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Q: A day or two after I set out my tomato and pepper plants, some of them got big spots on the leaves where all the green color bleached out. They seem to be recovering, but what caused the bleached areas? Did it have a connection with being in pots too long before I set them out?

A: No, it was not their time in pots. They needed sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat, since their green skins had never been exposed to bright sun. Finding themselves suddenly in full sunlight, they developed the bleached areas, which are a plant's equivalent of sunburn. Plants can heal, just as human skin can heal, but they will produce more vegetables if they do not first have to heal their leaves.

If a series of cloudy days follows transplanting, there probably will be no bleached spots. Or if transplants are "hardened off" by gradual exposure to sunlight, their green chlorophyll will not be destroyed. I protect all my transplants with nonwoven white row cover. As soon as a plant goes into the garden, I drape it with a scrap of old row cover. A couple of rocks or garden staples keep the cover from blowing away. A week later, the transplant has adjusted itself to the light, and I remove its sunshade.

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Q: My pink oriental poppies are four years old, and I am tired of looking at the ugly brown stems all summer. When is it safe to cut them down? And why have some of the flowers changed color? Originally, they were all salmon pink; now some are pale pink and some almost gray.

A: You can cut down the flower stems the instant after the petals fall. The only thing that the ripening pods contribute is seed. Unless you want to grow seedling poppies, you need not look at the bare stems. Do leave all the foliage, of course; the leaves will continue to feed the root system until they die.

Oriental poppies go dormant in August. In late summer, their leaves gradually die, sometimes to be replaced by a few fresh leaves in early fall. An excellent way to add more poppies is in this dormant season. Dig among the roots and select some pieces about the size of a lead pencil and 3 or 4 inches long. They will make root cuttings. Planted an inch or so deep and watered for the rest of the growing season, the cuttings will grow into new poppy plants next year. Don't worry if your digging breaks off other root pieces. They too will become root cuttings and will start new plants among the original group.

As for the color change, it exemplifies the fact that all flower colors are not stable. Your poppies may have been making seedlings of slightly different colors. Or the flower color of the original plants may be fading over the years. With oriental poppies the red-orange of the species is lasting, but the different colors of some cultivars may be evanescent.

This happens with other flowers as well. A few years back, I saw in a catalog an unusual polemonium with apricot flowers. I bought some. The plants are still alive, but by now the flowers are creamy white. At another place in my flower garden a hardy geranium called Splish Splash started out with dark blue and white streaks, but the petals are now plain blue. Color changes bred in a nursery may last only a few years, or the colors may change when the plants grow in different conditions.

The best way to control the flower color in your poppy bed is to dig out the plants whose color displeases you. If you dig them now, before dormancy, the root pieces accidentally left are not likely to regrow. In August you can fill the space with root cuttings from plants whose color you like.

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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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