You are here: Home Columns Hortiscope Hortiscope
Document Actions


Ron Smith answers reader's questions about the world of plants and gardening.


By Ronald C. Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I relocated to the Midwest and want to plant Brandon arborvitae to provide us with some privacy. Prices for the plants are all over the map, ranging from $70 to $240 a tree. I did speak with a local nursery that is on the low end of pricing, but nurseries do not grow the arborvitae locally. The plants are brought in from a nursery in Oregon. A local landscaper who will be helping plant the arborvitae is concerned that the plants were grown in one region and now are being planted in another. He is telling me that I could lose half of the plants during the first winter. Now understandably, he also is attempting to sell me Brandon arborvitae, but at a much higher price. From the research and information I have gathered, I believe Brandon to be a very hearty, winter burn-resistant arborvitae. What is your recommendation or experience with arborvitae that have been raised in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest and then relocated to the Midwest? (e-mail reference)

A: A major part of the nursery stock sold in America comes from Pacific Northwest nurseries and settles in quite well in varying landscapes. Generally, these nurseries are wholesale nurseries. They require that the purchaser be a licensed nursery stock handler and that the plants be purchased in larger quantities to obtain the prices that look tempting to you. Any nursery that would retail from Oregon or Washington to a homeowner in Chicago would be open to suspicion to me. I would advise you to go for smaller stock plants because they will establish very quickly and save you money as well. Smaller plants equal less loss of roots during transplanting and quicker establishment and growth. Insist on a guarantee of the stock the landscaper installs. Ask for a couple of references for the Brandon arborvitae that he has planted in your area. If, for any reason, you doubt the integrity of this landscaper, don't do business with him. There are plenty of reputable firms out there that you can do business with. The biggest problem with importing from out of state is that you end up accepting what is shipped to you - with little control over the handling of the stock. In transport, they could be subjected to wind or heat desiccation that would not be apparent at the time of planting, but resulting in the gradual death of the plants in several months or years.

Q: I planted a grapefruit seed five years ago in a planter inside my home. I feed it once a month and water it about every two weeks, but it never flowers. The one I had before produced at least one small grapefruit each year. The plant has a southern exposure. I never take it outside during the summer because the bugs will eat it. Can I do anything to encourage the plant to produce fruit or is this one just a dud? (e-mail reference)

A: This is probably a combination of being a dud and you being too good to it. Mild stress will tend to get a plant into the reproductive cycle. I would suggest that you place it outdoors during the summer and provide the necessary protection from ravaging insects.

Q: I was in a store shopping when I noticed three croton plants on a clearance shelf. They were totally dry and looked dead or near death, but I purchased them anyway. After reading some of your posts, I checked just under the bark and it is green. The leaves are still on the plants, but they are dry and crack off very easily. Should I trim off the old leaves or prune them in any way? (e-mail reference)

A: These are some of the toughest houseplants in existence. Keep the soil moderately moist. Eventually, the plant should drop the old, dried leaves and send out some new ones. As for pruning, you may do so to reshape the plants and to remove any branches that are dead. Don't leave any bare stubs. Also, don't try to push the plant by overwatering or fertilizing. Begin a light fertilizing cycle when new growth is observed, but not before.

Q: We live in Canada. I am thinking of planting three Norway spruce trees to give my city lot a natural look and add privacy. Where we live is very windy. The soil is sandy and relatively dry. I think I can get around the dry soil by making sure I add a lot of rich earth and peat moss, but what I'm confused about is whether the Norway spruce can handle a windy area. Some Web sites say it is good as a windbreak, but other Web sites say that the roots do not go deep enough, so the trees might tip over. Any light you can shine on this subject would really be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Norway spruce are indeed very good windbreaks, but also subject to windfall due to their magnificent size, spreading branches and shallow root system. If you can establish a drip irrigation system around the trees, the water would percolate down nice and deep because of the sandy soil. The developing roots would follow, so I encourage you to plant these trees. Most evergreens are subject to windfall due to the resistance the aerial part of their growth presents to these forces.

Q: I have a ficus tree that I started from a cutting about eights years ago. During the last few years, the tree has produced very few leaves. Leaves drop off and new ones grow, but the growth is sparse. Any ideas? (e-mail reference)

A: The plant probably is not getting enough light. Try putting it on a 13-hour plant light cycle for a few months. This should be enough of a stimulant to produce new growth that will flourish. If you don't start seeing results in 90 days, dump the plant.

Q: I bought some tulips for my daughters to enjoy. They are amazing! They grew about an inch a day and after three weeks produced 14 beautiful bulbs. My wife and I wonder what to do with the bulbs. Will they bloom next year in the same container or should we buy new bulbs next year? (e-mail reference)

A: You are better off making new purchases next year. These bulbs have "blasted" their flowers and foliage for this year and will not have stored energy to come back again.

