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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I’ve been researching techny arborvitae and saw a link where you answered many great questions I had, but I have one more. How deep will techny arborvitae roots grow? I want to plant some techny, but I have a clay tile line running through part of my property. I’m wondering if I will regret planting the arborvitae if they cause issues with the tile. Would I be better off planting a row of shrubs to help stop the snow and wind? Thanks for your help. (email reference)

A: Clay tiling tends to leak, which will attract meandering roots that could cause chronic problems. I don’t know how deep your tiles are, but the roots might be stimulated to go deeper than usual if the tiles leak. I would advise planting a hedge of cotoneaster or honeysuckle.

Q: I have a goat's horn cactus that produced seeds last year. I planted some of them and now have five little cacti. They look good to me, but I need to get some more information to make sure they stay healthy and continue to grow. They have a few sharp thorns and are growing at a slow pace. Anything I need to watch for? Is there any species information you can give me? If not, do you know someone who can help me? (email reference)

A: Nice going by getting those seeds to germinate. You probably are doing all the right things. The biggest deal is to not overwater. I cannot provide any more information than this excellent website at

Q: I have a question about my father’s fruit trees. We live in a very windy area. In the past, we used a liquid that we would spray on the trees when blossoming started. The liquid seemed to help keep the flowers from blowing off during high winds. However, we ran out of the liquid and cannot remember the product name. Have you ever seen such a spray? (email reference)

A: At this point in my life, I have not heard of any product that could do this. However, I've put out an all-points bulletin to my horticultural colleagues to see if they can provide some information. If they do, I'll get back to you.

Q: The geraniums I overwintered in pots indoors are healthy and beginning to develop new growth. I would like to take some stem cuttings to propagate new plants. Should I root them in water or is there a better medium? Do I need to use a rooting hormone? (email reference)

A: The geraniums can be rooted in water. However, the cuttings will develop better and more realistic roots if rooted in perlite or a sand/peat mix. You can use a rooting hormone, but it isn’t necessary with geraniums. It won’t make them root, but it will make the rooting a little faster and easier.

Q: I am having problems with my arborvitaes. A couple of years ago, we had a bad windstorm. During the storm, the arborvitaes shook like rag dolls. This year, I noticed large holes in the branches. It was as if something was nesting in the branches or the branches were weighed down. These gaps or holes are 6 to 8 inches in a round shape. Upon investigating, I found the branches weighed down with dead arborvitae. There also are huge piles of dead material at the base of the arborvitaes and much more on the branches deeper in the plants. The inside area seems to be bare of any green, but the outer limbs are green. We have about 50 arborvitaes that were planted 17 years ago. They are very tall because they never have been topped. Are we giving the plants too little or too much water? Should I try to remove as much of the accumulated dead stuff as I can? Could the trees be stressed because their trunks are buried in the dead arborvitae? I really don't want to lose these trees because they provide a wonderful privacy screen. Thank you for any help you can give me. (Yakima, Wash.)

A: First, allow me to offer you some comfort. From your description and the length of time they have been planted, I think there is every possibility that these trees will survive. The lack of green tissue in the interior is normal but is accentuated because of the windstorm you described. It certainly is a good idea to get the dead debris cleaned out in and around these trees. If for any reason you suspect any disease or insect problems developing, I would recommend that you contact the Yakama Extension county agent to check the problem. Go to to find the name and number of the agent. If the agent is unable to assist you, he or she can link you with someone at the university to diagnosis the problem.

Q: My peace lily was dying, so I decided to divide it into three parts. I cut off the bad roots and leaves and repotted the parts in African violet soil. So far, the results are good. What I want to know is what kind of plant enhancer I can use to push my plants into growing faster and larger. I don't want to wait years for the plants to flower. What do you think of using a product called GA3? (email reference)

A: Plant enhancers do little, if any, good, so save your money and hopes. The plant will recover on its own with proper care. The plants should be in a bright room but not get direct sunlight. They will need a rest period and adequate water. If you haven’t done so, go to for more information.

Q: My jade plant has powdery mildew. I sprayed it with a 3-in-1 product that your website recommends, but the leaves became spotted and fell off. I decided to cut all the leaves from the plant because the 3-in-1 product did in a week what the powdery mildew was going to do in a few months. Surprisingly, the plant is surviving. After about three weeks, new leaves emerged and the plant appears to be recovering. The plant probably was sensitive to the chemicals. However, now the jade is taking on the appearance of a bonsai. Since I didn't read about this on your website, I thought it might be of interest to you and your readers. Thanks for the advice you provide, and I hope this helps your readers. (email reference)

A: Thanks for this information on your experiences. The 3-in-1 spray or any product that calls for an application applied to the foliage of the plant should be used with caution. Choose an area of the plant that is not highly visible to see what impact the spray will have on the foliage. You did the right thing and I'm glad to know that the plant is in a recovery mode. Feel free to send me a photo when you have the time. It would be interesting and educational to see the recovery.

