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

By Ronald C. Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: Our neighbors plan to cut down an apparently healthy, gorgeous, mature blue spruce. We would like to transplant it to our yard. We would need to hire professionals to move the tree. Does the tree have a good chance of surviving or would this most likely be a waste of time and money? Thank you very much for your time. (e-mail reference)

A: With just a move from one yard to the other, the chance of survival is very high. Be sure you hire someone who knows what he or she is doing and who can give you some possible references of past successes.

Q: I enjoy reading your weekly column. It has been a great help. I want to order some root stock from the Cass County Soil Conservation District, but need some advice. I am trying to decide what to order for a hedge that also will act as a snow fence for the front half of my yard. We live on an acre lot. The hedge will run just about the length of the north edge of our property and about 10 feet from a row of ash trees. I would guess it to be about 150 to 175 feet long. There are a couple of dogwoods in the middle of the row. They have red twigs on the early growth with little, white flowers. I would like to have a variety of bushes rather than just one kind. I have narrowed the choices down to Schubert chokecherry, villosa lilac, Hansen hedge rose and smooth sumac. Is there any reason not to plant any of these next to each other? I was planning to start with the lilacs and chokecherries where I need the snow fence protection. On the other side of the dogwoods, I would plant roses and finish with sumac. I realize that the sumac will sucker, but I really like the look of the plant. The sumac would be shaded by the ash trees on the east side of the property during early morning hours. If for some reason you think I should use something different, the other options that are available are golden currant, grey dogwood and common lilac. I also would like to order Ponderosa pines to plant in the northwestern corner of the yard. The pines would be planted in front of the bushes. All the plants come in lots of five. I was thinking of planting the pines and then thinning them down to three trees a couple of years later. What type of arrangement do you think I should plant these in? (Frontier, N.D.)

A: Thanks for the nice comments! Your selections make sense to me, if you are happy with them. As for the Ponderosa pines, I would suggest a staggered pattern because they do not maintain their pyramidal shape as they age. They will lose their lower branches and the trees eventually will get a broad, spreading head, which is not like the characteristic pyramidal heads that you seen on most pines. Clusters of three or five, spaced about 15 to 20 feet apart, will look too far apart at the start, but will close as they mature, without being overcrowded.

Q: The birds, mostly wrens and sparrows, love to sit on our porch railing. Their nests are in the shrubs surrounding the porch. The mess they leave on the indoor/outdoor carpet is a constant chore to keep clean. I have used mothballs in the landscaping to keep the cats out, which in turn keeps the birds off the porch. Is there anything, such as liquid mothballs, that can be sprayed on the porch railing to keep the birds from sitting there and doing their business on the floor of the porch? (e-mail reference)

A: First of all, mothballs, crystals or liquids, used in a landscape is considered an illegal use of a pesticide. It could result in a hefty fine being imposed on you. There are repellents you can use. Tanglefoot is a clear, sticky, Vaseline-type product that comes in a tube. Wearing protective gloves and using a caulking gun, spread the sticky goop where the birds roost. It annoys them to the point of finding another place to do their thing! Another tactic is to string piano wire along the rails at 2 or 4 inches in height. This will keep the birds from getting a comfortable grasp of the rails. Thiram is a product that is available as a stand-alone or mixed in a liquid and then sprayed on a surface. It has an obnoxious smell and will keep the birds from roosting, but also may keep you from using the porch. There is bird netting that you can string across the porch opening that will befuddle the birds. Some may get caught in it, necessitating you freeing them. In the meantime, the paniced cries from the bird should warn others to stay away.

Q: Do you know of anyone who has been able to grow a redbud tree in southeastern North Dakota? Even though we are zone 3 to 4, could one survive in a protected microclimate? (e-mail reference)

A: I don't blame you because they are beautiful trees! However, I don't know of anyone who has grown one successfully. With global warming taking place, it may be possible to have these become a part of our tree inventory in the state, so I encourage you to give it a try!

Q: I planted a corkscrew willow tree two years ago, but it is not growing very fast. The tree is healthy and so are the leaves. Is there anything I can do to help it grow? (e-mail reference)

A: Try fertilizer, but not the stake type. Is it getting ample water and sunlight? Is there competition from nearby plantings? Also, try loosening the soil around the tree. These are all the suggestions I can give you at this point.

