By now you certainly have been out in the garden enjoying spring flowers, cleaning up and planning for the seasons ahead. I have received several emails recently concerning small flies (one writer said they looked like mosquitoes) that seem to be found near plants grown indoors. These are most likely fungus gnats. They are usually found in overly moist containers where the larvae eat organic matter and plant roots. This can cause damage to the infested plants as root damage interferes with the uptake of nutrients from the soil. The plant will frequently look unhealthy. If you do capture one of the adults alive (in a jar perhaps) look for long antennae made of segments. The fly itself is only about an eighth of an inch long but you may be able to see the grayish wings showing a Y-shaped vein. What to do? Allow the soil to dry out between waterings and clean up debris. Don’t let water pool in your pots or under them. You may find it necessary to remove all the soil and to repot. The problem should eventually resolve itself.
A gardener who plans to direct seed in the garden asked “How can I tell the new plants from weeds that are coming up at the same time?” This can be difficult . I still recall nourishing what I thought were young marigold plants that had emerged in the garden. They grew into a wonderful crop of ragweed! Such early gardening experiences have helped keep me humble. They were also valuable learning experiences because they have taught me the value of observation. Experience will eventually teach you to recognize the difference between young seedlings.
Before planting seeds directly into the garden most gardeners loosen the soil. This brings up weed seeds waiting for the same opportunities as your flower or vegetable seeds. A good thing to do is to put a different color soil over the planted seeds. Potting soil for example tends to be darker than garden soil and your seedings will emerge in that area. You can also plant your seeds in a pattern — rows, circles, spirals. The best thing to do is to educate yourself. Simply pot up a few of the seeds and when they germinate you can compare the plants to the ones germinating in the garden. (If interested readers have email and can open attachments, I can send you a sheet with sketches of seedlings. I keep adding to this sheet as I try growing more species of plants.)
Another question involved growing tropical plants here in Zone 5. This is one of my latest interests as well. These plants simply cannot tolerate the winter conditions here. Grow the tropicals in containers in full sun with ample water and food. Bring these plants indoors to a cool but not freezing basement or garage in the autumn. Last year I grew sugarcane which reached a height of over seven feet by the end of the season. I also grew woody hisbiscus, bougainvillea and strobilanthus. I purchased a hardy banana plant but a woodchuck ate it so I plan to try again this year. The most difficult task in raising tropical plants is dragging the heavy containers indoors.
Be sure to harden off seedlings this month. If frost or cold weather is predicted, protect your tender perennials, tropical and annual seedlings, with a light cloth for overnight protection. Row covers are wonderful to use as well as cloches, glass jars or inverted cut plastic bottles. Just be sure to remove or tip glass coverings so your plants don’t overheat or harbor fungi and bacteria in the daytime.