Dealing with boxwood blight

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Boxwood blight is ravaging plants in the U.S. Boxwood blight is ravaging plants in the U.S. Photo Credit:

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print

Dear Jessica: I gather I have blight on my hedges. I pulled out several plants last summer and fall. Some of the remaining hedges are healthy, but there are a lot of gaps, and I don't want to replace them just to have them succumb to the same blight. What are my options?

-- Nancy L. Groben, Floral Park

Dear Nancy: Boxwoods are extremely popular broadleaf evergreen shrubs that can be found all over Long Island, most commonly as hedges. There are many varieties, some of which grow only a foot tall and retain a globelike shape, others that are larger and have a more free-form habit. Some are trained into topiary forms. They're popular in both formal and informal gardens and thrive in full sun to part shade.

Boxwood blight, a quick-spreading, aggressive disease caused by the fungus Cylindrocladium pseudonaviculatum, has been affecting plants on Long Island for a few years, and it doesn't appear to be going away soon.

The first symptoms of the fungus are the appearance of stem lesions and small, light-brown, dark-rimmed spots on leaves. The spots grow quickly and can grow into a bull's-eye pattern before leaves turn straw-colored and drop off the plant, leaving stems bare.

The pathogen thrives in damp, warm weather, so if conditions are right and the pathogen is present, the spores can multiply quickly and spread from one plant to many others via wind or rain. What's more, the fungus can survive winter and reinfect plants for up to five years.

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Unfortunately, nothing will protect existing plants or cure this disease once it has taken hold. For those intent on buying new boxwoods, check plants thoroughly before purchasing. Look at the undersides of leaves, where spores form, for the appearance of a white powdery or sticky substance. Should you find any, avoid those plants and point them out to the nursery's management, then wash your hands before handling other plants.

At home, allow proper spacing between plants to avoid crowding, which encourages warmth and moisture within and between plants, creating the perfect breeding ground for the fungus. Don't use automatic sprinkler systems, which soak leaves instead of (or in addition to) soil. A soaker hose is the right tool for the job.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County points out that it's important to be able to distinguish disease from normal seasonal changes in boxwoods: Leaves that are merely discolored (orange or bronze) do not indicate blight (that's normal during winter). Branches with dead tan leaves still clinging to them are not signs of blight, either. What is typical of the new boxwood blight is the presence of bare, dead stems.

In addition, the Extension cautions that "sanitation efforts after a disease outbreak must be extremely thorough: infected branches should be pruned out in dry weather, and fallen dead leaves should be collected with a vacuum and bagged. Because the pathogen can last in dead leaves for at least five years, composting is not a good option."

When a tomato sprouts in the kitchen

Dear Jessica: I purchased a beefsteak tomato at a local supermarket. I've had it on my counter for two to three weeks. I noticed today that it has a branch growing out of it. Also, you can see several more branches growing just under the surface of the flesh. I've never seen anything like this. If it is growing into a tomato plant, how can I keep it growing? Do I plant it in a container? It's just the strangest thing I've ever seen. Is this typical?

-- Jackie Selva, Bay Shore

Dear Jackie: The seeds within your tomato have sprouted. This isn't actually as uncommon as you might think. When tomatoes are left in a warm spot, like on a kitchen counter, for an extended period, they become overripe and their hormone levels change. The shift in hormones causes the seeds to break dormancy, and the moisture within the tomato creates a perfect environment for those seeds to sprout and grow.

You can cut the sprouts out of the tomato and plant them. They'll grow into full-size plants and produce tomatoes.

Plant them into small containers with drainage holes poked in their bottoms, and provide water and the most sunlight possible. Then, transplant into the garden in mid-May. Just know that most store-bought tomato varieties are hybrids, so it isn't likely the tomatoes you'll harvest from these plants will be the same as the beefsteak you purchased. Still, this should be a fun project. Good luck!

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'Waste Not, Want Not' at Farmingdale

Spend Saturday, April 12, at Farmingdale State College's beautiful teaching gardens and greenhouse, and take garden tours, attend the CSA fair, stock up at the plant sale and auction and attend landscapeing lectures. Topics will include recycling, rainwater harvesting and sustainable gardening. The program runs from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., and admission is $10. For details, call 631-420-2392 or visit farmingdale.edu/horticulture The college is at 2350 Broadhollow Rd.; enter at Smith Street and Route 110.

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