KENNEWICK -- If you think a supposed green thumb and years of experience, makes me immune to garden problems -- think again.
I had a beautiful big pot of lavender Wave petunias. They had prospered with regular watering and loving attention.
That was until two weeks ago, when I noticed that they didn't look well. At first I thought I had forgotten to water them, but a closer look revealed that the petunia flowers were distorted, stunted and turning green instead of their normal color.
I slapped my forehead in realization that they had become victims of a plant virus. Petunias are susceptible to more than 130 plant viruses.
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One of these, curly top virus, frequently infects local garden tomatoes, but plants such as petunias also are susceptible to infection. Tobacco mosaic virus is the virus most often found in petunias.
How did my petunia become infected? Viruses are transmitted to petunias and other plants in several ways. Some viruses are spread by insect vectors, such as flower thrips or leaf hoppers, that spread the disease from an infected to a healthy plant as they feed. Some viruses are spread through seed, vegetative propagation or handling of the plants.
What can I do to cure my petunia? Absolutely nothing. Once a plant is infected with a virus, there is no cure. It's best to rogue it out of the garden and get rid of it. Thankfully, my other pots with petunias still are healthy.
A couple of weeks ago I noted that nutsedge was my new weed nemesis.
Thankfully, I haven't experienced the oddball weeds popping up here and there in some local gardens. These unfamiliar weeds brought to me for identification had me stymied, so I sent them on to our Washington State University weed expert for identification. He indicated that these oddballs were weeds that aren't often encountered in local fields and gardens, and suggested that they sprouted from bird seed. Indeed, many of the weed owners also had backyard bird feeders.
A recent study done at Oregon State University found more than 50 weed species, 10 of them considered noxious, in 10 brands of wild bird seed found in retail stores. The 10 very bad ones were buffalobur, bull thistle, Canada thistle, common ragweed, dodder, field bindweed, jointed goatgrass, kochia, puncturevine and velvetleaf.
In 2006, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture ordered 24 companies to stop the sale of bird seed and other animal feeds because their products contained viable noxious weed seed.
Some folks recommend baking bird seed before putting it in a feeder. Baking will cook and kill the seed, preventing germination. However, bird feeding experts advise against this because it can change the nutritional value of the seed which wouldn't be good for the birds.
Instead, the experts suggest using good quality bird seed tailored to the preferences of the birds you're feeding. Inexpensive seed tends to contain filler seeds, such as milo, that the birds pick through to get to the good stuff. This filler often ends up on the ground and sprouts the following season. If strange weeds pop up in the vicinity of your bird feeder next spring, pull them out as soon as they appear. Don't let any potentially nasty weeds grow big enough to flower and spread.
By the way, with several garden failures this year I'm seriously worried that my green thumb is turning brown. I hope not.
* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.