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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I have about 100 small blue spruce trees that I was going to put in the trash. The trees were left from a fundraising event. Can I keep them alive indoors during the winter? The tube on the bottom is still moist. (e-mail reference)

A: Not unless you believe in miracles. The trees would not survive indoors through the winter. These are outdoor plants that go through cyclical periods. You would have a better chance setting them outdoors and allowing everything to freeze solid under the snow and planting them as soon as possible after everything thaws. Another option is to pack the trees in damp sphagnum moss and keep them in the crisper of the refrigerator. That would or should keep them dormant and allow you to plant them outdoors next spring. This probably would be the better option because you will get a higher percentage of survival.

Q: I received my first spider plant a few years ago. I now have 47 plants and 13 babies. I’ve found that 80 percent of my plants start their babies when the roots filled or almost filled the pot. In order to optimize the down time from getting a baby to having a baby make a baby (grandchild), I use a technique I call "bottling." To do this, cut the top quarter off a plastic bottle so that the edges are not concave. Fill the bottle with water to the brim and place the baby in the water to where the roots extend down to about the height of the fronds. In about a week, remove the water from the bottle. Start placing orchid or potting soil so the base of the plant will be at approximately the top of the bottle and the roots will be straight into the soil. The plant will grow quickly. Water it two or three times a week. I’ve even tried to drown them in the bottles. It’s possible, but not likely. In about two weeks, you will be able to see through the bottle to see that the roots are filling the bottle. After that, you should have a baby very soon (somewhere between three to 15 days). The advantages of bottling are that it’s cheap and easy. Using this super easy and incredibly inexpensive system, I've never lost a plant. The only issues I've had have been with the high chemical levels in my rural water. The most common issues I have with my plants are frostbite on the tips (drafty old house), the tips turning brown from large amounts of chemicals in the water, forgetting to water a plant that I've hidden in some obscure room or leaving a plant in water for more than about three weeks, which causes root rot. I’d also like to give you some information that I've found specifically about the problems with both fronds and roots and a kind of emergency care guide that I've made. Please feel free to alter and abuse this information in any way you need to share it with others and improve upon it. (e-mail reference)

A: Wow, you definitely have found a very successful way to propagate spider plants! Thanks for all of the information. I don't know what will be edited out to fit into the column, but some semblance of what you have told me should show up in a week or so. I'm always open to good tips from experienced green thumbs! Q: I have a croton plant that is shedding some of the smaller, new leaves and emitting a very foul odor. I've had this plant for two to three years. Any information will be much appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Bad news! I have no idea why it would be doing that from the information you provided. Usually these plants fall into the "crowbar tough" category based on my experiences. If the bad odor persists, change the potting soil to see if that improves things or put the plant somewhere so it can be admired from a distance, but won't foul the air!

Q: I received a fittonia (green and white) houseplant as a gift, but don't know how to take care of it. Can you give some information about watering, light, temperature and fertilization? (e-mail reference)

A: These beautiful plants are allergic to dry, indoor, winter air, so they usually are planted in terrariums or placed in such a manner that they can be kept continually moist. Never allow the soil to dry, but be sure the drainage is good. If you can, cluster them with other houseplants you may have to maximize the benefits of moisture release from the foliage through transpiration. Fittonia does well in moderate, indirect light or under typical fluorescent lighting commonly found in offices. I have used these plants, along with coleus, to build confidence in students enrolled in the beginning plant propagation class. Stem tip cuttings will develop roots in as little as two to three weeks.

Q: I stumbled upon your Web site while searching for information on the Norway spruce trees I planted in late April. I watered the trees on a regular basis for two to three months after planting. Then I neglected them for a month or so due to work-related travel. I resumed watering in September and continued until fall. The trees looked pretty good going into the winter. I did notice that some needles fell to the ground, but assumed that was normal. At the time, it didn't seem alarming. During the past week, we've had severe winter weather here in central Connecticut. The temperature fell well below freezing overnight. I'm still seeing some needles on the snow. When I move my hands through the branches, a couple of needles do fall on the ground. The trees don't seem to be turning brown. The trees were soaked with water before the freezes because we had a lot of rainy weather. Should I be worried? (e-mail reference)

A: Norway spruce is borderline hardy in North Dakota and western Minnesota. Norway spruce is common in the landscape about 50 miles east of North Dakota. Our winters eclipse anything New England can get as far as severe temperatures go. Your trees, based on what you have told me, should be OK. The only way you will know if they are going to make it is to wait until spring growth arrives. If it doesn't, you know for sure they are dead. If new growth appears, find something else to worry about. Two common mistakes that cause the death of freshly planted trees are overwatering and planting the trees too deeply. Needle drop in the fall is common and to be expected, as is continued light needle drop through the winter months. I have Ponderosa pines in my backyard that continually drop needles, with the heaviest shedding in the fall.

