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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: I have a number of juniper bushes bordering my house. Our city was doing sidewalk repairs, so they cut the bushes back. Now I have wood branches sticking out. Is there something I can use to help them become green again or do I have to remove them? Thanks. (Rancho Cordova, Calif.)

A: Generally, when evergreens are pruned back to bare wood with no green foliage remaining, that is the way they will stay. So your choices are to accept the poor appearance or replace the bushes. I vote for replacement!

Q: In the past, my cucumber plants have not always fared well. I would like enough for pickling, but just get enough for slicing. The leaves either turn yellow or the fruit resembles a ball. There is a tree very close to the garden. Could the tree be giving too much shade or maybe taking most of the nutrients from the garden? Also, last year I grew zucchini for the first time, but the plants stopped growing right after planting. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. (Minot, N.D.)

A: Get your garden soil tested, either at the local garden center or by sending a sample to our soil testing lab at NDSU. No more than a sandwich bag full of soil is needed. There is a nominal charge for the standard test, which includes testing for pH, organic matter content, phosphorus, potassium and soluble salts. Try to plant cucumbers and any other fruit producing vegetable crops in full sun, which means eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Avoid overhead watering. Carefully soak the soil around the base of the plants to avoid disease problems. Bees are being wiped out by mites, so they often are in scarce supply to do the needed pollination. You might want to try a couple of other tactics, such as hand pollinating or planting some borage among the plants in your garden. Borage is one of the best bee attractants in nature. While the bees are working on the borage flowers, they also will pollinate the cucumber and squash flowers. Tree roots and canopies can have a negative impact on vegetable gardening. Evaluate your priorities by determining if you want the tree or the garden. I hope you can save the tree and locate your garden in a sunnier location.

Q: I need to restart my strawberry bed this spring. What varieties are recommended for Bismarck, N.D.? I like juicy, sweet berries. I will put a few of the extra plants into a strawberry jar. I haven't done that before. Are there any special things I need to do? Thanks for your help. (e-mail reference)

A: Refer to my publication on strawberries at You can download and make a selection from the cultivars I've listed. Growing plants in a strawberry jar is fine, but you have to pay close attention to the amount of water you provide. You need to do that every day as warm weather sets in.

Q: The geraniums we dug up (pot and all) and set in the garage window are starting to bloom without getting leggy. Also, my philodendron that is in a southeast bay window is losing leaves off and on. The leaves that are falling off are closest to the pot. The whole leaf will turn yellow and drop off, but it keeps growing new ones on the ends. It is fastened to a wall close to the ceiling and has been in the same pot for close to five years. I measured 86 inches of vine flowing in both directions from the pot. Parts of the vine contain larger leaves than others. I talked to a lady who has a private greenhouse who says she has the same problem, but hasn't found a cure. Can you please help us out? (e-mail reference)

A: You obviously don't need any advice on your geraniums because it sounds like they are doing just fine! For the ivy philodendron, have you ever heard of pruning? I know you have. If you want something approaching normal foliage, you need to prune from time to time. It is perfectly normal for the old leaves to drop off. It's much like us losing old hair. The fact that it has been in the same pot for five years has got to be something of a record that Ripley might be interested in hearing about. The different-sized leaves relates back to your fertilizing and watering habits. Any variations would be the probable source of these differences. Take some cuttings from the growing end of the vine and root them in a mix of sand and peat moss. Once you have those established with roots, begin a gradual reduction in the length of the vine. At some point, new growth should emerge that will help improve the aesthetics.

Q: We live in the desert of Arizona at about 4,000 feet. I have an apricot tree that did not bear fruit last year, but this year it did. The tree gets no attention. Suckers grow and are not pruned and the tree is never pruned. It does get a steady drip of water, which it seems to like. Can I use one of the suckers for a tree? How do I make it root? This tree seems to be self-fertilizing because it's in a junkyard and there are no other trees around. The apricots sure taste good! (e-mail reference)

A: Bearing fruit in alternate years is a normal characteristic of many fruit trees, so there is nothing to worry about. As to rooting suckers, it would be a variable experiment at best. You need to use some rooting powder and take the cuttings at different times of the year. Take cuttings now while the leaves are fully expanded. Take more cuttings later in the fall after everything has hardened off and during the winter while the suckers are dormant. The cuttings should be about 6 to 9 inches long. Dip the cuttings in an IBA or NAA rooting hormone and then plant in a sand/peat mixture. Keep the cuttings moist under semishady conditions when using leafed-out cuttings. Don't have high expectations because this method normally does not have a high degree of commercial success. They generally are grafted onto rootstock.

Q: Is it true a hoya has to be root-bound in pots to flower? The plant is old and the leaves are yellowing. It is located in central Queensland, Australia. It has long leaves, but not many. (e-mail reference)

A: One of the cardinal rules for growing hoya plants is to not repot until it is unavoidable! In other words, a root-bound plant will tend to come into flower better than one that is not.

