While most folks are comfortable with deciduous trees losing their leaves in the fall, there is concern among gardeners when conifer needles begin yellowing, browning and dropping from the tree. Although evergreens stay green all year long, it doesn’t mean that individual needles live forever. In fact, it’s normal for some of the needles on evergreens to turn yellow or brown and fall from the tree this time of year. The seasonal needle loss is a natural occurrence.

Seasonal needle loss is perhaps most conspicuous on our native Western red cedar when the older foliage turns brownish red in color. The phenomenon, commonly referred to as cedar flagging, is most frequently the result of moisture stress. Summers of prolonged, dry weather will cause more flagging than moist, overcast summers. Previous-year weather stresses, from cold winters, or dry springs, summers or falls, may have already damaged the tree and could result in flagging during a summer or fall that is not particularly dry.

Interestingly, trees growing near lakes or other bodies of fresh water may also develop flagging during dry summer weather, even though they are near a source of water. Such trees have shallow root systems, dependent on high water tables in these locations. When droughts occur, the water table drops, leaving the root system without adequate moisture.

Unless weather or cultural stress are severe, trees with cedar flagging should recover.

Evergreen needles have varying life spans, depending on the species. Arborvitae and pine needles live for two years, while spruce needles live for three years or longer. Some species of evergreens have a more noticeable leaf drop than others. In the fall, arborvitae and white pine often drop their 2-year-old needles all at once, which can be quite alarming if you don’t realize it is perfectly normal.

Environmental stress such as drought and hot temperatures may cause greater than normal loss of needles. The normal pattern of seasonal needle loss is a gradual discoloration and eventual loss of inner needles from the top to the bottom of the trees. In contrast, fungal diseases often cause browning of the newest (outermost) needles or thinning of needles on just the lower branches.

On other species, needle drop occurs gradually, with a small number of needles falling at one time. Foliage developed during the current year (at the branch tips) remains green. Broad-leaved evergreens, such as rhododendrons, drop their 2- or 3-year-old leaves in late summer and early fall.

Inner and lower needles that are hidden from light are usually the first to drop. Pruning excess growth and dead limbs can help open the plant to more light.

Extend squash shelf life with proper storage

With the arrival of several light frosts earlier this month, many home gardeners are wondering when they should harvest their squash and pumpkins. Although these two vegetables can tolerate a light frost that kills the vines, a hard freeze with temperatures of less than 27 degrees F. can do severe damage. While the majority of pumpkins never make it past Halloween, most gardeners strive to store squash into the winter months. Storing squash for an extended period is not that difficult, provided you pick them at the right time and store them properly.

Pick the squash from the vine when it is mature, leaving about one inch of the stem intact. Winter varieties such as Table Queen, Hubbard, and Turbans develop a hard shell. Marblehead and Golden Delicious, whose skins remain tender, are exceptions. The fact that the shell of winter varieties that are allowed to become mature cannot be penetrated with the thumbnail is not necessarily assurance that the squash is ripe, although it is an indication that maturity is being approached.

It’s also important to observe the outer appearance. Mature fruit has a dull and dry skin compared to shiny, smooth skin of immature fruits. If you’re still not sure, check the ground color or that area of the squash that has contact with the soil. When mature, the ground color changes from white to a cream or gold color. The seed fibers of a mature squash are stringy. The seeds should stand out by themselves and are no longer encased in tissue, like peanuts in a piece of peanut brittle.

Remember to cut, rather than breaking off the stems of Hubbards and other fleshy stemmed squash, leaving about two inches of stem. Cure squashes and pumpkins after harvesting by placing them in a warm, dry area for about a week. Store them in an area where temperatures do not drop below 50 degrees F. with humidity ranging between 70 and 80 percent. Good air circulation will help to extend storage life. Avoid storing them on paper or in plastic bags. An attic or high garage shelf, if kept above 50F, would be ideal.

You can expect to store acorn squash for five to eight weeks, butternut squash for two to three months, and Hubbards for up to six months.

Winter squash should be used immediately when taken out of storage to avoid development of fruit rot diseases.

Are all varieties of pumpkins edible?

Yes! The more relevant question might be — Do pumpkins differ in taste and texture depending on variety? And the answer here is that no two pumpkin varieties are equal. Here’s the tasty facts:

• Pie Pumpkins (or Sugar Pumpkin, or Sugar Pie Pumpkins) — This is the best pumpkin for baking and cooking in all of your favorite recipes. It has a sweeter taste than other varieties. It is also a smooth texture.

• Jack O’Lanterns — These Pumpkins are very good in your favorite recipes. The small and mid size are the best quality since larger ones get stringy and have a coarser texture.

• Miniatures – There isn’t a lot of “meat” in these pumpkins. Most people don’t know that they are edible and can be used in cooking. The most popular use of these is to use them as bowls to hold another recipe, but they are indeed edible.

• Giant Pumpkin — Giant pumpkins tend to be coarse and have a less desirable taste. Many of them taste more like squash (their close cousins) than pumpkin. They can be used in pies or soups. They are also baked or cooked in recipes that call for squash.

We grew both pumpkins and sunflowers in the garden this year. Our kids want to roast the seeds. Is there an easy way to do this?

• Hulling ((sunflower)) seeds is a tedious, time consuming job. The seeds should be mature, well filled and thoroughly dry before you hull them. Both pumpkin and sunflower seeds should be thoroughly washed and allowed to air dry before roasting. You can roast the seeds in a frying pan at low heat, or in a shallow pan in the oven at 300F for 30 to 40 minutes.

Mix one cup of seeds with two tablespoons vegetable oil and one teaspoon salt. Heat and stir continuously in the frypan until they are hot, approximately 2 to 5 minutes. Stir every 10 minutes to prevent scorching in the oven, more frequently in a frypan on top of the range.

Sunflower and pumpkin seeds will develop a small crack down the center as they roast. Test after each stirring to see if the seeds are completely roasted by tasting. Handle pumpkin seeds the same way as sunflower seeds. There are approximately 560 calories in a three and a half ounce serving of sunflower seeds. They contain 47 percent fat. There are about 550 calories in a 3 ½ ounce serving of pumpkin seeds. They have a fat content of slightly less than 47 percent.

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