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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I read with interest your column about Brandon arborvitae. Except for its height, it seems like an ideal planting for my situation. The north side of my property is exposed to the full brunt of north winter winds. I would like to remove the old Chinese elms that are planted next to the street and replace them with something that will stop the wind. The problem is that this strip is under a power line, so I only have enough depth for one row of trees. I thought pyramidal arborvitae would be a good choice, but it gets too tall. Techny may work if its conical shape fills in enough to provide the windbreak I am seeking. Is Brandon or any other planting a good choice for this situation? I haven't gotten much help from the power company. (e-mail reference)

A: Brandon should be a good choice because its height can be controlled easily. The planting I saw was more than 30 years old and allowed to grow under natural conditions. In other words, no special treatment was given this planting. From what I saw, I can't think of any other species that could be planted in a single row that would make as good a windbreak.

Q: I love the information you provide because it is so helpful. Calla lilies have taken over a part of my garden. I've tried to dig them out, tilling the soil and using Roundup, but nothing seems to work. (e-mail reference)

A: I’ve never had a question on this before, so all I can suggest is to get a young, strong high school football player or wrestler to come out and grub them out for a price.

Q: I have a brown thumb and cannot grow a flowering plant, so I planted sod next to my home's foundation. However, I am concerned about water harming the foundation. Should I remove the sod to prevent any damage to the foundation? I am concerned that cracks in the foundation will cause termites to infest the house. (San Antonio, Texas)

A: Basically, it is not a good idea to sod right up to the foundation wall because grass does grow well in that type of situation. As for termites, I don't think they need an excuse to infest a dwelling. I would suggest contacting a local termite or pest control company to get that information.

Q: I’ve been plagued with pheasants the last two years. They’ve torn and ripped up my vine plants. The pheasants also eat the fruit off the surviving vines. To combat this onslaught, I covered the fruit with plastic shopping bags, which was partially successful. However, the fruit grows out of the bags. Covering the fruit also makes the fruit more susceptible to disease problems. These pesky pheasants are hens, so they cannot be shot during hunting season. Is there anything that you’re aware of that will protect my produce? (e-mail reference)

A: Some possibilities include using chicken wire, fox urine or helium-filled scare balloons. Some type of pyrotechnic explosive device that is timed to go off at certain intervals also may work. Perhaps some column readers may have better ideas based on direct experience with this type of problem.

Q: I have a goldfish plant that I kept on my porch this summer. It bloomed beautifully and now is doing the same inside. I have the plant in a south window and have been watering it once a week. I read on your Web site that misting is good. I noticed a few leaves yellowing. Should I water more? Should I mist the plant once a week? Should I move the plant? (South Carolina)

A: Water the plant less going into the winter months and move it away from direct sunlight. Bright, indirect light is good. Mist the foliage only, but not with hard water as your central heating system comes more into use during cold periods you may have in your part of the country. Foliage turning yellow usually is an indication of overwatering. Keep the soil barely damp during the winter months.

Q: I have a fern that has been in the family for years, but I'm unsure of the type. It used to be a large plant, but has died off during many moves. I've tried replanting it when it was down to two fronds. After my last replanting, one section started growing again. Now it has many new fronds in one section and what looks like roots growing out of the soil. Should I replant these roots in the soil? Thanks for any help. (e-mail reference)

A: Without knowing the type of fern it is, it is impossible to give you accurate information. I'm going to bet that it is a sword fern of the Dallas or Boston cultivar. I would lean more toward the Dallas cultivar because that cultivar is more tolerant of indoor dry air and heat. In either case, the fern can be propagated through division or by spores, so go ahead and do your propagating.

Q: We planted a long row of green giant arborvitae on the south side of our home to help screen our view of a road. The arborvitaes get full sun and have excellent drainage. We would like them to grow as quickly as possible. What can we do to encourage the most significant amount of growth? Thank you! (e-mail reference)

A: Keep the arborvitae from becoming water stressed. This does not mean keeping the roots soaking wet. Allow the soil to dry, but remain damp before watering again. You might want to give them a shot of Miracle-Gro fertilizer or something similar next spring as new growth begins. That’s about all you need to do. Fertilizing more than that probably is a waste of time and money. Do not spray the arborvitae with any antidesiccants during the winter.

Q: I enjoy reading your Web site. We had four oak trees removed because of borer or carpenter ant infestations. We do have three trees that we think are healthy, so we are trying to save the trees. We were told that we need to fertilize, but we don’t know what type of fertilizer oak trees need. (e-mail reference)

A: Who determined the need to fertilize? Trees seldom need fertilization. The need to fertilize is best determined by doing a soil test and leaf tissue analysis. The need to fertilize also is based on the tree species. I would suggest getting in touch with an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist who should be able to respond to your concerns. While fertilizing trees during fall will not hurt the trees, there is the chance for leaching to take place. Fertilizing is more effective in the early spring as growth begins to surge. Most important is to find out why your trees are such a center of attention by destructive insects.

Q: I brought my spider plant in for the winter. It did amazingly well on my front porch and now has more babies than my pet rabbits. Can I cut off the babies and stick them in water? If yes, do I need to use any special water? The heater in my house is broken and it is going to be awhile before I can get it fixed. How cold is too cold for a spider plant? (e-mail reference)

A: You are better off getting the baby spider plants rooted in potting soil while they are still attached to the mother plant. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees for a significant time, you might see some problems after a couple of weeks.

