Jennifer Smith to answer gardening questions

April 21, 2010

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Garden Calendar columnist Jennifer Smith is available from noon to 1 p.m. today to talk about your garden questions.


Hi, everyone. Welcome to our gardening chat today with Jennifer Smith from the Douglas County Extension Office. Jennifer, thanks for joining us today.

Jennifer Smith:

Hi! I'm looking forward to everyone's questions today.


Thank you for taking questions.

We are starting a garden this weekend in the same plot we've used for the last two years. The soil is in good shape (we till it each spring, and amend it with some cotton burr compost lawn compost), drains well, and doesn't get too wet as the summer progresses, but each of the last two years, our tomatoes have apparently suffered from blight (note I'm not certain that is what the problem is, but that most closely matches the symptoms).

Later in the summer, after the plants are mature and appear thick and healthy, the leaves begin to get spotted with brown specks and eventually turn yellow and die off. The problem progresses from the bottom of the plant upward, slowly over the course of a couple of months, until the entire plant is consumed by September or October. The tomatoes continue to grow, but the plants don't appear healthy.

The rest of our garden does well - we are able to successfully grow and harvest a wide range of other plants.

What can I do to avoid this? Optimally, I'd prefer to avoid/prevent it all together. I'd also prefer to not use chemicals if possible. Alternatively, how can I treat it in progress?

Thank you again for taking questions.

Jennifer Smith:

The symptoms you are describing on your tomato plants sound like a fungal disease called Septoria leaf spot. Septoria has been especially bad the last few years because of all the moisture.
Here are some things you can do:
1. Septoria overwinters in plant debris and in the soil, so removing the old vines at the end of each season can help.
2. Planting your tomatoes in a different place in the garden each year will also help.
3. Use drip irrigation, soaker hoses, or another watering method that avoids wetting the plant's leaves. The fungus moves up the plant by splashing.
4. Mulch with straw, prairie hay or other organic material. This also helps with the splashing.
5. Remove affected leaves as soon as they appear.
6. There are organic and synthetic pesticides available that are labeled as preventatives for Septoria, so they would have to be applied frequently throughout the season (according to label instructions) to protect the plant. They can work in combination with the other things I have suggested, though.


I'm afraid perhaps the compost I received from the Lawrence Compost Site has created a crop poison ivy in my yard. There is ivy in both my front and backyards which were not there the previous summers. What's the best way for me to get rid of it? Have you heard any other problems associated with it this year?

Jennifer Smith:

A report came out last summer that says that the occurrence of poison ivy is increasing - it has something to do with carbon dioxide emissions. In my yard, it has popped up in about 20 new places. Control is difficult, but the first thing I would try is to pull it. Put a plastic bag over your hand and arm, or wear rubber gloves when you do this. With a plastic bag, you can turn the bag inside out over the plant to keep from coming into contact with it. You can also dig it out with a shovel. If you want to use a pesticide, use either a broad-spectrum herbicide (like Roundup) or a broadleaf selective herbicide. For large vines, cut the top of the vine just above the ground and paint the stump with concentrated Roundup or a similar herbicide. Good luck!


Seems like the inventory of annuals for sale in area nurseries/plant stands is about a good 3 weeks ahead of schedule, as comparred to most years. Any danger in doing our container pots too soon? I normally don't do my pots til the first of May but I'm afraid if I wait the selections will be depleted. Why the rush this year?

Jennifer Smith:

Although we've passed the average date of last frost, there is still a risk until May. If you plant your pots now, just pay attention to the weather and bring them inside or cover them if temperatures drop below 40. I'm not sure if the plants are available any earlier this year, but I think there are more shoppers out at once after the long winter.


I would like to start a few tomato plants in 5-gallon containers out on my lawn. Is there a way to get free, suitably sized containers in Lawrence? I heard you can sometimes get a hold of pickle containers that fast food places no longer need.

Jennifer Smith:

I'm not aware of free pickle (or other) containers, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to ask some restaurants that sell a lot of pickles! Five-gallon buckets are fairly inexpensive, or you can find large flower pots that are inexpensive if you don't mind using plastic or terra cotta.


How does one get soil tested? Also, what kind of ever-green is the most hardy and likely to survive? I have planted at least 5 kinds of evergreens in my front garden and none have made it.

Jennifer Smith:

You can drop off a sample of your soil at the Douglas County Extension Office, 2110 Harper (on the fairgrounds), Mon-Fri 8a-5p. We send them to K-State to a soil testing laboratory, then they send the results back to us, so it takes about 2 weeks at this time of year. We need about 2 cups of soil for a test. Also, check out the recommendations on how to take a sample under "Lawn and Garden" at
For evergreens, it depends on whether you want a tree or shrub, how much sun and wind the area gets, and how well your soil drains. K-State has some recommended tree and shrub lists on their Extension website, or you can pick up print copies at the Extension office when you bring in your soil sample.


