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Why Did My Plant Die?

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Archive
Here's the Vast and Cavernous Archive of Enquiry that the Doyenne has already answered. Good clean fun for the whole family.

This week's questions:

  • Crocus Query
  • A Few Shrubs For Shade
  • Japanese Maples for Sunny CA
  • Japanese Maples in Snowy WA
  • Help! Olive Tree Smaller Than Me!
  • Black Plastic or Cover Crop?
  • Throwing The Ex Out With the Crapemyrtle
  • Retaining Walls and Tree Roots
  • Dandelions

    Crocus Query

    Dear Doyenne,

    I got a lovely little crocus in a pot for Valentines's Day which gave lovely purple blooms for a couple of weeks. Despite water and good wishes, the leaves started drying up and it's most of the way to droop city...I've kept it indoors in a spot with lots of indirect light.

    I live on the central Oregon coast, inland about a mile. Should I have planted it, or could I still?

    Mark

    Mark,
    Your crocus went dormant because of the warm indoor temperatures. Plant it, it'll be fine.

    KL

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    *****

    A Few Shrubs For Shade

    Dear Doyenne,
    I need SHADE shrubs for a 50' long x 15' deep crescent-shaped bed, in Portland, OR. It is backed (to the west) by beautiful copper beech and a huge old atlas cedar. Some (6 hours) to very little sun, early morn to mid-afternoon. Decent drainage. Could I ask for color and texture also?

    Help? Many thanks

    Lorinda

    Lorinda,
    You don't ask much, huh. How about some natives: both the deciduous and evergreen huckleberrys are great for texture and do well in shade. Then there's all the hydrangeas, including the beautiful oakleaf and all the stunning lacecaps. How about daphnes, nandinas, mahonias? Purple beautyberry (Callicarpa), Clethra, Fatsia? And don't forget Viburnum, Kerria japonica, and white-flowering ribes. The list goes on and on and...

    Enjoy! KL

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    Japanese Maples for Sunny CA

    Dear Doyenne,
    Will the Japanese maple award winner you talked about on
    Weekend Edition live and prosper in inland San Diego county? It is hot and dry here during the summer. Also, how fast does this variety grow.

    Thanks,

    Bill

    Bill,
    The short answer is no. The long answer is, people have succeeded by growing them in containers in very shady places with permanent water I.V.'s. You might check with your local nursery to see if they have any tricks for growing Japanese maples in your particular climate. The cultivar 'Aconitifolium' is certainly a better bet than the delicate, lace-leaved forms.

    Best, KL

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    Japanese Maples in Snowy WA

    Dear Doyenne,
    I garden in Olympia, Washington. The snow that we had in early February did a lot of damage to my garden and especially two green leaf Japanese maples. (I believe the variety is 'Viride'.) The snow broke off two of the three main branches of one tree the split the other one at the crotch. I think the both of these trees should now be replaced, but with what? Is this type of maple too delicate to stand up to occasional snow fall or is this just bad luck?

    Please advise.
    Cathy

    Cathy,
    It was a late, wet, heavy snow and a lot of plants suffered. I don't know how old your maples were, but if they'd been more established, it's likely there wouldn't have been much damage. I'd try again if those are the plants you want; buy as large a tree as your pocket book allows. Also, if/when it happens again, take a broom to all that snow and get it off the plants. It can't hurt.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Help! Olive Tree Smaller Than Me!

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Roseville, CA, where the hardpan/alluvial clay is deeper than my shovel and tougher than me. I've had some success gardening here, but I've lost one young tree and may lose another. The first tree I didn't really care about... it was a cajeput tree that I bought on a whim, so when I saw that its leaves were turning light brown and drying out, I shrugged my shoulders and accepted the loss.

    Now I've planted a fruitless olive tree that I'm more emotionally invested in. I dug a huge hole and surrounded the rootball with amended, crumbly clayey soil. I may have failed to plant the tree high enough. During this year's rainy season, the first few inches of the trunk stayed wet for several days. I've noticed a few leaves drying up, with the same microscopic black spots that the cajeput tree had.

    I can't tell whether the tiny, dry black spots are the cause of the leaf death or just an opportunistic mold. Also, I don't know whether the health of my trees is more affected by the poor drainage of the soil, the elevation of the root ball above the mini 'floodplain' in my backyard, or the chemistry of the primarily alkaline, clay soil in the area. Once I find out what's wrong, what can I do about it? My olive tree is still smaller than I am, so replanting is a possibility, but not my favorite one.

    Thanks for your help,

    Heather

    Heather
    You're a hell of a good writer and an incredibly observant gardener. I vote for replanting above grade in an area that never sees standing water. Olive trees are much less tolerant of poor drainage when they're small so give it a leg up -- literally. And yes, the black spots are mold. Don't give it a second thought.

