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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I am looking for help with my apple trees. I have checked everywhere, but nobody seems to be able to help. The problem is that bees are getting into the apples and ruining them. They start on the outside of the apple and work their way to the core. The first year, we had hundreds of apples but got very few to eat because of the bees. They get so bad that I tell the kids to stay away so nobody gets stung. I have tried making my own bee traps with 2-liter pop bottles and Mountain Dew. Last year, I bought four bee traps. The traps catch bees, but just a small percentage. (e-mail reference)

A: This is not normal or we never would be able to eat apples off our trees. Yellow jacket wasps, not the conventional honey or bumblebees, are doing most of the damage. These destructive devils will go after grapes, ripening tomatoes or any fruits that are ripe to overripe. They are coming from somewhere near your tree. If you cannot locate the nest, then hire a pest control company to find where the wasps have a nest. The wasps need to be killed in the nest because the treatment kills the queen wasp. I would suggest that you do your scouting early in the season before the nest becomes heavily populated. The other suggestion I have is to begin the apple harvest early so the wasps cannot detect the high level of sugars the apples accumulate later in the season. I have grown apples for many years and find that birds will peck at the ripening fruit, which then attracts the yellow jackets. It is a continuing problem in our part of the country. I'm sorry that I don't have any better suggestions for you.

Q: Your response to an inquiry about cottonwoods dropping branches during the winter on Fox Island near Bismarck caught my attention. I have seen this many times and at all times of the year. I've observed it while golfing at Riverwood Golf Course near Fox Island. One only has to look up to see the squirrels pruning off the branches. Generally, the pattern of dropped branches covers the area that coincides with the tree canopy. A close examination of the branches shows that the squirrels chew through the small branches until they fall off. Most of the branches are similar in size. This would indicate that squirrels only go out as far as the branch will support them and then stop to chew the bark. Also, I suspect that the smaller branches are more tender and easier to chew than the older, larger branches. We often think that nuts or acorns are the only foods that squirrels eat. However, in the Missouri River bottoms, there are very few nut trees. Bur oaks located on terraces above the flood plain do not produce nuts every year. I would guess that Fox Island does not have native bur oak trees. Once a squirrel prunes a cottonwood, it takes several years before it needs pruning again. (e-mail reference)

A: Thanks for the note. Yes, squirrels often are the culprits of dropped branches. We have two ponderosa pines in our backyard that go through a brutal annual pruning by our fluffy-tailed friends. I don't approve of their pruning technique, but they cannot be stopped. However, my trees have developed an interesting character because of the squirrel activity. While squirrels can shoulder a good part of the blame for branch drop, they cannot be credited with limb drop because they aren't that good at chewing. It is a phenomenon that is being addressed through research. Twigs dropping from a tree are not a major safety problem, but falling tree limbs can hurt someone and cause extensive property damage. Thanks for responding to the article.

Q: I received an azalea plant for Mother's Day. After the flowers dried up, I planted it on the east side of the house. I brought it inside the first part of October. The roots had not broken out of the root ball, so I cut into it. I give it coffee every six weeks or so. Right now, it has about 25 blossoms. Should I put it outside after the last frost? Should I fertilize it? Slugs were a problem last year because I also planted hostas, which slugs like. The root ball was covered with slugs when I dug it up. Is there something I can put in the hole when I transplant? Any suggestions will be appreciated. I don't know how long I can keep it going because I’m assuming it is not a perennial. (e-mail reference)

A: You probably don’t live in North Dakota because you would not be able to get away with what you did with your azalea plant. The fact that you are talking about blossoms on it now is a credit to your green thumb ability! Yes, put it back out this spring after the danger of frost is past and give it a shot of acidifying fertilizer. To keep the slugs at bay, surround the plant with diatomaceous earth, which should be available at most local or national garden stores. This material will lacerate their bodies as they crawl across the microscopic sharp edges and cause them to dehydrate. As to whether the azalea is a perennial, it depends on where you live. In North Dakota, it is not. However, in just about any place south of North Dakota, there is a very good possibility it is. Check with local garden center operators.

Q: I bought a Christmas cactus and cut off a piece to root. I planted it with a desert cactus to see how it would do. It is growing, but it got something from the desert cactus because the rooted cactus now has brown edges. I have cut off new growth, hoping to get rid of the problem, but the brown edges keep coming back. I have fertilized, changed potting soil and changed the watering schedule, but nothing works. I think the problem is a fungus. I am hoping you will have some good ideas on how to solve the problem. (e-mail reference)

A: Christmas and desert cactus plants are two different plant species. The two species are about as far apart ecologically as any two plants can get. The Christmas cactus is a rain forest species, while the desert cactus is a desert species. Get the Christmas cactus out of the pot and start over. Use the correct media and follow the proper cultural practices. I would throw away the rooted cutting and go back to square one. Once a fungus like this shows up, and it sounds like yours is a systemic problem, there is no cure for it.

Q: My son planted a naturally growing seedling of an amur river maple. The parent tree was dying and one of its regenerative seeds took root near the site. He literally pulled up the seedling and brought it home in a cup for us to put in a spot where a weeping willow once grew. It grew and thrived to our absolute joy! However, the tree took a cruel hit this winter. We had a very heavy snow that was followed by high winds. Several of the limbs were damaged to the point where they are hanging by a thread among the other limbs. Should the broken limbs be pruned at the point or just below the point of the break or should the pruning be done just above the nearest “V" below the damaged area? Should the pruned areas be painted or covered with some kind of tree paint or wound dressing? If so, what is the brand or generic name? I've noted that you have recommended Miracle-Gro and Miracid in some of your other e-mails. The reason for this hurried help request is because the sap is beginning to rise and I was thinking that unwanted pests might be attracted to the sap seeping from the wounded areas. I am pleased with your website and the way you respond to the various topics and questions people send you. (Montgomery County, Md.)

