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Report From PIA – May 13

At the garden center on Wednesday there were several customers with Plant Problems. One woman brought in an envelope of spotted, yellow American holly leaves, and a man came up to me holding a peony stem that terminated in tiny, black buds instead of developing flowers. Then there was the phone call from someone who was concerned that the daylilies were doing so well. “I’ve never seen such large, lush growth on these plants,” this caller said.

I told the first customer that her holly was just doing what all American hollies are doing right now: jettisoning the old in favor of the new. If she looked closely, she’d see all the fresh new leaves and stems. This new growth would be much more productive than the old, winter damaged, leaf-minor scared, and fungal spotted foliage could ever be.

The man with the peony stem was told about peony botrytis, and how this fungus is especially destructive in wet, cold weather, aka Spring on Cape Cod. I told him that I’d found that spraying early with Serenade (Bacillus subtilis) to be a good organic protection.

The explanation for the caller was a bit more involved. I asked him to think back over the past twelve months. A very wet summer in 2009 was followed by a relatively mild winter and wet month of March. Add to that above average warm temperatures in April, and you have a prescription for good perennial growth.

Diagnosing plant problems is first a matter of knowing what’s normal for that plant. Secondly, it’s a matter of thinking about what problems that plant is usually susceptible to. Thirdly, we want to think about what cultural conditions have been around that plant for the recent past and previous growing season.

This isn’t so different for people, I’m thinking. If we think something might be amiss with ourselves, or someone we know, we might first think about what is normal. I’m always more likely to be discouraged when I’m tired, and optimistic when I’m well rested, for example, and one of my kids would always want to go to sleep when he was stressed. So our first question might be, is what we’re seeing typical?

Some of us are also more susceptible to problems at particular times. One person gets blue every fall because that’s when he/she got divorced. I know a woman who says that she always gets a virus when she travels abroad, and another who knows that she’s more quarrelsome when she doesn’t eat regularly.

And most therapists will tell us that our past and previous “growing seasons” affect us as well. I think that asking what’s normal, what are we susceptible to, and what’s gone on in the past is helpful for diagnosing plant and people problems.

One of my favorite ground cover perennials, Geranium macrorrhizum, is surrounded by yellowed leaves that fell from the holly you see at the top of this picture. This is just what American hollies do in May.

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