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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've really enjoyed reading all your great information on apple trees. Thanks for all the great advice! I live in Rhode Island and have four apple trees that I planted last year. I have a Granny Smith (which produced two yummy apples last year), a Macintosh, a red delicious and a 5-in-1. I've been hard at work training, spraying and doing what I can to keep the deer away. I came across a series of videos at In the video, she recommends picking the flowers to promote better fruit production. Do you recommend this? If so, when do I pick them? Should I do it as soon as the petals are out? As for keeping the deer away, do I only need to spray the Liquid Fence on the new growth? I've been spraying the whole tree. Is there any danger to the buds? It says to apply once a month, but I'm afraid that might not be enough. If I use a bar of Irish Spring, is there any chance that it can do any damage to the tree as it dissolves? Thanks so much for the great site! (e-mail reference)

A: Try to get ahold of Plantskydd, which is a better, nonsmelly repellent that has longer durability than Liquid Fence. Repeat applications of either product will not hurt the trees. Removing some of the secondary flowers will prevent overbearing, help to even out alternate bearing years and result in larger apples. It is an easy task while the trees are small. When you get all four trees blooming and bearing at once in a few years, the task can become daunting. The first buds (terminal buds) to open on a branch are termed the "king buds," which have the potential to produce the largest apples. Picking off the secondary buds will ensure that this happens. It is often done as the flower petals begin dropping, so it doesn't interfere with the pollinating activity of our dwindling honeybees.

Q: I am writing in regard to the weigela Florida variegata. I've read some places it blooms from spring into fall and in other places, spring to early summer. Does it depend on the zone or the nursery selling it? Thanks. (e-mail reference)

A: The plants I have seen bloom from spring into early to midsummer, depending on exposure. I would think that a local nursery could tell you more accurately than me or any catalog.

Q: I have question about my root-bound hoya. You said to repot if necessary. When is that? Sorry to be a nuisance, but my hoya has little roots coming out through the bottom holes of a small pot. Should I put a little more soil in the top of the pot or repot? Should I fertilize? Your advice is welcome and certainly appreciated. Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: Go ahead and repot. Most potting soil has some trace fertilizer elements added when it is mixed together, so I would hold off on fertilizing until you see some new growth.

Q: I purchased a tulip plant in a large vase with water covering the roots. It has flowered beautifully. What can I do to maintain this plant? Do I need to trim the stems? Should I keep it watered? Can I plant the tulips in soil? How can I create my own? What is their lifespan? (e-mail reference)

A: I have never heard of a tulip plant with water covering the roots. Do you mean tulip bulbs that flower in the spring? If so, then the bulb should have the water removed. Since I am not clear as to what exactly it is you are talking about, I cannot answer the other questions for you.

Q: I have some questions about our very large mock orange. It is 6 feet tall. How and when do I prune this monster? Am I going to have to sacrifice the blossoms for a year if I prune? How do I go about propagating the plant and when should I do it? I tried a method I found online last year involving a greenhouse-type effect indoors, but a spongy, white mold started growing. I hope to plant the seedlings in a spot that gets morning sun. Is this a bad idea? Many thanks. (e-mail reference)

A: Extensive pruning now will eliminate flowering this spring. Semihardwood cuttings are difficult for homeowners to attempt because they simply do not have the right conditions to do it successfully. It is easier to get some results by collecting the seeds. You might consider dividing this monster during pruning and planting that division somewhere else. That usually results in fairly good success. I have seen plenty of mock orange shrubs successfully growing and blooming that only get morning sun.

Q: We bought a house with a Bartlett pear tree in our backyard. The tree produced a handful of large pears the first season. The tree was not cared for by the previous owner, so I trimmed the tree. The tree was loaded with pears last summer. However, the pears never ripened. The pears started dropping off the tree while they were still green. Could you give us any advice or suggestions to help us? Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: Heavy fruit bearing every year as you describe could lead the tree to shed the fruit. If the tree doesn't have sufficient energy to maintain the crop it is bearing, it simply drops the fruit. It happens with apples as well. You can keep this from happening by selectively removing some of the blossoms as they start to drop their petals. This is known as fruit thinning. As long as the fruit isn't infested with larvae, which also could cause the fruit to drop, this should take care of the problem.

Q: Help! My ficus tree froze. How can I save the poor thing? It was healthy and green, with abundant leaves, when I moved it to a covered porch for fresh air and sun during some uncommon 80-degree spring weather. I was away from home and couldn't rescue it when freezing temperatures hit. My thought is to prune it back to the braided trunk and hope it survives. What do you suggest, other than tossing it out? (e-mail reference)

A: Wait to see if new growth begins in four or more weeks. If new growth does begin, then prune out anything that isn't showing new growth.

Q: I have a long time family fern, but I'm unsure of the type. After many moves, it died down to one section of healthy fronds. Now it has many rootlike vines growing out of the soil. Should I plant these under the soil to make new sections grow? Any help would be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Because you weren't specific with me, I cannot give you a good answer. Instead, I'm directing you to a Web site ( that answers all kinds of fern questions.

