Christmas cactus

Courtesy of PAM FOREMAN

A Christmas cactus in full bloom, albeit a little early — perhaps to “make things about 2020 better,” says cactus keeper Pam Foremen. 

Can you think of a silver lining to COVID-19? It’s a challenge, what with the US continuing to set records for daily coronavirus infections. … Then, one of my newsletter subscribers from Switzerland offered a positive bent to the pandemic in this morning’s email: 

“Yes, we need to learn something from this! I’m actually enjoying the slower pace of life … and enjoying our home and garden more! Garden has never looked so good as this year.” 

She followed her statement of resolve with a smiley emoji.

It’s not what life hands us, but how we react to it.

“I don’t believe in pessimism,” Clint Eastwood once said. “If something doesn’t come up in the way you want, forge ahead. If you think it’s going to rain, it will.”

I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna. I’ve had friends and family members become ill with COVID and die from it. And my friend in Switzerland chooses to remain upbeat and turn toward the light, in spite of the country’s path to becoming Europe’s top COVID-19 hot spot.

It’s these things that whirl around my brain toward the end of each week as I ponder what to write about. Sometimes it’s not easy to blend in a weekly column the myriad of topics that come up.

Take potatoes, for example ...

Recently, a local gardener, after harvesting her last potato (and just in time, judging from the weather forecast) asked, “What are these ugly blotches on my potatoes? Are they safe to eat?”

The short answers: “scab,” and “yes.”

Common potato scab, I told her, is a common disease that shows up from Africa to Arizona. It’s caused by the microorganism called S. scabies and, believe it or not, it is present in nearly all soils.

So what causes ugly blotches to show up on potatoes? Here’s the deal: Scab flares up when the soil pH climbs above 5.0. When we speak of pH, it applies to wine making, cheese making, swimming pool maintenance, hydroponics — lots of things in our world.

When it comes to soil, having the right pH is key to growing a healthy garden, but it’s a factor that’s often overlooked. While nutrients and other factors are also crucial things to consider, the pH of the soil plays a major role in how well your plants can absorb the nutrients you provide them. So it’s important to get it right!

Now, don’t panic. The wrong pH often won’t kill plants outright, but it can affect their growth, depending on how sensitive the plant is. To be real, many plants are able to adapt to a range of pH levels. You may have heard how hydrangeas (they grow on another planet, not Kodiak) produce different-colored flowers (blue to pink) depending on whether they’re grown in acidic or alkaline soil.

That said, a pH of 6.5 is just about right for most home gardens, since most plants thrive in the 6.0 to 7.0 (slightly acidic to neutral) range. Some plants (blueberries, rhododendrons) prefer more acidic soil, while a few (beets and pole beans) do best in soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline.

Back to our potatoes … The scab lesions develop on the skin of the potato, not the inside. And while it doesn’t affect how it tastes, spuds affected with it do not store well. Which means eat them soon.

How do you adjust your soil pH?

Stand by … I’ll cover this in a future column, but as a reminder, the best time to check your soil’s pH is in the spring with a soil sample that you send to a designated lab. So mark your calendars. Hmmm, I’ve never taken a soil sample in the fall, but I wouldn’t rule it out. One good reason is to beat the crowds: Soil-testing labs become quite busy in the spring ...

Now let’s look at a different topic that came up this week: Spider mites.

Listen up: If you bring your geraniums inside to bloom over the winter — or anytime you purchase a houseplant — double- and triple-check for pests.

Why? One of the worst pests to introduce to your interior space are spider mites. Piggybacking on outdoor plants is just one way they end up in your home or office.

Also, be careful if you’re ever “gifted” a plant. You don’t need to look a gift horse in the mouth, but many times these plants that once lived among thousands of others harbor pests like fungus gnats, aphids, and spider mites.

Before you see the mites, you’re most likely to see the damage: curled or distorted young leaves. Grab a magnifier and take a look. If your suspicions are positive for spider mites, the first thing you need to do is quarantine your plant immediately so its neighbors don’t become infested.

Then, dip or spray the plant with insecticidal soap. Misting your plants on a regular basis will help prevent mites, by the way, since they thrive in a warm and dry atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, you may need to send the plant to the great compost pile in the sky.

Finally, here’s another silver lining … and this one I spotted on Facebook in a post by Pam Foreman, connected to her photo of a Christmas cactus in full bloom.

“In an apparent effort to make things about 2020 better, some of my Christmas cacti are blooming earlier than usual,” she wrote.

Have a wonderful week.

Get Marion’s free Photo Tips PDF, a collection of her favorite photography tips, on her blog at Connect with Marion: Facebook and Instagram or send an email to Marion at mygarden@alaska.

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