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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: About five years ago, three wild turkeys showed up at our ranch. We thought they were just passing through. Little did we know that those three turkeys were going to set up a home in the trees behind our house! Not only did they choose to live right next to us, they started planning their family, which has now grown to anywhere from 25 to 50 wild turkeys. Do you know what it is like to live with that many turkeys? W have hunters come in to decrease the population, but when turkey hunting is over and spring comes, they repopulate. I have not been able to keep a nice yard or garden. They eat everything. What they don't eat, they step on and destroy. The flower beds are picked clean before any bud blooms. They are not scared of us nor does the dog bother them. They just bite back at the dog, so he avoids them. I would avoid them too if I was the dog. They are messy, smelly and destructive birds. How do I get them to leave? I have tried music and loud noises, but that didn’t work. I also have tried tying sacks in the trees to move with the wind. Any ideas you may have would be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: At times in my life, I have lived with a lot of turkeys, but not the feathered kind! Wild turkey control is something I'm unprepared to tackle, so I did an extensive Internet search for ideas other than folks attempting to peddle devices that are guaranteed to work. I found wild turkey information from university Web sites in North Carolina, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Iowa. The Iowa publication is enclosed for your reference. All the Web sites say turkeys need space, food, water and shelter. Most sites give advice on how to increase all of those needs. Using reverse logic, if any or all of the basic needs are reduced or eliminated, plus the hunting you allow, you should win the battle! You may want to contact Stan Kohn at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department for some advice. His phone number is (701) 328-6339. I wish I could give you better answers to your problem, but I can't! This is the best I can do.

Q: I have my grandmother’s Christmas cactus. It blooms beautifully every year. I also have had great success in getting seed pods. When is a seed pod ready to be picked off and planted? I really enjoy this plant, so I would love to start one from seed. Can you help me please? (e-mail reference)

A: Not ever having done this and unable to find any valid references that address this specifically, my answer will be a best guess based on deductive reasoning from propagating through seed collected from other plant species. I suggest picking the seed pods off when they appear to be drying out. If you have many pods forming, try harvesting at different stages of maturation. Keep track of which ones provided you with the best germination percentage. The trick with most seed germination is to keep the seed medium from drying out or becoming too wet. I suggest sowing the seed in 2-inch or slightly larger pots on a sterile media that is premoistened. Sprinkle very lightly the same media over the seeds to barely cover them. Put a glass plate or plastic wrap over the top of the pots to keep the environment moist and humid. Check the pots frequently to be sure they are not drying out or mold is forming. The seedlings should emerge in a few weeks. At that time, you can safely move them to individual containers. Perhaps someone that reads this column will be able to give you more accurate advice than I can in this instance. If I hear from anyone, I'll gladly pass it on.

Q: We have a burr oak that we would like to trim. When would be the best time to do it? (Alberta, Canada)

A: The best time is early next spring just before bud break. Doing it now would not give the wound enough time to heal.

Q: I have three white lilacs that became infested with wasps last year. The wasps are large and have yellow and brown bodies. They chew all the bark off of a branch in a ring shape. Do you any idea what this pest is and what would work to save this year's new growth? (e-mail reference)

A: These sound like European hornets. I suggest that you don't mess with them. If you know where the nest is, contact a professional exterminator to do the job. They will damage the plant, but their activity won’t kill it.

Q: I live in dry Arizona heat. I have a ficus tree that has three trunks coming out of the ground. Last winter was especially bitter and burned the tree. Spring came and I pruned the tree by trimming off all the dead parts. However, only one trunk became green again. What happened? (e-mail reference)

A: Sorry, but dead is dead. You cannot will or make something that has been killed by winter frost come back to life. In other words, what happened went beyond a simple cold snap injury. The frost killed the cambial tissue in the two trunks that didn’t turn green. Be happy that one survived. This winter, monitor temperature predictions and attempt to protect the plant if you cannot bring it indoors.

Q: My white and silver birch trees have been ill for the past few years. The leaves turn yellow and have tiny black dots. Eventually, the leaves fall off. The dots don't rub off and I have found no signs of insects. These trees are at least 10 years old. After this problem appeared, I was told by someone at my local nursery that the trees were getting too much water. So, like an idiot, I cut back the water. Then I was told the trees were suffering from drought stress. We mulched and used Bayer as directed, but saw no improvement. We also tried adding an iron liquid, but there was no improvement. I've taken leaves to every nursery in this small town and sent some off to Bakersfield. After much debate among the professionals, I was told it's a fungus and there is nothing that can be done, so the trees are going to die. I know that this area is not conducive to birch trees because we are in a desert at 4,000 feet. Do you think there is any way to help these trees? (Tehachapi, Calif.)

