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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: Fig-loving squirrels, black spot disease

Black spot is a fungal disease that can

Black spot is a fungal disease that can be devastating - and fatal - to roses. Photo Credit: Missouri Botanical Garden

DEAR JESSICA: We have a problem with squirrels eating our figs. As soon as a fig is ripe, I go out the next day and it is gone. Do you have a suggestion to deter them? -- Zino Gabrielides, Oakland Gardens

DEAR ZINO: I feel your pain. For years I had a pear tree in front of my deck. And for years I stood by helplessly as squirrels removed all my pears, one by one, took a single bite of each and lined them up on my deck railing, as if to taunt me. I wouldn't have minded sharing if they would have taken a few and consumed them completely, but they stripped the branches bare and merely nibbled each, like toddlers with a box of chocolate.

I tried everything: wrapping the trunk and deck railing in crinkled aluminum foil to prevent climbing, and hanging wads of human hair from the branches. Both were ugly -- and ineffective. I actually removed the tree last month.

Covering my pear tree with polypropylene bird netting was impractical because of its size, but if your fig tree is small or growing in a bushy habit, you should be able to cover it fairly easily. However, it's possible squirrels may gnaw through the netting to reach your figs. Some growers recommend providing easily accessible dishes of dried cord nearby, as your visitors might opt for the snack of least resistance and leave your precious figs alone. My concern, however, is that could encourage more squirrels to visit.

Aside from that, the best you can do is clear the garden of plant debris, weeds, grass clippings and stacked wood, etc., that might be attracting and providing safe cover for visiting squirrels. And maybe get a dog.

DEAR JESSICA: I remember you listed a treatment for black spot on roses that I hadn't heard of before, but I cannot put my hands on your column despite looking everywhere. Would you mind letting me know what that black spot treatment was? It sounded a little more environmentally friendly than most of the stuff sold at garden centers. -- Marci Wickesser, Centerport

DEAR MARCI: Black spot disease, caused by the fungus Diplocarpon rosae, can be devastating to roses. Left unchecked, blooms are diminished and plants are severely weakened, making them more susceptible to winter injury and other diseases and pests.

Prune away all infected branches and dispose of them properly. Be sure to rake well and discard all leaves and debris in sealed trash bags; allowing them to remain on the soil will lead to reinfection. Remove infected leaves (avoid doing so when the weather is humid, as moisture will facilitate the spread of spores when plants are disturbed).

There are many fungicides indicated for the prevention and treatment of black spot. Among the most environmentally friendly are Neem oil (applied every 7-14 days) and copper fungicides. Apply after cleaning plants when you first notice symptoms, and take care to follow package directions carefully.

In addition, as I noted in my June gardening calendar, spraying a solution of one tablespoon each of baking soda and ultrafine horticultural oil diluted in a gallon of water is an effective preventative for black spot and other fungal and mildew diseases. Don't be tempted to use more baking soda than recommended, because its salt content can injure plants if overused.

Planting onions or tomatoes near roses also will help discourage black spot fungal infections. Good cultural practices can go a long way, too: Space plants sufficiently to allow light and air circulation to reach the inner branches. Water deeply only once a week (less during rainy periods) using a soaker hose, which directs water straight to roots and keeps foliage dry (overhead sprinklers and other methods that wet leaves encourage the growth of fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, in addition to black spot).

DEAR JESSICA: After years of being highly productive, our fig tree did not produce fruit after the harsh winter of 2014. This year we thought it died, but there are small shoots growing out from the bottom. Should we cut away the dead branches? -- Anne Hayden, Lynbrook

DEAR ANNE: You should cut away all dead wood, but first cut into one of the branches to ensure the inside is dry and brittle (dead) and not fresh and green (just slow to break dormancy).

The tree may not produce edible fruit this year, but should resume vigor with time.


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