A: Pruning should take place before new growth begins this spring. Giving recommendations on pruning is like telling someone how to perform surgery without demonstrating it. I strongly suggest that you contact a local International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist to do the corrective pruning for you. Go to and provide the requested information to get a listing of these companies or individuals with a certified ISA rating. Be sure to check credentials and get references before allowing any major work on your tree. Forget the tree wound dressing. Research by foresters has shown that the application of such a dressing actually slows the healing process. As the tree begins activity this spring, the sap will flow. Yes, insects will be attracted to the sap, but they will not destroy or further damage the tree. The insects are interested only in the carbohydrate-rich sap as a food source. Thank you for your very kind words about the information I provide. I try to do my best at helping solve horticultural and tree-related problems.

Q: I enjoy reading the information in your column. I would appreciate your thoughts on three quick questions. I moved last fall and will be seeding a lawn this spring. What would you recommend for a seed variety mix for a three-acre plot? There is another spot that large that I hope can be seeded to something that is easy to maintain. I am considering an alfalfa and grass mix and having somebody use it as hay. Do you have a suggestion for the grass to use in the mix? I will be planting a couple of rows of trees and would like to plant some low-maintenance grass between the rows. I am considering a buffalo grass and blue grama mix. Is a 50/50 ratio the best to use? (e-mail reference)

A: I’ll assume that you will not be irrigating that large of a lawn and will not be managing it to be a high- impact grass that would compete with a golf course fairway. If I am wrong, then ignore this answer and let me know your intentions. I would suggest using a mixture of ephraim crested wheatgrass, western wheatgrass and blue grama. All three are sod-forming and tolerant to mowing at 3 to 4 inches in height. Your second question is impossible to answer, according to my colleague Hans Kandel, NDSU Extension agronomist. He says that the hay you grow needs to have an animal in mind. Is the hay intended for cows or horses? If you can supply the answer, he could come up with a recommended mixture. For the third question, the best grass to use between trees is creeping or fine fescue. Both do a good job of sequestering many weeds and are tolerant to drought once established. Both have low nutrient requirements and are tolerant to shade as the tree canopies mature. Buffalo grass and blue grama do not tolerate shade. Buffalo grass also takes a long time to become established from seed. Thank you for the nice comments about the column you read in your paper. It makes my day to see comments like that!

Q: I have an amaryllis plant that is taking a long time to come out of the ground. I have had many amaryllis plants through the years that have not taken this long to come up and bloom. I water with Miracle-Gro mixed in. I have just moved the plant to a south window, so it gets a lot of light. What gives with this plant? Can you give me some ideas on what to do? (e-mail reference)

A: Since you indicate that you have had ample experience growing amaryllis plants before, all I can suggest is to ask yourself what it is you might have done differently this time. Is it planted deeper than the other plants or in heavier and wetter soil? Is the temperature too low? Is the bulb the same size as the other bulbs? Is the soil the bulb is planted in pasteurized or sterile? Is there a chance that insects or diseases are working on the bulb below the soil surface? Go to for more information on amaryllis plants.

Q: I purchased a weeping willow tree from a store last spring. I was careful to select a zone 3- hardy tree. We had a tremendous amount of wind last spring after I planted it. I rigged up braces and was able to keep the plant upright. However, I noticed later that branches at the top of the tree were turning black from the tip and moving toward the inner part of the tree. I pruned those branches, hoping that it would stop the spread. It appeared to stop it for a short time, but the problem returned later in the summer. I have a year warranty on the tree. Is it possible that whatever disease it has will die during the winter or should I plan to uproot the tree and return it to the store for a different tree? Any suggestions for this tree and any future care tips for my weeping willow will be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Return the tree because it sounds like the tree has become infected with a Phytophthora species of fungus or something similar. Whatever the pathogen is, it is not going away and will proceed to kill more branches until you have just a dead stick.

Q: I am looking for information on propagating a rosemary plant from clippings. Do you have a pamphlet or publication I can view on the Internet that might help me? Also, is it too late to trim apple trees in April? We have so much snow, it might be June before it’s gone and I can get my ladder up to trim my apple trees. (Fargo, N.D.)

A: For your sake and for others who wish to correspond by e-mail, I strongly encourage you to include something in the subject line of the heading. NDSU Information Technology Services (ITS) has established a quarantine system that looks at suspicious e-mails that could infect our system or overrun it with worthless downloads. One of the criteria ITS looks at to determine suspicious e-mails is a blank in the subject heading. I don’t want to lose a message because of this minor infraction. Rosemary is easy to propagate. Use softwood cuttings in the spring or layer it. Go to my publication on “Home Propagation Techniques” at for more information. As for your apple tree pruning schedule, you might be right in saying it will June before all the snow disappears. I hope you are wrong. Anytime you can get out there before the apple tree starts new growth is acceptable. As bad as it seems right now, we should be seeing some open grass areas by early April.

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 - March 16, 2011

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-7123,
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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