Q: I was hoping that you could answer a question for me. I live in Florida and transplanted an oak tree to my yard. There were small buds just starting to form when we transplanted, but now they are dead and crunchy. I have trimmed back some of the branches to encourage survival. There is new growth, but only three new branches are starting to form at the base of the tree. What should I do? Is the tree doomed to die? Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: Oak trees do not transplant very well. It sounds as if your attempt is re-enforcing that perception. Not knowing what kind of oak you are attempting to grow, I would have to guess that the chances of this one making a decent tree are slim. You probably would be better off taking it out and starting with a fresh tree from a local garden center.

Q: Our son built a new home in Blaine (a suburb of Minneapolis). His area requires at least two trees be planted right away. I am guessing he will do more than two at some point. What two great trees should he start with? The house sits north and south on the lot. The lots are large, so the neighbor's trees will not affect his plantings. Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: I don't like making suggestions because I have no idea what else is planted in the neighborhood or where he is intending to plant them. I also don't know what he wants from the trees, such as amount of shade, flowers/fruit, size, fall color or growth rate. Are there soil problems? This is the kind of stuff that can be sorted out over a few cups of coffee. I suggest he visit some local garden centers because they would stock material that is hardy in the local area. A knowledgeable nursery person could spell out the various aspects of the trees in stock.

Q: My ladyfinger palm leaves are shriveling up. The plant gets watered every seven to 10 days. Does it want plant food or sunlight? (e-mail reference)

A: Is the palm planted in the landscape or in a container? Are only the oldest leaves showing these symptoms or all of them? A containerized palm will need fertilizing as it starts to show new growth. Since you are asking about the possibility of sunlight being limited, I would say that is the problem. Fertilizing a palm that is getting insufficient sunlight will cause the symptoms you are describing.

Q: We have two crepe myrtles that we pruned in December. They started to sprout new growth and were doing beautifully until we had four nights of 26-degree temperatures. The new growth turned black and is falling off. Do we need to trim back just below the dead growth or should we leave it alone? I love these trees and don't want to lose them, but I have no idea what to do. Thanks for the help. (e-mail reference)

A: Be patient and wait to see what growth takes place. They probably will recover since they are so mature. The growth might be weird for a while, but they eventually will return to normal. Once the plants have regrown, cut out anything that is dead.

Q: I will remove an old cottonwood tree in my backyard to build a garage. I was told I should grind the stumps about a foot below soil level. What do you think? Thanks. (e-mail reference)

A: Grind until there is no stump left, whether it is a foot deep or more. Be sure to get all the grindings cleaned up before building the garage over the area.

Q: We are installing an above-ground pool in early May. We have a privacy fence that will be approximately 8 feet away from the pool. It provides some privacy, but not enough because the house behind us is quite tall. I was interested in possibly planting some arborvitaes against the fence to increase privacy. My neighbor has these trees against our fence. They have done well for years. What is your opinion about the idea? (Rochester, N.Y.)

A: Sounds like a good plan. Go for it!

Q: I live in northwestern Arkansas and have two crepe myrtle trees. They had just leafed out when a cold blast came through. The temperature fell to 24 degrees one night. The next day, the leaves all shriveled up. Will these survive and still flower or did they die? Can I prune back the dead limbs to help the trees? (e-mail reference)

A: As I have told many before you who have asked the same question, wait until the new growth emerges to see what has been damaged. You then can remove the dead material. These established trees are tough customers. They are able to come back after being dusted with some below-freezing temperatures.

Q: I repotted a medium-sized aloe vera plant. A couple of its leaves are turning yellow and curling at the tips. I water it once a week. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: You probably are overwatering. Allow the soil to dry before watering.

Q: Some of the tulips I planted a few years ago aren't getting attention because the rest of the garden has developed nicely around the plants. I can see that they would look better in another spot. Can I lift them out and transplant them to another spot while the flower color is still visible? They seem to be healthy, despite the fact that the other plants are stealing their visual show. They have propagated nicely in the five years that they have bloomed. (e-mail reference)

A: It's not a good idea to transplant them now. For now, use wooden stakes to mark where the various colors are. Digging them up now, before the foliage has a chance to make some new carbs for next year, will hurt their chance of survival and being productive next spring.

Q: We planted a thundercloud plum, but a few days later we had a freeze. All of the leaves are wilted and appear dead. What should we do? (e-mail reference)

A: Wait, which is all you or anyone else can do! The tree eventually will come out of this because Mother Nature provides backup buds for leafing-out after irrational weather.

Q: I have had it with my arborvitae. For the past three years, I have replaced the three I had next to the west side of my house. They grew well during the summer. In winter, I sprayed them with Wiltpruf and covered them with burlap, but they turned brown in the spring. Could you recommend something hardier that can handle the afternoon heat and a fair amount of water from my sprinkler system? Maybe I just can't grow trees! (e-mail reference)

A: Not too many evergreens can take the direct impact of lawn sprinklers. Why not try a deciduous evergreen? The Larix decidua is hardy for this area. It resembles a spruce when in needle, provides fresh, new growth every spring and is not subject to winter damage due to dropping of the needles in the fall. To check out the characteristics of this species, go to

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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