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

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I have been reading your columns and enjoy them very much. I am wondering if you can help me with a problem that I have been having with my tomato plants for the past four years. I buy them through a reputable garden center in Minot, so I know they are not diseased plants. I am having trouble with them drying up. I have tried moving the plants to a new location every year, but that does not help. The tomatoes that I do get are OK. What can I do to prevent this disease? Can you help me? I would appreciate any information. (email reference)

A: Thanks for the nice comments about the column. They are greatly appreciated. Tomatoes are America’s favorite garden vegetable and rightly so. Nothing tastes better than fresh tomatoes out of the garden. However, tomato plants also are somewhat fussy about how they are grown. Purchase disease-free stock from retailers or select seeds that are bred for disease resistance. These will have the letters VFN, T or A behind them. These are hybrids developed using conventional breeding tactics with resistances built in. Watering is critical to having healthy tomatoes. Overhead irrigation or watering leads to splash, which leads to the spread of diseases. Drip or careful flood irrigation are better options. Make sure the soil is modified to promote excellent drainage. Water in the morning as the sun is coming up. This gives the plants a chance to dry while the sun is out. Fertilization is important because tomato plants are heavy feeders. However, if fertilizer is excessively used, it can lead to weak, soft plant tissue that would be more vulnerable to pathogen attacks. Monitor the crop and remove immediately any plants that have started to show evidence of blight. Pick off discolored leaves, which usually are the older ones. Working the planting at the right time will keep diseases in check. Try not to work on weeding or tying up the plants while the foliage is wet. Avoid root or stem injury by not vigorously hoeing close to the plants. Good luck and don’t give up.

Q: I came across your information on oak trees while searching for an explanation on why a small, but old and stunted live oak tree, which I dug up and replanted in January, has not budded (photos attached). You appear to be quite familiar with oak trees, so I hope you will be able to dispense some advice. The tree was going to be removed from a plot of land set for development. I should mention that I'm an avid bonsai enthusiast. While this tree may be too big to fit the description of a bonsai, I loved the natural movement of the tree and decided to see if I could make a go of it. After digging it out (it has a rather small root ball for its size), I potted the tree in a large pot and have given it good sunlight and periodic water when the soil became dry. It's been through some harsh conditions here, which are the long, hot and dry summers of south Texas. Thus far, the tree has not budded. I used a razor to scratch off the bark to see if the wood was green and it was. My guess is the tree is going through some sort of transplant shock, but I'm no expert. Is this a normal reaction from your experience? Is there any way to stimulate budding by using fertilizer, giving it more or less sun or using a specific type of soil? Thanks in advance for any advice or suggestions. (Austin, Texas)

A: From the photos, a tree that size had to give up quite a bit of its root system to fit in your container. The fact that it has green cambium is somewhat encouraging. It is somewhat like being on life support after a major malfunction of a significant part of the body that would normally result in death except for the efforts put forth by the caretaker. You are smart to not be pushing it with fertilizer. If it is going to survive, it will because of the tender loving care you are providing. At this point, all I can say is to be patient.

Q: I hope you can help me. I have an apricot tree that has not produced fruit for two years. One of the branches has kind of dust or very fine little balls falling from the tree. I am not sure if it has a fungus. Also, do these trees need a lot of water? (email reference)

A: Thanks for making contact. You need to direct your inquiry to the University of California Extension Service office in Burbank. Go to and click on your county to get in touch with local personnel. They are in a much better position to advise you on your concerns with this tree. The apricots you folks grow are entirely different than the ones we can ever think of growing in our area.

Q: I am hoping you can help figure out why some of the huge, old (100-plus) maple trees in our yard are not flowering. However, those trees that are not flowering are producing seeds in great abundance on the branches. I didn't see the hanging yellow male and female panicles, but they started out with red buds that grew into clumps of seeds. (email reference)

A: This is usually a sign that the trees are in sharp decline. I would encourage you to contact an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist in your area to inspect the trees to see if there is anything that can be done to save the trees or if their continued presence is a threat to your family or property. Go to to get a listing of certified arborists in your area. Be sure to check credentials and references.

