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Garden Q&A: Getting a jump start on spring in the garden

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Q: I’m getting antsy waiting for spring and want to get some seeds started soon. What can I sow this early?

A: You can winter-sow brassicas (cabbage family veggies) now or in early March. Try sowing them into containers and set them outside to germinate when conditions are suitable. Milk jugs are popular vessels, and it’s a great way to repurpose them before recycling. By using these little outdoor “greenhouses,” when seedlings are older and ready to be transplanted, they’ll already be acclimated to most of the chill they’ll experience, unlike those started inside. You can learn about this technique on our Maryland Grows blog; search “winter sowing.”

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The Brassica family, including cabbage, can be sown in winter. Broccoli and cauliflower are the exception since they have a tendency to bolt if grown too early in the season.

Broccoli and cauliflower would be an exception among cool-season veggies, though, as they tend to bolt more readily if sown in spring than if grown as a fall-harvested crop. Bolting is the switchover from producing foliage to producing flowers, and it’s governed by environmental conditions like temperature and length of the day. Plants stop producing foliage and focus their energy on blooming instead — a trait we don’t want since it brings the harvest to a screeching halt. While we are actually eating the flower buds on broccoli and cauliflower, bolting speeds up this process and effectively reduces the harvest.

Crops that are less cold-tolerant should be started indoors instead, though not too early. I get it — we’re so ready for spring and getting a jump on things is tempting – but starting too early means transplants are not in the best shape (physically or aesthetically) by the time they can safely go in the ground. Tomatoes are a common victim of this over-eagerness. Try to wait until April 1 or so to start their seeds, whether indoors or, for the brave willing to experiment, using the winter sowing technique outdoors. Tomatoes only need about 5-6 weeks of a head start either way before they’re planted into their final plot of soil outside.

In future winters (it may be a bit late to start now) you can winter-sow ornamental plants too, from cool-weather annuals to native perennials.

Q: There’s a sticky residue on my citrus leaves and the rim of its pot, but I can’t see much on the leaves themselves. I think my nearby schefflera has the same issue. What might be the problem?

A: Sounds like scale. These small insects feed on plant juices through straw-like mouthparts, and are largely sedentary once each generation settles down after hatching. They are a very common pest of indoor plants, particularly in winter as our dry air and reduced sunlight can stress tropicals. If you have other houseplants close by, isolate these infested plants for the time being. Although scale are generally limited in their movements, the hatchling stage is called a crawler for a reason, and they can wander onto nearby plants.

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Scale are categorized into two main groups — soft or armored (hard). Yours are soft scale, since they are producing honeydew. (Armored scale do not.) Honeydew is the waste they produce because their diet is largely sugar-water. They have to ingest a lot of plant fluids to get the nutrients they need, and with that comes more sugar than they can use. Honeydew rarely causes problems for the plant, but it will be a sticky nuisance on foliage and any surface beneath feeding scale. It will go away with rain (once plants go outside in summer) or rinsing after the scale are managed. A high scale population can definitely tax a plant, though, since its resources are being tapped.

A mature brown soft scale with several juveniles on a shed citrus leaf. The flatter, smaller juveniles are nearly invisible as they nestle next to the main leaf vein. Photo by Ria Malloy, UME

Brown soft scale is the species often encountered; they occur worldwide. Picture a somewhat-soft turtle shell with no visible legs or head and you’ve got a decent representation of a soft scale’s appearance. Adults are about the size of the Q on this printed page, so you can see why juveniles are easily overlooked until populations are established.

Tackling scale requires patience and repetitive treatments. While they don’t move far or fast, they can be annoyingly hard to find, especially when young; they’re also fairly flat and can wedge into some tight plant crevices. Usually, though, they are found on foliage (upper or underside) and along leaf veins.

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Rubbing individuals off the plant with a fingernail or cotton swab will work, though tedious. Otherwise, you’ll need to resort to applications of horticultural oil to smother them. Follow label instructions about how often to re-apply, since one treatment won’t be enough. Make sure houseplants or indoor plants are included in the treatment instructions; a few are sensitive to sprays.

Dead scale may take awhile to fall off the plant on their own. If you put the plants outside for the summer, natural enemies often find and attack the scale for you.

More information on scale and the two species commonly found indoors can be found on our new Scale Insects on Indoor Plants and Introduction to Scale Insects pages.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.


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