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Q: On my two pear trees, the pears on one are fine; on the other tree they rot from the inside out. Is there any way to prevent that?

A: The most likely explanation is that the pears that spoil hang on the tree too long. If pears begin to ripen on the tree, that is exactly what happens. They start turning brown at the core, and mushiness spreads outward into the whole pear. They are inedible.

If your two trees are different varieties, one may be ready to pick sooner. Even if they are the same kind of pear, slight differences in their growing conditions, like more sun or richer soil, may cause the pears on the two trees to mature at different times.

It can be really hard to judge when to pick pears. The rule is to get them off the tree as soon as they have reached full size. They will still be hard, needing to ripen in storage before they are ready to eat. Their skin color says nothing about ripeness. A mature pear should snap loose from the twig when you lift it up. With some pears, a slight additional twist is needed.

Next year, assume that the pears on the problem tree will need picking sooner and see whether that does not end the problem.

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Q: Our potato plants died weeks ago, and we have not yet dug the potatoes. We have always stored them in a corner of the garage. What would happen if we left them in the ground over the winter, covering them so that they did not freeze?

A: I have never heard the method tried with potatoes, and none of my references mention it. Potatoes are very fussy about storage conditions, and I expect that underground would not meet their requirements. A complication would be that many potatoes are ready to grow again by December or January; in the ground, they might decide that next spring had arrived.

Potatoes store best if they have a day or so to dry out and toughen their skins. Then they should be moved to any dark place where the temperature stays above freezing and below 50 degrees. Darkness is always necessary, because potatoes begin making alkaloid chemicals if they are exposed to light. The chemicals create a bitter taste and a green color.

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The longer potatoes are stored, the more their temperature must be controlled. They are alive, just breathing slowly. Eventually they need to be at 38 to 40 degrees to prevent sprouting. High humidity is always vital; since potatoes are 80 percent water, they begin to shrivel in dry air.

Potatoes can be stored in piles, in bags, or in boxes. Keep containers relatively small because the tubers bruise easily. A recent study from the University of Idaho found that ventilated plastic bags worked extremely well.

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Q: My aspen tree has dead spots on many of its leaves. They started as tiny circles, but now the leaves look tattered and half dead. Should I spray the tree with something?

A: Don't spray. At best it would be a waste of time; at worst, it would exacerbate the problem. Aspen leaves can be damaged by several kinds of bug spray. Almost certainly your tree has a fungal disease so prevalent that its name is "aspen leaf spot." Although the leaves are disfigured, the tree's health is not compromised.

The best way to combat an infection next year is to rake up and remove all the leaves as they drop this fall. Getting rid of the infected leaves will get rid of the supply of fungal spores that keep the infection going. Do not put the dead leaves in the compost pile, where the spores would survive the winter.

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Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email mhackett@centric.net. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails.

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