Q: I just searched your Web site and thought I would fire my own question off to you. I purchased a small, ornamental spruce tree. I'm sorry, I do not know what type of spruce it is, but it was too lovely to resist. Can you advise me about post-Christmas care? When should it go outside? Should I put it outside or leave it inside until spring? I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is the land of rain, more rain and forests! Thank you! (e-mail reference)

A: In Vancouver, unless you live on a mountaintop, you can place the tree outdoors when you are finished using it as a Christmas decoration. Unless I am mistaken, you folks don't have anything approaching a winter like we do. As long as the temperatures don't drop down to the subzero range, the tree should be OK. Try to keep it as cool as possible during the tree’s stay indoors to keep it in a dormant state before moving it outdoors.

Q: My parents are going to be landscaping a new yard this year. What have you heard about no-mow lawns for our area here in north-central South Dakota? What specific varieties are recommended? This lawn will be in town and surrounded by beautiful bluegrass lawns, so it needs to look attractive during the growing season. However, my parents are looking to do less work and watering, so they're willing to try something new. Thank you. I always learn something from your column. (e-mail reference)

A: Those types of lawns exist only in someone's dreams. A lawn that doesn’t need mowing is a wish as stable as a snowflake over a hot fire. In trials that I ran years ago on the NDSU campus, the so-called no-mow lawns were a big disappointment. The quality just wasn't there and the grass lacked the vigor needed for an attractive lawn. I have found success and am enjoying navigator creeping red fescue as a lawn grass. It is vigorous in growth, requires about half the fertilizer and water that a bluegrass lawn would need and seems to have a suppressing effect on weeds. This, or any readily available cultivar of creeping red fescue, should be a good choice for your parents.

Q: I have a few Christmas cactus plants that are blooming. Should I pull the dying blooms or wait until they fall off naturally? (e-mail reference)

A: Let them stay on and fall off naturally. Pulling them off now may cause damage to the plant.

Q: When is the best time of year or best temperature to repot a Christmas cactus? (e-mail reference)

A: Repotting can be carried out early in the summer just before you set the plant outdoors. Being a rainforest native, these plants will thrive in warm temperatures during the summer and cooler temperatures in winter (as low as 50 degrees). At this time of year, it is best to go a little longer between watering cycles.

Q: I bought an orange tree from a store at the airport three years ago. It was in a little bag when I bought it, but now is in a 15-gallon pot. I live in Connecticut and put the tree on the deck from the middle of April to October. The tree leaves are real green, with no pests! Where and how far back do I need to prune the branches to prevent the tree from growing too big, but not kill it? When do I prune? Should I put gravel on the bottom of the pot for drainage? The tree has not blossomed. Do you know when I can expect that to happen? Is there a way to accelerate the process? I am purchasing a dwarf navel orange tree that already has blossomed. How do these trees interact? What time of year do orange trees blossom? Do I need to manually fertilize the blossoms to get fruit? Thanks for your help! (e-mail reference)

A: Orange trees should be pruned very little to not at all. Pruning stimulates juvenility (thorniness in some species), which keeps them from flowering and fruiting. I can't tell you when a good time to prune is because I never have done it. While living where orange trees are common (Texas and Arizona), I never had a reason to find out about pruning them. I'm sure that once they start bearing fruit, if the branches begin interfering with safety or traffic or the weight from the fruit becomes too heavy to support, some pruning must be practiced. Never put gravel in the bottom of a pot. Many a thesis has been written about this subject. Suffice it to say that you would complicate the movement of water through the root zone and set up conditions for root rot to begin. As for blooming, the tree will do it when it is ready. Typically, they will bloom in early summer, but will vary because of the different varieties available. Location also plays a role in when blooming takes place. The only thing I can tell you to do is be patient and don't overfertilize. A naval orange tree in bloom at this time of year is out of sequence with what happens in orchard settings. Since your original tree is not in bloom, no interaction will take place. Should the two trees ever get in sync with blooming times, their pollen may or may not be receptive to the female (pistillate part of the flower) organ, so fertilization may not take place. If they should be receptive to each other, then the resulting progeny would be interesting to observe, assuming they are different species of orange. Since orange trees produce perfect flowers (staminate and pistillate parts) they are self-fertilizing. Being indoors keeps them from the assistance of pollinating insects and branch movement to help disperse the pollen onto the stigma. Tap the branches a couple of times a day to get the pollen to set on the stigma for better fruit production.

Q: I live on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. This past Sunday, the temperature was in the upper 20s. I failed to bring my sheffleria in the house during that time. It is alive, but most of the leaves are wilted and brown. What is my best alternative to save it? I would really like to save the plant if possible. It never has branched out, so maybe now is the time to help it branch out rather than grow straight up. (e-mail reference)

A: There is a slight chance the crown of the plant is alive and may produce adventitious buds that would develop into a new stalk or stalks. Cut back anything that is mushy or limp from the frost damage to prevent secondary problems from settling in. Keep it indoors with the soil evenly moist, but not saturated. If anything is going to emerge, it should do so in about six weeks or so. If there is no response by then, chances are good the plant is history!