Q: I saw on the Internet that you were answering questions about Ohio buckeye trees, so I thought I might seek your help. I planted a bare root tree last spring. It seemed to grow fine until the fall. It grew about a foot before the leaves fell off for the winter. This spring, no leaves have come out. Is there anything I can do? (email reference)

A: The woes of the impatient gardener. Buckeyes are not known for early bud break. Because you didn't tell me where you live, I have no idea if your tree is on or off schedule. At this point, I'd suggest practicing a little patience. If it went into the winter in a normal manner and nothing nibbled on it during the winter, it should leaf out for you based on its genetic clock that is in tune with the local environment.

Q: We recently retired in the Jamestown area and have acquired four horses. I am planning a vegetable garden and would like to use horse manure as a fertilizer. Is it safe to use? How would I go about doing it? For how long should I let the manure decompose? Should I compost it with other things, such as grass? I would appreciate any helpful information you may have. Thank you very much. (email reference)

A: Composting for a year is the best option for any manure use. Mixing it with green manure, such as grass and pulled weeds, also is recommended. It would be a good idea to get a simple soil test made prior to using it to make sure it isn't too hot. Have it tested for nitrogen, phosphorous, potash (potassium), pH, soluble salts and organic matter content. I'd also solarize the manure to get many of the weed seeds in it to sprout so they can be eliminated before planting the garden.

Q: We had a linden tree that budded last year, but the buds never opened and the tree died. There was nothing that preceded this that had caused us any concern. We had the tree for 19 years. Can we replant a tree in the same location? We are not sure if it was killed by a soil fungus. If it was, would the fungus kill the replacement tree? Is there a way for us to determine if it was a fungus or what it was that killed the tree so we don’t lose another one? (email reference)

A: You need to have a determination made as to what caused the tree to die so suddenly. I would suggest that you contact a couple of resources. An ISA certified arborist can remove the tree professionally. If the arborist is competent in identifying causes of tree death, such as cankers, root rot diseases or borers girdling the tree, then listen to his or her advice. If it was verticillium wilt that killed the tree, it would not be a good idea to replant the same species in that location. Go to to locate a certified arborist in your vicinity. Be sure to check credentials and ask for references. You also could contact the Extension agent where you live. To do this, go to Click on your state and then your county to find the agent’s number. In this last instance, the agent may or may not be able to come out to collect some samples to send to a plant diagnostic lab. In many cases, the visible symptoms are the same, but the causes are different, so only a lab test can determine the exact cause. Good luck.

Q: I have a question about a heritage birch that we purchased three years ago. Last year, it sprouted leaves very late. Then in the fall, the leaves didn't turn color and froze on the tree. This year, it is bare while the other trees are leafing out. It looks dead, but it does have some live buds just like it did last year. Is this a characteristic of heritage birch or is there something wrong with it? (Green Bay, Wis.)

A: What you are describing is not a characteristic of the species. Heritage birch is one of the more beautiful cultivars to use in landscape settings. Something went wrong during planting or digging out the tree at the nursery. Also, based on what you’ve told me, the tree could have been brought in from a nursery too distant from your particular hardiness zone. The fact that it didn’t turn color and drop its leaves last fall indicates that the tree is out of synchronization with your location. Check with the nursery where it was purchased. These beauties grow from the upper part of the U.S. to the Carolinas. My guess would be that yours originally came from one of the more southern wholesale growers.

Q: I love your informational articles, so I hope you can help us. We are having a problem with pine needles in our garden. We have pine trees by our vegetable garden that are shedding needles. We were told the shedding is normal. However, the needles blow into the garden on windy days. Will the needles be a problem for the veggies? Do we have a pH or acid level to be concerned about? The needles aren't thick but they are everywhere. Any information you can give us will be greatly appreciated. Thank you! (email reference)

A: I promise that the pine needles will not pose any problem for your garden veggies. In fact, if you get enough of them, they make the best organic mulch on the face of the Earth to stop weed growth. So, in a nutshell, you have nothing to worry about.

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 – April 25, 2012

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