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Growing Pains: burnt pear trees

Aug 31, 2023Aug 31, 2023

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What does my neighbor's pear tree have in common with my nose? Both could have used a little preemptive defense from predictable ailments that aren't easy to fix.

For the first, I’m seeing pears with burnt-looking twigs, a bacterial infection called fire blight that is spread by bees to early season flowers. Luckily, most trees survive, which is good because once infected, there is no cure; pruning usually only spreads the infected sap.

As for my nose. I finally understand my fair-skinned need to protect the old snout from sunburn; though I’m fine for now, my dermatologist had to do a little carving and patching. Shoulda slathered on the radiation-blocking lotion during those years at pools, beaches, aircraft carrier flight deck, and garden toil.

Ditto for experienced gardeners who know to take preventive action against common plant infections by using fungicides proactively to head off diseases before they get established.

During rainy seasons our roses, hydrangeas, tomatoes, and other plants easily develop fungal leaf spots caused by splashing spores which have been around so long the leaf spots are predictable and can be prevented with fungicide sprays if done early, before things get too far gone.

To reduce likelihood of infection in the first place, it helps to mix up garden and flowerbed plots to slow the spread from plant to plant, avoid putting the same species in the same places every year, water the soil and roots rather than keeping foliage wet, mulch to stop splattering spores, and look for disease resistant varieties - there are actually roses that don't get black spot, and pears without fire blight.

But if you have to resort to using pesticides, get the most out of them by understanding this basic fact: insecticides and fungicides don't work the same way. Most modern insecticides work quickly but quickly begin to lose potency, making them largely ineffective in preventing insect attacks - they have to be applied after insects appear to "cure" an existing problem. But fungicides are preventive, like putting on a raincoat before you get wet, not afterwards. Fungicides have to be applied as a protective film before infection.

And understand that there are no cure-alls. Truthfully, most home remedies don't actually work, any more than chicken soup will actually cure a cold. Fungicides, like all pesticides, even natural ones, have specific use; what may work on one disease often has little or no effect on others.

So, when plants suffer, learn what the specific problem actually is, then what and when to spray. Sometimes, like with fire blight, one or two carefully timed doses during flowering is all it takes, but with leaf spots on hydrangeas, roses, and tomatoes, it's an all-season protect-the-new-growth thing.

Anyway, it's too late to spray or prune or do anything about current infections of fire blight on pears. Next year apply "fire blight spray" (a people- and bee-safe bactericide) during flowering to prevent infection for the whole year. Severe leaf spot on roses, hydrangeas, and tomatoes can be tamed by plucking off infected leaves and spraying what is left with approved fungicides every couple of weeks to make sure new growth is protected.

Feeling overwhelmed? Easiest to just take things a plant problem at a time, identify it accurately, learn from it, and do whatever it takes to head it off next go-round. Questions? For accurate, local information, call your county Extension Service office, or go to and in the search box type the plant name and a word or two description of the problem.

Meanwhile, trust my experience - put sunblock on your nose.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected].

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Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]. here here