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Wildfire brings more ozone problems

Blotchy green citrus leaves
These citrus leaves show ozone damage. (Photo
courtesy UC IPM)

Hot, smoky conditions
create high pollutant levels

Plants may be able to cope with wildfire smoke better than people. But ozone is another matter.

After prolonged exposure to two weeks of wildfire smoke, foliage on many plants in the greater Sacramento area are showing signs of ozone damage. It starts out as stippling – little dots all over large leaves. Or parts of leaves may look like they were sun-bleached white or silver.

In my Sacramento garden, I noticed it in particular on a large dahlia plant. Besides funky foliage, its vivid red petals also were bleached white at the tips. That bleaching was accompanied by a build-up of soot on its leaves.

Ozone is what happens when wildfire ash and other pollutants get “cooked” by triple-digit heat. It makes our eyes water and throats hurt. And there’s a lot of it right now.

According to Sacramento region air quality monitors, our air quality is rated “very unhealthy” for the next several days with particle levels remaining high, especially in El Dorado and Placer counties. Through at least Thursday, Sacramento is forecast to rate 250 on the Air Quality Index. (“Good” is below 50.)

While ozone high up in the atmosphere is a good thing, ground-level ozone can be dangerous. In our case, it’s created by a combination of wildfire ash and other pollutants (usually nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds), intensified by bright sunlight and triple-digit heat.

Ground-level ozone can prevent a plant's leaves from properly doing their job. Ozone enters the leaf's stomata and burns the leaf's tissue.

Signs of ozone damage include dark stippling and bleaching of foliage. Plants lose their vigor and stop blooming or yielding fruit. Ozone damage weakens the plant and makes it much more susceptible to pests and disease.

Worried about the long-term effects of too much ozone, researchers and the National Park Service surveyed plants in national parks across the country and found hundreds of species with ozone sensitivity from ash and asters to sycamores and yarrow. Maple, cherry, polar and plum trees are all on the ozone-sensitive list. Find it here:

Meanwhile, keep plants hydrated. Wash ash and soot from leaves.  Lower temperatures later this week may bring some ozone relief, too.


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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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