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

By Ron C. Smith, Horticulturist NDSU Extension Service

Q: I gave an indoor amaryllis blooming kit to my friend. It is growing fast, but when the buds open up, she says a horrible smell comes out of them. She had to remove the plant from her house. Are these plants supposed to have an odor or any kind of smell? I was told it would not have an odor when I purchased it. (e-mail reference)

A: Most amaryllis flowers do not have a scent. Some of the new hybrids are bred with a scent that some people find offensive, which your friend obviously did. Since the scented amaryllis flowers are a relatively new marketing ploy, it is something that most retailers are not up to speed on. Eventually, they will begin marking on the plant the type of scent it will produce.

Q: We planted a row of lilac bushes that were looking good until they were attacked by pocket gophers. The gophers made a maze of mounds and began chewing their way through the roots just beneath the soil surface. The lilacs fell over and died because the roots were severed. We now have pocket gophers moving into our strawberry bed. What can we do to control these destructive pests? (Henry, S.D.)

A: I strongly suggest you hire a professional exterminator to do the job. One or two events are something the homeowner can control, but with the invasion you describe, you need professional help. Traps would be inadequate in this instance.

Q: Is this a good time to spray Roundup on buckthorn? Will spraying affect nonselected shrubs and trees? Can Roundup penetrate the root system through the bark? (Wahpeton, N.D.)

A: Roundup works on actively growing green plant material. Being dormant at this time of year, the application would be wasted. While it is actively absorbed through green tissue, it is a good idea to avoid, as much as possible, the surrounding woody (or herbaceous) nontarget material. This can be done using a piece of cardboard, piece of plastic, box or anything else that may put a physical barrier between the spray nozzle and the nontarget plants. To get the best lowdown on buckthorn control, go to the Minnesota Sustainable Communities Network Web site at to download some of its suggestions.

Q: I bought an amaryllis kit and followed all the instructions. I planted the bulb the second week of November. The plant has large fronds that look like a small palm tree, but no stalk with a flower has sprouted. The pot is ceramic and has no drainage. I've kept it moist, but refrained from using fertilizer because the instructions didn't call for it. The plant is inside and facing a brightly lit window. The house temperature is 65 to 70 degrees. I've grown these before with success using a kit. What's wrong this time? (e-mail reference)

A: The flower bud was never set or developed, so you get the vegetative growth your plant is exhibiting. There is nothing you can do about it now, unless you want to exhibit extreme patience to see if you can get it to bloom around this time next year. If it were up to me, I would dump the bulb and look for another one or wait and take a chance again next year. For cultural information on the amaryllis, go to

Q: I have a few red intuition roses left from Christmas. There are new sprouts coming up on the stems, so I would like to know how to graft them and start new plants. (e-mail reference)

A: Sorry, what you are asking is illegal. This is a licensed, patented plant cultivar that is protected from propagation.

Q: I have two questions I hope you can answer. I purchased two amaryllis bulbs in early December. Both bloomed beautifully. After the blooms died, the foliage lost its color, bent over and broke. I cut off the foliage, leaving about 6 inches. After reading your Web site, I think I did the wrong thing! Any suggestions on what to do? Also, I received a large pot of amaryllis bulbs as a gift in late December. Each bulb has grown differently. Some only have foliage ranging from a foot tall to just above the dirt. One plant has two blooms and another has no foliage. Should I split these bulbs into different pots? When should I do the splitting? (e-mail reference)

A: There isn't much that can be done for the amaryllis that lost most of its foliage. I doubt that it ever will rebloom for you. If you are an extremely patient and loving person toward plants, you just might succeed in a couple of years. Removing the food-making structures of the bulb does a pretty good job of putting the final nail in the coffin. As for the other bulbs, I would suggest allowing them to run the course of whatever is going on with them. After that, allow them to dry down this summer. Begin watering again in early fall and see if they bloom for you or at least improve somewhat. There is a lot of variation in these beautiful bulbs, so it is hard to make accurate predictions for the future. For information on amaryllis bulb culture, go to

Q: I just received three indoor ivy plants. The directions say to keep the soil moist. Can you give any information on how often I should water the plants? (e-mail reference)

A: Overhead and use tepid or room-temperature water. Allow the soil to dry down on the top inch, then water completely.

Q: I have several plants in my house. I also now have these annoying little gnat-type pests flying around the house. I wonder if they come from one of my plants. These gnats resemble a fruit fly. I thought maybe it was from our Christmas tree, which we tossed out a week ago. I've checked the plants, but haven't noticed any of these bugs near the soil. Can one of my plants be the source of these gnats? Can you offer any advice? (e-mail reference)

A: Generally, these gnats or fruit flies will die during the winter months after the central heating system dries the air down to 10 percent or 15 percent. I would suggest getting some yellow sticky traps to collect these pests, which gradually will take them out of circulation and keep them from continually reproducing.

