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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 have several spider plants that had babies during the summer. The other day the mother plant fell off a shelf because of a cat. I picked up the plant and saw a bunch of yellowish to brown balls of varying sizes. I squeezed one and found out it was filled with liquid. I took the plant outside and took out the balls. After the sun hit the balls, they started to pop open. Inside was a white liquid. Can you tell me what these balls were? (e-mail reference)

A: Those balls were probably amorphous hydrogel crystals that had absorbed water. Container growers often use this material in the hope of being able to reduce watering frequency. Theoretically, this crystal-like material will absorb water and increase hundreds of times in size as it does. The crystals are supposed to release water to the plant. Research has been conducted that proves these things are a waste of money because the crystals do not release water. You didn't hurt the plant by doing what you did!

Q: I have a little problem going with my layered ficus. I have done my research and found out that my ficus is suffering from anthracnose. Someone told me that a product called Halt Systemic will cure the problem. I would like to know how effective the product is. The person at the nursery told me that it is excellent, but I only trust your word when it comes to plants. I bought the product and used it by spraying and watering it on the plant, but still I don't feel at peace. (e-mail reference)

A: As long as you followed label directions, Halt Systemic should control the further development of anthracnose. However, Halt Systemic will not cure the already afflicted foliage. It is important to spray any emerging growth, but do not exceed any more than four applications in a given year. This usually is not a highly toxic disease to woody plants if caught and controlled soon enough. Check the plant’s environment. Is it getting sufficient air circulation and light? Are you spraying the foliage? Generally, anthracnose develops under cool, moist or rainy conditions in the spring.

Q: I received a peace lily (very large one) at my father's funeral. When I brought it in, I noticed a lot of little, white bugs flying around it. There were definitely white egg spots on the top of many leaves. I tried spraying with an insecticide. Although I see fewer flying insects, the leaves are turning black (even the new ones). Moreover, the plant next to the lily is beginning to show brown and yellow spots on its leaves, too. Are these aphids or mealy bugs? There is no scale and the underside of the leaves is clear. Please let me know if this plant is too infected to remain in my sunroom. (e-mail reference)

A: I cannot tell from just correspondence. The plant may be reacting to the insecticide you applied or trying to go into dormancy. The peace lily sounds like it is infested with white flies, which is a difficult and annoying pest to control. If you could send me some photos, I might be in a better position to advise you with better accuracy. In the meantime, I'd put some distance between the two plants.

Q: I’ve had my Australian fern for more than 12 years, but it's getting too big. If I chop off about 4 feet, will the plant die? It is very healthy and is the pride of my garden. Is there a way to make it shorter without killing it? (San Francisco, Calif.)

A: Someone should have warned you of the eventual size this tree gets to be. I know next to nothing about the culture of this species, but would guess that cutting it back as you want would be lethal. I suggest getting in touch with a local horticulturist at one of the arboretums in your beautiful city.

Q: I have cedar trees on my property that are old and loaded with seeds. Is there a place that buys seeds or can I package and sell them myself? Are there restrictions? (e-mail reference)

A: I don’t know of a place that purchases seeds or if there are any restrictions on you selling the seeds. You might check with the Department of Agriculture to be sure there are no regulations prohibiting the sale of seeds across state lines.

Q: I have had my spider plant for almost six years. As usual, I put the plant outside for the summer. For some reason, spiders and caterpillars started to invade the plant. I have never had this problem before. I brought the plant inside thinking it might help, but the plant seems to be dying. I have cleaned out the bugs I see, but I think something burrowed into the roots. What can I do to save my plant that won't harm my children? (e-mail reference)

A: It could be a root-boring insect that is causing the problem. I would suggest trying to save any spiderettes that may be attached to the mother plant. Try to find some Bayer's Advanced Tree and Shrub Insect Control. Carefully follow the label directions. This is a systemic insecticide that will take care of any insect that burrowed into the plant.

Q: We are renting a rural home that has been a little neglected. There is an abundance of overgrown hollyhocks and iris plants. Should these plants be trimmed down? (Barnesville, Minn.)

