and let them leaf through it until they found the right one. Then we could advise what to do and what to use.

A Funny Story

A man brought in some sprigs of turf grass that had gone to seed. He asked, “What is this coming up in my grass?” I looked at the sprigs and told him what it was, and added that this particular grass is sterile, so the seeds are useless and won't cause a problem. “Well, what do I do about them?” he asked. My reply: “Just mow the grass more often, so it doesn’t have a chance to produce seed.” He left as a happy man.

When You Don't Tell Someone What They Want to Hear

Another man came in with a question about a plant. There were several of us working that day, and each of us offered answers to his question. We all knew what was wrong, but what we were telling him was not what he wanted to hear. To one after another of us, he replied, “No, it’s not that.” Finally, as a group, we smiled and told him, “Congratulations, you have stumped the master gardeners.”

My First, and Only, Taste of Male Chauvinism as a Master Gardener

Of course, it was about turf grass. An older gentleman came into the clinic, and it was my turn as, an intern, to greet the next person. He immediately pointed to a male master gardener (MG), and said, “I want to talk to him.” Believing they must know each other, I stepped aside, but stayed close to listen and learn.

The more experienced MG indicated that I should answer the man’s questions, so I did, but he didn’t believe me until the male MG confirmed it. If fact, he said, “Everything she has told you is spot on.” The man didn’t like that, and left grumbling to himself. I didn’t take it personally, and we all had a good laugh about it.

It's All About Community Service

Being a master gardener requires study, attending classes, and taking a few tests. I loved every minute of it, but I seem to thrive on a classroom setting, anyway. Being a master gardener is all about community service, and we all do that for a love of gardening.

Working the plant clinics was fun, and I met a lot of nice people. We don’t have the clinics where I live now, because, while a lot of people move here, there are not a lot coming from all over the country. I really miss those clinics. I do get asked to look at some of my neighbors’ palms and other plants from time to time, your questions continue to come, and I am now chair of our neighborhood beautification committee, so I’ll be satisfied with that, at least until I have time to join the MGs here.

I Love Hearing From My Readers, So Send Me Your Gardening Questions

If you have a question, feel free to ask. Be sure to send a good, close-up photo of the bug, leaf, flower, palm, or tree in question to me at gardenerandcookblog@gmail.com.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 MariaMontgomery

Your Comments & Questions are Always Welcome

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 12, 2021:

Hi, Denise, I expect that, someday as I get older, I will have to be in an apartment or condo, too. I'm going to hold out as long as I can so I don't have to give up my garden. I'm so sorry. It makes me sad when people who love gardening can't have a garden. You might try vinca on your west side. It loves hot weather, is very drought-tolerant, and comes in a variety of colors.Thanks so much for reading my article, and for your nice comment. See you around HubPages.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 11, 2021:

I love gardening and miss it terribly. I live in an apartment now with no good light, only one window in the kitchen and one in the living room facing west. The light is bad for plants because they all get scorched or die from not enough light. I've given up growing things and that makes me sad. I love the funny stories you shared. I've encountered misogynists too. What can you do?

Blessings,

Denise

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 11, 2021:

Ok. That is what comes up when I log in. Another question: if we didn't have this thread going, how would I contact you (or anyone)? Sorry if I'm being a bother. I just got back to working on HP in the last few months, so I'm really rusty, and still not up on all the changes. Thanks.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 10, 2021:

Maria, from your profile page (or whatever comes up when you sign in), click on the word HubPages at the very top of the page. That takes you to your feed.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 09, 2021:

How do you reply through your feed? Is it the page that first comes up when you log in?

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 09, 2021:

Maria, I'm replying through my feed. The thing is, is articles by those whom we follow don't always show up in the feed until days later. It's quite frustrating. I've gotten to where I read thru my feed, rather than by way of email notification for that very reason.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 08, 2021:

Shauna, I just read your "Death of a Community" article. I agree completely. It makes no sense. I wasn't aware the lack of comments was only on niche sites. A question: how did you reply through my feed? How do I get to the feeds of others I follow. BTW, I have been one of your followers for several years. I checked. Thanks in advance for any info you can provide.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 08, 2021:

I'm really impressed with you mother. More power to her!

About the comments, I'll read your article. I've been a bit confused because some of my brand new articles have received comments, but I can't comment on others' articles, except when I first sign in, it shows new ones of people I follow, and has a place for comments. That shouldn't be the only place. Grrrrr. I think I'm following you, but I'll have to check on that, too. I just started a 2nd HP account, titled the Grumpy Book Reviewer. So far, it has only 3 or 4 followers. I closed my website by that name because web hosting costs got too high for so little return. I'm gradually moving my book reviews to HP. Wish me luck.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 07, 2021:

Maria, comments were disabled a year ago when HP took on Maven's format. We've been fighting it (see my article entitled "Hubpages 3.0 - Death of a Community") hard and loud. We were told that the ability to comment would be restored by the end of June 2021. Obviously, that hasn't happened. The only way to comment is to go thru your feed, which is how I'm commenting to you now.

I appreciate the read and that you enjoyed the article. One thing I'd like to point out is, my Master Gardener mother is 83 and still going strong. Her gardens that are the result of her creativity, not to mention the upkeep that she does herself, keep her young. She's awesome!

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 07, 2021:

Shauna, I really enjoyed reading your article about the garden tours. I wanted to comment at the end, but even though there were lots of comments, there was no place for me to leave a comment. I've had that happen a lot lately. Not sure what's going on. Still, it was a very enjoyable article.

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 05, 2021:

Thanks, Shauna. I'll take a look.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 05, 2021:

Maria, I feature a few shots of my mom's gardens in an article I wrote called, "Garden Tours Spark Inspiration, Relaxation, and Conversation."

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 04, 2021:

You're very welcome. Thank you for reading my article and for commenting. I'll bet your mom's gardens are gorgeous. Sure wish I could see them. We've been in our home a little under 2 years, and even though it was not new construction, the yard was almost a blank slate, so even though we've done a lot, we still have much to do. Thanks again. Drop by anytime.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 04, 2021:

My mother is a Master Gardener. She received her certification through Mounts Botanical in Palm Beach. She's also President of her gardening club. Each year her property is one of several that are featured when her gardening club sponsors garden tours. Those always wear her out. She spends months sprucing up her many themed gardens and plans a menu, all dishes of which she makes herself. She likes to offer beverages and hors d'oeuvre to her guests.

I found the information in this article interesting, Maria. Thanks for for giving us an inside peek into the life of a Master Gardener.

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