With early start, sweet potatoes will flourish in a whiskey barrel

BACKYARD Q&A

April 22, 2001

Q. Can you really grow sweet potatoes in a barrel? How many potatoes should you plant in each container and when should you plant? Are there some varieties that are compact and don't make long vines?

A. Yes, they grow beautifully in containers. But it's too late to try to grow your own plants from roots. That process begins in February and needs to be done in a cold frame or indoors under fluorescent lights. You need to buy plants to set out in the containers after the last expected frost. 'Vardaman' and 'Bush Poto Rico' are two nonvining cultivars you might try. Three plants will more than fill a half-whiskey barrel planter.

Q. I moved into an older home this winter with an out-of-control fig bush. How and when should I prune this monster to reduce its overall size and still get a good crop this year?

A. This is a good time to prune fig bushes. You should select and keep 4-5 strong stems; others should be removed at ground level. Then prune outbranches that cross and rub and those growing into the middle of the bush. Head back overgrown branches to achieve the desired shape. Use a good pruning saw and sharp loppers, and watch out for the milky latex sap that will ooze from cut ends -- it can cause skin irritation. Depending on the cultivar you have, you may have some figs form on last year's growth. How-ever, most figs are formed on the current year's growth.

Q. I planted six small holly shrubs last spring that I bought on sale. The soil was mostly clay, so I added 8-10 inches of bark mulch around each one. They looked fine when I planted them, but they all slowly yellowed and looked dead by the end of summer. They pulled right out of the ground this week and had hardly any roots. Was it the plants or me that caused this disaster?

A. It's possible that the plants were of low quality but it sounds like you and your poor soil worked together to ensure their slow death. The plants never established because the roots could not easily grow into the native soil. The roots that did grow may have drowned if the soil remained saturated after rainfall. The surface roots probably grew into the thick mulch when it was moist and then died when the mulch dried out. Before you plant anything in this location, amend the soil with organic matter over the entire bed, not just in the planting holes. Loosen the soil with a garden fork and work in the organic matter. Keep new plants well watered for the first growing season and apply a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch.

THIS WEEK'S CHECKLIST

1. Pot up into larger pots those vegetable and flower transplants that are outgrowing their containers.

2. Spray fruit trees after petal fall with a labeled insecticide to control oriental fruit moth, codling moth and plum curculio. Order your copy of EB 125, "Home Fruit Production Guide" for more specific pest-control information.

Backyard Q&A is by Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist for the Home and Garden Information Center, Maryland Cooperative Extension Services of the University of Maryland. For additional information on these questions, or if you have questions of your own, call the center's hot line at 800-342-2507, or visit its Web site at www.agnr.umd.edu / users / hgic.

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