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

By Ron C. Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: We have 16 Norway spruce trees lining our driveway. Some, but not all, are dying from the top down. The same problem is happening to other spruce tress on our street and area. All the dying trees seem to be really old, big Norway spruce. One is completely dead, so we will have it removed. We will be using a tree removal service. Should I have them, while they are here, cut off the dead tops of the affected trees? Can the trees be treated systemically or sprayed? I had planned to buy 10 more Norway spruce trees this spring to replace gaps where trees must have been removed years ago. I will be spending more than $2,000 for these trees, but I do not want to waste my money if the trees will get infected with whatever is killing the trees. If I treat my trees, will it be all in vain since other trees in the area have the same problem? Should our state or county be notified? Is there another spruce or pine I could plant that would be similar in shape and size to the Norway, but would not be susceptible to the same infestation? Thank you for your attention to my long-winded question. (e-mail reference)

A: You need to have an accurate diagnosis of what is killing your spruce trees. While you are having the dead tree removed, have the arborist cut the dead top out and save some live material. In other words, have a sample that shows where the dead or dying needles begin. You need to make contact with a local International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. Go to Follow the instructions to find a local certified arborist. Everyone has differing skills, so be sure the person you select is certified, has good diagnostic skills or knows someone who does and can advise you accordingly.

Q: I know someone who has an apricot tree, but does not have enough space for another. A second party has a good-producing apricot tree. Does it make sense for the person with the lack of space to graft a branch from the good-producing tree for pollination purposes? (e-mail reference)

A: Yes, grafting a branch from one tree to the other may make a big difference in fruit set. Keep in mind that some trees come into bloom earlier than others, so while the graft may be compatible, the blooming might be out of sequence for pollination. However, it would be worth a try, as well as fun.

Q: Would it adversely affect my trees (apple, maples and ash) to prune them at this time or should I wait until March? (Erskine, Minn.)

A: Pruning at this time will not hurt the trees.

Q: I have a question about my indoor orange tree. We purchased the tree from a local grocery store. It looked very healthy and had lots of leaves. We were very happy with the tree, but then the leaves started to fall off. Upon closer examination, I noticed it had little, reddish bugs on it. I misted the tree with diluted dish soap to kill the little beasts, but it didn’t work, even after several attempts. I then purchased a new pot and dirt and did a major transplant. I broke up the dirt that was attached to the roots and shook off what was left. However, all the leaves fell off within a day or so! Now it looks as though it has new leaf buds. Is this a common problem with this kind of plant? How do we keep the tree healthy and happy? Does it require any type of fertilizer or pruning? Does it need direct sunlight? (e-mail reference)

A: You did the right thing when you repotted and added fresh soil. Don't overwater or fertilize to excess. When in doubt, use less fertilizer, not more. Here are two sites with information on how to take care of houseplants: and

Q: I'm devastated and sad that my crown of thorns has died after having it for seven years. It bloomed and sprouted small branches, but then the branches and the mother stem died. I think I overwatered it because of my worries that it wasn't getting enough. I still have the roots. What do you think I should do? (e-mail reference)

A: Being a succulent, this plant does not require much water, especially during the winter months. Then again, the plant may have entered into a winter resting (dormancy) mode. If that is the case, check the stems to see if there is any green, cambial tissue beneath the bark. If there is, then the plant likely will releaf for you sometime later this winter or early spring. Make sure it has plenty of light, allow the top inch of soil to dry before watering and make sure it is in a free-draining container. If you had the plant for seven years, it must be quite large, so it may need pruning. Right now, I would make sure that you have it in the right location and when you think it needs water, wait at least another day before watering. Plants can recover easier from too little water than too much.

Q: I received some hollyhock seeds from a friend. Do they have to go through a wintering stage before they germinate or can I plant them and transplant in the spring? (e-mail reference)

A: They can be planted whenever you choose. No special treatment is needed.

Q: Hello father! Do you have any recommendations for a beautiful, fairly low-maintenance flower or plant that would make a nice addition to a small apartment? The apartment receives a moderate amount of light, but has very little windowsill space. I inherited a beautiful flower vase that I would like to use. Any thoughts? Please let me know! Love, Lee Smith (e-mail reference)

A: Hi, Lee! I'll be darned, a houseplant question from my son in Boston! If it is a flower vase with no drainage holes, you will have a problem. The soil eventually will sour from anaerobic conditions and end up killing the plant. If you can use the vase as a pot holder with a plant in it, then there are plenty of plants to consider. Because of the low-light situation you are in, flowering plants would be a poor long-term investment. With foliage plants, you would have a better chance of success if you added some fluorescent light or a plant light that you could set on a timer to run for 12 hours per day. Here is a short list of some of the toughest houseplants that even will thrive on benign neglect: corn plant (dracena); Chinese evergreen (aglaonema); piggyback plant (tolmiea); dumbcane (dieffenbachia); snake plant, which also is known as mother-in-law’s tongue (sansevieria); and spider plant (chlorophytum), which is best used as a hanging basket plant in the window. All of these will survive and, in fact, do quite well in subdued light, as long as they are not overwatered. That is the biggest killer of houseplants. Your local florist should have some of these common and durable plants. Love, Dad.

