Episode 4 – Garden Fatigue, Sassafras, and Record Breaking Pumpkins

Ground Breaking Banter

Rick introduces Stacey as someone who doesn’t talk to her plants. They just understand her. She speaks their language.

It’s October and perhaps you are suffering from “GF” –  “Garden Fatigue.” Totally normal for this time of year! That said, there is still plenty of time for plant establishment and lots to do before snowman weather. Which brings up the point: how do you define the difference between a “yard” and a “garden?” And what is the average size of a US garden? According to the National Gardening Association, the average size of American vegetable gardens is 600 square feet, while most gardens are actually around 96 square feet – or a 12′ by 8′ garden space.

It seems most people define “garden” as a vegetable garden, and the “yard” is basically anything that’s not. Even though our world is becoming more digitalized and urban, over half of American households have some form of a garden—55% of American households to be exact (not sure I believe this statistic….comes down to how you define “garden”).

Word of the day! Heterophyllous or heterophylly is the development of different leaf forms in a single plant depending on the environmental conditions or maturity. Rick shares his favorite examples of heterophylly are mulberry and sassafras trees, as well as holly. Stacey will share a great example of heterophylly in our Plants on Trial segment. Stacey also shares that common ivy is heterophyllous.

The sassafras is nearly unique among trees by having different shaped leaves on the same tree: right-hand “mittens,” left-hand “mittens” and double-thumb “mittens.” On rare occasion, there will be a full glove leaf with five lobes. The leaves have no teeth. The state, national and world champion sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) is in Owensboro, Kentucky. It is 23′ around and 78′ tall. It was threatened with a road widening in 1957. Then-owner of the tree, Grace Rash, would have none of that. She met the bulldozers with a shotgun and held everyone at gunpoint until a call to the governor produced a pardon for the tree.

Why is Tortuga juniper today’s plant on trial? Because of Rick’s pick for word of the day: heterophylly, which junipers exhibit. Juniper heterophylly is not due to environmental conditions but to stem maturity: juvenile growth is prickly, and mature growth is smooth and scale-like. That makes sense when you think about it, as the prickly foliage deters animals from browsing on what would otherwise be very tender, appetizing growth. Once those stems mature and become more woody and resinous, they’re less interesting to rabbits, deer, and the like. 

Botanically speaking, Tortuga juniper is a Juniperus communis, also known as common juniper. It got its name because its green foliage and mounded habit do kind of resemble a turtle, and because it’s extremely tough. Sun, drought, wind, salt – not a problem for Tortuga juniper. It was developed at our R&D facility here in west Michigan and selected specifically for that handsome, versatile habit and its fresh green color.

Adding Tortuga junipers to your landscape is easy: just pick a sunny spot with well-drained (i.e., never soggy) soil, and let it do its thing. This durable evergreen will bestow its good looks on your landscape 365 days a year, resisting drought, deer, rabbits…about the only thing it can’t take is deep shade. Now, we know that one of the main reasons that people dislike juniper is the aforementioned prickly foliage, and the tendency for weeds to grow up through the plant. But here’s a pro tip: if that happens, don’t try to pull them from the top, which only gets them caught on the branches and makes them impossible to remove. Rather, get yourself a leaf rake, lift up the branches from the ground, and pull the weeds from the base. Much easier, and no battle scars. Now that’s Gardening Simplified!

Gardening Mail Bag

Larry writes: This past season our zucchini plants only grew a fraction of the normal size. I watered them the same as other seasons.  Although I did pinch some of the early buds off…any suggestions?

Stacey answered Larry’s questions with a few questions of her own, namely: is it possible that you purchased a different variety of zucchini than you normally do? There are so many different types out there, and even if you purchase starter plants at a garden center, there’s no telling if they are the same variety. Another possibility to consider is whether the plants were put out earlier or later than usual, which can definitely impact growth. Squash vine borers are another possibility – they can cause serious damage to any type of squash plant. Finally, it could always be a nutrient deficiency, and fall would be a great time to get a soil test so you can make any changes and look forward to being back in the zucchini business next season. 

Jim asks: Why are my green peppers brown and rough?

This question is a bit tough to answer without seeing the offending pepper, but Rick and Stacey riff on a few possibilities, like blossom end rot. Many people think that blossom end rot is a calcium deficiency and that it can be solved by putting antacids or eggshells in your soil, but that’s not true. Blossom end rot is a calcium transport issue, where calcium is present but can’t get to the plant parts that need it because of stress, most typically water stress. It’s also worth noting that some varieties of tomatoes and peppers are simply more susceptible to blossom end rot than others. Speaking of varieties, many green peppers go through a blackish stage as they ripen. In any case, we did ask for a photo of the fruit so we can provide a more accurate diagnosis.

