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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I had a question concerning the growth of red maples. How can I tell if the tree is in shock or is stunted? About six years ago, I planted two red maples in the front yard. One tree is almost five times the size of the other. I am wondering what could be wrong. Both get adequate water, and we have not experienced a drought. I’m wondering if I didn’t remove enough of the root sack or is it is bad soil. (email reference)

A: If I’m seeing the photos correctly, one tree appears to be planted too deeply and has some physical damage at the base from a mower or weed whip. Other than that, there is no evidence that I can see that would cause this much of a difference between the two trees.

Q: I saw your column about poplar trees, so maybe you can answer my question. It always has been a messy tree, but I don’t want to lose it. During the last few years, it has started losing more and more branches, especially in the fall. The branches that fall off have green buds at the end and appear to break off at the node. The foliage on the tree also seems to get thinner each year. What can I do to save the tree? (email reference)

A: Unfortunately, this is the nature of the beast! It will continue to drop twigs and will get around to dropping larger branches as it continues to get up in years. The best I can advise if you want to keep the tree is to hire a professional International Society of Arboretum certified arborist to trim the tree on an annual basis.

Q: What combination of conditions causes winter squash to ripen? It is day length, watering or temperature? How can a short-season gardener manipulate environmental conditions to cause winter squash to ripen? Does powdery mildew interfere with ripening? (email reference)

A: All of the above. Generally, the use of frost blankets will extend the growing season for several weeks in the fall. In the spring, plant the squash in soil that has been prewarmed using solarization. Keep an eye on shifting temperatures to protect against late spring frosts also will help to ripen on time. Higher temperature trumps all else. Bright, hot, sunny days, with adequate moisture, will accelerate ripening and get your crop harvestable before cold weather closes in.

Q: We have a huge wall of arborvitae that is 80 to 100 feet long and the trees are 30 to 40 feet tall. The previous owners installed a wood retaining wall about 4 feet from these trees. The wall is rotting and needs to be replaced. To do this properly, the contractor says the trees will need to be trimmed as high as the wall up to the trunk. Will this kill the trees? Any suggestions? Thanks for your help. (Pittsburgh, Pa.)

A: Don’t try to move trees this size. Your contractor can trim up to, but not into, the trunk of the trees without any harm. Just be sure no stubs remain. I am assuming this is a landscape contractor who knows something about plant growth and not just a housing contractor. The activity around the trees, if excessive, could compact the soil and greatly limit or cut off the air reaching the roots. Again, a competent landscape contractor would know this and make accommodations to be careful.

Q: I have an English ivy that has been dying slowly. Last spring, many of the leaves turned brown. I trimmed them off, hoping the plant would recover as it has in the past, but it has not. I may have overwatered it. Because there is little left of the plant, I might try to repot it. If the roots are in bad shape, do I bother to repot it? Should it be rerooted in water or is it too far gone? (email reference)

A: The root system may have been wiped out from overwatering. If that is true, it will be evident when you knock the plant out of the container. If the plant is rotted, don’t bother repotting. If there is at least a 4-inch section of the vine that is healthy, then cut it off the plant, dip it in rooting powder (available at any garden supply store) and stick the leafless end into the rooting medium. Use sand, peat moss or pasteurized potting soil. Be sure to thoroughly wet whatever media you use prior to planting. Finally, cover the pot with a clear piece of lightweight plastic. Place the pot in indirect sunlight on an east window sill or under fluorescent lighting. After two weeks, check to see if the plant has rooted by slightly pulling on the stem. If you feel resistance, remove the plastic covering and keep the soil moist.

Q: We have a Norfolk pine that has healthy growth on the top but has lost all its lower branches. Is it possible to cut the top off and replant the cutting to establish a new root system? Thanks. (email reference)

A: This is a common problem with Norfolk Island pines when used as houseplants. Making a cutting using the top of the tree would not work, but air layering probably would. Go to to review or download “Home Propagation Techniques.” The information on air layering is on Page 9. It works, but you need patience.

