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Garden Q&A: What to plant under trees and coping with veggie garden pests

Nothing seems to grow well under my big tree. I’ve tried several different plants and they all slowly succumb to something.

Big trees create a tough environment beneath themselves known as dry shade. To get new plants established, the trick is to give them extra help.

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While you should always supplement rainfall for two years for any new plant, anywhere, especially do so in dry shade where it is a life or death struggle. They are competing with mammoth tree root systems for water and nutrients. If soil is sandy or clayey, mix in some organic amendments to act like little sponges and hold water.

Most woodland understory plants have evolved to survive in that environment. Find plants online in “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” choosing those labeled to take dry soil and shade or part shade. Epimedium is one example of a good non-native candidate for dry shade, but beware of invasive plants still being sold, such as houttuynia (chameleon plant) touted as “able to grow anywhere.” They will take over your landscape and keep going.

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I don’t like using pesticides in a vegetable garden. I noticed tiny pinholes in our young eggplant leaves. My spouse used to spray with sevin to get rid of pests. Can I use neem oil instead?

Also, I have two volunteer zucchini plants that have produced fruit, but only 3-4 inches long. Will they grown larger, is it too early or are they not edible?

Fine pin holes in eggplant leaves are caused by flea beetles. Yes, spraying neem oil or spinosad is both organic and effective. We provide web pages on each individual garden pest with control options. Our individual crop pages have cultural and harvesting information, plus a list of common problems and organic solutions. (We don’t think synthetic pesticides are necessary in the garden.)

Regarding your volunteer zucchini, we can’t tell you with any certainty what will happen, but have fun watching and waiting. It is early yet and fruits would be small at this point. They could have cross-pollinated with an entirely different squash or pumpkin of the same species, Cucurbita pepo. They are certainly edible, though not necessarily palatable. Search ‘fruits not true to type’ on the Home and Garden Information Center website. It explains bizarre things that grow out of compost piles, too.

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

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