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GARDEN MAIDEN: Weird growths and wrangled stems? You're not alone

Skeletonized leaves. Entire trees with puckered branches. Saggy heads of to-be blooms that might never burst into glory in time for summer picnics. All around me I see the results of delayed warm weather and bugs behaving badly who simply don’t know what season it is.

Don’t dance in your muck boots just yet if you have yet to spot a Japanese beetle. They simply are not out yet. Or, as heard over the buckets of torn out thistles last week, perhaps the deep freeze of an extremely cold winter truly froze the underground larvae to death. But here we are deep into June and I just spotted my first monarch of the season. Even with more than a dozen milkweed withstanding the evil glares of silent farmers walking by, only a few monarchs have decided it is actually summer.

And I feel just as confused. Flea beetles have punched tiny holes in all the brassica and what tomato plants made it into the ground are begging for sunshine as barely orange knobs dangle in stillness, hoping to plump up and ripen in the coming weeks. I’m still tilling twixt rows of pumpkins, melons and gourds that usually have sprawled out their canopies into a hovering patchwork blanket by now.

So for all of you out there troubled by weird growths and wrangled stems, know you are not alone.

Lots of new pests are arriving on our grounds this season. Educators and mentors reminded me this week that furious storms four zones away shift the life cycles of bugs in our own backyard. Or keep them in our backyard when they are mature enough to sense the danger and might rather avoid the eye of the storm.

This is my second year of longing to love roses. But I just can not. They hurt. They are sensitive, not unlike having a needy friend whose smile and character keeps you tolerating pain and punishment far longer than intended. My husband, however, has a knack for roses and seems to do just fine whacking them down to the ground three weeks after I intricately pruned them.

And it worked. He salvaged the rather scorned branches that took an overall beating this winter in our region.

New life popped up just as fresh dark mulch popped their florescent blooms onto the landscape. And within a few weeks, I thought he was watering them a few times a day because every time I walked by, there was water droplets on the leaves.

Or so I thought. But one particularly exhausting day I actually leaned against the porch post and took a closer look. It was not water drops, but transparent areas of the leaf that were getting scathed by a miniature inchworm.

Bright green and the size of a mealworm, these tiny caterpillars leave papery spots along leaf midribs before dwindling mature stems of full grown leaves into slivers.

A rose slug. Which is not a true slug — it turns into a rose sawfly after emerging from its silky underground cocoon and lays eggs on mature rose leaves within a mere eight weeks. Of course I’ve learned that the bristly variety, Cladius difformis, is what we’ve attracted with its unique ability to produce six generations of bugs a year.

I’m not a fan of spraying much, but sawflies also spread to cherry and pear trees. When it comes to having a crop or not, I am a bit protective.

While roses don’t quite call for hauling out the heavy gloves, Spinosad tops the pile of too much for me to feel comfy about letting it spread. The pesticide is OMRI listed, meaning it is approved for nominal use in organic gardening, and is a highly effective broadspectum option known to destroy larvae due to their soft bodies.

Timing is everything when applying Spinosad, a pesticide derived through the fermentation of a naturally occurring soil bacterium (Saccharopolyspora spinosa) and works on thrips and other soft bodied insects, too. So as I smash a sawfly or two, I mist the leaves every five days, hoping to restore lush growth in the coming summer warmth for our knockout roses.

In other areas, fungus is showing up early.

Garlic bulbs appear to be rotted or eaten below the surface with little or no scapes producing up top. The importance of managing wet soil comes as preventative health next season.

If you are having trouble with blight or mildew this early, it may be worth sacrificing the crop and adding plenty of spent organic matter such as straw and woody compost to the soil.

Use a cover crop that you can mow and turn in once or twice before planting in the area again.

Be sure to rotate the crop and choose vegetables that are resistance to soil bourne disease. For repeated issues with fusarium wilt and other typical soil issues, consider grafting sensitive cultivars onto root stock that is bred to be resistant, such as growing heirloom tomatoes on an Early Girl root stock.

While I am excited to see aphid eating midges on my crops this year, these tiny mosquito-like insects are culprits of spreading spores between crops.

Sanitation may be a better method, such as pruning infected leaves of a particular moldy spread, while letting the 600 aphid-a-day eater fly free of risk of pesticidal death.

Similarly, alarming nodes growing on leaves of shrubs and trees are likely the plant’s defense against early insect issues called galls.

Galls are formed by the reaction between plant hormones and powerful growth regulating chemicals produced by some insects such as wasps, and only rarely are a serious issue for your trees.

Galls rarely effect the blooms or fruit of a plant, and their unsightly appearance can often be pruned away since it is usually just a concentrated area of the plant that is affected.

What other anomalies are you wondering about in the garden this year? Share your disease and pestilence queries with me at www.gardenmaiden.com

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tammies@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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