A: To understand the needs of birch trees, study their natural ecosystem. Most come from wooded areas as subcanopy or primary canopy trees. The floor of the woods or forest is rich with decaying organic matter that keeps the roots cool and moist. Given those conditions in a landscape situation, birch trees should last for two to three decades or more. While forest floors cannot be replicated with any degree of ease in a landscape setting, one can do some things. Provide a large, mulched area planted with herbaceous perennials. That will help keep the roots cool and moist. Give the trees water when faced with extended periods of no or little rainfall. A good soaking once or twice a week during moisture stress periods will benefit the trees. It is that simple. Most people will do that the first year or two the tree is in the landscape, then gradually ignore it believing it can go on its own from there. However, that is not so because birches are shallow-rooted trees and need continuous care. Try spraying the trees with a fungicide as the buds are starting to break open. Check the label to be sure that it can be used on birch trees. Spray again 10 to 14 days later or as specified on the label. This action may or may not save your trees, but it is worth a try.

Q: My beautiful hibiscus withered and lost all its leaves in a 72 hour period. It was growing beautifully using a drip system (that was working fine). This occurred in August here in Arizona. It happened shortly after the monsoon season began, so the humidity was high. Could it have gone into a dormant state? (e-mail reference)

A: Could be, but only time will tell. If it has, it will likely leaf out in six or more weeks. Maintain normal soil moisture levels in the meantime.

Q: A few years ago, we planted rose bushes that were from my grandmother's garden. When in bloom, they are covered with pink, spicy smelling roses and the plants are tough. The yard has been neglected for a few years, so the bushes have spread and made suckers. They hardly bloomed this year. My daughter wants to prune and transplant them, so we would welcome suggestions on how to do it. What kind of setting should they have? We probably will have to prepare a new flower bed. The trees have taken over, so they are now growing in the shade. (e-mail reference)

A: These wild roses were everywhere in the old days and graced many a farmstead. Your daughter is to be commended for wanting to save and move them to a more favorable location. They are best moved in early spring, although they might make it with a fall move after a hard frost. They need as much sunshine as possible to produce maximum blooming. Given a little fertilizer and water, they should grow beautifully for you.

Q: I have a lake with a dam on one end. There are several cottonwood trees located within 50 feet of the dam. I am concerned that the roots could erode the dam and cause leakage from the lake. Do you think this could be a problem? Should I remove the cottonwoods? Are cottonwoods more likely to cause erosion near the dam than other types of trees? (e-mail reference)

A: The roots of any major shade tree could pose a potential problem. I would suggest that you install a root barrier to keep the roots from reaching the dam. It is a relatively easy operation. A landscape contractor or certified arborist comes in and cuts a trench between the trees and the dam, installs the barrier and you are done! Keep the trees if you can because it sounds like they add to the attractive setting you've created.

Q: We have a problem with borers in our green ash trees. I see frass at the base of the trees. This has happened in the past, but only on one or two trees. Eight to ten trees have the problem this time. In the past, I have used a product from Pointer Insecticide that has imidacloprid as the active ingredient. It is applied through holes drilled into the base of the tree. How concerned should I be about the borers? Is the product I mentioned effective? When is the best time to apply the product? I always find your column interesting and beneficial. (e-mail reference)

A: Bayer, as you may know, has a product out that contains the same active ingredient. The instructions say to pour the insecticide around the base of the tree. The tree then takes it up systemically. Although they claim that the product can be used anytime the ground is not frozen, I have to think it would be far more effective if applied during the surges of spring growth. With the current population of feeding borers, the damage already is done. You want to catch them next year before or just as they are starting their tunneling activity. Bayer claims the effectiveness is good for 12 months, which means that a spring application would be called for each year. In case you are not familiar with it, the Bayer product is called Bayer Advanced Tree and Shrub 12 Month Insect Control. Be prepared for a little sticker shock because it is pricey stuff, which may be prohibitive in your situation.

Q: I live in Roseville, California, which is near Sacramento. The 5-year-old corkscrew willow I have was growing well and full of leaves. I deep water it weekly, but normally only near the base of the tree (drip line). The tree has a 12-inch trunk. I hadn't raked the leaves in about a year, so it was quite messy underneath. I cleaned up a huge pile of dry leaves that had matted together to form a nice crust over the ground. A few days later, the tree started dropping leaves like crazy! Many of the leaves the tree is dropping are still green. There doesn't appear to be any powdery mildew or disease on them. In the meantime, I put out a soaker hose around the drip line and watered it slowly for about eight hours. Could the leaf drop be caused by me raking up all of the leaves underneath the tree and exposing some of the roots? What should I do? Should I keep watering? Should I avoid raking up the leaves? If the roots need some protection, can I add a small layer of soil to the top? (Roseville, Calif.)

A: I doubt that the simple act of raking up the leaves would cause the leaf drop you describe unless they were 2 feet thick and the roots had started migrating into their duff rather than growing into the soil below. What I don't understand is why a tree with a 12 inch trunk has such a limited drip line radius. The roots are obviously farther out than that or the tree would not be stable enough to stand up in the slightest wind storm. Is this a fact that you determined through explorative digging? These trees are usually pretty bullet proof and can take ample watering, so I would suggest continuing your watering practices, but moving it out beyond the drip line. As for the leaf raking, you should be able to remove them when the spirit moves you without any dire consequences to the tree.

Q: I live in California and what to plant Saint Augustine grass. When is the best time to plant? (e-mail reference)

A: If you live in a part of California that doesn’t get cold snaps, then anytime is OK. Otherwise, you want to plant coming into the warm part of the growing season.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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