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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: We purchased an older home that has two beautiful spruce trees. They were planted back in the 1930s. However, they have many dead branches on the bottom. If I trim these off, will it ruin the look of the trees? What should I do? Will new branches grow after I trim off the dead ones? (email reference)

A: You can cut the dead or dying branches back to the main trunk. Do not cut and leave stumps of branches. New growth will not come back, but you will increase the chance of the trees remaining healthy by doing so. Whether or not it will spoil the looks of the trees is a personal choice. Some folks think it does, while others do not. Once you've done the pruning, it is too late to do anything about it.

Q: I have two grapevines growing up a pergola near the wall of my garage. I'm now having a flagstone patio installed. With the level of the patio, one of the vines now will be about 6 to 8 inches below the level of the patio. We can build a small well with some stone or we can try to raise the level of the ground around that vine. I'm afraid a well will attract too much water. Can I safely bury the bottom of the vine in about 6 inches of soil or should I dig it out and try to lift the vine? (email reference)

A: This is a question of what choice is the lesser of two evils and not what is best for the vine. Digging up and trying to move an old grape root ball is probably the worst thing you can do. I would encourage you to think in terms of the stone wall. Place a piece of 1-inch PVC that goes down to the original level. That way, if there is a problem with water accumulation, you could use something, such as a turkey baster, to extract the water that has collected. This is something I've used several times during my career and it keeps the roots from becoming waterlogged in soil that doesn't drain adequately.

Q: Can you please offer some advice for some extremely slow-growing frontenac grape vines? I've attached two photos for your review. They barely reach 3 or 4 feet tall before the first frost in the fall. After winter, they once again begin new growth at ground level. No leaves sprout from the previous vines. They never have produced any fruit. If you look closely at the first photo, you can see the vine from the previous year. I also have some valiant vines in the same soil that grow substantially each season and produce grapes in abundance. Do you have any suggestions to help the vines? Is there something I should do to winter them properly? (email reference)

A: Both the valiant and frontenac should be showing more vigor than this after such a long time in the ground. In viewing the photos, I suspect that it might be the grass that is close to the vines being competitive for the nutrients and moisture in the soil. We have valiant, frontenac and frontenac gris growing in our yard. I almost have to go after them with a machete to keep them in line. They produce lots of vine and fruit. I encourage you to consider attending the Minnesota Wine Grape Growers Association conference this winter in Minneapolis. More information about the meeting is available at there are many commercial growers who attend, there are characters like you and me who have a personal interest in wine grape growing without any profit motivation. The people belonging to the association are very generous with their knowledge!

Q: Since visiting a winery a couple of years ago in the Stillwater area, I have been taking the staff’s advice and applying Roundup to the grass beneath the vines (typically in the fall). They told me at the winery that tillage would disturb the shallow root system in a negative way. Do you agree? My vines aren’t doing well. We are located in a glacial outwash area (sand and gravel) and have very light topsoil that drains very fast. Could it be a lack of soil nutrients or the poor ability of the soil to retain moisture? (email reference)

A: Human tendency is to get too close when tilling. The best approach would have been to till the entire area and then plant. Based on what you’ve told me, the problem could be nutrient deficiency. Carefully work the soil around the base of the plants (by hand). Go out at least a foot or more. Mulch the area around the plants with bark chips, shredded wood or sphagnum peat moss. Next spring, add a complete fertilizer, such as a cup of 10-10-10. Distribute the fertilizer evenly around each of the plants and water it in. The organic matter you added will hold and release the nutrients slowly to the plant roots rather than washing away when it rains. If this doesn’t yield the desired results next year, then I wouldn’t mess with these plants any more. Take them out and start fresh with a new planting. However, get the soil tested first for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, organic matter content, pH and soluble salts. Make the suggested adjustments and additions, and then plant the grapes. Follow a close regimen of watering. Grapes are grown in much worse situations than what you are attempting. It just takes some management adjustment.

