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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I'm not sure where to begin. We had our lawn hydroseeded three years ago, but there are patches that haven't filled in. We decided to have those patches hydroseeded this summer. We tilled up the worst part, but the dirt was hard as a rock. The contractor also prepped a few areas by going over it with a rake. However, the ground was so hard that the rake didn't penetrate. It left a few drag marks and that was about it. We were told to water five times a day for three minutes. The reseeded areas looked dried out, so we added an additional watering and lengthened the watering time. Then our entire yard turned into a swamp. We had water sitting everywhere, but the new seeded areas still seemed dry and no grass was coming up after six weeks. Our tree in the front yard is almost dead. I'm assuming it’s from overwatering. We've now discovered that we probably have high sodium in our well. I was told that the sodium is killing the grass. I've started to water the newly seeded areas by hand so the rest of our lawn isn't so wet and stinky. It also appears that our lawn is being taken over by weeds. I'm assuming this is from the overwatering, but I’m not sure. Also, it looks like there is now a lot of yellowing in our pre-existing lawn. If our water has so much sodium in it, how was our lawn able to grow the first time we had it hydroseeded? We've also been told that we have a lot of clay in our soil. I don't know if we need to have new soil brought in. What should I do about all of the weeds? How often should we be watering our lawn? We used to water once in the evening and that was it. Everything is so messed up that we're not sure what to do. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: The first thing I would suggest doing is getting the water tested. If the sodium level is high, that is the problem, which I think it may be. Six weeks is a long time to wait for seedlings to emerge. The fact that weeds are taking over is an indication that you have been overwatering. The weeds can tolerate the salty conditions better than the grass. The next thing I would do when the water results came back is to get a seed that is better adapted to salty conditions, such as Fultz alkali grass. It’s not a beauty queen, but it will be decently functional. As for the weeds, get them sprayed if they are broadleaf types and mow the grassy types out. As for the pre-existing lawn, go back to the former schedule that seemed to work out for you.

Q: I have a couple of old silver maples that have borers. I had an arborist look at it, but he didn't seem worried about the borers. He suggested that they came from the soil, so I should install a gum ring to prevent the insects from climbing up the bark. What is your opinion? (e-mail reference)

A: You were given poor advice because adult borers are flying insects and should not be taken lightly. Get some Bayer Advanced Tree and Shrub Insecticide and apply according to the directions.

Q: I planted four hydrangea bushes that are driving me crazy. The stems are so long that they flop over and look very bad. What can I do about it? (e-mail reference)

A: Cut them back. It is done all the time.

Q: I planted numerous towering aspen trees for privacy three years ago. Some are doing extremely well and some I had to pull out. I planted some new trees last year alongside the older trees. The new trees had green leaves last year, but this year they are producing yellow leaves. Why would that be? (e-mail reference)

A: Sometimes the root systems on new plantings are not developed enough to efficiently take up the needed nutrients to produce full, green leaves. Although it is late for this season, I would suggest getting some chelated iron and apply it liberally around the drip line of the trees. This will work into the soil and be available for the roots to take up next spring when new growth begins. I don't think you have anything to be seriously concerned about.

Q: I have four jade plants that I really enjoy. However, I have cats that like to chew on the leaves, so I can't have them out in the living room. I keep them in my bedroom with the door closed. How can I keep my cats away from them? Please help. (e-mail reference)

A: Try catching the cats in the act and spray them with water with a little vinegar added. Do that enough times and most cats of average intelligence will learn that is not the action you want out of them. It takes about three times coupled with a stern voice of “no kitty” to get the message to sink in.

Q: I need to transplant my African violets. When should I do this? What is the best soil mixture and how deep do I set the crown? Do I fertilize them right away or wait? (e-mail reference)

A: Assuming they are not flowering, you can repot them anytime. The best soil mix is one high in organic matter content or a mixture called African Violet Potting Soil. Set the crown at the soil line. There is no need to fertilize at that time.