Q: I have had a ficus for about a year. When I got it, the leaves were full and it was growing well. About five months ago, I noticed the center of the tree was losing its leaves. It almost seems like the center of the tree died. I noticed later a large number of dead centipedes on the top of the soil. I figured they may have eaten the roots to the center of the tree. Can I revive the tree so that it will grow in the center? It does have new growth on the tips. I have pruned it once. I also give it plant food once a month or so. What should I do? (e-mail reference)

A: If you have dead centipedes on top of the soil, then it wasn't them who caused the problem. They are animal feeders, not plant eaters. From what you have told me, I cannot make an accurate evaluation. Generally, ficus responds the way you describe from overwatering, underwatering, poorly draining container or soil, and drafts of cold or hot air from a forced-air furnace. If the plant is not putting on active growth, you shouldn't be fertilizing it. I would suggest knocking the plant out of the container. If the container is not a free-draining type, replace the pot and use fresh potting soil. It might be easier to dump the plant and begin again.

Q: I planted a lovely bare-root silver birch specimen back in April. I had small brown leaves and some new branch growth throughout the summer. Now I see little evidence of buds and the tree has become brittle when birds land on the branches. Is my tree dead or do I leave it alone? (e-mail reference)

A: If the tree branches break when birds land on them, they are dead. I would suspect that the entire tree isn't in good shape. Since it is so young, I wouldn't waste my patience on it. Try again this spring. But first, find out why the tree died. It may have been planted too deeply, overwatered or has extensive root or borer damage.

Q: I read the letter in Hortiscope today about squirrels, bulbs and thievery. My husband and I have planted thousands of bulbs in the last four years and have lost very few, if any, to squirrels.

What we do is drill the hole with a bulb auger attached to a drill, drop in the bulb (pointy side up) and then sprinkle in a mixture of half granulated garlic and half cayenne pepper. Water well, if necessary. If there has been past squirrel invasions, sprinkle the garlic and cayenne mixture over the planted area. Use granulated garlic so it doesn't cake or create a dust storm. I'm assuming this works because the garlic masks the scent of the bulb. If the squirrels remain curious, the red pepper gets them. (Fargo, N.D.)

A: Your note will go in the column and should be of help to those suffering from squirrel thievery. Thanks a million!

Q: Someone wanted to know where they could buy winter onion sets. That's what we called them on the farm where I was growing up. I have a seed catalog that sells them. They are called Egyptian Top-Sets or "walking onions." The price is 10 sets for $4.75, 20 sets for $7.95 and 30 sets for $11.49. The address is R.H.S. Catalog Fulfillment Center, 334 W. Stroud St., Randolph, WI 53956-1274. (Jamestown, N.D.)

A: Thanks for the information. It will be passed along!

Q: I am going to have to replace an old hedge. Do you have any ideas for a hedge that deer would leave alone? The soil is fairly sandy. Gurney's advertises an amur river privet hedge in its catalog. Do you know anything about it? A few years ago, I believe it was your column that mentioned using Vantage to keep grass from growing in a hedge. I have been unable to find this product. Where is it available? (Edinburg, N.D.)

A: Try this Web site at The site claims to have it for sale. What you want to look for is a product with a label of grass killer or something similar. The active ingredient should be sethoxydim. Amur river privet is great for hedging. With the warming of our environment, it may just make it in your part of the state. I would suggest trying some bare-root material from the most northern nursery you can find and plant it this spring. It is not expensive ($15 to $16 for bundles of 10). Plant them about a foot apart for a nice, dense hedge. It is rated as being hardy from zones 3 through 7.

Q: I have a hibiscus indoors for the winter. It is doing beautifully, except for being invaded by a small, white insect. The insects are on the underside of the leaves. They do fly, but are very tiny and don't look like flies. I read your response to another person about putting the plant outside in subzero temperature for 20 minutes. I did happen to put the plant outside for a while, but the temperature was in the 30s. Someone else told me to spray the leaves with soapy water. What do you suggest? Are they harmful? I have a baby in the house. (e-mail reference)

A: The material known as insecticidal soap is worth trying. It sounds like these might be whiteflies, which are difficult to control. You also can use yellow sticky traps available at local garden supply stores. The insect is attracted to the colored card, lands on it and is stuck there. If the weather forecast holds true, you might get the below-freezing temperatures you need to kill these pests, but without killing the plant. The plant probably will defoliate after the treatment, but will releaf again in a few weeks. Before you set the plant out in the cold, try the insecticidal soap/yellow sticky trap combo first to see if that gets rid of the problem.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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