Q: I saw your Hortiscope site about spider plants and really wanted to ask for your assistance. I have had a spider plant for almost 17 years. It was given to my husband and me as a wedding gift. It has done well through the years. We haven’t had many babies, but it has grown and been a happy plant for a long time. When we returned from vacation this summer, it seemed very droopy, which normally is a sign I need to water it. However, the drain pan started running over almost as soon as I put water in it. I think the person taking care of the house watered it too much. My daughter and I took it out of the pot, cleaned it and replanted it two weeks ago. There was a lot of wet, muddy soil around the roots, and some roots seemed almost swollen with water. The dirt was hard to get off, but we did our best by planting it back in the pot and adding additional soil (though not fresh soil). It still is very droopy and not perking up. I have taken it outside a couple of days hoping to dry it out. Do you have any suggestions? Do I need to get a new pot and fresh bag of potting soil and try again? I really don’t want to lose it. (email reference)

A: I don’t know what your plant sitter could have done to put this plant into a funk like the one you describe. Spider plants almost thrive on benign neglect. The fact that water poured out immediately upon your return indicates to me that the plant was dry, so the soil pulled away from the side of the pot and allowed the water to flow through. Whenever repotting, it is a good idea to have everything clean and fresh by using new potting soil and a free-draining container. You also could split the plant in half and replant in smaller pots, but I’m assuming you found the core of the plant to be healthy. Summering it outdoors for whatever is left of the summer and frost-free fall is the best option after you get it into fresh soil and a new container. Dappled shade cast by a deciduous or pine tree would give it enough light without overdoing it. Be sure to bring it in when the night temperatures start dipping consistently into the 40s.

Q: I planted some lily bulbs last year that produced gorgeous yellow lilies this year. I believe they are Asiatic lilies. These lilies have huge pods on them. The plant has not started to turn brown or yellow and the pods are not ripe. Can I remove the pods without harming the lilies? Would that bring more strength to the bulb or harm it? One more question: I had trouble with rabbits eating my lily plants this spring. I caught a few of them and found them new homes. I didn’t have any more trouble until now. I found the leaves of the lilies eaten to the stems, but I have not seen any rabbits. Do birds or squirrels eat lily leaves? Do I need to set out the rabbit trap again? (email reference)

A: This would pretty much be analogous to closing the barn door after the cows got out. The energy already has been expended in the making of the seeds. To thwart this, the flowers should be removed as they become spent. That way, all the energy the foliage makes can be put back into the plant for flowering next year. Removing them now might improve the aesthetics of the plants somewhat. Set out the rabbit traps again! The hungry bounders found their way back to your lily patch or spread the word before they were trapped and given a new home. We have squirrels all over our backyard, but they leave our lilies alone.

Q: My calla lilies have huge and beautiful leaves, but no blooms. What would cause this? Thank you for your help. (email reference)

A: This could be caused by too much nitrogen, poor siting, plants being too juvenile or day length. Any or all of these could delay flowering

Q: Our ornamental pear tree fell down during the latest hurricane. We planted it when our daughter was born. Can I take a cutting from that tree to grow another? (email reference)

A: If you can, try righting the tree soon. Because everything is so wet and it is not the tender spring of the year, you might be able to keep this tree alive. Try it because the chance of success in righting the tree is at least as good as trying to root cuttings. Experienced plant propagators with all the right treatments, equipment and timing can achieve about a 70 percent success rate. You would be better off harvesting fruit and collecting seed. After that, give the seeds a 90-day moist, cold treatment in your refrigerator and then plant them outside the following spring. I encourage you give the tree a chance by getting it back upright for the first attempt.

Q: We have three yellow pontentilla bushes that are about five years old. They have been blooming less and less for the last two years. I have read your responses to other queries about selective pruning and even clear-cutting in late fall. However, we just discovered a white mold on the stems at the base of the plant. Can they be saved or are they doomed? Would cutting them to the ground in late fall save them? Can the mold be eradicated? They aren't planted too far from a river birch that was suffering from chloriosis. Extra watering, sulpher and iron helped the tree but may have weakened or damaged the pontentilla. (email reference)

A: Growing at the base of the plant, it could be just a saprophyte feeding on the old, corky bark tissue. I can’t say for certain, but the heavy pruning is not going to hurt anything either way. I would encourage waiting until a hard frost shuts everything down before proceeding with the pruning. Your treatment of the tree did not negatively affect the potentilla.

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 – Sept. 7, 2011

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-7971,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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