Garden Detective: Slugging slugs, pumpkin plants, 10-foot weeds

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Velvetleaf, or Abutilon theophrasti, is a weed that

Velvetleaf, or Abutilon theophrasti, is a weed that can grow up to 10 feet tall.

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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 have many hostas and love the spring, when they all start to grow no matter what kind of winter we have had. They start out just beautiful, and then the leaves start to show small holes and then the holes get bigger and multiply, and the edges become brown. I have looked on the top and bottom of the leaves at different times of the day and night but do not find anything. I asked at a gardening center and was told it was probably slugs. I purchased the treatment and applied it as directed. This year again I have the same results. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! -- Marjorie Cozzetto, Huntington

DEAR MARJORIE: Hostas are popular shade plants. They're tough as nails and do just fine without any help from humans. Unfortunately, they're also popular among slugs. And while you're sleeping, they're busy munching away at your plants.

Before we address control methods, let's talk a bit about prevention. Clean up any plant debris (sticks, pine needles, fallen leaves, etc.) from the area, and remove bricks, stones, garden statues or other items that could provide a haven for your slithering, slimy friends. Thin out surrounding ground cover, too, if it's overgrown.

Slugs are fairly easy to hand pick off plants at night (bring a flashlight), but if you haven't got the time or the stomach for the job, the best control is an old-fashioned home remedy: Sink plastic cups into the soil under hosta leaves, and fill with beer. Slugs will be lured by the brew, crawl in and drown. Replace the beer daily until you no longer see signs of activity. You also might set out a wooden board in the evening. Slugs will seek shelter beneath it. Turn it over early in the morning, and you'll be able to pick them off, drop them in a bucket of soapy water and dispose of them.

DEAR JESSICA: This is the third year in a row that my pumpkin plants start out looking great, get tons of flowers and then this powdery looking mold covers the leaves and kills everything. Is there anything I can do to stop it and reverse it? I even moved the garden to the other side of the yard in case it was something in that particular patch of soil. Help! -- Cindy Grimm, Huntington

DEAR CINDY: What you're seeing is powdery mildew, a fungus that affects many garden plants. As its name implies, the disease manifests as a white powder that coats leaves and stems. In some cases it's harmless, but if the infestation is extensive, plants can weaken, produce smaller fruit and even die.

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Mildews thrive in humidity, so your first step should be to ensure there is sufficient air circulation between plants. Pumpkins should be planted in full sun, with hills spaced 6 to 8 feet apart. Direct water to the soil, not leaves, and water only in the morning. This will allow a full day's worth of sunlight to evaporate excess moisture.

Your first course of action should be to remove the affected leaves and dispose of them in the trash. Clear out any plant debris from the ground, and replace mulch, which by now is likely harboring spores.

Remaining foliage should be sprayed weekly, either with the fungicide labeled for use against powdery mildew or with a homemade spray you can mix up with either two uncoated aspirin tablets dissolved in a quart of water or one tablespoon of baking soda dissolved in a gallon of water.

DEAR JESSICA: We have this growing next to our garage. It's 9 feet tall. Can you tell us what it is? -- Cynthia Mupo, Huntington

DEAR CYNTHIA: You might be tempted to keep this towering beauty around, but that would be ill-advised. Abutilon theophrasti, commonly called velvetleaf, is a "Jack and the Beanstalk" kind of weed, growing quickly and seemingly endlessly all summer long.

Velvetleaf, which hails from Southeast Asia, was brought to the United States in the 1700s because it held promise as a fiber source. That didn't quite pan out, but the plant, a self-pollinating annual that spreads via seeds, remains to this day. It can cause quite a bit of trouble where, if not controlled, it can shade out valuable crops and provide protection among its huge leaves for many garden pests. Yank it out by its roots before it goes to seed.

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