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Why Did My Plant Die?

This is the place to read Ketzel's advice to readers' most harrowing gardening challenges from whitefly eradication to weed killer application, lawn alternatives, and bulb care. No matter where you keep your garden, check out the resources available to you locally. Find a shady spot and maybe a helping hand in the Talking Plants Gardens and Arboretums map of the United States.

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:

  • Contorted Filbert
  • Plant Ideas for North Texas
  • Horse Safe Plants
  • Ornamental Grasses
  • Witchgrass
  • Azaleas in Distress
  • Trees for Upstate NY
  • Help! Morning Glory!
  • Phormium

    Contorted Filbert

    Dear Doyenne,

    I'm writing from Chicago, IL. regarding my Contorted Filbert. Several years have past since I planted my Filbert, what I am noticing as the plant grows many of the branches emerging are not contorted at all. While two of the main trunks are very arthritic looking (as they should be), the majority are straight and fast growing.

    My concern is that during the summer months I had quite a bit of browning leaves on the remaining contorted portion and the straight shoots are attempting to reclaim the plant.

    Anxious for Spring,


    The contorted filbert or hazelnut, Corylus avellana 'Contorta', is known to send out limbs that revert to type -- type, in this case, being the straight, non-contorted species. As a general rule, it's best to remove all the straight suckers from the base as they emerge. 'Harry Lauder' (the plant's common name) is generally pretty tough; just continue to remove the straight shoots, and in the event that yours is a dry spring and summer, be sure it gets supplemental water. BTW, the shrub gets its name from the crooked stick once carried by the English vaudeville star of the same name.

    Hang in there, KL

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    Plant Ideas for North Texas

    Dear Doyenne,
    We moved to North Texas (Dallas Area) from Nebraska last summer. We are completely out of our gardening element, as the climate is quite different (duh). We want to landscape our back yard and are at a loss about which plants to use. We are looking for hardiness, variety, color... You know, all the goodies. We do have a sprinkler system installed and a fence that borders the yard and a 16 x 32 foot pool to work with and around. Any ideas you could plant in our minds would be great.
    Thanks, Cole

    You are in luck. Take a trip down to Austin and check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center where you'll see wonderful examples of what to plant where. You're not in Nebraska anymore! The plant palette of the Hill Country and Edwards Plateau is different, but once you start learning the plants, you'll be beguiled. There are live oaks, Texas (or Spanish) red oaks, wonderful Ashe junipers, mexquites, Texas mountain laurel, fantastic sotols and countless wildflowers -- to say nothing of some handsome ornamental grasses. Stick with native Texas plants from your area and you can't go wrong.

    Best, KL

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    Horse-Safe Plants

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have a tough question for you.

    Background info: I live near Conroe, TX., just north of Houston. We are generally a little colder in winter and a few degrees cooler in summer than Houston. We live on 5 acres with red oaks (many of which have died during our last 2 years of drought), pines and a few other mixed trees.

    Here's the hard part. What can I plant in a horse pasture that will grow relatively quickly and form a visual block between us and our neighbors behind who have just started looking into building? Not only must this plant be fast growing and relatively drought resistance (after it's established) but it must be safe to be in horse pasture (not oleanders!!!) and deer proof. Around here the deer even eat yaupon.

    Is there such a plant? It's particularly important that it not endanger the horses if they nibble it (Red maples, for instance, are poisonous to horses).

    Thanks for the help, Ann

    More pines such as the loblolly pine (P.taeda) or the shortleaf pine (P.echinata) or eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) might do the trick and also lend a natural, planted-by-God look. Not being an equine specialist, I would urge you to double check everything with your local agricultural extension agent (every county has one) to safeguard your horses. Best way to see what will do for you is to check out what is growing in your area. Try visiting the Mercer Arboretum, north of Houston to see what is growing there.

    Thanks for thinking of the horses, KL

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    Ornamental Grasses

    Dear Doyenne,
    Hello! We need some help with starting a large, well medium, bed of ornamental grasses. Lots of sun, good soil and drainage (slopes down to the street). And surprise! That same bed slopes up from the street to a tall townhouse. So we can really use some height towards the back of the bed. Have a good book as general reference, so if you can make suggestions, and help with where to find stuff, we will get busy. We're in McMinnville Or. (Heart of Oregon's wine country) Climate is everything!

    Thank you very much, Pat and David Howell

    Hi there Pat and David,
    I ran your question past grass expert Carole Ottesen and she shared a few of her favorite grasses with me:

    Tall: The 10' Miscanthus 'Giganteus'and Ravenna grass, Saccharum ravennae. The latter develops a 4 foot, broadly spreading clump, but sends its many inflorescences up 14'.

    Medium: Miscanthus 'Morning Light' is a beautiful 5' tall, variegated grass (one of my favorites, too). Carole likes her grasses contracted with textural perennials in masses such as yarrow, euphorbias (E. martinii is a good one) or colorful sedum 'Autumn Joy.'

    Finally, for height, how about a non-running bamboo: Fargesia robusta not only stays put, but grows tall--at least 18'. If you're interested, talk with Ned Jacquith at The Bamboo Garden in Portland.

    Best, KL

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    Dear Doyenne,
    We have in Central Virginia (and maybe other places too) what I remember my parents call "wiregrass". It has turned up in my vegetable garden and chokes out everything I put there. Is there anyway of killing it out?

