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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I bought a hyacinth that was on sale, so it wasn’t as healthy as it should have been. However, I think my daughter has been overwatering it. It doesn't stand upright anymore and is wimpy looking. What can I do to save this plant? (e-mail reference)

A: Based on what you have told me, not much. The plant probably has developed some internal rot and won’t recover. Sorry!

Q: I have had a hoya plant for 27 years. It bloomed in the beginning, but it hasn’t in the last 15 years. Do you have any suggestions? (e-mail reference)

A: That is a long time for a plant not to bloom! I have answered many questions about hoya plants. This information is available at There should be some suggestions there to give you a hint of what you might consider trying to get it to bloom again.

Q: I've attached some pictures of my problem bushes. The bushes came with the house, so who knows how old they are (1950s home). We haven't done much with the bushes except enjoy them. They always look a little ragged, but I have not tried pruning them. Every year I find dead sections and cut them out. How do you prune bushes to make them healthier and fuller? A friend told me to clip anything that doesn't look like the other branches (the suckers). Some of the trunks (largest branches) have a black look to them. Could this be some kind of fungus? One of the bushes has strange, brown podlike things. As I recall, that bush bloomed early and I think there was a cold snap that year, so the flowers died and left the ugly pods. Are they seeds or just dead flowers from the cold snap? Can I plant the seeds? A few years ago the seeds didn’t fall off. Should I have cut them off? How long will the bushes live? We love them, but we have had some tough weather the last couple of years (drought). We are worried that they are going to continue deteriorating. Can we start planting some new bushes between the old bushes or will they die due to the lack of sun? Hope I'm not too bothersome with all the questions. (Boise, Idaho)

A: You've got a collection of some ancient relics! The brown pods are seed pods that may or may not have seeds in them. You can plant the seeds, but the success rate isn't anything to write home about. I could tell you to take a chain saw and cut everything to the ground just before spring growth begins. However, let me suggest that you begin a pruning cycle of removing one-third of all the old canes each year. This will help rejuvenate the plants by returning some youthful vigor to their growth and blooming. Established plants such yours can live almost forever. Lilacs and peonies are known to be around for decades after planting if the surrounding environment doesn't change too drastically.

Q: I just yanked two juniper bushes from my yard with a backhoe. Should I be concerned about the roots that are still in the ground? I would hate to see these bushes come back this summer. Should I dig them out, poison them or get what’s at the surface? Thanks in advance! (e-mail reference)

A: It has been my experience that junipers don't have a good recovery or regrowth surge from their roots. I suggest waiting to see if any activity shows up this spring. If it does, spot spray with Roundup.

Q: I am impressed by your responses to folks in cold climates (I formerly lived in Vermont). I need your advice. I want to plant a hedge of arborvitae in an area that gets full sun. I would use the plant to shade my house's southern exposure. We live in region 8. I will use bark mulch and provide drip irrigation. The native soil is alkaline caliche. From my reading, I am thinking that emerald or techney may best meet my size needs. However, what do you think about arborvitae’s tolerance to heat? Thanks! (Fountain Hills, Ariz.)

A: I used to live in Tucson, so I can assure you that arborvitae is not a good choice for what you want unless the climate has cooled considerably. The arborvitae eventually will succumb to the excessive heat. You would be better off selecting Medora or other forms of junipers for such a purpose. If you visit a reputable garden center in your location, you will find an ample selection of plants to fill your needs. You also can contact the Arizona Extension Service at to find the county agent in your area. An address, phone number, Web site and names will appear. The Arizona Extension Service has some excellent horticulturists who would be very willing to assist you.

Q: I was researching tulips and came across your Web site. I have the same question one of your readers had about purchasing tulip bulbs in a large, glass vase. Within a week of purchase, the tulips bloomed beautifully. However, now that they’ve opened, what can I do with the bulbs? Will I be successful in replanting the bulbs in dirt? The bulbs have roots in the water. You were unable to answer the reader’s question, but I’m thinking you may have researched it and found the answer since then. I would love to know what to do because my Bengal cat ate the flowers, so I would really like to plant what’s left on my patio. (La Jolla, Calif.)

A: When and where did this appear in California? My answer is the same. What you purchased was a novelty showing of the plant, so you are better off getting rid of them. As for growing tulips in the soil, that is where they belong. They should be planted in the fall. Tulips have the potential to last for many years in a garden setting when properly planted, protected from nibblers, such as bunnies or mice, and the foliage is allowed to remain showing until it yellows. Tulips need to be thinned out every three to five years to keep them vigorously blooming.