Q: My cucumber leaves were looking poorly, so I sprayed them with Bayer 3 in 1. It is an insecticide, fungicide and fertilizer that I have had good success with on my roses. My husband thought it might be a systemic instead of a topical. He was right. I called the number on the container and was told it would cause gastro intestinal difficulties, so it was recommended that we not eat the fruit. Have you had any experiences with this kind of error and is there a way to save this crop? (e-mail reference)

A: Forget about the crop this year because you don't want to eat anything with that kind of pesticide residue lurking inside the fruit!

Q: I planted two sunset maples about a week ago. The landscaper dug the holes the required width and depth and said I needed to put a water hose on trickle for 30 minutes a day near the base of the trees. I have water that has high calcium content and the dirt is mostly clay. I noticed that the soil is turning a brown/reddish color. I'm assuming it's because of the bright sun throughout the day, but the clay looks moist. Do I need to water longer? (e-mail reference)

A: You are watering more than enough. Watering for 30 minutes a day may be excessive in heavy clay, so I would suggest backing off to no more than three times a week with the watering schedule.

Q: I purchased an autumn blaze in early July and planted it the same day. It was in a container. What is the proper way to water the tree and get it ready for winter? I live on Ottertail lake and will be using lake water. (e-mail reference)

A: Keep the root ball moist, but not soggy until the leaves drop this fall. Quit watering after that. Wrap the trunk up to the first branches with something to protect the tender bark from gnawing by rabbits, voles or other pests. The wrap can be Kraft paper or plastic wrap.

Q: I have a problem with the apple tree in my front yard. I've noticed that some branches on top are not growing. Also, a large branch fell off unexpectedly. When I looked closely at the point where it broke off, I saw hundreds of earwigs. Are the earwigs killing the tree or is it from a disease? Any chance of saving the tree by killing the earwigs and cutting the bare branches? If not, can I replant in the same spot with something else? (e-mail reference)

A: Earwigs are feeders of decaying organic matter, so they come after the death of the tissue. If there is no visible evidence of root disease, you can plant in the same location. However, it would be better if you could plant somewhere else just to be on the safe side.

Q: Are there varieties of clematis that are less attractive to slugs and earwigs? I’m attempting to grow westerplatte and little duckling. The bugs eat the petals as soon as the flowers open. I’ve seen earwigs at night munching away and find many slugs near the plants. I have been trying to trap the earwigs and remove the slugs, but the plants are young and it’s a losing battle. I’m now trying an iron phosphate slug bait. Thanks for any suggestions you might have. (Toronto, Canada)

A: Carry on the battle. Remove any organic matter that may be attractive to these plant munchers. Too much bark or other organic mulch is home to these critters. Expose the site to more drying sunshine if possible. I don’t know of any clematis varieties that are less attractive to these characters.

Q: I have a question for you about a peach tree. I planted a seed, but never expected it to grow. However, I now have a tiny plant. What do I need to do to make sure the little guy makes it? I live in Ohio where it gets cold in the winter. (e-mail reference)

A: Take the little plant outdoors and put it in direct sunlight. Keep it watered. If the plant is hardy for your area, it will survive the winter and grow for you next year. The biggest challenge will be providing protection through the winter from gnawing rodents. Get some chicken wire and build a cover over the tree for protection. Assuming it makes it to spring, carefully knock the plant out of the pot (while it is still dormant) and plant where you want it to be permanently. In six to seven years, you might have some homegrown peaches!

Q: About 12 years ago, I planted five Canadian cherry trees to achieve a burgundy color in our landscape. The biggest problem seems to be our battle with suckers. My sister said that a nursery owner said to spray the suckers with Roundup. I did that last summer and got great results. However, this year I asked an employee of the same nursery if hitting the suckers with Roundup is still sanctioned. He said that Roundup eventually would kill the tree. What is your recommendation? I like the ease of Roundup, but don't want to lose the trees. If I use Sucker-Stopper after cutting the sucker growth, is there enough plant surface remaining to absorb the chemical? I always read your column in the Farm Forum and value your expertise. Thanks for the help. (e-mail reference)

A: Sucker-Stopper will do the trick, but not harm the tree. Although Roundup may end up killing the tree, it is something that would take years, if at all. It would at least weaken or stress the tree to the point where it may become vulnerable to other maladies lurking in the environment. Thanks for being a loyal reader of the column!

