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Shaw steps down as author of Purdue’s “In the Grow” column
In The Grow
By Beverly Shaw
Advanced Master Gardener, Purdue University

Dear Gardeners,
Here’s a rebellious break from the usual question-and-answer format of this column. With mixed emotions, I’m retiring as head gardener of the “In The Grow” column. I’ve enjoyed discussing topics from hated weeds to beloved plants with you all for the last 18 years, but I’m ready to move on to new pursuits.

By far, the most common question to this column is, “Why doesn’t my ____ bloom!” If your ______ doesn’t bloom (it doesn’t matter what it is), it’s because 1) it needs more sun, 2) it needs less nitrogen fertilizer, 3) you accidentally pruned the flower buds off, 4) the plant is still too young or 5) the temperature messed everything up.

When your plant won’t bloom, consider the possibilities. Has the site become shadier? Are you fertilizing the surrounding lawn with nitrogen? Did spring begin to warm up and then suddenly disappear for a few days? Remember to prune right after flowering to avoid cutting off flower buds. Check on weather records and know that an extremely mild winter doesn’t provide the necessary chilling period or, more likely, late cold snaps in the spring damaged the flower buds.

If your plants are not bearing fruit, there are several more possibilities. First, determine if you have no flowers (see above), or you have flowers but don’t have fruit. If the latter is the case, you may have a dioecious plant, which means you need both a male and female plant in order to produce fruit. Hollies and bittersweet are the dioecious plants that most of you ask about. Know that some plants require several years before bearing, buds are susceptible to cold, bee activity may be reduced and many fruit trees require pollination from another cultivar within the same species. Fruits and nuts are trickier to grow than zucchini and daylilies! Arm yourself with knowledge by visiting the Purdue University Consumer Horticulture website (www.ces.purdue.edu/horticulture.htm).

I have learned that moles make you see red! Anytime moles were mentioned in the column, I’d receive dozens of letters. Some would offer home remedies. Others would just vent their anger. I’ve written about moles many times, but I can sum it all up by recommending harpoon traps or a good dog. Most of the other solutions are creative but not consistently effective.

I have tried to balance my answers between caring for our environment (encouraging pesticide alternatives) to knowing the realities of growing some crops and the need for a little help now and then. I encourage you to select the right plants for your environment. You can significantly reduce your use of pesticides by choosing plants that grow well here, such as disease-resistant tomatoes and hardy shrub roses. When problems arise, consider environmentally friendly alternatives first, such as handpicking bagworms and Japanese beetles, spraying with insecticidal soap and practicing good garden sanitation at the end of the growing season.

The frustrating part of a Q&A column is that don’t always get a question to initiate the answer I want to give. If one of you were to write and say, “Dear Bev, Do you have any advice for your readers?” I would answer with the following:

•Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Double check “facts” with a good reference book. If someone tries to sell you 50 perennials for $100 and says every perennial will bloom all year long, start looking the plants up in a reference book or on a university Extension website. You’ll learn the truth and be smarter and richer for it!

•Everything in print or on the Web isn’t true. I always start with the Purdue website information. If I need to explore further and want to learn about plum curculio, for example, I search the Internet for “plum curculio” and add the word “university” or “Extension.” It leads me to other university sites and rules out many home gardening myths that are often wrong and sometimes even dangerous (like hooking the exhaust of a car to a mole tunnel or filling the tunnels with gasoline.)

•Please, identify pests properly before you spray something on them.

Rosie Lerner, Purdue Extension consumer horticulturist and my horticultural editor for all these years, will take over the column. I will give her the backlog of unanswered questions; so if you’ve written me and haven’t seen an answer, know that Rosie will have it.

This column is not done single-handedly. Here’s a tip of the trowel to Rosie, who has carefully perused every article, helped with tough questions and invited me to successfully turn this column and her gardening column into a book; to Purdue Extension specialists who have helped with tough questions over the years; to Richard Biever, my editor at the Electric Consumer who gathers your questions each month and sends them on to me, then tops the column with a headline that often makes me groan but usually makes me laugh; and my editors at the Purdue Department of Ag Communication who have kindly fixed me up grammatically and never berated me for a missed deadline.

The lion’s share of credit goes to my readers, however. I have learned from all of you. Advice I treasure includes, “I limbed up fruit trees for years so I could mow under the trees. Now I can’t reach the fruit,” and, “If you see something is wrong with an evergreen, it’s too late to fix it.” Too true! I urge you to share advice and plants with fellow gardeners. We can always learn something new. I have expanded my own garden knowledge as I researched your questions.

I have been most encouraged by your unwavering optimism: 80-year-olds asking about planting nut trees, those of you transplanting peonies from 100-year-old family farms and, my favorite, “I’ve been growing Brussels sprouts for 20 years with dismal results…”

Gardeners just won’t quit! We keep trying, and we keep learning. Our best qualities spill over into our gardening habits. I know the senior citizen planting pecan trees that won’t bear for decades cares about future generations. The gardener transplanting peonies has a strong sense of home and family. The gardener planting his 21st crop of Brussels sprouts this spring won’t give up when life hands him other challenges.

Gardening is a wonderful pastime that keeps us connected to the earth and to one another. Enjoy it for all it’s worth. Give plants as housewarming gifts. Thoroughly enjoy the ripe tomatoes of summer, the sweet gum leaves in fall, and the incredible structure and detail of bearded iris in the spring. Spend winter reading and visiting gardens to study the structure of good landscape design. Thanks for writing and reading and gardening! I’m hanging up my pen and heading for my garden.

Published in the January 11, 2006 issue of Farm World.

1/11/2006