Blossom end rot

A common problem affecting otherwise healthy tomato and capsicum plants during heat waves is blossom end rot, where partly formed fruit develops a dark, sunken patch furthest from the stem.
This is caused by calcium deficiency, and is not a disease. Like us, plants need a good supply of calcium to form a strong structure. Hot and very windy days increase transpiration (water loss) from plants in the same way we perspire to keep cool, and calcium can only be absorbed by plants as water-soluble, electrically-charged ions. This problem can also affect zucchini, pumpkin and melon plants.

During heat waves, daily watering rarely solves the problem. A deep watering a couple of times a week is more beneficial. If soil around plants is mulched to keep roots cooler and reduce water loss, an efficient way to water quickly is to place juice or soft drink bottles, neck down, beside plants. See: Watering in drought conditions

Other causes of blossom end rot are:

• Erratic watering
• Soil is too acidic (soil pH less than 6)
• Poor fertilising routine
• Overuse of fertilisers high in nitrogen or potassium, including some seaweed fertilisers
• Rarely, in very alkaline soil where calcium becomes insoluble.

Powdery mildew on zucchini

A reader has asked about powdery mildew on zucchini plants and fungus-eating ladybirds:
Hi. Wonder if you can sort this.
1. Most fungi need moisture and organic material. This seems to be supported by my zucchinis which seem to get worse powdery mildew when I get water on the leaves. I have read that they like dry weather. Is there evidence for either opinion?
2. Some people say that the ladybirds that feed on this mildew spread it by carrying spores, others reckon they are a controller, eating the fungus down. What is the evidence please for either of these?  Many thanks, Barb


Powdery mildew is likely to occur on stressed plants in humid weather when temperatures are between 11-28° C. and, once established will continue to affect the plants even if weather becomes dry. Avoid wetting leaves whenever possible Barb. However, because they like low-humidity weather, it doesn’t mean that they are drought tolerant. Zucchini and some other members of the cucurbit family (melons and squash) produce a lot of foliage and need plenty of water and fertiliser. An efficient way to water this group of plants without wetting the leaves is to put a large drink container (with the base and cap removed) neck downwards near the roots so that all the water goes directly to the root area where it is needed, (see photo). Keep topping up the container until it empties slowly.
The yellowish ladybirds with 26 or 28 spots are the only pests of the ladybird family. They eat the leaves of stressed plants of cucurbits. The beneficial fungus-eating ladybird and larvae can be clearly distinguished from the pest in the photos below. From the far left is the ‘Fungus-eating ladybird’, then the leaf-eating ’26 spot Ladybird’ that damages plants. Next is the larva of the ‘Fungus-eating Ladybird’, which also eats fungus and, last of all is the prickly larva of the ’26 spot Ladybird.

Rather than blame the fungus-eating ladybird for spreading the disease, gardeners should check that their plants have sufficient water and nutrients to avoid stress, and the soil pH is suitable for them to absorb what they need for healthy, disease-resistant growth. Also see Powdery Mildew for treatment of this disease.

Squash, melon and cucumber problems

A problem I am frequently asked about is why do immature fruit of the Cucurbit family become soft or discoloured, and fail to mature. The squash or Cucurbit family includes chokoes, cucumbers, grammas, gourds, pumpkins, rockmelons, squash, watermelons, and zucchinis.
If your cucurbit plant is producing small fruit that yellow and fall off before maturity, or turn mushy at the end furthest from the stem, it does not have a disease, or a pollination problem. Your plant is deficient in calcium. Calcium deficiency also causes blossom end rot in tomatoes and capsicums.
Like us, plants need a good balance of calcium and magnesium to form a strong structure. Calcium and magnesium are required for growing tips of plants as well as fruit production and, if there are not enough of these nutrients to go around, growing tips will get priority. Calcium deficiency can occur in several different ways.
Most commonly, it occurs when soil is too acid (soil pH less than 6) and there are insufficient calcium ions in the soil. In soils with a suitable pH of 6 – 7.5, erratic watering can cause it, as plants are unable to absorb nutrients from dry soil, when needed.

To avoid blossom end rot, ensure that your cucurbit (or tomato/capsicum) bed has a suitable soil pH before planting out seedlings. See Changing soil pH. If your soil is quite acidic, and the problem has already occurred, you can raise soil pH slightly by dissolving a generous handful of dolomite (a mixture of calcium and magnesium) in a full watering can, and apply this around the root area (under mulch) of each plant – one full watering can per plant, or two around large vines such as pumpkin and watermelon. If you know that your soil has plenty of magnesium, use agricultural lime instead. This treatment will take several weeks to work, so good bed preparation is worth the effort.
Where erratic watering is the problem, mulch around your plants to reduce fluctuations in soil moisture, and water plants thoroughly once or twice a week, rather than giving them a light watering every day. Pumpkin vines require a lot of water to produce a good crop.

No crops on cucumbers or squash?

This post has been updated. See Squash family not forming fruit?

The squash or Cucurbit family that includes chokoes, cucumbers, grammas, gourds, pumpkins, rockmelons, squash, watermelons, and zucchinis, produce both male and female flowers on the same plant, and rely on insects, such as bees, to pollinate the female flowers and produce fruit.
Although we eat many of this family as vegetables, in gardening terms, their produce is fruit.
With large areas of Australia experiencing prolonged overcast weather, and other areas experiencing smoke from bush fires, bee activity tends to be reduced and cucurbits may not be cropping. In circumstances like these, you may have to hand pollinate your plants to reap the benefits of your hard work. This is quite a simple procedure.
First identify the the female flowers on your vine or bush. At the base of each female flower you will find a miniature version of the mature fruit of that particular species. For example, cucumber vines produce what looks like a tiny gherkin at the base of each female flower while watermelon produce a watermelon miniature, often complete with stripes. The bases of male flowers, on the other hand,
join directly onto a vine stem.
Remove a male flower from the vine, and carefully peel back the petals so that the pollen bearing part in completely exposed. Then dab the centre of the male flower into the centre of a female flower. Repeat this process, replacing the male flower as pollen is removed. Then stand back, and allow nature to take its course.

If you can only find male flowers on your cucurbit vine, the problem takes a little longer to overcome. Pinch off the end of each long runner. This will stimulate the plant to produce side shoots called laterals. Some members of this family tend to produce female flowers on laterals. Once female flowers form, proceed with hand pollination if there are not many bees around.

If your cucurbit plant is producing small fruit that yellow and fall off before maturity, or turn mushy at the end furthest from the stem, you have a different problem altogether. Either you do not have enough calcium in your soil, or watering has been erratic and calcium has not been available when needed. Like us, plants need a good balance of calcium and magnesium to form a strong structure. Calcium and magnesium are required for growing tips of plants as well as fruit production and, if there is not enough of these nutrients to go around, growing tips will get priority. Dissolve a generous handful of dolomite (a mixture of calcium and magnesium) in a full watering can, and apply this around the root area of each plant – one full watering can per plant, or two around large vines such as pumpkin and watermelon. If you know that your soil has plenty of magnesium, you can use agricultural lime instead. §