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Ron Smith answers questions about flowers, trees, gardens and shrubs.

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I have a flame amur maple that was planted 17 months ago. I am wondering what to do with the long, scraggly-looking branches. They are very dry and have yet to produce any leaves. I am referring to the areas of the branches with no leaves. I broke the end off one branch. It was brittle and seemed to be dead. Should I prune all of these back? Also, I planted a purple ash at the same time. It has leaves, but not as many as there should be. Is it still too early? Do ash trees take longer than maples to fill out? Thanks for any help. (Denver, Colo.)

A: Cut the dead parts of the branches back to where they are alive. The ash tree will get full of leaves eventually. Both of these trees could be suffering transplant shock, especially the ash. However, the amur maple should not have been in that shape when you purchased it. I would go back to the nursery with a photo of the product the staff sold you and ask if they would consider this a good-quality plant. In all likelihood, the tree will end up being OK, but they shouldn't be retailing a tree with that much dieback.

Q: I have a problem with seporia on my tomato plants. I am wondering if my planting methods could be causing the problem. My mother taught me to bury the plant to the bottom of the top leaves by laying it in a trench. This covers many of the existing leaves. Should I be doing it differently? Thanks for all the help you give me through your column. (e-mail reference)

A: With all due respect to the mothers of the world, sometimes their advice isn't quite right. Tomato plants can be planted deeper than they are in the purchased container, but they don't need or should not have any leaves buried. Any leaves that are buried from deeper planting should be removed first. As for the seporia disease, this often is brought on by the watering practices where water is splashed on the foliage. It also is caused by working or handling the plants when they are wet or from planting the same crop in the same location every year.

Q: We have a small farm northeast of Boston. My husband planted a plum tree about six years ago. I’m not sure what variety it is. Every year it blossoms beautifully and begins to produce lots of fruit. However all the fruit drops off just before it ripens. The same thing happens to the cherry tree a few feet away from the plum tree. The cherry tree has beautiful blossoms with lots of fruit, but then drops about half of its fruit. The pear tree next to that bears wonderful fruit every year. This year, the plum tree dropped its fruit early. The soil was mixed, screened and aged here on the farm. It is a combination of peat from an old peat bog we had on the property mixed with loam. Also mixed in is cow, pig, horse and chicken manure. The soil is good and moist. All the tree’s leaves and stalks look very healthy. The blossoms are abundant and gorgeous to look at. We haven't done anything to the soil as of late. Thank you in advance for any insight. (e-mail reference)

A: Depending on what kind of plum tree you have, fruit drop is a normal occurrence. It is the tree’s way of thinning itself when we have not tried to thin the fruit ourselves. Juvenile as well as mature fruit can fall off the tree very easily if we have too many plums on the tree to start with. Thinning the tree is the best preventative, but you also may have a nutrient deficiency that can cause much of the fruit to fall off. Also, a lack of water or a wide fluctuation in watering can lead to excessive and premature fruit drop. However, you did not state if the fallen fruit was inspected for insect larvae, especially for plum curculio. Grub infestations can cause the fruit to drop prematurely. This insect isn't too bright. It will lay eggs in the fruit of plums, apples and cherries. So far, luckily for you, they haven't shown an appetite for the nearby pear tree. Your described soil mix couldn't be better for the trees, so the soil isn't the problem. I think it is a natural occurrence of fruit thinning, grub infestation or a combination of the two.

Q: We have an apple tree that is at least 15 years old. It always has produced a healthy crop of apples. However, last year it failed to produce any fruit. This year, we are noticing that it already is shedding small and underformed green apples. Any idea what is happening? (e-mail reference)

A: This could just be what is termed June apple drop. This is something that takes place when the fruit is too heavy for the tree to support. It is nothing to worry about. You'll still have plenty of apples to harvest if the past holds true.