A: It is a common practice and certainly doesn't hurt the plants.

Q: I have a very old jade plant that seems stressed. I noticed several weeks ago that it had stunted leaves; a black, sootlike covering on the tops of the leaves; spider webs on the underside of the leaves; and white, cottony things around some of the leaves and branches. I have tried insecticidal soap and washing the leaves, but would like to know if there is anything else I should be doing to save this plant. I don't want to infect my other plants. (e-mail reference)

A: It sounds like this poor plant has been hit with a triple whammy! Is it worth the effort to save it? Spider mites, sooty mold fungus and scale are a severe hammer to recover from. Often the treatment is as bad as the pestilence ravaging it. You've done about all you can. If you can, repot the plant with pasteurized soil in a clean or new (better) pot.

Q: I have Gerber daisy plants from this summer that are green, but still in pots. Some of the plants are producing flowers and others just green foliage. I think I read these come back in the summer. I brought them inside and keep them in a tub by lots of light and windows. Can I keep them alive through the winter or am I fooling myself? Do I have to do anything to them or just keep watering? (e-mail reference)

A: Give it a try. It all depends on what kind of touch you have with plants. Some folks are successful, others are not. Daisies are particular. The best plants I’ve seen were grown in a greenhouse culture. If you can come close to that in your home setting, you might succeed.

Q: I have a crimson king maple that we planted about five years ago. The tree has not grown much since then and seems to lose it leaves prematurely. I live in Michigan. Is there a fertilizer I could try? (e-mail reference)

A: Fertilizer probably would be a waste of money and time. The problem could be from improper planting. Planting too deeply is a common problem and slowly kills the tree. Your water table may have changed, the pH level may be too high or you may have soil compaction problems. You are better off to get the situation checked out locally by a qualified arborist, landscaper or forester.

Q: Hello, I've been reading your forum about planting plum pits just before winter sets in. My wife loves plums, so we want to start some from the pits. We live in Florida and don't get much frost, so I am wondering how I should start a tree from a pit. Do plum trees grow well in our climate? Thanks for any help you can give. (e-mail reference)

A: Thanks for making contact and your question. Sorry, plums would not do well at all in your state. You will have to be content to purchase them in the store for your wife. The cold period in Florida just isn't sufficient enough to get the plant through the needed annual cycles. However, you might see what local nurseries have to sell that you could use as a fruit tree (other than oranges) in your landscape.

Q: Can lead be taken up by garden plants (vegetables)? How about asphalt chips? (e-mail reference)

A: Lead in the soil is a problem. Here is a quote from Argonne Labs in Chicago. “A pattern of lead transfer from soil through the root to the stem and leaves was found. This pattern is a concern for urban garden plants in which the roots, stems, stalks or leaves are consumed. Fruiting vegetables had lead concentrations less than the limit of detection. Depending on the soil, lead concentration and specific plant, the lead contamination found in some leafy vegetables and herbs may exceed the body's daily excretion rate and contribute to the total body burden of lead, especially in children." In a nutshell, since the exact amount of lead in the soil isn’t known, I would not take any chances in growing anything edible due to the possibility of toxic levels in the plants. Asphalt would contain materials that would be harmful to the health of garden plants. I don't pretend to know what is in an asphalt preparation. To be on the safe side, I would say it is a bad idea to associate growing vegetables within any kind of asphalt medium.

Q: I have a dieffenbachia that is tall and top heavy. It doesn’t have leaves at the bottom and the stalks are large. I want to cut it down, but I’m worried that it won't sprout roots. Will the large stalks sprout roots if I put them in water after cutting? (e-mail reference)

A: Cut the stalks into 6-inch lengths. Lay them horizontally in damp, unmilled sphagnum moss that has been soaked in water and then wrung out by hand. Barely cover the stalks and place in an area with direct or strong indirect light. Keep the media moist, but not saturated. In about six to eight weeks, leaves should form at one end. The roots will form on the other end and grow down into the moss. When the roots get about 4 inches in length, remove the stalks from the moss and plant in potting soil. Keep the soil moist. The parent plant also should show new growth emerging from just below the area that was cut.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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