Q: Maybe you can give me some advice. Our property is next to Lake Sallie in Minnesota. Our lawn is quite thin. We have liquid fertilizer applied at least three times a season. How can we get the grass to grow thicker? We also have many night crawlers that have mounds pushed up. What do you recommend? Can the crawlers be eliminated in some way? Thanks in advance. (email reference)

A: Generally, a thin lawn represents the wrong grass species being grown for the area. Shady areas only will support the creeping (fine) fescues to any extent. Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass will be weak and thin in a typically shady location. Full sun can support most lawn grasses, such as Kentucky blue, perennial rye, all the fescues, Bermuda grass and creeping bentgrass, to name a few. Grass in the wrong site will not thicken no matter how much fertilizer is used.

Q: I have 10 hydrangeas (endless summer and Annabelle) planted about 5 feet from a small stand of chokecherry bushes. They've been there for three years. The problem is that the hydrangeas are not very tall. They are nice and green but don't seem to grow taller. They are on the north side of the bushes but do get mostly full sun all day. Do you think I should move them to the east side of the house, where they would just get morning sun? The hydrangeas also would get more moisture. (Bismarck, N.D.)

A: It would be worth a try. However, I would be surprised if that was the problem. Both of these species of hydrangea are vigorous growers just about everywhere in North Dakota. My guess is that they have been planted too deeply.

Q: I planted spider plant seeds in a milk carton while I was in kindergarten. I'm now 30 and still have the plant. I replanted it into a bigger pot, but now it is dying. Could I have used too much plant food? I've never seen it look this bad. It looks like three separate plants that have 10 leaves each. The roots are very big and thick, but the plant is small. Could I have killed the plant where it connects to the roots if it broke during the transfer? How can I bring my plant back to life? It is very special to me. Tonight, I replanted it into a smaller pot again with the hope the roots will like the crowding. I don't know what to do, so I need help. (email reference)

A: You’ve kept a spider plant since your kindergarten days and you’re now 30? That is amazing! Problems usually arise when repotting into larger containers. First, people often opt for the decorative containers that have no drainage. Second, people continue to water as they did before the repotting. Finally, plants often are moved to a better location thinking this would help the plant. I think you’ve done the right thing in moving it back to a smaller pot. If you have any spiderettes dangling, get them into a pot while attached to the mother plant so you can get those rooted quickly. Try to get the plant in as sunny a location as possible. When the danger of frost is past, summer it outdoors. Most houseplants thrive with that treatment.

Q: I found your website this morning while looking for an answer about my cyclamen plants. I think it's so nice how you go to the trouble of helping all those people with their questions. I was surprised to see that you don't list seeds under your flowers category. I wonder if I can get seeds for Matthiola bicornis in the U.S. I think this plant is just heavenly. Admittedly, it isn't much to look at, and mine always seem to look so straggly. However, the scent, particularly after a rain on a summer's night, is absolutely heavenly. I think everyone should be made aware of this marvelous plant. If you can't get the seeds, I'll send you some as a thank you for the pleasure your website has given me. (England)

A: What you are talking about is scented summer stock (Matthiola bicornis). I found out about the plant 20 or so years ago. I think I wrote about it back then because of the fantastic scent it gives to the area during the evening hours. There aren’t many seeds available in the U.S. You know Americans, we like things that look great more than the subtle character of the fragrance. I thank you for your very kind comments about the website information. I would be honored to receive seeds from you if for no other reason than to say that my seed source came from a friend in England. Thank you again for your kind words and generous offer.

Q: Could you recommend a flowering tree that grows fast, is attractive and will survive the harsh winters of North Dakota? Having just moved here from Chicago, we are not sure what will survive, although I doubt our old magnolia would make it. In addition, is there a type of gooseberry bush that will grow here? My father had one in Winnipeg for many years. It grew extremely well and produced many fruit. I really enjoy your column and appreciate your help. Thank you. (email reference)

A: Go to to check out the trees and shrubs that will grow in our state. This is research-based information organized by our woody plant specialists. It is free for the downloading. I’m sure you’ve seen that our weather eclipses the weather in Chicago. Take heart that spring will arrive eventually and everything will turn green again for a few short weeks. We have about three species of gooseberry that grow here. The most common species is the Missouri gooseberry. We have a horticulturist, Kathy Wiederholt, who is at the Carrington Research Extension Center growing and evaluating the gooseberry, along with other nontraditional fruits. Thanks for the very kind words about the column. It is appreciated.

Q: I’ve had several shefflera trees for many years. I believe they are digitali types (large leaves). My problem is I have some kind of pest that is chewing or pecking at the branches where they grow off the trunk. This causes the whole stem to fall off. I have yet to see or catch the invader. I live in southern Alabama. I have attached photos of the damage. Thank you in advance for your reply. My trees are dying and I feel helpless to stop it. (email reference)

A: This is something that needs quick attention to resolve. Get in touch with your Alabama Extension county agent for assistance. Go to to contact the agent from your county.

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 – April 13, 2011

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-7123,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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