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Q. I have a ficus plant that was a gift in the fall of 2001. Recently, it started to drop leaves. It started out with a few leaves, then last week it dropped two-thirds of all its leaves. I have checked the plant for mealy and scale bugs but do not find evidence of them. I thought maybe it was getting too much sun in our solar area, and I moved it. When I checked the floor after I moved it, I found what looked like very tiny red ants. Could they be causing this problem? Do I need to transplant it to new soil and get rid of the pot and basket it came in? Or do I need to get rid of the plant to save my other plants?
— Jane Whitsitt, Huntingburg, Ind.

A. Since ficus trees (commonly called fig trees) grow indoors, we often forget that they are truly trees and need to follow a cycle, just like trees outdoors. Periodically, they’ll shed their old leaves and put on new ones. Ficus trees are notorious for doing this whenever a change takes place, like transplanting, relocating or even a change in seasons outside their window. Just switching a ficus from one room to another can cause defoliation. If new buds are apparent, it will releaf.

The ants are not likely the problem. For information on controlling them, however, go tohttp://www.entm.purdue.edu/Entomology/ext/targets/e-series/EseriesPDF/E-22.pdf, or call the Extension office in your county and ask for “Ants,” E-22.

It is possible that natural leaf drop is not the culprit. If the brown leaves are crisp and healthy looking, it’s probably normal. If they’re seriously wilted, spotted or streaked, it may be a disease, and you should take a sample to your Extension office.

Q. I have a pear tree, and when the pears are about half-grown, they split and rot on the tree. This has happened the last three years.
— submitted via e-mail

A. A plant disease called scab causes olive-brown, velvety spots on the leaves and young fruits. As the pears mature, the spots develop into brown, corky lesions. The fruit is often cracked and malformed and may drop prematurely.

The fungus spends the winter in infected plant debris and twig lesions. In early spring, spores of the fungus are shot into the air when leaves become wet. Spores are then carried by wind to the newly developing leaves and cause leaf and/or fruit infection. Once infection has occurred, a different kind of spore is produced; these “summer” spores are capable of causing further infections throughout summer and early fall. This cycle repeats itself annually.

Clean up all leaf debris and infected fruit each year and begin a regular spray program. The most critical time to apply fungicides for scab control is spring (April to early June). Apple and pear trees should be sprayed on a regular schedule starting shortly after bud break, when one-half inch of green leaf tissue is visible. Continue spraying on a 7-10-day schedule (7 days during wet weather, 10 days if dry) until petal fall. After petal fall, if dry weather persists, a 10-14-day spray schedule is adequate for control of scab. Fungicides act as a protective coat of “paint” on the leaf surface; where possible, apply fungicides just before a prolonged wet period occurs, not after.

Captan is a readily available fungicide for control of scab. Refer to the pesticide label for directions on rate of use, method of application and safety warnings. General purpose fruit sprays sold as “Home Orchard Spray,” “All Purpose Fruit Spray” and “One Package Fruit Spray,” etc., may be used in place of the specific fungicides recommended above. However, do not spray with general purpose sprays during bloom; they are toxic to honeybees.

For more information, see ID-146, available online, at http://www.entm.purdue.edu/entomology/ext/targets/ID/ID146.htm.

Q. We moved to a house last year that had strawberries in a small area. Last summer, the stawberries were very small. The neighbors told us they get smaller every year. In the fall, my husband dug it all up. I want to replant strawberries, but I have no idea when or how. Do they need fertilizer?
— Julie Montgomery

A. Strawberries prefer well-drained, loamy soils. Avoid sites where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes have grown within the past three years to avoid the possibility of verticillium wilt.

Prepare the ground much the same as for a vegetable garden. Remove all weeds. In the absence of soil-test recommendations, work in 2-3 pounds of 12-12-12 or similar fertilizer per 100 square feet.

Choose cultivars that are hardy and disease resistant. For an early-season harvest, “Earliglow” and “Anapolis” are good performers. Midseason cultivars include “Red Chief,” “Guardian” and “Surecrop.” “Sparkle,” “Allstar” and “Jewel” are suggested for late-season harvest. “Ozark Beauty” and “Fort Laramie” are cultivars of choice for everbearing strawberries. Disease-free plants are crucial to a successful planting, so buy healthy, virus-free plants from a reliable nursery rather than using plants from old, established beds.

Planting depth is important to establishing a healthy patch. Plants should be set so that the fleshy base of the plant, known as the crown, is right at the soil surface. Space the plants 1-2 feet apart, depending on how much space you have available. Allow 3-4 feet between the rows.

Pinch off any blooms that form the first spring to allow the plants to spend their food reserves on establishing healthy roots and shoots. Horizontal stems will form new crowns as they fill in the space between the rows. Allow about five plants per square foot to remain, and remove any excess plants.

Plants benefit from a side-dressing of about 1 cup of 12-12-12 fertilizer per 25 feet of row. Flower buds for next year’s crop are formed beginning in mid-August, making irrigation crucial during dry summers.

With yearly renovation, strawberry plants can remain productive for 10 years or longer. Begin renovating the strawberry bed immediately after the last harvest. Trim off the leaves near the base of the plant, being careful not to injure the crown. This helps keep diseases under control.

Thin runners back to one plant every 6-8 inches, removing the older plants and leaving the younger, more vigorous ones. Fertilize and then try to get the weeds under control. Continue to weed and water throughout the growing season.

Words from the Wise:

Darlene Best of Plymouth, Ind., writes the following; it echoes my thoughts precisely!

“I was so pleased when you warned a reader against crown vetch. I shudder at those two words! When we moved here 11 years ago, our bank was covered with crown vetch. At first, I thought it was great, but it’s not. It should not be sold! The seeds blow, and you can’t control it. It also sends out little feelers that root. It suffocates other plants, even covers bushes and kills anything in its path. If you have it, your neighbor has it. It’s not pretty up close–it gets too tall. You can’t stop it or get rid of it!

I will be planting more English ivy and will try the purple wintercreeper that you recommended.”

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