Last year I managed to kill one young forsythia bush, and nearly killed another. I had planted the bushes in the spring in a new mulch bed. The yard had been neglected for decades and-judging by the grass condition and other signs like lack of blooms on an established lilac bush-was impoverished. The bushes appeared healthy for a few months, until I applied Preen to the surrounding mulch bed according to package directions. Within 48 hours, leaves on entire limbs turned coppery and ultimately died. I suspected Preen, of course, given the timing. But I was careful during the application. Is there something else I should consider such as soil pH - or perhaps a virus? The bushes were purchased at a box store. I'd like to solve this problem and not inadvertently cause more forsythia carnage.
Thank you.

Jennifer Smith:

This is a tough one without seeing the plants. A soil test (see the last question) can determine pH and nutrient levels, but I wouldn't expect such a rapid death. Also, if you followed the directions with the Preen, I wouldn't expect a problem. Was anything else sprayed anywhere near the plants (possibly even at a neighbor's that could have drifted in)? The other possibility is a fungal disease called Verticillium wilt that is in the soil. Unfortunately, we cannot test for the fungus in the soil, but an infected plant can be tested. I would have the soil tested for pH and nutrients, work some compost into the soil and try planting again.


I have a large sunny area covered with weeds, some gravel, laying atop sticky (clay?) soil. And I have never gardened. How can I clear the weeds with minimal effort and do something useful in that area? (I'd love to grow a vegetable or two amongst groundcover, if the rabbits wouldn't destroy it.) Where to start?

Jennifer Smith:

To start, I would try to get rid of the weeds and gravel, then add compost or organic matter to improve the soil. An easy way to kill the weeds is to lay black plastic over the area for a few days and allow the heat from the sun to kill the plants. Then rake and remove as much of the gravel as possible. Spread compost an inch to an inch and a half thick and work it into the soil as much as possible. Be patient with it all! Gardening can be work, but the rewards are worth it and the soil will get better over time.


What veggies do best in containers in a hot & sunny (and sometimes very windy) location?

Jennifer Smith:

Tomatoes might need to be staked or caged in a windy location, but there are several varieties that grow well in pots. Peppers, eggplant, beans, swiss chard, and herbs are great summer plants. Lettuce, spinach and peas do well in containers in early spring or fall. The only things I really avoid are tall plants (like corn or okra) and vine crops like melons.


I have over 20 Austrian Pines that have tip blight and needle blight. I can't afford to have them all sprayed. What evergreen(s) do you recommend I replace them with (over time) that are disease resistant and adaptable to our NE KS climate?

Jennifer Smith:

Red cedars are the only evergreen tree native to Kansas, so they are really the best option. There are cultivars of red cedar, available at nurseries, that might be more desirable (by appearance and growth habit) than the species itself. Replacement is definitely the best option, even if you only do a few each year. Norway spruce and limber pine are also recommended for this area, but can be expensive.


We have a large grass lawn that includes some bermuda grass that we would like to turn into a vegetable garden. What is the most inexpensive and safest way to kill large areas of grass and should there be any special preparation for that area?

Jennifer Smith:

I would lay black plastic over the area and allow the sun's heat to kill the grass underneath. Once the grass is dead, add compost or other organic matter and work it into the soil. I have some bad news, though: The bermudagrass may come back. The roots can go very deep and there is really no sure-fire way to get rid of it. Just keep a close eye out, and if you see it in your new garden, pull it out before it gets a chance to take over.


How long does it usually take for leaf lettuce seeds to mature enough for harvest?

Jennifer Smith:

I'm sorry I am not sure of just how long it takes, but I would wait until the stems were fairly dry before attempting to harvest. I'd be willing to check some references and get back to you on this if you'd like to e-mail or call 843-7058. Again, sorry I'm not sure!


OK, folks. There's just time for one more question today ... here goes ...


Hi Jenny! If you do not have space to garden but your neighbor volunteers to let you garden on his lot, should you have a written agreement with the neighbor? Call me!

Jennifer Smith:

Yes, always get a written agreement! Otherwise, they might pick that big tomato you've been waiting on!


Jennifer, thanks for chatting with us today. If readers have additional questions, should they use the contact info you listed above?

Jennifer Smith:

Yes - I'd be happy to follow up on any of these or answer additional questions. Thanks everyone and happy gardening!


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