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Originally published June 29, 2011 at 10:56 AM | Page modified June 30, 2011 at 11:35 AM

In the Garden

Squash suffer from lack of honeybees

Ciscoe Morris, Seattle Times garden writer, talks about why some zucchini are not maturing; the need to conserve water when it comes to Armeria maritima; and attacking spit bugs with a blast of water.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Q: What's going on with zucchini? It seems like I never used to be able to pick them fast enough and they'd get too big, but over the last few years, the fruit grows to about 6 inches and rots. Is there something I can do to keep it from happening again this year?

A: The same affliction has been affecting summer and winter squash, pumpkins and cucumbers. The problem is the lack of honeybees. If the flowers don't get pollinated, the plant aborts the fruit because it doesn't contain seed.

Squash, pumpkins and cucumber are monoecious. That's a fancy word to say they produce both female and male flowers on the same plant. The male flowers usually appear first, while the female, fruit-bearing flowers come along soon after and can be identified by a tiny fruit at the base of the flower.

Pollinate the female flowers by using a soft paint brush and transfer pollen from recently opened male flowers to the pistil, the part that sticks out the middle of the female flower, or simply pick off a male flower and rub the pollen onto about five female flowers. For best results, do the pollinating early in the morning. Then dust off those old cookbooks. You'll soon need those zucchini-bread recipes again!

Q: My thrift is blooming beautifully, but it's dying out in the middle. Is this normal or am I doing something wrong? Will it harm the plant if I cut out the dead middle part?

A: The most likely reason your thrift, also known as sea pink, is dying out in the middle is because you're watering and feeding it too well. If you visit the San Juan Islands, you'll find our native thrift (Armeria maritima) growing right out of rocky shorelines. They thrive in sunny, dry, infertile conditions.

If they grow in blazing sun with perfect drainage, they can handle being watered regularly, but otherwise it's best to water sparingly, and hold off on fertilizer. Once the middle dies out, the only recourse is to divide the plant. It can be done most anytime of year as long as you leave the plant in the ground and use a digging spade or shovel to remove the middle third of the plant leaving healthy clumps on each side. Fill in the empty section with a sandy potting soil mix; then reduce watering and feeding to encourage the clump to slowly fill back in.

Deadhead spent flowers regularly and your thrift will keep blooming all summer long.

Q: What is causing the unsightly, frothy looking substance on so many plants this year? It seems to favor my lavender, but it's on a number of other plants as well. Does it harm the plants? If so, is there a nontoxic way to get rid of it?

A: The frothy stuff you see is a protective liquid produced by a small sucking insect, not surprisingly known as a spit bug.

The froth provides a moist environment required by the bug, while hiding it from birds and other predators. If you remove the spit-like froth, you'll see the nymph stage of the insect. They're little green bugs with bright red eyes. Few of us see the adults: Brown leafhoppers that resembles tiny frogs. If quite a few of the nymphs are present, their feeding can cause stems to contort, but otherwise they aren't known to do any harm.

They are unsightly so if you want to rid your plant of them, a powerful blast from a hose end nozzle is usually enough to blast the nymphs off the plant. Don't forget to support the foliage with your free hand so you don't blast buds and foliage off along with the bugs.

Ciscoe Morris: ciscoe@ciscoe.com. "Gardening with Ciscoe" airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV.

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