Mysterious potatoes and ailing flowers

Puzzled by the fruit growing on the leafy stalks of his potato plants this year, Alvin Stake came to a free plant clinic at Shippensburg Public Library Monday evening looking for an explanation.


Stake says he’s planted and raised potatoes for years and is accustomed to reaping a harvest when he “raises” the crop each year. He says he’s never seen fruit on potato stalks above the soil.

The plant clinic advisors were unfamiliar with the phenomena, too.


Even as Penn State Master Gardeners, Ginny Mowery and Bonnie Gardner have not seen it all – and probably never will when it comes to shrubs, flowers and vegetables – but the two volunteers got a good look at a variety of planting problems on the minds of Shippensburg residents Monday evening.


Alvin Stake’s unusual potatoes were one example.


Growing on the healthy stalks were clumps on small green fruit that look somewhat like tiny green cherry tomatoes, When cut, Stake, said the fruit smell like potatoes.


“I have three-and-a-half rows 75-feet-long planted, so I’d like to find out what’s going on,” Stake said.


Gardner promised to look into the situation further and get back to Stake with some explanation or contact information for a better source of information.


Stake’s dilemma was just one of many questions raised Monday. Among the concerns were a wilting pacman broccoli, unwelcome moss, roses with holes in leaves, a moldy evergreen and several questions about the best landscaping choices.


“Last year, everyone had problems with tomato blight,” said Gardner. “In weather like we’re having this year, a lot of the problems are about fungus. But there’s no typical problem.”


Monday was the third plant clinic of the year at the library parking lot. Questions change as the days click away, Gardner says.


“In May, people had starter questions, what kind of plants to use and went to plant,” she said. “Those change as summer progresses.”


Gardner and Mowery suggested to several people that soil; testing is a valuable tool in planning a flower or vegetable garden, since different plants have different needs.


Stacey Higgins hauled a leafy 4-foot plant with roots trailing from her car and toted he specimen across the parking lot to Mowery. She wanted to know “is it a flower or a weed that people think I’m stupid for having in my yard?”


Mowery was a little uncertain, but Gardner called out, “I know what is I have it my yard.”


Higgins was relieved, then pleased, to discover her mystery plant was a plume poppy – a robust plant with scalloped dinner-plate-sized leaves that sport creamy white spires called plumes.


“It’s really easy to pull out, so I let it grow wherever it looks good,” Gardner told Higgins, “and pull it out where I don’t like it.”


Scarlett Stevens arrived with a scrawny-looking uprooted pacman broccoli she pulled from her vegetable patch when it faltered shortly after she sowed it as a live plant.


“I had the same thing last year and it was beautiful,” she told Mowery. “This year it grow for a while, then died.”


A close inspection of the plant’s tightly-wound circular rootball prompted Gardner to surmise the plant choked itself.


“You have to pull the roots apart a little before planting,” Gardner suggested, “so they grow out in different directions. These roots grew around each other and choked the plant.”


Barb Hubert brought black-eyed Susans infested with tiny bugs. The Master Gardeners suggested she start with soap and water and, if that didn’t work, progress to Neem oil or another insecticide oil that will remain on the leaves.


Kathy Bierbower brought a bit of everything from her yard – an evergreen, an azalea, rose leaves, an ailing yew and a shedding houseplant.


She said her houseplant – a Gold Capella – was swarmed by tiny black bugs when she put the plant outdoors for some sunlight and fresh air. She killed the bugs with a commercial spray, but wondered if she killed the plant in the process.


“Now it’s dropping leaves and stems all over the place,” Bierbower told Gardner, who advised that insuring a healthy plant is a “whole investigative process” that includes, soil type, fertilizer, air, light, moisture and temperature.


With a queue of gardeners with questions, Mowery and Gardner were happily busy.


Gardner urges more questioners to come for the next – and final – session Aug. 12 at 6:30 p.m.


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