Q: What causes my camellia buds to drop before opening?

A: Freezing temperatures. Hot temperatures. Wet weather. Dry weather. Seriously. Bud drop is fairly common. Since camellias bloom during the winter months, they are susceptible to the wide temperature swings in our “normal” Gulf Coast winter.

Freezing temperatures especially affect young plants and varieties that are cold sensitive. Long periods of hot weather in the early fall can cause buds to drop off in late fall. In the spring, late-blooming varieties may drop their buds before opening as the temperatures begin to rise and shoot growth begins.

Avoid planting varieties that open too late in order to avoid this. Not all camellia varieties perform well in all locations. The Botanical Gardens marketplace sales and spring plant sales offer varieties that are proven performers in Mobile, and local nurseries do as well.

Fluctuations in soil moisture can also cause camellias to drop their buds. Keep moisture sufficient and uniformly applied. Neglect of any cultural factor — soil, nutrition, water, drainage, shade — can cause bud drop. Finally, a camellia bud mite could be the problem. Spraying plants with a miticide (used exactly according to the label instructions), applied as soon as flower buds have set, will usually control flower bud mites.

Q: I would like to start my first vegetable garden next year. Is it best to wait until spring to till the grass into the ground for a garden plot, or should I do that this fall?

A: At the risk of becoming repetitive, we’ll beat this drum one more week: Right now, fall, is the best time for gardening in our Gulf Coast zone, and that includes preparing the garden for successful spring planting.

First, repeat with me the Master Gardener mantra: Get a soil test and use the result … Get a soil test and use the result … You can pick up the soil test kit at the Alabama Extension Office at 1070 Schillinger Road N. in Mobile, or the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center at 8200 State Highway 104 in Fairhope. Take your soil sample according to the instructions and identify your planting as “vegetables” to get advice specific for your intended crop. Results from Auburn University cost $7 per sample to analyze.  

Organic compost is always a good additive in fall, as it will improve soil structure, help retain moisture and add nutrients. If the soil test results indicate you need to add lime, which provides the micronutrient magnesium, now is the time. Add compost and the soil nutrients your soil test advises, then relax and let the compost, nutrients and winter rains do their work. Your plot should be just right for early spring planting!

Q: There are tiny flies on my collards that are white and look like baby moths. Do you know what they are?

A: The insects are likely whiteflies (Family Aleyrodidae), and they attack a range of plants in the home landscape. Whiteflies suck plant juices and excrete a honeydew, on which sooty mold grows. Heavy infestations of sooty mold can cause further plant damage by blocking out sunlight and interfering with photosynthesis so the plant can’t make its food. Use of an insecticidal soap applied as the label directs should control a large portion of the population that is already on the leaves.

Email us your questions at CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com or call (toll free) 1-877-252-4769, the Master Gardener Helpline answered by Mobile and Baldwin county Master Gardener Volunteers.