Q: I am in sixth grade and doing an experiment with a spider plant. Can I feed the plant milk instead of water? Please e-mail me what you think will happen. (e-mail reference)

A: You can, but why waste good milk? Water is all that is needed, but only once or twice a week. The plant will grow and get some benefit from the mineral nutrients in the milk, as it would from the minerals that are in the water.

Q: I forgot to cover my Black Hills spruce with burlap this fall. Is it too late? Are the next few months the critical time? (e-mail reference)

A: It is not too late! The late-winter weeks are the most critical. The wide fluctuations in air temperature and light intensity will desiccate the needles of young evergreens. I understand the frost line is now down to 30 inches in the Fargo area, so when the warming trends start moving in, it will be a long time before the soil releases any significant amount of water to the transpiring needles. This will cause desiccation and browning of the foliage, which could cause possible dieback.

Q: I have a friend who has a cactus that was frozen. The top fell off, but she feels the base is still alive. Do you replant? What do you suggest? (e-mail reference)

A: If the top is mushy, then the cactus is probably dead and should be disposed of. If there is any firm flesh remaining, cut off the damaged tissue back to healthy material. Give it time to find out if the plant responds with new growth.

Q: Finally caught the culprits (deer) eating off the bird feeders. I now take the feeders inside at night. Someone suggested adding cayenne pepper to the bird seed. (e-mail reference)

A: Have you considered a physical barrier, such as fencing? Pepper also would have a negative impact on the birds. Repellents, such as Liquid Fence, have some limited impact. Once deer have discovered a food source, it is very difficult to get them to change their ways.

Q: I purchased an Australian fern tree last summer and had it on my front porch (shaded) until late fall. The fern did fantastic outside and would unroll a new frond almost every week. I took the fern to my office, which gets decent filtered light, but is rather dry. Days after moving the fern, many of its branches shriveled up and died. A few remained green and the plant appears to be surviving. I trimmed the dead branches off. Was that a poor decision on my part and do you have any advice as to what I should do to save it until summer? (e-mail reference)

A: I would suggest misting the foliage with distilled water. Removing the dead foliage was the right thing to do. Anything you can do to increase the humidity around the plant will help it survive the remaining winter weeks.

Q: Your recent column on amaryllis was interesting. After my plants were done blooming, I let them dry off in a basement and then planted them in the ground in a partly shaded, raised flower bed in May. I watered them on occasion and gave them plant food a couple times. I lifted them and shook off most of the soil before frost and placed them on a 60-degree basement floor. The bulbs were not overly large. When I noticed growth after Christmas, I planted them in a low 10-inch bowl. In less than a month, they bloomed. Two sent up two blossom stems with four blooms per stem. Another plant only had one stem, but with five blossoms. In all, there were 21 blossoms, 17 at one time on three bulbs. The flowers were all the same color, which I appreciated. Strong, upright leaves also appeared with the flower stems, but were not as tall as the flower stems. I had to share my experience because there seems to be many ways to deal with amaryllis bulbs. Needless to say, I will repeat last year’s planting procedures. (Red Lake Falls, Minn.)

A: Thanks for the nice letter on your tender, loving care techniques with these beautiful bulbs. The readers will appreciate you sharing this with them and so do I! Keep up the green thumb work.

Q: We live in Aurora, Ill. We have a large 15-year-old Linden oak in our back yard situated about 30 feet from the house. It is a very nice tree. Our son brought it home as an Arbor Day planting and it has grown well ever since. This fall we began seeing some of the small branches begin to lose bark. I'd say about 10 to 15 of the smaller branches are impacted. I have seen squirrels nibbling on the hanging bark and originally thought that they might be the cause, but squirrels have been in this tree all along, but the symptoms have just appeared this year. Perhaps you have some suggestions on what may be happening to our tree. Thanks very much for your help. (e-mail reference)

A: This sounds very much like normal self-pruning of the tree. As the density of the tree's canopy continues to increase, some of the lower branches will die off as you describe. I am, of course, only making an educated guess. I would suggest contacting an International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist in your community to evaluate the tree. Go to to locate an arborist. Be sure to check the person’s credentials and ask for references before allowing any work to be carried out on the tree.

Q: I am writing to inquire about crape myrtles. Do you know of a variety that would possibly make it through our hard winters? We traveled to Arkansas last summer and noticed the beautiful flowers on the trees. One lady at a local retailer said there were some that might make it through our winters. Any information on crape myrtles would be greatly appreciated. (West Fargo, N.D.)