Q: I’ve been reading your material about apple trees. We have a young apple tree in our backyard that I’m guessing is six to eight years old. The base of the trunk is about 6 inches in diameter. This year, we have a tremendous amount of little apples starting to grow. I’ve been reading that I can spray Sevin on the tree to keep off the bugs and worms that seem to get to our apples before they are ripe enough to pick. Is Sevin also safe to spray on trees once the apples have started to develop? I didn’t read your material soon enough to see that I needed to spray prior to the flowers opening and again in the fall. Now we have apples that I’d really like to enjoy without the bugs and worms getting to them first. If I can’t use Sevin once the apples develop, is there anything I can use? (e-mail reference)

A: At this time, you can use Sevin, but follow the directions. You also might want to set out sticky traps that are shaped and colored like an apple and covered with a sticky, nontoxic substance that attracts these pests. The insects will get stuck on the traps and die of dehydration. There are pheromone traps that can be found in the more upscale garden centers that also would help control problem pests.

Q: I live in Wisconsin. I have an apricot tree that was a wonderful producer last year. This year, it had an abundance of blossoms, so I was looking forward to another great harvest. Suddenly, mutant apricots are forming. The fruits are up to 2 inches long and very misshaped. The fruit also is hollow inside. I do not fertilize this tree or spray it and it seems happy where it is. What could be affecting this tree? (e-mail reference)

A: Being hollow indicates that fertilization probably did not take place. The fruit probably will drop off soon. This is nothing to worry about unless it happens again next year. Rain, wind and cold weather at the wrong time can inhibit the visitation of pollinators.

Q: I have elder berries growing in a hedge on the border of my lot. Are they a good choice for this area? They seemed healthy for the first three years, but now there seems to be many dead branches. Would they benefit from massive pruning? Any tips on elder berries would be appreciated. (Watertown, S.D.)

A: They should do just fine in your part of the country as a border planting. Get the dead branches removed and try to figure out why they are dead. It could be an insect or disease. It also could be caused by the past winter weather. I assume they are in full sun and not in heavy shade for half the day.

Q: I live in a very wooded area in western New York state. We have lots of wildlife. I have a very tall hemlock tree growing next to my house. Every morning and afternoon there are several small branches on the ground, but only on the side closest to the house. It looks very deliberate. What could cause this? (e-mail reference)

A: Most likely it is caused by squirrels or other rodents who gnaw for a living.

Q: I have a small lilac bush with lavender near its base. I would like to put some lime around the lilac, but I do not know if that would hurt the lavender. Could you please tell me of a fertilizer that would be good for both plants? I live in Prince Rupert, Canada. The ground here is quite acidic. Any advice you could give me would be appreciated. Thank you. (e-mail reference)

A: The lime should not be placed around the base of the lilac. Put the lime around the drip line spread of the shrub. Actually, it should have been worked into the soil prior to planting the lilac and lavender to be the most effective. If the lilac seems to be thriving under its present conditions, why not just leave it alone? Lime worked into the soil will not hurt the lavender plant.

Q: I hope you can give us a little information on two live oaks that we bought about one month ago. We planted the trees the same day we bought them. We put a fertilizer stick on the drip line as directed. After about two weeks, all the leaves turned brown and dry. The trees have been watered every day. The water barely soaks in. I have scratched the branches and they are green underneath. We are not sure if they are in shock or maybe they were wind burned from the 20- mile ride in the truck to the house. How much water is too much? Should we back off to every other day? We live in Dallas, so we have 90-plus degree temperatures. Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: You hit it. The 20-mile ride in the back of the truck could toast the foliage completely if you didn’t use a tarp. Take the fertilizer sticks out and dispose of them. The sticks are a waste of money because they do little to no good whatsoever. I promise that the trees don’t need the fertilizer sticks. With normal care and not pushing it too excessively with the watering, the trees should releaf sometime this summer. Oaks are a tough species, but I don't know of any nursery-grown tree that can hold up to being wind whipped in the back of a pickup truck for a 20-mile ride! Let's hope they recover. Watering every day would be just right for a willow in Dallas, but it is slow murder for an oak. Back it off to no more than a couple of good soakings a week in the absence of decent rainfall.

To contact Ron Smith for answers to your questions, write to Ron Smith, NDSU Department of Plant Sciences, Dept. 7670, Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050 or e-mail

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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