Q: I have three poplar trees on my property line that are more than 100 years old. I am getting odd trees popping up around my home's foundation. The leaves look like poplar leaves, but five times larger (about the size of a dinner plate). The trees are growing very fast. I didn't remove them when I should have (I just cut the trunk about 3 inches from the ground), so the trees keep growing back. I want to take a saw to the base, but I am concerned that the root system still will grow and the trees will reappear in a few months. How can I get rid of these things before they crack my foundation? (e-mail reference)

A: What you are dealing with are suckers coming from the root system of the old poplars, which very likely are in a state of decline. Poplars tend to develop this type of growth from the roots as they age. Once it begins, is very difficult to manage. I strongly suggest that you contact a qualified arborist to inspect the mature poplars to see if there is something that can be done, such as installing a root barrier, to prevent further spreading. The arborist should do a complete physical on the trees because this species often develops a hollow trunk that would make these trees a hazard in high winds. To locate a certified arborist in your area, go to and click on "Find A Tree Care Service."

Q: I moved into a house in September 2006 that has a nice grapevine. I share the fence the vine is on with my neighbor. She has asked me to cut down the grapevine so that she can repaint the fence. Is it possible for me to cut it all the way back without destroying it? I enjoy what little privacy it provides between our backyards. (e-mail reference)

A: If this is a grapevine with any age to it, I can almost guarantee you that it will regrow with a vengeance after you cut it down. I would suggest coordinating it with your neighbor so that when you cut it back, she can get right on with the job of painting the fence within a day or two. I also would suggest that you cover the cut stump or stumps with a bucket or anything that will keep the paint from drifting onto the plant. This whole operation should take place while the vine is still dormant, not the middle of the growing season when it is in full leaf.

Q: Hello and thank you in advance. I saw a jade plant at the home of my boyfriend's parents and completely fell in love with it. To make a long story short, this is my second attempt at raising one. It seems to be dying at the bottom of the stem. The stem and leaves on top are fine, but it's brown at the bottom. Some parts are completely shriveled and brown. I water it once a week. I usually feel the soil to make sure it's dry because I've read too many different opinions on how often it should be watered. I let the water drain and it is planted in soil specifically for cacti and succulent plants. What am I doing wrong! I can't even seem to get a plant started. The plant is not close to a light source. The same holds true for the plant at the home of my boyfriend's parents, but theirs is thriving. I have moved my plant near a window, but not in direct light. Will that help or should I start over? (e-mail reference)

A: Go to my Web site at The Web site has lots of information about jade plants. From what you told me, I would suggest starting over. This time, move the jade to a place where it can get some indirect light, as well supplemental light from a plant light. Keep in mind that when you acquire another plant from a retailer, it likely has been kept in a greenhouse under optimal conditions. Suddenly moving it to a low-light situation and not allowing the plant to adapt to the new environment will cause the decline you describe. Your boyfriend's parents would have a problem with their jade if suddenly they changed the environmental setting it is in. You might ask the parents if they could spare a cutting for you to propagate. That's a good way of making points with them!

Q: I live in Boston. I would like a wall of some form (arborvitae) that is tall and thick. The wall would be 100 feet long. I also would like to find trees that would get to 8 feet in two years, with no cropping of the tops. The area gets above average to average sunlight. The soil is excellent and the moisture and drainage is very good. I would like the space between the trees to fill in within two years to a maximum width of 4 feet. If the width is going be greater, I'd like to be able to trim the trees without losing coverage. The trees will be planted against a chain link fence. What is your suggested arborvitae, distance between plantings and distance from the fence? What type of ivy or plant would you recommend planting along the fence to act as filler on the lower side. (e-mail reference)

A: You need to find what arborvitae cultivars are available on the local market. Emerald, nigra, pyramidalis or techny (aka Mission) would all do the job for you. Techny is the most popular. I would suggest planting 4 feet from the fence and the same distance between plants because they will spread 4 feet or more and reach at least 15 feet in height. As to the vine, the vines I know of would become a problem because of rampant growth. You might want to check with your Extension Service to see if a horticulturist could make some "safe" suggestions.

Q: I have read several e-mail answers about gloxinias. The information was helpful and now I know why mine died. I have a tuber that I purchased and am trying to get it to grow. However, I am having trouble finding information on how to get my tuber to grow and the proper way to take care of it. How long will it take for the tuber to come up from the soil? Thank you very much in advance for any assistance you can provide. (e-mail reference)

A: If you can get yourself into a major bookstore, you will find ample books dealing with houseplants. There should be lots of information on raising and caring for gloxinias. Basically, their care is the same as that of African violets. Gloxinias need cool night temps (65 degrees) and day temperatures about 10 degrees warmer, but not beyond 80 degrees. Gloxinias will thrive under grow lights or a mixed fluorescent bulb setup.

