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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: Why is it that whatever kind of hollyhocks my friends and I buy, they always seem to end up being drab, pink flowers after a few years? I know it has to do with pollinating, but why always drab pink? Are the hollyhocks you buy pollinated under controlled conditions? (e-mail reference)

A: No idea what the problem is. All I can guess is that you purchased hybrids that are biennials. That means the hollyhock flowers, then goes to seed and comes back with a different color.

Q: We have found insect larvae inside some of our chokecherries. They are orange-red in color. What are they and how do we get rid of them? If you would like us to send one, let me know. (Jamestown, N.D.)

A: You don't need to go to the trouble of sending me a specimen because your accurate description tells it all. Your problem is chokecherry midge larvae. Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do except pick off the infested fruit, as well pick up the fruit that drops to the ground, and destroy it. At this time, there are no effective chemicals that will control this pest. Sanitation is the only route open.

Q: I have a blizzard mock-orange, Russian almond, Miss Canada and vilosa lilacs and a Theresa Bugnet rose shrub. How long does it take for them to flower? I have seen two flowers on the Miss Canada lilac and one on the vilosa. Should I be fertilizing? (e-mail reference)

A: You sound like my wife with your questions about flowering. Just hang in there. They will or should get around to producing flowers for you. Flowering is a reproductive process, but a plant has to be at a certain level of maturity and have sufficient carbohydrates in storage to produce flowers. I am willing to predict that when the third or fourth year rolls around, you will get flowers in abundance! My wife was almost ready to rip out the Miss Canada lilac because it didn't flower. However, this year it bloomed beautifully, which satisfied her need to have lilacs in flower on our property!

Q: I have read your Web site for gardening tips and general knowledge. It's been a garden saver. We have a patch of raspberries that are several years old. They are delicious and wonderful. However, the plants keep migrating into the yard. Could this be happening because the soil isn't right for them in the patch? If so, what could or should we use? My husband uses Miracle-Gro at times. How do we train them to grow in the direction we want? (Rapid City, S.D.)

A: Raspberries will wander due to their rhizomatious nature, not anything your husband is doing. The only thing you can do is dig out the plants you don't want and dispose of them or replant them in areas where the raspberries are fading or dying out. When I had a small raspberry farm, it was taken care of by cultivating between the rows on a regular basis.

Q: My azalea and other shrubs need cutting back. What time of year is best? I don't want to kill any of them. (e-mail reference)

A: Generally, azaleas and most other flowering shrubs can be selectively pruned right after flowering. Don't wait too long to do it or you will be wiping out some of next year's flowers. Always cut back to a lateral branch or leaf bud and don't leave any stubs.

Q: I have a green ash tree. For the last three years, the tree has leafed out, but the leaves are getting smaller and smaller each year. I planted three of these trees at the same time, but have cut down the other two because they exhibited the same symptoms. I have found some tiny flies on the leaves in the past and sprayed with Tempo. In any case, is this what happens if I have green ash wilt? I have several other ash trees in the yard that seem to be doing fine. (e-mail reference)

A: The small leaves are an indication that something probably is wrong with the root system. It could be root rot, a vascular disease, flooded or compacted soil, or planted too deeply. I'm sorry that I can't tell you for sure what the cause is, but I would recommend not planting ash trees in the same location again.

Q: I have a question about autumn blaze maples. The leaves seem to be turning red after being transplanted about a month ago. I'm not sure if it is transplant shock or from too much or too little water. I have heavy clay/sandy soil that the landscaper said should be fine for maples. I think they were planted properly. I have been watering them for the past two weeks with a root feeder. Before that, I was using a hose at the surface and not fertilizing. How can I tell if they are getting enough or not enough water? The landscaper said the problem could be oxygen deprivation after transplanting. The landscaper is the one who recommended using the root feeder and said the maple should recover. (e-mail reference)

A: The red coloration probably is confined to new, emerging growth, which will turn the normal green color for this species. As for watering, the tendency is to miss the roots using a root feeder unless you were shown just how deep to push the probe into the soil. With a few inches of mulch around the roots, it shouldn't need that much water because the mulch acts a water conserver. Stick your hand below the mulch. If the surface of the soil feels moist, then you don't need to water. When it comes to watering, always wait an extra day.