Q: I live in California. I have a tree with three varieties of cherries on it. All three have two ruby red nubs at the base of each leaf. Ants really like the nubs. Are they part of the tree or is there something else going on? Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: Some of both. From your description, these probably are leaf petiole galls that are secreting honeydew that the ants are harvesting. They could be aphids or scale insects doing the honeydew secreting. I would get what they are identified by someone locally so that you can take corrective action if the problem is aphids or scale insects or not worry about it if what you have are galls.

Q: I have an old Japanese cherry tree. It's doing great, but the bark has split open to about the size of a pencil eraser. The split is about 5 feet long. Do you recommend that I put something in the crack or leave it alone? Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: Leave it alone for now. This fall, wrap the trunk of the tree up to the lowest branches with a tree wrap paper or plastic sleeves. Both can be purchased from local garden outlets. What you have is called frost crack or is sometimes called sunscald. This problem typically shows up on the south or southwest side of thin-barked trees. The tree will work to heal itself, so adding anything to the wound only would delay the healing process or create even greater problems.

Q: The past couple of years I have noticed that the bark on my maple tree (crimson king) has turned green. This tree is planted near a main highway. Could the salt that is used on the road cause this discoloration? (e-mail reference)

A: If the discoloration is on the north side of the tree, it could be algae or moss, which is not harmful to the tree. If the tree is healthy, I wouldn't worry about it. If you want your concerns settled, I suggest making contact with an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. Be sure to check credentials before allowing any work to proceed on the tree. To find someone in your area, go to and click on "find a tree care service" at the top right of the page.

Q: I need help with fox weed in my lawn. I can't find any products other than Roundup, which leaves dead grass. I have asked at many chemical places, but they have no other suggestions. Please help! (Adams, N.D.)

A: I believe the weed you are referencing is green or yellow foxtail. These are annuals that are best controlled by using pre-emergent herbicides. Some success on seedlings less than two weeks old has been reported by the USDA using typical vinegar purchased from stores, which is 5 percent acetic acid. Standard herbicides that are used include Dacthal, Balan or Pendimathaline. Try to thicken your lawn with timely fertilization and mowing to keep weeds from germinating.

Q: I came across your Web site and I'm hoping you can help. I purchased a giant gerbera daisy that was absolutely beautiful. It had green, healthy leaves and a big, perky, pink flower. I have the plant in a pot on my porch. It is shaded in the morning, but I think it's getting some afternoon sun (haven't really been here in the afternoon to closely observe it). Today I came home to find that all the leaves look droopy. The flower has drooped as well. Any advice you can give me is greatly appreciated. I don't know much about growing flowers, but I love this plant and I don't want it to die! (e-mail reference)

A: My experience with gerbera daisy is that they make nice potted plants in dappled shade, but do poorly in direct sunlight, unless pampered beyond what most people are willing to do. The plant is probably root-bound. If there is any life left, repot with pasteurized potting soil and water on a consistent basis.

Q: I have three new ficus trees that are outside in 30-inch planters. They were transplanted after they were delivered. They have been doing very well since they arrived two months ago. I have been watering them once a week 20 minutes with a slope-drip hose. The temperature has been between 70 and 80 degrees. All was going well up until this week. The temperature has been in the 90s for the past two days. Some leaves dropped yesterday. I watered, but more leaves dropped today. The nursery said to water them two to three times a day, so I really doused them today. They said the water isn't getting to the roots, but I am concerned about overwatering. These plants were expensive and I feel like I am getting mixed messages on watering instructions. I need your advice. (e-mail reference)

A: Stick your fingers into the soil, but not at the edge of the planter, to see if the roots are getting wet. Sometimes the water flows along the side of the planter and out the bottom without soaking the roots completely. Try plugging the holes when you water and keep them plugged for 30 minutes after you've given the container a good soaking. The tree probably will recover because they are pretty tough, but ficus doesn't appreciate the sudden shift in temperatures.

Q: I just received a spathiphyllum lily that came with a beta fish. I would like to keep the plant alive, so my fish will have a home. However, the leaves on the plant seem weak and some are turning a dark brown. Is this plant supposed to be in soil? I hope you can help me regenerate my poor plant back to life. My poor fish doesn't have a home right now! (Manitoba, Canada)

A: Get the plant out of the water and into some potting soil. This is a marketing gimmick to get people to purchase something unique, with both the plant and the fish dying!

Q: I love reading your column because it offers tons of useful information that anyone can understand. I have a lawn that I'm thinking about redoing. It's being taken over by weeds and the grass that is growing isn't very pretty or lush. It's very thin and looks like tough, green thread (ugly) and feels course. I would like to overseed the lawn with new seed. Any ideas on what seed varieties I should use? My lawn is sunny, with only a few shaded areas where nothing is growing except some weeds. What about Canada blue mixed with red fescue? Should I do this now or in the fall? Also, I have read that the soil in our area is on the acidic side. I read that adding lime to the soil should help. Can I add the same sweet barn lime that I buy for the horse barn or is there a better type? The lime for the barn comes in small granules, not a powder. Thank You. (Valley City, N.D.)

A: Thank you for your nice comments about the column. I'm glad you find it useful! The grass seed you want is a Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue and perennial ryegrass mix. This will grow in acid or alkaline soil. Don't add lime without having the soil tested. Some acidity or alkalinity is normal and plants can grow on either side. It is just when there are extremes at either end that a problem arises.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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