Q: I am planning to move to Ecuador in a few years to start a restaurant business. I also would like to start an apple orchard at the same time. Ecuador has about three varieties of apples available. However, none of the varieties are appealing to me, so I'd like to plant and grow my own. I know it would take a significant amount of time for the trees to start bearing. Ecuador has many different climate zones because the altitude varies from region to region. In scouting for an appropriate area, what are the basic guidelines or requirements? What varieties of apples would work best in an orchard? I noticed your website said something about not planting two honeycrisps close together. I am fond of the honeycrisp variety, but I realize from reading your website that it is patented by the University of Minnesota and also cannot be grown from seed. Do you have any idea where I would find information about the possibility of internationally transporting seedlings and seeds? Are there any resources you know of for assistance in planning an orchard? Because there are so many variables at this point, I'm not certain whether it would be a small grove for personal and community use or a larger orchard for commercial use. I also would be interested in planting cherry trees, especially North Star. Would there be any difficulty planting these close to apples? Are the climate requirements similar? (email reference)

A: You sound very ambitious and brave to pursue such an undertaking. First of all, I wish you the very best in your pursuits. You can get some fundamental information by checking out my publication at Going from a North American climate to one in South America turns everything on its head. What grows well here is genetically predisposed to the timing of our climate conditions, day length, cold periods and more. With its various climate conditions, I would think that Ecuador could support different apple varieties. I would suggest checking with the Ministry of Agriculture to see if it has something you could use. Keep in mind what you may not like in apples from that region could be relished by the locals. Tastes differ based on what is available and what people are used to. Any climate that would support apples also would support cherries. You might want to contact the University of Minnesota Extension Service and others that I have listed under “Other Resources” at the end of my publication. All are better versed in apple production for commercial and private purposes than I am.

Q: I was wondering if you might be able to help me. I was moving from a house I had lived in for 10 years and decided to move some of my favorite roses. I was successful with six plants. Out of the six, I have one that seems to be growing at twice the rate of the others. However, it does not have any buds. All the others have given me flowers. Am I doing something wrong? (email reference)

A: You are experiencing sucker growth from the rootstock, which has very limited flowering capability. It is used as the stock to be grafted onto by roses that are known for their beautiful flowers. The rootstock often takes over when the budwood (scion) is killed, damaged or weakened to the point where it cannot suppress the vigor of the root system. The result is the rampant growth you are witnessing.

Q: I have four hanging spider plants outdoors here in Pennsylvania that I need to bring in for the winter. It has been not been a problem in the past. This year, they grew so well that the plants have many spiders. Do I cut off the spiders for the winter? They will be near one window that is made out of glass blocks. I do not want to lose them, but they would be a real problem if I don't cut them back. Thank you for your time in answering this. (email reference)

A: You certainly can cut them back, but I wouldn't throw them away. They can be rooted using an African violet mix, damp sand or moist sphagnum peat moss. These are some of the most rugged and long-lived houseplants available. It takes a concentrated effort to kill them. I encourage you to divide the plants as well. Divide them at least in half or, if they a large enough, into quarters. Place them in pots to give away to family or friends.

Q: This spring, I bought a yellow begonia that did well this summer. Before the killing frost, I brought it inside, but I'm not sure what to do with it. The blossoms are much smaller and single as opposed to the double blossoms it produced this summer. Should I fertilize it and put it under grow lights for winter flowers or should I quit watering it to let it go dormant? (email reference)

A: Either action will work, so the choice is yours. Keeping it under lights, watering it and lightly fertilizing is, I think, more interesting than drying it down and getting everything started again next spring. There is always the chance of “out of sight, out of mind” setting in. Dehydration or disease also could do it in, depending on your storage conditions.

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 email

NDSU Agriculture Communication – Nov. 16, 2011

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