Q: My roommates and I bought a lovely little spruce tree for Christmas. We're planning to keep it healthy so when the weather gets warmer we can plant it in our dorm's courtyard. However, ever since we got back from spring break, we've noticed that it isn't doing very well. The tree has lost most of its needles and is brown at the very top. Only the bottom third of the tree is still fully green. We don't understand what we've done wrong. We water the tree every day and keep it by the window where it gets a lot of light and air. Is this something more serious? What should we do? (Boston, Mass.)

A: Your spruce is unhappy because it is not getting the shift in temperature it needs. These are temperate zone plants that require the cold of winter to place them in a dormant state. I'm afraid that at this stage it may be too late to save the tree from a fate of too much kindness on your part. However, you might try placing the tree outside on milder days to harden it off. If the temperature is not going to go below the mid-20s at night, you can leave it outside until spring. If you do move the plant indoors, do so only during a hard cold snap. After that, set the tree outside again. The whole objective is to get the plant on the normal biological cycles of Mother Nature. You probably overwatered the tree (common mistake) or kept it too warm. Both issues will contribute to the demise of the tree.

Q: I've had a recent deer smorgasbord take place in my yard in Otter Tail County. My Brandon arborvitaes were the featured entree. I fear I will need to replace them. I am considering using blue arrow junipers as the replacements. Do you feel this is a suitable deer-resistant replacement? I am looking for the columnar shape in the area where they are needed and would appreciate your opinion of the juniper versus another plant variety. (e-mail reference)

A: The Juniper should be more resistant to the munching deer, but I'm not going to guarantee anything when it comes to their eating habits. I would combine the planting with some kind of repellent, such as Liquid Fence, Plantskydd, Hinder or all three! Just don't give the deer a chance to get started because it seems it is more difficult to stop them once they get started!

Q: After removing a large overgrown pine tree a few years ago, I bought an ornamental flowering pear. I love the winter white blossoms. It has been growing fine, but part of the tree is ahead in its seasonal cycle. One side of the tree buds, blooms and drops its leaves before the other side. This has bothered me from the beginning because the tree was expensive. The landscape contractor I used is out of business. Was it originally grafted to have the multitrunk effect where the types of pears are similar, but not exact? If I cut off the distracting, early blooming part, can another tree be grafted into it? I can’t imagine there being room to plant another tree close enough to make it look right. (California)

A: What you are describing sometimes happens to trees that are planted too close to street lights. The side closest to the light has a disrupted photo period, compared with the rest of the tree. This has the effect of putting the tree out of sync, which is exactly what you said the tree is doing. Parts of the tree bud or go dormant at different times. I doubt that a different species of pear was used. Generally, three to four stems are crowded into a container as saplings. These stems more or less graft themselves together into the multi-stemmed clump that we Americans love. That's my take on it. I suggest that you contact the California Extension Service to find out if a horticulturist can pay you a visit to see what the problem is and offer better advice than I can give.

Q: I just moved from a cold and dark apartment to one that has tons of great light and is much warmer (radiator heat). My house plants and I are starting to thrive again. However, I do have some questions. A large ficus that lost a large portion of its leaves seems to want to come back. I can tell because the quality of green in the leaves is much more vibrant. I'm in Kentucky, so it's cold out. Is it OK to repot the plant? Should I let it acclimate to its new environment for a few more months? Also, where should I prune it back so that it gets new growth on the inner to midsection of the trunk? I read another post where you talked about scale insects. There seem to be some on another ficus I have. Should it be quarantined from the other plants? Finally, my stepmother occasionally puts her plants in a large tub of water. I guess the idea is to water the roots from the bottom to stimulate root growth. Is this a good idea? (e-mail reference)

A: Plants love sunlight the same as we do! I would suggest waiting until spring to repot. Then you can set the plants outdoors after the danger of frost is past. When pruning, cut back to a lateral branch or stem, but never leave a stub. Get rid of the scale on the ficus and keep it isolated from the other plants until the scales are gone. As for the practice your stepmother follows in watering plants in a tub, it is a good idea for all plants, except desert cacti!

Q: We purchased a crabapple tree for our preschool with thoughts of having a climbing tree for the children. I read that these were small, multitrunked trees, which sounds appealing from a climbing standpoint. Are the water sprouts/suckers the multitrunk component? We are less concerned with flower or fruit production. What do you suggest? (e-mail reference)

A: The multitrunk characteristic has to be there when you purchase the tree. The suckers/water sprouts you refer to would not develop to be strong enough to withstand the vigorous climbing by youngsters.

