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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.

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:

  • A Tree Grows In Montreal
  • Ugh! Blackberry Vines!
  • Rosary Bead Seeds
  • Ugh! Leaf Miners!
  • Nutsedge
  • Rose O'Sharon
  • Coffee Compost
  • Lucy the Banana Plant
  • Pruning Thyme

    A Tree Grows In Montreal

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have a very dear friend who lives in Montreal, Canada. I'd like to send her a tree for her new yard. Do you know of a tree that thrives well in Montreal and has pretty, white blossoms in the Spring? If not a tree with blossoms, a good hardy one that she can watch grow for years?

    Thank you,
    Mary Jane

    Mary Jane,
    A couple of trees come to mind: Amelanchier (serviceberry) is a North American genus with white spring blossoms and good to great fall color. It's also quite hardy (to Z4). Some sexier forms of amelanchier include A. x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance,' although any of the named cultivars are pretty. You might also consider Amelanchier arborea, the straight species, a very beautiful, edge of woodland tree.

    Another thought is the white cultivar of redbud, Cercis canadensis 'Alba'. It's a complete delight in the spring, blooming before it leafs out, has gorgeous heart-shaped foliage, and good fall color. I suggest you do a search on-line for mail order sources.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Ugh! Blackberry Vines!

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Eugene, Oregon and have a problem with blackberry vines. Nothing seems to work. Pull them up and they come back. Cut them and they grow back in greater numbers. My neighbors spray them with Roundup, but I'm concerned that this creates a greater problem than the vines cause.

    Thanks,
    Lynn

    Lynn,
    Blackberry vines are a problem throughout the Northwest, but April's as good a time as any to try your hand at control. How about this:

    1. Mow the vines to the ground now.
    2. Mulch with 10 wood chips.
    3. If needed throughout the season, pull up, prune or spot-spray roundup on anything that makes it through.

    The trick seems to be keeping the seed bank dormant (hence the wood chips blocking out light) and starving the roots of existing plants (keeping any shoots from appearing). This is done all the time in restoration projects and it works wonders.

    Best of luck, KL

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    *****

    Rosary Bead Seeds

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Michigan. A friend of mine has a Catholic rosary that her grandmother made from seeds. Her grandmother grew the plants in her yard. My friend would like to know what kind of plants these are. The seeds are a mottled brown and are very hard. They are about as big as the fingernail of a woman's little finger.

    Thanks,
    Patricia

    Patricia,
    It's entirely likely that the rosary is made out of the seeds of an annual grass, Job's tears, Coix lacryma-jobi. These seeds are also used for jewelry.

    Hope this helps, KL

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    Ugh! Leaf Miners!

    Dear Doyenne,
    I garden in Baltimore, Maryland and I have questions about leaf miners (or at least that's what I call them) that appear in a variety of plants I like to grow -- Spinich, columbine, and hollyhock. What I see is a leaf pest that appears to be eating the leaf from inside the leaf, leaving squiggly lines in its path. They don't necessarily kill the plant, but do damage (and in the case of spinich, make it completely inedible). They are probably not the same insect for all these plants. My question is how can I avoid them or kill them. I garden in a mostly organic fashion, and would like to avoid anything toxic in my vegetable garden.
    Jennifer

    Jennifer,
    Definately sounds like leaf miners. Adult female flies emerge in early spring and deposit a series of quick-to-hatch (3-5 days) egg clusters on leaf undersides of spinach, chard, lettuce, beets, carrot, parsnip. Whitish, pointy-headed maggots do their damage within 3 weeks, then go to ground to pupate.

    The best remedy is to plant susceptible crops under protective row covers. You can introduce parasitic wasps, but they're not active until warm weather. Prevention being the best defense, be sure to remove all plant debris where pupa can over-winter, and till soil deeply before spring planting. Also, be sure to pick off and trash (rather than compost) any infested leaves.

    Hope this helps, KL

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    *****

    Nutsedge

    Dear Doyenne,
    Please help me! Nutsedge has invaded my yard and my two raised garden spots. I have dug up the majority of them in my larger plot (how do I know if I got them all?). Luckily, there are only a few in the smaller one. I really don't care about having it in my yard, since it does give the impression of there being grass there, but my garden space is small and precious to me. I went so far as to purchase chemicals (crabgrass and nutgrass killer and garden weed preventer) but when I sat down and looked at what was in them, I couldn't bear to put it on my garden. I have never used fertilizer; I compost leaves, grass clippings, and "green " household garbage. I plant marigolds and basil to get rid of bugs, so even if my plants aren't huge and the fruits perfect, I can feel pretty good about how they got there. Can you please give me an idea of what I can use that is organic that will get rid of the nutsedge.