Q: I planted a corkscrew willow in the front yard four years ago. It has grown and looks beautiful. This spring, the Bermuda grass under it died. Does the tree put off anything that might cause this? (e-mail reference)

A: To my knowledge it doesn't. In fact, very few things kill Bermuda grass that easily.

Q: I have three apple trees. Last year was the first time they produced apples, but only a few. There are many more this year. Today I noticed the leaves on a branch of one of the trees have turned brown. This is the third branch to do so in the last few weeks. The rest of the tree looks great and the other two trees are fine. Is this something to be concerned about? (e-mail reference)

A: I certainly would be looking for borer activity or girdling canker. If the branch has a crooked end on it, the problem could be fireblight, but it doesn't sound like it from your description.

Q: I have two nice hydrangea bushes that have lots of flowers. I would like to cut some of the flowers to enjoy inside. If I cut them to put in vases, will they grow back? What is the proper way to do this? Do I cut them near the head or down at the stem? (e-mail reference)

A: Make a slanting cut down the stem and immediately immerse them in water. They will grow back.

Q: I have a collection of potted petunias. About a week ago, I added Miracle-Gro spikes to the soil. Since then, the flowers look wilted and the new blooms don't fully open. Is it the spikes or something else? (e-mail reference)

A: I don't have a way of separating out what the problem is based on what you have told me. Dig up a plant to see if the roots have rotted or are injured because of the spikes. Generally, fertilizer spikes are a poor investment, so I don't recommend them.

Q: I talked with you several years ago about woodpecker damage to our oak tree. We are having woodpecker problems again. A small woodpecker has peeled most of the bark off the top third to half of the tree. Last time it recovered, but this time the top third did not leaf out and there are dead branches in other places. We have friends who experienced the same thing with oak and silver maple trees. What should we do now? Should we cut the dead part out and hope another shoot takes over or is there another remedy? Is this a common problem or a strange occurrence? (Hillsboro, N.D.)

A: As you are finding out, woodpeckers can cause serious problems. If possible, I would suggest contacting an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist in your area to do some cleanup pruning for you and possibly get something on the tree that will discourage the woodpecker from using your tree as a calling card!

Q: I found you on the Web while doing research on squash plants. All signs point to the squash not being pollinated. We have clusters of flowers on our zucchini and yellow squash. They are beautiful, lush flowers, but all they do is wither and die. I thought some animal or insect was eating them, but the few times I've put impenetrable fencing around the plants, the problem still persists. I've been reading a lot about the shortage of bees this year, but this has been happening for seven years. All of the other vegetables in our garden bear fruit. We are completely organic and our soil tested fine. We are budding, but practicing permaculturists. If the issue is the shortage of bees, is there a way to manually pollinate these flowers? How can I tell the male from the female? When does the flower open? Is it early in the morning or late at night? I can never seem to catch them when they are in full bloom. (e-mail reference)

A: The female flower has an ovary, with distinct swelling, behind the blossom. The male flower does not. I don't know if there is a particular cycle to the opening of the flowers, but I would check during first light in the morning. Manual pollinating of the female flowers is done when bees and other pollinating insects are missing. Tomatoes and other vegetables have a stigma and pistil, so they set their fruit easily.

Q: My sister lives on the edge of Fargo. She has a problem with Spike, which is the name my niece gave to her little friend. Spike is a striped gopher. We tried traps last fall, but it sprung the trap with out losing a hair. This year we used a radio signal device that was supposed to disperse the little varmints, along with squirrels, rabbits and even deer. We discovered it did work well for squirrels, except when they walked behind the unit. However, the gopher crawled too close to the ground to activate the alarm. We have since tried battery-pack devices that are buried in the ground. The device sends out a beep every 15 seconds. I have not been home for about a week, so am not sure that this is the same rascal, but we now have a new runway in the flower bed. What is your suggestion, other then bringing in Elmer Fudd? (e-mail reference)

A: Just like Bugs Bunny, the rascal will be tempted by food. Try live trapping with some nuts or other tasty morsels. It usually works. Once caged, you can deliver the beast to the wilds, where it can be challenged to forage for nondomesticated food.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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