Gary from Virginia sent the following photo, explaining that he recently planted a hedge of five landscape roses,  and four of them are growing great but one is way behind the others. He’s looking for an explanation, and a solution.

Five roses grow next to a lawn, one is much smaller than the others.

Neither Rick nor Stacey were surprised that the problem plant was the one closest to the sidewalk. There are several reasons why that one could be set back: frequent visits from dogs walking by, idling delivery trucks, or the sprinkler heads not delivering quite enough water to that particular plant. There’s also always the possibility that something is going on underground: underlying bedrock, junky fill soil in that area, a leaky pipe, just to name a few. 

Our recommendation is to go ahead and cut all of the roses back to the same short height next spring – perhaps just 12-18″ or so. That “resets” them all to the same size, then it will be clear if the issue was a temporary or persistent one, and appropriate action can be taken. If it turns out that last spot isn’t suitable for roses, there’s always Tortuga juniper!

Branching News

  1. A massive pumpkin was grown by Erik Sunstrom and his family in Harrison City, PA, weighing in at 2,405 lbs, took home the title of “King Pumpkin” at the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival in Ohio on Wednesday. Sunstrom told The Intelligencer that his family spent 30 hours per week over the past month taking care of it ahead of the festival. The pumpkin beat the previous record holder by just 46 pounds.
  2. In Delaware, a tractor trailer hauling pumpkins crashed coming off the northbound Route 896 ramp to northbound I-95, causing more than twelve hours of traffic tie ups. Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) officials said the crash happened around 9 p.m. on Tuesday, September 20, 2022. The rig ran off the highway and overturned. DelDOT said the load proved too heavy and forced crews to off load the pumpkins by hand. You could say that caught them off gourd!
  3. This from the Florida Keys: Sept. 23 — Sheriff’s deputies came to the rescue of a deer found entangled in a mesh hammock. Deputies responded Thursday when Larry Tinkler of Gary’s Plumbing and Fire called to report a key deer was entangled in a mesh hammock on Big Pine Key. The deputies, working together with Tinkler and a US Fish and Wildlife Service office spent about 20 minutes cutting through the rope hammock and the wood it was attached to in order to free the buck. The deer was not seriously injured and was released back into the wild.
  4. A study examining the ‘curb appeal’ of America’s homes asked people to rank the do’s and don’ts of a visually appealing home exterior. Results found that trampolines, beware of dog signs and stone animal statues all count negatively towards that first curbside impression. Other dishonorable mentions from the survey were: garish house colors, tacky mailboxes, no trespassing or beware of dog signs, garden gnomes, fairy statues, metal sculptures, paper lanterns, and trampolines. Seven in 10 think it’s unacceptable to walk through a neighbor’s yard to get somewhere and four in five would never allow their pet to go to the bathroom on a neighbor’s lawn.


Clean house exterior (56%)

Well manicured lawn (55%)

Colorful flowers (52%)

Weed free lawn (47%)

Weeded flower beds (42%)

Front porch (41%)

Lush, green grass (41%)

Exterior lights (41%)

Potted plants (36%)

Nice mailbox (32%)

Outdoor furniture (31%)

Outdoor seating (30%)

Colorful front door (29%)

Fences (28%)

Deck chairs (21%)

Grill/barbeque (20%)

Bird feeder (20%)

Pool (20%)

Wind chimes (19%)

Window boxes (19%)


Dirty exterior (57%)

Unmown lawn (55%)

Dead flowers/plants (53%)

Weeds (53%)

Overgrown flower beds (47%)

Garish house color (31%)

Tacky mailbox (30%)

No trespassing signs (27%)

Chain link fencing (22%)

Beware of dog signs (22%)

Trampolines (20%)

Garden gnomes (19%)

Dog house (18%)

Paper lanterns (17%)

Lawn figurines (17%)

Fairy statues (16%)

Metal sculptures (16%)

Stone animals (15%)

Holiday lights (15%)

Hot tub (14%)

Play house (13%)

Swing sets (12%)

Solar panels (12%)

Ceramic pots (11%)

White outdoor furniture (10%)

A hydrangea in a low decorative container covered in pink and purple mophead flowers.

Episode 96 – Garden Regrets

Regrets? We’ve had a few, and maybe you have too, which is why we’re dedicating this episode to the things we wish we had – and hadn’t – done in the garden. Featured shrub: Let’s Dance Arriba reblooming hydrangea.

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