Q: I have some Asiatic lily seeds that I collected from pods last summer. If I sowed them now, would they would germinate and grow? (Fargo, N.D.)

A: Asiatic lilies include species of L. tigrinum, L. cernuum, L. davidii, L. maximowiczii, L. macultum, L. hollandicum, L amabile, L. pumilum, L. concolor and L. bulbiferum. Epigeal trumpet lily species are L. luecanthum, L. regale, L. sargentiae, L sulphureum, L. osthornii and L. henryi. Many interdivisional hybrids also fall into the epigeal category. Epigeal lilies germinate under moist, warm conditions (approximately 70 degrees) in one stage, which takes about 14 days. One stage means that the plant sends up a leaf right away. The term epigeal (or epigeous) means that during germination, the hypocotyl elongates and raises the cotyledons above the ground to participate in photosynthesis. In other words, sow the seeds in a moist, sterile media at room temperature and wait for results. The seeds that are viable will germinate.

Q: My grandmother gave me some of her beautiful houseplants because she was having greater difficulty taking care of them. She claimed the secret of her success was adding spent coffee grounds to the plants three or four times a year. She worked the grounds into the upper parts of the soil. While I love my grandmother, I think this is a little weird. I have never heard of doing this. Can you advise? (e-mail reference)

A: Coffee grounds have been one of the staples of the organic gardener's compost pile for a long time. I dump my cold coffee on some of the houseplants in our office complex, but I don’t see a response one way or the other. Most sources of organic matter, such as coffee grounds, do contain some trace levels of nutrients that a plant can use. Research shows that coffee grounds can have widely varying effects on plants. Some of the effects are beneficial and some toxic. Fresh grounds (cooled and just hours old) may cause a nitrogen tie-up until soil microbes can break down the structure of the grounds somewhat. This is a subject that could drag on in answering, but let me end by saying that what your grandmother did probably had some beneficial effects on her particular selection of houseplants. She might have been a light coffee drinker and had the native wisdom to not overdo her applications. The minor acidifying effect of mixing the grounds into the soil may have helped make some of the metallic nutrients, such as iron, more available for use by the plants. You don't need to use coffee grounds to be successful. I assure you there are plenty of good commercial products and books that can guide you to taking good care of the plants. Go to my site at for information on houseplant culture.

Q: I have used Epsom salts on my garden tomatoes every year to produce beautiful plants and plenty of tomatoes. My relatives in Connecticut have tried the same thing, but it doesn’t work. They see little or no difference in growth or fruit production. Can you tell me why? They swear they are following my recommendations. (Fargo, N.D.)

A: There is quite a leap in environmental conditions and soil from Fargo to Connecticut! Epsom salts is nothing more than magnesium sulfate. Both elements, magnesium and sulfur, are used by all plants for growth. Fargo soil is typically alkaline, while New England soil, I would bet, is acidic. You probably are experiencing the luck of the lot. Your soil is deficient in either or both of these elements. Your relative in Connecticut probably has enough of both, so using Epsom salts won’t have an effect. Both of you should have your soil tested at your land-grant university. NDSU for you and at the University of Connecticut for your relative. That way, both of you can make intelligent decisions about what it is you need to add to the soil to produce your best crop of whatever it is you want to grow.

Q: I need help or some suggestions on what to plant. We have about 80 feet of ground. Last year we planted a row of amur maples that we got from our Soil Conservation District. The maples were more in tree form than shrub. We also would like to plant a row of something behind them to help hide a bad grove of old trees. I don't want huge trees. I was thinking cotoneaster, but the gal at the office in Forman said I can't do that if I have any apple trees in my yard. Aren’t they more disease-resistant now? The apple trees are quite a distance from this row of trees. Any help or suggestions from you would be greatly appreciated. I live near Milnor. (e-mail reference)

A: Apples and cotoneaster are in the same family (rose). In spite of the distance, unless it is in miles, the trees would be prone to passing disease organisms back and forth. This could obliterate one or the other, if not both, or force you to do a lot of spraying. Did you ask about common lilacs? They get about 15 to 18 feet tall and spread almost as much. If they are not to your liking, how about planting nannyberry viburnums? They have attractive flowers, foliage and edible fruit for wildlife. They also are good, tough, dependable plants.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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