    Thanks, Gayle

    I don't know about wiregrass, but friends in the D.C. area talk about infestations of "witchgrass" (Panicum capilare), a real pest that behaves in a similar fashion. There is no easy remedy, and there are really no half-way solutions. This is warfare! Depending upon the magnitude of your problem your options are:

    A. the organic method--solarizing the soil by stretching either clear or black plastic over the infested area and letting it bake in the sun and/or digging out the grass. Unfortunately, this has to be done in the summer when you would like to be growing vegetables.

    B. In a small area that had been planted with ornamental (not food plants) my friends took a swab, dipped it in full strength RoundUp and applied a dot to as many pieces of grass as they could. Sounds amazingly tedious and probably takes forever, but it worked. Certainly the most responsible way to use that product.

    Good luck, KL

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    Azaleas in Distress

    Dear Doyenne,
    I think I am witnessing the slow demise of nine azaleas. I live in the southern portion of Delaware, in a beach area, where there's lots of sandy soil, but I was told our particular yard was mostly clay soil. Two springs ago I planted the azaleas in a north-facing bed receiving morning sun. I don't know the proper names; just that three produce light pink blooms, three produce dark pink blooms and three produce white blooms. All three hold their leaves over the winter.

    This past summer all of their leaves appeared to be mottled with black/brown spots and the white azalea's leaves yellowed and curled in upon themselves. My husband treated them on three successive occasions with an insecticidal soap, to no avail. Also, I did notice what appeared to be a tent of webbing on two of the dark pink ones, but could not discern any critters. My online searches for help have proved fruitless because the menagerie of ailments that appear to afflict these plants seem to look very similar to one another.

    It may be worth noting that one of the azaleas was nurtured by my father for about three years. It was the first one I planted, and was completely healthy when it was given to me. The remaining eight came from a local nursery. The plant my father gave me was the last to be infected, so to speak. Please help me in any way you can.


    Some years ago, I had a similar problem with azaleas when I lived in Maryland. At the time, I did all sorts of research and ended up doing nothing but mulching the area. It seemed my azaleas had a kind of spider mite -- almost always a sign that the soil in which they are growing is too dry or that the plants are planted too high out of the ground. There is a predator of this mite that will eventually eat them up, if you wait long enough. Armed with that information, I did nothing but mulch and keep them watered in times of drought. For me, this worked and, after a couple of years, solved the problem.

    For you, the question is how much unsightly azalea can you tolerate? If you are willing to wait a while, it might be worth it. In the meantime, be sure that the azaleas do not dry out in your sandy soil. If they are healthy, bugs won't have an edge. It is usually a stressed plant that succumbs to insect attack.

    Hang in there, KL

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    Trees for Upstate NY

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Upstate NY (Syracuse) and a few years ago lost my beloved flowering crab tree to the infamous Labor Day storm. I haven't replaced it yet and would like some suggestions for a hardy tree for my area. I have a second crab tree that just lost two branches in a recent ice storm. Any suggestions?

    I have a balcony off the second floor of my house and would like decorate it with plants and flowers for this spring, summer and fall. It faces east. A few suggestions for container plants/flowers are appreciated.

    Thank you, Lynda

    Dear Lynda,
    If you're thinking healthy and long-lived, the key is disease resistance, which brings us to a few native trees. Amelanchier is a good, early flowering tree that has been selected for flowers and excellent fall color, a joy in your area. Try the cultivar 'Cumulus' if you can find it. Other ideas include Red bud (Cercis canadensis) with purple spring flowers and banana yellow fall color or the very fragrant fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) with amazing, late spring flowers on a small -- to 25 foot tree. You might also look into the even showier, non-native Chinese fringe tree, C. retusus.

    As for the balcony, consider foliage plants such as coleus for season-long color. Or buy some pre-started tuberous begonias and winter them indoors; begonias are B-I-G this year.

    Best, KL

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    Help! Morning Glory!

    Dear Doyenne,
    I just listened to the wonderful show you did with Diane Rehm and wanted to ask a question. We bought our house 2 years ago and each spring and summer I have been trying to get rid of the morning glory that has spread throughout the bed against the house. Now, I only think it's morning glory because that's what a neighbor told me it was. It is quite invasive, and it wraps itself around other plants and chokes them out.

    I have not used any chemicals on them, I only try to pull them up by the roots, but it seems to be a never ending job. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you! Joni

    Morning glories are glorious but invasive. One round of pulling them up won't do the trick. However, the good news is that you can pull faster than they can grow. Keeping at them will eventually get rid of them. You can also buy an organic herbicide called Weed-Aside weed killer. For fastest elimination try a three pronged attack: weed killer, smothering (burying the plant alive with 6 inches of mulch), and vigilant pulling. Oh, the joys of gardening...

    Best, KL

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    Dear Doyenne,
    I recently moved back to Little Rock Arkansas after a 3 year stint in Portland Oregon. I know that is where you live and garden, so I hope that you can help me in my search.

    I would like to add a couple of varieties of phormium to the potted garden I am putting together on my patio. I am aware that they will not winter over here in Arkansas where we have very cold and sometimes icy winters. However that is no reason not to sell the plant here! I have yet to find a mail order source, or even one that I can afford on the internet. Have you any suggestions or sources for this lovely plant?>

    I did not know how good I had it in Portland (from a horticultural perspective)!

    Thanks for your time. Sylvia

    Not a day goes by that I don't remind myself how good I've got it here. So many phormiums, so little time! As for sources, Forest Farm ( sells gallons of phormium for about $15. Another less immediately gratifying option would be growing them from seed (Thompson & Morgan ( ALso, while you certainly you can't get the foliage color range, don't rule out ornamental grasses. Miscanthus has been bred to do just about anything and there are some interesting Panicums -- hardy, disease free, and easy care.

    Enjoy, KL

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