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How to stop a yucky black mess

Sooty mold forms on honeydew left by sucking insects

Sooty mold on leaves
Citrus leaves show sooty mold growth. Scale, aphids and other sucking insects
produce the honeydew that the fungi grow on. (Photo courtesy UC Integrated Pest Management)

What's this yucky stuff all over my oranges? Icky black gunk coats the leaves of the crape myrtle, too. And ants seem to love this sticky mess.

It's the curse of the sooty mold. Expect to see a lot of it this fall.

According to the UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners, sooty mold isn't one fungi but an assortment, depending on the plant and the insects involved. They all have one thing in common: Honeydew.

Not the melon, but the sugary secretion deposited by aphids and other insects including leafhoppers, whiteflies, soft scales and mealybugs. These insects feed on plants, and excrete honeydew as waste. This honeydew sticks to everything -- leaves, twigs, flowers, fruit, trunks, even lawn furniture and pavement.

When the weather is right (like now), black fungi starts forming on the honeydew. That's the sooty mold.

Ants love honeydew and further complicate the situation. They'll herd aphids on to plants, and harvest their honeydew to feed their nest. The more honeydew, the more ants -- and the more sooty mold.

The mold itself usually doesn't do much harm to the host plant, according to the UC integrated pest management pest notes on sooty mold. If particularly heavy, it can interfere with the leaves' ability to photosynthesize, depriving the plant of food and energy to grow. Heavily coated leaves will die and drop off early.

On fruit, sooty mold can be washed off with a little soap and water. It doesn't harm the interior of citrus, apples or other fruit, which is still edible. Likewise, vegetables coated with sooty mold can be washed and eaten. But it can make a major mess on patio furniture, pavement and any car parked under an infected tree.

The solution is prevention. Sooty mold needs honeydew, which means sucking insects are at work. Control the little suckers and you get rid of the mold.

That means being observant. Watch out for aphids, whiteflies and other insects that create honeydew as well as ants that may introduce them to a plant. By stopping them before they create a major infestation, you can stop the honeydew-sooty mold cycle.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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