    Thank you.
    Sinead


    Sinead,
    Oh joy, nutsedge. First of all, to get rid of the garden problem, the lawn nutsedge has to go. Seeds are undoubtedly spreading from this source. Pulling up the offenders, then top-dressing these spots with a thick layer of wood chips (to retard further growth) will probably work. If the aesthetics of the garden don't allow for wood chip additions (though I doubt you'll mind much if they solve the problem), we're left with the chemical option, specifically, Roundup. Use one of those plastic bottles with a sponge tip that you can get for moistening envelopes. This way you can paint the herbicide on without any spray drifting to other plants. If you've got to use the stuff, it's the way to do it.

    Best of luck, KL

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    *****

    Rose O'Sharon

    Dear Doyenne,
    We bought a house in Providence, RI two years ago and the young, new Rose O'Sharon bush out front is driving us bonkers. Each year, it develops a ton of buds that sit and sit and sit and then fall off at season's end. Nothing blooms on it. The first year was very dry, so we figured that was it. The second year, we watered the hell out of it... same result.

    It sits in a spot that gets morning sun (dawn to noon), but it's "New England" sun. It's not a well watered place, but we put a hose on it once a week, soaking it well for an hour. And again, it seems to be a new plant... two feet wide and six feet to the tip. We've seen full-blown Rose o'Sharons nearby that are huge... and covered with flowers all summer.

    Thanks,
    Jack

    Jack,
    Boy, this is a tough one. Obviously the plant does well in your area. So ruling out lack of sun as the problem (otherwise, you wouldn't have tons of buds), my initial guess is that there might be a nutrient deficiency. The easiest thing to do would be to take a soil sample to a testing lab and have a nutrient analysis done (also pH). It sounds like it could be boron, zinc, or calcium deficiency; it could also be a mineral toxicity that manifests itself through bud failure. Another idea, if you want to wait that long, it to take a good-sized sample of the plant to an extension agent and ask for a possible diagnosis, if you see any obvious deficiency symptoms in the foliage or flowers.

    Hope this helps, KL

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    Coffee Compost

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have access to unlimited coffee grounds from my local coffee shop. I am wondering if I can use this for mulch in my perennial beds, or would it harm the plants? Also, could I use it in my vegetable garden? The amount is too much for the compost container I share with a neighbor. I live in northern Indiana, where it's just beginning to look like spring!

    Thanks,
    Carol

    Carol,
    Coffee grounds are a great mulch. It doesn't matter which brand of coffee is used, but drip grounds contain more nutrients than boiled grounds. Keep in mind that grounds left standing will spoil quickly, so mix them into the soil or toss them into the compost pile immediately.

    Yumm. KL

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    *****

    Lucy the Banana Plant

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Bern, Switzerland and I have a banana plant that was a gift last fall. It has been progressively losing its leaves. They begin with yellow edges and then dry up nice and crispy brown.

    I have been removing the dead leaves and it is getting skimpier and skimpier. Should I be removing the dead leaves? If so, how? How can I make sweet Lucy happy again? She looks awfully pathetic these days.

    Thanks a bunch.
    Sereti

    Sereti,
    Sweet Lucy is likely responding to the lower light levels of winter, particularly at your relatively high latitude. She will probably perk up as the days lengthen. Definitely remove her dead leaves using very sharp clippers or scissors; you might also dust off her off and spritz her, since accumulated dust plus low humidity levels indoors can lead to attacks by spidermite. If at all possible, send Lucy outside to sunbathe during your warmest months, May through September.

    Best of luck, KL

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    Pruning Thyme

    Dear Doyenne,
    99.9% of the thyme scattered throughout my garden is strictly a ground cover, and not used by me in the kitchen. I have about eight different varieties. They smell wonderful. I went out to prune shrubs and clean up around the perennials today. When I got to the thyme, however, I realized I didn't have a clue how to clean it up from the winter, or if I should just leave it alone for now and trim it back in mid-summer. Got any ideas on how to keep Thyme looking good?

    Thanks,
    Wendy (Zone 5, upstate New York)

    Wendy,
    In your zone (5), thyme can come through the winter looking a little ragged. The best thing to do is let it start growing and then trim off the winter-killed parts. Depending on how bad it looks, though, you might also refreshen the entire plant by cutting it to the ground in early spring (that is, now). By the way, that advice is good for anything perennial or subshrub that looks a little grumpy this time of year.

    Best of luck, KL

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