Garden Advice: Baking Soda Balderdash

baking-sodaType “baking soda garden” into your web browser and you get over a million hits. Not surprisingly, most are something along the lines of “17 Smart Baking Soda Tips,” and “7 Natural Uses for Baking Soda.” Depending on which list you read, it sweetens tomatoes, increases the blooms on geraniums, begonias, and hydrangeas, prevents black spot on roses, cures powdery mildew, discourages soil gnats, and kills slugs and other harmful insects “while not harming beneficial insects.”  (So tell me—how does it know which are the bad bugs?) Plus, it’s natural, cheap, and readily available.

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Ewww, What’s That?

slime-mold_manitouexperimentalforest-co_lah_1830They’re not exactly beautiful. At first glance, you might guess that your neighbor’s dog has vomited on your lawn, but don’t go knocking on their door quite yet. These flattened slimy or spongy masses are actually living organisms known as slime molds.

Growing up to two feet in diameter, slime molds may be white to yellow, pink or tan. Although they look slimy, they are actually fairly resilient when prodded. Unlike plants, slime molds can travel several feet a day. And despite their name, they are not at all related to molds or other fungi. Rather, they’re considered members of the Protista. If you want more detail than that, let’s just say it’s complicated.

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Do I Need Some Fungi?

Amanita-type mycelia
Amanita-type mycelia

I was thumbing through a gardening supplies catalog, looking at the assortment of “things you can spend your money on that your plants will probably do fine without” when my eye was caught by an offer for “mycorrhizae.” The catalog was extolling the many virtues of this fungal spore mix—it would improve plant health, make the plants more drought resistant, increase yields, protect against diseases, reduce the need for fertilizer, and cure my great-aunt’s bunions, all for $16.95 per pound.

It sounded too good to be true, so naturally I was highly skeptical. (It also sounded pretty expensive until I learned that you apply it by the teaspoon. Phew, not so pricey after all!)

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Powdery Mildew

powdery-mildew-on-pumpkin-dbg-19sept05-lah-572The huge zucchini leaf looked as if it had been dusted with flour. The man holding it was looking at me expectantly, waiting for my diagnosis. I was volunteering at our county’s Master Gardener helpdesk, providing free gardening advice to the general public. Sometimes we get stumped, but this time I immediately knew exactly what the problem was.

“Your zucchini plants have powdery mildew,” I told the man. “It’s pretty common around here, especially this late in the season.”

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cucumber-diseased-leaves_blkforest-co_lah_6767-1My cucumbers are sick. As far as I can tell (although I’m not 100% certain), they’re suffering from something called Alternaria Leaf Blight. But no matter what the particular fungus is, the leaves have expanding brown spots and are beginning to yellow and die, starting from the roots and working their way upward. New fruit is being aborted. It’s sad—very, very sad.

I don’t often have to contend with diseases in my garden. Good horticultural practices lead to healthy plants, and healthy plants resist disease. However, given our erratic weather and cold nights, I grow my cukes in my little greenhouse. Because options are so limited, I plant them in the same spot year after year. Even though I renew the nutrients in the soil, fungal spores accumulate, and now I’m dealing with the unhappy result.

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