    All the best, KL

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    Black Plastic or Cover Crop?

    Dear Doyenne,
    I moved into my first house 2 years ago ready to start my first garden amid a few thousand square feet of clay soil and crab grass. I figured I'd do the front yard in the first year, the back yard in the 2nd year, and by year three, be entertaining like Martha Stewart. Well, let's just say, I was out of my mind. The front yard is coming along but the back yard is a jungle.

    I garden in Portland, OR, too. Soil is strongly on the clay side, with rocks. I amend a lot when I plant. There's some pretty big areas in my backyard (including areas of shade and sun) that are currently covered with barkdust or grass with weeds. Someday, I want to turn them into perennial and kitchen garden wonderlands, but I recognize I won't get there this summer. What I'm looking for is a quick way to control weeds in the meantime that also helps prepare the soil for its coming greatness. For instance, I could quickly lay down black plastic over the current crop of weeds and cook 'em, but that wouldn't do anything to make the soil better. I've heard suggestions from clover to carrots. What do you think?

    Traci

    Traci,
    One option is this: put down black plastic until the weeds and grass are cooked, figure by mid-May. Then rake up the dead stuff, disturb the soil with a landscape rake and put down a very heavy sowing of annual buckwheat. Water for two weeks if we don't get rain, then let it go for the summer. It's easy to pull up if you find time to start planting. You can also sow winter cover crops in the fall; come October, use annual rye grain, Austrian field peas or crimson clover, over and over. Skip the carrots.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Throwing The Ex Out With the Crapemyrtle

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have some terrible fill dirt around one side of a pool. It's Georgia red clay, and I have tried some perennials there but everything eventually dies. The area is about 40' x 6' and my ex planted crapemyrtles there, but I cut them down because they had too many roots and dropped flowers and seeds into the pool. I can hardly get a spade in there due to the old roots or I would have amended this clay. Maybe the question should be how to really KILL the crapemyrtle. New shoots come up all summer though I spray with 100% Round Up over and over. This could be a lovely spot, BUT.

    Thank You,

    Kitty, Atlanta, GA

    Dear Kitty,
    First off, stop with the Round-Up! It may be the so-called safest of herbicides, but it's still an herbicide and for that alone, should be strenuously avoided. My advice, switch to muscle. Hire some strong backs to dig out the crepe myrtle roots after a thorough soaking of the soil. For best results, have them shovel out a good bit of the clay and replace it with top soil.

    Otherwise, you might consider some sort of paving, then soften its effect with container plants or raised beds filled with good soil. EVENTUALLY and I mean over years, the clay soil will improve if you work at it before it turns to rock for the summer. Compost worked into the top few inches truly does work wonders. It will keep the clay more moist and thus more permeable and add microorganisms to do some of the work for you.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Retaining Walls and Tree Roots

    Dear Doyenne,
    The back corner of our yard is a wooded area with mature poplars, a maple, dogwood and a couple of cedar trees; it also slopes downward toward our lawn behind the house. We would like to build a retaining wall that would be 2-2½ feet at the tallest that would gradually taper into the higher grade near our property line. The goal is to even things out under the trees and create a wooded garden with a path and steps down into the lawn. My question is can we change the grade without damaging the existing trees? I am an inexperienced gardener but seem to remember that the base of a tree should not be covered over.

    Amy

    Amy,
    You're right. The base of a tree from the trunk to the drip line (where the foliage ends overhead) should not be covered over. You'll have to construct your retaining wall at some distance from the tree trunks so you'll be able to raise the grade beyond the drip line. Otherwise, you'll run the risk of losing the trees. Really glad you thought to ask.

    Good luck, KL

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    Dandelions

    Dear Doyenne,
    We live in Skokie, Illinois (Chicago area). Our front lawn is infested with dandelions and violets; each year there are more and more, although we try to dig as many out as we can. Is there anything you can suggest short of herbicides? If we must use herbicides, which are the least harmful to the environment?

    Sincerely,

    Tamar

    Tamar,
    Gardens Alive (
    www.GardensAlive.com) is one of several good sources of organic products for lawn and plant care. They carry two products for pre-emergent weed control, one with and one without lawn fertilizer. They are called WOW!(stands for with out weeds) and WOW! Plus. Until these kick in, you might use a blow torch to spot kill weeds (not my style, but...). I've seen these advertized in garden catalogs, but people that cook tell me that if you've ever caramalized the sugar on creme brulee, you've already got what you need. Glad you're going the extra mile to avoid the herbicides. We all thank you.

    KL

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