Q: I had a young tree that died from fire blight last year. I am going to pull it out this spring. If I plant another tree in the same place, will it be at risk of getting fire blight from the soil of the previous tree? I am looking at planting an ornament tree, such as autumn blaze pear or spring snow crab. Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Fire blight is a bacterial disease. The spores have the ability to move into the tiniest of openings or wounds. In susceptible species, it spreads quickly and kills tender, young tissue. If the dead tree is completely removed and everything cleaned up, the new plants will not be any more subject to succumbing to fire blight than if it was planted 30 feet away. Wind, rain splash, birds, humans and insects are the major sources that spread this disease. Check with the Extension agent in your county to determine if the species you are interested in are susceptible to fire blight.

Q: I just purchased a red sunset maple for my yard. It is starting to bud, but it has helicopter seeds growing all over. I was told that this particular tree doesn't have helicopter seeds. Is this correct? (e-mail reference)

A: What you have is a female clone, so there must be a male maple in the area somewhere. Usually, their seed bearing is light and the seeds are not annoyingly viable. In some years, there may be no seed production due to weather conditions preventing the spread of pollen.

Q: Last September, we bought 10 ficus trees to use as a hedge and had them planted by a professional landscaper. The trees were full of leaves and healthy when planted. Three of the trees lost all of their leaves shortly after being planted and their branches seem dead. The trunks of these trees are brown. How do I know if the three trees are dead or alive? Thanks for your help. (e-mail reference)

A: With your thumbnail, check for green tissue just under the bark. If the tissue is not green, then the branches are dead. I would call the firm that planted these trees and have them checked for viability. There should be some kind of material replacement guarantee.

Q: I have a white birch tree in my front yard that began dripping a watery substance (not syrupy or saplike) a few weeks ago. It is dripping from one spot, which is the middle of one of the branches. Should anything be done about this? Thank you! (Rockville, Md.)

A: Birch trees are bleeders at this time of year. Some of the others that do it are maples, elms and black walnuts. This sap flow will stop as the tree leafs out. The spot where it is dripping from could have been damaged by birds, hail or borers. If the branch appears to have a reduction in foliage density or size, then it could be from the bronze birch borer, which means the tree needs some attention. This would include removal of the branch back to the next lateral and the application of a systemic insecticide to keep any further invasions from taking place.

Q: I purchased an orange tree from Florida. The instructions said I should prune the top 2 inches after transplanting. Is that true? (e-mail reference)

A: That is untrue. Allow the plant to become established for a growing season before pruning it the way you want. It needs all of the leaves it can to produce a vigorous root system.

Q: My husband and I planted a silver maple a couple of years ago. I want to say that it was 2005. This spring, I'm noticing that the tree isn't growing in height much, but it's developing a lot of branches out of the ground. It's looking more like a bush than a tree at this point. Is this normal in its growth cycle or should I cut all the ground branches out except for the base trunk? I am not all that good at planting, so I'm not sure what I should be looking for. I expected a single trunk with multiple branches, but this one is growing medium to large branches right at the soil level and some smaller twiglike branches higher up.

A: Something is wrong here. The tree might have been grafted onto a different rootstock that is causing the suckering to take place. It also very likely is planted too deeply. If this was a seedling planting and not a cultivar, then the main trunk never got around to establishing dominance, so the result is this suckering you are witnessing.

Q: I came across your Web site on our first day of nice weather. I planted five Oriental lilies. However, I had no idea what to do with them when winter came. I cut back the blooms and left the bare shoots. I have no idea what to expect or what to do. I don't know if I should leave the shoots alone and hope that the flowers bloom again. Can you tell me how I should have cared for these beautiful flowers when winter came and what I should do now that the first days of spring are here? (e-mail reference)

A: I sense a note of optimism in your question, so you must be from North Dakota, Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan! If you happened to be in an area where the snow cover was good and remained, they will be all right. Keep in mind that Oriental lilies and Asiatic lilies are not the same. The Oriental lilies are tenderer than their Asiatic counterparts and require a little more forethought as far as protection goes. As far as what to do, wait to see what comes up as the weather warms up. If they are alive, it will be obvious in a few weeks. If not, it also will be obvious! As a sweeping generalization, I know I'll get some e-mails contradicting this. Oriental lilies are not as long-lived as the others, so replanting should be scheduled every few years.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-8161,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
Prairie Fare: Prairie Fare: De-stress with Gardening  (2019-05-23)  According to researchers, gardening can be beneficial for mental, physical and social health.  FULL STORY
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