Q: I have a flower bed that has six large crown of thorns. The plants look great, but everything else I plant near it dies. Are the crown of thorns sucking all the moisture from the ground and killing the other plants? (e-mail reference)

A: This sounds like the suppression of growth of one plant species by another due to the release of toxic substances from the crown of thorn plants. This is documented with black walnut trees, but not much else. Strong observational evidence points in this direction.

Q: I have shelterbelt plantings on my farm that includes rocky mountain juniper. The junipers are planted quite close to some Juneberries, crabapples and other apple trees. I did not know when I planted the junipers about the symbiotic relationship among junipers and fruit trees with respect to cedar-apple rust. Does the proximity of these trees mean that I will never or seldom get fruit on these trees? (e-mail reference)

A: The presence of junipers among plantings of fruit trees and Juneberries doesn't necessarily mean the trees will be fruitless or will succumb to cedar-apple rust. There are plenty of landscape situations where both exist with no disease whatsoever.

Q: I have discovered tiny flies on my Christmas cactus. I would like to know how to get rid of them as soon as possible because I will be leaving on a trip for several weeks. (e-mail reference)

A: The only suggestion I can make is to find some insecticidal soap to spray on the plant. You will have to repeat the process because new offspring are born quickly. You also might want to get some sticky tapes that you can place around the plant. The sticky tapes will attract and hold the flies until they die of dehydration.

Q: We have a plant that I think it is some kind of palm. It was doing real well for about a year, but now some of the leaves are turning yellow and there is white, powder-looking stuff on the leaves. How do we treat the problem? Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: The white powdery stuff might be powdery mildew. You can get fungicidal soap at local nurseries to apply to the plant that will help control this disease. In the meantime, I suggest that you try to improve the environmental conditions the plant is in by increasing air circulation, providing more light and avoiding overwatering.

Q: I am writing about my silver maple tree. It is shedding a lot of leaves and the bark is split. My husband is wondering if it is dead and needs to be removed. (e-mail reference)

A: Bark peeling is normal for some silver maple trees, unless there are borers or bark beetles under the peeling bark. I would suggest that you contact someone who is a tree specialist to give you an accurate diagnosis.

Q: I have two willow trees that nearly died a few years ago. The trees are rebounding, but they have several trunks near the base of the tree that are trying to grow upward at the same time. They look more like willow bushes than trees. Is there a way to cut most of the trunks, but leaving the straightest trunk in hopes of helping the tree flourish into a tree rather than a bush? (e-mail reference)

A: You may be able to get this to work. In the past, I have done the same thing with success. I would suggest that you try to locate some Sucker Stopper RTU and apply it after you cut the unwanted stems out.

Q: I was hoping to gain some insight from you about my yard. We live in Connecticut. I have begun to research using a row of arborvitaes in lieu of putting up a fence. Like others who have written, a 6- to 8-foot fence will do little to give us the privacy we desire because the neighbor’s house easily would look over such a fence. The backyard property line is dotted with taller shade trees that I would like to keep, but have a row of arborvitaes mingle with the trees to provide the fence we desire. Partial sun during the day is the best this row would get. Any thoughts about the viability of using arborvitaes? Is there a type of arborvitae that would do better in partial sun than others, but still grow to give us privacy? What would be the best time in Connecticut to plant arborvitae? (e-mail reference)

A: Under the circumstances you describe, I don't recommend using arborvitae to solve your problem. Try Canadian hemlock instead. The hemlock will tolerate the partial shade you describe much better than the arborvitae. Hemlock will get to the size you want and usually are economical to purchase. Also, Canadian hemlock grows relatively fast.

Q: I received a cyclamen plant as a funeral plant in my brother’s passing. I noticed that all the stems are wilting. What could be causing this problem? The soil is moist and does not need watering. (e-mail reference)

A: The plant is attempting to enter dormancy, so let it do so by backing off on the watering. If possible, keep the pot in a cool place and allow the soil to dry. It may be placed outdoors during the summer in a location where rainfall won't reach it and out of direct sunlight. Once all the leaves have dried, a process that could take up to two months, the tuber may be repotted into a container that is an inch larger in diameter than the old pot. This usually is necessary every two years. Use a packaged, peaty soil mixture. The top half of the tuber should protrude above the soil line for adequate drainage and avoiding tuber rot. Do not water it because watering could trigger new growth prematurely. Try also to keep the plant in a location where there is good air circulation.

Q: My mom and I used to pick wild chokecherries to make chokecherry jelly and syrup. When is the best time to harvest wild chokecherries? Can wild chokecherries be purchased for growing? We used to take drives with the hope of finding accessible locations. I really would like to do this each year. My mom has passed, so I really miss this tradition. Everyone loved the jelly we gave out as gifts each holiday season. I would appreciate any information you could provide. Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: It is too late to harvest any for this year. I have no idea where you could make any purchases locally. What I would suggest is to try to find out where the local farmers market sets up shop every spring. Visit with some of the producers to see if they have any chokecherry trees in their shelterbelt plantings that they either harvest or if you would be able to go out and harvest some yourself. Generally, the later in the year you can wait for harvesting, the better the sugar content will be in the fruit. Many folks will wait until the first frost, but that is not necessary in most cases. Sometimes Mother Nature plays a nasty trick and hits us with a very hard first frost that can render the crop unusable. In a nutshell, the later the better, but don’t wait too long. If the birds beat you to the harvest, you know you waited too long.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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