Q: I had a wild cherry tree removed. It was healthy, but messy and very large. I want to replace it with a redbud. Can I plant the redbud in the hole where the cherry tree was? I had the stump from the cheery tree ground down. (e-mail reference)

A: It shouldn’t be a problem as long as most of the sawdust from the stump grinding was removed. I have done this a few times with no obvious or even subtle problems. So plant your redbud and enjoy!

Q: I have a dieffenbachia that I have sitting on a covered porch. It has been with me for three years. I have noticed some sticky, bubbly stuff on the stems. I also have some yellowing and curling of the lower leaves. I thought it was bugs, so I got some root bug killer, but that hasn’t stopped the problem. Do you know what the problem is? (e-mail reference)

A: This sounds like a spittle bug problem. A systemic insecticide should take care of it. A topical insecticide also will work, but usually is not as effective. It is difficult to say what else it may be. I would suggest that you contact the county agent where you live to see if he or she can contact a horticulturist or plant diagnostician to give you more accurate assistance.

Q: My wife's friend gave me a plant with hope that I could save it! I believe it's a schefflera. I'm not sure where she bought it, but I think the first thing I'll do is bust it out of its pot. It seems glued into the rocks. Funny the thing is still living! I'm guessing it's probably root bound and may have a little root rot. I’m sending along a picture of the plant. (e-mail reference)

A: That is one tough-looking plant! It is a schefflera, but I'm not sure of the repotting at this stage. Repotting would come under a major operation classification. The effort may succeed physically, but the patient may die anyway. As for the wilting foliage, it could be due to a canker on the stem that is causing the wilt. Try cutting back to healthy tissue to see if you can get some new growth stimulated. The gnarled trunk is interesting and a conversation piece. If the plant shows any life at all, I would leave it as is even though it is improperly planted. Treat it as a Charlie Brown type of houseplant! It is a plant to be both pitied and admired.

Q: I received an amaryllis kit from a friend. When I opened it up, I saw that the bulb had sprouted. There is a stem and a flower head on it, but the plant is totally white. There is no mold or bugs that I see. I’m guessing that because it didn’t get any sunlight, it couldn't make chlorophyll. Can I cut off the stem and flower head and then plant it and let it sprout a new stem and flower head? (e-mail reference)

A: If you do that, there is no chance that you will get any flower show at all. I would suggest keeping the bulb in a bright interior light setting to see if chlorophyll reforms in the foliage. If it doesn't, you at least tried before dumping the kit.

Q: My mother lives near the southern border of South Dakota. She has what the nursery called a winter-hardy magnolia. I don't know the scientific name, but the people at the nursery called it a bush. However, it only has one main stem. It blooms in the spring before it leafs out. It had many buds this spring, but we had a late frost that kept it from blooming. It leafed out later and dropped its leaves this fall. Now a lot of buds are popping out even though the temperature is below freezing every night. What is going on with this crazy plant? Will this damage the vigor of the bush? Will it bloom this spring? Is there anything we should be doing? (Wagner, S.D.)

A: I don't know what is going on with this crazy plant. I have no advice to offer to prevent this from happening. If the buds are getting hit with the same temperatures we are, I wouldn't hold out for anything showing up this spring. Since you see this taking place at this time of year, it is a pretty good indication that the plant is not in a hardy state and probably will be killed off by this winter's weather.

Q: Thanks for having a forum to give us advice about plants. I have a very common strain of dieffenbachia. It has dark leaves and lighter streaks near the center of the leaf. My plant did very well this growing season and I'm proud of it. However, at every node my plant wants to branch. The branches never become new leaves, they just make fingerlike projections that split the stem of each leaf. At some of the worst splits, the leaves are starting to yellow. What could be causing this and how can I stop it? (e-mail reference)

A: You are welcome and thank you! I never have heard of this happening to a dieffenbachia, so all I can give you are some possible guesses. The atmosphere could be too dry or a pesticide drifted in from somewhere. There could be a contaminant of some kind in the potting soil or water that you are using. I really don't know. All I can suggest is to reflect on what small thing might have changed in the location or care of the plant prior to this problem showing up.

Q: I hope you can help diagnose the problem with my jade plants. Some plants have begun to develop bumps in the leaves. The bumps seem to be internal. The bumps are on the top and bottom of the leaves. Some leaves have just a couple of bumps, while others have up to a dozen. There is no discoloration in the leaf's skin. I have sliced some of the leaves open. The inside of the leaf appears consistent in color and texture where the bumps are. Other than the bumps, the plants are healthy. (e-mail reference)

A: This might be what is known as edema, which you refer to as bumps. Edema is brought on by a water and light imbalance. Some of the plant cells absorb more water than they can transpire, which results in the swelling. This is due, in part, to high humidity that cuts down on the transpiration of the plant. Increasing the light level and providing a gentle breeze around the plant with a small fan often will lead to the reduction or elimination of any further edema development. Backing off somewhat on watering also would be needed to achieve complete success.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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