Q: Could you tell me when the best time is to plant asparagus? Do you plant it in the spring or fall? Should I use seeds or plants from a greenhouse? Any information would be appreciated. I'm sure this would be for next spring's harvest. (e-mail reference)

A: No doubt about it, crowns are the best way to go. Be sure to take the time to properly prepare the soil and you should get some spears to harvest next spring! Go to my Web site at to download "Asparagus Growing for the Home Gardener." Enjoy!

Q: Landscapers planted 6-feet-tall emerald arborvitae. The plants are spaced at 6-foot intervals. I did it to screen the view of my neighbor's house. Did they plant the trees too far apart? Should I plant something between the arborvitae? Are there any plants I should avoid planting near the arborvitae that would hurt their growth? I was thinking of planting grasses near or between them to complete the screen. I live in Missouri. Thanks for any help you can provide. (e-mail reference)

A: No need to plant anything in between because they eventually will spread to form a solid screen. If the distance is too much for you to bear, then plant some mug pines between them. However, you probably will end up having to cut them out in six or so years. They don't like being shaded too much, so don't plant any deciduous trees that will form a canopy over them.

Q: I have 20 to 25 hackberry trees growing on my property. They're 25 to 30 years old and of substantial size. They seem be in good health. However, during the autumn of last year, one of the trees fell over after being hit by a gust of wind. The wood was flakey and easily broken with your hands. Some of the wood turned almost to powder when touched. The tree that fell over had almost white bark in places, while the others don't. The reason I'm so concerned is that some of the trees growing a significant distance from the dead one are showing the same symptoms. I've recently had one snap and deposit a 20 foot "chunk" of tree in my neighbor's yard. I need to know if these observations are symptomatic of a fungus or nutritional deficiency that I can treat or if I need to seriously consider quickly removing all the trees near my structures. (e-mail reference)

A: You need to contact an International Society of Arboretum certified arborist as soon as possible to have the trees inspected before any more collapse. I don't know what the malady is that you are describing, but it sounds like it could be serious. Go to and then click on "Find a Tree Care Service" to find the nearest arborist. Be sure to check the qualifications and credentials of the individual you intend to hire.

Q: I have a dogwood tree that my mother planted about 10 years ago. The tree is not doing well. It seems to have stopped growing. The bark is split at the base of the tree and there are small holes where the bark is missing. The bark on the tree also doesn't look good. My mother planted the tree years ago. She has passed away, so I really don't want to loose the tree. I hope it's not borer or canker. Please help me. (e-mail reference)

  1. The tree looks like it is beyond help. Sorry! From what I can see, the tree was sited improperly when it was planted. Generally, these trees don't do well in an open, fully-exposed environment such as yours. In their natural environment, they are a subcanopy species or found on the edge of a forest. You might consider hiring a certified arborist to inspect the tree. It may be possible to rehab the tree, but I would be surprised if someone had a concrete solution to the many problems this tree appears to have. Go to and click on "Find A Tree Care Service" at the top right side of the page to find a certified arborist.

Q: We are about to start extensive building alterations. Sadly, a beautiful, mature crab apple will need to be removed. We would like to transplant the tree to another area in the garden. It is not a commonly found tree in our area, so no one seems to have enough knowledge about it. It would be sad to lose this lovely tree. We are at the end of our summer and moving into fall. Building will start within the next six weeks. (e-mail reference)

A: I assume you have something approaching a winter with freezing temperatures in your area. If so, after the tree drops its leaves, you can hire a tree spade operator to come in and move the tree to a more suitable location. If you can't wait that long before beginning construction, then wait as long as possible before moving it. Try to locate a tree spade operator who has a large, truck-mounted machine to do the work. A 66- or 90-inch would be best because you want to harvest as much of the root system as possible. If there are no tree spade operators in your part of the country, then you need to hire a nursery or landscape contracting company to come in and do a manual ball-and-burlap operation. It is more labor intensive and takes more time, so likely it will be more expensive. Get the prices nailed down before the digging starts. I doubt that anyone will guarantee the survival of the moved tree.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-8161,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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