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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: How can I keep rainwater from getting green and slimy? Will it harm the plants? (e-mail reference)

A: It will not harm the plants. A dollop of household bleach or copper sulfate will keep it clean. If you want to, you can get a sunscreen liquid that blocks out the sun's rays, which will stop the water from getting green and slimy.

Q: My husband and I are working with a landscaper to plant some hard fescue in our backyard. We are looking for a slow-growing, low-growing grass that is shade and drought tolerant. The landscaper suggested hard fescue. My question is on the timing of the planting. The landscaper says it may be a few more weeks before he gets to our project. Also, he will put Roundup on the existing vegetation, which I am assuming will take another week before the vegetation dies and he can start planting. I'm guessing that with rain and other project delays, the landscaper may not begin planting until mid-July. This seems really late in the season to me. From my research, it is best to plant in the spring or fall, not in the heat of summer. Given the current weather in Fargo, the cool spring and amount of moisture, is planting this July a mistake, or with enough watering and care, will it not make a difference? (Fargo, N.D.)

A: If you are able to get water to the planting, the hard fescue will establish itself just fine. If water is going to be limited or difficult to deliver to the seeding area, then it is best to wait until the end of August to get the work done. Fall definitely is the best time for planting grass seed, but in reality, it can be planted anytime the soil isn't frozen. I've seen it put down on unfrozen soil, but the following day it was covered with snow until spring. The grass became established successfully. We are now past the spring surge of weed growth. There always will be some, but not with the intensity it would have been a month earlier. However, the method you describe of killing everything off and seeding into the dead material will yield very few weeds.

Q: I have a goldfish plant in my office. It only gets lighting from the office lights. I water it every two days, so the soil doesn’t get soggy. Is there anything different that I need to do to a goldfish plant because it is in an office? (e-mail reference)

A: Just don't overwater the plant and give it as much light as you reasonably can. Houseplants succumb to overwatering and underlighting more than from any other causes.

Q: I have a 2-year-old cottonwood sapling in a pot. I'm growing it out and will plant it in a local cemetery in my mom’s name. I'm wondering if it’s best to put it in the ground now or wait until fall when it goes dormant. Its first year was rather hard because it was in a houseplant pot and had its growing tip removed by a rabbit or squirrel. Somehow, it survived the winter without any help and had three buds from last year’s growth on it this spring. I have repotted it twice and it’s sporting leaves that are as big as a man’s hand. Now the buds from the first year’s growth are more than a 12 inches tall. I've been keeping it watered and in rich, loamy, organic garden soil. I have the pot in full sun. Less then a month after repotting, the taproots are pushing through the drainage holes. Should I wait and keep it in a pot until fall or put it in the ground? (e-mail reference)

A: Most of the damage done to a plant during transplanting is getting it out of the container. If you can, I would suggest digging the hole where you want the tree to grow. Set the container in the hole at the right height. Break the pot with a hammer to allow the pieces to fall away with minimal damage to the roots. Do this going into the evening hours or on a cloudy, cool day in the evening. Normally, I would suggest leaving it until fall to transplant, but with the roots being that tight, I'm afraid of girdling roots developing that will not be able to sustain the plant. Water the tree in during the transplanting and monitor it through the summer for moisture stress. Give the tree water as needed, but don’t overdo it.

Q: My boyfriend has a pet rabbit. I would like to use the rabbit manure as fertilizer for my vegetable garden or an apricot tree. My one concern is that it will attract wild rabbits. I do not have a huge rabbit problem right now, but I know they are not far away and I am not eager to court them. If this is a problem, should I limit it to the flower garden that is close to the veggies? (e-mail reference)

A: I promise the rabbits will be courted as soon as you plant your vegetable and flower garden. Rabbit manure is perhaps the best manure to use because of its rich nutrient value and the weed-free nature of it.

Q: We’re having a problem with raccoons eating our birdseed. We are using squirrel-proof feeders that hang from arms extending about 2 1/2 feet away from the deck railing. They are coming right up on the railing, pulling the feeders close and helping themselves to the seed. Part of the problem is that they break the feeders (expensive to replace) and part of the problem is the excrement they are leaving on the deck, which I understand can be a serious contamination and disease issue. The local Humane Society rents traps to catch wounded raccoons, but not pest raccoons. The organization believes removing the raccoons from their environment can kill them because they are clan animals. Their suggestions of using a radio and/or ammonia are not deterring the animals. Neither is our presence when we are sitting just a few feet away! Any ideas? Would mothballs strategically placed help? Could we treat the birdseed with red pepper or pepper spray? Would that harm the birds? (e-mail reference)

A: You are dealing with very smart, determined and strong critters. I have a few ideas for you. Move the food source to another location that the raccoons cannot possibly get to, at least for some time. Get yourself or borrow a good coon dog. Order Havahart traps and handle them yourself. You can find the traps on the Web at Repellents have been tried forever but only work temporarily. Pepper spray would harm the birds more than the raccoons.

Q: We planted a raspberry bush two years ago. Last year, we got a few berries. This year, we have started to get many berries, but we noticed there is a larger stalk that has sprung up in the middle of the patch that is much larger than the regular vines. The larger stalk grew very quickly but does not have flower buds. In the last few days, we noticed that the large stalk’s leaves started to fold in and then die. What should we do with the larger stalk? (e-mail reference)

A: Cut it back to the ground and destroy it.

Q: We had sod put down two years ago using a local source. Last week, I found a few spots of grass that looked sort of purplish gray. A closer examination showed a granular, lumpy mass on the grass blades. These areas in the lawn are about 4 to 6 inches square at this time. What do I have? What should I do or not do to fix the problem? (Moorhead, Minn.)

A: This is striped smut (Ustilago striiformis), which is a systemic fungus that manifests itself during wet, cool springs. If this is an isolated situation, do nothing. Don't water or fertilize. As the weather gets hotter and drier, the symptoms no longer will appear. There are fungicides on the market that will help control this disease, but for the homeowner, this is impractical, expensive and not politically correct from an environmental standpoint. The fungicides don't cure the plant of the disease, just protect the uninfected plants. If your soil tends to be poorly drained, I would suggest a core aeration followed by a power raking. Follow that with overseeding with one of the resistant cultivars of Kentucky bluegrass. Some of the grasses are A-20, A-34 (bensun), adelphi, bonnieblue, brunswick, fylking, majestic, monopoly, glade, nugget, parade, touchdown and many more. In other words, cultural practices trump the use of chemicals.

Q: I need some help with my strawberries. They are a mixture of a dark green and a light yellow. They don’t have many blossoms and the berries are very small. We water them well, but nothing changes. What kind of fertilizer do we need? What can we do to help them out? (Utah)

A: In your part of the country, the soil could be the problem. The soil could have a high pH, soluble salts, boron toxicity or something else. It also could be a simple case of not enough fertilizer or the plants have a virus. It depends on how long they have been in the ground. Generally, after three to five years, the strawberry patches get a virus spread by leafhoppers and other insects. This reduces the strawberry plant’s productive capabilities and vigor. If you've had the same plants in that location for any period of time, it might be a good idea to dig those berries out, renovate the soil based on soil test results and replant with a new cultivar.

Q: Sadly, I had to cut down my willow tree and the stump ground out. Is it safe to use the grindings as mulch? (Massachusetts)

A: It is as long as it is not overdone. A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch should not hurt anything. If you start going more than that, some nitrogen could become tied up, making it unavailable to the plants. If the plants start to show nitrogen chlorosis (general leaf yellowing), simply add more nitrogen-based fertilizer.

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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