A: Dream on! Sorry, but they wouldn’t even come close to surviving our winters, even as a herbaceous plant. Below zero temperatures take them out. With our frost line down to more than 30 inches this winter, we’re going to find other plants that have made it through past winters also dying because of the cold weather that hit us in February.

Q: I planted a ficus in a cement box with drainage. The box is made of cement blocks and every hole also is filled with cement, so it is solid. I left drainage holes in the bottom, which is also cemented. The tree is solid, has green leaves and is growing fine. Will the cement barrier hold the roots or will the roots eventually break the barrier? If it will break the barrier, then I need to move it. Can you help? (e-mail reference)

A: You didn’t say how large the cement box is, so I cannot give you a timeline on its durability. Usually, containerized woody plants will survive eight to 10 years before succumbing. It varies among species, location and other factors. Generally, when the root tips hit the cement blocks, they will follow the inside of the box down to the drainage holes. Unless the cement box is a weak structure, it should not break. The tree probably will die before any breakage happens. You can prevent this from happening with some careful root pruning every year or two, which is more work than most people want to go through. It also puts the tree at more risk. I am assuming you live in a frost-free area of the country. What you could do is allow the tree to grow in the container for a few years. When it begins to look a little stressed, move it to a permanent, noncontainerized location and replace it with a smaller tree.

Q: I read through all the pages about Christmas cactus care and problems. My plant stems near the soil look like they have been stressed. Some of the leaves have transparent spots on them. I only water when my gauge says dry or low moisture and fertilize with Miracle-Gro. The plant was repotted, so I wonder if I put it in too big of a pot because I know they like to be root-bound. I have another plant that I repotted. Half of the stems broke off and other stems are breaking off. What could I be doing wrong? (e-mail reference)

A: What you are probably seeing is the plant tissue becoming corky because of age. Usually, this is nothing to worry about. As for the leaves that are showing transparent spots on them, if there are just a few, go ahead and remove them. This is often the beginning of edemia caused by keeping the soil too moist. The breakage and falling of some leaves is a pretty good indication of the air being too dry. Keep in mind that these are forest plants that live in the understory of tropical forests. I suggest that you go to for further analysis of your plant’s problems. Perhaps something at this site will help you identify what the problem is with your plants.

Q: I just came across your online information about spruces, so I think you can help me. I had two blue spruce trees planted two years ago. They had a small area that seemed to have a discolored and fungus type of material on the branches. I asked the landscaper about it and he said to water them weekly and it would go away. Well, it seems to have turned into a wilt that has moved around the bottom of the tree. I can't see any spider mites or discoloration. However, there are quite a few branches that have lost needles. Any ideas or help would be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Shame on the landscaper for giving you a blow-off response! You shouldn't have accepted any plants that were not perfect. I can't accurately tell you what the problem is. It could be a fungal canker of some sort, but to control it effectively, an accurate diagnosis needs to be made. If you can, contact an International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist in your region who is competent at disease diagnosis and control.

Q: I enjoy the Hortiscope column you write. Do you know where I could find a bulb auger? I have not been able to find one. (Moorhead, Minn.)

A: I did a little searching and found just what you would need. The company is called The Garden Auger and can be accessed online at You will find that it has a wide selection from which to choose.

Q: I have a beautiful flowering crabapple tree in my front yard. It has been suggested to me that the roots might break up the drain from my house to the city sewer. Could you please describe the root system of flowering crabs in general? Are they mostly surface roots or are there deep tap roots? (e-mail reference)

A: In my past experiences of digging up old crabapple trees, I found the roots to be mostly surface, with one or two going deep. It depends on the crabapple rootstock and if the drain tiles are leaking water. In this modern day, very few, if any, drains leak, so the roots have no way of entering the system. Besides, most drains are down 4 feet or more. I promise you that I never have dug up any crabapple roots that deep! Usually the poplars and willows are the culprits that invade leaking tiles because of their aggressive roots.

Q: I'm working on a project in Devils Lake. The soil conditions are saline/alkaline. I would greatly appreciate any input for reseeding areas with these conditions. One comment I've received is to try wheatgrass? (e-mail reference)

A: That is a good suggestion. But I would make it a mixture of crested wheatgrass, sheep fescue ('Covar' cultivar) and alkaligrass ('Fultz'). If you are talking about a large area, I would suggest contacting Agassiz Seed in West Fargo to make up an appropriate mixture for you. If this doesn't grow for you, then I would revert to artificial grass!

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-8161,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
Prairie Fare: Prairie Fare: De-stress with Gardening  (2019-05-23)  According to researchers, gardening can be beneficial for mental, physical and social health.  FULL STORY
Use of Releases
The news media and others may use these news releases in their entirety. If the articles are edited, the sources and NDSU must be given credit.

Powered by Plone, the Open Source Content Management System