Q: I have a willow tree growing in my front yard. The tree takes up the entire front yard and is more than 30 years old. I've noticed a small amount of sawdust around the roots when I rake. I have not found any bugs. Is my tree in trouble? I love this tree and want to keep it if I can. (e-mail reference)

A: Sawdust is a good indication that the tree is being attacked by borers. Get a hold of an International Society of Arboretum certified arborist to check the tree. If caught early enough, borers can be controlled before they do extensive damage to the tree.

Q: About six weeks ago, I got a thunderchild flowering crab and planted it in my backyard. It appears to be declining because some of the leaves are turning yellow and others are drying out. Also, I have noticed a bunch of orange/brown spots on the branches. I had planted another crab near the same spot last year and it died in a similar way. Do you have any recommendations or suggestions? (e-mail reference)

A: Mistake number one was replanting in the same spot without figuring out what killed the first tree. It sounds like a combination of scorch and rust. The scorch could come from salts being too high in the soil, planted too deeply or overwatering. Rust fungus is spread by wind, rain, birds and insects from nearby trees.

Q: I have weeds in my lawn that get worse every year. I can't seem to find anything to kill it. I have tried Trimec and Roundup. Can you identify it and help me find something to kill it without killing the grass? (e-mail reference)

A: If nothing you have tried will kill this weed (wild violet), then I don't know what to tell you. I would stick with Trimec, but suggest waiting about three weeks before applying it again. Toward the end of August and the start of September, weeds are more vulnerable to herbicide treatment than in the earlier part of the summer because more of their photosynthetic energy is stored and translocated into the crowns, roots, and rhizomes than during aggressive vegetative growth.

Q: I have learned some valuable tips by reading your column. I have a problem with my petunias. Tiny black spots or little (possibly) eggs are deposited on the leaves. Are these black spots something I need to address? The area also is sticky. What action should I take? I have never had a lot of luck with plants, but since reading your column, I was doing great until this little problem has occurred. (e-mail reference)

A: These tiny black spots could be insect droppings. It also could be the start of a fungal or bacterial disease, but never continued. The stickiness could be due to the nectar at the base of the flower or from spider mite activity during a dry period. At this point in the summer, the crop you are dealing with and with the information provided, I suggest you do nothing right now. In 45 days or less, we might have a killing frost that would take care of most problems. I suggest a complete cleanup this fall. If possible, turn the soil over before winter arrives. When planting next year, select the healthiest stock and add sphagnum peat moss to your planting site. Thank you for the compliment about the column! I'm glad it is a help in your gardening efforts!

Q: My grapes are turning purple on my pergola and the robins have taken notice. Every year, my husband and I fight them off with wire, sprays or whatever we can find. You name it, we've tried it. We are so frustrated with the mess the birds are making (all over the table, chairs and under the pergola) that we want to cut the grapes off now before they ripen so we can relax. We don't need the grapes! Will it hurt the vine if we pick the grapes before they ripen? (e-mail reference)

A: Not a bit! Perhaps, if you can break the cycle of their habits, they will find someone else to pick on. Have you tried owl balloons? I visited a farm that was growing blueberries and he had these owls all over his plantings that he claimed kept the birds away.

Q: I was at a Web site where you provided information on hydrangea problems, but I do not see our problem. We have a plant that seems to be struggling for life. We planted it on the northwest side of our home in late April. It gets morning and late afternoon sun. Since planting, all of the leaves have started to get dry and brown on the edges. The center of the leaves remain green and pliable. There is no wilting as our other hydrangeas do during the heat of the day. At first, I thought that it was not getting adequate water, but that does not seem to be the issue. Any suggestions? (e-mail reference)

A: Salts cause burning or firing of leaf edges. The plants being planted too deeply also can be a problem. That's all I can think of at this point.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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