Garden: The ‘miracle’ of plant food |

Garden: The ‘miracle’ of plant food

Tom Glass
Vail CO, Colorado
Tom Glass

EAGLE COUNTY ” Poking around the valley I’ve noticed a lot of containers that last saw a good shot of fertilizer when they were on display for sale. Some plantings are getting on the chartreuse side of green, if not down-right yellow. Chartreuse and yellow are not good colors for most plants to exhibit.

There are some desirable mutant wonders bred to reflect that color range when they are in the peak of health, but the overwhelming majority of the plants I’m referring to simply need food.

Plant food is an expenditure of time more than of dollars. Take the time now to feed your summer plant projects. The end result of a twice-weekly feeding with water-soluble fertilizer startles most people. Why, the results will seem miraculous. Indeed, they’re crazy good enough to convince the world there’s a miracle somewhere in plant food. There’s not. There’s food.

About this time of year folks begin to bring in their tired, their sick and their wilted plant masses, yearning to breathe life back into their collapsed, vegetative pets.

Typically, where things went wrong is easily figured out. If the interior leaves, particularly the lower ones, are as crispy as a Wheaties flake not yet in the bowl, the plant was dried out ” probably more than once.

That’s not always the case. So I guess I’d best explain crown rot and its causes.

Crown rot is a group of fungal diseases that lay dormant in soil until conditions are just right and then they corkscrew themselves into the cell walls of plants one cell at a time. To the average green thumb, this occurs seemingly without cause.

Typically, one evening you’re out there enjoying a beverage while admiring the vim and vigor of your gazanias. So, absently, you toss the dregs of your iced beverage into the pot as a show of support. The next night you’re digging about the base of the plant looking for the rotten cause of their sudden limpness.

It wasn’t the tonic. It was the ice that done it.

The likelihood that a few stray ice cubes will cause crown rot is slim, but wet soil, particularly at night, can allow fungii to take root. Most commonly crown rot is caused by a soil-born fungus known as Phytophthora, but Rhizoctonia, Fusarium, Phoma, Colletotrichum or Sclerotia could likely be among a host of other soil-born fungal culprits. And if one has a toehold in the cells of your plants, then it’s likely the others are present.

Crown rots are easy to diagnose. Near the base of the plants you will typically find brown mushy lesions on the stem, or, worse, the stem will appear to have been completely eaten through by a tobacco-chewing grasshopper. Characteristically, but not typically, there may be a white spider web-like growth spreading across the stem or nearby soil. Don’t bother looking for a spider. It’s rot.

How do you cure crown rot? Staying within the lines of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act of 1972 kind of makes that difficult to spell out. If your rot problems are bigger than, say, $500, call your local lawn and garden service guy and ask them to bring the full weight of their pesticide applicators license to bear on the problem.

Otherwise, without compromising my ability to vote, I can tell you that if you quit watering in the evenings or running your irrigation systems to the point where your pots remain soaked all day and into the night, your crown rot problems will vanish.

Crown rot fungi love a wet soil surface, particularly one that stays wet for more than 8 hours. Dense foliage exacerbates the problem. A stack of leaves operates a lot like a plastic bag. They create a stagnant, and therefore stable, environment that favors the growth of crown rot fungi.

There’s one other thing you can do to make your plants resistant to crown rot. Feed them, twice a week, at the labeled rate. A healthy plant resists most diseases ” just like a healthy person resists most diseases.

Tom Glass writes a weekly gardening column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this article to

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