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Why Did My Plant Die?

  • Care and Feeding of Live Christmas Trees
  • Storing Bulbs
  • What Grows in Rainy/Cool and Hot/Dry?
  • Forcing Bulbs
  • Saving Sam, The Rubber Plant

  • Here's the Vast and Cavernous Archive of Enquiry that I've already answered! Good clean fun for the whole family.

    Care and Feeding of Live Christmas Trees

    Dear Doyenne,
    I recently purchased a live Christmas tree (Blue Spruce) that I plan to plant after the holidays. Is there some way to plant this tree so that it will live beyond the two years that previous trees purchased for this purpose have not? I will be planting it in an are that is very shady during the spring and summer, around other pine trees (white pines) and very acidic soil. I have been told to leave the root ball in the burlap wrap and plant the tree on a mound inside the hole, with the rocks and sand in the lower portion of the trench to allow for water flow. Is this good advice or not?

    E. Grant
    Chapel Hill, NC

    For care of a live Christmas tree, check out my Year's Worth Of Helpful Hints:
    December. Sadly, blue spruces are notoriously tricky in the Piedmont, and most often fail due to excessive heat, humidity and poor drainage. Improving the soil drainage can't be stressed enough, but I'm not optimistic about a blue spruce in shade. They're from New Mexico and Colorado and they need full sun. One of the best Christmas trees these days is, in fact, a North Carolina native: Abies frasieri, the Frasier Fir.

    Best, KL

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    Storing Bulbs

    Dear Doyenne,
    Well, they aren't dead yet and I'm hoping to avoid the guilt associated with bulbs that failed to make it into the ground... Greetings from southern, coastal ME. I have crocus bulbs, and some daffodils that I did not have time to put into the ground before Old Man Winter showed up in town. Is there a way they can be stored until there is a thaw? Or should I just go about forcing them and transplant them into the garden in the spring? Any tips or ideas would be helpful, especially with regard to how long they need to be subjected to cold and how to accomplish the "big chill..." lettuce crisper, or what?

    Cape Neddick, ME.

    You want to talk about guilt, let's talk about the groundwater in the Netherlands that's been wrecked by the bulb-growing industry. But never mind, on with the Q&A! The best way to store your bulbs, even now, is in a waterproof container (a box or coffee can will do) filled with dry sawdust (read: hamster shavings). Store the container in the basement, or anywhere the temperature stays below 55°F. Plant the bulbs as soon as you have a thaw (even a midwinter one), or at the earliest possible day you can work the soil. To increase your chances of spring flowers, add soft rock phosphate for strong root growth. Stay warm.

    Best, KL

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    What Grows in Rainy/Cool and Hot/Dry?

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Healdsburg, California. The summer is hot and dry. Most often the fall is too. The winter can be foggy, rainy, cool (rarely freezing, but it can happen), sunny, breezy. On the north/northwest side of my house, by the front door, under a wide eave is a planting area. It gets no sun (nor rain) in the winter months, but in the heat of summer it gets blasted by the afternoon, curl-up-and-die sun.

    WHAT could grow happily in such conditions? Anything? Or should I consider sculpture?

    Thanks, and keep up the good work. You sound like a real treasure.


    I love Healdsburg. My sister's friend Terry owns a lovely shop there. It's called Options. Say hi for me.

    Now... here are three choices for under that eave and all of them are evergreen shrubs: Nandina domestica 'Plum Passion' (or the straight species of heavenly bamboo if you need 6' height); Camellia sasanqua 'Setsugekka' (white, fragrant, 6'x4', broadleaf evergreen); or Grevillea victoriae 'Murray Valley Queen' (bright orange honeysuckle-like flowers, also 6'x4'). It all depends on the shape that you need. The nandina's quite upright and vase-shaped, the camellia is rangy in a nice way, and the grevillea is the densest -- though the cleanest looking -- of the three. Check 'em out.

    Best, KL

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    Forcing Bulbs

    Dear Doyenne,
    I've have different instructions on growing house bulbs (forcing). I just got a box of Paperwhites. They were not in potting medium -- just loose in the box. They have about 1" sprouts (when removed from box).

    The box says to put in 60-70 degree room and they'll bloom in 6 weeks. says to put in a cool place about 40 degrees for 3 weeks then put in 70 degrees with sun.

    What is the best way to get nice blooms as quickly as possible?



    Everyone's got an angle on forcing bulbs, here's what we do at Talking Plants: Take a bowl -- or any container without holes at the bottom (if your pot has holes, use a plastic insert) -- and fill it with the bulbs (they must touch in order for their roots to knit). Now fill the bowl with pea gravel up to the bulbs' necks (i.e., where the sprouts have begun to show). If you can't find pea gravel in small bags, check a pet store for pebbles. Add water until it reaches the top of the gravel, and put the bulbs in the brightest window possible, away from any central heat. Do not water again until the leaves are 6" tall. Now stand by for the best part: Take a teaspoon of vodka (not you, dear) and pour it into the bowl. Then add just an inch of water (any more and you might rot the bulbs). Believe it or not, the vodka will stunt the growth of the paperwhites, and you will have sturdy 6" stems full of flowers that will not need staking. For a little extra added excitement (if you can stand anymore), add a pinch of grass seed to the gravel when you begin, so that you're paperwhites will seem to be coming up through lawn. A plastic cow would be a nice touch, too. Figure three to four weeks from bulb to bloom.

    Best, KL

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    Saving Sam, The Rubber Plant

    Dear Doyenne,
    My 25 year-old rubber plant (Sam) is looking very sorry for himself in the last couple of months. He's shedding his leaves and seems generally droopy and out of sorts.

    He's been perfectly well behaved for the last 25 years which he's spent in shady dining rooms out of direct sunlight, and even made the journey between his old home in England to his new home in Germany very successfully in the removal truck five years ago without complaint. He gets no extremes of temperature to worry him.

    I've done nothing (of which I'm aware) differently. He gets a little, but not too much water and is generally very good tempered and doesn't complain if I forget him for a few weeks. He got a little food over summer. He got repotted into the next size up pot around 3 years ago.

    I've taken a cutting (Son of Sam), which is rooting and set to become his replacement if the worst happens.

    What, if anything can I try? Or is he just dying of old age?


    Sympathies, Anne.
    Here's a guess: it could be the potting soil. There might have been too much bark in the mix, or too much surfactant (water-retaining material) causing water-logging or root rot; who knows, perhaps a soil-borne pathogen was introduced. Why not take the plant out and look at the roots to make sure they're alive (they'll be turgid as opposed to squishy or dry). If they are alive, remove the old potting soil from the root ball and re-pot with a sterile potting mix. If they're dead, here's the good news about your cutting: it's a clone, not a son, and therefore the same plant (remember the sheep, Dolly?). At the end of the day, it's still Sam.

    Best, KL

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