The Ohio State University Alumni Association

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Pam Bennett wears multiple hats at Ohio State. She’s an associate professor, a horticulture educator and the director of the state master gardener volunteer program.

Jo McCulty

Spring garden prep with Pam Bennett

Ready to polish that green thumb? Ask the professor and self-described plant geek who directs the state master gardening volunteer program.

As a kid, Pamela Bennett ’81, ’00 MS equated gardening with drudgery. But during one college summer home, she got a job at a garden center. Soon, she dropped plans to become a physical education teacher and turned her attention to studying plants. After graduating from Ohio State with a horticulture degree, she worked at a garden center that happened to be next door to the Clark County office of Ohio State University Extension. Eleven years later, that proximity and the relationships she forged through it led to a job offer at Extension, where she is an educator and director of the state master gardening volunteer program.

The program teaches Ohioans to become master gardeners and then dispatches them in their communities as volunteers, to pass on their love and knowledge of plants to others. Communities benefit, and so do the volunteers. “There’s more and more science showing you need to get out and socialize, and volunteers do that,” Bennett says. “Most importantly, they’re connecting with people.”

While Bennett’s expertise is in landscape horticulture, she has a living lab at home, where she tends perennials, herbaceous ornamentals and vegetables in her own garden. She’s still learning about how to keep plants healthy, just like the rest of us.

Cara Reed, Andrew Ina

I have a fairly sizable strawberry patch, but it always seems to yield small berries and not very many of them. What can I do to improve the berry size and yield? — Alexia Ciontea ’07

Strawberries produce a good crop for only three to five years. After that, a new planting should be established. Additionally, beds have to be renovated each year in order to keep them producing a sizable crop. Renovation is extremely important in taking care of your patch, and if you haven’t done this recently, it could be the reason your berries are small.

June-bearing strawberries produce one crop per season. Renovate these right after harvest by mowing old foliage at the highest mower setting. Or you can cut the foliage back to about one inch above the crowns. Add soil around the plants to encourage root development. Clean out the rows of your patch so that the remaining plants are in rows 6 to 12 inches wide. Dig out or till everything between the rows, even plants that have established from the runners. Thin the plants in each row until they are about 4 to 6 inches apart.

Fertilize with 2.5 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet of your patch. This will encourage new growth. And aim for the patch to have at least one inch of water per week. The patch won’t look pretty at first, but it will eventually fill in and production will be much better. Visit go.osu.edu/strawberries for more details on growing strawberries in the home garden.

I had a bad bout of cucumber beetles and squash beetles/borers this past summer. Should I avoid planting cucumbers, pumpkin, zucchini and squash this coming season? — Amy Tabit ’88

Cucumber beetle and squash vine borer populations tend to rise and fall. For the past few years, they have been a real problem in my central Ohio garden. It’s true you may eliminate some of the population by not growing these plants in the garden. However, to eliminate the population completely, you would have to stop growing for several years. These pests are common to vegetable gardens, and they will eventually come back. You can try a few strategies to manage beetles and borers and keep your vegetables, too.

Cucumber beetles can feed on plants as well as the fruits. I have even seen them feed on flowers in my perennial garden when populations get extremely large. The biggest threat they pose is as carriers for cucumber wilt virus, which leads to the death of the plant. You can use a row cover to protect the plants in the early stages, but since pollinators need to get to the blooms, you can’t keep covers on all season. You may have to resort to an insecticide. I start monitoring in the early part of the season and spray with an insecticide, following the recommendation on the label. Resources say cucumber beetles don’t do as much damage later in the season, but they caused significant damage on the skin of my gourds. I sprayed these as well.

In terms of the squash vine borer, the adult moth comes out around mid- to late June in central Ohio and lays her eggs at the base of the squash plant. The eggs hatch and the larvae enter the stem and begin feeding. Protect your plant at egg-laying time either with a row cover (which will prevent egg laying) or with an insecticide labeled for squash vine borer larvae. Remember to remove the row cover so pollinators can get to the blooms. Periodically inspect your plant and check around the base for any signs of larvae entering the stem. If you see that the larvae have entered the stem, you can gently slit the stem and remove the larvae. Cover the slit portion with soil and water to keep the squash plant alive.

My hydrangeas are slowly growing in size and fullness but haven’t produced any flowers in two years. Why? — Rebecca Schweitzer ’11

There are a few reasons hydrangeas don’t produce flowers. One common problem is pruning at the wrong time. The first thing to figure out: Do your hydrangeas bloom on old wood (stems that grew last summer) or new wood (stems that will grow this spring and summer)? If your hydrangea blooms on old wood and you prune it in the spring or fall, you are removing the blooms. Think about a forsythia that blooms in early spring: If you prune this back to the ground in the fall, you won’t have any blooms. A good rule of thumb is to wait until after they finish blooming before you prune.

Another reason that they might not bloom is that their flower buds were damaged by cold temperatures. There are some varieties, particularly in the bigleaf species (such as Endless Summer), that have blooms that are not reliably hardy.

Two other possible reasons: Too much nitrogen fertilizer will result in a lush plant with nice foliage at the expense of blooms. Finally, your hydrangeas may not be genetically disposed to bloom. It’s pretty unusual, but I have seen it.